December 14, 1997
“The rulers of this world are seldom friendly to the cause of God.”
J. C. Ryle
Last night the contemporary Christian musician Michael Card performed a Christmas concert at Wheaton College. As part of the build-up to the concert, the Chicago Tribune carried a brief article on Friday that begins with these words:
Michael Card wants his Yuletide concerts to spread the news of a scandal – the scandal of Christmas. With deceptively simple devotional songs, Card recaptures the unvarnished truth of the Nativity – a homeless king born in a barn, wrapped in rags, asleep in a trough.
The article goes on to quote him as saying that “We’ve created a pretty significant myth.” He means that over the course of 2000 years, we turned the barn into a palace and in the process taken the Bible story and turned it into something like fairy tale.
Scandal and myth. Those are two words we don’t think about at Christmastime. But Michael Card is absolutely right. The first Christmas wasn’t as pretty and clean as we make it out to be. In many ways it was a very frightening event, and Bethlehem was the most dangerous place to be if you happened to be a newborn baby, especially if you were a baby boy.
The Man Who Tried to Kill Christmas
This is the story of the man who tried to kill Christmas. It is strange and bizarre and doesn’t seem like it should be in the Bible. It doesn’t seem like we should read it during the Christmas season. It doesn’t sound right amid all the Christmas carols. It doesn’t look right surrounded by sparkling lights and candy canes. It takes all the joy away and leaves only sadness.
No, this is a story we would just as soon forget. It’s a story about the boys of Bethlehem. It’s a story about murder in the manger. History has labeled this event the Slaughter of the Innocents. It’s part of the Christmas story, tucked away toward the end of Matthew 2.
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: ‘‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:16-18).
This is what Michael Card was talking about. This is part of the scandal of Christmas. Whenever choirs do Christmas concerts, they don’t sing about this part of the story. As far as I know, no Christmas carols mention this tragic event. Yet it happened one night in Bethlehem. What Herod did to those baby boys is just as real as Mary giving birth to Jesus.
Mary rejoicing, Rachel weeping. Christmas joy, Christmas tears—all wrapped up together.
In this sermon I would like to investigate one question that has always stuck in my mind. Why is this shocking story recorded in the Bible? It must be true because the Bible records it as a sober historical fact, and it must be important or Matthew wouldn’t have mentioned, and that means there must be something here we need to think about. There are times in the Bible when you read something and it is so amazing or so unexpected or in this case so heartbreakingly cruel you ought to stop and ask, “What’s going on here?”
As I ponder this text four important truths come quickly to the surface.
I. The Sinfulness of the Human Heart
As we look at these verses we are struck with an enormous sense of evil. In fact it’s hard to find the right words to describe the act— barbaric, despicable, hideous, inhuman, unspeakably cruel. It is an act worthy of Stalin, Hitler or Saddam Hussein.
It may help you understand what happened if you know that Herod the Great is very old, very sick, and very nearly dead. He has been in power for over 40 years and has proven to be a clever and cruel man. Like all despots, he held tightly to the reins of power and brutally removed anyone who got in his way. Over the years he killed many people:
It was the murder of his wife that drove him mad. He killed her because he thought she was a threat to his power. But he never got over her. Even though he was only 44 when he killed her, and even though he lived to be 70, her murder was the beginning of the end.
You see, above everything else, Herod the Great was a killer. That was his nature. He killed out of spite and he killed to stay in power. Human life meant nothing to him. The great historian Josephus called him “barbaric,” another writer dubbed him “the malevolent maniac,” yet another named him “the great pervert.”
Perhaps his basic character can best be seen by one incident in the year 7 B.C. Herod is an old man now. He has been in power 41 years. He knows he doesn’t have much longer to live. Word comes that his sons are plotting to overthrow him. They are sons by his late wife Mariamne. He orders them put to death … by strangling.
No wonder Caesar Augustus said, “It is safer to be Herod’s sow than his son.”
His wife… his mother-in-law … his brother-in-law … two sons … among hundreds of others. Killing was what he did best.
That is why the critics are wrong who question this story and say that Matthew made it up. To the contrary, it fits with everything else we know about Herod. He wouldn’t have thought twice about killing a couple dozen baby boys in a little town like Bethlehem.
Eichmann is in all of us
But there’s something else we need to consider. This episode fits with everything we know about human nature. It’s easy to read about a man like Herod and to turn him into some kind of monster. We like to do that because it puts him a different category from us. But in truth, Herod most of the time was just as normal as any of us. History tells us that he was basically a good ruler who could on occasion be amazingly generous and kind. The only real difference between Herod and us is that he had the power to carry out his evil intentions.
