Books: The Path to the Cross — Chapter 2

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Chapter 2

When you can’t see the bottom line

Jesus’ royalty threatens Herod

Every generation has its pet phrases to express things. When I was growing up, the word “cool” described just about anything good. With the proper voice inflection and context, you can make phrases like that mean anything you want.

Teenagers regularly create such new expressions, but adults can also get in on the action. In conversations among men, and especially older businessmen, someone will, at appropriate points, mention “the bottom line”.

The bottom line gets its meaning from the world of accounting. When you get your bank statement, a little box on the page tells you the current balance; that’s the bottom line. By extension this phrase comes to mean the outcome, the summary or the end result.

Our problem is that we can’t usually know what the bottom line of our decisions is going to be. What do we do then? In fact, we must decide some of the most important issues of our lives without knowing the bottom line. In choosing a marriage partner, a career, a home, and many other things, we must make a choice without knowing the eventual outcome.

These uncertainties about personal decisions are compounded by other factors far beyond our control. Terrorism, crime, and economic crisis spread their fears into the lives of almost every American. Faraway events— tsunamis, earthquakes, political turmoil in the Arab world — can disrupt our whole culture.

In such an atmosphere I find it comforting to know that behind the scenes God rules as King over all. To know that my allegiance to Jesus Christ makes me a part of his kingdom and affords me his protective care helps to calm me in the midst of many chilling threats.

Is there any evidence of this principle at work after the birth of Jesus? Oh yes!

Haunting Similarities in Jericho

By intentionally including the names of five women in the genealogy of Jesus, Matthew hints at Old Testament stories that relate to Jesus’ birth (see Table 1 in the Appendix to chapter 1). Using these stories for comparison with the story of Jesus and his parents involves an ancient Jewish technique called midrash. Matthew used midrash throughout Matthew chapters 1 and 2 to introduce additional information.

By using the name Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute who hid the Israelite spies in Jericho (Joshua chapters 2 and 6), Matthew informs us of a relationship between her story in the Old Testament and Matthew 2:1–12. This key will help us unlock the historical background for Matthew’s story about the visiting Magi — learned Persians or Babylonians who studied signs — who worship Jesus during the frantic execution of a deadly plot by King Herod to kill him.

Table 3 — see the Appendix to this chapter —details the many similarities between the story of Rahab and Matthew’s account of the Magi. You may want to refer to this table again after learning more about Herod and the events at the end of his reign.

The parallel story of Rahab helps determine that King Herod was strongly involved with Jericho during the general time of Jesus’ birth and the arrival of the Magi. Ancient Jericho was located fourteen miles east of Jerusalem. By correlating that fact with the history written by Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, we learn that the Magi appeared during the final few months of Herod’s life and reign. Such timing fits perfectly with the findings of modern scholarship that Jesus was born just a few months before Herod’s death.[1]

Where is the king?

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.”
(Matthew 2:1–2)

The Greek text of Matthew 2:1 provides a bit more dramatic impact than the translation given above. I would put it like this: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, behold Magi from the east appeared in Jerusalem.” The Magi suddenly and unexpectedly burst upon the scene in Jerusalem. I believe they came secretly and quietly, similar to the way that the Israelite spies entered Jericho in the parallel account about Rahab.

The Magi asked a question filled with threat: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” Herod, who was ruling as a vassal king under the Romans, had not descended from the house of David. New Testament scholar Stanley D. Toussaint says, “Herod, of the Idumaean dynasty, was a usurper.”[2] Rome had put him in power to reward his cooperation in previous wars.

The people hated Herod because he was not a Jew and also because he had killed members of his own family who were Jewish. So the question posed by the Magi meant double trouble for Herod. It reminded the people who heard it that Herod was not a Jew and that another had been born to be king over his own people.

A King Searches for the King

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.
(Matthew 2:3)

To protect his throne, Herod had informers and agents spread throughout Judea. Herod ruled his territory much like a modern dictator, using military force and any other means — such as torture and death — he considered necessary to hold power. Herod was agitated by foreign visitors asking threatening questions about his throne.

I always understood why Herod was disturbed, but it puzzled me that all Jerusalem was alarmed as well. Everything fell into place when I studied the period through the eyes of Josephus (A.D. 37 – c. A.D. 100), the Jewish historian of that era.

When Christ was born during the final months of Herod’s life, the king was seventy years of age. Herod had been stricken with various physical problems — literally from head to foot — and the Jews did not expect him to live much longer. False rumors of his death regularly produced confusion.

During his final illness, Herod became even more ruthless and paranoid. Anything that threatened him increased the chance that people would suddenly be grabbed off of the street, hauled off to one of his fortresses, and tortured for information.

The birth of Jesus brought a fresh threat to Herod’s rule, but there had been others. Over the years, five of Herod’s wives and seven of his sons figured into the struggle to succeed him. Herod dealt with his own family just as ruthlessly as he did with those outside. He murdered one of his wives and three of his sons over the course of his life because he suspected plots.

So, for their own self-protection, the people living in Jerusalem kept themselves aware of anything that might disturb King Herod. Such events could initiate a new reign of terror!

Partly from Matthew’s own lead and partly from the history written by Josephus, we know that Herod spent considerable time in Jericho during the period of time in which Jesus was born and the Magi arrived in Jerusalem. By living in his winter palace at Jericho, Herod could stay about ten degrees warmer during those months than he could in Jerusalem. And he also had access to warm water baths on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea. His physicians held out hope that those baths might cure his many ailments.

As Herod lay ill in Jerusalem and Jericho, God unfolded his own movements right under the king’s nose. Herod could never lay a hand on Jesus.

Part of the story’s irony involves Herod exerting all of his energy to find and kill Jesus, while the Lord casually brought the Magi into the capital city and on to worship Jesus without Herod being able to stop it. Jesus and his parents enjoyed complete safety in the midst of danger because of the Lord’s hidden rule.

Herod’s Searching Questions

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.’”
(Matthew 2:4–6)

Herod summoned the Jewish religious leaders — in either Jerusalem or Jericho — and kept on pressing them for information about the birthplace of the Messiah. From the Scriptures they informed him rightly that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. Even with this accurate word, Herod could not alter the bottom line.

The material quoted by the experts from the Old Testament actually comes from two different places. The name Bethlehem comes from Micah 5:2, while the closing statement about Jesus, saying he “will shepherd my people Israel,” comes from 1 Chronicles 11:2.

In both Old Testament contexts, the immediately preceding verses have a message relevant to the passage in Matthew. Micah spoke of a walled city against which a siege is laid and in which a ruler dies (Micah 5:1) — quite reminiscent of the Jericho story (Joshua 2 and 6). As we will see, Herod, like the ancient king of Jericho, will also die in Jericho while trying to oppose God.

Similarly, 1 Chronicles 10:14 tells how the Lord put Saul the murderous king to death and turned the kingdom over to David. Just as Saul often tried to kill David and prevent him from becoming king of Israel, so Herod tried to kill the son of David, Jesus, the coming King.

Matthew is extensively using the comparative techniques of midrash to add detail from these stories.

An Audience with a King

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.”
(Matthew 2:7–8)

Herod next summoned the Magi secretly, either in Jerusalem or Jericho. He took tremendous pains to extract precise information from them.

Undoubtedly, Herod would have worshiped Jesus with the point of a knife if only he could. Herod hoped to turn the Magi to his own purposes through their zeal to find Jesus.

The “Star” Leads the Way

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.
(Matthew 2:9–10)

The Magi could not know for sure that Bethlehem was their destination. They were relying on God’s guidance to bring them to the right place. When the supernatural light appeared to them once again, they experienced a joy verging on ecstasy.

Contrary to what you have heard, the “star” that guided the Magi was not a star in the night sky. This shining light guided them in such a specific way that it must have been a more earthbound supernatural light that guided them to their destination.[3] Matthew tells us that the light “went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was” (Matt. 2:9).

