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Christmas [2017]: The Christmas Massacre (Matthew 2:12-23)

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December 24, 2017

I decided to speak about “The Christmas Massacre” before I saw a Babylon Bee spoof about the Hallmark Channel. Instead of running the usual light, fluffy Christmas movies, the article said that Hallmark will run one this year called “The Christmas Slaughter,” about a young man who goes home for Christmas where he meets a charming farm girl who is actually a demonic axe murderer.

The Bee is satirizing the way Christmas is often pictured as a nice, sentimental holiday that is out of touch with the world we live in. Christmas cards picture Mary and Joseph serenely looking on baby Jesus as He sleeps in the manger, with angels hovering overhead, the star shining down, and the shepherds and wise men kneeling in worship, with the words, “Peace on earth, good will toward men.”

Other than being historically inaccurate, that message is not the total picture that the Bible gives about the Christmas story. The scene is historically inaccurate because the wise men (we don’t know if there were three, but only that they brought three gifts, or if they were kings) and the star were not at the manger on the night of Jesus’ birth. They came to Bethlehem some months after Jesus was born, when Joseph and Mary were living in a house. And, shortly after the wise men left town, life for many was not exactly peaceful. Joseph, Mary, and their infant son had to grab their belongings and flee by night to a foreign country to protect Jesus from being killed by the paranoid King Herod, who then massacred all the little boys in Bethlehem under the age of two.

So the complete Christmas story is about poor refugees who had to flee for their lives from an evil dictator. It sounds a lot like our world! God didn’t bring His Son into the world in a safe, peaceful environment, but into the sinful, troubled world that we still see all around us. But in all of this, God was sovereignly in control, working His eternal purpose to save a people for His glory. Herod’s Christmas massacre teaches us some important lessons about God and about suffering:

The Christmas massacre shows that we can trust our sovereign God even when evil seems to prevail.

The news bombards us with the suffering caused by the brutality of ISIS and other Islamic terrorists, the civil war in Syria, the genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, and other atrocities. Closer to home, we’ve had recent mass murders at the night club in Florida, the music concert in Las Vegas, and the church in Texas. Skeptics ask, “How can a loving and all-powerful God allow such horrible events?” Even some Christian theologians (who hold to “open theism”) argue that God is not sovereign over such events. They say that He has no control over human free will. He doesn’t ordain or know the future in advance and He is just as frustrated by such events as we are. They’re trying to get God off the hook for evil things that happen. But the Bible clearly affirms that …

1. God is sovereign even when evil seems to prevail.

Matthew’s account of this Bethlehem massacre brings out several important truths:

A. God is not a passive spectator in the theater of human events.

Rather, He ordains all events for His own glory. He chose the time and place for the Savior to be born (Gal. 4:4-5): “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” The magi asked (Matt. 2:2), “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.” The chief priests and scribes knew from Micah 5:2 that the Messiah and Ruler would be born in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:5-6).

Clearly, God directed the magi through the star to make the long journey to Bethlehem to see this young child. Somehow God revealed to them that Jesus was born “King of the Jews” (Matt. 2:2). The magi were likely astrologers who had an interest in dreams, magic, and mysterious references to the future (D. A. Carson, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], ed. by Frank Gaebelein, 8:85). Matthew knew that the Old Testament forbids astrology. Carson observes (ibid. 8:86), “Matthew neither condemns nor sanctions it; instead, he contrasts the eagerness of the Magi to worship Jesus, despite their limited knowledge, with the apathy of the Jewish leaders and the hostility of Herod’s court—all of whom had the Scriptures to inform them.”

Numerous speculations have been made as to the nature of the star that directed the magi to Bethlehem. I think that probably it was a supernatural phenomenon, but even if it was a planetary conjunction, a supernova, or a comet, it is clear that God sovereignly used it to announce the birth of Jesus to these men.

Also, God actively intervened to warn the magi not to return to Herod; to warn Joseph to flee to Egypt; to direct him after Herod’s death to return to Israel; and, to warn him not to settle in Judea, but to move north to Nazareth in the region of Galilee (Matt. 2:12, 13, 19, 22).

The Bible is clear that God is actively involved in everything from the weather (Ps. 148:8; Job 37:6-13), to feeding the birds (Matt. 6:26), to the affairs of nations (Job 12:23; Ps. 22:28; Prov. 21:1; Dan. 4:25; Acts 17:26). So we can trust that He is actively involved in both the minor and major events in our lives, everything from the frustrating driver in front of you to the cancer that threatens your life. It’s not that we are robots, with no power of choice, but rather, in a way we cannot comprehend, God providentially uses human choices to accomplish His sovereign will for His glory. Because He is not a passive spectator in human events, we can trust Him and seek Him in all of life’s experiences.

B. God directs His people in times of confusion, danger, and fear.

In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, God often used dreams to direct the people involved. Through a dream, He directed Joseph not to divorce the pregnant virgin Mary, but to take her as his wife. He used a dream to warn the magi not to return to Herod. Again, He used dreams to direct Joseph to flee to Egypt, to return to Israel, and not to settle in Judea (Matt. 1:20-21; 2:12, 13, 19, 22).

