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The Intertestamental Period

Tom Pennington • Selected Scriptures

  • 2017-09-10 PM
  • Anchored Section 2
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Tonight I want to cover the silent years, what happened between the testaments. You know, when I was in college I came to appreciate the works of William Shakespeare. I took, actually, a full semester's course on Shakespeare and I read most of his plays from a resource I still have in my library, The Riverside Shakespeare. In addition, at the institution that I attended there was a theatrical stage that was, at that time, second only to those on Broadway. And twice a year students and faculty would perform the great Bard's plays, usually a tragedy and a comedy each year. And so, in the course of my education there and some graduate work, I think I saw about 20 of his plays performed live.

And during those plays, several times in each of them, there were scene changes. You've been to a play, you understand this, one act ends and the lights go dark, and for 10 seconds or 20 seconds or 30 seconds the lights stay out while the stagehands and the actors work furiously, and then the lights come back up for the next act. Now the darkness between those scenes not only allowed for the work to be done, obviously, but it also symbolized for the audience that the last scene was over, that time had passed, that a new scene was about to begin, and that the circumstances had changed.

That is exactly what happens between the collection of books we refer to as the last books of the Old Testament, the Old Testament books, and the collection we call the New Testament. Now, just to remind you in a large, sweeping way, the last Old Testament revelation occurred in about the 420's B.C. This would have been the prophet Malachi. The last book in your Bible was, in fact, the last prophecy that was given to us. It was probably written before Nehemiah returned. You remember, after he went to the land of Palestine and oversaw the construction of the walls, later he returns back to Persia and then he comes back to the land. That happened in 424 B.C. And likely Malachi wrote before that, because Nehemiah comes back to correct some of the very things that Malachi addresses in his prophecy.

We also know that the next event that the Scripture records for us is the birth of John the Baptist, probably in about 4 or 5 B.C. Now, if that confuses you, don't let it. Next time we look at the New Testament I'll give you an understanding of the dates and why the birth of Christ actually didn't happen, you know, at the sort of center point of the change of our calendars, but rather in the years we call B.C., so I'll explain all of that. But when you look at that then you see a gap, from Malachi to John you see a gap of about 400 years.

Think about that for a moment. God at a time in Israel's history, displayed Himself in a visible display of His presence in the in the tabernacle and later in the temple. God was there, manifesting Himself in a physical form so that people could see. They enjoyed His presence. God spoke through His prophets. They knew they were prophets. They affirmed them as prophets, even when they didn't like their messages. They knew these men spoke for God. God was speaking to the nation through these people. God was working miracles, amazing events in the life of the nation.

But for 400 years, after Malachi until John the Baptist, there were no miracles, there were no angelic appearances, there were no prophets, there was no additional revelation, for 400 years. Think about that now. Go back to 1600 if you want to do it, sort of understand the amount of time. For 400 years the page of revelation is blank, the stage of the divine drama of redemption is dark and quiet.

And yet still, there is much that happens during those 400 years. Much that happens that is very important. Because when the New Testament begins, everything is different than when the curtain went down on Malachi. Think about it. A man named Herod rules over Palestine. There is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. What's Greek? There are two competing groups of religious leaders, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who dominate the religious life of the nation. There are local centers of worship called synagogues. The entire world, the known world, centering around the Mediterranean at the time, is ruled by an empire called Rome.

You cannot fully understand the New Testament without some understanding of the events that transpired between the acts, or between the testaments. During those 400 silent years, this is the point I want you to get, if you miss everything else, don't miss this, during those 400 silent years, God was preparing the world for the arrival of His Son. I want to examine this period tonight from two different vantage points or two different perspectives. I want to look first at the political history.

Now, the reason this is important is because God says it's important. He says it's important in a book that we call Daniel. Daniel, written in the 500's B.C. by the prophet Daniel, of course, from Babylon. The theme of his book is God's sovereignty over human history and he unfolds that history. Writing, think about this, more than 500 years before Christ, Daniel had prophesied that there would be a series of successive empires, world empires. You remember, he did so in two different prophecies. There was, first of all, the dream of Nebuchadnezzar of that image, remember, of different metals in chapter 2 of Daniel. And then in chapter 7, the exact same information, communicated not as an image of metals, a man made out of different metals, but rather a series of beasts; same empires, same history, told from two different vantage points.