New Testament scholar Craig Keener says, “The description of God’s leading the Magi by a moving, supernatural sign may recall how God led his own people by the fire and cloud in the wilderness (Exod. 13:21–22).”[4]

Conduct a simple experiment for yourself. Go out tonight, look into the sky to pick out a star, and then ask yourself over which house that star is standing. You will quickly realize that a normal star could not guide anyone to a specific location. In my city, a normal star positioned near the horizon could be considered to stand over thousands of houses on a line toward the horizon.

Further, such a star could as easily have guided King Herod’s agents as it did those eastern wise men. Extensive efforts to relate this supernatural light to conjunctions of planets, comets, and other astronomical objects all amount to misguided effort. The “star” was a guiding miracle of God, given to a select group of men so that the Lord could carry out his plans in the midst of deep danger.

Jewish shepherds first bowed down to the newborn Jesus on the night of his birth. Much later — perhaps as much as 45 days — the Gentile wise men came to worship. It is amusing that while Herod is called king many times in the course of this passage, no one bows down to him! Only Jesus receives honor and worship. Matthew indirectly makes clear that Jesus is the real king, not Herod.

Just as the spies did not go back to Joshua’s army by the same route after scouting Jericho (Joshua 2:15–24), so also the Magi returned to their own country by another path. They avoided returning to Herod, and thus they completed the God-given mission undertaken with Herod’s full knowledge. Under God’s guiding hand, Herod proved powerless to stop them or to use them for his own purposes. God wrote the bottom line!

How It All Fits Together

Now we are ready to weave Matthew’s account together with secular history in an attempt to reconstruct the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. (To examine this information in table form, see Table 4 in the Appendix to this chapter.)

In December, 5 B.C.[5], Mary gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, just five miles south of Jerusalem. Angels and shepherds worshiped him. Forty days after his birth, Jesus was dedicated by his faithful parents at the temple in Jerusalem.

With disturbing suddenness, the Magi arrived in Jerusalem. They began quietly asking questions about the one who had been born king of the Jews. Herod’s many agents soon carried word to him and greatly disturbed his suspicious mind. All Jerusalem feared the consequences.

Because of his illness, Herod first summoned the religious leaders to his bedside — in Jerusalem or Jericho — to reveal to him the location where the Messiah of the Jews would be born. Next he secretly summoned the Magi to reveal all they knew (Matt. 2:7). Then he sent the Magi to find Jesus and report back to him.

The Magi, guided by the supernatural light, found Jesus at a certain “house” (Matt. 2:11) and worshiped him. Then they departed without returning to Herod because God had warned them not to.

In response to another dramatic warning from the Lord, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fled to Egypt (Matt. 2:13). This timely warning spared them from Herod’s own order that the children near Bethlehem be put to death. Herod had become enraged when he learned that the Magi had eluded him and ordered the death of Bethlehem’s youngest children (Matt. 2:16) — thought to be about twenty in number.[6]

As word spread that Herod’s illness was entering its last stages, his opponents in Jerusalem became more bold. Herod had erected a golden eagle on the temple in violation of Jewish law. Suddenly a rumor circulated that the king had died. Buoyed by this news, two men named Judas and Matthias incited a crowd to tear down the golden eagle.

But the rumor proved false, and temple troops managed to seize forty of the men and take them before the ailing king. Herod sent them to Jericho for trial and punishment.

By this time, Herod’s illness was growing worse, and the mineral baths near the Dead Sea were not helping. Herod’s son Antipater, who was in prison in the winter palace at Jericho, heard an outcry when his father attempted to kill himself with a paring knife. Antipater celebrated, and that act cost him his life because his father’s suicide attempt had been stopped!

Five days later, the ruthless, death-dealing Herod died in Jericho. Everyone rejoiced!

A Backward Glance

In the midst of an evil, corrupt kingdom, God sent a defenseless family and helpless baby to face many uncertainties and real dangers. But God protected them through it all, fulfilled the prophecies about Jesus’ birth and carried out his plan for the family’s escape without Herod being able to stop it.

That gives me tremendous hope when I run into the threats and dangers we all face in our own lives. Through faith in Jesus Christ, we also belong to God’s family, and he can write the bottom line for us too.

