Who was he? Herod the Great, as he liked to be called, was the not-so-great king of the Jews about the time when Jesus was born. By today’s standards he was a bad guy’s bad guy — ruthless, cunning, violent, vengeful, opportunistic, political, murderous. Herod ruled by fear. He has been called “the incarnation of brute lust” (ISBE). When the wise men came to visit the newborn King, Herod took offense; who else could be king but himself?
Following political customs, the wise men from the east (Persia) paid King Herod a visit. “We’ve come to see the newborn King of the Jews,” they said.
“Very nice,” he said. “Let me know when you find him, so I may also come and, er… uhh… worship him.” To death, but he didn’t say that part out loud.
To maintain his kingship against this usurper, Herod did the unthinkable: he ordered the slaughter of every baby boy in Bethlehem, ages two and under. No violence is “unthinkable” to a power-monger that denies the sacredness of human life.
Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: “A voice was heard in Ramah, Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, Refusing to be comforted, Because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:16-18, NKJV).
Because Bethlehem and its suburbs were small, it is estimated between 8 and 50 were killed. Even one makes heaven weep.
What can this ancient mass murderer teach us for today?
1. We are ultimately defined by what we do with Jesus. As the gospels tell the story, a train of characters came face to face with the claims of the newborn king. The SHEPHERD raced to see him. The WISE MEN travelled to worship him. The INN-KEEPER displaced him. MARY pondered him. JOSEPH sheltered him. The ANGELS went wild over him. HEROD envied him and sought to kill him. Each one responded in their own way.
What is your way? What is your response?
The most important thing about you is not your portfolio, not your looks, not your social status, not your grades, not your muscles, not your house or cars, not your human relationships. The most important thing about you is what you have done with Jesus Christ. Who is he to you?
It was infinite love that brought him into the world to save us. It was infinite condescension by which he fully identified with life in this fallen world. It was infinite mystery that he became our sin bearer. It was infinite mercy that he received the just penalty for your sin and mine. It is infinite grace that offers you the gift of eternal life — forgiveness of sins, love everlasting, a new start every day, and all the goodness that Jesus brings.
Have you received him as your own? Have you said yes to his gift of life? His arms are open wide — run to him and pin your hopes on him.
If Jesus is the God-man, then what you do with him is the central issue of your existence. God will only ask, Who was Jesus to you? Did you treat him as just one of many details in your busy life, or did you see in him your all in all? Was he something to your salvation, or was he everything?
God designed heaven as a place to launch the fame of Jesus beyond the stratosphere forevermore.
Either you’re good with that project or not. To Herod, Jesus was an annoyance, an obstacle, a threat to his chosen way of life. Eliminate him! he said. Don’t go down that path. Reach out to him and take his hand — it is the defining choice of your whole existence.
2. We have nobody to blame if we reject him. Why did Herod hate Jesus? Was it because the wise men were hypocrites? Was there a defect in their testimony about him? Maybe the God-followers he knew weren’t loving enough. Maybe they didn’t do enough good deeds for those less fortunate. All true, no doubt, to some degree. But ultimately, Herod was to blame for his own impenetrable heart. He made that choice. When he heard of the Savior, he hardened his heart and set out to kill him. He would have no god but himself — a fatal delusion in any age.
So the Bible says we all are “without excuse” (Romans 1:20).
We must take 100% responsibility for our choices, our faith or lack of it, our character, and our lives. Yes, our parents, society, environment, and genetics play a role in who we become. They give us a collective shove in a certain direction. In fact, the whole Herodian Dynasty were pretty ruthless. But unless we want to define humans as robotic victims of forces beyond their control — and, hence, utterly unaccountable for their evils — we need to respect the volition, i.e., the power of free will. [*there are some with organic mental illness or mental deficiencies that render them incapable of understanding the issues of the gospel, and incapable of choice -- these, by grace, are brought to heaven in the end, but that's for another post.]
Herod had nobody to blame. Ditto for the rest of us.
3. Some will not embrace Jesus no matter what testimony we offer. A miraculous star. An epic quest by his generation’s most venerable scholars. A collection of prophecies that prove his identity beyond doubt. All this evidence, and Herod still rejected the Savior.
Jesus said that not even a man coming back to life from the dead would provide a more persuasive argument than the written Word of God (Luke 16:31).
Once again, the testimony may be powerful, the sacrificial witness peerless, and the gospel presentation flawless, and some will still stiff arm Christ. You can offer the world a Christian life as Christian as Christ, and still get the same result: “For even His brothers did not believe in Him” (John 7:5, NKJV).
The gospel will never be palatable to a heart set on being its own god. And while the people of God must “adorn the doctrine of God” (Titus 2:10) by lives of integrity and goodness, we can do that perfectly and some will still not believe. This is not to excuse Christians behaving badly. Even so, more times than not, when critics blame the church’s shortcomings for their lack of faith in Christ, it’s just a lame excuse. Truth be told, there’s a little rebel lurking in every heart, crying out, “We will not have this man to rule over us.” But who wants to admit that? Much easier to blame the Christians and wash our hands of Christ.
Herod had all the evidence he needed and still pushed aside the Savior.
4. All must be invited and summoned to him. As nasty as Herod was, God sent evangelists in the form of wise men. “Hey, King, the Savior’s born,” they said. “Thanks, I’ll kill him later,” Herod said. Even so, God sent him witnesses. The great mission of the church is to tell the world, through words backed up by deeds, of the Savior, Jesus.
The Savior was born. Everybody needs to know. Bad people, good people, and in-between people. Young, old. Near and far. Everybody who breathes needs to hear the name of Jesus.
How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, Who bring glad tidings of good things!” (Romans 10:14, 15, NKJV).
Christmas is God’s gift to the world of lost sinners. Even society’s Herods must hear. Even society’s worst are not beyond the hope of redemption. God is the great evangelist, and we are called to join with him, spreading across the globe like ant colonies, with the song of the angels: “Fear not, for unto you is born this day a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.”
5. You can’t break Jesus or God’s Word. You can only break yourself against Jesus and God’s Word. Herod died a lonely, bitter, miserable old man. He was such a butcher to his own family, Augustus Caesar said, “I would rather be Herod’s hog than Herod’s son” (ISBE).
What is truth?
Truth is reality. What is truth? Truth is reality as God sees it, God experiences, and God defines it. To build a life on God’s truth is to stand on solid rock. Everything else is sinking sand. You cannot beat yourself against God’s bedrock truth and come away unbloodied. God’s truth is an anvil that has worn out many hammers. You can’t break God’s laws, you can only break yourself against God’s laws.
To fight reality… well, that’s just crazy.
Christmas proves God wasn’t content to sit in heaven and lob truth bombs onto planet earth. He wrapped up the ultimate truth/reality — his own self — into a human nature, and came into our world as a baby. His whole life radiated the reality of heaven and a life set free. Come to him. Align your life to him. Live in reality, not unreality.
Like most things in life, when it comes to TRUTH, there’s an easy way and a hard way. I suppose the only good legacy Herod the Great left this broken world is a moral warning: it’s best not to choose the hard way.
[ISBE = International Standard Bible Encyclopedia]