The last three Decembers, I’ve preaching a series entitled The Characters of Christmas. I’m wrapping it up this year and hope to turn it into a special Christmas book to be released in 2012. I’d like to share with you one of my favorite messages in the series, a message, ironically, on the original villan of Christmas, Herod. I think it gives us a good overview of the plan of God and how it unfolded in the Bethlehem. I hope you enjoy:
The Monster at Christmas
The Characters of Christmas
Gages Lake Bible Church
Sunday, December 20th, 2009
About a month ago, my wife and I were treated to a fantastic production of Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol at the Marriotte Theatre in Linconshire.
It was an incredible production, one that my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed. It reminded me of a consistent theme in most Christmas stories, from classics to present day.
My wife and are fans of the Hallmark Channel. (Actually I’m a fan of ESPN and she’s a fan of the Wedding Channels. So the Hallmark Channel is usually where we land—its kind of a compromise).
And we’ve watched several of their Christmas specials and almost always they have a similar theme. Everyone in town wants it to be a wonderful Christmas for a family or a person, but something or someone stands in the way.
It might be an evil corporate developer who wants to put the mom and pop restaurant out of business. It might be an illness or poverty that keeps Christmas from being special. It might be the barriers to a romance between two people under the mistletoe.
But there is always a nemesis of Christmas.
The Bible’s Christmas Monster
Its interesting that we we’ve told Christmas this way for centuries, dating back to Dicken’s tale of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Its interesting because the original Christmas story has its own monster in the form of a man named Herod. Now Herod is a man not usually included in many Christmas stories, even when people discuss the Biblical narrative.
I don’t think any nativity sets include a Herod figure. At least my daughter’s Fisher Price Little People set didn’t include a King Herod. Maybe that’s coming out in next year’s model.
But if you read Matthew’s account of the Christmas story, you’ll see that Herod emerges as the original Christmas villain who threatens the very heart of this season.
Today we’ll break new ground and profile this man and his place in the Christmas story. I think his place offers us a glimpse of the nature of evil and a reaffirmation of the sovereign hand of God on His plan of redemption.
Back to the Garden
To fully understand what is happening in Matthew’s gospel, you have to leave the troubled streets of Jerusalem and the quiet town of Bethlehem and travel back thousands of years in history and hundreds of pages in your Bible.
Because the characters in this story of Christmas are merely pawns in a larger struggle. Paul writes in Ephesians:
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
Ephesians 6:12 (KJV)
At the heart of the incarnation, the story of God reaching down to become flesh, is the cosmic struggle between God and his archenemy, Satan.
In Isaiah we read of the epic fall of Lucifer, once God’s prized angel, the leader of the chorus of Heaven:
How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!
For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Isaiah 14:12-14 (KJV)
From that moment on, Satan and his legion of angels have had one singular mission: to thwart God’s plans.
Satan’s first salvo comes in the opening pages of the Scripture, not long after God created man and placed him in the beauty and perfection of the Garden of Eden. Satan, inhabiting a snake, tempts Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit.
This brought sin into the world and death by sin (Romans 5:12).
But Satan’s attack on God didn’t surprise the Godhead, for God had a plan to show His glory be redeeming his prized creation, mankind. We see this in his words to Adam and Eve:
And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:
And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.
Genesis 3:14-15 (KJV)
God’s plan, before the foundations of the world, was to redeem His people from sin. But running parallel to the outworking of God’s plan has been Satan’s plan, to thwart God.
And so every step of the way, Satan has raised up evil men to thwart God’s pla and God’s people. But each step of the way, God has allowed Satan to do this—and works around Satan’s evil to accomplish His plan of redemption.
You see this cosmic battle played out on the pages of the Old Testament:
- Cain killed Abel, who was a righteous man. But God raised up Seth.
- God raised up Abraham to be the father of many nations, but three times Abraham’s life was in danger and each time God rescued him.
- Famine threatened to wipe out Abraham’s family in Cannan, but God raised up Joseph in Egypt to save His people.
- An evil Pharaoh, who knew not Joseph, determined to wipe out the children of Israel in Egypt, but God raised up godly handmaids to deliver those babies from death and raised up Moses out of the bulrushes to be a deliverer.