In chapter 2 you have the vision of a pagan king. This is history from man's point of view. This is how man looks at human history, a noble image made out of expensive metals. In that vision the statue is destroyed for no obvious reason and God's power in that image is seen as an inanimate stone that comes and crushes the world empires of man. In chapter 7 you have the vision of a godly prophet. Again, exact same history telling the story of the same empires, but from a godly prophet's perspective. Here you have history from God's point of view. And rather than a noble image made out of expensive metals, the world empires that he will describe are beasts without a conscience. And in this case the nations are destroyed specifically for their rebellion against God, the creator and the owner of all things. And God's power in Daniel's vision is revealed in the Son of Man, the Messiah who will come. You see the contrast, it's a powerful one and intentionally so.

Now, when you look at those world empires, this is what, in those two different images, those two different pictures of the world empires, what Daniel was describing. You have in that image of a man made out of metals, you have the head which was made of gold, the beast, it was a lion, describes the neo-Babylonian empire. On the image of Nebuchadnezzar you have the chest and arms made out of silver, the beast was a bear, and this is the Medo-Persian empire. You have the belly and thighs made out of bronze and in the beast this was a leopard. This is the Greek empire. And then next you have, in terms of world empires, you have the legs and feet of the image made out of iron. This is the Roman empire and this is the fourth beast. And then finally you have the toes, iron and clay mixed, a revived Roman empire, and as far as the beast it's described as 10 horns.

So that was Daniel's prophecy, a series of successive world empires. The Babylonian followed by the Medo-Persian, followed by the Greek, followed by the Romans in ancient times, and then fast forwarding into the future, a revived Roman empire. And history records, this is what I want you to get, remember now, this was written in the 500's before Christ, history records that this is exactly what happened. Let's trace it. Most of Daniel's life was during the Babylonian empire, the head of gold and the lion. But when Daniel was about 80 years old, during the night, and we know exactly the date, on October the 12th in the year 539 B.C., the Medo-Persian empire took and captured the great city of Babylon and killed its last king, a man whose story is in our Bibles, Belshazzar, Daniel 5.

The Medo-Persian empire was the breasts and arms of silver and the bear. And it eventually became really the Persian empire from about 400 to 333 B.C. Beginning in 333 B.C. and for a relatively short time you had the Greek empire. Lasting for 11 years, the son of Philip of Macedon captured most of the known world. What was his name? Alexander the Great. Although he was technically Macedonian, he led an alliance of Greeks, and therefore it's the Greek empire. His kingdom was the bronze belly and thighs of the leopard. In the year 333 B.C. Alexander beat the Persians at the battle of Issus and then in 331 B.C. Persia was completely defeated by Greece. So the Medo-Persian empire falls to the Greeks. And this was the extent of Alexander's empire. You can see it extended into Egypt on the south. It extended from Greece east all the way over to India. A massive empire. In three short years Alexander conquered that much of the world. That's why he's described as a leopard with wings, really fast in the conquering of that great empire.

Because of circumstances in his life, Alexander died suddenly in Babylon when he was only 33 years old. There was no clear successor. Ultimately, four of his generals divided his empire like this, Lysimachus took Thrace, Cassander Macedonia, Seleucus Syria, Ptolemy Egypt. Basically the Ptolemys of Egypt dominated Palestine until about 198 B.C. Here was what the division of the kingdoms looked like. You can see the Mediterranean. You can see the Seleucus kingdom, really Syria, think Syria and beyond. And then you can forget really the two over toward the west because they don't figure into biblical history very much. The two that figure most into biblical history are the Seleucus, or the Seleucid dynasty rather, and the Ptolemaic dynasty, Egypt and Syria. For the time that this was happening the Ptolemys were dominating Palestine. It was a period of relative peace and autonomy for the Jews.

