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Greg Laurie is the author of 12 inspirational books, which are available online.
Now that the Christmas season is in full swing, we are once again inundated with countless TV specials about familiar holiday themes.
Some movies are shown again and again like “It’s a Wonderful life” and “A Christmas Story.” Then there are those animated specials like “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas”(one of the very few that actually mentions Jesus).
There are newer movies as well like “The Grinch who Stole Christmas” and Charles Dickens’ famous “A Christmas Carol.” Both of those stories tell the tale of those who were antagonistic to the Christmas message: Scrooge, who was so stingy he would not let Bob Cratchet celebrate Christmas, and the Grinch, who opposed Christmas altogether.
These themes resonate with us because today we live in a world full of modern-day Scrooges and Grinches, too. For example:
- Most retailers have instructed their employees to no longer say “Merry Christmas” but instead say something generic like “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings.”
- Many school districts have prohibited Christmas carols from being sung during school festivities (at least one high school took the additional step of including instrumental versions of Christmas carols in the censorship).
- In Texas, some schools confiscated gifts brought by two children to give to their classmates because one was a pencil that said, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.” The school district said the reason was the “religious viewpoint” of the gift.
- A Wisconsin elementary school changed the lyrics to “Silent Night” to a secularized version called “Cold in the Night.”
The Bible speaks of a man who hated Christmas even more than the Grinch and Scrooge combined. In fact, he tried to stop Christmas altogether. But this man is not some make-believe character, but the one history calls Herod the Great, and his story is told in the second chapter of gospel of Matthew.
Herod was born into a politically well-connected family, destined for a life of hardball and power brokering. At the young age of 25 he was appointed by Rome to be the governor of Galilee, with the hope that he would control the Jews who lived in that area.
In 40 B.C., the Roman Senate named him “King of the Jews,” a title that the Jews detested because Herod was anything but religious. Indeed, the truth is that Herod was the ultimate villain, addicted to power, insecure and profoundly suspicious of anyone who might aspire to take his throne.
Herod was a cruel man who held tightly to the reins of power and brutally removed anyone who got in his way. Over the years, he killed many people, including his brother-in-law, his mother-in-law, two of his own sons and even his wife! Josephus called Herod “barbaric” and another writer has dubbed him “the malevolent maniac.”
So twisted was this egomaniac that he had the most distinguished citizens of Israel arrested and gave orders that upon his death they would be executed – just so Israel would mourn after his death!
No doubt he had his spies out everywhere who watched for any potential contenders to his throne. Anyone who would aspire to be the king instead of him would be dealt with severely.
But he was also clever and knew that you cannot always be cruel. You must, for the sake of appearances, show signs of kindness to stay in power. Like the time of economic hardship when he gave back tax money to the people that had been collected for the Temple, or when during a famine in 25 B.C. he melted down various gold objects in the palace to buy food for the poor. But these token gestures were just a ruse to retain his power.
Herod was also preoccupied with possessions and fame. With the knack of a Donald Trump, he built seven palaces and seven theaters, one of which seated 9,500 people, and stadiums for sporting events, the largest of which could seat 300,000 fans! Herod also created his winter palace called Masada, an impregnable fortress complete with sauna and swimming pool.
Then there was the renovation of the Second Temple in Jerusalem that was so spectacular that some were shocked when Jesus spoke of its destruction. Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” The Jews replied, “It has taken 46 years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” (John 2:19-20)
Now, with that as some background, let’s fast-forward to the final months of Herod’s life.
Herod is slowly dying of a disease. His body is racked with convulsions, his breath is foul, his skin is covered with putrefying open sores, and he’s rapidly losing his mind. But he is still the king obsessed with his legacy.
One day word comes to him in Jerusalem that some visitors had arrived from the East inquiring about the one “born the King of the Jews.” (See Matt. 2:1-8.)
“When Herod heard this he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” The word “troubled” means to shake violently, and no wonder. After he had finally subdued his enemies, killed all his foes and created a “legacy” for himself, these strangers appeared who threatened to overturn everything he had done.
So Herod called together all the scribes and religious leaders to find out if the Bible had anything to say about a coming King, the Jewish Messiah. Specifically, he wanted to know where this “Messiah” was supposed to be born.
Without having to think much about it, they responded in Matthew 2:5-6: “In Bethlehem in Judea, for this is what the prophet has written: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.”’
Herod must have winced when he heard the word “ruler.” Suddenly, things were getting serious. Maybe these strangers were on to something. What if the boy they are looking for is the one the Bible predicted would come? There would be no time to rest now. There would be one more person to kill – a young boy who is claimed to be born King of the Jews!
So Herod called the wise men privately and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report back to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
Off they went. The star that led them over 800 miles through the desert miraculously reappeared and led them to the exact house that Jesus was in. When they found Him, they bowed down and worshipped him, offering him expensive gifts fit for a king: gold, tribute to a king; frankincense, an expensive spice used in sacrifices; and myrrh, an embalming element for royal burial.
Incidentally, and contrary to many mass media versions of this visit, the Magi did not arrive the very night Jesus was born, since their trip across the desert would have taken many months. Matthew 2:9-10 gives additional details:
“When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
The word translated “young child” refers to a toddler or small child, not a newborn baby. And notice that the Magi went to the “house” where Jesus was. There’s no mention of a stable or manger.
After giving their gifts to the true King of the Jews, the Magi, or wise men, were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, but returned to their country by another route (Matthew 2:12).
When Herod later realized that the Magi had duped him, he was engulfed in rage. The “Butcher of Bethlehem” gave orders to kill all boys 2 years and younger in Bethlehem and its vicinity (Matthew 2:16). Some time later Herod himself died a painful and agonizing death, with his legacy of treachery, deceit and murder recorded for posterity.
Rarely in history was a battle between kings so dismally stacked. Herod, the cruel but clever dictator, a man of worldly power, possessions, prestige and paranoia, armed with firepower, resources and armies, versus little Jesus, held safely in the arms of His loving mother.
No wonder the two kings clashed. They both possessed immense power, but how they chose to use it revealed the hearts of two radically different men.
- One was a cruel tyrant, the other a suffering Servant
- One was consumed with self-interest; the other focused on pleasing God and serving others
- One manipulated, slandered, deceived and coerced; the other healed, touched, taught and loved.
Herod wanted to be king of his own life, esteemed by men, with an enduring legacy, but he was just another slave to sin. In his madness, he tried to destroy the very One who could have saved him, but he wound up destroying himself instead.
Sadly, today there are many “Herods” who go out of their way to blaspheme the Lord Jesus and oppose His cause. They will all fail. Like Herod, their lives will always end in ruin of some kind, and they will face judgment.
Ironically, Herod pretended to be something he was not: a worshipper. He told the Magi that he wanted to worship the one born King of the Jews, too. Obviously he was an imposter – a false worshipper who was actually hostile to God.
Today, “Herods” by the dozen sit in the pews of our churches. Outwardly they appear to be pious, but they are living a lie!
And then there are those who are full of religious knowledge, like the Jewish scribes who knew the exact place where the Messiah was to be born, but who actually are indifferent to the things of God.
The scribes and religious leaders did not hate Jesus as Herod did, but they didn’t care about Him, either. They simply ignored Him. They were too busy to bother with Him.
Tragically, there are many people like these scribes and religious leaders today, especially at Christmas. With all the busyness of the season, they don’t think much about Christ, much less worship Him.
Don’t miss Christ this Christmas! We can decry the fact that merchants say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” or that public schools censor Christmas music and so on, but we need to be careful not to get so busy and preoccupied that we lose sight of Him for ourselves.
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