Introduction: Welcome to Calvary Albuquerque. We pursue the God who is passionately pursuing a lost world; we do this with one another, through worship, by the Word, to the world.
Skip Heitzig: Merry Christmas! Would you turn in your Bibles, please, to the gospel of Matthew, chapter 4. Last week we were in Matthew, chapter 2, as we are working our way in this Advent season to Christmas Eve, and today we are in Matthew, chapter 4. How have you been feeling lately? Let me ask you a few questions about that. Do you find that your energy is a bit diminished lately? Is your fatigue more than it is normally? Do you find yourself craving sugar? [laughter] Are you eating more than you normally do?
Do you find it hard to get up in the morning out of bed? Do you find yourself sleeping longer? Are you less productive and more irritable? If you have answered yes to all those questions, well, that could just be your personality, [laughter] or it could be what doctors call S-A-D; S-A-D, an acronym for Seasonal Affective Disorder. It's a sort of depression that affects one out of five people during the fall and winter months, because your brain chemistry gets altered due to less sunlight, shorter days.
What experts tell us is that having less light that comes into your eyes, thus, affecting your brain that the release of serotonin into the brain drops. Now, luckily we live in the state of New Mexico that has 310 days of sunshine per year. We have abundant sunshine. It's good for us. It's good for the chiles as well, right? [laughter] In fact, what the American Medical Association, the National Institute of Mental Health will recommend for S-A-D is what they simply call "light therapy."
Being exposed to light will balance out the brain chemistry that is associated with S-A-D---light therapy. I want you to consider Christmas as light therapy, light therapy. The world has chronic S-A-D, Spiritual Affective Disorder. It's amazing how often the Bible will use the metaphor "darkness" to describe the condition of humanity. It's very often used. It's a metaphor that speaks of spiritual ignorance or sin. Ephesians 5, "You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord." First Peter, chapter 2, we've already seen, "God called you out of darkness into his glorious light."
When the Bible wants to describe the hosts of Satan's armies, he speaks about "the rulers of the darkness of this age." And then our Lord Jesus said, "Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but have the light of life." When a person steps out of the darkness of ignorance spiritually and sin practically, that's when they really become enlightened. That's when they see more than they could ever see before. As John Newton said in that famous hymn "Amazing Grace": "I once blind, now I see."
What I'd like to do with you this morning is take you back through the lens of Matthew, the New Testament writer, as he goes back through the lens of Isaiah the prophet, and explore with you the dark recesses of Christmas. Yes, there is a dark side to Christmas. And we're going to explore the darkness before Christmas Eve. We notice the light. And I think it's important that we understand darkness so we can appreciate the light that we're called into, but let me make an admission as we start.
I've told you this before, but in case you don't know, one of the things we do know about December 25 is that Jesus Christ was not born on that date. We know that from history. The earliest historical records we have is that Jesus was born sometime in the spring, though we're not sure when, but the earliest Christian records have it in April or May. You say, "Well, then how did we get December 25?" That doesn't come until the third or fourth century. It was noticed by Hippolytus, one of the early church fathers in Rome.
It was placed at that date because there was a pagan holiday that had taken over Rome. Actually, two holidays that celebrate the solstice, the shortest day of the year, which was yesterday, and then the days start lengthening. So the two festivals in ancient Rome were called Saturnalia. Saturnalia was celebrated December 17 through the 24th. It was the Roman Festival of the Unconquered Sun. That was followed by a celebration on December 25th called Brumalia, which was the Feast of the Invincible Sun. Those were the Roman festivals.
The reason Christians came to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ December 25th was a response to that. They knew they couldn't change that, so they decided let's use that to preach the gospel. And they used that date to tell the world that Jesus Christ is the invincible Light of the World, the Son of God. So that's how Christmas sort of came to be celebrated December 25th. I'll have you look at Matthew, chapter 4, with that as our background, because that is the motif that Matthew carries into these verses, that of light versus darkness.
Matthew has described the birth of Christ and the dedication of Christ in the temple with Simeon. But now, now Matthew takes us to the very beginning, the opening debut of Jesus' ministry in Galilee using the metaphor of darkness and light. Matthew chapter 4 verse 13, "And leaving Nazareth, he came and he dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea," that is, the Sea of Galilee, "in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali." Those are two ancient names of two of the tribes of Israel.
"That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: 'The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, the Galilee of the Gentiles: The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.' From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.' "
There's three simple things I'd like you to notice: the darkness was predicted, the darkness was profound, and the darkness was penetrated. Those three things we're going to notice this morning, we're going to look at. First of all, the darkness was predicted. Isaiah the prophet---and that's who Matthew quotes, Isaiah chapter 9 verses 1 and 2. Isaiah looking into the future from his vantage point, from a very dark time in the history of the nation of Israel, looked forward to a time another darkness would be prevalent.
