There are so many fascinating themes that are operating simultaneously in Matthew chapter 2 that it can be hard to decide where to focus. This article will center on Herod, the king in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ birth, but I want to bring in a number of players to capture all the richness of the passage.
To start with, let’s look at the characters who are on-stage in this scene of the biblical play. There are magi (wise men) from the east who come to Jerusalem. “Where is He who is born king of the Jews? For we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him (2:2).” Who were these men? Why did they come such a long way? How did they know that the star signaled “the king of the Jews?” We cannot say for certain, but we can give some educated speculations. These men were probably astrologers and necromancers from Persia or Babylon. Because they were astrologers who studied the stars, about two years ago they had noticed the appearance of a new and unusual star in the night sky. Since they were from Persia or Babylon and were in that part of their culture that would have been familiar with ancient writings, it is possible that these magi were aware of the stories of the Hebrews and of their God, Yahweh. It is possible that may have known some of the Hebrew Scriptures and had heard about a coming Anointed One. They may have heard ancient stories about the prophet Daniel and about his prophecy of the Seventy Weeks, which gave an idea of when this Anointed One, this Messiah would appear. What other explanation would there be for a group of men traveling for up to two years to follow a star? And how else do we explain their words to Herod? These magi were searching for the King of the Jews. These pagan Gentiles saw a new star appear and they connected the dots and decided that nothing was more important than that they find Him who was born King of the Jews. Then, when the magi find the Child, the fall down before Him and worship Him and give Him expensive gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. After worshiping the new King, they return “to their own country by another way (2:12).”
Next, we meet king Herod. Scripture does not tell us a lot about him, but it does tell us enough. Herod was the king in Jerusalem, and he intended to remain king. His actions reveal that he is cruel, that he is deceptive and cunning, and that he is insecure, which is a particularly unpleasant recipe. He had been in power more than thirty years when the magi arrived. While the magi sought to worship the new King and shower Him with gifts (2:2, 11), Herod saw the child as a rival and as a threat to his reign and immediately sought to kill Him.
It is clear from this account in Matthew 2 that Herod believed both that the Hebrew Scriptures were true and that this new King was the promised Messiah. How do we know that? We know that based on what Herod did. When the magi told Herod about a star and about worshiping a new king, “Herod was troubled (2:3).” He figured out that this new king was the Messiah and he wanted to know where to find Him so he could kill Him. So, believing that this new King was the Messiah, Herod went to the chief priests and scribes and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. He went to the chief priests and the scribes because they knew the Scriptures, and Herod believed the Scriptures would tell him the truth about the Messiah’s birthplace. When they told him about Bethlehem and Micah 5:2, Herod sent the magi there to confirm the prophecy. Then they were to return to him so that Herod could “worship Him,” also.
It is good to pause here and reflect on this. Herod believed that the Scriptures were true and that Jesus, the newborn King, was the long-awaited Messiah. Instead of rejoicing, however, his response was hatred and murder. Herod did not need a Messiah that demanded his worship and that threatened his worldly pleasures and power. Yes, Herod sought to kill the Messiah rather that worship Him. Sadly, that is what many in the world still try to do. Many find out about our glorious Savior who passed through the heavens (Hebrews 4:14) to be born in Bethlehem and to be crucified on a cross and reject Him rather than worship Him.
When Herod’s plot to use the magi as his accomplices in killing this new King fails (2:16), he has all the male children in the area of Bethlehem slaughtered so that he can still succeed in eliminating this messianic threat. Again, his vicious use of the sword does not land on the Messiah, for His parents had fled with Christ to Egypt to escape Herod’s wickedness.
There is another character in this drama who is active behind the scenes, and who will not step on-stage until Chapter 4, and that is Satan. Although Herod is the human agent for the cruelty and the wickedness that is unleashed to kill the Messiah, and while Herod is fully responsible for his wicked acts, behind these acts is the one who is “a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44).” Satan is the one who was the first to hate the Messiah, and in Matthew chapter 2, he is the one who is doing everything in his power to destroy Jesus the Messiah. Since that day in the Garden when he was cursed for his deception (Genesis 3:14), Satan has been bent on stopping the Messiah from “bruising his head (Genesis 3:15).” Despite his best efforts, somehow the Messiah has snuck past his defenses and has been born in Bethlehem, exactly as the Scriptures said would happen. “More than that, when He was a ‘sitting duck’ in the manger in Bethlehem, somehow He still eluded us and has now disappeared somewhere into the backwoods of Israel. Well, maybe that’s the last we’ll see of Him. Maybe He’s disappeared for good.” (See Revelation 12:4-6 for more of Satan’s activity against the Messiah.)
SDG rmb 9/18/2020