Applying the Truth to Life

Use the following ideas to allow the principles from this story to change your own life:

1. God’s oversight of our world is a reality often hidden from our view by the clamor and tension of current world events. Too often we fearfully focus our attention on the news media and forget God. He has the power and authority to intervene at any level, including the personal circumstances of this world’s most wicked rulers. I think these facts should lead you to take the following steps:

Pray for God’s guidance for your governing officials.

Pray that God will oppose the power of evil rulers.

Pray for the Lord’s protective care over your own household.

2. Clearly, the obedience of the Magi and Joseph to God’s command spared them from death. Those who respond to the King of heaven and earth are shielded from much of the pain and sorrow that sin brings upon our world. How about you?

Do you know God’s revealed will, the Scriptures, so that you know how to respond to life-situations that you face?

Do you see yourself as one who generally obeys God’s principles for living?

Are you growing wiser and more responsive to God as each year fades into another?

3. What important situations are you facing right now whose outcome you can’t see?

How do you feel about the uncertainty?

What involvement do you think God could have in your circumstances?

A Final Word

I generally don’t take risks unless compelled to. So, it still baffles me that before leaving for Dallas Theological Seminary I quit a very secure job without knowing whether the Seminary would accept me. To do otherwise would have delayed my application for two more years. It felt funny to burn my bridges behind me without having a clear path ahead. The bottom line lay far beyond my control.

In such times of uncertainty, God’s hidden rule over my life helps to chase away anxiety. I know that he can totally control the bottom line. Just as he protected Jesus and his parents from Herod’s evil schemes, so he can shield me in hidden but powerful ways. That knowledge helps me to take necessary risks and to make choices.

The assurance of God’s hidden rule will comfort you, even when you can’t see the bottom line!

 Coming next week . . .

In Chapter 3 (next week) we learn that Mary, the mother of Jesus, experienced great stress and even exhibited disobedience due to the dangers directed toward her family.

 Appendix to Chapter 2

Table 3 illustrates the kind of comparison that lies at the heart of the midrash technique Matthew used to add depth to his brief account about Jesus.

Table 3

Matthew 2:1-12 Joshua 2 and 6
Magi seek facts (2:2) Spies seek facts (2:1)
King and city disturbed (2:3) King and city disturbed (2:9)
Threat to rulership (2:3) Threat to rulership (2:9–12)
Search party sent out (2:8) Search party sent out (2:7, 22)
Magi succeed (2:11) Spies succeed (2:23)
Return by another route (2:12) Return by another route (2:22)
King dies in Jericho (2:15) King dies in Jericho (6:21)
Woman and family safe (2:14) Woman and family safe (6:25)


Table 4

Events Related to the Birth of Jesus

December, 5 B.C. Jesus born in Bethlehem (Matt. 1:25)[7]
February, 4 B.C. Jesus dedicated at Temple (Luke 2:22)
Magi arrive (Matthew 2:1)
Herod summons teachers (Matthew 2:4)
Herod summons Magi (Matthew 2:7)
Magi find Jesus (Matthew 2:11)
Magi depart (Matthew 2:12)
Jesus and parents flee (Matthew 2:14)
Feb., 4 B.C. (?) Herod orders infants killed (Matthew 2:16)

c. Mar. 10, 4 B.C.

Golden eagle incident at Temple*[8]

March, 4 B.C.

Sick Herod goes to Jericho*[9]
March, 4 B.C. Herod executes his son Antipater*
March, 4 B.C. Five days pass*
March, 4 B.C. Herod dies in Jericho*

*Source: Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian.

[1] Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976) 13–27.

[2] Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold the King (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1980) 52.

[3] Agreeing is R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 69.

[4] Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1993) 49.

[5] Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, 27.

[6] R.T. France, Matthew, 85.

[7] Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, 27.

[8] Peter Richardson, Herod (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999) 15.

[9] Richardson, Herod, 18.

Copyright © 2011 Barry Applewhite. All Rights reserved worldwide.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!