When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.
(Matthew 2:3, NIV)
There is one figure in the Biblical account of Jesus’ birth who never seems to show up in school nativity plays. I’m talking about Herod, King of Judaea at the time. But he’s there all the way through Matthew’s account of the visit of the Magi (traditionally, the “wise men”), and in fact we can’t understand the significance of this account without him.
Matthew (2:1-18) tells us how these mysterious Magi from the east arrived at Jerusalem, having been guided by a star. They arrived at court with this question: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” This greatly disturbed Herod (and his subjects, who were perhaps nervous whenever the king seemed threatened). After all, he thought he was King of the Jews! So he gathered the biblical experts, and they confirmed that according to Micah’s prophecy, the Messiah, the great King of the Jews promised by God centuries earlier, would be born in Bethlehem. So he sent the Magi there, instructing them to relay to him the infant’s location as soon as they could find Him.
They went, and bowed down in worship, offering their three famous gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But they were warned in a dream not to return. For God knew that Herod’s motive for locating the infant was not pious but pernicious. Indeed, the story ends on a gruesome note, as Herod orders the murder of all under-two boys in Bethlehem.
Matthew wants us to know about Herod as well as the Magi. For not everyone reacts to Jesus positively, as the Magi did. Some reject Him. Here, right at the beginning of the gospel, is a story of bitter opposition to the King God sent.
If that seems an extraordinary thing to do, Matthew gives us an insight into why a person might reject Jesus. In Herod’s case, it is because he is personally threatened. Isn’t Matthew challenging the reader, so that we don’t avoid Jesus for a similar reason? Throughout the Bible accounts of Jesus’ life, we find people rejecting Him, not on the grounds of insufficient evidence, but because they don’t really want to have Him as Lord.
Remarkably, Herod opposes Jesus even though the very reason he thinks the future King is in Bethlehem is as a result of consulting Biblical scholars! Only if He is the real King, sent by God, will He be there! Even so, Herod wants Him out of the way.
If the lengths Herod goes to are extraordinary, think how the story ends - on a Roman cross. People really, really don’t want the Messiah!
But there is another way to live. This is where we can come back to the Magi. They don’t want to get rid of the King of the Jews; they want to worship Him. For them, the experience was one of joy.
They were, of course, taking the only sensible course of action. Matthew tells us that through all this, God was working out His purposes, as seen in fulfilment of prophecy. Try as he might, Herod would not be able to thwart the real King.
How will we respond to Jesus? Like Herod, or the Magi?
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