A few years ago Chuck Colson wrote a column about an event that took place when the Nazi Adolph Eichmann—who helped plan the systematic destruction of millions of Jews and others in the Holocaust—was put on trial in Israel. A Jewish man by the name of Yehiel Dinur had survived the concentration camps and had testified against Eichmann (when he was tried in absentia) at the Nuremburg trials after World War II. Years later the Israeli special forces captured Eichmann in a daring raid in Argentina returned him to Israel to stand trial for his crimes. Dinur attended the 1961 trial as a witness. When he saw Eichmann in the courtroom Dinur began to sob uncontrollably. Soon he fainted and fell to the floor. Why? Was it hatred? Fear? Horrid memories? Speaking in an interview with Mike Wallace on the show “60 Minutes,” Dinur explained that during the war he had feared Eichmann because he saw him as someone fundamentally different than he was. But now, seeing him stripped of all his Nazi glory, Dinur saw Eichmann for what he really was—just an ordinary man. “I was afraid about myself,” Dinur explained, “I saw that I am capable to do this. I am … exactly like he.” That is why he collapsed on the floor. Mike Wallace summarized the truth in six terrifying words: “Eichmann is in all of us.”
This is in fact the central truth about human nature. Sin is in us—not just the temptation to sin, not just the propensity to sin, but sin itself dwells in us. We don’t like to hear this truth, which is why we don’t like to think about stories like the slaughter of the infants of Bethlehem. They force us to confront the truth about who we really are.
I remember participating in a radio interview just after the burning of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. The interviewer asked, How could people follow someone like David Koresh? One man said, This isn’t normal behavior. He must have been demon-possessed. I didn’t like that answer then and I don’t like it now. It sounds like an easy way out to me.
It’s not that I don’t believe in demons. I do. But the words of Romans 3:22-23 ring in my ears, “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” No difference between Eichmann and Dinur. No difference between Herod and you, no difference between David Koresh and me.
You may think that you would never do what Herod did. Don’t be so sure. Given the right conditions, you and I would do almost anything. And apart from the grace of God, there is no sin we won’t commit.
II. The Reason Why Christ Had to Be Born
That brings us directly to the second great truth that arises from this brutal episode. The slaughter of the infants reminds us again why Christ had to be born. When the angel told Joseph about Mary’s pregnancy, he instructed him to give the name Jesus, “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). And the angel told the shepherds to fear not, because “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
Jesus came to be a Savior. But you don’t a need a Savior unless you have sinners. If you don’t need to be saved, then you don’t need a Savior. In a sense, the slaughter of the baby boys of Bethlehem is a perpetual reminder at the very beginning of Christ’s earthly life—”This is why he had to be born.” This is what Christmas is all about. He came for the shepherds. He came for the Wise Men. He came for Herod. He came for those babies. He came for their mothers and fathers. He came for you and for me because in the end Romans 3:22-23 is true: “There is no difference.” We are all sinners desperately in need of a Savior.
III. The Protection of God’s Providence
God’s providence is that doctrine which teaches us that God is in control of every detail in the universe. He is not only sovereign over the big picture (as some people think), but also in control (in ways we don’t fully understand) of the tiniest details of life. Everything in the universe fits into his great master plan.
In order to see this point we have to step back and see this episode in its larger context. Matthew 2:12-23 mentions four separate dreams from God. The first warns the magi to return home another away. The second warns Joseph and Mary to go to Egypt. The third tells them to return to Israel after Herod’s death. The fourth warns them not to go back to Bethlehem, so they instead went to Nazareth.
This same passage contains three Scripture quotations. The first one (in verse 15) shows that our Lord’s stay in Egypt fulfills Hosea 11:1. The second one (in verse 18) connects the weeping of the mothers of Bethlehem with the sorrow of Israel when the nation went into captivity. The third one (in verse 23) tells us that even the choice of a home in Nazareth was part of God’s plan from the beginning.
Do you know what this means? God’s plans will not be thwarted. Herod did everything he could do to kill baby Jesus. He killed every baby he could find, but the one baby he really wanted to kill … he couldn’t find. That’s the providence of God in action.
I suppose you could ask, “If God warned Joseph and Mary about Herod’s intention, why didn’t he warn those other parents?” That’s a good question, and on one level, I have no answer at all. But remember this. God always has a bigger plan than we can ever see from where we sit. He preserved his Son so that one day his Son could die on the cross for the sins of the world. These babies died now, the baby Jesus would grow up and die later. Jesus had to escape this time so that he would not escape the next time. You might say it this way: Jesus escaped the first time so that he wouldn’t escape the second time so that we would escape for all time.