What I want you to see is that all of this, the reason I share even that much detail with you, is it was all prophesied by Daniel 500 years before Christ. I want you to turn to Daniel 8. Now that you have that little bit of history, and that is just a smattering of history, but I want you to see how Daniel makes this clear, the Lord, through Daniel, makes this clear to us. Verse 1 of chapter 8, "In the third year of the reign of Belshazzar the king a vision appeared to me." So this is before Babylon falls. And he says, I saw a vision. Verse 3,

I lifted up my eyes, I looked, and behold, a ram which had two horns was standing in front of the canal. Now the two horns were long, but one was longer than the other, and the longer one coming up last. I saw the ram butting westward, northward, and southward, and no other beasts could stand before him nor was there anyone to rescue from his power, but he did as he pleased and magnified himself.

While I was observing, behold, a male goat was coming from the west over the surface of the whole earth without touching the ground; and the goat had a conspicuous horn between his eyes.

Now what's going on here? Well, we don't have to wonder because Daniel is told exactly what all of this means. Keep your finger there, but go later in the chapter and look at verse 20,

The ram which you saw with the two horns represents the kings of Media and Persia. The shaggy goat represents the kingdom of Greece, and the large horn that is between his eyes is the first king.

Now go back and look at that again. Do you see what Daniel saw? He saw the Medo-Persian empire, two horns, one of them was greater than the other, representing the fact that eventually Persia becomes the dominant kingdom. Then it says that basically this Medo-Persian empire was a powerful one, in verse 4, but then comes something more powerful, verse 5, here's the male goat. What's the male goat? This is Greece. And the large horn represents, what did the angel tell Daniel? It represents the first and great king of Greece. Who is that? Alexander, clearly Alexander.

And notice verse 5 says he was "coming from the west," which is where he came from, "over the surface of the whole earth without touching the ground," that symbolizes the speed with which he conquered. It's like he didn't even touch the ground, he just kept conquering.

He came up to the ram that had two horns, [the Medo-Persian empire] which I had seen standing, and rushed at him in his mighty wrath. I saw him come up beside the ram, and he was enraged at him; and he struck the ram and shattered his two horns, and the ram had no strength to withstand him. [He destroyed the Medo-Persian empire.] So he hurled him to the ground and trampled on him, and there was none to rescue the ram from his power. Then the male goat magnified himself exceedingly. [This is Alexander.] But as soon as he was mighty, the large horn was broken; [33 years of age, Alexander dies. Again, folks, this was written a couple of hundred years before these events transpired. And then it says, verse 8,] and in its place [in the place of that one large horn, Alexander] came up four conspicuous horns toward the four winds of heaven.

Look at the chart that I'm showing you right now. These were the four kings who came out of Alexander the Great's reign. Just truly amazing.

So what happens then, after Alexander, you have these two kingdoms, and you can see it on the map why they fight back and forth between Israel. You have the Mediterranean on the west, you have the Sahara Desert on the east, and between the Seleucid kingdom and the Ptolemaic kingdom you have one tiny little piece of land, a little land bridge called Israel. And so, you can see why for the next period of time, Palestine, the land of Palestine, became a political football.

In 198 B.C. a man named Antiochus the Great, one of the Seleucid rulers from Syria, remember I just showed you the chart, up from, Syria still factors in history and in the Middle East today, but it did then as well, from Syria. Cleopatra's father, Antiochus the Great, captured Jerusalem. And with that military move, the tensions in the region accelerated, ratcheted up significantly.

Then in the year 175 B.C. another man arises as king in Syria and he is the most famous and ruthless and brutal of them all. He is a man named Antiochus Epiphanies. He became the king of Syria. Five years later in 170 B.C. he defeated Ptolemy. Remember, Ptolemy's down in Egypt. He defeated Ptolemy the sixth and became the powerhouse in the Middle East. But two years later, in 168 B.C. Ptolemy rebelled. And so Antiochus invaded Egypt a second time. And in Egypt he met a new player on the stage of Middle Eastern politics. It was an envoy named Laenas. And Laenas was from a place called Rome.

