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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:Jesus’ Arrival is Met with Massacre and Mourning
Text:Matthew 2:16-18 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 146:1,2,3                                                                             

Ps 101:1,2,3

Reading – Jeremiah 31:7-17; Matthew 2:1-18; Revelation 12:1-6

Ps 2:1,2,3,4

Sermon – Matthew 2:16-18

Hy 53:1,3,4

Hy 73:1,2,5

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

Beloved in our Lord Jesus, after Christmas, what happened? After that joyous day when Christ was born, what came of Joseph and Mary and their little child? The four gospels don’t tell us much. Compared to the slow build-up before the actual event, and then all the colourful detail of the events of that special day, the picture of what happened the day after, or even the month after, is really quite limited.

For the gospel writers start taking big and even bigger leaps forward, to when Christ was eight days old, and then forty days old, and then twelve years old—until suddenly He’s around thirty, and it’s time to be baptized and to begin his ministry. From the gospels it’s clear that the focus is how Jesus came to serve, to suffer, and then to die.

But getting back to Christmas, we do know of a few things that took place in the months after Jesus was born. There was, in the first place, the wise men or magi, coming to worship. Matthew goes from Christ’s birth (end of chapter 1), to the magi’s visit (beginning of chapter 2). Those two events, placed right next to each other in Scripture, have led many to think that the wise men came shortly after Mary gave birth. We sometimes picture her and Joseph, and the shepherds from the nearby fields, and the wise men, plus an assortment of barnyard animals, all gathered in a stable and crowded around baby Jesus in the manger on that holy night.

It probably didn’t happen quite like that. As we’ll see, the wise men probably came some months later. So their visit was one event after Christ’s birth. Another event was Joseph and Mary’s journey to Egypt. And there was also the massacre of the children of Bethlehem…

That’s right: after all the joy and celebration, there’s a bloodbath. God promised that a great king would come out of Bethlehem, and He’d forever rule in peace over God’s people. But what do we see instead? We see violence and gore in that sleepy village. We see a mass murder in David’s royal city.

Beloved, this is what happened after Christmas—a Satanic attack on the Saviour, a devilish attempt to derail God’s saving plan. Bethlehem becomes the frontline of a clash of kingdoms. It’s not a pretty picture, but in this we see the power and purpose of the Lord. I preach to you God’s Word from Matthew 2:16-18,

Jesus’ earthly arrival is met with massacre and mourning:

  1. Herod’s fury and its futility
  2. Jeremiah’s prophecy and its promise


1) Herod’s fury, and its futility: Our chapter begins with the well-known event of the wise men traveling to Judea from the East. We can’t spend much time on this event, except to see how it links to our text. For the wise men, following that strangely moving star, come to Jerusalem asking, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” (v 2). And that single question has a disastrous effect. For, “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (v 3).

A word or two about Herod. He is called “king,” even though Rome was fully in charge of the land. Herod had been appointed as governor by the Romans some years before, and he’d shown himself to be a useful leader. The Romans trusted him, so he was made “king,” basically someone to take care of their affairs on a local level.

He held power for a long time, and he came to be known as Herod “the Great.” In one sense, the title was deserved. In his province he organized many building projects, including a big renovation of the Jerusalem temple. He was the only ruler who was able to keep the peace in Israel for any length of time. Herod could even be generous with those under his rule; during a tough time economically, he lowered the people’s taxes.

But Herod had a terrible character flaw: he was almost insanely suspicious. If he suspected anyone of being a possible rival to him, that person was promptly killed. In one instance, he wiped out three hundred officers of his court. Later, he murdered his wife and his mother-in-law. He had his oldest son killed, and two other sons—so that they couldn’t take his throne. Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor, once said it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son!

There’s also a gruesome story about what he did when his own death was near. He was around 70, and he realized he would die soon. So he gave orders that a number of distinguished Jews be arrested on false charges and imprisoned. And Herod ordered that on the day that he died, they too, should all be killed. For Herod knew that few people would mourn his passing; still, he was determined that at least some tears should fall on the day he died! So he killed some innocent people.

