Over time, holidays take on a certain patina. Long usage and custom make this unavoidable and necessary, but it remains our responsibility not to allow such later accretions to overthrow or to reverse the actual import or meaning of the festival. In the case of Christmas, we have, quite obviously, the scriptural story of the birth of the Messiah, but we also have—do we not?—silver bells, softly falling snow, Hallmark movies, caramel popcorn, miracles on 34th street, fireplaces aglow, and various sorts of festive jello dishes. What are we to do with all of that? Well, enjoy them . . . but don’t let them become your teachers.
“Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not” (Matt. 2:16–18).
Summary of the Text
There may have been three wise men, we don’t know for sure. We guess at that number because of the three enumerated gifts mentioned—the gold, the frankincense, and the myrrh. At any rate, these wise men from the east showed up in Jerusalem and went and asked the king about the newborn king of the Jews These men are called magicians (magi), and were most likely Zoroastrian astrologers. They were from “the east,” most likely Persia (Iran), and they had seen a star in the east that had compelled them to come. Herod found out from them when the star had first appeared (most likely two years before) and he helped the magi out through summoning the chief priests and scribes, who referred the magi to Micah 5:2, which identified Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah. So they went on to Bethlehem, where the star identified the house where Jesus was, and there the magi adored Him, presenting their gifts. The wise men were then warned by God in a dream not to go back to Herod (v. 12). An angel then warned Joseph of what was coming, and so he escaped with his family to Egypt (vv. 13-15), which brings us to our text.
When Herod saw that the magi had made a fool of him, he got extraordinarily angry, and ordered all the young boys in the area of Bethlehem to be slaughtered. This resulted in the fulfillment of a sorrowful prophecy from Jeremiah. The prophet there spoke by addressing the personified figure of Rachel, who lamented the loss of her children. That matriarch had been buried near Bethlehem—Gen. 35:19-20, near the border of Benjamin—1 Sam. 10:2.
I may appear to be changing the subject, but not really, and only for a moment. Balaam was a true prophet, meaning that his gift of prophecy was genuine, but he was a true prophet without being a true man (2 Pet. 2:15; Jude 11). He would not curse Israel for the Moabite king Balak, but he did give him some counsel on how to use his women to seduce Israel (Rev. 2:14). But before doing that, he uttered a prophecy that was likely contained within the research findings of the magi.
“I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.”
Num. 24:17 (KJV)
Balaam is not a Hebrew, and he lived to the east also, and it seems to me that a record of his utterances could easily have been included in the kind of libraries that the magi would have been accustomed to use.
Christmas and Sin
Now the presence of sin, and the reality of it, and the affliction and distress that sin always brings, is no refutation of the message of Christmas. Rather, Christmas is God’s answer to our sin. Christmas is God’s reply to sin, not His platitude about learning to see the good in people. Jesus took on a human body, the body that Mary suckled, and laid in a manger, in order that He would be able to die. He was born to die, and that death was necessary because of sin. He took up a body so that He would have a body to lay down. He assumed mortality so that He could slay our mortality. And this was in view from the very beginning.
“And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
Luke 2:34–35 (KJV)
When we look at Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, we see that the rebellion of man always wants to reverse the message of righteousness. Here in modern America, we are currently in the grip of the same Herodian delusion, and in our insanity, we also slaughter innocents. Herod, the Edomite king of Israel, turns himself into a Pharaoh, killing young boys for political reasons. Joseph was warned in a dream to flee from the new Egypt, which he did by fleeing to the old Egypt. Out of Egypt I called my Son.
If Israel can turn into Egypt, so can America. In what way has our treatment of the unborn not outdone Herod? Not outdone Pharaoh. We are becoming Charn.
A Hard Headed New Covenant
Now the chapter of Jeremiah that Matthew quotes as he records this awful crime is the same chapter where Jeremiah predicts the coming of the new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34). This glorious prophecy is cited several times in the book of Hebrews. In Hebrews 8:8-12, it is quoted in full, and then in Hebrews 10, two key excerpts of it are cited (Heb. 10:16,17). These two citations, these two pull quotes, identify for us the heart and soul of the new covenant. These two tenets are the internalization of the law (Heb. 10:16) and God’s promise that He will remember our sins and iniquities no more (Heb. 10:17). The law of God is now written on our hearts and minds, and we are washed clean of all our iniquity.
And so, encouraged by these words, we return to Rachel, the inconsolable. God is the sovereign God over all things, including every form of all of our sin. He has prepared a covenant, a new covenant, one that takes the perverseness of the human heart fully into account. He has prepared a covenant that can etch the law of God on the adamantine heart of man, and He has also prepared the blood of the everlasting covenant, blood that can cleanse absolutely anything. And so what does the Word of God say to this Rachel? In the very next verses . . .
“Thus saith the Lord; Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears: For thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord; And they shall come again from the land of the enemy. And there is hope in thine end, saith the Lord, that thy children shall come again to their own border . . . Turn thou me, and I shall be turned; For thou art the Lord my God.”
Jer. 31:16–18 (KJV)