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The King and the King of Kings

The man remembered as Herod the Great held an enviable position. In a world dominated by an Emperor, he had politicked and battled his way into a royal title. He was King Herod. Subject to Rome’s Caesar, of course, he ruled a significant chunk of Middle Eastern real estate. He wielded life-and-death authority over thousands of people. Herod owned an enviable position, and he knew it.

Everybody wanted Herod’s job. For some it was likely an idle dream not unlike that of the average working American who every once in a while will say, “If I were President, I’d. . .” These people bowed before Herod when he was around. They kept his laws. If they were wise, they either openly adored him or stayed out of his way.

For others, it was more serious. The politics of the old Roman Empire were no cleaner than today’s politics. In fact, next to many modern nations, ancient Roman politics were deadly. Herod knew the ropes. He was a master politician. He had to be if he were to survive and to rule. If meeting that goal meant somebody else had to die, well, Herod could live with that.

Unfortunately, there were others whose designs on Herod’s job were downright radical. Herod was King of the Jews. He was King of the Jews, but he wasn’t really Jewish. Patriots and loyal to the God of their fathers, many Jews felt having this Gentile overlord was an offense to all that was important and precious in life. Since Israel was ruled by Rome and Rome had placed Herod, there wasn’t a whole lot they could do. Yet, they hated this foreign upstart. Herod’s reign left about the same emotional effect as burning the American flag would at a U.S. veteran’s meeting. Such feelings naturally tended to make freedom fighters. Revolution was a risk Herod had to deal with.

Herod kept the peace, but his peace was the Pax Romana, the peace that preserved the Roman Empire. It was a fine kind of peace for those whom it helped. For those on its wrong side, it was the peace of a cemetery. Dead men not only fail to tell tales; they also fail to cause trouble.

Herod’s insecurity and love of power didn’t exactly contribute to happy family life. His wife was a Jewish woman from the famous Hasmoneans, a family that had once successfully revolted against pagan rule. Herod recognized the fact that she was more acceptable to the people than he was. His jealousy found an excuse, and he executed her. He killed three of his sons next. Not even the most tender family ties came between Herod and what he wanted.

It was into Herod’s Jerusalem palace that a group of foreign astrologers innocently stumbled. Apparently unaware that the God of Israel frowned on astrology, they’d observed celestial changes that indicated a king had been born in Israel. His coming reign must have suggested something really big, because they’d traveled far to honor Him.

These wise men, Magi, whatever you choose to call them, arrived from an unspecified land to Israel’s east. Some have suggested that they may have come from the remnants of the old Babylonian Empire, part of what is now called Iraq. It is thought that perhaps the influence of Jewish prisoners of war hundreds of years earlier had left a scholarly tradition of a coming world ruler in Israel. We don’t actually know if such was their heritage. We do know that these people, who likely lived outside the Bible’s religion, had seen something that pointed to a better way. They came looking to worship this awesome King of the Jews whose sign beamed a promise of something better into their stargazing.

There was one problem. Herod hadn’t had any baby recently. To have someone looking for a king of the Jews who wasn’t named Herod suggested political disaster. Until Herod was dead and gone, there could be no new King of the Jews. Herod had the armies and brutality to see to that.

Herod knew enough of Judaism to know that there was to be a Christ or, as we sometimes Anglicize from the Hebrew language, Messiah. This person would be an especially appointed, divinely sent King of the Jews. The coming of the Christ was the great hope of Israel. The Messiah was to set everything right. He was to be Heaven’s representative on earth. Down inside, Herod knew. He didn’t smell a mere plot for Jewish freedom fighters. He saw the reality of God intervening in Herod’s domain. He saw it and didn’t like it. He called in the religious experts and asked point blank, where Christ would be born.

