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 [Judeans]? We saw his star in the east 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 Christ 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 be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”
—Matthew 2:1-6, NIV
Something appeared in the eastern sky that was significant to Babylonian astrologers. They associated it with the birth of a new king of Judea. They must have assumed that the current king had just had a baby. So they came to visit Herod, probably to congratulate him on the birth of his newborn son.
The news was ominous, because Herod had no infant in the house. If a new king had just been born, it meant there was a rival to his throne.
Now of course to us it does not seem reasonable for a man of Herod’s age to fear a mere infant, but Herod was an excessively paranoid man who did not hesitate to kill anyone he suspected of real or imaginary plots against him, including members of his own immediate family. This paranoia had some grounding in his tumultuous family history; his father had been assassinated with poison. He also had rational reasons for fearing a rival, because he was an Idumean, not a Jew, not of the lineage of David. The Roman Senate had appointed him to his throne. The public did not view his reign as legitimate, and they would certainly rally behind a claimant to the throne who was of the house of David and had no connection with the hated Romans. Under those circumstances, it is easy to understand Herod’s fear when the Magi came to congratulate him on the newborn son that he didn’t have. It would also have upset all of Jerusalem to hear that Herod was nervous about his throne again; because in the past he had spared no excess to protect it.
Since there was no baby at Herod’s palace, the Magi naturally asked where the new king would have been born—and Herod was just as keen to know the answer to that question as they were! He feared the worst. It must be the Messiah! So he called together all his Bible experts and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. They had a ready answer from Micah 5:2. The Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. The fact that Bethlehem was David’s hometown would not have given him any comfort.
On the advice of the Bible experts, the Magi set out for Bethlehem, but not after Herod had attempted a ruse. He asked them to come back and tell him the exact location of the child, on the pretext that he wanted to pay him homage. Herod, in his paranoia, not only believed that he could assassinate the Messiah; he also thought he could get away with it!
As you know, the Magi found Jesus and offered Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; appropriate gifts for a newborn king. Gold is the royal metal. Kings in pagan lands had to offer frankincense to their gods, so the supply of frankincense would come in handy. Of course, the magi did not know that Jewish kings did not offer incense in the Temple, so in offering Jesus frankincense, they were, in a sense, unwittingly worshiping Him as God. And in those days when kings were vulnerable to assassination and treachery, the first duty of a new king was to plan his funeral. Myrrh, a funeral spice, was therefore a thoughtful and appropriate gift.
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh; a full set of appropriate gifts for a newborn king.
Okay so that’s what happened, you’ve heard this story many times, but haven’t you ever wondered about those Bible experts in Jerusalem? They interpreted Micah 5:2 as naming the birthplace of the Messiah:
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.
—Micah 5:2, NIV
Even if they themselves did not see the star, they should have suspected something was up when the Magi spoke of it, because they were thinking along Messianic lines. The star should have reminded them of Balaam’s oracle:
Then he uttered his oracle: “The oracle of Balaam son of Beor, the oracle of one whose eye sees clearly, the oracle of one who hears the words of God, who has knowledge from the Most High, who sees a vision from the Almighty, who falls prostrate, and whose eyes are opened: ‘I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.’”
—Numbers 24:15-17a, NIV
If they had put Bethlehem together with the star, they would also have found meaning in the fact that gentile potentates (of all people!) were on their way to give royal gifts to the newborn Messiah. It must have reminded them of another passage, also thought to be Messianic at the time:
Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.
May he live while the sun endures,
and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish
and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles
render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations give him service.
—Psalm 72:1-11, NIV
Hasn’t it ever struck you as odd that even though Herod’s Bible experts knew all that, they did not go to Bethlehem?
The Bible experts of that day—the scribes, the doctors of the Law, and most of the Pharisees—thought that spirituality consisted only of reading and studying the Scripture, developing a systematic theology, praying, fasting, and demonstrating their wisdom by pointing out all the sinners who were going to hell. They were content in their spirituality, which never left their skulls to enter their hands, heart, or feet. They had the weakest excuse for not going to Bethlehem to check things out, if nothing else curiosity should have driven them there, but it never occurred to them to put feet on their faith.
Today there are a lot of Bible experts like that. They memorize Scripture, they have a good prayer life, they tithe, they attend church, and some of them even mount public crusades against people they regard as sinners—even though Jesus commanded them to rescue sinners, not judge them—but they do not obey Jesus’ commandment to love strangers and enemies, to take up the cause of the poor, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner. No, they don’t associate with people like that. They have the spirit of religion, but it is stillborn within them, not incarnate in their heart, or hands, or feet.
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
—James 2:18-19, NIV
For it is by grace you are saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
—Ephesians 2:8-10 NIV
If you love me, you will obey what I command.
—John 14:15, NIV, (Jesus speaking)
In other words, we are not saved by works, but for works. If our salvation is genuine, it produces good works.
How many times have you heard that you are supposed to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? That personal relationship does not consist in making Jesus your invisible friend—you should have outgrown invisible friends by the age of ten. Your personal relationship with Jesus consists in this: He commands, and you obey. Don’t read the Bible to find out who is going to hell; read the Bible to find out how to bring them with you to heaven through your encouragement, love, and good deeds.
Have you let Jesus into your heart? Congratulations! That is the beginning of your salvation, not its perfection. Now let Him into your hands and feet as well. Let your legs take you wherever He leads you, let your arms embrace the sinners for whom He died, let your hands be busy about the business of His kingdom; distributing His mercy, love, and grace to sinners so that they can be transformed into saints.
The danger of Bible study, as Herod’s Bible experts demonstrated, is in thinking that spirituality begins and ends in your head. Your spirituality is worthless if it is confined within the covers of a book or limited to your heart; it must exude from your entire being, your attitudes, your comportment, and your good deeds. It is not enough to know that that the Messiah is born in Bethlehem, one must go there and pay Him homage, too.
For you see, ‘Christian’ is not just something to be, it is also something to do.