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Understanding The Times

I have recently been re-reading the introductory chapters of Alfred Edersheim's classic The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah which include a sketch of the state of the Roman world at the time of our Lord's birth in Bethlehem. From a Christian point of view his perceptive treatment of that momentous period, although written nearly a century ago, has probably not been surpassed. As an orthodox Jew, converted to the Christian faith, Edersheim uses his immense knowledge of Jewish history, of Rabbinical lore, and of the social and religious customs of those days, to fill in a background to the four Gospel narratives which is a valuable aid to the student of those priceless records.

He also traces the history of the synagogues of the Dispersion where the Jewish faith found its focus throughout the ancient world. Here, the Law and the Prophets were read every sabbath and, in spite of the currents of heathenism which swirled around, the practice of Judaism was maintained. But in general it was a lifeless thing. "Israel had made void the Law by its traditions. Under a load of outward ordinances and observances its spirit had been crushed". Nevertheless, these dispersed Jews recognized Jerusalem as their centre of union and worship: "in the synagogue and in his prayers every Jew turned Jerusalem-ward; and anything that might imply want of reverence, when looking in that direction, was considered a grievous sin".

Edersheim researches into the state of Jewry, and of mankind in

general, two thousand years ago, underline the significance of the apostle Paul's inspired words:

"But when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman" (Gal. 4:4).

From time to time throughout the ages God had intervened in human history, each intervention being part of His grand plan of redemption. Millenniums elapsed between the initial promise (Gen. 3:15) and the coming of the Redeemer. Many prophets and righteous men looked with eager anticipation for that glorious event. At long last it happened, at the time, in the place, and according to the circumstances specified in the prophetic Word. Yet how few had "understanding of the times"! True, there was a small, faithful remnant, "looking for the consolation of Israel", but in the main the favoured nation was unenlightened and unready for the day of visitation. And mankind in general were groping in the dark. Then, as now, all human expedients failed to deliver from the bondage of sin and death. Had there been no divine initiative in saving grace the inevitable alternative was fearful judgement. But the appointed time had come. Rising from His throne in the heavens at the behest of His Father, the Son of God laid aside the robes of imperial majesty and entered the stream of human life by birth from a human mother. "The Dayspring from on high" visited us, "the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world" (1 John 4:14).

Such considerations as those outlined above are an impressive reminder that we, too, stand on the threshold of a divine intervention in human affairs. The firm promise of our Lord's second coming nears fulfilment. There is no revealed time-scale by which we can date its approach. Such matters are the preserve of God the Father (Acts 1:7). We are, however, given a clear indication of the state of human society at the climax of the age, e.g.:

"In the last days grievous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, haughty, railers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, implacable, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, no lovers of good, traitors, headstrong, puffed up, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God; holding a form of godliness but having denied the power thereof" (2 Tim. 3:1-$).

All these fearful elements are now present to a marked degree. They have yet to reach their fulness. In the meantime the assembling of that divine masterpiece, "My Church", proceeds apace. Not until she is complete and enraptured will the stage be set for the final reckoning. "The end of all things is at hand" wrote Peter, "be sober unto prayer" (1 Pet. 4:7). "lam coming soon, hold fast...", is the word from the glory (Rev. 3:11, RSV).