And out of that darkness the first rays of light would dawn, the coming of Messiah. And where would it dawn? Where would it come? Of all places, and I mean of all places, Galilee. Let me ask you a question: Why did Jesus decide to enter the world's stage and open his ministry in Galilee? Why not Jerusalem? Why not Judea? Let me try and answer that, and here's some contributing factors: number one, Galilee was heavily populated.
Josephus the Jewish historian writes that there was 204 villages in Galilee with no less than 15,000 people each living in them, bringing the population of that small area to a dense population of over 3 million people. A lot of people lived in Galilee. The question is, why? And the answer is quite simple---good farming. The land was fertile. I lived on a farm in Israel and it was up in northern Galilee. It still is considered the breadbasket of the Middle East, a very, very fertile place. And because the agriculture was so good, the population was great. So, number one, it was heavily populated.
Here's the second reason why I believe Jesus came to Galilee: it was less sophisticated culturally and it was less traditional religiously than down in Judea. It was just the salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar kind of communities that populated that area of the country---the simple folks. The Bible says, "The common people heard him gladly." In fact, I don't know if you know this or not, but those down in Jerusalem could always spot a Galilean by his accent. They talk funny.
You know how you can tell where a person is from in the United States, and I'm not going to mention any places, but you know what it's like. You can hear an accent and you go, "I know where you're from. You talk differently than we do." [laughter] Well, when Peter was in the courtyard of the high priest later on in Matthew, the servant girl says, "You were also with Jesus, for your speech betrays you." "I can tell by your accent that you're a Galilean." And that was looked down upon by the sophisticates of Jerusalem down in Judea.
Here's a third reason why I believe Jesus went to Galilee: it was cosmopolitan. There were so many different cultures and people groups open to new ideas, more so than in Jerusalem. There were the Syrians to the north and to the east; there were the Phoenicians to the west and also to the north. Also, there was a road that went right through Galilee that did not go through Jerusalem, one of the most famous ancient highways called the Via Maris. It's mentioned in the text. The Via Maris means "the way of the sea."
It was an ancient highway that connected Egypt with Mesopotamia and went right through---guess what town?---Capernaum. It was on this road that Matthew the tax collector took taxes from people who were traveling. So, it had an enormous population, it was less sophisticated, it was very cosmopolitan with travelers going from one part of the world to the other. In fact, one ancient writer said, "Judea is on the way to nowhere, whereas Galilee is on the way to everywhere." Here's what it meant: the Jews who lived up north in Galilee had more regular contact with Gentiles than those down in Judea, which is one of the reasons the Judean Jews despised the northerners.
Did you notice the term in the text "the Galilee of the Gentiles"? That was a term of mockery. That was not a compliment. That is what they said down south when they spoke of the north up in Galilee. "Oh, you're the 'Galilee of Gentiles.' You hang out with pagans." Matthew's point, using Isaiah's point, is that in the midst of Jewish traditionalism that was mixed with Gentile paganism came the light. It was bright. It came in the midst of great darkness. Funny, really.
If you were able to go to Rome and interview Caesar on his throne, and say, "Caesar, let me ask you a question for our camera: Do you think the world is in darkness?" I bet he would say something like, "Well, it was until we came. We, the Romans, brought great enlightenment to the world. If you were to go to Athens and ask the people on the Areopagus, "Hey, do you think the world is in darkness?" They would probably say, "Well, maybe your part of the world is, but not our part. We, the Greeks, the Athenians, have given you Plato and Socrates and Aristotle. We've enlightened you."
If you would go down to Jerusalem at the time and say, "Are we in darkness?" They would say, "Well, we are not in darkness. We have the learned schools of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the great knowledge and enlightenment of the scribes." Pretty much you get the same answer if you ask people today. Ask somebody today, "Do you think the world is in darkness?" They'd say, "Not anymore. We're so highly evolved and advanced. Why, we have computers and Twitter. We're wise and we're brilliant." Whereas, Isaiah the prophet sees a dark time that is pictured here.
Now, if you don't mind, and I really hope you don't, because I think it's important whenever you read something to sort of get the context and the background, and really dig into it and explore it, and understand---why did Matthew select Isaiah? Well, I want you to turn to Isaiah, if you don't mind. It's easy to find, just go left in your Bible. Turn left, just keep going down the street until you find the biggest book in the Old Testament, Isaiah, and go to chapter 9 of that book. That's where this text is found.
