December 22, 1991
Scott L. Harris
Today is Sunday, December 22, 1991. We are only three days away from the day we call Christmas, although, it is questionable as to what that actually means. A couple of years ago I was listening to a radio show called, “Talk Back with Bob Larson,” on KKLA as I was driving back from a hospital visit. He was taking phone calls from those who practice various pagan religions that hold the winter solstice (which was the 21st) as a significant religious event. They would talk for a few minutes regarding the various pagan rituals practiced on winter solstice, and then Larson would try to find out what they were going to do on Christmas. It was interesting to find out what these various pagans thought of Christmas. Most said they would “celebrate” it, though they do not recognize Christ as anything important. They liked the opportunity to get together with the family, share presents, eat a good meal, etc. The religious significance the day is supposed to represent is completely ignored.
Then I wondered about how most “Christians” celebrate the day. Probably pretty much the same way. We enjoy gathering with friends and family. We enjoy the presents, the decorations, the singing and the eating! And we probably just as much as anyone else say to each other on Christmas night, “whew, we got though another one.” Because lets face it, Christmas is a lot of work. Shouldn’t Christians celebrate Christmas at least a little differently than those who do not know Christ. Yes, I think we should.
That is why we have been looking at the different responses of different people to the birth of Christ. My hope is that as we see how different people responded to the birth of Christ and the reasons they responded that way, we can learn from them and respond properly too. In the last few weeks we have looked at the response of Mary and Joseph (See: Responses to Jesus’ Birth, Part 1), and Elizabeth and Zacharias before Jesus was even born. We also looked at the responses of the Angels, the Shepherds, the people of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, Simeon, and Anna at the time of His birth. (See: Responses to Jesus’ Birth, Part 2) Today we will be looking at the responses of the Maji, Herod and the religious leaders who responded some time after Jesus’ birth.
First, lets look at the Magi. Matthew tells us in Matt. 2:1, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him.” Who were they? Where did they come from? How did they know to come? Why did they come?
Who were they? The Magi first appear in history by being identified as a tribe of the emerging Median nation in the 7th century B.C. They had developed a religious system which recognized a benevolent creator God. They had a hereditary priesthood which mediated between man and God by virtue of a blood sacrifice. And they distinguished between different things being “clean” and “unclean” (i.e. lizards and insects were “unclean”). Thus, there was some strong similarities between the Magi and the Jews (possibly one reason that they go along so well throughout history).
As the tribe of “priests,” they also gained considerable political influence within the nation. Elements of Zoroastrianism were added to the religion in the 6th century B.C. when Darius the Great, the Persian ruler, made Zoroastrianism the state religion. The Magi were anxious to maintain their religious and political favor, so they accepted Zoroastrianism, but they did so without changing much of their original philosophy or rituals. Late in the 6th century B.C., Cyaxares decreed the early Magian system to be the state religion. This increased the influence of the Magi again. Several of the magi were considered to be expert in the interpretation of dreams and were attached to the Median court, and thus they gained even more political influence. For example, Nergal-sar-ezer is mentioned by the prophet Jeremiah as being the one of the principal officials of in the court of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (Jeremiah 39:3, 13).
In short, by the time of Daniel, the Magi were powerful figures in the empire due to their dual role as civil and political counsel along with their religious authority as the priestly caste in the society. The prophet Daniel had a lot of interaction with the Magi (translated “magicians”). In fact, because of his ability to interpret the dream of Nebuchadnezzer (Dan. 2) when no one else could, he was made the head of the magi in their civil/political role (Dan 4:9). This being true, we are very safe to assume that Judaism also had an effect upon the Magi. We would expect them to become familiar with the foundations and prophecies of Judaism since Daniel was their chief for many years, and Nebuchadnezzar made strong pronouncements that would have also influenced them. After Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams He declared that the God of Daniel was “a God of gods and a Lord of kings . . .” (Dan. 2:47) and “Now I Nebuchadnezzar praise, exalt and honor the King of Heaven, for all His works are true and His ways are just . . .” (Dan. 4:37).
By the time of Christ, some 500+ years later, nations had come and gone, but the Magi still had political influence in that area of the world which was now the Persian/Parthian empire. In fact, the magi composed the upper house of the council of Megistanes whose duties included the absolute choice and election of the king of the realm. So the men who came to Jerusalem looking for “He who is born king of the Jews” were not some kind of professorial types or academic who just kept their heads in books. These men were very important political dignitaries. They were in a very real sense – king makers.
How did they know to come? As I mentioned earlier, they would have been greatly influenced by Judaism because of Daniel, the pronouncements of King Nebuchadnezzar and the similarity of the religions. They would have been aware of at least all the important Jewish writings up through the time of the Babylonian captivity. It was because of this familiarity that they knew that there would some day come a Messiah, a Jewish monarch who would by divine authority rule the world. They would have know about as much as the Jewish religious leaders should have known.