Laenas told Antiochus that he represented Rome and that Antiochus better let go of Egypt. Antiochus knew that Rome had become a powerhouse in the Middle East and he said he'd think about it. And in one of the most dramatic scenes in all of history, Laenas takes his sword, draws a circle in the sand around Antiochus Epiphanies, and tells him, okay, you want to think about it, decide before you leave the circle. Antiochus relented. He knew his power, his army couldn't withstand the Romans. And so, he left Egypt frustrated and angry. And how does he get back home? Through that tiny little land bridge called Israel.

And he comes to Jerusalem and he plunders it. He's angry, he's frustrated, his will has been thwarted, and he decides that in addition to plundering Jerusalem, he is going to take his kingdom, what he's got left, what the Romans haven't taken from him, he's going to take his kingdom and he's going to Hellenize it. You recognize that word? It means to make it all things Greek. He's going to make them good Greeks.

And so, two years later he returned to Jerusalem. And when he returned to Jerusalem, this is what he did. In 166 B.C. he stripped the temple of all of its valuables. He massacred thousands. In fact, some historians say 80,000 people he killed. He carried, Josephus says, 10,000 captives back to Syria. Other historical sources say he carried 40,000 prisoners captive back to Syria. You can see why Middle Eastern politics is complicated, right? We're talking 166 B.C.

He demolished the walls of the city of Jerusalem. He built a tower and supplied it with armed mercenaries there. And as the ultimate act of degradation, Antiochus Epiphanies desecrated the temple by erecting an image of Zeus in the temple in Jerusalem. And then he offered pig broth on the altar and sprinkled its blood all around the temple grounds, sacrificed a pig and took what was left and spread it everywhere.

And then he set out on a comprehensive plan to force the Jews to think and act like Greeks, to Hellenize them. He erected shrines of the Greek deities throughout the land of Israel. He burned every copy of the law of God that he could get. He executed those who were caught with them. He refused to let them circumcise their children. Again, he's trying to make them Greek. He strangled circumcised children along with their mothers.

Is this man in biblical prophecy? He is. Daniel was given an opportunity to see this man as well. If you're still in Daniel 8 look at verse 8 again, "the male goat magnified himself exceedingly. But as soon as he was mighty," this is Alexander, "the large horn was broken; and in his place there came up these four conspicuous horns toward the four winds of heaven." Those four generals of Alexander's, including the Seleucid in Syria.

Out of one of them came forth a rather small horn which grew exceedingly great toward the south, toward the east, and toward [the land of Israel] the Beautiful Land. It grew up to the host of heaven and caused some of the host and some of the stars to fall to the earth, [probably a reference to his killing of the Jewish people, of the saints] and it trampled them down. It even magnified itself to be equal with the Commander of the host; and it removed the regular sacrifice from Him, and the place of His sanctuary was thrown down. And on account of transgression the host will be given over to the horn along with the regular sacrifice; [in other words, this was God's doing, on account of their transgression] and it will fling truth to the ground and perform its will and prosper. Then I heard a holy one speaking, and another holy one said to that particular one who was speaking, "How long will the vision about the regular sacrifice apply, while the transgression causes horror, so as to allow both the holy place and the host to be trampled?" And he said to me, "For 2,300 evenings and mornings; then the holy place will be properly restored."

Twenty-three hundred days, you do the math and it's the period of Antiochus Epiphanies' persecution of Israel, from the year 171 B.C. to December of 165 B.C.

Let's look at that history. You see, the horrific circumstances created by the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanies, his efforts to Hellenize the people of Israel, and all that he did, that sparked a Jewish rebellion. Go over to Daniel 11 because this rebellion is described there. Daniel 11 is another passage that describes Antiochus Epiphanies and his evil rule. But in response, verse 31 says, and I wish I had more time to take you through this chapter, but just look at verse 31. It says, "Forces from him will arise," his own army, "and desecrate the sanctuary fortress," we've just talked about that, "and do away with the regular sacrifice. And they will set up the abomination of desolation." This is the one during Antiochus' time that mirrors, that gives a sort of glimpse of a future abomination of desolation the man of sin will set up during the great tribulation. But this is back more than a hundred years before Christ.

