A Baby Born in Bethlehem: King Herod & the Sanhedrin


This is part-two in a series, read about Simeon’s response to the baby born in Bethlehem here.

In the 1800s, technological development brought us to a point where we could begin harnessing steam – which led to the development of the steam engine, and subsequently, the train. But as with many technological revolutions throughout human history, the development of the train and the expansion of railways was initially hamstrung by those who saw their own interests threatened. As a result, the early decades of railway development were hindered by protracted legal battles and negative publicity campaigns by those who felt threatened by the railway – those who felt they would lose out if railways and steam trains became as popular as many feared. One historian explains that the building of the railways was “the final battle between two economic systems and two ways of living.”[1]

Humans do not like to lose what they have, be it their land or their business opportunities. We hold on to “economic systems” or “ways of living” so as to maintain our own interests.

King Herod

King Herod and the Jewish Sanhedrin were similarly afflicted with a potential loss when “wise men from the east arrived unexpectedly in Jerusalem” (Matthew 2:1). Who were these unexpected visitors whose arrival caused such an uproar? We’ll deal more with these strange visitors in our next chapter, but it is simple enough to say that they were distinguished visitors of some description, come from a land far to the east. Their arrival in Jerusalem was for one purpose – to seek the King of the Jews:

“Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” (Matthew 2:2)

The Wise Men (Magi) and Herod, by James J. Tissot

The Wise Men (Magi) and Herod, by James J. Tissot

Unsurprisingly, “King Herod … was deeply disturbed” – “one of the great understatements of the Bible”[2] – and reacted exactly as we would expect of a man who, over the first years of his rule as king of Judea, “had crushed, with the help of Roman forces, all opposition to his rule.”[3] King Herod “assembled all the chief priests and scribes of the people and asked them where the Messiah would be born.” (Matthew 2:4) With the information that the King of the Jews was prophesied to be born in Bethlehem, King Herod sends the visiting wise men on as his forward scouts, asking them to “report back to me so that I too can go and worship Him.” (Matthew 2:8)

Unfortunately for King Herod, the wise men were “warned in a dream not to go back to Herod” (Matthew 2:12), so “Herod, when he saw that he had been outwitted by the wise men, flew into a rage.” (Matthew 2:16)

When told of the birth of the King of the Jews, King Herod’s first and only thought was of himself. He did not want to lose his position, or face any opposition whatsoever. He sees his position as directly threatened by someone who is prophesied to be King of the Jews, and therefore immediately begins plotting to kill this child – this child who would, some 30-years later, show His true kingship by dying anyway.

“Herod held jealously to his kingship by might of arms and by bitter repressive measures. Jesus showed his kingship by self-sacrifice for others.”[4]

How many people today react to Jesus in the same way? How many people see Jesus as threatening their way of life, their prestige, their free will, their power and possessions? King Herod’s response to Jesus is representative of humanity’s response to Jesus – we feel threatened because we know that Jesus is going to ask us for all of us, and we don’t want to give up our own gods; love, lust, drinking, drugs, success, money, safety, comfort, etc.

“This dark episode of King Herod’s violent lust for power points to our natural resistance to, even our hatred of, the claims of God on our lives. We create Gods of our liking to mask our own hostility to the real God, who reveals himself as our absolute King.”[5]

King Herod acknowledges immediately what many of us today run and hide from: If this baby born in Bethlehem is who He says He is and what the prophecies said He would be then we lose the right to oversee our own lives, because there is someone who has a much older and more impressive claim to our lives than we do. But this is a hard truth for many, and quickly dismissed and pushed to the back of the mind so that it needn’t be dealt with.

The Sanhedrin

In his gospel, Matthew doesn’t actually use the words “Sanhedrin” – the religious ruling body of the Jews – but that is likely who King Herod called upon. Those called to answer King Herod’s question – where would the Messiah be born – were able to answer immediately:

“In Bethlehem of Judea,” they told him, “because this is what was written by the prophet:

And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the leaders of Judah:
because out of you will come a leader
who will shepherd My people Israel.”
Matthew 2:5-6 (cf; Micah 5:2)

Yet, what do we read through the rest of the gospels?

“So the chief priests and the Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said, ‘What are we going to do since this man does many signs? If we let Him continue in this way, everyone will believe in Him! Then the Romans will come and remove both our place and our nation.’”John 11:47-48

They were aware of the birth of the Messiah from day one. They had witnessed His many signs, and the flocks of people who believed in Him. Yet what were their main concerns? That they would lose their place and their nation – that they would not be the special people they believed themselves to be, that they would lose their privileges as leaders of the Jews.

This was not just behavior born of the actions of Jesus during His adulthood. They were the ones who told Herod where the Messiah would be born, “But did they go to greet him? Did they lift a sandal? Not at all. They knew it all, but they did nothing.”[6] This is the threat faced by many who think they know everything, or those who think they have all the facts – they just don’t. Even those who consider themselves religious, or Christian, fall into this trap of thinking they have all the answers.

“In religion we try to tame God, seeking to put him in our debt; we do many things so he has to bless us in the ways we want.”[7]

Whether a Christian or not, the coming of the real Messiah tests us, and reveals our real intentions. The baby born in Bethlehem is the Messiah, and at Christmas we should not only remember that, but we should lower our own defenses and let the meaning of the Messiah’s birth into our world change us. Some might see it as losing our free will – turning it over to some mystical third-party so we don’t have to take responsibility for our actions – but literally nothing could be further from the truth. We don’t lose our free will, we gain access to God’s will for our lives – the will of the One who created us “for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10) We gain the wisdom and guidance of the Creator of the universe, who loves us and wants what is best for us.

So who will you be, then? Will you be like King Herod, and fly off into a rage at the slightest possibility you won’t get to do what you want? Will you be like the Jewish leaders, who think they have all the answers already and don’t need any instruction or saving? Or will you be like the “wise men from the east”, who were not Jews, but nevertheless let the baby Jesus change their lives?

[1] Art and the Industrial Revolution, F.D. Klingender, p. 123
[2] Hidden Christmas, Timothy Keller, p. 64
[3] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary – Matthew, D.A. Carson, p. 109 (ed. Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland)
[4] The Message of Matthew, Michael Green, p. 66 (The Bible Speaks Today, ed. John Stott)
[5] Keller, p. 70
[6] Green, p. 67
[7] Keller, p. 70-1