Matthew 2, in the Bible, describes how Jesus was born in Bethlehem. His coming almost immediately divided people into two camps: opposition and acceptance.
Those who opposed Christ are represented in this passage by King Herod, and those who accepted him by the magi.
Christ is still dividing people. This old story is modern and compels us to ask ourselves if we are companying with Herod or with the wise men. There can be no neutrality about Jesus.
Matthew begins his account of Herod by telling us that he received guests from the East who were seeking information about a newborn king.
Herod, well acquainted with the Jewish expectation of the Messiah, was terrified. He would allow no rivals! So he employed two strategies, one deceptive and the other violent.
His deceptive strategy was to pretend that he also wanted to worship this new king. We must not look at Herod without seeing another face leering in the background — that of Satan himself.
Satan is the supreme opponent of Christmas and the supreme deceiver. He prompted Herod’s attempted deception of the wise men, and today is still masterfully orchestrating Christmas deception.
His primary scheme these days is to turn Christmas into a time of general good will and peace instead of the celebration of the birth of Jesus.
When Herod realised that the magi weren’t going to report the child’s whereabouts to him, he became ‘exceedingly angry’ and commanded that all male children two years of age and under be put to death in and around Bethlehem. This was his violent strategy.
What a heartless tyrant! To protect his throne, Herod was willing to resort to unspeakable atrocities, sending his soldiers throughout Bethlehem and the surrounding region to rip baby boys away from their pleading parents and put those babies to death.
The sadness of Herod’s violence is compounded by the fact that Jesus posed no threat. Jesus had not come to be a political king, but rather to set up a spiritual kingdom in the hearts of his people.
We must understand again that it was Satan who prompted Herod. Herod’s violence was Satan’s violence, and Satan has not abandoned this strategy any more than he has his deceptive strategy. He is still inciting persecution of God’s people all around the world.
But Jesus has proved to be an invincible foe for Satan. He, Jesus, doesn’t go away when he is hated and when his work is opposed. Even when he was crucified, he didn’t go away, but arose from the dead to live for evermore.
Herod’s violence worked no better than his deception. Jesus didn’t die as a result of his furious rage, but Herod died. And he died in his sins. His physical death was the doorway to eternal death.
So Herod emerges from Scripture to put before us this critical truth: those who reject Christ do so to their own eternal destruction. But the good news is we don’t have to experience that destruction.
That baby born in Bethlehem would eventually die on a Roman cross. In accordance with the plan upon which he and God the Father had agreed before the foundation of the world, Jesus received on that cross the punishment that sinners deserve for their sins.
Because Jesus received it, those who believe in him never have to worry about receiving it themselves. God is just. His justice demands that he punish sin, but he does not punish the same sin twice. If he punished it in Jesus, he will not punish it in those who believe in Jesus.
When we leave this world, we will meet God, and God will find our sins. He either will find them on Jesus or on us. If he finds them on Jesus, he will admit us into heaven. If he finds them on us, he will drive us from his presence.
The wise men took a far different approach to the Christ child than Herod. They wanted to worship him.
What caused them to associate this newborn king with worship? They were probably Gentile astrologers who were familiar with the promise of the Messiah, because they had read about it in Jewish writings (the Book of Daniel?) or heard it from Jewish people.
This much is clear: God used a special star to persuade them that the promised Messiah had been born in Judea. So they set out for Jerusalem, as the most likely place for this king to be born.
After arriving there, they went to Herod as the most likely person to know about such a king. Herod himself did not have the answer to their inquiry, but he called in the religious leaders. They quoted Micah’s prophecy that this king would be born in Bethlehem and Herod relayed this information to the wise men.
So while God started the magi with a star, he soon tied them to the Scriptures.
As the magi set out for Bethlehem, they saw again the very star they had seen in their homeland. They had seen this star in the East, journeyed to Jerusalem, heard the message of Scripture and then saw the star again. The idea that they followed the star all the way to Bethlehem is not presented in Scripture.
If we want to know the truth about Jesus, we must also go to Scripture. There we will find that Jesus came to this earth to deal with sin, and the only way sin can be dealt with is for its penalty to be paid.
On the cross, Jesus paid that penalty. There he received an eternity’s worth of God’s wrath, so that all those who receive him in repentance and faith will be freed from that wrath.
After receiving the guidance of Scripture, the magi found the Christ. They did indeed worship him, presenting to him gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold is associated with royalty; frankincense (pure incense) with deity; and myrrh, a burial spice, with mortality. What appropriate gifts! Jesus, the king, is God who took human flesh so he could die.
Some ask how much of this the wise men understood. The more important question is, how much do we understand about the Lord Jesus Christ? Do we confess him as our rightful king? Do we acknowledge him as God? Do we embrace his death on the cross as the only way that our sins can be forgiven?
The author has pastored Baptist churches in the USA, where he is currently engaged in an itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching.