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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Herod's massacre reveals the ongoing epic battle of history
Text:Matthew 2:16-18 (View)
Occasion:Christmas Day
Topic:Spiritual Warfare

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 19

Hymn 16:3 (after the law)

Psalm 2:1,2

Hymn 20

Hymn 22

Scripture readings: Jeremiah 31:1-20, Matthew 2:1-15

Text:  Matthew 2:16-18

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

Christmas is a day of joy.  We’re remembering the birth of our Saviour, celebrating his appearance into this world for our salvation.  We have so many reasons to give thanks and praise to God.  And we have and we will. 

Yet there’s this passage in Matthew connected with the Christmas story.  It’s the dark side of what happened when Christ was born into this world.  Sadly, his first coming led to a massacre.  This passage is often neglected and forgotten.  People would rather focus on the manger scene, perhaps the shepherds, or the wise men.  It’s understandable that we prefer the safe, pleasant, and more manageable parts of the story.  Still, God’s Word includes this story and it’s here for a reason.  We’d be selling ourselves short if we would ignore it.  God is revealing something important to us here and we’d do well to pay attention. 

Ever since the fall into sin, there’s been this struggle.  It’s there in Genesis 3 already – God spoke of how there would be this conflict between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent.  The seed of the woman stands for God’s plans to bring rescue for fallen sinners.  The seed of the serpent represents Satan’s efforts to derail those plans.  God works out his plan through particular people, and Satan makes his efforts through other particular people.  In Scripture, there is always this ongoing battle between God and the devil.  It’s a key part of the central story-line of the Bible.  And it’s found here in our text on this Christmas morning as well.  I preach to you God’s Word as we see how Herod’s massacre reveals the ongoing epic battle of history.

We’ll consider:

  1. What Herod did and why
  2. How it fulfilled Scripture

Sometime after Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, wise men came from the East, probably from Babylonia.  They were Magi and they were searching for the newly born Jewish king.  They had seen a star and that was God’s way of bringing them west to Judea.  They came with the goal of worshipping this king – somehow they understood that he was worthy of their worship.  They knew what we know today as well – that Jesus is no ordinary human being.  He deserves to have us bow at his feet and adore him as our Saviour and God. 

The wise men or Magi ended up at Herod’s palace.  He was very interested in hearing about this newborn king of the Jews.  There are a couple of important background things that you need to know about this King Herod.  He was also known as Herod the Great.  He had a reputation for violence and murder.  You did not want to get on the wrong side of Herod.  He had one of his sons executed.  He also killed one of his ten wives and a mother-in-law.  Killing people who were in his way didn’t bother him one bit.  It was just something you had to do in order to preserve your power, the cost of being royal.  It was a cost that his conscience could quite easily bear.  So his violent personality and what it could do is one thing you need to know.

The other thing you need to know is his family background.  Herod was an Idumean -- that means that he came from Edom.  He was ultimately descended from Esau.  Esau was the twin brother of Jacob, the patriarch of Israel.  God’s line of covenant promise ran through Jacob’s family.  Esau and his family, however, frequently lined themselves up against God’s people.  In this ongoing Esau versus Jacob conflict, you see that seed of the woman versus the seed of the serpent conflict coming to expression.  In Psalm 137, we read of how the Edomites cheered on the Babylonians as they destroyed Jerusalem.  In Jeremiah, God’s prophet speaks of all these different nations which God is going to judge.  With many of them, there is a note of hope at the end.  For example, God says that he will restore the fortunes of Moab and Ammon.  But not Edom.  The Edomites get nothing but judgment and no hope.  Similarly, in Malachi 1, we find God speaking those famous words, “I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated.”  This animosity towards Edom is because of their constantly trying to derail God’s plans for redemption.  Herod is part of that story – and that’s vitally important to keep in mind as we approach our text. 

Herod the Edomite determined three crucial things at the beginning of chapter 2.  He found out that a baby had been born whom some were regarding as his competition.  This baby was supposedly a king of the Jews that Herod ruled.  Herod found out where the baby was born:  Bethlehem in Judea.  Finally, he figured out the approximate age of the child from the time that the star appeared to the Magi.  He had everything he needed to know.  And he had a plan.

His plan was to have the Magi do his work for him.  They would go and check it out and confirm that the baby was there.  He would trick them by telling them he wanted to worship too, and then they would come back with the report.  Then he could neutralize the threat.

