The second chapter of Matthew demonstrates a powerful lesson that we’ve never bothered to learn. This instruction’s delivered using a tale of some well-intentioned protagonists caught in the web of a deceitful and monstrous villain. The story opens on our heroes:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”—Matt. 2:1–2
We hear this story so often that we romanticize and Christianize it. We forget that these are “pagans.” They’re not here to worship Jesus as God. They’re likely Zoroastrians, schooled in sciences, mathematics, and the occult, and advisers to kings and kingdoms. It was their job to stay abreast of momentous events.
Talking about the time before Jesus arrived, the Roman historian Suetonius wrote, “There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judea to rule the world.” These magi were coming to worship a king that they believed might be fulfilling a local prophecy. Astrology had alerted them that the timing was right, and we have no real specifics as to the how or the why. All we know is that they showed up in Jerusalem bugging everyone for the whereabouts of this new king.
Soon their inquiries make their way to the scoundrel of the story.
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah;
For out of you shall come forth a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”—Matt. 2:3–6
Herod had the title “king of Judea” which had been granted to him by the Roman senate. He’d come from a family of Jewish converts, and he identified himself as a Jew. As a sign of his commitment to God, he took responsibility for a massive rebuilding of the Temple. While the historian Josephus portrays Herod’s reign positively in The Jewish Wars, many Israelites are skeptical of Herod’s commitment to God—and rightly so.
As soon as Herod hears about these eastern visitors, he’s upset. He instantly suspects that they’re looking for the Messiah. While any true Jew would rejoice at the idea that the long-awaited Messiah had come, Herod’s worried about his authority and security being threatened.
Think about how goofy this is. Herod is, at the very least, between 65–70, and he’s concerned about a baby. Obviously he’s not concerned about a toddler raising up an army and coming to overthrow him. By the time this Messiah would be old enough to do anything of significance, Herod will be dead.
He’s concerned about not being the center of attention. He’s worried that this child is going to undermine his significance in Judea.
Herod hatches a plan
Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.”—Matthew 2:7–8
Why did Herod gather the Magi in secret? Because as soon as they reveal where the Messiah is, Herod intends to have the child killed and doesn’t want it traced back to him.
Understand this: Herod believes in the Messiah. He is putting all of this in motion because he believes. This means that he truly, honestly believes that there is a God whose plan has always been to send a redeemer to Israel. By plotting to kill this child, he isn’t just taking away the Messiah the Jews have been pining for, he’s going to war with God himself in the twilight of his life—you’d think he’s be a little more reflective about his mortality.
The wisemen meet Jesus—and Jehovah
After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.—Matt. 2:9–12
The magi excuse themselves and start charting the star’s course to Jesus. Again, there are more questions than answers here, but we know they find him, worship him, and give him gifts.
And Then a peculiar thing happens, God comes to them in a dream and tells them not to go back to Herod. So they leave by another route.
It’s important not to over-spiritualize this part of the story. These magi aren’t Christian converts. They’re not unaccustomed to having spiritual experiences, and the fact that they heard and responded to the Lord’s visit in a dream is more of a sign of their spiritual sensitivity than their proclivity toward Judaism. God spoke to them because he needed to protect Jesus, and he knew they’d be responsive.
Herod loses his ever-loving mind
Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi. Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
Weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children;
And she refused to be comforted,
Because they were no more.”—Matt. 2:16–18
These two verses are more horrific than the plot of any film I’ve ever seen.
In my mind’s eye, I can see Herod flipping over tables, white foam gathering at the corners of his mouth, as he screams in rage at his guards. But I can’t even force myself to create a mental image of soldiers going door to door to slaughter tiny children. I can’t imagine what that does to a city—how many generations it has to affect. It is the most horrendous thing I can imagine.
Sometimes the good guys aren’t God’s guys
The heroes of this story aren’t “God’s people.” They’re well-meaning, good people with entirely different beliefs and motives. God is willing to use them, and they’re willing to respond. Adversely, Herod, the ruler who wants to align himself to God and His people when it benefits him, is not a good person. In fact, he might be on a short list of the most terrible individuals humanity has ever produced.
Why does this matter?
In the U.S., nearly every political figure bends over backward to align themselves with evangelical voters. They want to speak at Christian schools, they want to share their anecdotes about their family’s faith, they want to be photographed coming out of church, and they want their speechwriters to drop Bible verses or Christian allusions into their speeches—and Christians gobble it up. It seems like you have to give lip service to Christianity to win this large and important voting block.
It doesn’t matter if the rest of the things these politicians say are contrary to the spirit of Christ. It doesn’t matter if they casually talk about “boots on the ground” as if they were talking about appointing a Librarian of Congress. As long as they claim to be part of our club, and fall in line with some of our buzzwords and important issues, we’ll take up their flag and fall in line.
Followers of Christ can’t afford to let themselves be so easily manipulated. Sometimes the good guys aren’t going to be followers of Christ. The ones with integrity aren’t even going to pretend to follow Christ. They’re not going to make promises that benefit or prefer Christians—because they’ll be working for the benefit of all people. Sometimes God’s going to use the best people available, and he doesn’t mind if they’re off brand.
We can’t afford to constantly throw in with someone because they use our jargon and make us special-interest promises. Sure you may end up with a new temple, but you might end up with a lot of dead children, too.
Check out my other posts on the Gospel of Matthew.