- God raised up David and promised that out of His family would come the Messiah and that David’s throne would go on forever. But Satan inhabited Saul who spent years trying to kill David.
- Satan raised up the wicked Haman, who threatened to use his power in Persia to eliminate the Jewish race. But God raised up Esther and Mordacai to save His people.
- And at one time, the house of David was threatened to be completely wiped out by the wicked Queen Athalia. But God raised up a godly couple who hid the baby Joash in a storage closet for six years.
In ever generation, Satan has had a plan to wipe out God’s plan and God’s people. And in every generation, God has soverignly acted to deliver his people.
In our own history, we see Satan’s attempts:
- It wasn’t long ago that a madman came to power in Germany with the idea of eliminating the Jewish race. And he succeeded in killing many Jewish people. But God raised up enough good people. He raised up powerful countries like Britain and the United States and people of conscience all over Europe to save the Jewish people.
- When Israel established themselves as a country in 1948 and in struggles after that, the entire Arab world lined up against them. And yet God helped that nation win the victories.
- Today we see a madman in Iran and other Muslim countries fomenting hatred toward Israel, wishing to wipe them into the sea. And yet we know God will protect Israel and His plan will be fulfilled.
- And once more, the book of Revelation tells us that one day an Antichrist will assume the reins of the world stage. He will try to eliminate Israel, but God will protect them once again.
Back to Christmas
So now you know that when we read Matthew’s account of the birth of Christ and it says in Matthew 2:1 that Jesus was born in the days of Herod, you know this was not an accident. God didn’t mess up His timing.
And quite possibly for Jesus to be born in these days of Herod was the worst possible time, especially when you get to know who Herod is. Let’s read Matthew’s account here:
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,
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.
When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
Matthew 2:1-3 (KJV)
Who is Herod?
Now you need to understand the timeline of this story. We tend to read through Matthew as if it all happened in one day or one week.
It’s likely that the wise men first saw the star when the baby was initially born. Then figure it took them a long time to get to Jerusalem from the East. It probably took several months at least, maybe a year.
Even thought they were undoubtedly wealthy, this was a tough journey by camel. They probably had to go slow, they had to watch for robbers as they went through the high hills.
Then they get to Jerusalem and I’m guessing the star disappears. Keep in mind Jerusalem is a big city and was even in those days.
The Magi, as these men were called, probably made a big splash in Jerusalem. First of all, there were not just three of them. Three guys in a big city doesn’t stir up much of a commotion.
But an entourage of 300 just might cause a stir. I imagine these magi came into town—and remember the magic were astrologers, not looked on kindly by Jewish people, because astrology was considered evil. Think of how the magi are portrayed in Pharaoh’s court with Moses and in Babylon with Daniel.
I don’t think they come directly to Herod and ask. I think they spend a few weeks asking around town, “Have you seen the star? Where is this baby, King of the Jews?”
Well, word gets to Herod. Who is this Herod? He is a ruthless and wicked ruler. History says he bought his way to the throne by bribing and doing favors for the Roman Caesar, Mark Antony. Plus the Macabees, the Jewish line of rulers, had largely disintegrated by this time.
Herod was largely a fraud. He was not really Jewish. He was an Idumean, a descendant of Esau. The descendants of Esau hated the Jewish people. Herod was an egomanica, bent on controlling and keeping his power.
He is known as Herod the Great in history because of he built incredible infrastructure. HE built the Temple and HE built an impressive water system. I’ve been at Herod’s temple and have seen his aquaducts—large water control systems.
Herod did all this to stamp his legacy on the land. But he was ruthless. Michael Green, in his book, Matthew for Today, describes the ruthlessness of Herod:
He slaughtered the last remnants of the Hasmonean dynasty. He executed more than half the Sanhedrin. He killed three hundred court officers out of hand. He executed his own wife, Mariamne, her mother Alexandra, his sons Antipater, Aristobulus and Alexander. Finally, as he lay dying, he arranged for all the notable men of Jerusalem to be assembled in the hippodrome and killed the moment his own death was announced. A man of ruthless cruelty and with a fanatical neurosis about any competition, it is quite in character that he should order the execution of the male children in Bethlehem.33
Herod was bent on keeping control. It was said that it would be better to be Herod’s swine than his son, because you had a chance of living.