The Biblical scholars had no problem with such a basic question. They answered, “In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.” (From Matthew 2:5-6)

God was about to openly take charge of His people again. He had come on the scene as never before, and to Herod the Great, this was intolerable. He’d given more than was right for the throne of Israel. He wasn’t going to give up without a fight, not even if he had to take on God Himself. Being Herod, he was too politically savvy to show his hand at this point. Instead, he called the foreigners in for a private conference and asked just when they’d first seen this star.  His parting instructions were: “Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.” (From Matthew 2:8)

The next few hours are familiar history. God used a dream to speak to the wise men, and they visited the infant Christ without bothering to report back to Herod. In worse brutality than even he was famous for, Herod sent his military to wipe out all the infant boys in the region. Herod was so stuck on Herod that he would literally do whatever it took to remain king of the Jews. It didn’t matter whether he fought God or man or how low he stooped.

Herod couldn’t know the details, but the King of the Jews had been born in Bethlehem. He was a descendant of the legitimate royal line of Israel, but His was a poverty-stricken working family. Herod should have known that fighting against God doesn’t work too well. By the time his soldiers arrived, the future King was a refugee baby seeking safety in a foreign country.

Herod died of natural causes shortly after the events in Bethlehem and took his sins to meet God. It isn’t a pretty picture, but then, he’d tried to kill the one chance he had of making his bloody past right with the Judge of All the Earth.

In the meantime, a group of very different men had been in Bethlehem that eventful night when the King was born. These men weren’t soldiers, royalty, or even the wise men. They were sheepherders.

That night seems to have been a restless one. Rome had decided to take a census. In our modern censuses, polite neighbors get paid to come and gather information for government statistics. In Caesar’s census, all the men were required to return to their native homes, get their names in the book, and pay a tax. It wasn’t a pleasant time. The village appears to have been crowded and coping with a less-than-joyous occasion. For one young couple it was a particularly difficult time. The wife was expecting a baby, but Rome had decreed, and they had no choice but to camp out.

So it was that the future King happened to be born in the very town the prophet had predicted. This King came to a politically insignificant couple that couldn’t even get proper shelter the night of His birth. What was Herod afraid of anyway?

But back to the shepherds who came to Bethlehem that night. They actually started outside of town. The Bible tells us: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2:8) Keep in mind that as peaceful as this story seems on Christmas Eve, the shepherds were literally on guard duty. Sheep are unintelligent, helpless animals that are easy prey for lions, bears, dogs, or even human thieves. The shepherds weren’t camping for recreation. They waited with primitive weapons, ready to charge out into the dark and fight to the death with whatever enemy attacked their sheep. They had to put their lives on the line because they lived in a world of sin and death.

Then, of course, God sent an angel to light up their night and announce that the world had changed forever. In reading the Bible, miraculous appearances of angels may seem common. Think again. There are really only a handful of angelic appearances recorded in Scripture, and they are strung out over about 4,000 years. The average shepherd neither saw--nor likely wanted to  see--an angel. The shepherds were terrified. Yet, the angel told them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” (From Luke 2:10)

Comparing the impact of Christ’s birth on the shepherds to its impact on Herod proves a study in contrasts. To Herod, the coming of the Son of God into the world was a threat, an end to his own selfish, sinful way. To the shepherds came the wonderful news of  “a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” (From Luke 2:11) The shepherds were invited to go and see this new king, not just King of the Jews, but of all people. They were invited to come and see a king who instead of killing to gain and retain power would give His life to save the world from sin and its penalty. They heard the news of a Savior who could take care of the sin problem before they had to meet God with it. Those who would accept the news of this new King found the promise of One Who would overcome death and grant as a free gift peace with God and eternal life.

It is almost tempting to wonder what Herod would have done had he known what this new King was really like. Would he still have tried to kill Him? Would he have literally run with his history of murder and fallen before Him pleading for what He had to offer?

We don’t know. We only know what our own responses to Him are. How have you responded to the news that a King and Savior was born in Bethlehem?

The Bible says:

He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name (John 1:10-12)

For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. (John 3:17-19)

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