How did they know when to come? Because there was a sign that was prophesied many centuries before in Numbers 24:17. “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, And a scepter shall rise from Israel . . .”. And the Magi said, “we saw His star in the east . . .”. Whatever the star was, it was a sign that the Magi recognized, and so they set off on their journey to find Him. They went to Jerusalem because it was the logical place to go. If you were looking for a king, it only seems wise to look in the city of the king first. But this brings up the question. If they were so astute to recognize the star, how come they did not know where to find the baby Jesus? Why were they able to discern the more complex prophecy concerning the star that announced His birth to them, and yet they did not seem to understand the prophecy concerning the location of the Messiah’s birth? The prophecy of the Messiah’s birth place is in Micah 5:2, “But as for you Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too little to be among the clans of Judah, From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity.” There could be several reasons, but I think the most logical reason is that they were arriving some time after the baby was born. At least a few months, and maybe a couple of years later. They would have expected the religious leaders to have recognized the Messiah and have Him somewhere in Jerusalem where He would eventually sit on the throne of David.
Why did the Magi come? They told Herod that they came to worship Him (verse 2). And the truth of that statement is seen later in the passage by what they did. After they found out that the child was probably still in Bethlehem, since that is where he was supposed to have been born. Scripture says, “And having heard the king, they went their way; and lo, the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshiped Him; and opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh” (vs. 9-12). The presents that were brought are significant. Gold is the gift for a king, and Jesus is King. Frankincense was used in the worship of God. and Jesus is our Priest, our mediator between God and Man. Myrrh was one of the spices used in burial, and Jesus was born to die as the substitute payment for our sins. The Magi did exactly what they told Herod that they came to do. They went and worshipped the child. They came from afar to find the promised Messiah in order to worship Him. And when God warned them “in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their own country by another way.”
The Magi came because they believed the ancient prophecies and were sensitive to look for the signs God said He would give. They came seeking the child because the recognized who He was the promised Messiah, the Christ. They sought Him, they found Him, and they responded by worshiping Him. They departed as true worshipers of God with great joy.
Herod is a completely different story in his response to the birth of Jesus. Herod was not a man that was concerned about religious prophecies, that is, until he thought that they might affect him adversely. Herod did not care for anyone but himself, and the coming of the magi, these wise men from the east, to find the one “born king of the Jews,” was a great threat to Herod. To understand why a little baby could be such a threat to Herod, we need to understand a little about Herod’s background and the political situation of the time.
First, though Herod had gained for himself the title of “King,” he was not, and could not be the legitimate “king of the Jews.” Herod was only partially Jewish at best. He was in fact an Idumean, a descendant of Esau’s line, not Jacob’s. Herod rose to power through a long and complex series of political moves lasting over 22 years. Herod first gained political power when his father, Antipas, – who had weaseled himself into being the power behind the last legitimate king, appointed him as the governor of the region of Galilee. Herod gave support to Rome both through taxes, supplies and military assistance in order to gain their favor. His plan worked well, for even after he was pushed out of Palestine by the Parthians (Persians) in 40 B.C., he managed to make it to Rome, where, after hearing his story, the Roman Senate made him king of Judea and sent him back with Roman armies to re-establish his rule. Herod also managed to end up on the winning side of the various power struggles for the Roman Empire, and even when he had supported the losing side, he was able to convince the winner of his loyalty to them. This was a vital part of Herod continuing as king because it was Roman power that kept him there.
In the process of making sure there would be no other rival for the throne, Herod made certain that those rivals and anyone supporting them were killed. This include 45 of the most prominent citizens upon his ascending the throne, his wife’s brother, his sister’s husband, close friends, his wife, his mother-in-law, and his sister’s second husband. All this occurred in his rise to power from 47 – 25 B.C. Herod had 11 years of relative quiet in which most of his various building projects were completed including the temple and the port of Ceasarea. But after this, trouble began again. Trouble which is most significant to Herod’s reaction to hearing that there was one “born king of the Jews.”
As Herod’s various sons by various wives (he had a total of ten wives and 7 sons that lived to adulthood), became older, they started to become a threat to him. The various wives wanted their sons to be the ones to rule, and so various plots were made to both slander each other and to take over the throne if possible. The result of this was that Herod put his sons Alexander and Aristoblus on trial, after which they were convicted and strangled to death even though the indications are that the charges were false. It was not long before another plot was uncovered with the resulting deaths of Herod’s brother and his son Antipater. It was during the uncovering of this last plot that the Magi came and asked him where was the baby “born king of the Jews.”
