With all the foofaraw and hullaballoo of the Christmas season, do you ever wonder if people really understand what it’s all about? They celebrate frenetically but have little clue about the reality of Christmas. This is nothing new. Most people were oblivious to the birth of the Savior when it happened. The residents of Bethlehem, even those where Mary and Joseph sought refuge, could have had a front-row seat to the birth of the Messiah but were clueless. The intelligentsia of Israel was ignorant and blind. They didn’t even walk six miles to find out if the one they’d awaited for centuries was being born.
Then there is the perennial question. “Mary, did you know?” Of all people, she knew the most – that her son was the Savior, the Messiah, the Son of God, but at that moment, there was likely much that she didn’t understand. The shepherds? They rejoiced at the angel’s announcement and journeyed to see the baby, but what happened next? Was that night just a blip on the screen before they returned to their dull lives? Did they follow Jesus when his ministry began? The Magi? They journeyed and paid homage to the young boy who was now likely crawling or taking his first steps, bowing low and giving gifts to the one born king of the Jews. Did they know he was more than a political ruler? Did they understand the nature of his kingdom? Another mystery.
Did anyone, other than Mary, and perhaps Joseph, show any true understanding of Jesus’ nature and Christmas’ real meaning? I will offer a suggestion today; one you may not like. There was another person who understood Christmas almost as well as Mary. His evil reactions demonstrated his understanding of Christmas as Mary’s obedience demonstrated hers. Before you pick up stones to stone me, hear me out.
Let’s start, though, with some background and analysis of the Birth Narratives.
Chronology of Jesus’ Birth Narratives
The Gospels record three accounts of the birth of Jesus, called Birth Narratives. Mark picks up Jesus’s story when he is an adult, but Matthew, Luke, and John present unique perspectives – utterly unique. John speaks of our Christmas God, giving a heavenly perspective on how the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Luke presents a Christmas Savior, telling how in Bethlehem the Christ, our Lord, had been born to save the world. Today, we examine the presentation of Matthew, who presents our Christmas King. He shows Jesus as Messiah, the one God chose for the eternal throne to rule this world. Each Gospel writer picks the stories that demonstrate the theme he is telling. No story appears in both Matthew and Luke.
Luke 1 opens by recounting Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah to announce the birth of John, then to Mary, telling her that she will bear a son. Mary visits Elizabeth, giving the powerful “Magnificat” which declares her faith in God. Luke 1 ends with the story of John the Baptist’s birth. Matthew 1:18-25 repeats some details from Luke 1, but from Joseph’s side. He is upset because his betrothed is with child, though she claims to be a virgin. He is going to divorce her quietly until the angel appears with the full story. This may have happened while Mary was at Elizabeth’s. Joseph takes Mary as his wife, but they remain chaste until Jesus is born. Luke 2:1-7 fleshes out the story, describing the trip to Bethlehem and Jesus’ birth. Then, Luke 2:8-20 tells of the angels appearing to the shepherds on the hillside to announce the birth of Christ in Bethlehem and the shepherds’ visit to the newborn Jesus. Luke 2 also records Jesus’ visit to the Temple on the eighth day and the meetings with Simeon and Anna. Some months later, Magi appear, according to Matthew 2:1-12, disturbing the peace of Jerusalem, eventually finding a toddler named Jesus in a house in Bethlehem and paying homage to him. Herod orders the boys of Bethlehem killed, but God warns Joseph, and they flee to Egypt. Sometime later, they return to Nazareth where they live until Jesus is around thirty and begins his public ministry. Luke finishes his narrative with the story of Jesus’ trip to the Temple at age 12 but other than that, Jesus’ life from birth to baptism, his life is shrouded in mystery.
Clues from Matthew
The stories from Matthew’s gospel – Joseph and the angel, the virgin birth, Herod, the atrocity, the flight to Egypt – are familiar, yet many details are mysterious. We know broad brushstrokes about the Magi, but little more. As we approach Matthew’s gospel, we become Bible detectives and search for textual clues to discern the themes of the Birth narratives in his Gospel. There are two that we see. The first is not subtle.