So now you see how Herod’s attempt to destroy the baby Jesus and destroy God’s people, Israel, is just one chapter in this long struggle.
So when the wise men came looking for the King of the Jews, naturally Herod went berserk. HE knew in his heart he shouldn’t be on the throne as ruler in Israel. He knew the people hated him. And kings in those days were very superstitious, so when the magi said they saw a star that led them to a King, Herod got really nervous.
Missing the Messiah
So what does Herod do?
And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it 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 Israel. (Matthew 2:4-5)
Herod gathered all of the religious people, the scribes, the Pharisees, the Saducess. These people knew the law backward and forward. And interestingly, they knew exactly what the prophets predicted. They were quoting from 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.
Micah 5:2 (KJV)
I want to stop and saying something here. Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, was living among the people of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. And yet nobody knew it.
Astrologers from the East. Simeon and Anna. Some Shepherds. Zacharias and Elizabeth. That’s it.
These wise men came all the way from the east and earnestly looked for the Messiah. Yet Jesus own people didn’t know.
I also think its interesting that these scribes who knew the law better than the wise men—they didn’t go to and worship Jesus. Why? They knew where Jesus should be born, but they didn’t bother to look for him.
It reminds of a verse in 2 Timothy 3:7. It describes people who are “ever learning, but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
You can know the truth about Jesus Christ. You can even be religious. But you’re heart can be far from Him in unbelief. Around this holiday season, there are many places of worship all across the world who have big Christmas celebrations and yet they are no closer to Jesus than the most secular person on earth.
So Herod summons these wise men. Now a little history. If the wise men came from the East, some say that perhaps the Eastern nations were interested in a new king or an unsettled situation in Palestine, so perhaps that would weaken Rome.
I’m sure Herod feared this. So he brings in the Magi:
Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
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. (Matthew 2:4-8)
What a spiritual fraud. Oh, did he put on a good face here. He probably sounded so wonderful and so spiritual. He got religious all of a sudden. Isn’t amazing how people in power will suddenly use faith as a tool to advance their agenda?
The Magi, knowing no better, believed Herod. They probably thought to themselves, Hey, that’s big of Herod, to humble himself and worship a baby.
Herod is probably thinking right now. Hey, I’ve got this thing under control. I’ve got these guys where I want them. No one is going to kick me out of this throne.
But Herod didn’t submit to the sovereignty of God. Herod thought he was master of his own domain. And so it is with us. When we think we can run our own world, that we’re on top the world and we can control and fight and claw.
Guess what? God isn’t impressed by our fake show of spirituality. We may fool people, but we can’t fool God.
The Sovereignty of God
Let’s pick up the rest of the story in Matthew’s gospel:
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.
When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
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.
And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
Matthew 2:9-12 (KJV)
Now, today we’re not going to focus on the wise men. Last year we did a message on them and the lessons they have for our lives. But I wanted to read this part to make a few statements.
First of all, these men weren’t perfect in their quest and they probably knew very little about God, but they were sincere and God used their astrology and he used a ruthless king to bring them to Christ. And so it is with you and me. God can use any means to bring us to Himself.
I also want you to see something here. Many have spiritualized the gifts of the Magi and I think there is a lesson here. But here is something you may not have realized.
The gifts they brought were extraordinarily valuable. They could be sold for great treasure. I’m sure Joseph and Mary were thinking to themselves, Wow, what are we going to do with this.
But later in the story we see that Joseph and Mary had to make an impromptu exit to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. Its likely that the gifts of the Magi helped fund that trip, which would be costly. Maybe they even had to pay the rest of their rent on their house for the year. They’d also need to pay for their stay in Egypt.
Here is a powerful lesson. God is always one step ahead of Satan. God prepared the hearts of the Magi and called them from the East to take care of His Son. God prepared a place in Egypt, where a large contingent of Jewish people would take care of Mary and Joseph.
Satan does his work and its evil, but God is one step ahead. Look at your own life and know that in spite of the evil, if you’re following God, HE’s one step ahead. HE takes care of your needs before you need them.