And then it says, verse 32, "By smooth words he will turn to godlessness those who act wickedly towards the covenant." In other words, he's going to convince a lot of people to go along with him, which he did. And then it says this, "but the people who know their God will display strength and take action." In other words, Daniel was saying there would be people who would respond to Antiochus Epiphanies. And in fact, there was, their response is called the Maccabean revolt.

The fuse for this revolt was lit in the most unlikely place. The scene was the tiny village of Modi'in, northwest of Jerusalem, about 20 miles northwest of Jerusalem. Some of Antiochus' men, under the leadership of one of his generals named Apelles, came to the small village. And as they were doing throughout the land of Israel, Apelles demanded that the people of this village offer a sacrifice on a pagan altar that was set up there in order to prove their loyalty to Antiochus and to the Seleucid empire.

In an effort to ensure complete compliance of the people, they went to one of the leading citizens of this little village, a man named Mattathias. He was also a priest. And they said: Mattathias, listen, you don't want harm to come to your people. You don't want anybody here hurt. We want you to set the right example and we want you to offer this sacrifice to a pagan god. And if you'll do that, not only will this village be spared, not only will you keep harm from coming to your village, but they basically offered him a bribe. You'll be personally enriched. Mattathias refused.

But there was another leader among the Jewish people of that little village who agreed to do so, to make this sacrifice to a pagan god in an expression of loyalty to the Seleucid empire. And right after he executes the animal, Mattathias, enraged by the fact that the god of Israel is being desecrated on His very land, rises up and kills that Jewish traitor on the spot. And his body falls onto the sacrifice that he himself had made to the pagan altar. And then Mattathias had five sons. And Mattathias' five sons, they came along with Mattathias and they killed the Jewish traitor. They killed Antiochus' general Apelles, and they killed the soldiers. Well, you can imagine that this was the spark that lit the revolt. In fact, they tore down the pagan altar.

And here's what Mattathias cried out to the people. Mattathias cried out to the people that day these words, "If anyone be zealous for the laws of his country and for the worship of his God, let him follow me." And Mattathias, his five sons, and many others, left the village for the Judean hill country. And in the months that followed, they fought a guerilla war against the stronger Syrian force. But their ranks continued to grow. More and more people were attracted to them and came and joined them. After about a year of fighting, Mattathias became terminally ill and shortly before his death he appointed his son Simon as the administrator, his oldest son, Judas, as the general of the army.

Judas had a nickname because he was a brilliant military mind. I wish I had time to tell you some of the stories of his victories over vastly greater numbers of troops. He was called Maccabeus the Hammer, Judas the Hammer. Under his leadership the Jews recaptured the temple in December of the year 165 B.C., exactly three years from the time that it had been desecrated. But when they got to the temple in Jerusalem they discovered that it was completely deserted. Its gates had been burned. All the furniture and vessels had been plundered. Weeds were growing in the courtyard of the temple. And, of course, there was that monstrosity to Zeus.

So Judas removed the pagan altar. He replaced it with one that was not built with iron tools and on the 25th of Kislev, 165 B.C., the worship of Yahweh was restored to the temple in Jerusalem. And there was a great celebration, a celebration that lasted eight days. There was singing and there was feasting and there were sacrifices. And it was decided that this remarkable occasion should be celebrated every year as the festival of lights or Hanukkah. Hanukkah, which is still celebrated today, of course, by the Jewish people, celebrates the cleansing of the temple under Judas Maccabeus, a faithful Jewish man, one described in Daniel as "the people who know their God will display strength and take action." Which is exactly what he did.

From the year 165 B.C. to 63 B.C. the descendants of Judas led the nation. One of those descendants, a man named John Harkanus, won political independence for the Jews in the year 129 B.C. But it was to be very short lived because just a few years later, in 63 B.C., the powerful Roman general Pompey annexed Syria and arrived in Damascus. And Pompey decided that something had to be done with Judea. And so he went immediately to Jerusalem. When he got there, some of the Jewish people had barricaded themselves in the temple precinct. For three months they resisted, but eventually Pompey captured the temple. However, he didn't destroy anything. He took absolutely nothing. Sacrifices began again the very next day.

