Jesus, the One whom we celebrate every Christmas, is polarizing.
Not because there is anything wrong with him, but because there is so much wrong about us. He is not the sort of person that one can take or leave, or that one can evaluate in a standoffish sort of manner. Jesus’ very person demands response. He said as much on many occasions. “But who do you say that I am” (Matt 16:15)? Or, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34). Or, chillingly, “I never knew you; depart from me” (Matt 7:23). We could multiply the examples. The point is that due to the sinfulness of the human heart, the very One who came to reconcile us to God instead creates division. You simply cannot ignore Jesus, or pretend that he makes no claims upon you. So significant is Jesus that your eternal destiny hinges on your relationship with him.
You are either for him or against him.
We don’t like to talk about that at Christmas. Not when everybody is so cheery and the baby Jesus our culture celebrates is so non-invasive. But we would do well to remember the first Christmas as recorded by Matthew. From the very beginning, Jesus was divisive. While some responded to him in worship, others responded to him with anger, malice, and murder. All this, before Jesus had ever uttered a word. No tough sayings (yet); just the imposing reality of his presence—his first Advent.
Matthew 2:1-12 chronicles the adventures of the Magi to find the new born King. They saw his star and journeyed a great distance to pay homage. Our imaginations have a difficult time fathoming what the wise men saw in the sky. We hold our breath as they seek the council of Jerusalem after traveling so far. We cringe when they encounter the impostor king, Herod, who lies to the Magi, hoping they will lead him to his Rival. We rejoice with the wise men when they rediscover the star that leads them from Jerusalem to the house where Mary and Joseph were staying. We are awed as they worship and give kingly gifts to the young and poor family. And we laugh when God warns them not to return to Herod, foiling his nefarious schemes.
We are right to react this way, because the Magi demonstrate what proper response to Jesus looks like. They sacrificed much to find him. They depended upon the revelation and leading of God to seek Jesus. They left no stone unturned to reach him. They gave costly gifts in honor to him. And when they first saw him, they fell down and worshiped him. The Magi got it right. It is a great story. A fun story. An inspiring story.
But it is only half of that same story.
Matthew also introduces us to one who hated the coming of Jesus. Herod, self-named “the Great,” was ruling Judea at the behest of the Roman Empire. History records that Herod lied, cheated, bribed, and murdered to get himself named the King of the Jews. Title in hand, he sought desperately to engender the affection of the Jewish people. He married a Jewish princess, the Hasmonean, Mariamne. He embarked on a building campaign, seeking to perpetuate the greatness of his name by bringing to the land of Israel all the glories of the Roman Empire – coliseums, aqueducts, fortresses and palaces. In his most significant move, he sought to curry favor with the Jewish people by rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem – a reconstruction so grand that it took decades.
But the Jewish people never embraced him. He represented Rome. He was not a legitimate king. He was an Edomite, who had no business sitting on the throne in Jerusalem, regardless of Roman sanction.
Beyond that, Herod was a homicidal maniac. He killed anyone and everyone whom he even suspected of being a threat. And his paranoid mind was capable of great suspicion. He killed foreigners and Israelites. He killed foe and family, his sons and wives, including Mariamne.
So when Herod learned that there were strange visitors inquiring about “he who has been born king of the Jews,” the results were predictable. “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” Meaning, where is he who is the king by right of blood, by divine right, the true and legitimate king? “For we . . . have come to worship him.” Herod had done every evil thing imaginable to have himself named the King of the Jews: He had murdered to protect that bogus claim, built great palaces and self-styled himself, “the Great.” He was feared, but never respected, and had certainly never been worshiped. Matthew, in brilliant understatement, records, “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” You see, when Herod was troubled, that meant trouble for everybody. Jerusalem’s fears were soon realized.
At first, he played nice, slyly seeking to use the unsuspecting Magi to lead him to the boy-King. But when that plan failed, when the Magi betrayed him, he lashed out murderously. If he could not locate the one, then he would kill any and all in the region who were close to the age range. Herod had murdered his own sons to protect his throne. There was little chance he would care about the children of others.
Herod the Great, who sought to make a name for himself by his expansive and awe-inspiring building projects, instead has gone down in history as the maniacal Butcher of Bethlehem. A power-driven king who was so turned in on himself that he lashed out murderously against the helpless infants of a small community.
Why would the coming of the Prince of Peace occasion such horrors? How are decorations, feasts, gifts, and carols consistent with such bloodshed? Why even trouble our minds with such thoughts during such a “happy” time of the year?
Because the baby grew up.
Just as a desperate humanity and the forces of evil sought the destruction of their rightful King and Judge when he was a baby, they continued their diabolical schemes until they succeeded, with Jesus nailed to a Roman cross. Jesus’ first advent began with murder and bloodshed. It ended the same way (before the resurrection). His second advent, likewise, is couched in terms of judgment and wrath, but the tables will be dramatically turned because his death and resurrection became the undoing of his enemies and the salvation of those who follow him.
Salvation is messy and bloody because human sin is so horrifically messy. There is nothing neat, sterile, or tidy about our rebellion against God. We might delude ourselves into thinking so, believing that our sin isn’t that bad. But as we lie to ourselves, we diminish the salvation so painfully bought on our behalf. Our salvation is great because our sin is so great.
And Jesus is polarizing for that same reason. Like it or not, he holds the destinies of every person who has ever or will ever live in his nail-scarred hands. At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of the True and Rightful King. It is his destiny that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that he is Lord. The Magi got a head start and they did so voluntarily. They chose to worship him. We would be wise to join them.
About Todd Miles
Dr. Todd Miles is the Director of the Master of Theology Program and Associate Professor of Theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Before his doctoral studies Todd was a Research Engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for ten years. Now Todd teaches Systematic Theology, Hermeneutics, and Ethics at Western Seminary. Todd serves as an elder at Hinson Memorial Baptist Church in Portland and is the author of "A God of Many Understandings? The Gospel and Theology of Religions" (Nashville: B&H, 2010).