Casting this general view on the age of the first Roman emperors, which was also the age of JESUS CHRIST and His Apostles, we find our attention arrested by three great varieties of national life. The Jew, the Greek, and the Roman appear to divide the world between them. The outward condition of Jerusalem itself, at this epoch, might be taken as a type of the civilized world. Herod the Great, who rebuilt the Temple, had erected, for Greek and Roman entertainments, a theater within the same walls, and an amphitheater in the neighboring plain. His coins, and those of his grandson Agrippa, bore Greek inscriptions: that piece of money, which was brought to our Savior (Matthew 22, Mark 12, Luke 20), was the silver Denarius, the "image" was that of the emperor, the "superscription" was in Latin: and at the same time when the common currency consisted of such pieces as these, - since coins with the images of men or with Heathen symbols would have been a profanation to the "Treasury," - there might be found on the tables of the money-changers in the Temple, shekels and half-shekels with Samaritan letters, minted under the Maccabees. Greek and Roman names were borne by multitudes of those Jews who came up to worship at the festivals. Greek and Latin words were current in the popular "Hebrew" of the day: and while this Syro-Chaldaic dialect was spoken by the mass of the people with the tenacious affection of old custom, Greek had long been well known among the upper classes in the larger towns, and Latin was used in the courts of law, and in the official correspondence of magistrates.
On a critical occasion of Apostle Paul's life, (Acts 21, 22) when he was standing on the stair between the Temple and the fortress, he first spoke to the commander of the garrison in Greek, and then turned round and addressed his countrymen in Hebrew; while the letter of Claudius Lysias was written, and the oration of Tertullus spoken, in Latin. We are told by the historian Josephus, that on a parapet of stone in the Temple area, where a flight of fourteen steps led up from the outer to the inner court, pillars were placed at equal distances, with notices, some in Greek and some in Latin, that no alien should enter the sacred enclosure of the Hebrews.
The condition of the world in general at that period wears a similar appearance to a Christian’s eye. He sees the Greek and Roman elements brought into remarkable union with the older and more sacred element of Judaism. He sees in the Hebrew people a divinely-laid foundation for the superstructure of the Church, and in the dispersion of the Jews a soil made ready in fitting places for the seed of the Gospel. He sees in the spread of the language and commerce of the Greeks, and in the high perfection of their poetry and philosophy, appropriate means for the rapid communication of Christian ideas, and for bringing them into close connection with the best thoughts of unassisted humanity. And he sees in the union of so many incoherent provinces under the law and government of Rome, a strong framework which might keep together for a sufficient period those masses of social life which the Gospel was intended to pervade. The City of God is built at the confluence of three civilizations. We recognize with gratitude the hand of God in the history of His world: and we turn with devout feeling to trace the course of these three streams of civilized life, from their early source to the time of their meeting in the Apostolic age.
We need not linger about the fountains of the national life of the Jews. We know that they gushed forth at first, and flowed in their appointed channels, at the command of God. The call of Abraham, when one family was chosen to keep and hand down the deposit of divine truth, - the series of providences which brought the ancestors of the Jews into Egypt - the long captivity on the banks of the Nile, - the work of Moses, whereby the bondsmen were made into a nation, - all these things are represented in the Old Testament as occurring under the immediate direction of Almighty power. The people of Israel were taken out of the midst of an idolatrous world, to become the depositaries of a purer knowledge of the one true God than was given to any other people. At a time when (humanly speaking) the world could hardly have preserved a spiritual religion in its highest purity, they received a divine revelation enshrined in symbols and ceremonies, whereby it might be safely kept till the time of its development in a purer and more heavenly form.
The peculiarity of the Hebrew civilization did not consist in the culture of the imagination and intellect, like that of the Greeks, nor in the organization of government, like that of Rome, - but its distinguishing feature was Religion. To say nothing of the Scriptures, the prophets, the miracles of the Jews, - their frequent festivals, their constant sacrifices, - every thing in their collective and private life was connected with a revealed religion: their wars, their heroes, their poetry, had a sacred character, - their national code was full of the details of public worship, - their ordinary employments were touched at every point by divinely-appointed and significant ceremonies. Nor was this religion, as were the religions of the Heathen world, a creed which could not be the common property of the instructed and the ignorant. It was neither a recondite philosophy which might not be communicated to the masses of the people, nor a weak superstition, controlling the conduct of the lower classes, and ridiculed by the higher. The religion of Moses was for the use of all and the benefit of all. The poorest peasant of Galilee had the same part in it as the wisest Rabbi of Jerusalem. The children of all families were taught to claim their share in the privileges of the chosen people.
And how different was the nature of this religion from that of the contemporary Gentiles! The pious feelings of the Jew were not dissipated and distracted by a fantastic mythology, where a thousand different objects of worship, with contradictory attributes, might claim the attention of the devout mind. "One God," the Creator and Judge of the world, and the Author of all good, was the only object of adoration. And there was nothing of that wide separation between religion and morality, which among other nations was the road to all impurity. The will and approbation of Jehovah was the motive and support of all holiness: faith in His word was the power which raised men above their natural weakness: while even the divinities of Greece and Rome were often the personifications of human passions, and the example and sanction of vice. And still further:- the devotional scriptures of the Jews express that heartfelt sense of infirmity and sin, that peculiar spirit of prayer, that real communion with God, with which the Christian, in his best moments, has the truest sympathy. So that, while the best hymns of Greece are only mythological pictures, and the literature of Heathen Rome hardly produces any thing which can be called a prayer, the Hebrew psalms have passed into the devotions of the Christian Church. There is a light on all the mountains of Judea which never shone on Olympus or Parnassus: and the "Hill of Zion," in which "it pleased God to dwell," is the type of "the joy of the whole earth," (Psalm 48:2, 68:16) while the seven hills of Rome are the symbol of tyranny and idolatry.
"He declares His word unto Jacob, His statutes and His ordinances unto Israel. He has not done so with any other nation; and as for his ordinances, they have not known them. O praise the LORD!" (Psalm 147:19-20, Holy Bible in Its Original Order - A Faithful Version (HBFV) where noted)
It is true that the Jewish nation, again and again, during several centuries, fell into idolatry. It is true that their superiority to other nations consisted in the light which they possessed, and not in the use which they made of it; and that a carnal life continually dragged them down from the spiritual eminence on which they might have stood. But the Divine purposes were not frustrated. The chosen people were subjected to the chastisement and discipline of severe sufferings: and they were fitted by a long training for the accomplishment of that work, to the conscious performance of which they did not willingly rise. They were hard pressed in their own country by the incursions of their idolatrous neighbors, and in the end they were carried into a distant captivity. From the time of their return from Babylon they were no longer idolaters. They presented to the world the example of a pure Monotheism. And in the active times which preceded and followed the birth of Christ, those Greeks or Romans who visited the Jews in their own land where they still lingered at the portals of the East, and those vast numbers of proselytes whom the dispersed Jews had gathered round them in various countries, were made familiar with the worship of one God and Father of all.
The influence of the Jews upon the Heathen world was exercised mainly through their dispersion: but this subject must be deferred for a few pages, till we have examined some of the developments of the Greek and Roman nationalities. A few words, however, may be allowed in passing, upon the consequences of the geographical position of Judea.
The full effect of this geographical position of Judea can only be seen by following the course of Greek and Roman life, till they were brought so remarkably into contact with each other, and with that of the Jews: and we turn to those other two nations of antiquity, the steps of whose progress were successive stages in what is called in the Epistle to the Ephesians (Ephesians 1:10) "the dispensation of the fullness of time."