It is no wonder then that with Herod’s own scheming past and his consuming desire to protect his power that Herod responded to this news of the birth of the Messiah as he did. Herod had already fought many military battles to secure his throne. He had already killed many, including his own relatives and sons to keep it. This news from the Magi, these Parthian/Persian king makers, that there was one “born king of the Jews” drove fear deep in his heart. It is no wonder that Matt. 2:3 tells us that, “when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” And Jerusalem would be troubled. How much bloodshed would occur this time?
Herod made his plan. He calls the magi to him and tells them, “Go and made careful search for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, that I too may come and worship Him” (2:8). Under the pretext that he also wanted to come and worship the child, Herod tries to get the magi to lead him to the child. Herod’s real purpose was to eliminate the child. Herod’s true desire became evident when the Magi did not return to him. “Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its environs, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the Magi” (2:16).
Herod’s response to the birth of Jesus was fear, hatred, anger and murder.
The Religious Leaders
But there is a group in Jerusalem who do not seem to be very prominent in the story, yet their response is in many ways a lot worse than that of Herod. Consider all the religious leaders. What was their response and why?
The various religious leaders must have known that something of great significance had occurred recently. Zacharias, a temple priest, and father of John the Baptist, had talked with an angel while serving in the temple, and Luke 1:22 tells us that the people there realized that he had seen a vision. Zacharias prophesied concerning the coming of the messiah and pronounced his own son has His forerunner. Surely the religious leaders must have known about these things. Then there were those curious reports of shepherds near Bethlehem seeing angels and reporting that a Savior, the Messiah had been born in the city of David. Then there was Simeon and Anna who had been ministering in the temple constantly . They were saying astounding things about a child that was brought to the temple recently, the child was God’s salvation, a light of revelation to the gentiles and the glory of God’s people Israel?
Why is that is these religious leaders, those who were supposed to know what God had revealed, did not give any response until these Magi from east arrived in Jerusalem. And then, their only response is that they confirm that the prophecies say that the Messiah would be born in the City of David, Bethlehem. But there is no other response. We do not see them getting excited about this. You would at least think they would begin to wonder what was happening when King Herod starts making such diligent inquiry as to the birth place of Messiah. But we see no response to this news. No indication that any of them even went down to Bethlehem (only about 6 miles away) to check it out. The response of the religious leaders was the worst of all. They tried to ignore what was going on and just continue doing their own thing. Some 30 years later they could no longer ignore Him for Jesus was now preaching “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” the religious leaders thought of a solution. Get rid of Jesus and we can continue in our old ways again. So they plotted, and eventually managed to have Him crucified. At last, they could ignore Him again and continue in their old ways. But Jesus did not stay in the grave. He conquered death because He is God and the grave could not keep Him. And with His resurrection, the old ways were made worthless, for a new covenant was established, and now men could go to God directly because Jesus Christ Himself was now the mediator between God and man. The religious priesthood was no longer of any value. The religious leaders tried to ignore Jesus, but He would not go away.
What about you? What is your response to Jesus? Are you like the Magi of old? Have you responded by believing what information you have had about Him and made diligent search for Him? Upon finding Him have you worshiped Him and given your life to Him? Do your rejoice with “exceeding great joy” over Jesus, the Messiah, the one who saves us from our sins?
Or, have you been more like Herod. In fact you are here this morning because of duty to your family, not because your really want to be here. You realize that Jesus is a threat to your current lifestyle and you don’t want to change. You are correct, because Jesus does demand a change. He demands that you “pick up your cross and follow Him” (Luke 9:23). You need to realize that unless your way of life is following Jesus, your life has no meaning. The apostle John said that all that is in the world that is not from the Father is passing away, only the one who does the will of the Father abides (remains) forever (1 John 2:16,17). Solomon best summed up life apart from God. After he had tried everything else himself he concluded that it was it was “vanity,” “empty,” “chasing after the wind.” If this describes you, then you need to turn away from your sin, your current lifestyle, and give your life to Jesus. Otherwise you will end up like Herod as an old, broken down man who was hated. He had shattered his own family and had no mourners upon his death, and his last wishes were not carried out.
Or, are you like the religious leaders. You may even know a lot of the right things, but they make no difference in your life. Jesus makes no difference in your life, and you would just as soon be left alone and not bothered by Him. You may even do quite a few religious practices. You try to be at the right place at the right time and do the right thing, but there is no real joy in any of this. There is no real seeking of Jesus on your part. Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” God will reward those who seek Him, but you must believe that He is and seek after Him. The magi sought Him, and found Him and it resulted in their great joy.
My prayer today is that if you have not yet found Him, that today would be the day. If you have not, talk with me or one of the church leaders and get to know him today even if it is only “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.”
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