But, the Roman general Pompey did something that at that occasion that would anger and enrage the Jews for hundreds of years. Because Pompey, having heard about their temple, decided he had to see for himself what was there. And he walked into the holy place, pushed past the curtain into the holy of holies, to see exactly what was there. Of course at this point there was nothing there. The ark of the covenant was gone, it had been taken before, but it desecrated that place. So in 63 B.C. Judea and Jerusalem came under Roman occupation.

Now from the year 63 to 31 B.C., you know that's the time of Rome's civil wars, you probably remember that from history, as Roman generals fought for control. The Jews, for the most part, during those years were left alone. But in 31 B.C. Octavian won. And in 27 B.C. Octavian gained the title Caesar Augustus. Because he had helped Octavian win the battle for Rome, a man named Antipater was rewarded. And his son was made governor over Palestine. The son's name was Herod. He would later be called Herod the Great.

Now Herod, I'm not going to spend much time here, Herod was, as you know, both brilliant and brutal. He was a great builder, much of what was accomplished in Jerusalem and in Judea, and even in all of Israel, during his days. You can go there today and see the ruins of it. And even in its ruined state it is magnificent.

But he was a brutal man. He was always suspicious, always paranoid, about who was trying to unseat him. He had 10 wives. There was one of his wives, Mariamne, that he loved passionately, but he came to suspect her of infidelity and so he had her killed. In 7 B.C. he executed her two sons for fear that they would try to take the throne. In 4 B.C., you remember, he ordered the execution of all the babies in the village of Bethlehem two years and younger. And in the same year 4 B.C., just five days before his death, he had his favorite son executed.

In addition to that, he ordered that when he died, he wanted all the leading Jews of the land gathered into the great gathering places, the amphitheaters, and on his death he wanted the Roman soldiers to kill them all. His reasoning? He knew no one would cry for his death. But if all of the leading people of Israel were killed on the day of his death, there would be mourning in Israel. Fortunately, those orders were not followed through. This is Herod and this is how he came to power, because his father Antipater helped Octavian win the throne of Rome.

That is what happened politically in the world of the Middle East between the testaments. You can see, it was an amazing time when God in His providence was working out all the details of history to accomplish His purposes.

That brings us to a second perspective of those years. And that is, briefly, we want to look at the religious history. Because during those 400 years several important changes affected the religious landscape of the nation. First of all, there are the Pharisees. Now that you know the history, you understand where they came from. The Pharisees arose during, as a group, in the time of Antiochus, a group that was called the Hasidim. The Hasidim means the separated ones. You still hear that phrase thrown around in Judaism even today, the separated ones. The Pharisees arose to oppose attempts to introduce Greek pagan elements into the Jewish culture. They were the most conservative of Israel's leaders. They opposed bringing those elements into the culture, as I said.

And also you need to realize that the Scribes were primarily Pharisees. So those who copied the Scripture and taught it, most of them belonged to this, sort of fellowship, if you will, of the Pharisees. They held the same basic view. Their chief responsibilities, that is of the Scribes, was to interpret the law using oral tradition, eventually recorded in the Mishnah by about 280 A.D., to teach the law of God, and to apply the eternal law to changing circumstances.

The problem came to be that, in their zeal, the Pharisees began to make hedges around God's law. Think of them as fences. And so, they began to say, we don't want you to break God's law. We don't want to break God's law. It's noble, right? And so they said, let's not even get to the edge. Let's build a fence that keeps us from breaking God's law. So God's law says, you shall not work on the Sabbath. That's God's law. So let's build a fence to keep us from doing that. That fence is, if you are a tailor then don't carry a needle in your clothes, because you might be tempted to work on the Sabbath. Is there anything wrong with that, in and of itself? No, it's a genuine attempt to keep from breaking the law. The problem came when they became self-righteous about their law keeping and they began to judge everyone else by their fences. Sound familiar? Still happens in legalism today. These are the Pharisees.

The second group that was there was the Sadducees, probably named after Zadok, the high priest of David's time. They were primarily priests. They were the wealthy aristocratic families who control the office of the high priest. When you think of the Sadducees, and especially when you think of the high priest, don't think religious, don't think caring about spiritual things, think politically minded pragmatists, because that's what they were. Most of the political leaders were Sadducees. They embraced the Pentateuch literally and they rejected oral law.

