Herod (Matthew 2:1-12)
We're starting a new series today called "Christmas Characters" or, put another way, "Christmas for Real People." For the next four weeks, we're going to look at some of the famous Christmas characters from the original Christmas story. I'd like to discover who these people really were and what they experienced that first Christmas. Then I'd like to see if there's anything that we can learn from their lives.
I almost feel sacrilegious saying this, but I find that Christmas can be a very challenging time of year. With so many Christmas cards with pictures of halos, so many songs written, so much mystique, it's hard for me to feel like I've really connected with what actually happened. I'd like to invite you to join me on a quest to really discover who some of the Christmas characters really were.
The first person I'd like to look at is someone who is hardly mentioned in the Bible. In fact, his name appears only a few times in Scripture. We don't know a lot about this man from the Bible, and that presents a bit of a problem. This man would have been very well known to the original readers of Scripture. When they read his name, they would have immediately recognized who he was and what his life was like. You wouldn't have to say a lot about this man for people to know who he was and what he was like. But it's different today. You probably know his name, but you don't know a lot about him. The man's name is King Herod, or as he's known in history, Herod the Great. He's introduced to the Bible story in Matthew 2:1, which says: "Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod." And his life is full of lessons for us today. What can we learn from the life of King Herod?
STRENGTHS AND ACCOMPLISHMENTS
I'd like to begin by looking at some of Herod's strengths and accomplishments, because in many ways Herod was a man of incredible talent and accomplishment. Even though Herod came from a successful and well-placed family, a large part of Herod's success was due to his own strengths and talents. Even more impressive than a person who rises to the top is a person who stays at the top. Herod was able to remain king at a very volatile period for 42 years. So Herod had a lot going for him.
One of Herod's greatest strengths is that HEROD KNEW THE IMPORTANCE OF RELATIONSHIPS. Herod could have written the statement, "It's not what you know, it's who you know." Herod knew how to win friends and influence people. I read last week that the most successful people ask their bosses, "What do I need to do in order to get ahead in my job?" Herod was the kind of guy who would ask that sort of question. Herod knew the importance of relationships.
Herod became an expert at winning the approval of people who were above him. That's actually not a bad thing - it's good to win the approval of your boss. When the Roman government was short of money, Herod got their attention by raising a lot of tribute money for them. When enemies were threatening somebody above him, Herod was very quick to quell the rebellion. Herod knew how to work the crowd, to gain the favor of people above him, even to win the favor of the Emperor of Rome, the most powerful person alive at that time. When he was caught in the middle of fights between his superiors, Herod was able to maneuver his way between them. In a time of great intrigue and hostility, when he had many enemies and relationships could have been his undoing, Herod used his relationships for his advantage. He knew people, and he knew how to use people. I'm not saying that Herod always had pure motives in how he related to people, but he definitely possessed very good people skills.
We could learn from Herod's people skills. We probably shouldn't imitate his more devious side of relationships, but we should imitate the way that we learned how to win friends and influence people. This is very commendable. In fact, the Bible is full of advice on how to develop our personal relations with friends, family members, co-workers, and our superiors. Herod possessed very good people skills.
Herod had another great strength, which many people feel was his greatest achievement. In fact, many of you have probably seen this achievement of Herod's firsthand, two thousand years after he lived. HEROD WAS A GREAT BUILDER. Everybody has a desire to leave a legacy - something that people can point to after we're gone and say, "Wow. She really made a difference. His life really counted." It's been two thousand years since Herod lived, but you can still go to Israel and marvel at the buildings that he constructed. He built Jerusalem a magnificent theatre and amphitheatre. He rebuilt entire cities. If you go to Caesarea, on the coast of the Mediterranean, you can see the ruins the city and harbor that he built. I've stood in the amphitheatre there and marveled that it's lasted so long. Herod was such an accomplished builder that he even devised a trademark design for his building stones, some of which weighed up to 500 tons. Herod was known for his architectural taste and ability.
Herod's crowning achievement, though, was the reconstruction of the Jewish Temple. You may or may not know that the Temple in Jerusalem was constructed three times. The original one was built by Solomon, and was magnificent. Solomon's Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and a second Temple was rebuilt by a man named Zerubbabel. The second Temple wasn't nearly as nice as the first. In fact, for many people, the second Temple was a disappointment. But Herod changed all that.
Around 20 BCE, Herod began to rebuild the Temple, a project that lasted over eighty years and involved over ten thousand workers. He did such a good job that he made it even more magnificent than even Solomon's original Temple had been. It ranked among the world's wonders of the day. Even when Jerusalem was attacked and destroyed in 70 CE (A.D.), the commander of that attack tried to spare the Temple from destruction because of its beauty. Listen to what Jesus' disciples said about the Temple: "Teacher, look at these tremendous buildings! Look at the massive stones in the walls!" (Mark 13:1). Josephus, one of the most famous historians of that day, wrote that his Temple project was "the most glorious of his actions...sufficient for an everlasting memorial of him." Herod was a lavish builder of cities and projects, and that has to go down as one of his greatest accomplishments.
Ecclesiastes 9:10 says, "Whatever you do, do well. For when you go to the grave, there will be no work or planning or knowledge or wisdom." Herod lived out this verse. He worked hard in an effort to leave a lasting legacy. I think a lot of us can relate to the need to make a contribution in our work, to know that our job really mattered, that we left the world a better place. Herod is to be commended in that he left behind a number of building projects that improved the world, and even were used in God's work.
Because of Herod's accomplishments, it's easy to see why he was called Herod the Great. Herod was a person of enormous talent and giftedness. His personality was impressive; he had great physical strength; his intellectual powers were far beyond ordinary; he had incredible will-power; he had great tact; he never wavered in knowing what to do. Especially during the first part of Herod's reign, one could easily recognize the seeds of greatness within the life of Herod. One report on Herod writes, "Herod was a born leader of men. Under a different environment he might have developed into a truly great man...he might have done great things" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia). One of the greatest tragedies of Herod's life is that a person who was so incredibly gifted, and so enormously talented, could in the end squander that greatness and end up wasting his life, as well as destroying the lives of many others.
A couple of years ago, I took a university course. I don't know if you've ever had the experience of completing a course, and sitting down and taking the exam, and finding an entire section that looks like it came from another course. It's not just that you don't know the answer; you don't even understand the question. You certainly don't remember studying it. I think I left that section blank, or made something up, and when I returned home I flipped through the course materials to see if I had missed something. There was nothing. It really doesn't matter how well you've mastered the material if it isn't on the final exam.
Herod's life is like that. He achieved greatness in many areas of his life, but ultimately he was a person who failed in what really mattered. What I haven't told you about are Herod's weaknesses. Even though Herod rebuilt the Temple, he also built pagan temples to worship other gods. And even though Herod knew how to relate to people, he became insecure and suspicious of both friends and enemies. He appointed his brother-in-law as high priest, but when his brother-in-law started to become too popular, he arranged for his servants to drown him in a pool to make it look like an accident. Sounds like the Sopranos, but it gets worse. He had his sons killed, he had his mother-in-law killed. It seems that Herod only really ever loved one person, his wife Mariamne, but he had even her killed because of his lust for power. His family life was so bad that Augustus Caesar said, "I would rather be Herod's hog than his son."
When he died, he was so concerned that nobody would mourn him that he ordered all the key leaders of Israel to the hippodrome, and he ordered that at the moment of his death, all of them should be killed so that there would be mourning at his funeral. Herod died ultimately unmourned and unloved. His name passed into history as a name soiled by violence and blood. The historian Josephus wrote of Herod:
A man he was of great barbarity toward all men equally, and a slave to his passions, but above the consideration of what was right. Yet he was favored by fortune as much as any man ever was, for from a private man he became a king, and though he were encompassed by ten thousand dangers, he got clear of them all and continued his life to a very old age.
Matthew 2 tells us the story of what happened when Herod learned that a baby had been born who was supposed to be "king of the Jews" - a title that he had been awarded by Rome. The baby, of course, was Jesus. Matthew 2:16 says, "[Herod] sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under." From what we know of Herod, this act was quite in keeping with his temperament. The slaughter of a few infants in Bethlehem by Herod's guard would be unthinkable, but in comparison to his other crimes it was pretty mild, and it would have passed almost completely unnoticed by the people of his time.
It's easy to think that you and I really can't learn much from Herod's life. It's a little like asking, "What can I learn from the life of Osama bin Laden?" The reality is that we can learn a lot from Herod's life. Herod's life teaches us some important lessons that could greatly improve all of our lives. I want to wrap up today by looking at just some of those lessons.
The first lesson I learn from Herod's life is:
1. IMPROVE MY PEOPLE SKILLS
Herod is a perfect example of the importance of people skills. The fact that he used people for his own advantage, and seems to have been insincere with people, doesn't detract from the fact that knowing how to relate to people is one of the most important skills that we could ever learn. Herod rose to the top because he had good people skills. You and I need good people skills as well if we're to have good marriages, good jobs, good relationships with our friends.
The Bible is full of advice on how to have good people skills. You could look at the book of Proverbs alone and learn what God says about how we should speak, what we should say, how we should relate to our neighbors, what to do when the people around us are fighting. The Bible is an intensely practical book on the subject of relationships. It's hard to overemphasize the importance of relationships and people skills to the success of our lives.
1 Corinthians 14:1 says, "Let love be your highest goal." Imagine how great Herod would have been if he had genuinely loved others. We could do an entire series on relationships - on how to relate to others and to genuinely love them. In fact, we will do that in the future. But if there's one positive quality that we can emulate in Herod, it's that Herod had people skills. We can work to improve our people skills as well.
2. BE CAREFUL IN CHOOSING MY LEGACY
It's obvious that Herod made a choice to leave a legacy, and that legacy was related to his job. As King, he would build buildings, cities, palaces, and temples. He would establish his own name as great so that people thousands of years later would remember him with fondness. Herod was willing to sacrifice even his own family to achieve this legacy. But in the end, even Herod knew that he was a failure. Even Herod knew that the only reason people would mourn when he died was if he killed some great people at the time of his own death. The real legacy that Herod left was some crumbling but great buildings, and a reputation as a barbarian and an unloved man.
I want to ask you what might seem like a morbid question. What do you want to be remembered for when you're gone? We only have a short time here. Psalm 103 says, "Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die. The wind blows, and we are gone - as though we had never been here" (Psalm 103:15-16). One person in the Bible even prayed that God would show us the brevity of life (Psalm 90:12). I had a friend who asked me about ten years ago, "Darryl, what are you going to do with your one and only life?" I would like to ask you that question: what are you going to do with your one and only life? What legacy will you leave behind?
If you choose the wrong legacy, you'll leave nothing. Many of us, in reality, are like Herod - sacrificing our relationships to leave a legacy that will not last. If we asked our husband, our wife, our kids, whether or not we were sacrificing them to achieve our goals and ambitions, it may be a little scary to hear their answers.
A lot of people are aiming to leave their legacy in their careers. They're killing themselves to climb to the top, to reach the pinnacles of their profession. They're sacrificing weekends, evenings, holidays to do it. But very few find that the sacrifice has been worth it. There comes a day in which the sales awards, the corner office, the company with your own name, really doesn't cut it any more. I know people who have given up their long weekends to work in jobs that they hate, in careers they wouldn't choose, who have never even been appreciated or compensated for their work. I know people whose work literally consumes every waking thought that they have, but it's very unlikely they will achieve a lasting legacy at work. Ecclesiastes 2:20-24 says:
So I turned in despair from hard work. It was not the answer to my search for satisfaction in this life. For though I do my work with wisdom, knowledge, and skill, I must leave everything I gain to people who haven't worked to earn it. This is not only foolish but highly unfair. So what do people get for all their hard work? Their days of labor are filled with pain and grief; even at night they cannot rest. It is all utterly meaningless.
Can anyone relate to this passage? I'm not saying to quit your jobs, or that your jobs are all unimportant. But it's time for a reality check for some of us. It may be time to look at our priorities and what we're sacrificing to achieve success in our careers. I've buried a lot of people - some who were tremendous successes in their careers - but the greatest legacies I've seen left have nothing to do with careers and work. Don't follow Herod in sacrificing your relationships for career success.< /p>
Herod's legacy was buildings - but all the buildings he built are now ruins or destroyed. Herod's legacy was riches - but all the money has long since been spent and forgotten. What legacy are you building with your life? How would you like to be remembered? I don't know what answer you're going to give, but I do know that the people who have been the most appreciated at the funerals I've conducted, the ones whose lives are the easiest to celebrate, have left two legacies behind. They've all had two qualities in common: they invested heavily in relationships with people, and they invested heavily in their relationship with God. If you want a legacy that will outlast your life, then love people and love God. It's no accident that Jesus identified these as the two greatest commandments of Scripture (Matthew 22:37-40). I've never seen anyone yet who's wasted their life having lived out these two commandments. After examining every avenue for success, the writer of Ecclesiastes concluded that the purpose of life is this: "Here is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is the duty of every person. God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad" (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).
I hope that when I die, I'm not primarily remembered for the churches I pastored, the buildings I built, the degrees I earned. I hope I'm remembered for having really loved God, and having really loved people.
Two people died on the same day. Both were great, but they achieved different types of greatness. One became a princess, and did many good things, on top of enjoying tremendous wealth and all the world had to offer. Another person died that day with hardly a penny to her name, on the streets of Calcutta, after a lifetime of serving forgotten, unloved people. Be careful in choosing a legacy. The best and most enduring legacies don't come from achievements and wealth, but from loving and serving God and others.
