Ancient history is by turns inspiring and barbaric. Supported by extensive archaeological evidence, it records the occupation of the land of Palestine by ancient Israel, their attack and often defeat by a succession of regional superpowers – Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians - their exile from their homeland in the sixth century BC and their later partial return, only to be brought into subjection first to Greek and then to Roman rulers, and eventually dispersed throughout the world.
Over several hundred years the Hebrew prophets called, often in vain, for their people to come back to faith in and obedience to their God and His laws, warning them of the oppression, dispersion and suffering to which their own foolish choices would lead them. Like a parent, their God yearned for His children’s love and loyalty – unable to force them to love Him; grieved when they instead abused their freedom; yet never giving up on them, for His concern for them was irrevocable. However far they strayed, proclaimed the prophets, God in the distant future would bring their descendants back to their own land – and in doing so, prove to the world His supremacy over men and nations.
“I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land.”
Ezekiel ch. 34, verse 13
“When I have brought them back from the nations and have gathered them from the countries of their enemies, I will show myself holy through them in the sight of many nations.”
Ezekiel ch. 39, verse 27
Compared to the great powers of the ancient world, Israel – the Jewish people - were never more than minor players in international politics. Yet remarkably, it was the Jewish people that survived, their identity intact, while Assyria, Babylon and the rest vanished from the scene, buried often literally in the shifting sands of time - so completely that for a period, some questioned whether there had ever been such a place as Babylon.
It was to a land occupied by Rome and its puppet rulers that, some 2000 years ago, Jesus of Nazareth came. In an obscure corner of the empire, over a few short years, one man’s life and teaching changed the world. And Jesus was a Jew – his identity as the long-awaited fulfilment of Old Testament predictions stressed in his own words and highlighted repeatedly by the Gospel chroniclers. Moreover, Jesus underlined the promises about the Jewish people – directing his hearers’ attention to the Hebrew prophets, and asserting that the Jewish people would continue, visible to the world, until God’s purposes with the earth were fulfilled.