In order to understand Scripture, you have to understand the context in which it occurred and/or was written.
So, before we look at Matthew 2, let’s consider the setting.
Herod the Great was ruler of Israel when Jesus was born. What do we know about him?
He and his father helped Rome conquer Israel.
Herod began his political career as a kind of sheriff of Galilee and he raided the coffers of the area in order to pay tribute to Rome.
Later he led a 3-year military campaign to defeat the Roman Empire’s arch enemy, the Parthians from the east.
Herod ended his campaign by laying siege to Jerusalem and slaughtering the inhabitants in order to “bring glory to Caesar.”
Rome then crowned him “King of the Jews.”
He embarked on a massive building program including a number of elaborate palaces & fortresses.
This included rebuilding the entire city of Caesarea, which included a stadium that could seat 500,000!
He did this by taxing the people to the tune of an 80-90% tax rate.
Some estimate that he was the richest person in history!
He then took on the Jewish Sanhedrin in order to take total power in the region.
Herod kept power by commissioning a secret police force that kept him informed of any plots or even rumors of plots.
He often dressed like a working person and wondered the streets to hear what was being said. If he heard someone criticize him, he would send his troops to kill that person!
One rumor led him to murder 2 of his own sons despite their gut renching pleas for mercy.
Another led him to burn a number of Pharisees alive and slaughter 300+ troops.
He was even known to kill entire families of alleged insurgents in order to maintain power via fear.
Before he died, Herod ordered his elite guard to round up the most popular Jewish leaders from every corner of Israel, gather them into an arena and, once he was dead, to kill them all so that there would be weeping in every part of Israel.
So, at the time Jesus was born, the average Israelite lived in fear and staggering debt from the tax burden.
That is the background to keep in mind while reading Matthew 2
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 ” ‘But 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 shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
16 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. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
18 “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.”
19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.”
Herod treats the birth of Jesus as the birth of a revolution aimed at ending his tyrannical rule and he was right!
If nothing else, the “wise men” from the east who came to worship Jesus were probably representatives of Rome’s arch enemy, the Parthians. That alone would’ve jarred Herod!
Now, think about the stark contrasts between Jesus and Herod.
Herod kills to grab power he doesn’t deserve/Jesus dies to earn power he already deserved.
Herod taxes the poor in order to bring glory to Caesar/Jesus feeds the poor in order to bring glory to God.
Herod builds a temple, Jesus is the temple.
Herod kills those rumored to rebel against him/Jesus dies for those who are in rebellion against him.
Jesus came to assume the throne as the true king of the Jews.
To be king of the Jews was to be the one true king of all creation. The Scriptures teach that Israel was to be a nation that brought all the nations to worship the one true God, thus healing the world and establishing the reign of the one true King (see Isa. 2:2-4; 11:1-9; 55:1, 3-5, 12-13; etc.)
the coming of the one true king pervades every corner of our conscience including literature, art, film, etc.
I love Conan the Barbarian and this is my favorite scene…
If that were in Scripture, it would be my life verse. Now, lamentation of the women aside, Jesus has called us to fight as well.
But, this king who has earned our loyalty through his death, has called us to fight but to do so in a very different way.
We are to be loyal soldiers who proclaim the kingship of Jesus (evangelism), train fellow soldiers to fight (discipleship) and kick the darkness until it bleeds daylight (redemption).
We fight the fight by caring for the poor and visiting the sick & imprisoned.
Jesus came not to bring a shallow, soul-crushing, tiring materialistic holiday but to birth a revolution that would overturn the rule of darkness.
So, as yourself, are you a submissive lackey of Herod & Empire or are you an insurgent?
Are you loyal to the one true king or do you live in fear & debt? I mean, don’t you find it strange that Jesus came to liberate his people from people like Herod who oppressed through fear and debt and we celebrate this liberation by putting ourselves in debt and stressful situations?
Let’s spend less, give more, build a Kingdom, lead an insurgency, be a revolution.
Long live the king!