[The following excerpt has been adapted from chapter 23 of Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative, by Russ Ramsey.]
In the months after the census, Joseph and Mary stayed in Bethlehem, making their home there. (Mt 2:11) Learned men from the east, experts in the sacred texts, had heard that somewhere in Judea a boy had been born king of the Jews. They remembered how the Jewish holy book said, “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” (Num 24:17)
So when they saw a new star rise in the west, an uncommon one that seemed to have been lit just for them, they followed it. It led them to Jerusalem. Wanting to honor this king and pay tribute to his majesty, they began to ask around. Where was he?
Herod the Great was a paranoid sociopath—a personality perfect for his position as the ruler of Judea under the authority of Rome. He built his empire to create the illusion that he was a man who could be in many places at the same time. Aside from his fortresses at Herodium, Sebaste, Machaerus, and Masada, he also built palaces in Caesarea, Jericho, and Jerusalem. At any moment, he could have been in any one of them, so at every moment, he might as well have been in all of them. His affinity for architecture was well known, as was his obsessive mistrust of those around him.
There could only be one ruler in Judea. This was Herod’s passionate commitment. Already the bones of one wife, several sons, and multiple distant relatives cluttered the family tomb as the result of his conviction that each and every one of them was involved in a conspiracy to kill him.
When he heard of these learned men and their quest, the dissonance of the words “king” and “Jews” with no mention of him was more than he could stand. To Herod, it wasn’t that complicated. If it meant killing every last baby boy in Israel, then that was what he would do. He called the chief priests and the scribes to tell him everything they knew about this king, smoldering with the feeling that they had been holding out on him.
Herod summoned them, seeking a theology lesson, and the priests gave him the details without confusion or hesitation: the prophet Micah said that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, just a few miles south, where Jacob’s love Rachel was buried and where King David was born. The chief priests were the keepers of the temple and of the religious life and culture of the Jews. The scribes, or teachers of the law, were the guardians of the Word of God. They wrote out copies of the sacred scriptures, poring over every last jot and tiddle. They knew the minute details of every scroll of every book. They knew the lore. Still, curiously, not one of them seemed motivated to see for themselves if the Magi were right. They should have been the most expectant of the Messiah’s coming, but all the religious leaders displayed as they rehearsed these ancient prophetic details of their coming king was apathetic suspicion.
Jesus came to his own, and his own did not receive him. (John 1:11) They didn’t seek him then, and they wouldn’t seek him later either. Even when he was grown and ministering among them, they refused to believe in him.
But Herod believed. At least, enough to worry. As one prone to err on the side of caution, it was enough for Herod that the Magi had come so far, laden with such gifts. And if there was such a king, maybe the Magi could lead him there. Maybe if he feigned a desire to bring a tribute of his own, the Magi would trust him and lead him to this new king.
“When you find him,” Herod told the visitors, “come back and tell me where he is. I have a little something of my own I want to give him.” (Mt 2:8)
After hearing him out, the Magi left for Bethlehem. It wasn’t long before their familiar star rose again, leading them like a shepherd leads its sheep to a house on the outskirts of town.
When they found the king, it was no wonder he was nothing more than a murmur in Jerusalem. They entered the place where he lay and beheld a child in the arms of a young woman, practically still a girl. There was no crown or majesty that would attract them to him, no miracle they could see, no signs of greatness. Just a woman and her child. But there was something about that moment that only the woman, her husband, the Magi, and the child knew—something that bent the knees of those scholars to the posture of worship when they saw him.
One of the Magi moved forward and produced a purse of gold, laying it at the child’s feet. Another came with a flask of myrrh, then another with a box of frankincense. Unaware that they were funding a hasty trip to Egypt necessitated by Herod’s paranoia, they gave these gifts for no other reason than to honor the one born King of the Jews.
He wasn’t even their king. Israel’s God was not their people’s God. And yet, they had come because the thought of a God of mercy with healing in his wings awakened in them a desire to be close to the One through whom that healing would flow. They followed the star, and after countless miles of sojourn, they found the king.
It was a quite a feat. They would rest well.
But that night as they drifted into a deep sleep of satisfaction, an angel, unfamiliar to them but well known to Mary, stepped into their dreams and painted for them the bloody truth of who Herod really was and what he meant to do to this baby. He warned them to take another route home. (Mt 2:12)
Herod’s motives were murderous. History would remember him not only dripping with the blood of his own wives and sons, but with the blood of countless others, mostly boys under the age of two.
But not this boy king. Herod would not take his life. (Jn 10:18)
The Magi departed for home in secret, avoiding the area around Jerusalem.
For most of the residents of Bethlehem, Jesus’ birth went unnoticed, but heaven and earth converged in this little pocket of the Promised Land for the most important birth in history. The angels orchestrated the unlikely meeting of the poor, the displaced, and the curious to announce the coming of the Savior of the world. To some they appeared in dreams. To others they spoke from the sky. To others still, perhaps they shone like a star in the east, leading the Magi to the place where the child was born. Through it all, the angels of the heavenly host had their eyes fixed on this village south of Jerusalem.
Since the fall of man, God’s promise to redeem and restore has permeated the air and found its way into the lyrics of kings and criminals. It has been the anthem of the helpless, blind, lame, and guilt-ridden—a song of hope in the night, rolling in from some distant country with the trace of a melody known by heart.
Outside Bethlehem, this song rose like a celestial orchestra, crashing, singing, resounding with the music, holding nothing back. Then all at once, as with the fall of a curtain, the night fell silent, and the audience went back to their homes. Bethlehem went back to the ordinary town it had been for as long as anyone could remember.
But the world would never be the same.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).