I understand that this truth would have been small comfort to the weeping mothers of Bethlehem. On that night it seemed like a senseless slaughter, and the next night it seemed the same. One week later it still made no sense. One year later there was no explanation. Even a decade later no one could understand why those babies had to die. But run the clock forward about 33 years and suddenly things come into focus. Outside the walls of Jerusalem a man is dying on a cross. He was the one baby Herod could not kill; now he offers himself up for the sins of the world. In the end, he died too. If he had died in Bethlehem, he couldn’t have died at Calvary. All of this was part of God’s eternal plan.
Do you remember the prayer I mentioned last Sunday? Many of you have made a point of mentioning to me how much it has meant to you. Let me repeat it in case you have forgotten it: “Heavenly Father, you are in charge of everything that is going to happen to me today–whether it be good or bad, positive or negative. Please make me thankful for everything that happens to me today. Amen.” We’re at day 8 of a 21-day challenge to pray that prayer early in the morning.
That prayer can revolutionize your life because it is based on the truth that God is sovereign over the details of your life. As you pray that prayer, you’ll begin to trace his hand in everything that happens to you. And when you understand that God is truly involved in your life, you can be thankful no matter what happens.
IV. The Continuing Battle Between Good and Evil
Very early in church history these infants of Bethlehem came to be regarded as the first Christian martyrs. In a sense they symbolize the ongoing battle between God and Satan for control of planet earth. When Adam and Eve sinned, Satan struck a blow for evil. From that time until this very hour, sin has reigned in every corner of his planet and has found a home in every human heart. All the pain and suffering we see around us—every bit of us—may be traced back to that that fateful moment in the Garden of Eden. Since then the armies of evil have been on the march in every generation. They have landed wave after wave of soldiers on beachheads around the world. And there are time when it seems as if the battle is over and evil will reign unmolested forever.
But if Christmas means anything, it is this: God always wins in the end. At Bethlehem he launched a mighty counteroffensive that continues to this very day. It all started with a tiny baby boy named Jesus , born in a scandalous way, in a barn, to an unmarried couple, who were homeless and alone. The world had no idea that night what was happening in Bethlehem. Only in retrospect do we understand.
The same is true of the slaughter of the infants. Herod didn’t hate those boys; he didn’t care about them enough to hate them. He just wanted to kill Jesus. In a real sense, they died so that Jesus could live. Years later, Jesus would die so that they could live.
That same battle of evil and good continues to the present moment and will continue into the future until the day when Jesus returns and defeats evil once and for all. This story simply reminds us that the world didn’t welcome Jesus then and in many ways it doesn’t welcome him now. That hasn’t changed in 2000 years.
Death Stalked His Path
Let’s wrap up this message by returning to the question I asked in the beginning: What’s going on here? Strange as it may seem, Christmas is going on here. In the brutal killing of the boys of Bethlehem, we see four things:
The sinfulness of the human heart,
The reason why Christ had to be born,
The power of God’s providence, and
The continuing battle of good and evil.
Jesus was born to die, and even at his birth death stalked his path.
The man who tried to kill Christmas … almost did … but he didn’t. Herod the Great slaughtered the infants of Bethlehem. But he didn’t get the one that mattered the most. God saw to that. He murdered thousands in his lifetime … but he couldn’t kill the most important person of all.
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. A world where killing is accepted and even expected.
Giving Herod His Due
I want to close this sermon by saying one word—and one word only—in favor of Herod. He has come down through history as a symbol for the worst kind of brutality. Yet while we hiss his name, let’s stop to give him his due. At least he took Christ seriously! He cared enough to try to kill him. He believed the Magi when they said they were looking for “the one born King of the Jews.”
Think of this way: Herod knew about Jesus and tried to kill him. The Magi knew about Jesus and worshiped him. If information alone could save you, even Herod would have gone to heaven. But it’s not enough to know about Jesus, you must personally respond to that truth by bowing your knee and opening your heart to him.
The ultimate question is not how someone else responds but how you respond to Jesus. That’s really the only thing that matters. Are you with Herod or with the Wise Men?
*If you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God from heaven … .
*If you believe that Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah … .
*If you believe that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world … .
*If you believe that Jesus Christ came to save you from your sins … .
*If you believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross in your place … .
*If you believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead … .
*If you believe that Jesus Christ ascended into heaven … .
*If you believe that Jesus Christ will one day return to the earth as
King of Kings and Lord of Lords … .
If you believe all of that … then do what the Wise Men did. Come with an open heart, bow down before the Lord Jesus and worship him. As the hymn says, “Come and worship. Come and worship. Worship Christ the newborn King.”
Father, give us eyes to see the baby Jesus in a new and fresh way this Christmas season. Help us to see him as he really is–a king sleeping in a stable. Give us ears to hear the angels singing. Give us feet like the shepherds to go swiftly to Bethlehem. Give us hands like the Wise Men to offer him the best that we have. Give us hearts of love to worship him. Amen.