“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” (Matt. 2:1-12).
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.
There are several practical lessons to be observed from this gospel narrative. Consider first, God will lead all to Jesus who diligently search for Him (Matt. 2:2). No one who desires to know the way of salvation, no one who longs for freedom from sin shall ever be denied knowledge of the Savior. When the wise men in the East set out on their long journey and asked constantly, “Where is Jesus?” the providence of God led them to the point that they could finally say, “He is here!” But it took a lot of time and effort.
Many individuals are still searching for a savior because sin has engulfed the soul. There is an addiction to evil. The word of exhortation for such people is this, “Keep searching for Jesus.” The search may not be easy. The soul’s journey from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light may be as arduous as the journey of the wise men from the East. Keep searching for salvation. Keep moving towards sanctification. Jesus will be found, and when He is found there will be freedom.
Second, consider that bad rulers make the people to tremble (Matt. 2:3). When Herod was angry, the whole city of Jerusalem was afraid. They knew all too well how ruthless Herod could be. Today, we too know how ruthless rulers can be, as we witness what is happening in many parts of the world. It is always amazing how individuals’ surface to hurt, and to harm a nation while they are in power. America has been fortunate to have had several Presidents who have affirmed their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. But let bad rulers come to power, and there is reason to tremble.
Third, the sad sin of deceit expressed by Herod. Herod became interested in the Scriptures (2:7). He called upon the wise men to instruct him, but his purpose in gaining knowledge was wrong. Herod would use his knowledge to kill Christ. Herod would never understand the spiritual kingdom Christ had come to establish.
That is still a problem today. It is possible for people not to appreciate the spiritual dynamics of the kingdom Christ came to establish. Charles Spurgeon once wrote: “May it never be my case to be a Master of Scriptural geography, prophecy, and theology and yet to miss Him of whom the Scriptures speak.”
The record shows that multitudes are diligently inquiring into the Scriptures, but for the wrong reasons. They want Jesus to save them from hell, but not from their sins. They want Jesus to stop their emotional pain, but not at the expense of acknowledging Him as Lord and Master. They want self-esteem, but not self-denial. Songs are sung, and then the meaning of the words are forgotten.
We must be careful of some who make loud professions of faith, without any change of life. Herod pretended to be religious but the heart of Herod was really hardened to the gospel message. Such is the sad sin of spiritual deceit.
On a more positive note, we can observe the beauty of genuine worship of the infant by the wise men. Led by Divine guidance to the baby Jesus, the Bible says that they worshipped Him. Certainly, Jesus is worthy of worship for He is very God. His name is Immanuel, which means “God with us.” Born of a virgin, conceived by the Holy Spirit, the baby Jesus is God incarnate.
To Him the wise men presented their gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (oil). It has been noted that as the wise men gave their gifts to Jesus, so did nature itself before them. In a rude stable where Christ had been born the friendly beasts could have told their stories.
“I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown,
“Carried His mother up hill and down,
Carried her safely to Bethlehem town.”
“I,” said the cow all white and red,
“Gave Him my manger for His bed,
Gave Him my hay to pillow His head.”
“I,” said the sheep, with the curly horn,
“Gave Him wool for His blanket warm;
He wore my coat on Christmas morn.”
“I” said the camel, all yellow and black,
“Over the desert, upon my back,
Brought Him a gift in the Wise Man’s pack.”
“I,” said the dove, from my rafter high,
“Cooed Him to sleep, that He should
Not cry, We cooed Him to sleep,
My mate and I.”
And every beast, by some good spell
In the stable darkness, was able to tell
Of the gift He gave to Emmanuel.
The distinction between the hatred of Herod for Jesus and the worship of the wise men still exists. No one can be neutral. The deceitful heart pretends to honor Jesus, but if the truth were known, it is all a piece of trickery in order to deny Christ His rightful reign.
The honest heart does not pretend. It keeps seeking Jesus and when He is found there is a humble act of worship. And gifts are given to advance His kingdom. Herod is known to history for his alleged greatness. But the wisest of men are honored for their humility. It is better to be good, than to be considered great in the eyes of the world. Is your heart good? Do you love the Lord? Do you love His people? Will you join with nature in honoring the King? The alternative is to unite with those on high, the politicians and religious leaders, who only have hatred for Jesus.