All this makes predictable his reaction to the news about a child being born, one that the magi said was a king. Herod was troubled, and “all Jerusalem with him” (v 3), says Matthew—for everyone immediately thought about what he would do. Jerusalem was worried while they waited for Herod’s angry reaction.

But first some detective work. Herod calls the chief priests and scribes, and inquires where this future king is supposed to be born. That was an easy one for the religious leaders, for they knew the words of the prophet Micah, “You, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah… out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (v 6). Bethlehem was the place.

As an aside, it’s interesting to see the different reactions to Christ’s birth in this chapter. First, there is the humble worship that the wise men bring—and remember that these men are Gentiles and pagans; they are complete strangers to God’s covenant, but eager to find Christ and adore him! Then there’s the indifference of the Jewish leaders; they’re indifferent, because they know about Christ’s coming from the prophets, and now they have good reason to think that He’s arrived, yet they don’t do anything to seek him out—they stay in Jerusalem. And then there’s the hatred of Herod.

Jesus will always evoke a reaction from people. That’s the question whenever we listen to the preaching, or when we read the Bible: How do we receive the message of Christ? What do you do with the good news of Christmas, once Christmas is over? There’s a saying that arises from our chapter, “Wise men seek him still!” That’s true, but complacent people also ignore him still. And hostile ones oppose him still. It’s that last reaction at the centre of our text.

For Herod now summons the wise men, and he finds out the age of this so-called “king of the Jews.” Notice how Herod refers to the “young child” (v 8) and not the “infant,” suggesting that the event in our text was some months after Jesus’ birth. Perhaps Jesus wasn’t much more than a year old, but he was certainly no longer a newborn.

So Herod asks the magi to report back on where the child is once they have visited him. Here’s a very clear danger to Christ. If the wise men do what Herod wants, Jesus will soon be wiped out. It won’t take much: a detachment of soldiers sent to Bethlehem, one swing of a sword, and that’ll be the end.

The kingdom of darkness is on the offensive, but the kingdom of light isn’t going to back down. For God warns the wise men in a dream not to go back to Herod—for now, Jesus is safe. After this, it probably didn’t take Herod long to see that “he was deceived by the wise men” (v 16). Herod knows that he’s been bypassed, and he’s “exceedingly angry.” His anxiety levels sky-rocket—because that king is still out there!

So he puts a plan into action, swiftly and savagely. “He sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under” (v 16). If he couldn’t get him by a targeted assassination, he’d aim broadly. By killing all the boys under two, he wouldn’t miss.

The terrible deed was done, and blood flowed through the streets of David’s town. Now, there’s some debate over how many children might’ve been slaughtered. Some commentators suggest hundreds dead, even thousands. But considering the small size of Bethlehem—it was just a country town—it probably wasn’t much more than twenty or thirty boys who were killed. This doesn’t make it any less awful, but we should have a clear picture of what happened.

No matter the exact number, it’s a picture of extreme jealousy. Herod was now approaching his final years, but even an infant won’t be allowed to disturb his rule. This massacre was carried out solely to protect Herod’s fragile pride.

And what about those poor children, whose lives were ended so brutally? The event brings to mind those modern-day massacres in America—even in primary schools—where dozens are gunned down for no reason. It is senseless violence, the wiping out of young lives, just because they’re in the right place at the wrong time. Likewise the Bethlehem children are sometimes called the “holy innocents,” totally undeserving of death. Or was this a mass martyrdom, as some have said? After all, their blood was shed for Christ; it was for his cause that these little martyrs died!

We could probably get sidetracked if we focus on the victims, about whom we know very little. It’s better to focus on what we know. We know what this event is, and when we read the rest of Scripture, we know why it happened. It is Satanic, an attack against God and his Anointed One. For this Jesus came for a reason. This little one was born to defeat the powers of darkness, to crush the devil and his armies. And Satan knew it. This is why the devil has always been busy opposing the LORD, even using evil men to carry out his purpose.

For instance, think of Pharaoh’s order during the time of Israel’s slavery in Egypt. That time it was every Israelite baby boy who had to be killed. Pharaoh had his own reasons for this massacre, but so did Satan—he was trying to wipe out the line of promise, to destroy the people of God before they got to the land.