I'm gonna poke around in chapter 8 and then read these two verses in chapter 9. Let me give you a little bit of the background. When Isaiah writes what he writes, the king on the throne of Judea, the southern kingdom, was King Ahaz. Does that ring a bell with anybody---Ahaz? Ahaz was a bad dude, a wicked man. He introduced idolatry into the land, the kind of idolatry that is the worst of the worst. He brought into the kingdom the worship of Molech. Ever heard that name---Molech?
Molech was the god of the Ammonites. He was worshiped by casting a metal statue that they would heat up so hot with its arms outstretched that as part of their worship system they would sacrifice newborn babies and fry them to death in the arms of Molech. King Ahaz sacrificed his own son to that false god and introduced that to the land. So, in chapter 8, verse 19, now Isaiah's writing from a period of darkness where people left the Lord, they're involved in witchcraft and all sorts of other practices.
And he says, "When they say to you, 'Seek those who are mediums and wizards, who whisper and mutter,' should not a people seek their God? Should they seek the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony!" That's his cry. That's the clarion, prophetic cry---"Let's get back to the Scripture!" "If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no" [notice] "light in them. They will pass through it hard pressed and hungry; and it shall happen, when they are hungry, that they will be enraged and curse their king and their god, and look upward."
"Then they will look to the earth, and see trouble and darkness, gloom of anguish; and they will be driven into darkness." Isaiah is saying, "This nation of Israel is dark. God's people are darkened." But it's not going to stay that way. Chapter 9, verse 1, "Nevertheless the gloom will not be upon her who is distressed, as when at first he lightly esteemed the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward more heavily oppressed her, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan in the Galilee of the Gentiles."
"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined." You notice he talks about them being more greatly oppressed. You know when that happened historically? 772 BC; in 722 BC the Assyrians under their king, Tiglath-Pileser, conquered the northern Galilee region. Now, the Babylonians later on conquered the southerners, but those southerners came back 70 years later. The northerners, however, never really recovered to any significant degree.
In other words, those up north in Galilee were hardest hit. It became more Gentile territory than even Jewish territory. They were the hardest hit and what the prophet foresees is those that were hardest hit will one day be most greatly blessed. The Messiah will come to their region, will come to their land, will occupy their territory; not the Jerusalem of the Jews, but the Galilee of the Gentiles. And so we find it wonderful that Jesus when he decided to set up headquarters, he set it up among the outcasts, those hardest hit. The darkness was predicted.
Second thing I'd like you to notice is how profound this darkness was. Notice that Matthew says, "the people that sat in the darkness." They sat in darkness. Now, if you'll remember, that's really not what Isaiah said. He said, "the people who walked in darkness." Here's what you need to know, because it bothers a few people: when the New Testament authors quoted the Old Testament, they often paraphrased the text. They didn't have Bibles that they ran around with, or little computers that they ran around with, so they paraphrased it, just like you and I do when we quote something.
And so either from one language to another, or simply a paraphrase, whereas Isaiah sees them walking, Matthew sees them now sitting, a very interesting picture. It's like blind people meandering in the dark, unable to escape, so they finally just sit in the darkness and decide to live in it. It's interesting, if you were ever to visit, like, Carlsbad Caverns or one of the many cavern caves around the world, often the tour guide will say---because those places have total darkness in its recesses.
And what they like to say is that if a person is exposed long enough to total darkness, they lose the ability visually to adapt and they can become blind irrecoverably. They walked in darkness, and now they're sitting in darkness. The darkness was profound. Let me explain that to you. What kind of a world did Jesus walk into when he came on the scene? A dark one is the answer. How dark? Well, first of all, it was dark politically. There was a political darkness. The world was not a free world 2,000 years ago.
Rome had conquered the known world and what that meant was there were Roman soldiers watching every move you make just about everywhere in the Roman world. Caesar Augustus brought in what was called the Pax Romana, the Roman peace. But it was a peace of the iron fist. You couldn't make a move. You couldn't breathe. You'd look around and there'd be soldiers monitoring every move. The government was watching everything you did. That's why a group of Jews called the Zealots emerged to try every means they could to overturn that and have freedom.
Out of the political darkness a light came. More than that, it was also a time of economic darkness. Rome devised a very ingenious method of taxation which was very good if you were a Roman official, very bad if you were not. If you were a citizen, the tax system crushed you. And the whole Christmas story begins with that notion in Luke, chapter 2. Remember it says, "A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole word should be" [what?] "taxed or registered." A census was taken in order to tax people.
