A World Waiting For a Miracle:
Behind the Christmas Story

By Neil Earle

It has been said that the German church historian Adolph Harnack’s work on early Christianity has never been surpassed. His Mission and Expansion of Christianity of 1905 has been called the most concrete historical description of the moral and spiritual power of the early faith ever published.

Harnack’s points are particularly relevant at this time of year. He was able to put in clear and potent prose the external and internal conditions that prepared the First Century world for the exporting of the everlasting gospel. He captured the sense of divine favor and timing adhering to the appearance of the child of Bethlehem, what St. Paul called “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4).

The Scottish theologian William Barclay built on Harnack’s main points in almost classroom style, in the sense that they can be easily catalogued. Here is the essential First Century background:


  1. The unity of language and ideas. “Let a man travel from Britain and Spain in the west to the bounds of Asia Minor in the east, and wherever he went he was still in the Roman Empire,” wrote Barclay. “There were no frontiers; there were no passports needed...The world was one world. A man could not get out of the Roman Empire if he tried” (Barclay, Ambassador for Christ, pages 32-33). The Gospel thus had “free course” (2 Thessalonians 3:1).
  2. International travel was easier than it had ever been. “It was true that all roads led to Rome…These Roman roads were built to last forever. We can see parts of them yet going straight as a die across the landscape…The sea routes were safe. (pages 32-33). Less than a hundred years before, the brigands and the pirates had been subdued on the orders of Rome. Paul and the early church used these roads and Luke names one of them (the Appian Way – see Acts 28:15).
  3. The world was at peace. Men still talk of the Pax Romana – the Roman Peace. “Rome had given peace and order of the world and by so doing had all unawares made easier the spread of Christianity throughout the world” (Barclay, page 34). This made it much easier for the message of the great events of Bethlehem, Calvary and Pentecost to spread far and wide, even outside the borders of the Roman Empire.
  4. All of this led to what Harnack called “the practical and theoretical conviction of the essential unity of mankind.” The Romans had extended the benefits of Roman citizenship across a lot of the empire and Paul was to play that trump card on more than one occasion (Acts 25:11). The essential message of “oneness in Christ” was more easily heard at the time Jesus was born (Galatians 2:28).
  5. A sense of the embryonic equality of all men and women was building. After Plato came Stoicism, the popular Roman philosophy adhered to by leaders such as Cicero and others (Acts 17:18). It taught – amid much error – that there was a divine spark in all mankind that could be appealed to, which implied that there was more to existence than the material world. Overall, in spite of the cruelty of the times, women and slaves were seen to have more value by First Century people. One of the early disciples was a devout lady with her own business (Acts 16:14). The liberating message of Christ who nominated women as his best followers (Mark 14:3-9) fit that need. Missionaries such as Paul could use these revolutionary social ideas as bridges to “the God who made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24).
  6. A hunger for redemption was burning in the souls of men and women. The ideas of Plato and Socrates had undermined belief in the old system of gods and goddesses – Zeus hurling thunderbolts and impregnating young girls. Also, at the other extreme, the scientific advances coming out of Alexandria were in decline after the peaks reached by Archimedes, Euclid and Eratosthenes. Without the technological advances of later times Greek science was almost at a dead end. Thus by the time Jesus was born the deeply felt idea was that knowledge must reach the heart as well as the mind, the sense that knowledge must also inculcate the “care of the soul,” should reach the inner person and should speak in some measure to the mysterious problems of a cruel and irrational world. Christianity was ready-made to meet this need and all the others (John 7:37-39). But it had competition.
  7. The Eastern mystery cults pouring into the Roman Empire included much erroneous speculation but also the sense that religion should change a person. The most popular cult among the Roman army included being baptized in a pit by blood pouring out from an eviscerated bull stretched on a grate overhead. Christian baptism of the kind Jesus exemplified could meet that yearning for a fresh start without the gruesome effects (Matthew 3:13-17). It is expounding this last point, those internal conditions and needs that were tugging at people deep inside, this is what makes Harnack’s summary so effective. As he wrote: “The soul, God, knowledge, expiation, asceticism, redemption, eternal life…these were the supreme thoughts which were living and operative” (Harnack page 33).

History is His Story

And so “in those days it came to pass," in the elegant words of the King James Version, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. Caesar thought he was in charge but he wasn’t really. He was like so many world conquerors who worship their own fame, simply a tool in the hands of the Great God (Isaiah 10:12-15; Proverbs 21:1).

Simply to recount the basic events of what we cal the Christmas story is to see how much God was in control of this slice of world history.

*Jesus needed to be born at Bethlehem, so a Roman emperor passes a tax law (Micah 5:2).

*Gentiles were prophesied to attend and give luster to his birth (Psalm 72:10). The Jewish Messiah was prophesied to be a sign of hope for all people (Isaiah 49:6). And so…so a star was spotted in the eastern Roman Empire that set the eastern Magi “following yonder star,” beckoning them toward “the Westland.”

*The Messiah, like national Israel, would be called out of Egypt and so his parents took him there to hide out when a sword was drawn out after the young child (Matthew 2:13-15).

*His birth would be unusual in physical terms – accompanied by a miraculous intervention that Christians call the Virgin Birth (Isaiah 7:14).

*Messiah’s appearance would be controversial and attract much hostility from his own people. He would be the stone the builders rejected (Psalm 118:22). And so the King of his own country of Judea tried to kill him in infancy (Matthew 2:16).

*The young child would be publically recognized as the Savior of Israel. And so, his divine origins were attested by two of the most respected senior citizens in the Jewish temple, Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:22-28).

*The Bethlehem baby would be born in humble circumstances among the humble of the land. His coming was designed to be particularly good news to the poor, the excluded, the less, the lost, the least (Isaiah 57:15). And so Jesus as Savior was first proclaimed to and announced by humble shepherds, men considered ceremonially unclean by the religious authorities in Jerusalem (Matthew 2:20).

All in all, it’s quite a story. The events of Jesus’ first coming offer encouraging evidence that God is in control of history, and of our own lives. History is his story. And that’s good news at any time of year.