Jesus the Messiah
Look at the genealogy that begins his Gospel. “This is a record of the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah, a descendant of David and of Abraham.” Jesus the Messiah. Look on to Matthew 1:16-18. The theme is undeniable there.
“Mary gave birth to Jesus, who is called the Messiah. All those listed above include fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian exile, and fourteen from the Babylonian exile to the Messiah. This is how Jesus the Messiah was born.”
Anyone see a pattern? Matthew is identifying Jesus as the Messiah, the one promised in the ages, the descendant of David, anointed by God to be the king of God’s people. There are myriad concepts wrapped up in that term, but chief among them is that Jesus was the anointed heir of David’s line, the king of God’s people. As Samuel anointed David, God anointed Jesus. Matthew’s genealogy is careful to track Jesus as a descendant of all the kings of Israel and Judah.
Jesus is the Messiah, the long-awaited hope of Israel, anointed by God to be king.
Jesus the King
Matthew’s second theme, built on the first, is more subtle. Matthew 2:1 is the key to the conflict that came after Christmas. “Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod.” There was already a king when Jesus was born as king of the Jews. There was a man on the throne, a usurper, not born in David’s line, a man with no real right to rule, but the throne was occupied. Luke 1:5 begins with a similar statement.
Matthew’s genealogy tracks Jesus’ line through David and through all the kings of Israel and Judah – Jesus was an heir of the kings. When the angel spoke to Joseph, in Matthew 1:18-25, he addressed him as a “Son of David,” emphasizing the royal line, then upped the ante. Jesus would not only be born in the royal line of David, but he would be the Son of God, the King of kings. He would be Immanuel, God with us. His birth would be a miracle that would bring God to earth in a human body. He was the rightful king, the Lord of all.
Enter the Magi. They saw something in the stars, a celestial sign that Jesus was no ordinary baby. This fulfilled ancient prophecy, probably originating with Daniel, or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, or other ancient Israelite prophets during the time of captivity, who had told their forefathers of the coming of the king and signs that would be seen. What was this star? Who knows? A constellation? Perhaps. A display of angelic glory in the sky? Maybe, especially since it led them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Again, we will only know in glory. The Magi knew a king had been born and they set out on a long journey to find him. They showed up in Jerusalem and their words set the town ablaze with gossip. These strange men were asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”
This is the conflict that drives Matthew’s narrative. Magi show up announcing the birth of the rightful king in Jerusalem when the throne there is already occupied. We know that Jesus had not come to set up a political empire in his first coming. He was not coming into the world to use political power or military force to build his kingdom but would lay down his life for the sins of the world and rise from the dead to defeat death and hell and sin and Satan. Still, he was the Anointed One, the rightful ruler of all, not only the King of Israel, but King of kings and Lord of lords. Jesus was the chosen one, the anointed one, the Messiah, sent by God to rule this world as King of kings and Lord of lords.
This is the real meaning of Christmas. We think we have honored “the real meaning of Christmas” by insisting on saying Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays, or by publicly displaying a manger scene. Christmas is about more than a baby in a manger, and it is certainly about more than parties and concerts and music. It is about God sending a king to rule this world. “The government will be upon his shoulders.”
Herod understood this. He misunderstood the nature of Jesus’ kingdom but he realized something fundamental. That baby was a threat to his throne. When he heard the words “newborn king,” bile rose inside him. He’d plotted and murdered and manipulated and politicked to gain his throne, but he knew the throne of Israel was not rightly his. He was Idumean, not Israelite. He was powerful and a capable ruler, but he held a throne he had no right to hold. He understood. He understood that Jesus was there to take the throne he was sitting on.
