If you remove the Christmas story from the larger narrative that surrounds it, from the promises of God to rescue and renew his people, you still have a nice story but you may just miss the point. This little child is the fulfillment of the great promises. He is the king. Bethlehem is not just an inhospitable town; it is an invasion site. Bethlehem ought to be listed with Thermopylae, Troy, Normandy, and Omaha Beach. With the coming of this child the forces of the eternal kingdom have arrived, and the deciding campaign of the Long War has begun.
The actual arrival of the king is described in Luke chapter two. In our Matthew text, we are told of the events that followed his birth. Look at verse one: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea…”
Judea was the current name of the province, but it had previously been referred to as Judah. Judah was one of Israel’s original twelve tribes and, as early as Jacob, almost two millennia before Jesus, we find that is was from Judah that a king was to come.3 Interestingly, in the years leading up to Christ’s birth, there were prophecies and predictions coming not just from Israel but also from all over the Orient that a world ruler would arise from little Judea.4
Also note Bethlehem. Before the famine on words from the Lord, the prophet Micah had promised that Bethlehem, the home town of King David, would be the arrival site for the Great King who would be his descendent.5
So, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod…” Stop there. Israel had gone into exile. They lost their land, their temple and their king, the descendant of David. But God promised to return their king, and now they had one: King Herod.
Yes, but Herod was not the promised king. He did not belong to the tribe of Judah, was not a descendant of David, nor did he hail from Bethlehem. Forty years before Christ, the Roman army crushed Israel and most of the Middle East. Rome made Herod’s father, an Idumean collaborator, governor of the province. Later, when the Parthians invaded Israel and placed a Jew on the throne, it was young Herod who led the military counterattack. The war was extremely bloody, but he won the country back for Rome. As a reward, the Roman senate, led by Marc Antony, conferred on Herod the title, “King of the Jews.”
Some of the great names of history are found in this story: Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, Cleopatra (with whom Herod shared a mutual dislike), and Caesar Augustus. It was Rome that gave Herod to Israel, not God, and the people never really accepted him. Herod married a woman from the most important family in Israel, thinking that it would give him legitimacy in the eyes of the public. But legitimacy was something that not even Herod could command. Years later, when he thought that two of their sons were plotting his overthrow, he had them killed. Then he had his wife killed. In the days before illness and age put an end to him, he had a son by his second wife put to death. The man was insanely suspicious, always fearing that someone was trying to usurp his throne.
Back to verse 1: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi [a kind of Persian intelligentsia, astronomers and priests] from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, (verse 2) ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’”
You can imagine the effect that news had on Herod. The man had killed his own sons and his wife when he believed they had designs on his throne. And now the worst possible news: a legitimate king had been born. So, verse 3, “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” When Herod was disturbed, Jerusalem was disturbed, because when Herod was disturbed people died.
Remember that not only miracles and messages cluster around those periods when God acts decisively in history; so does opposition – spiritual opposition. That kind of opposition enters human affairs through some kind of human bridge, in this case, Herod. He sent for his intelligence officers, the chief priests, and teachers of the law (verse 4) and requested operational information.
They told him that the assault on his kingship – that, of course, was not what they said, but it is what he heard – was to originate from Bethlehem in Judea. The powers of darkness had long had free reign in the king; and now see what came of it. He sent the Magi to “go and make a careful search for the Child” (verse 8), but he didn’t tell them that this was to be a “search and destroy” mission.
They did as they were ordered, but when they receive a communication from heaven, they went into hiding. Herod and the powers at work in him were forced to adopt an alternate strategy, a campaignof shock and awe. He sent his soldiers to the vicinity with orders to kill every male child under two years old (verse 16). Killing infants seems to be a favorite tactic of the opposition. 6
But the promised king escaped. God’s promises are not held hostage by evil powers – whether men or spirits. The invasion had been successful, though it was not without casualties (verse 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.”
Now consider this story from a wide angle viewpoint. After four hundred years of radio silence, heaven re-established contact and sent messengers (that is the meaning of the Greek word we translate as “angel”) to prepare the way. Headquarters shined a beacon (the star of verse 2 and 7 and 9) to lead the allied agents to the place. God then thwarted the enemy’s attempts to discover the king’s location and assassinate him.
Operation Bethlehem was the first stage in a multi-pronged offensive. Heaven was on the move, and the long-awaited king had arrived.
3 Genesis 49:8-10
4 Suetonius, Life of Vespaisan, 4:5and Tacitus, Histories, 5:13; both quoted in William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Voulme 1, Westminster Press, © 1975, p. 27