You say, "Okay. Well, that happens today." But the method of Roman taxation was by something called "tax farming"; that is, the ability to tax was given out to the highest bidder in a region; which meant simply this: if you were the tax collector, there was a minimum you had to give to Rome. Whatever you could manage to get on top of that, you could keep. There was a profit. So nobody really knew what the proper tax rate was. It varied from region to region, depending on how corrupt the tax collector was.
That's why one writer said, "I have never seen a monument to an honest tax collector." And if you're thinking, "Oh, Skip, come on. We have it bad today; how bad could it have been back then?" Well, let me tell you how bad. There was, number one, something called the poll tax. If you were a female age twelve to sixty-five, or a male age fourteen to sixty-five, you had to pay the poll tax. The poll tax was the tax for you to live, for you just to breathe Roman air you paid this tax.
On top of the poll tax was the income tax, which was a flat 10 percent of your income. On top of the poll tax and the income tax, there was a road tax, and a harbor tax, and an import tax, and a ground tax. One tenth of the grain that you produced, one fifth of the wine all went to Rome. That was the ground tax. If you lived by the sea or by the lake, like Galilee, you paid a fish tax. You were taxed per net and per individual fish.
If you wanted to transport something in a cart---yes, there was a cart tax. And you were taxed on how many wheels were on your cart. So the most economic cart was a wheelbarrow, because it only had one. So you get a picture here. You have people who have less income because they paid their money to an oppressive government. It was dark economically. Then there was a moral darkness. The ancient world was morally corrupt. I mean really corrupt, and it was in an unfair sense.
The Greco-Roman world was morally askew. Two thousand years ago the average Greek housewife would have had to stay at home in almost total seclusion. She couldn't go out publicly in the streets on her own. She had to maintain the highest moral purity; whereas the Greek men were allowed to have total moral license. They could sleep with as many women as they could get. Morally it was dark.
Demosthenes wrote this: "We have courtesans for the sake of pleasure, we have concubines for the sake of daily cohabitation, and wives for the purpose of having legitimate children and to have faithful guardians for all our household affairs." That's the world Jesus stepped into---politically, morally, economically dark. But the most profound darkness felt even by the Jewish people was spiritual darkness, spiritual darkness.
Did you know that before Jesus came for 400 years there was no prophet, there was no "thus saith the Lord," there was no prophetic voice. No word from heaven for 400 silent years, and one day the light broke forth in the midst of that spiritual darkness. Historians tell us that prior to the coming of Christ there was this groundswell of anticipation that a deliverer was coming among the Jews. They had felt abandoned because of the Roman occupation. They thought God had forsaken them, the Messiah wasn't coming.
The rest of the world was sort of burnt out on Greco-Roman Polytheism and all of the false gods and goddesses that could do nothing. So there was this national and even international, some historians say, longing for the coming of Messiah. That's why when John the Baptist came baptizing by the Jordan, one of the first questions they ask him is: "Are you the guy? Are you the Messiah?" They were hoping beyond hope. Into that hopeless, dark world stepped Jesus.
Now, if you're a thinking person, you're going, "Skip, you talk about the ancient world, but it sounds an awful lot like our world." And so did his coming really matter that much? I mean, have things really changed? We sing, "Peace on earth, good will to men," we string up lights every Christmas, but then we go on, and things seem to stay the same or even get worse. We're still in the dark. Well, it's true, and I'm not naive. I know what's going to happen after Christmas. People go back to business as usual and forget all about the songs and the hope and everything else, and it just goes back to darkness.
It does not have to be that way, however. And the reason it is that way is simple: the Bible says, "Light has come into the world, but men love darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil." They prefer it. You know what it's sort of like? It's sort of like what happened in 1864 in the height of the Civil War one cold, dark winter when the Confederate troops under Robert E. Lee were on the front lines of that long, arduous, wet winter; on the other side were the troops of the Union, the north, under Ulysses S. Grant.
One night word came to the Southerners that one of their generals, General George Pickett, that his wife just had a baby boy. When Lee found out about it, he said, "Let's celebrate!" And he commanded bonfires to be lit by all the Southern troops along their flanks. Fires lit the sky. The Northerners saw the fires and wondered, "What up?" So they sent scouts out to find what up? And they found out that these were celebratory fires by the Southerners because of that general, George Pickett, his wife had a baby boy.
Well, Ulysses S. Grant from the north, who is now the enemy of General Pickett, at one time they knew each other. They had gone to West Point together, so they were friends. So, when Ulysses S. Grant heard that General Pickett on other side had a baby boy, he decided, "We should at least celebrate one night." And he commanded his troops to light bonfires on their front-flanking lines. So just think about that. One night during the bloodiest time of our history, for one glorious night there was not a single shot fired.