The third lesson from Herod's life:
3. WORSHIP JESUS
Last week, I saw an ad in the classified section of the newspaper. It said, "Join the debt-payers club. We repay all of your debts. You never repay us." This sounded too good to be true, so I checked out the website, but I didn't get too far because you had to leave your name and contact information. Imagine a way for you to take all your debts, all your mistakes, and have them wiped out with no repayment necessary.
Near the end of Herod's life, Herod was given an opportunity to make up for a very flawed life. Scholars think that Herod died around 4 BCE, within a short time of the birth of Jesus Christ. When Herod heard that Jesus had been born, he sent the Magi away to find him, with this request: "Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!" (Matthew 2:9). Imagine for a minute what would have happened if Herod's request had been sincere. Imagine if Herod's intention had been to genuinely worship Jesus, instead of slaughtering however many children it would take to ensure that his position was secure. This man, after years of cruelty and self-serving behavior, who had made the most tragic mistakes a person could ever make - taking the lives of those closest to him - could have found forgiveness. He could have had all of his past mistakes wiped out. He could have finally found true greatness by worshiping the one who came to forgive people just like him.
But Herod missed his opportunity. He died a short time later in great pain. He even contemplated suicide at one point. He died unloved and unhappy. He's remembered today as a man who had great potential who ultimately became one of the most tragic figures of history.
Imagine if things had been different. Imagine if Herod had worshiped Jesus.
The most tragic mistake that any person can make is to miss the opportunity to welcome and worship Jesus Christ. The Bible teaches that Jesus is God, but that he came to earth as a person to live a perfect life, and to die in our place so that our sins could be forgiven, and to rise again to give us new life. Jesus came in the flesh to wipe out all of our mistakes, to pay all of our debts, so that we would never have to pay them. Romans 10:8-11 says:
Salvation that comes from trusting Christ-which is the message we preach-is already within easy reach. In fact, the Scriptures say, "The message is close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart."
For if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by confessing with your mouth that you are saved. As the Scriptures tell us, "Anyone who believes in him will not be disappointed."
The greatest opportunity that you and I have is right before us. It's not something that you have to go searching for. It's right here. It's the opportunity to have a fresh start with God, to have your sins forgiven, to become a new person. "For if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."
You're here today for a reason. You've been given the chance to worship Jesus. Like Herod, your response will determine everything about you. It will either become your greatest moment, the moment that redeems all your failures and mistakes. Or if you pass the opportunity, it could be your worst mistake. You could miss the opportunity to worship the one who came to love you and to forgive you.
I'm going to pray in a minute. I'm going to pray for two things. I'm going to pray a prayer that you can pray if you would like to worship Jesus. You can pray this prayer today if you would like to have a fresh start with God, to have your sins forgiven, if you would like to follow Jesus Christ from this point forward.
I'm also going to pray a second prayer. I know that some of you have begun to worship Jesus recently. But you haven't taken that other step of saying, "I want to confess with my mouth that I'm a follower of Jesus Christ. I want others to know that I've started to worship him." We're going to be filling the baptism tank pretty soon - yes, and heating it too - to give you an opportunity to stand before others and say, "Yes, I'm worshiping Jesus." It's commanded by Jesus as the way to begin your new life in him, and to physically demonstrate the commitment you've made in your heart. I'm going to give you an opportunity to respond in a few minutes to say, "Yes, I want to be baptized. I want to worship Jesus by being baptized and by following him. I can't think of a better time than Christmas to worship the one who came to forgive me."
Father, we want to learn from the life of Herod. We certainly want to learn how to relate to people, and certainly Herod was good with people. Help us to truly love others - not to use them, but to genuinely love them. Help us to know how to relate to others; to our friends, our families, our neighbors.
Give us a lasting legacy. I pray that each of us will choose the legacy that lasts. Help us to truly love you and to love others. Help us to make love our highest goal.
If you would like to begin worshiping Jesus today, to receive the forgiveness that he came to offer, you can pray these words from your heart:
Father, thank you for sending Jesus Christ to live a perfect life. Thank you that he died for my sins, and that he rose again to give me new life. I believe in my heart that you raised him from the dead. I want to worship him, to live for him. I want to become a follower of Jesus Christ today.
If you've prayed that prayer, either today or recently, and you'd like the opportunity to be baptized this Christmas as a way of publicly confessing that you're following Jesus Christ, would you please pray these words:
Father, I want to be baptized this Christmas. I want to serve you. I want others to know how much I love you. May this be a Christmas to remember, because it's the Christmas that I publicly demonstrated my love for you. In the name of the one who came to save and forgive me, the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.