“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, 2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. 3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. 5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, 6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. 7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. 9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.”
On December 6, 1964, a shocking event took place in Oklahoma City. A thirty one year old mother was forced to give birth to a child on the sidewalk at the corner of Sheridan and Broadway. A crowd gathered around the woman, but watched without helping. The baby and mother lay on the pavement for about forty-five minutes in a temperature of about thirty-four degrees. A visitor from Tucson summoned a taxi. When the cab arrived, the driver refused to take the mother to the hospital. The helpful stranger called the police, but there was no immediate response.
A former state representative happened to pass that way, stopped, and called the fire department for an ambulance. He also sent a man across the street to borrow a blanket, but the porter refused to give out a blanket. Meanwhile a rescue squad arrived, but no ambulance. The state representative who had passed by decided to take mother and child to a hospital in his car. And that is what Bob Cunningham did.
It is safe to say that the child born on December 6, 1964, was born in the midst of a world that was indifferent, and even hostile to his birth.
Our passage reveals that Jesus was born into a world that was indifferent, and hostile to his birth. He was the object of hatred from on high. Two facts are set forth concerning the birth of Jesus Christ. First, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Second, that the blessed event took place in the days of Herod the King.
By being born in Bethlehem of Judea, Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophecy of Micah (5:2). “But thou Bethlehem, Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come forth unto me that is to be Ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”
By being born in the days of Herod, Jesus became the object of hatred as Herod considered Him a rival king and so He was. When Herod first heard of the birth of Christ, the Bible says that he was troubled, or agitated (Matt. 2:3). Now an old man, diseased, and ready to die, Herod was stirred up.
Once more he must contend for his throne. Once more he must put down a rival. Once more he must protect his coveted title as king of the Jews. Herod was king of the Jews by political appointment of Rome. Jesus could have claimed to be King of the Jews by natural birth for He was of the line of David. Jesus could also claim the throne by Divine appointment.
For the moment Herod had the advantage over his rival, and he would exploit that advantage. As described by the historian Josephus, Herod was capable, crafty, and cruel. However, he has not been called “Herod the Great” without reason.
Herod was a great and gifted speaker. His oratorical ability was legendary. With his voice alone he inspired soldiers to battle, calmed a turbulent Jerusalem population, and accomplished political objectives with subtle diplomacy.
Herod was a great builder. He gave Jerusalem a magnificent theater. Just outside the city, Herod had built an amphitheater and a hippodrome for horse and chariot racing. On the western edge of the city a luxurious palace was constructed for his pleasure. To please the Jews, Herod began to enlarge and to beautify Jerusalem’s sanctuary, often referred to as “The Second Temple”, or “Zerubbabel’s Temple”.
The Second Temple was initial rebuilt in the year 516 BC, 70 years after the destruction of the first temple constructed by Solomon (Ezra 5:2ff; Hag. 1:13-15). Herod began his own building project in Jerusalem in the year 19 BC. Many years after his death, the work on the Second Temple was completed in AD 65, and the people were impressed. Certainly the Disciples of Christ were amazed at the splendor of the temple, and rightly so (Matt. 24:1). The huge stones were made of red and white marble. Nine of the city gates were overlaid with gold and silver. One was of Corinthian brass. Over 10,000 workmen had labored on the building, day and night, for more than 40 years. Outside of Jerusalem, Herod also built. He restored and decorated on a magnificent scale the ancient city of Samaria. And he built the port of Caesarea.
Herod was a great politician. During the 13th and 14th year of his reign a great famine occurred due to a perpetual drought. Though the royal treasury was empty, Herod sold the rich furniture that was in his palace, both of silver and of gold, and sent the money to Egypt to buy food for the people. He also imported clothing and distributed the garments to the poor. He made certain the farmers had seed.
For a while Herod was very popular with his people, but they never forgot, and neither did Herod, that he was not born king of the Jews. He ruled by military might. He ruled by political decree.
Herod was great in acts of immorality. He had no less than ten wives, only one of which he was emotionally fond of. Her name was Mariamme I, a Hasmonean, which meant she was a direct descendant of the original Maccabees. The Maccabees were heroes in Jewish history, for it was this family that once led Israel to temporary political independence. Herod believed that he could make himself more acceptable to the Jews by marrying into a family they admired. It was a tragic mistake.
When Herod realized that the people would neither love nor trust him, he began to plot the destruction of the entire Hasmonean house. Before he was through, Herod had murdered, in his own household, his brother-in-law, his favorite wife, and three of his sons. Others were executed on the order of this cruel, bloodthirsty tyrant, who went from bad to worse as the years passed.
When Jesus was born, Herod was ready to die. Still, he would not leave earth in peace. He would kill once again.
Calling in the traveling astronomers, Herod asked the wise men where Christ should be born. “And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born” (Matt. 2:4).
That much the astronomers knew. And they responded that the Messiah should be born in Bethlehem of Judea, “For thus is written by the prophet: And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda, for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people” (Matt. 2:5).
With these words, the sovereignty of God in human affairs is wonderfully displayed. Moved by God the Holy Spirit, faithful men recorded the Divine decree. Once written, it was certain to come to pass that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
It is a great mystery how God works all things according to the counsel of His own will, but He does. And so, there is a measure of comfort for God’s people that circumstances and events are not products of some cosmic game of chance. Rather, in and through all things God faithfully unfolds His wise and wonderful story of human history. Men and devils may try to frustrate the will and way of God. Herod did. Sly, and crafty, Herod pretended to be religious, for he said: “Go and search diligently for the young child and when ye have found him, bring me word again that I may come and worship him also” (Matt. 2:8). These words reveal that Herod was a man void of conscience. Herod was a ruler without religious integrity. Herod worshiped only the gods of gold and power.
He was great in his own estimation, but he held all others in contempt. Herod really thought he could control the wise men by pretending to be religious. In contrast to Herod are the wise men that truly wanted to worship the Lord Jesus. Eventually led by God to the house of the young child, the Bible says that they fell down and worshipped Him (Matt. 2:11).
Love and adoration flooded their hearts and they presented to Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh (oil). Most important was their attitude. A famous poet said that it is
“Not what we give, but what we share—
For the gift without the giver is bare.”
According to legend the wise men were named Melchior, Balthasar, and Caspor. We do not know if these are the correct names, nor do we know if there were but three wise men from the East. Nor has the star that guided them ever been explained adequately. Much mystery surrounds the birth of Jesus Christ.
What is certain is that the Biblical narrative is accurate. Herod was angry when he heard that One had been born King of the Jews. Herod was angry that the wise men were glad at the birth of Christ. He was furious that God was faithful to protect His Son. Nevertheless, prophecy was fulfilled, and the baby was born in the fullness of time.