Satan has the same purpose in our text. Consider the timing of it. Why would Satan do it now? Jesus was just recently born, a helpless child. He had no crowd of followers to defend him, just two first-time parents to accompany him. The devil understood what was at stake, and it was becoming more urgent by the day. He knew that if Jesus was faithful, if he went on and carried out his mission, then it was all over.

This reality is described in Revelation 12. It’s a fantastic picture, the woman clothed with the sun and stars, and the fiery red dragon with seven heads. It’s a portrait of the church in world history—that’s the woman—and her great opponent the devil, who knows that Christ will somehow come from among God’s own people. And see what is happening, “The dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her child as soon as it was born” (v 4). As ever, in Matthew 2 Satan was poised to destroy the Saviour just as soon as He appeared. And for a moment, it looked like he had him—the trap was closing!

But Herod’s fury comes to nothing. Like Psalm 2 says, the nations rage, the kings of the earth plot and scheme, but He who sits in the heavens laughs: “How vain is all their frenzied opposition!” For just as God shattered Pharaoh’s anxious power, so now He frustrates Herod’s jealous plans. It was an ugly scene in Bethlehem, but Satan misses his target entirely.

Like Revelation 12 tells us, as soon as He was born, “the child was caught up to God and his throne” (v 5). This is not to overlook the rest of Christ’s life, but Jesus’ final victory is so certain, it’s as if the dragon can’t touch him, even for a moment—the dragon is left behind with an empty stomach. Why, even before we get to our text, we’re told that Joseph and Mary had already departed for Egypt and for safety. Because it wasn’t time yet for Christ to die. His death would come later, not at the end of a spear, but up on the cross! God would see to it that the joy of Christmas is followed by the even greater joy of Easter.

Nevertheless, there’s going to be pain and suffering for God’s people along the way. That’s the reminder we get from those slaughtered boys: Satan will stop at nothing to oppose the works of the LORD. He doesn’t play fair, and he doesn’t show mercy. Satan is capable of doing immense damage to the church, using the people, the pleasures, and the powers of this world to try and destroy all those who follow Christ.

And even if we’re vulnerable, he doesn’t ease up. Our text shows that if we’re weak in any way, this is exactly when Satan attacks. If you’re a young person who is struggling, or if you’re a bit isolated from other people right now, or if you’re really tired, these are the times when Satan works best. Maybe you’re young and a bit too confident in your strength and understanding, or you’re older and frustrated with the long fight against sin, or you’re really busy, too busy to pray much—Satan will seek to pull you away from Christ! He’s got the vulnerable in his sights. Satan might be defeated already, but he’s still insanely jealous, prowling around, looking for someone to devour.

Beloved, let us be warned by our text, and by that scene in Revelation 12. Be warned that the people of Christ are in for a rough ride. After the joy of Christmas, there’s still many miles to go. We need to stand on guard. We need to stand with God. And we can do so with a great confidence.


2) Jeremiah’s prophecy and its promise: Matthew wants to share the story of the Christ. We should think for a moment about who he’s telling the story to. Who was the original audience for this book? With some certainty we can say that his audience is Jewish, for Matthew always points out how events happened as the fulfillment of prophecy. Just in chapter 2 we heard that phrase three times, “[This happened]… so what was spoken might be fulfilled.” Matthew wants to show his Jewish audience beyond any doubt that Jesus is the promised Messiah.

In our text too, the massacre of those children happens in fulfillment of prophecy. It was spoken by Jeremiah, “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (v 18).

The passage Matthew is quoting comes from Jeremiah 31:15. The chapter foretells the distant day of Israel’s return from their exile in Babylon. It’s a happy chapter! It describes a time when the covenant is renewed, and things are so much better between the LORD and his people. Out of that positive passage, only verse 15 reflects Israel’s current (and dismal) situation. And that is this: countless mothers will still have to watch their sons go to battle, and see some die, and look on as those who survive are carried away as captives to Babylon. It’s a miserable scene.

