The Displaced Character in the Christmas Story
by Kevin C. Peacock
I have always been fascinated by the “minor” characters in the biblical Christmas story – the ones that no one speaks of. When was the last time you heard a sermon on Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor that God used to move the holy family from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where the Messiah was to be born (Luke 2:1)? I am still waiting for someone to write a Christmas carol about Quirinius, the governor of Syria (Luke 2:2)! How about the unnamed angel who was given the privileged assignment of announcing the birth of the Savior to the shepherds (Luke 2:9-12). I once preached a sermon on Rachel who wept for her children (Matt 2:18).
I remember a story about a little boy who added an old fat man to the family manger scene. When his mother thought that the character was Santa Claus, the boy corrected her, explaining that it was “Round John Virgin.” Why not? We sing about him every year at Christmas!
Lately, I have been doing some study on an often overlooked, yet quite significant, “character” in the Christmas narrative – Zion, or Jerusalem. Zion was extremely significant in the Old Testament, yet in the New Testament, Zion seems to have been sidelined. The purpose of this little series of studies is to trace the biblical development of “Zion Theology,” specifically from the Old Testament to Matthew’s Christmas narrative.
Zion: An Overview
In the OT, the concept of “place” was huge. There were places where you wanted to be and places where you did not want to be. Eden was the place that God provided for Adam and Eve to live their entire lives, until they were driven out from that place (Gen 3:24). Abram left his home in Ur and Haran based on God’s promise of a new home, what we call the Promised Land (Gen 12:1). Joseph was sold into slavery from his home in Canaan to a land where the Israelites would live for the next 400 years (Gen 37:36). Moses’ task was to lead the Israelites from the land of their enslavement in Egypt back to the Promised Land (Exod 3:7-8). Mount Sinai was a “holy place” that few were allowed to enter when the Lord descended upon it (Exod 19:10-15). The tabernacle was a place divided into sections with varying degrees of holiness. Israelites could enter the outer court, priests could enter the sanctuary, but only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies (“the most holy place”), and that only once a year (Leviticus 16).
Zion, or Jerusalem, was one of those “places.” The title is used variously for the temple in Jerusalem or the temple mount where the temple was located. Sometimes it refers to the city of Jerusalem, where both the temple and the palace of the Davidic king were situated. At times it refers to Judah or to the entire Promised Land. At still other times Zion refers to Israel, God’s chosen people. As such, the name “Zion” carries some pretty heavy biblical importance, and the OT Scriptures reflect quite a bit on Zion’s significance. Below is a brief overview of the major concepts the OT teaches regarding Zion.
Zion: The Presence of God
“The Lord has chosen Zion; He has desired it for His habitation” (Ps 132:13).
When Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem, God stated that Jerusalem was the place where He had chosen to put His “name” (1 Kgs 11:36; 14:21; 2 Kgs 21:4). Thus, Jerusalem became “the city of our God … the city of the Great King (i.e. the Lord)” (Ps 48:1-2). The temple in Jerusalem was the place where the Lord “dwelt” (Ps 135:21), the city where the Lord lived (Isa 8:18; 12:5-6; 31:9) – even though the people also knew, as Solomon stated, that “heaven and highest heaven cannot contain You (i.e. the Lord), much less this house that I have built” (1 Kgs 8:27). God’s presence, shown by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night, travelled with the Israelites all the way from Egypt to the Promised Land. It was the glory of His presence which came upon the temple in Jerusalem as it was dedicated (1 Kgs 8:11), indicating that God had chosen to place His name there. With the presence of God in their midst, not only would God’s people survive, but with the presence of God, the people would experience God’s blessing.
Zion: The Rule of God
“The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, to all generations” (Ps 146:10).
The God who resides in Zion is the king over heaven and earth (Ps 47:7-9) who reigns forever and ever (Ps 146:10). The temple in Jerusalem represented the Lord’s throne room (Isa 6:1), and the promise that “the Law will go forth from Zion” (Isa 2:2-4) was to bring justice and peace over all the earth so that all of the earth would be blessed (Isa 65:25).
