Matthew 3: Know Your Enemy

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Matthew 3: Know Your Enemy

When John the Baptist first began to proclaim the arrival of the Messiah, his message fell on receptive ears. The Jewish people were eagerly awaiting His coming, and earnestly anticipating His work and ministry. At the turn of the millennium, the Jews found themselves in a state of constant anger and unrest, buckling under the weight of Roman oppression. As they talked of revolution, they looked with hope to the prophecies of the Messiah, hoping against hope that He, when He should come, would free them from the bondage of Rome.


The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary illustrates the circumstances well:


“In those days,” the Jews living in Palestine, particularly in Judea, were on the verge of revolution. Since the assignment of Roman procurators to govern Judea in A.D. 6, upon the banishment of Archelaus by Augustus (see on ch. 2:22), the presence of Roman officers and soldiers, the exercise of Roman authority, and the resulting influx of heathen customs had resulted in one uprising after another. Thousands of the bravest men of Israel had paid for their patriotism with their blood. Conditions were such that the people longed for a strong leader to deliver them from the cruel bondage of Rome. (SDABC, v5, pg. 294-295)


However, the sad truth remains that while the Jews were awaiting the arrival of the Messiah, they were waiting for the wrong one. They had failed to correctly understand the nature of Christ’s mission, and thus they failed to reconcile His physical manifestation with the prophecies concerning His coming, a mistake which ultimately led to Christ’s rejection at the hands of His chosen people.


How could a mistake of this magnitude occur? The answer may be found through exploring the same conditions that led to the Jews’ inability to anticipate the arrival of Christ in Bethlehem, as we explored in our previous installment. Let’s recap that briefly:

  • The Jews began their decline when they lost sight of God’s mission for them as a people, and shifted their focus from a dependence on God to a pursuit of worldly ambition and acclaim.
  • Their national mission and purpose morphed from the spiritual to the temporal, and their lives became consumed, not by God’s purpose for them, but by their own selfish desires and ambitions.
  • As a result of this identity crisis, they began to reinterpret Biblical prophecies in light of their new-found national ambition, convincing themselves that their worldly ambitions were in line with God’s plan for them. “Pride obscured their vision. They interpreted prophecy in accordance with their selfish desires” (Desire of Ages, pg. 30).
  • As Rome began to exercise sway over the Jewish people, they began to refocus their mission and objectives around extricating themselves from Roman oppression. That goal became their primary objective as a people. All prophetic interpretation became focused around that point.


But Christ had not come to free the Jews from Rome. He had not come to fulfill their temporal ambitions and aspirations, nor to make their selfish dreams come true. He didn’t align with their re-interpreted aspirations for who and what the Messiah ought to be and do. His mission did not align with the ambitions they had created for themselves, but with the high and holy mission which God had given to Him, a mission that had been prophesied for centuries prior.


Ellen White expands on this distinction of purpose:


The government under which Jesus lived was corrupt and oppressive; on every hand were crying abuses,—extortion, intolerance, and grinding cruelty. Yet the Saviour attempted no civil reforms. He attacked no national abuses, nor condemned the national enemies. He did not interfere with the authority or administration of those in power. He who was our example kept aloof from earthly governments. Not because He was indifferent to the woes of men, but because the remedy did not lie in merely human and external measures. To be efficient, the cure must reach men individually, and must regenerate the heart. (DA pg. 509)


Christ’s mission was not a temporal one–of uprooting kingdoms and eliminating governmental abuses–but a spiritual one. He came to correct, not a temporal problem, but a spiritual problem. Not because the spiritual problems were the only ones which mattered, but because those problems lay at the root of all other evils, and without addressing the root cause, the temporal manifestation (the “leaves,” if you will) of evil would continue to grow and prosper. The spiritual cure was the only one which would lead to true redemption and restoration.


While the establishment of a temporal kingdom for Israel would have delighted the Jews, it would have neglected the causes which had led them into Roman oppression in the first place, and would have neglected the underlying root causes of all their pain and suffering. Christ recognized that what Israel needed was not temporal autonomy but spiritual regeneration and conversion.


Just like the mission which Christ had been given, the Jews had been appointed their own mission as a people. God had called them to be the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13) and the light of the world (Matthew 5:14-16). He had chosen them to be “wells of salvation to the world” (DA pg. 27).


It was through the wholehearted pursuit of that God-given mission, through the rejection of all the temporal pleasures which the world could offer, that Israel’s faithful throughout history had “subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness […] became valiant in battle, [and] turned to flight the armies of the aliens” (Hebrews 11:33-34).


Likewise, it was through the abandonment of this sacred responsibility, through the turning to temporal ambition, that Israel lost her way. Israel’s greatest enemy all along was never Rome, Babylon, or any other temporal power. After all, God had continually proven His ability to protect Israel from even the most violent and powerful foes. Israel’s greatest enemy was Satan, who had worked so tirelessly for millennia to distract Israel from her mission, and to sabotage her influence in the world. By focusing on her temporal enemies, Israel was undone by the only one who could do her real harm.


From this illustration we gain an invaluable lesson for modern Israel. For God’s people, the battle we face is never fought with flesh and blood. It is never temporal in nature. If we find ourselves focused on temporal enemies and temporal dangers, within or without the church, we are fighting the wrong fight, and making the same mistakes as Israel of old.


While it may be easy to focus our energies (and blame) on government conspiracies, liberals, conservatives, the General Conference, or whatever other entity happens to be our current scapegoat for ecclesiological problems in the church, the real enemy has always, and always will be, Satan. As the Bible so clearly states:


For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)



Thus, whenever our energies are focused on mitigating the temporal dangers or troubles around us, we may recognize that we’ve missed the point. We’ve become focused on tangential objectives. We must refocus our mind to the battle that matters: the unseen one. We must refocus our efforts back to the great controversy between Christ and Satan, and to fulfilling our role in it, both individually and corporately.


Rather than worrying about the troubles and dangers around us, let us work for God, and for the accomplishment of His purposes on Earth as revealed in Scripture. Rather than getting caught up in temporal agendas and frustrations, let us reorient ourselves to the spiritual conflict raging around us. Let us focus on that which is truly at stake, and devote ourselves to fighting our real enemy.


If we cannot do this, we will inevitably allow our sight to fall from the spiritual to the temporal. Our minds will become focused on the temporal dangers and enemies around us. We will lose sight of Christ, and of our place in the great controversy. And we will ultimately make the same mistake as the Jews, who found themselves unready and unprepared when Christ, the fulfillment of all their prophecies, the manifestation of their brightest hopes and dreams, appeared.


Let us not make the same mistake today.

Read the rest of the Gospel of Matthew series by Seth Roberts.

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About the author

Seth Roberts

Seth Roberts is Compass Magazine's managing editor and is currently completing a business degree through Excelsior College. Over the past five years, he has led out in literature evangelism programs across Australia, Asia, and the United States. He currently serves as president of GYC Northwest.