Well, the Magi went over there and found the baby Jesus.  They joyfully worshipped him as they’d planned to do and brought their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  But a providential dream steered them away from going back to Herod.  They went a different route home.        

And as for Jesus and his family, they were also warned in a dream.  An angel told Joseph to flee to Egypt.  Joseph got an advance warning of what Herod was about to do.  They wasted no time in getting out of Bethlehem, leaving at night.  They stayed there in Egypt until it was safe to return. 

That brings us to verse 16.  Herod wised up to the fact that the wise men had deceived him.  He thought that he was tricking them, telling them that he wanted to know about this baby King because he wanted to worship too.  But they’ve turned the tables on him.  He’s the one who’s been tricked and he finally figures it out when the Magi don’t show up back in Jerusalem. 

His reaction was typical Herod.  He flew into a mad rage.  He’d had a good plan to deal with this baby “King.”  Now his plan was upended.  The wise men had ruined his Christmas!  Now he had to quickly come up with another plan and it didn’t take him long.  Instead of just killing one baby boy, he would kill all of them in Bethlehem and area.  That way he could be sure that this one threat would be taken care of.  Something had to be done and this was the only way.  Based on his talks with the Magi, he knew the approximate age of the child, he had to be less than two years old.  So the order went out to his soldiers:  kill all the baby boys under two in Bethlehem and area.

We have to let the horror of that sink in for a moment.  It’s easy to become desensitized to horrific violence, even when it involves babies.  Just think of how hard it is to get people to have strong feelings about abortion.  Even many Christians don’t really think too much about the horror of what abortion really is.  We don’t want to think about it.  It’s just so grim and disturbing.  What we have here in our text too shouldn’t be glossed over, that we just try not to think about it and the atrocity that it was.  We need to think about it. 

Just imagine it, put yourself in the scene.  You’re a Jewish family.  You have a son.  Let’s say he’s nine or ten months old.  Herod’s soldiers show up at your house and knock down the door to check if you have any boys two years old or under.  They take you by surprise.  They find your baby boy and kill him right then and there.  Then they move on to the next house.  Can you imagine the emotion, the heart-break?  Can you imagine what it must have sounded like that day in Bethlehem?  All those families weeping and wailing.  Unless you’ve lived in a war zone, I think it would be hard to really get how awful this was.  We can try to imagine it, but there’s no way we can fully understand. 

When you read commentaries on this passage, they often spend more time on the cold, clinical details.  Details like exactly how many children this involved.  Estimates vary.  Some say perhaps a dozen, others maybe 20.  On the high end, some say it could have been as many as 100.  In the end it doesn’t matter how many.  What matters is that it’s a massacre and it’s confronting.

It reveals that we live in a broken and really sinful world.  When rulers put helpless children to death just because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time – that’s messed up.  Our world is still broken, sinful, and full of injustice.  Helpless children are still put to death because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.  If they were just some inches down the birth canal, they would be considered human beings covered by murder laws.  If they were just a certain number of weeks gestation, the law would offer them protection.  In some countries, like Canada, there are absolutely no laws at all protecting the unborn.  They can be legally killed at any stage of pregnancy.  Just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Our text reminds us that this world is in desperate need of a Saviour to bring justice and healing.

But our passage reveals far more than that.  Also here is the ongoing epic battle of history.  We can’t know for sure whether Satan was directly at work in Herod’s life.  We can know that whatever Herod was doing here had Satan’s full support.  Satan would have cheered to see this agent of evil doing everything he could to destroy the seed of the woman.  Satan would have been very pleased to see this son of Esau using deception and murder to try and overturn God’s plans for salvation.  Satan doesn’t care about babies dying.  The more the better as far he’s concerned.  The battle has to go on, and sometimes battles involve collateral damage.  It’s the way it goes.  But despite this horrific massacre, God had the upper hand.  He protected his Son, who would be the Saviour of many.  In his love, he safeguarded the way of salvation and eternal life for us.  Whether Satan or Herod, whether the seed of the serpent or the son of Esau, they could not stand in God’s way.  They’re filled with rage, hatred, and violence, but they cannot overcome.  They have not overcome and they never will.  We sang from Psalm 2 and it speaks of how the nations rage against God.  But he sits in heaven on his throne and laughs at them.  They’re puny and insignificant compared to his almighty power.  Their scheming and raging will ultimately amount to nothing.      