So the prophet says that Rachel is weeping—Rachel is the wife of Jacob, and mother of some of his children. As she weeps, she represents all of Israel in their sorrow. And she is lamenting in Ramah, says Jeremiah, a town which was about ten kilometers north of Jerusalem. Why here? Ramah was the point of departure for the captives of Judah; this was where they were first gathered in camps before making the long journey into exile. Ramah was a place that had witnessed so much misery.

And that’s what the Bethlehem massacre is like. It’s like that time of great weeping in the land, a weeping so terrible that these mothers “refused to be comforted.” For in this life there can be a pain and sorrow that is so severe, that cuts so deep, a person doesn’t even want to hear words of consolation. In times of intense sadness and loss, words of comfort can sound so hollow. Hope is refused! Maybe later, but not now.

For think of what this meant, for the mothers of Israel, for the mothers in Bethlehem, “weeping for [their] children… because they are no more” (v 18). A child, though a small person, is a symbol of great promise, a pledge for the future. A child means that life is continuing, that the next generation is getting ready. So to lose all these children to exile, or to lose all these children in a senseless massacre, means that something very precious has been lost. They are gone, and they won’t ever come back.

On first reading then, our text ends very somberly: “they are no more” (v 18). That’s it! No silver lining, no positive spin. But of course there’s more. The story cannot end here. For those who know the LORD God, the story never ends on a sour note. For us there’s never a need to grieve like those who have no hope!

Think again of that original “massacre of the innocents,” back in Egypt. It was an attempt to wipe out the line of promise. But remember how God brought out of that misery one special baby, someone who’d become a mediator and deliverer for his people. And that was Moses. He was powerfully preserved, put into the River Nile not to die, but to live.       

Or think of Judah’s exile to Babylon. To be sure, Ramah was filled with weeping and lamentation, broken-hearted mothers everywhere. But that’s just one verse. In the very next verse God tells his people to stop crying, “Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for your work shall be rewarded, says the LORD, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy” (Jer 31:16).

The death of Rachel’s children was in fact the beginning of better things. After wrath, there is mercy. After judgment, there is salvation. The exile meant that a new era was opening up for God’s people. As the LORD says, “I will turn their mourning to joy, I will comfort them, and make them rejoice rather than sorrow” (Jer 31:13).

The same is true for the weeping that was sent up from Bethlehem. It too, is a painful prelude to something better, a preparation for great joy. For the time being, the Son of God was on the run. For now, the Messiah has to flee to a foreign land, even back to Egypt. But God is putting him out of the murderer’s reach, like He did for Moses so long ago. And when the time is right, God will call his Son out of Egypt.

Christ was born, and He was preserved, so He could do this one thing. He would offer perfect obedience to God, and restore his covenant people to the LORD forever—through his own precious blood.

And you just have to read one more verse, one verse past all the sorrow of our text, to see who really has the upper hand in this battle: “Now when Herod was dead…” (v 19). It’s a simple reminder that Herod the Great wasn’t so great after all. For all his proud plotting, he couldn’t escape death, and he couldn’t escape the heavenly Judge.

Make no mistake, our text is still terrible, violence and gore where there should’ve been celebration. By this the Holy Spirit is hinting that there’s going to be even more suffering in this story before it’s all told—a lot more suffering! Before it’s done, there will be a cross for Jesus, and a cross for all who follow him. It’s going to be a bloody fight, a brutal war, and people are going to get hurt.

In this world God permits terrible evils to be done. He even allows the mistreatment and persecution of his own people, the church. We wonder sometimes about the reason for so much wickedness, so much temptation, so much heartache… Comfort can be hard to find.

But remember the promise from Jeremiah: “There is hope in your future, says the LORD” (31:17). There is hope! We have the hope that God will dry every tear, and replace all sorrow with joy. If you are serving and sacrificing and suffering for Christ, then your hope is secure. After our time in exile, God will bring us home: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps 30:5).

For our text reveals that our King is on his throne. Despite the very worst that Satan can do, God is still working for the good of those who love him, still pressing onward to the final victory. In Christ, that’s his sure and unchanging promise. So in him we put our hope and confidence—until Christ comes again!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2018, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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