Herod – One Step Behind
One of the themes in Scripture that I continually go back to, repeated often in the New Testament is “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
Pride invites the resistance of God and humility invites His grace. And Herod was a proud man, so his plan to control the world—and Satan’s plan to destroy God—is always one step behind.
Let’s continue through Matthew’s gospel:
And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.
When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:
And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.
Matthew 2:12-15 (KJV)
If you go back to the previous section where the wise men were warned in a dream to not go through Jerusalem (which means they probably went around through Hebron and took a longer way home—then if you add that to God’s warning of Joseph, you’ll see that God was one step ahead of Herod and of Satan.
For that matter, God was centuries ahead of Herod. One of the things I love about Matthew’s gospel is that he recalls the words of the prophets more than any other gospel writer. Here he recalls an obscure Old Testament prophecy from Hosea 11:1.
Out of Egypt was a theme in Israel’s history. Abraham came out of Egypt and God used that experience to make him wealthier and wiser.
Joseph was sold into Egypt and the nation of Israel grew from a clan to a nation while in Egypt and emerged stronger.
And now Joseph and Mary would take Jesus and emerge stronger.
But the larger point in all of this is that God’s plan will unfold. Nothing man can do can thwart God’s plan.
The Herods of the world can scheme, but he’s only a pawn in God’s hand. Christians, don’t sweat the world scene. It may look as if evil is on the march, but where sin abounds, grace much more abounds. God is always one step ahead of the evil.
And it is this way in your own life. If you follow God, times won’t be easy, but God is always one step ahead, ensuring your protection. Just listen to his leading and follow Him. He’ll take care of you.
And don’t be a Herod, who tried to build his own world, his own empire by cruelty, force, and control. When we do this, we invite God’s wrath.
We can be like the Magi, who followed God’s leading. WE can be like Joseph, who followed God’s leading. We can be like the shepherds, who followed God’s leading.
Or we can be like Herod and try to use control to manipulate our own destiny.
The Raging of a Madman
Well, there is nothing like the rage of a control freak when he is thwarted. And so we see that with Herod.
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men.
Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying,
In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
Matthew 2:16-18 (KJV)
Now let’s think this through a minute. It is likely that Herod waited a long time before he finally realized they were not going to tell him. I’m guessing they went to see Jesus, who was now a toddler, and stayed in that town a while. I’m guessing they didn’t make this huge trip only to leave suddenly.
Then I’m guessing word got back to Herod that the wise men left—and went another way, sneaked out the back door. Imagine the rage he felt. This was a man used to getting his way and killing for it and some goofy Magi from the east had thwarted him.
It is also interesting that Matthew talks about a fulfilled prophecy. He quotes from Jeremiah 31:5 which mentions the weeping of Rachel in Ramah for her children. We know that Rachel was buried in Bethlehem. A few things we can surmise from here.
One, it seems that Herod was so ruthless in his quest to stamp out the King of the Jews that he likely drew a circle around Jerusalem and ordered everyone killed within that radius. Ramah is as far north of Jerusalem and Bethlehem was south.
Why kids two years and under? Some speculate this puts Jesus’ age at two years here. I’m not sure, but again, I think Herod is being double sure he kills baby Jesus. It reminds me of Herod, who after the attempt on his life, sent thousands of officers and people to their deaths, just to be sure to stamp out the opposition.
Let’s not kid ourselves, this was a huge and terrible slaughter. Absolute genocide. Rachel weeping for her children. And unfortunately, the slaughter of Jewish people has happened again in history and again Rachel has to mourn for her children.
Herod has one of his fortresses near Bethlehem. He probably dispatched an army from there. Infanticide was a known weapon used by countries. Often the Romans would kill deformed babies or would use it to control the populations of those they conquered.
This is pure evil at its highest. You can’t think of any evil more monstrous. And Imagine the heartache in each family. I have a son who is exactly that age. I can’t imagine the pain.
Think of the many fathers and mothers who fought the soldiers off and even lost their lives as well.
It is amazing what one man, so evil and so possessed by the power of Satan, can do to wreak havoc on a society. It is amazing what evil can escape the depraved heart of man. People who value control—there is no limit to what they can do.