That’s encouraging for us today too.  Because the battle rages on.  The decisive victory was won at the cross.  When Christ died for our sins and rose again, he stomped on the head of Satan, dealing the decisive blow.  But Satan and the world still don’t stop trying to stymie God’s salvation plans.  In this world, the gospel is not only mocked, but hated.  Christians who want to follow God’s Word are despised, portrayed as bigots and idiots.  Recently, the Mercury newspaper featured a story about Christian Schools Tasmania.  This organization confirmed that they’re allowed to sack employees who don’t actively attend church and exhibit the fruits of a living Christian faith.  Of course, the world gets up in arms over this.  They think that this is unacceptable.  They say that Christian schools should have to keep staff who aren’t Christians, otherwise it’s discrimination.  These types of stories are appearing more and more.  The world hates the gospel, the world hates the Saviour, the world hates the Church that wants to stand fast on the Scriptures.  They will scheme and plot and, at times, sometimes like in our text, there will even be violence and murder. 

But we know the end of the story.  We already know the outcome of this epic battle.  It’s the whole message of the book of Revelation.  Sometimes people struggle with Revelation and what it means.  But its message can be put in two simple words:  Jesus wins.  Loved ones, we are on the winning side in the epic battle of history.  Our God will conquer.  He protected the baby Saviour from Herod and his soldiers and made it so that the plan of salvation would proceed.  He’s also going to see everything through to the end and we can be confident of that.             

Moving on to verse 17 in Matthew 2 and we find that this massacre connects to what was said in the Old Testament.  It says that Herod’s atrocity fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah.  Of course, we know that Jeremiah was led by the Holy Spirit to write the words quoted. 

First, I need to point out here that what Jeremiah wrote was not originally a prophecy in the sense of a prediction.  This is from Jeremiah 31:15 and this verse in that context was an observation, not a prediction.  It was something that Jeremiah witnessed in his day, not something that lay off in the distant future.

So what did Jeremiah witness?  You need to understand something about the time in which he lived.  Jeremiah lived during the time of the Babylonian exile.  For a long time, the people of God had been disobedient to him.  They insisted on worshipping idols, and when they worshipped God, they insisted on doing it their own way.  The people of God became more proficient at wickedness and injustice than the nations around them.  God noticed, as he always does.  Because they were his people whom he loved, he sent prophets to warn them of coming judgment if they would not turn from their sinful ways.  When they did not repent, he decided to discipline them by first sending the Assyrians to take the northern tribes into exile, and then later the Babylonians to take the southern tribes into exile.  Jeremiah witnessed that.  He saw the tragedy of large numbers of God’s people taken from the Promised Land.  That’s what Jeremiah 31:15 was originally referring to.  It was Jeremiah’s poetic way of describing the grievous event of the exile. 

“A voice was heard in Ramah,” – Ramah was a short distance north of Jerusalem.  It was on the road that the exiles took on their way to Assyria and Babylon.  It was also a town on the border of the northern and southern kingdoms.  Because it was a border town it represents both parts of God’s people from that time.  It’s a poetic way of saying, “A voice was heard throughout the land.”

The voice was one of weeping and lamentation.  It was “Rachel weeping for her children.”  You probably remember Rachel as the favoured wife of Jacob in Genesis.  Her sister Leah was also married to Jacob.  Leah was the one who had no problem getting pregnant and having children.  Rachel went to Jacob in Genesis 30:1 and said, “Give me children, or I shall die!”  Eventually God opened her womb and she gave birth to Joseph.  Later she had another son, Benjamin, but she died while giving birth to him.  So biblically speaking, Rachel is associated with children and grief over having children and bearing children.  Rachel was a woman who understood from personal experience how the fall into sin has made pregnancy and child-birth hard.  Leah made it all look easy, Rachel always did it tough.

Rachel is also significant because, like Ramah, she can also represent both the north and the south.  Remember, she was the mother of Joseph.  The tribes descended from Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim dominated the north, and sometimes the northern tribes were just called Ephraim.  The southern tribes were Judah and Benjamin, Benjamin was the other son of Rachel.  So like Ramah, Rachel could represent the whole land.  She was the mother grieving over the children of Israel as they were shipped out into exile.  This is a picture of grief personified – grief at disappearing children taking on a human voice.    

