Here’s a little background into the time right before we encounter the Christmas Story. Knowing this background will allow us to be just as amazed and awestruck as Zechariah was when the angel Gabriel broke the silence that the Israelites had experienced for 400 years!
Malachi is the final book of the Old Testament, and Matthew is the first book of the New Testament. The period of time that passed between the content of those two books was 400 years. That’s a long time. There are numerous historical documents and credible writers that can explain to us what was going on in the world and in the life of God’s people during that time. God’s people were busy rebuilding the temple and trying to regain their way of life after living in captivity for so many years. They encountered and were influenced by many different cultures and religions during their captivity and afterwards as they were dispersed in many different areas of the known world. During these 400 years, different religious sects formed within the Jews (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots), and each group had different ways of interpreting and following God’s laws. Some groups even added new parts to God’s laws in the name of pursing morality (Jesus lets them know what he thinks about their religious ritual in the New Testament!). While we can’t say that God wasn’t working among His people during these 400 years between the Old and New Testaments, we know that He didn’t speak through the prophets directly to His people during those years.
As Christ-followers who live on the “other side” of the 1st Christmas and 1st Easter, we can’t imagine what it would have been like for the Jews during those 400 years. The first reason we can’t fully understand the Jews’ experience during those 400 years is regarding our access to God’s Word. As 21st century American Christians, God’s Word is easily accessible in many languages and translations, along with many other books that help explain the Word to us. Before Christ came, God’s people did not have unlimited access to His Word. The scrolls and Scriptures that were available were read by the priests, and most Jews did not have personal copies of the Old Testament Scriptures. And... a lot of what the priests taught was not actually Biblical, but rather their own interpretation and addition of rules to Scripture. A second reason we can’t understand the hardships of those 400 years relates to the Holy Spirit. As born-again Christ-followers, we personally have the Holy Spirit living inside of us, speaking to us and working in us! What an amazing reality! While the Holy Spirit was definitely at work during the Old Testament and the time between the Testaments, Scripture records that the Holy Spirit had not come upon believers yet until after Christ’s ascension in the New Testament. So Old Testament followers of the One, True God did not experience the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as New Testament believers did and as we can today.
That’s a reallllllly brief description of the “400 years of silence.” There’s so much more rich history about the Israelites that can give us a greater understanding of how huge it was when the Lord broke the silence through Gabriel. I hope this brief history can stir your heart toward further affection for the Lord this Christmas season for a few reasons:
1. Even when we can’t decipher where and how God is working, we can always trust that He is working! Take a look at Galatians 4:4-5 = “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” God’s people had been begging and pleading for the Savior to come. The longed to hear God’s voice again. They longed to be delivered from captivity and from a life influenced by pagans. They probably didn’t understand why God did not send a prophet for such a long time. God knew that within those 400 years, the “fullness of time” had not yet come. God was preparing His people and preparing the world for the coming of Jesus. We can trust God’s sovereignty and His timing. He sent the Savior into the world at His perfect time. It seems like the 400 years between the Old and New Testaments were devoid of God’s work, but that is not true! God was working to prepare the way for the Savior to come!
2. As God’s people, we should long to hear from Him, AND the wonderful news is that we CAN hear from Him personally and on a daily basis! During the 400 years when God’s people did not hear from Him through the prophets, they longed to hear from Him. In the process of not hearing from Him, they clung to religious ritual. From the New Testament, we know that the groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees became very ritualistic and legalistic. I’m challenged that I often do the same things today. I long to hear from God. I want Him to speak to me. I want Him to guide me so that I make decisions that please Him. But many times I turn to religious ritual (church attendance, following certain “moral” rules, etc.) rather than truly seeking Him by being immersed in His Word, prayer, and obedience. We have complete access to the full Word of God, which is a huge way He speaks to us, and yet we oftentimes aren’t committed to reading, studying, and meditating on His Word! As I think of the 400 years that God’s people couldn’t hear from Him, I’m challenged to seek Him further because I CAN hear from Him. I have His Word. I have Jesus. I have His Holy Spirit. I have fellowship with other believers. I have the ability to pray directly to Him instead of going through someone else. I can read the Scriptures for myself daily instead of only having them read to me in a religious service. I can pursue Him as intensely as I want to, but do I?? God is not silent, but are we listening to Him???
Praise the Lord that He broke the years of silence because the “fullness of time” had finally come!
Praise the Lord that He is working even when our eyes cannot determine where and how!
Praise the Lord that He still speaks to His people and gives us the ability to understand and obey His words!
Praise the Lord that He had a perfect plan to send Jesus as the salvation that we so desperately needed!
Praise the Lord that the Holy Spirit can indwell us to give us life abundantly as we pursue Christ!
Praise the Lord that He sent a Savior, not just for His chosen people of the Old Testament – the Jews, but for us, the Gentiles! Praise Him that Jesus is for ALL people! And with that truth, go and share Jesus with ALL people this Christmas season! He has allowed you to hear the Truth, and now you can share it with others!