But, here's the key, they were anti-supernaturalists. Think about this now, the Sadducees, that group you meet in the New Testament, they believe that God created this world, but He doesn't intervene, ever, in this world that He made. There are no miracles. There is no spirit world. There is no resurrection. And so, you can see how that easily leads to pragmatism. This life is what you have, do whatever you've got. And so, they tended to be Hellenists. They said, let's go along, why would you buck this? Let's ride the system. Let's play the system. The Sadducees. By the way, that's what makes it remarkable that the Pharisees and the Sadducees agreed on anything. They agreed on their hatred of Jesus. That was it.

Now, what about the Sanhedrin? This comes about during those 400 silent years. Jews argue that this ruling body dates to the time of Moses and the 70 men chosen to lead there. But most historians agree that while there are similarities, this exact body didn't begin until between the testaments. The Mishnah, the sort of recorded oral tradition of the Jews, says that it consisted of 71 men, the high priest plus 70 others. Through most of its existence it consisted almost entirely of the aristocracy and the Sadducees, along with the high priest. But during two periods, including from 6 to 66 A.D., Pharisees were also allowed to be a part of the council in great numbers. The high priest presided.

By the way, there were smaller Sanhedrins across the country, but the one in Jerusalem was the most powerful, and so it was called the great Sanhedrin. The high priest led it. He presided over the council when it met. You see this even in John 11 when Caiaphas calls the Sanhedrin to order and leads them. Josephus says that it met in the temple precincts in a place called the chamber of hewn stone. This is a recreation of what that council looked like from the descriptions that we have and how it was ordered. They sat in a semicircle and in front of them were two scribes to keep a written record. They had authority to interpret the mosaic law, to govern the civil affairs of the nation, and to try certain criminal cases under the Roman procurator's authority. And you see that again playing out in the New Testament. That's the Sanhedrin.

Another thing that we meet in the New Testament that came about during those intervening years is the synagogue. It arose during the 6th century, during the Babylonian captivity. The Greek word synagogue means a gathering of the people or a congregation. The Hebrew word is knesset, the name that's used for the parliament of modern Israel. The synagogue was a place to meet, to pray, to hear the word of God read and explained. It also became kind of a social center for activities of the community.

To form a synagogue it required a quorum of at least 10 men. Initially the men and women sat together in the synagogue, but eventually they sat in separate sections. Most of the synagogues were small, but some of them were huge. The main hall of the synagogue in Sardis was 65 yards long by 43 yards wide. In Alexandria, Egypt the synagogue was so large that the leaders posted a man with a flag in the middle of the building so that he could signal the people in the back when it was time to say amen. Maybe we need to do that.

The weekly service in the time of Christ at the synagogue would have been fairly simple. There would have been prayers, the chief prayers supposedly date to the time of Ezra and are called the 18 benedictions. In their present form they date to shortly after 70 A.D. The reading of the Scripture was involved in that as well, particularly the Pentateuch. By the way, the reading of Scripture was the center of the service. There was a reading plan. And then after the reading there was an explanation of the biblical text, or in other words, there was an exposition. Do you realize that when Jesus taught in the synagogue, week after week after week, all three years of His ministry, Jesus was an expositional preacher? The next passage was read and the next passage was explained. We often find Christ or Paul in the synagogues. It's where they ministered.

Another important event during those years was the Septuagint. Ptolemy the second of Egypt commissioned a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. We can't be exactly sure why he did this. It may be so that Jews who were spread around the empire who no longer spoke Hebrew had a Bible. Or it may simply have been to provide a copy of the Jewish Bible to the library there in Alexandria, the greatest library in the ancient world. We don't really know. But regardless, he commissioned Jews from Palestine to make the translation. Legend has it that it took 72 scholars 72 days and therefore it's called the Septuagint, which means 70. The Pentateuch was probably completed by 150. It was all probably completed by 150 B.C., both the Pentateuch and the rest of the Old Testament. It was the Bible of New Testament times. Jesus and the Apostles, Paul, they all quote freely from this translation. Many of the quotations that you find in the gospels, and even in the in the rest of the New Testament, are from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.

