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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Worshiping the King: Bethlehem's Line in the Sand

Some 2,000 years after His birth, Jesus Christ still remains the most divisive figure in human history.  The testimony of the Gospel writers clearly shows this. 

 "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

When they heard these words, some of the people said, "This really is the Prophet." Others said, "This is the Christ." But some said, "Is the Christ to come from Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?"  So there was a division among the people over him. (John 7:40-43)

Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath." But others said, "How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?" And there was a division among them. (John 9:16)

Those who are confronted with the truth of Jesus Christ are forced to make a choice.  There are only two options – believe or reject, love or hate, worship or ignore.  Everyday all over the world people are making that choice.  And interestingly, Christmas, a time when Christ seemingly gets more attention than at any other time of the year, is a time when we can see most clearly this choice being made.  There are those who want nothing to do with Christmas, who are offended by the greeting, “Merry Christmas.”  Then there are those who embrace the holiday, enjoying the festive season of the year…while silently denying the reason for Christmas and refusing to worship the baby.  Then there are those who celebrate Christmas as an act of worship.  And while outwardly those appear to be three different groups, the Bible would present them as two – those who believe, love, and worship Him and those who don’t. 

Matthew’s account of the wise men coming to visit the Messiah shows just this kind of division in humanity.  Herod is the central character in Matthew 2:1-18.  For this reason, his choice about how to respond to the birth of Jesus is portrayed in the most detail.  Herod was appointed king of the Jews by Rome.  In v2, he received word of a baby born king of the Jews.  V3, When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled. 

Herod the Great could go down as one of the most paranoid rulers of all time.  He imagined conspiracies under every rock in Jerusalem, and was so zealous to retain his power that over the years he executed his wife, several sons, and a number of other relatives.  So it is no surprise that Herod would do what he did, which was to seek to kill the baby born the King of the Jews. 

The first couple of steps in his plan are very telling.  First, he gathered all the chief priests and scribes and asked them where the Christ was to be born (v4).  What is so significant about this?  Herod believed that the baby of whom the wise men spoke was the Christ.  That was why he asked for the chief priests and scribes – they were experts in the Hebrew Scriptures and he knew that they would know the details of the prophecies of the Messiah.  And he was right.  They did know.  They told him that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem of Judea.

Next, Herod summoned the wise men and sent them to Bethlehem to find the baby (vv7-8).  Why is that significant?  It shows that Herod believed the Scriptures.  The Scriptures foretold that the baby would be born in Bethlehem, and that is where he sent the wise men.  He sent no one to Bethany.  He sent no one to En-karim or Emmaus or Bethphage.  Herod was so ruthless and paranoid that if he had any doubts about the truth of the Scriptures he would have sent out people to search all over.  But so sure was he that the biblical prophecy was right that he sent them only to Bethlehem.

Later in the chapter, we find even more disturbing evidence of Herod’s belief in the trustworthiness of the Scriptures.  When it became clear to him that the wise men had tricked him and were not coming to tell him the exact location of the child in Bethlehem, he ordered all the male children in Bethlehem two years old and younger to be murdered.  He was so convinced of the veracity of the Word that he was certain if he killed all the young boys there, he could know that the Christ was dead and the threat to his own power was eliminated.

Think about the implications there.  Herod believed that Jesus was the Christ and he believed what God’s Word said about Him.  In the eyes of many in the evangelical church today, those two truths mean that Herod was a Christian, saved from his sins.  But the teaching of this story and the teaching of the Bible as a whole is that an intellectual agreement with certain facts about God is not tantamount to saving faith.  There is another component needed.

What instructions did Herod give the wise men?  Treacherous ones: "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him" (v8).  This was nothing more than a self-serving charade intended to preserve his own power.  Clearly, Herod did not intend to worship the baby, but to kill Him.  He desired to refuse the baby king’s rightful authority over him. 

The counterpoint to Herod’s treachery in this chapter is the earnestness of the wise men.  They came from the east.  Some scholars estimate this trip could have taken months, requiring the wise men to cross some of the most inhospitable territory in the world.  Knowing nothing more than that a king had been born, they came to Jerusalem hoping to find help in locating Him. 

V2 tells us that they came for one reason only, “For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him."  This is the necessary component.  This is what Herod lacked.  Like him, the wise men also believed that the baby was the Christ (v2) and that the Scriptures were true in their prediction about Bethlehem as His birthplace (v8).  But unlike Herod, they left everything and worshiped Him.  They bowed to His authority: They rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.  And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh (vv10b-11).

Many people will celebrate Christmas this week, believing in the historicity of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and even believing that He was the Christ, and yet they will be no more saved than was Herod.  They will refuse the rightful authority that the baby holds over their lives.  They may claim to be His followers, but they deny Him in that they refuse to recognize the line that He draws in the sand.  They will not forsake all and follow Him.

We have a Savior who divides the world into two groups – those who love and worship Him and those who don’t.  True saving faith drives us to our knees in submission to the King.  May our actions this week reveal hearts of worship for the Christ.  When He looks down on us this Christmas, may He see a familiar sight – those who have left all and traveled far to worship a baby King.

1 comment:

Brian Jonson said...

The sad thing about Herod is this: He was so close, seemingly, and yet is currently marking his 2nd millennia in hell.

Herod was so threatened by the Child King that he tried to kill Him. And yet, had he bowed his knee to Christ, he would have the honor of reigning with Him for eternity. Instead, he spends an eternity alone, in outer darkness.