King Jesus, King Herod, and “Three Kings”

December 7, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


Camels, Desert, Travel, Sand, Silhouette, Night, Stars
Credit: Pixabay

One of the most beloved sections of the Christmas story is when wise men come to visit Jesus and His family:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 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.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.  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. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘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.’” Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find Him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship Him.” 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. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 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. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. (Matthew 2:1-12)

Part of what makes this particular section of the Christmas story so compelling is the evil king who serves as a foil to the so-called “three kings” who are looking to present gifts to Jesus. King Herod feels threatened by Jesus and wants to slaughter what he perceives to be the competition. This kind of ghastly plot comports with what we know about Herod historically. Herod was the king who had his wife Mariamne and his sons Alexander, Aristobulus, and Antipater all executed because he suspected they were trying to usurp his throne. Herod’s conduct toward his own family was so gruesome that Caesar Augustus, who was the Roman Emperor at this time, is said to have quipped, “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.” The first-century historian Josephus once wrote that Herod’s “character had nothing human to recommend to it.” And yet, if you would have asked him, Herod would have self-identified as a religiously observant Jew. After all, Herod was the one who expanded the temple in Jerusalem into a glorious showcase of Jewish religious sensibility and sacrifice.

Herod’s willingness to build a monument to Jewish religious rituals while acting so depravedly in his relationships with his own family is manifestly hypocritical. The fact that wise men who were not Jewish would gladly worship Jesus as the Messiah while a self-identified Jew would fearfully despise Jesus because he thought He might be the Messiah just further confirms how spiritually blind Herod really was. As Andreas Köstenberger and Alexander Stewart put it in their book The First Days of Jesus:

Herod powerfully illustrates the fact that it’s not enough to identify outwardly with God’s people. It’s not enough to give sacrificially of your funds and your energy to build God’s house (or temple) and to help others worship. It’s not enough to learn about God and His plan through His Scriptures. Every one of us is confronted with a choice…Who will we serve? For whom will we live?

These are questions that still come to us. The Christmas season is not merely about favorite carols, idyllic nativity scenes, and warm religious observances, as wonderful as all these things may be. This season is about a newborn King. And trusting in and living for this King cannot be captured in just one holiday. It is God’s call to us every day. May this Christmas be a time to renew our commitment to this call.

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