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 search carefully 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.”
Christmas presents us all with a great opportunity to think about our response to Jesus. For those of us who are Christians, it’s great to be able to refocus our thoughts and to consider how we stand with Christ. For those who do not know Jesus, it is an opportunity to consider anew the identity of Jesus.
Large numbers of people attend church over the Christmas period – last year over 2.6 million, compared with an average Sunday attendance of one million. That’s 1.6 million people who we, as Christians, can directly challenge with the Gospel. Add to this the countless millions of people with whom Christians have regular contact, and the number of people we can share the Gospel with at this time of year is staggering. Christmas presents us, the church, with an amazing opportunity to tell people about Jesus.
People who don’t normally go to church respond to the Christmas message in many ways. Most don’t even stop to give Jesus any thought – they sing the carols and listen to the readings in the same way they have for many years, but that’s as far as they go. Their attitude is “Christianity is not for me.”
This article looks at the reactions of different people in Matthew’s Gospel to the birth of Jesus. It is interesting to note the similarities to the way people can respond to Jesus in the twenty-first century. There is much we can learn concerning witnessing to non-Christians, and also about how we respond to Jesus ourselves.
The first reaction to comment on is that of King Herod when he hears the news of Jesus’ birth. When he hears of the birth of the king of the Jews, we learn that he reacts angrily to the news. We learn that he was initially “disturbed” by the news (verse three), and urges the Magi to report back to him when they find the Messiah, so that he “may go and worship him.” It is Herod’s reaction when the Magi fail to return that is most worrying, however – he “gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under” (verse 16). We know that Herod was a ruthless character, since he had already murdered many of his family, including his wife and his three sons. He clearly believed that Jesus, the “one born king of the Jews,” presented a considerable threat to his rule.
Whilst there are thankfully not an enormous number of murderers around today, there are many people who feel threatened by Jesus. Many people prefer to build their own kingdoms, and devote their lives to the pursuit of power and wealth, just as Herod did. Many people believe that to honour or accept Jesus is to restrict themselves to a poor and subservient life, which they are not willing to adopt. They would much rather place their trust in the here and now, their jobs, their homes and their money, rather than gambling it all away in the hope that Jesus might be speaking the truth.
The reaction of the chief priests and teachers of the law is perhaps surprising. They were intelligent men, who had devoted their lives to learning the scriptures. They knew that the Bible foretold the birth of a Messiah, and knew that he was to be born “in Bethlehem, in the land of Judah.” Yet how did they respond to the news that their anointed one, their Christ, may well have been born? They were unfathomably apathetic, and did nothing. They could have got excited at the prospect of the coming of the Messiah, but no; they appear to do absolutely nothing. There’s a stark lesson here for all of us; no matter how much we may know about the scriptures, no matter how deep our knowledge of the Bible, being a Christian is more than this. Being a Christian is about personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as our saviour. Following Christ is not merely an intellectual exercise; it demands commitment at the highest level. We must give ourselves completely to Jesus. We must love him, and obey his commands. I wonder how many of those people who attend church at Christmas, but not at any other time, believe themselves to be Christians, simply because they believe in God? People in this category need to be taught what it means to be saved. Christmas is an ideal opportunity to do this.
The reaction of the Magi could not have been more different to the responses of Herod and the chief priests and teachers of the law. We can see their commitment straight away – they had travelled a not inconsiderable distance in order to seek out the child “born king of the Jews.” Why would they do so? It is possible to make two observations about the Magi just from this one statement. The Magi believed that Jesus’ status as king of the Jews was not something that he would acquire later in life. They knew that, though he was still an infant, he was already a very important person, whose status already demanded praise and worship from the travellers. We can also see from this statement that the Magi were not Jews; they chose to talk of Jesus not as “our king,” but as “king of the Jews.” Despite this, they still feel the need to honour the king of the Jews. They clearly recognised the importance of Jesus to the whole world – not simply the Jewish community.
How did the Magi react when they met Jesus? We’re told that they “bowed down and worshipped him.” They also presented the baby with gifts, which, at the time, was a custom generally performed by people who recognised the superiority of the recipient.
There must have been something about this baby to make the Magi respond in this way. Intelligent, learned and well travelled men, they felt the need to travel a great distance to honour the birth of a baby, who they regarded as superior to themselves, who they recognised as “king of the Jews,” and chose to bow down and worship him even though they were Gentiles. They even presented him with highly valuable gifts – no expense spared!
The adoration shown by these travellers from an eastern land is a marked contrast to the reactions of others mentioned in this passage. Whilst the birth of Jesus was met with adoration by the Magi, Herod responded with anger – so much anger that he felt the need to massacre innocent baby boys – and the teachers and chief priests responded with apathy. They knew the scriptures inside out, but failed to realise that the arrival of the Messiah demanded a response on their part.
How will you respond to Jesus this Christmas? Will you be like Herod, and try to shut him out of your life, to pretend he doesn’t exist, because of the threat he poses to your way of life? Or will you listen to the stories, and maybe even read them, yet fail to respond to the call Jesus makes on your life? Or will you respond with adoration to the birth of the Son of God, the one who is God, who ultimately gave himself for you on the cross at Calvary?
Christmas is a great time to think about what you believe, and to share your beliefs with others. Do take the advantage of the break to reflect upon your faith and where you stand with God. Don’t let this Christmas pass you by.
Anger? Apathy? Adoration? How will you respond to the birth of Jesus Christ this year?