He gathered the scribes of Israel and found out where the Messiah was to be born and sent the Magi on their way with his best wishes, but his heart was plotting evil. His intent was to do what men in his position did – anything to preserve his throne. If he had to kill to keep himself on the throne, kill he would. If innocent children had to die for him to hold his throne, they would die. He would hold his throne at all costs.
The Man Who Understood Christmas
Here it is. Herod demonstrated by his evil actions that he understood who Jesus was better than most people, even many who claim to be Christians. Some nominal believers act as if they can celebrate Christmas, be good Christians, and follow Jesus, while remaining firmly seated on the thrones of their own lives. They believe Jesus is there to help them achieve their goals and dreams, to affirm their choices, to assist them in following their hearts. They wear crosses, cheer Jesus, but do what they want. Herod knew better. He knew that Jesus came to sit on the throne and he was unwilling to give it up. Herod was one of history’s most evil men, but he understood the nature of Jesus’ birth.
Christmas, at its heart, is a declaration of war. Herod had a throne he had no intention of relinquishing, then along comes this baby “born the King.” He understood very clearly that the baby in Bethlehem was a threat to the life he was living. That baby had come to declare war on life as he knew it. There cannot be two kings. Herod made a bad choice. Mary submitted to God. Herod fought him. Both understood what Jesus was there to do.
We understand now that Jesus wasn’t coming to earth, the first time, to sit on a political throne. His kingdom was spiritual. He came to save souls and defeat sin and death and hell, but his ultimate purpose is set. One day, he will rule “the world with truth and grace and make the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.” “He will reign forever and ever and ever.” Jesus came into this world to declare war on sin and bring rebellious humanity under obedience. We rebelled against him in the Garden and said no and Jesus came to restore his righteous rule. He came to take the thrones that are occupied by our sinful hearts.
Only one person can sit on any throne!
Applying the Truth
Jesus did not come to give us a cute holiday every year. He did not come to be your motivational guru or your life coach, helping you reach your goals, achieve your potential, or have your best life now. He is not here as your copilot to help you over the rough patches of life. He came to tame our rebellious hearts and take the throne. Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords and we must coronate him as such in our lives. He deserves to have in us the place he occupies in all of God’s universe – absolute king, the Lord of your life. Nothing less will do.
Christmas is a spiritual war. Yes, Jesus came to tear down the throne of Satan – hallelujah, amen – but he also came to fight our sinful hearts and demand his rightful place in us. Do you want to truly celebrate Christmas? Abdicate! Leave the throne of your heart and bow to Jesus Christ as Lord. Let him rule over you 100% – body, soul, and spirit.
Mary understood who Jesus was and responded, “May it be to me according to your word.” She submitted to the will of God, giving her life to serve him. Herod realized who Jesus was and resisted to the end. Most people do the same, not with the same level of evil that Herod demonstrated, of course, but they resist. Jesus demands to be Lord and accepts nothing less. He doesn’t affirm our choices or call us to follow our truth. He does not affirm our preferences, our passions, our politics, or our opinions. Everything must come under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Jesus says, “Abdicate your throne and bow the knee to me.”
That is the true meaning of Christmas. That cute little manger scene is God’s declaration of war against human rebellion. “All we like sheep have gone astray and turned every one to his own way.” In the Garden, the first humans rebelled against God, declaring war. God, in his love, determined to reach us and has been working since then by his grace. Jesus came to declare war on our rebellion and bring us into relationship and under obedience to God. Our highest celebration of Christmas is to abdicate authority and control of our lives and bow before the King who loves us and gave his Son for us!
The question today is simple. Mary was confronted by the claims of the King and she responded one way. “May it be to me according to your word.” Submission and obedience – total surrender. Herod heard that the rightful king and been born and he fought him, resisting the Lord of lords to the day of his death. The Christmas question is not whether there is a king. There is. He has been born. He lived, he died, and he rose again. He is seated at the Father’s right hand and is declared Lord of all. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess. The only question is this. Is your response to the King going to be like Mary’s or like Herod’s?
Will you kneel or will you fight?