Images and Origins of Christmas
The year is 47 B.C. Herod the Great is only 25 years old. He has just been named the governor of Galilee, a fast rise and high position for such a young man. The Romans believe Herod can pacify or more importantly control the Jews.
They were right - he did. First, he captured the rogue leader Ezekias and executed him. Later, he married into the leading Jewish family, the Hasmoneans. His wife was named Mariamne. Ironically, in 40 B .C. the Roman Senate named him “King of the Jews.” It was a title the Jews hated because Herod was not a Jew by birth, and He was not a Jew by religion - he was not their king.
Although Herod is strategically effective for the Romans and cunningly proficient with the Jews - at his core he is a sadistic narcissist - he is evil. Like all evil men with power, he maintained obsessive and intimidating control over his kingdom. He systematically and brutally removed anyone he could not control or who posed a threat to his tactics and terror. Over the years he killed many people: His brother-in-law, his mother-in-law, his wife, his two sons, and hundreds of people who served his pleasures or dis-pleasures. Murder and torture were not commands that he struggled with using nor lost any sleep after he had. Except for Mariamne.
History recalls that Mariamne's murder made him increasingly unstable and eventually drove him insane. He killed her because he thought she was a threat to his power - he never got over her. Even though he was only 44 when he killed her, and lived to be 70, her murder by his plot and order was the beginning of the end for Herod.
Herod the Great was a killer, it wasn't simply what he did - it was who he was. He killed out of spite and he killed to stay in power - he even killed for pleasure. Human life meant nothing to him. Josephus, the great historian of the time called him a “barbaric lunatic,” while another writer dubbed him “the malevolent maniac,” yet another named him “the great pervert.”
His sadistic character is best imagined through the murder of his sons in the year 7 B.C. By then, Herod is an old man. He has been in power 41 years. He will not live much longer and he knows it. Word comes that his sons (from Mariamne) are plotting to overthrow him in revenge of their mother. He ordered them captured in their sleep, stripped and strangled to death… while their families watched in horror.
On hearing the news of the Herod's actions all the way back in Rome, Caesar Augustus said, “It is safer to be Herod’s sow than his son.”
Killing was what he did best. Which leads us to this historically relevant fact, Herod was the first to try and kill Christmas.
The Players and the Plot to Kill Christmas
Herod was the first but certainly not the last. In the biblical account of Herod's plot there are two other key players who have a significant role in the outcome of Christmas. Besides Herod, there are the Wise Men from the East, and the Scribes and Experts of the Prophets and Torah Law. All three represent different ways of seeing how not only Christmas truly began, but how close it came to never getting started. Matthew's Gospel gives the historical account.
Matthew Chapter 2
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him." When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: "'And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'" Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him." After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, "Out of Egypt I called my son."
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. - Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more." But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, "Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead." And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.
Herod - Hostility
Herod stands as a symbol for the kind of world Jesus came into. He represents the world’s welcoming committee for the Son of God. It’s not the way you thought it would be, is it? Jesus is born and the rulers try to kill him. The Bible says, “He came to what was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:11) Herod stands for the bloodthirsty, cruel, vindictive side of the world system. A world where human life is cheap and without value. A world where killing is accepted and even expected.
Herod died but his spirit lives on. To this day there are those who are offended by Jesus, even by the mere mention of his name. They oppose spiritual truth and want to erase every trace of Christmas from public life. This group includes school administrators who want even the word “Christmas” banished from the classroom and the lawyers who sue to have the crosses removed from city halls across America. Herod would be proud of them.
Religious - Arrogant Indifference
The scribes represent religious indifference and arrogance. These are the insiders who know all the facts and do nothing about it. They don’t care enough to get excited. When Herod asked where the baby was to be born, they knew the answer. They told him where to look, but didn’t care enough to investigate for themselves. Bethlehem was only six miles from Jerusalem but even that was too far to go. It was all academic to them. “Hope you have a nice trip. If you find the Messiah, let us know.”
They should have been singing and dancing in the streets of Jerusalem and in the temple courts because the Messiah had come; instead they ignored his birth.
Who looks worse? Herod or the scribes? Both are disgusting but the scribes look worse. Everyone knew who Herod was, but the Scribes and Pharisees abused the trust of the people and overlooked and ignored the truth they knew and did nothing about it.
Wise Men - Worship
When the Wise Men found the baby, they bowed down and worshiped Jesus as King. It is an ironic twist of the Christmas story that it is the pagans who recognize Jesus for who he really is. Herod knows and tries to kill him; the scribes know and ignore him. But the Wise Men prove themselves worthy of their title. When they found him - they honored and worshiped Him. The writer of Proverbs once said, wise men still seek Him - this proverb will always be true.
These three responses picture the different ways people will always respond to Jesus. Some will always be hostile; some will always be indifferent; some will always worship him.
Sometimes you will see all three responses in one family; often you will see all three responses in the place where you work. After 2,000 years Herod has many grandchildren, the scribes are still too busy to go to Bethlehem, and Wise Men still seek him.
Our Christmas Response
The ultimate question is not how someone responds to Christmas but how we respond to Jesus - He is Christmas. That is all that matters.
Do you identify with, or reflect hostility of Herod?
Do you relate to, or reflect the religiosity and indifference the Scribes?
Do you choose to identify with and reflect the sincerity and passion of the Wise Men?
Considering our spiritually diluted and divisive cultural trends it is a fair question - maybe I know the answer, maybe I don't - but you do. Maybe you are disgusted by Herod but have been hostile to Jesus? Maybe you are not complicit with the religious arrogance of the Scribes but have just been too busy to faithfully gather, pray, worship and serve? Hopefully you are drawn by your heart to the wisdom, passion and determination of the wise men and are fully open and worshiping Him as Savior and Lord?
The story of Matthew 2, has one common thread for all players involved - they all had knowledge of the same information. They all knew a baby had been born in Bethlehem and they all knew who the baby was. Herod knew and tried to kill him; the scribes knew and ignored him; the Wise Men knew and worshiped him.
"Knowledge of information alone will not save you and I, nor Christmas - we have unlimited access to unlimited information. It is not the knowledge of information that will ultimately save us and the people we love - it is the knowledge and obedience of the truth that will save us and all those we love."
Jesus is the only truth, and that truth will save all who seek it. I'm going to ask you this Christmas to believe once more with your whole heart in Christmas. I'm going to ask you once more to believe with your whole heart in Christ. Believe like you did when you first found Him, or when He first found you. Or, how about truly believing in Him for the first time? How about leading your children and grandchildren to believing in Him? Wouldn't that be the best Christmas ever?
Believe that He is the Son of God from heaven… believe that He is the promised Messiah… believe that He is the Savior of the world… believe that He came to save you from your sins… believe that He died on the cross in your place… believe that He rose from the dead… believe that He ascended into heaven… believe that He will one day return to the earth as the one true King…
If you believe - you are wise, and then not us nor anyone else will ever be able to kill Christmas! Be Wise. Come with an open heart, bow down before the Lord Jesus and worship him. Come worship Christ and bring Christmas back to life for not only ourselves, but for everyone we love and care for. Merry Christmas!
Jesus said, "For whoever would save their life will lose it, but whoever will loses their life for my sake will save it."
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away form the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book."