A couple of days ago, I begin reading through the New Testament from beginning to end. It’s something I’ve done before, and I can confidently attest to the power of doing such a reading plan. So oftentimes we hear verses so completely isolated and stripped of context that we forget that the books of the New Testament, just like any other book or story, were written with an intended order in mind.
So as I made my way through Matthew 2, I found a verse that I couldn’t believe I’d never noticed before (which frequently happens when I read in this aforementioned way):
1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. –Matthew 2:1-4 ESV
I’ve heard the narrative of Jesus’s birth countless times in my life, so it’s pretty difficult to not let my eyes glide over passages like this one because I know exactly what’s going to happen. I know that after the magi reveal to Herod the prophecy of a coming king, Herod is not a fan, but it’s the bolded phrase I wanted to focus on here. According to Matthew’s telling of the event, it wasn’t just Herod who feared someone the people would see as some fulfillment of a prophecy of a coming king, but also the overwhelming amount of Jews feared it themselves! What?!
Let’s wind the clocks back a couple thousand years for some historical perspective. Shortly after the reign of kings over a united Israel, the Jewish people split into two separate kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, and as a result, the Jews would be conquered and controlled by various world empires. After the Assyrians conquered the northern Israeli kingdom, the tribes of Israel are never seen again. In the meantime, here’s a rundown of Judah:
- Conquered by the Babylonians, who eventually conquer the Assyrians as well, but are…
- Conquered by the Cyrus II and the Persians, who allow the Jews to return back to the Promised Land, but the Jews are later…
- Conquered by Alexander the Great and the Greeks, who are shortly…
- Conquered by the Roman Empire
Why does this matter? Well as history shows, the people of Israel, a people set aside by God and called His own, a people who were promised freedom by God if they would live in repentance, instead spent almost their entire history under the rule of the kings of men. And after enough time, the Jews eventually just accepted their position. Though they were chosen to be a great nation, they rejected their privilege by turning from the ways of God and accepted the ways of men. But throughout all this history, the prophets of the Old Testament are still prophesying in the background about Jesus the coming King, though they are rejected, persecuted, and ignored, as Jesus alludes to in his parable of the tenants:
33 There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. 34 When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. 35 And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ 39 And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” –Matthew 21:33-41 ESV
Now with all of that in mind, let’s return to the verse. After centuries and centuries of enslavement, capture, and occupation, the thing that those old prophets had been referring to for so long was finally HAPPENING. Like HE’S COMING. Like no more games. Like noreallyitshappeningthistimernirlRonPaul.gif. And what is the collective response?
“Uh, but like, does he have to though? Because my family and I were just starting to get used to the whole Roman rule thing, and another change in who’s in charge would really make it confusing for the kids. So do ya think he could just, y’know, NOT come?”
You see, to the Jews, the pinnacle of human existence was to have your people group ruling over all the other one’s, so it’s hardly surprising that they were (and still are) expecting the prophecies to be about a literal king that would free them from the Romans (hence Herod’s freaking out). In that light, it’s really quite understandable why they were less than thrilled at the notion of what they perceived to be the coming of another rebellion with more fighting and revolution. You see, when mankind begins to believe their actions/words/objects carry intrinsic worth in God’s eyes, God’s promises to us become much more tangible, and thus much less supernatural. Allow me to illustrate this point with three examples:
- Jewish temple worship: God mandated that the Israelites construct a temple for Him so He could “dwell among them”. Over time, the Israelites started feeling quite proud of themselves, and they thought that they and only they were the ones that could bring God to Earth. God reminded them countless times this was not the case (Isaiah 66:1), but nevertheless, they took something supernatural (God using the temple) and made it artificial (God only uses the temple). Made it a bit awkward when the Roman Empire fell, the Jews dispersed, and suddenly there was no way for all of them to worship at the Holy Temple anymore (still awkward to this day for Judaism).
- Roman Catholic idol worship: Look, this isn’t the point of this exposition, so I’m not going to go too far down this rabbit hole; however, the illustration still fits. Almost immediately after Jesus left Earth and presented some VERY simple instructions for what the church was to do until He comes back (Acts 1:8), humans got back to their idolizing ways. This takes a few forms in the Roman Catholic church, namely the treatment of communion bread & wine as literally Jesus’s body & blood, prayer to figures of Jesus & Mary, and the inerrant authority of the Pope. It’s a major reason for why Christianity is dying in the Mediterranean countries today, as these places were the first to be subjugated under Constantine’s Holy Roman Empire. If you think you can literally see and touch the things of God, He becomes a lot less awesome.
- American fundamentalists’ “The Believer’s Prayer”: This one really hits home, as even I grew up believing that salvation was like a 3rd-grade schoolyard club password where you “say these words and you’re IN”. Seriously, can you imagine how frustrating it must be to be Jesus? Imagine hiring a group of people to paint your house, but they have no idea how to paint. They ask you what can be used to paint, so you give them one paint brush. You leave for a week, come back, and find them there still painting the house! Even worse, it appears only one person is even painting. When you ask what the deal is, they say, “Well, you gave us this brush, so we’ve been using this brush and only this brush since obviously no other brush would work.” This sounds silly, but it’s exactly what “The Believer’s Prayer”. It’s a case of human beings placing so much value on their words and language, which are man-made, that they think the words themselves are valuable.
This is why the collective Jewish response was not like that of John the Baptist (John 1:29). They believed God’s ultimate goal for their people was to be the leading political power ruling over all the nations on Earth, but the significance of such a goal can be rationalized and compromised. Little did they know that Jesus’s plan for them was much more radical than political change: He wanted to change their hearts. And with that in mind, perhaps the Jews had a reason to be scared.
Think of your own life. I know that all the time I ask God to change my heart, convict me of my sin, show me how I need to change, etc., but when I catch myself requesting this, I always have to ask myself, “Is that REALLY what you want?” Because transformation of the heart IS scary. We as human beings are conditional creatures; we like routine, order, and habits, and when those things are compromised, we instinctively resist. Don’t believe me? Think of that instant wave of panic that washed through your body when the person behind the sneeze-shield at Chipotle told you they were out of guacamole. See, as believers, we openly recognize we’re sinful, but we like to feel like we have a handle on our flaws. Even if we are convicted of our sin, whether by the Spirit or other believers, we like to think, “Okay, NOW I’ve confronted all the major things about me.” So we start to put down roots in our new way of doing things, which seems innocent enough, but being a follower of Jesus is about a LIFE lived in repentance. We never get “cleaner”! Look at the story of Uzzah for example:
1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand.2 And David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baale-judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim. 3 And they carried the ark of God on a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. And Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart, 4 with the ark of God, and Ahio went before the ark. 5 And David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before the Lord, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. 6 And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. 7 And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God. –2 Samuel 6:1-7 ESV
As sinful human beings who constantly undervalue the levity of our sin, we read a story like that and think, “Come one God, this was supposed to be a happy time, and you had to go kill the vibe (literally) just because the guy was trying to keep the ark from falling to the ground? In fact, it kinda seems like he was doing a good thing!” But R.C. Sproul provides a reality check for us in this story, as he says, “Uzzah presumed his hands were cleaner than the dirt. God said no.”
I challenge you, dear reader, to not be like the people of Jerusalem in Matthew 2:3. In two days, we will celebrate the coming of the King who wants to recklessly overthrow the sin that rules in our hearts. Am I saying we should live our lives constantly question the security of our salvation? Absolutely not! We’ve been made new, period (2 Corinthians 5:17). But it doesn’t stop there. We are constantly being refined as we pursue righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:18). I encourage you to never resist this revolution!
Thanks for tuning in.