In the Gospels, we see Jesus preaching on a hillside or entering a community, synagogue, or home, and then interacting with the people there. What does He say and do? What does He teach and what does it mean? Who gets healed and why?
As Christians read the Gospels, it is natural to focus only on Jesus. This is a good habit because Jesus is the true center of every situation. But it is also profitable to observe the responses of those around Him. How do they react – and what does that tell us about human nature? What does that teach me about myself?
In one of the Christmas passages (Matthew 2:1-18), even as an infant, Jesus is causing reactions. We see one type of response in the magi, who were unsaved pagans drawn to Israel by God. These men embraced the revelation of the “King of the Jews” – however they understood it – and worshiped Jesus (vs. 2).
There is another type of reaction in this passage – from Herod the Great, the king of Judea at that time. His response to Jesus was, well, quite different.
Herod was not Jewish. His father, Antipater, was Idumean – the Greek form of the word Edomite – while his mother was an Arab. Although Antipater appeared to worship the God of Israel sincerely, many in Israel considered him tainted by his Idumean ethnicity.
Rome had conquered Jerusalem in 63 B.C., but Israel and the rest of the Middle East were awash in the subsequent machinations of ambitious men and women. Antipater administered the nation on behalf of the Romans, which did not exactly endear him to the Jews, either.
Herod eventually came to the throne through the typical mayhem of the ancient world – war, murder, suicide, changing alliances, and the like. When he was finally installed as a client king by Roman legions in A.D 37, the Herodian dynasty was hated by many in Israel.
Herod the Great tried to ease that hostility by numerous building projects. While many of his projects were far too “Greek” for Orthodox Jews, he did try to curry favor by including new walls for Jerusalem and a rebuilt temple among the projects. Herod also publicly identified as a practicing Jew, but his decadent lifestyle undermined his religious claim in the eyes of plenty of Jews.
For this earthly king of Judea, it had been a long, contentious, and often violent climb to the top of the heap. Herod was brutally ambitious and, like many who have climbed to power over the dead bodies of enemies and competitors, he was paranoid about being overthrown. For example, fearing that members of his own family were plotting his demise, he had one of his wives and several sons executed. According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, Herod was so notorious for this that Emperor Augustus famously quipped, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.”
So, when Herod the Great heard that the true King of the Jews had been born, we can certainly understand that this violent ruler would perceive it as a direct threat. In fact, it ignited a war within him. That’s what Jesus does. After all, He came to bring a sword (Matthew 10:34). The First Advent inaugurated a conflict with the powers of darkness. The perceived temporal threat to Herod’s rule is a perfect symbol for what the coming of Jesus Christ does everywhere He goes.
A dead faith
It is amazing to note that when Herod heard the news that the “King of the Jews” had been born (vv. 2, 3), he believed it! He even understood the prophetic promise of the coming Messiah, as evident from his response to the news that the magi had come seeking the child:
“When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet…’” (vv. 3-5).
We know from the rest of this passage that Herod schemed to discover exactly where the child had been born in order to kill him. He had his own little kingdom on earth and had worked quite hard for it. No wonder he feared a rival who would threaten his sovereignty. In Herod’s mind, there wasn’t room for two kings – and he was right! He didn’t want God’s will to come to fruition because that would limit his will – and, in fact, it would end it.
What are we to make of this sort of “belief”? If Herod believed the testimony of the Scripture and the magi, isn’t that what we normally call faith?
Many Christians assume that all faith is the same. But that is not the case. In fact, we see that dead faith believes too! James says, “the demons also believe, and shudder” (James 2:19).
James’s statement about demonic “faith,” if that’s what we want to call it, comes in a longer passage about effectual faith in James 2:14-26. He calls this lack of a living faith it’s opposite – “dead” faith (vs. 17). In our present look at Matthew 2, we might also call it the “faith of Herod.”
There is a way to “believe” the news about Jesus and still seek to suppress it and destroy its influence in our lives or the lives of those around us. The truth is, this is what the fleshly nature always does, whether it rules unhindered in the heart of the unregenerate or seeks to regain control in the heart of the Christian. The flesh, like Herod, wants to rule; it rightly sees the coming of Jesus Christ as a direct threat to that desire, and the flesh considers ways to come out on top.
The key is that true faith accesses the power of God in such a way that it does something in us – it changes us. Such faith causes us to be born again and then flourish as a child of God. It changes our entire being, resulting in fruitfulness.
Herod is a picture of those who believed the news but were unaffected by it. Yet Christians should not be arrogant, for the same war exists in our own hearts, even after we have believed the gospel with saving faith:
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please” (Galatians 5:16, 17).
This phrase, “so that you may not do the things that you please,” is a bit puzzling. I take it to mean this: Because the flesh resists the Spirit, we sometimes find ourselves unable to do the godly things we desire to do; but because the Spirit also resists the flesh, we find ourselves unhappy in doing the evil we desire to do, as we are under conviction.
The opposite of the “Herod mindset” is what should characterize the Christian life. We are always “trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10). The Christian is one who has decided that they “no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf” (2 Corinthians 5:15). This is the true “believer” – one who has believed unto salvation and lives a life of serving Christ and being conformed to His image.
We must never follow in the perverse steps of Herod by trying to smother the fire kindled by the word of God or otherwise reject the truth. May we instead be like the magi, who traveled to see Jesus, and when they arrived, worshiped Him.