Here is a lesson for us. Sin and pride take us so much farther than we envision. Our own pride causes pain the hearts of many innocent people. James says that when sin conceives it brings forth death.
But God is greater
Imagine you’re one of those families. Imagine you’re living this nightmare. You’re seeing evil up close and personal. It looks as if the world is falling apart.
If you were living this, you’d easily say to yourself that surely God has abandoned his people and that there is no hope in the world. They didn’t know that the baby Jesus was born in Bethlehem. They only knew their personal nightmare.
And so it is today. You survey the world scene. You see the people who rule the world. You see evil on the march around the world.
But know that God is in control. He’s on the throne. Sometimes you see evil on the march in your own life and your own family. The monsters like Herod seem to rule the day. But know that if you’re following Christ, then God is bigger. Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world.
Every Devil Has His Day
So here is Herod. He is the Monster that thought he thwarted the First Christmas. But that little baby escaped to Egypt.
One day that Jesus would be murdered and Satan would think that he had finally caught up to God and won. But that death had a purpose in the mind of God, it was part of God’s plan for redemption. Isaiah says that it “pleased the Lord to bruise him.”
It is true that Satan crushed God’s heal, but ultimately, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God crushed the head of Satan. Satan was defeated at the cross.
But now was not God’s time. And here is a lesson for us. If God be for you, who can be against you? Why should we fear what man can do to us. If we’re serving God, nothing, nobody can touch us. Isaiah the prophet writes:
No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and their righteousness is of me, saith the LORD.
Isaiah 54:17 (KJV)
Mary and Joseph had no reason to fear, because it wasn’t God’s appointed time for Jesus to die.
But Herod? What about that rascal, that monster? I imagine the people under his rule thought he’d never die, that he’d live forever. And so it seems with cruel, unjust evil leadership. They never die.
And yet they all have their day. Hitler is in his grave. Stalin is in his grave. Mao is in his grave. Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein are in their graves. Bin Laden will one day go to his grave.
And we read that Herod met his death:
But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt,
Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life.
And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel.
But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee:
And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.
Matthew 2:19-23 (KJV)
Guess what? The man who thought he controlled everything couldn’t control his own demise. It was said that Herod ordered that 1,000 nobles were to be executed at his death to ensure they didn’t take over the crown. But when Herod died, those nobles were set free.
Matthew here shares a bit of history as well. When Herod died, his son, Archelaus, who was even more ruthless than his father, was so brutal that a delegation from Jerusalem went to Rome and requested that he be removed.
Rome divided up Palestine and so Archelaus was given part of the Kingdom. This included Bethlehem, which explains Joseph’s fear. But Archelaus didn’t control Nazareth and so Joseph and Mary settled there. Again, this fulfilled prophecy foretold centuries before.
Closing Lessons for Christians
- Our fight isn’t against people, but against flesh and blood. We get all worked up about politics and about people, but our real enemy is Satan. Herod was but one tool in Satan’s hand.
- This cosmic battles plays out in the life of every believer. If you follow God, you’ll see this cosmic battle play out in your life. Satan will try to thwart God’s work in and through you. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 16:9 says that in his life there were many “open doors” but also “many adversaries.”
- If you’re in God’s will, nothing can touch you. It doesn’t matter how powerful the person is who seeks your demise, if you are with God, you’re safe. Everything he allows is for our good.
- The need to control and manipulate stems from the sin of pride and has far-reaching consequences. None of us here will do what Herod did. But we all have our little kingdoms. Do we surrender them to the Lord? Do we surrender our plans? Or do we try to manipulate and twist our way to what we want? If so, we become a monster in our relationships, in our homes, in our businesses, in our communities, in the church.
- Its easy to be a spiritual fraud. Herod put on a great show of worshipping the Messiah. He fooled a lot of people. But he didn’t fool God. Be real on the inside. Be authentic. Don’t use your faith to pursue a selfish agenda.
- Whose side are you on? All of us follow one path or the other. We can be like the magi, and listen to God’s leading. Or we can be like Herod and lean on our own understanding. Are you an enemy of Christmas or are you a follower of Christ? Every one of us is either pursuing Christ or trying to destroy him. Which are you?