Moreover, the Holy Spirit said through Jeremiah that Rachel refused comfort.  She was like the parent who had lost children in an accident and who just can’t be consoled.  The grief is just there and it’s raw, it’s out of control, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  You can only stand and watch.  This is the grief that accompanied the exile, the grief that Jeremiah witnessed in his day. 

Now our passage says that the grief experienced in Bethlehem at Herod’s massacre evokes or echoes the ancient grief at the exile.  Like I said earlier, it doesn’t mean that Jeremiah 31:15 predicted the massacre.  It just means that what happened in Bethlehem adds another layer of meaning to that passage.  The exile was the original context, but it has meaning in this context too.  The meaning is this deep inconsolable grief of bearing children into a broken world only to lose them because of the brokenness.  In one instance, it was exile.  In the other instance, it was a tyrant’s rage.  It was the epic battle of history that unleashed the weeping.

We read from Jeremiah 31 before the sermon and I wonder if you noticed that this one verse quoted by Matthew really sticks out in that chapter.  It sticks out as the only verse in that context that has anything negative.  It’s the only verse that speaks about weeping and lamentation.  The rest of the chapter is about comfort.  The rest of the chapter is about God bringing his people back from exile, turning mourning into joy.  The rest of the chapter gives the rest of the story.  It gives the big picture.  And in fact, because of that big picture, in the verse after Jeremiah 31:15, God commands Rachel to stop weeping, because the exiles are coming back.  And in verse 17 of Jeremiah 31, “There is hope for your future, declares the LORD, and your children shall come back to their own country.”  It’s not hopeless! 

It’s possible that Matthew was writing his gospel with Jewish readers in mind and, if that’s true, then they would have automatically picked up on this.  The context of the original quote reminds us that even though there seems to be this enormous grief, God is still on this throne.  He gives promises to encourage. 

Jesus was sent into exile too.  He had to spend some time in Egypt.  But he would return and eventually bring redemption for believers.  Though there was mourning for a time with the deaths of these children, eventually there would be comfort and joy for God’s covenant people who believe in Jesus.  Reconciliation through his blood shed on the cross would become a reality.   There is consolation in the victory of Jesus over all the powers of Satan and sin.  There is comfort in the glorious conclusion of the epic battle of history.

Loved ones, for us today, until Christ returns we are going to continue living in a spiritual war zone.  Sometimes the spiritual war even becomes physically violent.  We have global brothers and sisters who live with that as a constant reality.  The battle rages on and it’s filled with tragedy.  But you know what Christmas does?  Christmas gives us hope.  It gives us hope, not because of the birth of a baby as such.  But because of who that baby was and what he did, what he’s doing, and what he will do.  All the tragedies of massacres and persecutions and whatever other tribulations may come our way, they can’t take away the hope we have in Christ.  He died and he rose again.  He lives.  He reigns in heaven right now.  Today we commemorate his first coming, but we do so in eager anticipation of his second coming.  It’s then that everything wrong in this world will finally be made right.  All the babies who ever died at the hands of wicked tyrants will get public justice, so will all the babies who died at the hands of abortionists.  All the Christians who faced injustice for their faith will see justice when King Jesus returns.  The “sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in his wings” (Malachi 4:2).  We have joy today at this Christmas in 2016, but it pales in comparison to the joy we’ll have when the glorious Day of the LORD comes.  AMEN.                                            


Heavenly Father,

Thank you for sending your dearly loved Son in this broken and dark world.  Thank you that we have hope in him, in what he’s done, what he’s doing, and what he will do.  Please help us with your Spirit to hold on to that hope.  We think of all the injustice that plagues this world now.  The wickedness breaks our hearts.  In our text, we saw children dying because of a tyrant’s jealous rage.  Today we see people still dying for senseless reasons, including countless unborn children.  We see the suffering of our brothers and sisters who live under persecution.  We see so much hurt and trouble and we ask with the martyrs in heaven, “O Sovereign Lord, how long?  How long till our Saviour appears again?” We pray for it to happen quickly.  We pray for justice, vindication, and final redemption.  As we wait, please keep us faithful.  Please help us to keep our eyes fixed on our only Saviour Jesus. 

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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