The writers of the OT described this blessing coming from the throne room of God as a river that would flow into the desert and bring life (Isa 35:6; Ps 46:4). Ezekiel described it as a stream flowing out of the Holy of Holies in the temple, flowing all the way to the Dead Sea (the saltiest body of water on earth). Wherever the river flowed the ground blossomed with fertility, and as it flowed into the Dead Sea the water became fresh and pure and teeming with life (Ezk 47:1-12; Isa 33:21-23; Joel 3:18; Zech 14:8).
Even though Yahweh was the King who reigned from Zion (Ps 132:13), He also installed His earthly representative to govern from there – the descendant of David, His “anointed one,” who would reign in righteousness, justice, and truth (2 Sam 7:11; Ps 2:6). The result will be peace and harmony in God’s creation (Isa 9:1-6; 11:1-10). The truth underlying the importance of the rule of God is that wherever God rules (i.e. His Kingdom) there is life, and hope, and peace.
Zion: The Worship of God
“Let us go into His dwelling place; Let us worship at His footstool” (Ps 132:7).
Not only was the palace of the Davidic king located in Zion, but the temple of the Lord was also situated there – the place where the Lord was to be worshiped. It was there that the priests and the high priest of Israel would offer the daily worship of sacrifices. Unblemished, holy animals were regularly killed and offered before God for the sins of the people (Leviticus 1-7), so that forgiveness could be received and fellowship with God could be restored. Once a year on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would go into the Holy of Holies, the holiest place on earth, the very throne room of God, and there he would offer a blood sacrifice before God for all of the yet unconfessed sins of the congregation, so that God would forgive the people and remain their God for one more year (Leviticus 16).
Three times a year the Israelite community would come to Jerusalem to worship (Exod 23:17; 34:23-24). As they approached the city they would sing their songs of worship, anticipating their time of worshiping in God’s presence (the Psalms of Ascents):
• “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord'” (Ps 122:1).
• “To You I lift up my eyes, O You who are enthroned in the heavens” (Ps 123:1).
• I will lift up my eyes to the mountains;
From where shall my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.
He will not allow your foot to slip;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, He who keeps Israel
Will neither slumber nor sleep (Ps 121:1-4).
As the place of worship, Zion was the place where people were invited to have fellowship with God Himself.
Zion: The People of God
“Praise the LORD, O Jerusalem! Praise your God, O Zion!” (Ps 147:12)
Zion also became a concrete image for Israel, the chosen people of God. Many times, Zion is spoken of as a woman, “the daughter of Zion” or “Lady Zion” (Isa 1:8). God’s relationship with His people is described as a covenant of marriage (Isa 1:21; Hosea 1-3). Zion was the faithful city, loyal to the Lord, her covenant partner, and the Lord was bound to her by ties of loving obligation because of the covenant He had made with Israel.
But Israel became unfaithful to Him and worshiped other gods, placing her faith in material wealth, military might, political alliances, and her own feeble wisdom and abilities. Therefore Zion had to be punished, destroyed by the Babylonians (Mic 3:12), but God would later restore and rebuild her (Isa 49:14-21).
When God would restore His people in the future, something amazing would happen – the nations would come to Zion to worship.
Thus says the LORD of hosts, “It will yet be that peoples will come, even the inhabitants of many cities. The inhabitants of one will go to another, saying, ‘Let us go at once to entreat the favor of the LORD, and to seek the LORD of hosts; I will also go.’ So many peoples and mighty nations will come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favor of the LORD.” Thus says the LORD of hosts, “In those days ten men from all the nations will grasp the garment of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (Zech 8:20-23).
Not only would the foreign nations be welcome to come and worship God, but they would become a part of God’s chosen people (Isa 66:18-23). There is a tremendous word of hope here for the foreign nations who were not born into the chosen people of God – even some of the nations that were Israel’s hated enemies (e.g. Egypt, Babylon, Philistia). No matter where they were born, no matter what they had done in the past, no matter their pedigree or any kind of ugly baggage that they carried, as people accepted God’s invitation to come and worship Him, they would find forgiveness, blessing, and life. As God counts the register of His people, He would look at them and say, “This one was born here in Zion” (Ps 87:4-6), “this one belongs here,” “this is one of My chosen people.” As the community of the people of God, Zion would become the home for anyone who would embrace Yahweh as their King.