So, those are the key changes to the religious landscape when the New Testament opens. Now, why does all that matter? Why should you care? You need to understand what was going on during those 400 silent years. God was preparing the world for the arrival of His Son. You say, how? Now that you know the history, think about this. First of all, there was the Greeks. And from the Greeks, from Alexander, you got the Greek language. And you know what's amazing about the Greek language? It is an extremely precise language, especially suited to the revelation of the New Testament's doctrine. You see that week after week as I exegete Romans. That's Greek. How did that happen? That wasn't an accident. God arranged the history of the world so that you and I would have the Bible we have. In addition, it was a universal trade language, like English is today. Greek was spoken across the known world. And so, it would allow the spread of the apostles' writings across the empire. Amazing, the Greeks, this is how they figure in.

You have the Romans. How do the Romans add to the preparation for Jesus? The Pax Romana. When Octavian became Caesar Augustus and the war stopped, you had relative peace across the world. A united world where national boundaries and loyalties wouldn't prevent the spread of the gospel, because it was one big empire. A network of roads that made travel and communication by letters much simpler. And the Romans, while this is a negative thing, it's also a positive thing, there was an openness to religion, religions of various kinds. They weren't quick to jump on new religions.

And then you had the Jews. How was God preparing them? Well, they were oppressed by the Romans. They were looking for a deliverer, looking for a messiah. They were dispersed throughout the empire, the diaspora. And they had a Greek translation of their Scripture and they took this Greek version of the Old Testament wherever they went. In the New Testament era even god-fearing Gentiles had the Old Testament in a language they could understand, because God had directed all of this.

Do you see? Let me remind you of a text that puts it far better than I could. Here's what was going on during the silent years. Galatians 4:4, "when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son." Those 400 years are amazing years because God was at work preparing the world for His Son.

Very briefly, what are a couple of points of application for us? You say, how can there be application from history? Oh, there are a lot of applications. I don't have enough time. So let me just give you a couple to consider. Number one, God is sovereign over history and He announces what's going to happen before it comes. That part of Daniel 8 we read about Antiochus and what he would do? That was written in the 500's. It happened in the 100's. And God said, this is what it's going to be like, this is what's going to happen. Why is that important? Well, listen to God Himself. In Isaiah 45:20-22 God says, how do you know that I am the true God, versus all the idols? And He says, it's because I announce to you beforehand what's going to happen. You see, this is proof that the God we worship is the true and living God. This is His proof to us.

Secondly, God's providence in your life is no different. When you see how God wove the circumstances of the world together to accomplish His plans, He's doing the same thing in your life. It's no less dramatic. It's no less profound. God is at work in your life. That's why Paul can say that He will cause all things in your life to work together for good. Just like He did in those 400 silent years.

Thirdly, God did all of this, He pulled all the strings of history for you. Do you understand that? This is what God was doing. God is about redeeming a people for His Son. He was thinking of you when He was arranging all of this so His Son could come and live in that little strip of land under the Pax Romana and speak in Greek as well as in Aramaic and Hebrew. And allow the words that He spoke to travel across the empire and to travel down through the centuries to us. God was thinking of us.

You see, God's greatest agenda in the world is not what's happening in Washington or Moscow. It's what's happening in churches just like ours, and in homes where there are those whom He has chosen that He has not yet redeemed. That's what God is about. He is the God of history. But history is marching to a common conclusion. God is redeeming a people by His Son, for His Son, to His own glory. Let's pray together.

Father, we are in awe of Your greatness. Lord, we have merely scratched the surface of what You were doing during those years. And it amazes us. Thank You that You are a God who not only knows what's going to happen before it happens, but who causes it. And who can tell us about it, so that we can have confidence that You are the true and living God and not one of the gods of the nations who can't speak and can't hear and know nothing and can't do anything and can't predict the future. Father, we worship You as the one living and true God and Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. We thank You that when the fullness of time had come, You sent forth Your Son. It's in His name that we pray, amen.

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