There was not a single bayonet thrust through chest of another, just light emanating out of the darkness because of the birth of one child. Next day they loaded their guns and shot each other. They went on with the war. That's the sad reality of history. I know the world will go back to its darkness, but in the midst of it, in the midst of profound darkness the light still shines. Let's bring this to a close and let's notice the third, and that is that the darkness was penetrated. That's really the whole point of the text; is it not?
The darkness was penetrated. It says, " 'Those who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.' " No matter how dark it is the light always eradicates darkness. But look at verse 17, "From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.' " Now, there's a connection between those two verses. See, Matthew says, "Look, here's Isaiah, he predicted it would be dark and the light would come."
Question: How did the light come? By Jesus Christ preaching truth to people; that's how the light comes. I'll be more specific. The light comes by Jesus Christ preaching repentance from sin. That's what he did. Repentance is a prerequisite for enlightenment. When people in their darkness are willing to stay in their darkness, nothing happens, no change. But when a person in his or her darkness decides, "I'm going to turn around"---that's what the word repent means.
Metanoeó: have a reorientation, turn around, change direction, go in another direction and they walk toward the light. That's when life changes. That's light therapy. That's when change occurs. Back to that truth I just mentioned though: "Men loved darkness rather than light, because," says the writer, "his deeds were evil." You know what it's like when your eyes are accustomed to a dark room and somebody turns on a bright light? You don't go, "Wee! Nice." You go, "Oh, get that out of here! I hate it."
I read about a man who went down to, I think South America. His whole ministry was to rescue children who were living in sewers. Can you imagine living in the filth and squalor of large cities? These street children living in the sewers, he went down to rescue them, take them out, and give them a new life. Imagine what it would be like and you would have to imagine, you couldn't really understand it, living in some dark place where you are in virtual blindness underneath the city.
And suddenly one day a man comes with hope and says, "Let's get out of here. I have a whole new life for you." And so you walk with him and you walk with him toward that light at the end of the tunnel. And it's brighter and it hurts more and more, but you get accustomed to it as you go closer to it. But as you get closer to it, you can now see better. And you look at yourself, and you go, "I'm filthy. There's excrement all over my clothes." You try to brush it off. The stains won't come out.
The closer you get to the outside world, now you have second thoughts. "Dare I go out into the light, let people see me for who I really I am? No. Maybe I should clean my act up first and then go out." That's the problem you can't. You can't escape unless you go out into the light and get rescued. That's the situation many people find themselves in today, at Christmas, when confronted with the reality of the darkness of their world. You can't get cleansed from sin by denying that you have it and walking away back into the shadows.
You can't be rescued from it by trying to brush it off yourself by some self-help religion, but only, as it says, by repentance, leaving the shadows, making a clean break, a reorientation into the light. And saying, "I'm not going to try to redefine my activity, my sin, I'm going to walk into the light and be cleansed of it." That's the hope. That's the darkness from which we are rescued. That's the great light that is dawned. See, the Old Testament just offered flickers of light, predictions of light. You get to the New Testament, you get to this message, this is full-on sunrise. And we'll discuss more of that Christmas Eve.
Would you bow your head with me as we pray. Father, it's helped us to connect a few dots this season when Jesus was brought into the temple and that old man Simeon held up the One he said was the light for both the Gentiles and the Jews. We connect the dots of the angels proclaiming to the shepherds a message, and the skies lit up, the glory of the Lord shone roundabout them; or the magi following a body emanating light, a star that led them to a place; to Jesus saying, "I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but have the light of life."
Lord, I pray for anyone who's still living in shadow land, living in darkness, spiritual ignorance, their own sin. Maybe they've justified it so long and so well. Lord, I'm counting on your Holy Spirit doing the work of convincing, of convicting that we need you. And if you're here this morning and you've never met the Lord personally; you might be a good person, religious person, very, very smart and well-educated, cultured person. You may be none of those things; you may be all of those things.
But whoever you are, if you are sensing that the Lord is speaking to your heart and has been for some time---if you've just come to a place where you say, "I'm willing to step out of the shadows and into his light," right where you are seated talk to the Lord. Call on him. If I can, I'll help you. Say to him: Lord, I know I'm a sinner. I admit that. I'm asking you to forgive me. Lord, I'm also placing my trust, my faith in Jesus Christ. I believe he died in my place that he rose from the grave conquering death to give hope. And so I turn to you as my Savior, and I want to live for you as my Lord. Help me, help me to do that, in Jesus' name, amen.
Closing: What binds us together is devotion to worshiping our heavenly Father, dedication to studying his Word, and determination to proclaim our eternal hope in Jesus Christ.
For more teachings from Calvary Albuquerque and Skip Heitzig visit calvaryabq.org.