Does God use dreams to direct people today? Except for the birth narrative, the only other reference to dreams in Matthew is Pilate’s wife’s dream regarding Jesus (Matt. 27:19). There is only one other New Testament reference to dreams, when Peter on the Day of Pentecost cites Joel, “your old men shall dream dreams” (Acts 2:17). There are a few Old Testament references to God using dreams, mostly with Joseph and Daniel. But God warns His people about false prophets who use their dreams to entice His people go after other gods and forget His name (Deut. 13:1-5; Jer. 23:26-27).

God is using dreams and visions to bring many Muslim people to faith in Christ in our day, so we should not deny that He can use dreams today. But, His normal means of directing us is through the wisdom found in His Word and through the godly counsel of mature believers (see my sermon, “How to Know God’s Will,” 12/30/12, on If you’re in a time of confusion or fear, seek the Lord through His word, properly interpreted. Often He will impress a verse or passage on your heart that provides the wisdom you need. I would advise against using a dream alone as your main source for guidance in a major decision. And, if any dream goes against God’s word, it is not from God (Jer. 23:28).

C. There are times when evil people prevail, but God uses them and their evil deeds to accomplish His holy purpose, but He’s not responsible for their sin.

Herod was one of the most despicable characters in history. When the magi came to Jerusalem, he was nearly seventy years old and sick with the disease from which he would shortly die. Over the course of his life he had ten wives. He murdered one wife and had ongoing conflict with his sons, putting them into prison and executing two of them. As he faced death, he rounded up many Jewish leaders and ordered that they should all be slaughtered at the moment of his death so that there would be national mourning rather than rejoicing. Five days before he died, he executed another son who had threatened his rule. So the slaughter of all the young boys in Bethlehem was in line with his pattern of murdering anyone who was a threat to his throne.

There have been many wicked rulers over the centuries, but none of them have thwarted God’s sovereign plan. God used the Assyrians to wipe out the northern tribes of Israel because of their idolatry (Isa. 10:6-11). He used Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, to destroy Jerusalem and the temple, and to take the Jews into captivity (Jer. 25:9). But, He also humbled Nebuchadnezzar with a strange disease where he ran wild like an animal for seven years, to teach him (Dan. 4:25), “that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes.” Proverbs 21:1 declares, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.”

Concerning Pharaoh, who refused to let Israel be freed from slavery, God declares (Rom. 9:17), “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” Scripture has repeated examples of God using Satan and demons as well as evil people to accomplish His own holy purpose (e.g. 1 Kings 22:23), and yet He holds them accountable for their evil deeds (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology [Zondervan], pp. 322-327 cites many examples).

There is a common misconception that if you trust in Christ, He will protect you from all problems and trials (just name and claim your victory!). But God allows His people to suffer hardship, persecution, the loss of homes and property, and other trials (Heb. 10:34-36; 11:35b-38). He has determined the exact number of martyrs (Rev. 6:11). In the great tribulation, He will use Satan, antichrist, and the beast to accomplish His purposes before He sends them forever into the lake of fire. So when bad things happen to you because of evil people, don’t conclude that God has abandoned you or that He must not exist. He is sovereign even when it seems that evil is prevailing.

2. Because God is sovereign, we can trust Him even when evil seems to prevail.

Over the years, I have seen professing Christians turn away from the Lord because of trials that have come into their lives. Sometimes they bitterly complain, “I trusted in God and He treated me like this!” And so they turn to the world to find comfort and relief. But this account of Herod’s slaughter of the Bethlehem babies gives at least three reasons why we should trust the Lord, even when evil seems to be prevailing:

A. We can trust God when we don’t understand and when evil seems to prevail because His ways are not our ways.

God declares (Isa. 55:8-9):

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts.”

If God had asked my opinion, I would have advised Him to take Herod’s life, as He later did with Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:23). He was already ill with the disease that would shortly kill him. Why not take him out before he carried out this atrocity? Think of the lifelong heartache for all those parents! But God allowed Herod to live and kill the young male children in Bethlehem. Matthew (2:18) says that this fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah (31:15) the prophet:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
Weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children;
And she refused to be comforted,
Because they were no more.”

Jeremiah’s prophecy referred to the women in Judah weeping over the deaths of their children when Nebuchadnezzar’s army wiped out Jerusalem. The Book of Lamentations further describes the horror of that slaughter and deportation of God’s chosen people. Matthew sees that prophecy as having a double fulfillment, first during the Babylonian victory and now again in Herod’s massacre of the children.

But the point is, neither tragedy thwarted God’s plan, but rather fulfilled it. Jeremiah 31 contains the promise of the new covenant, when God would abundantly bless His chosen people. And in Matthew 2, in the face of Herod’s horrific slaughter of the children, the Savior of the world was born and protected for His mission. Also, God assures believers who go through the horrors of the tribulation that He will reward them and punish their oppressors when Jesus returns (Rev. 6:9-11; 18:20).

B. We can trust God because He sent His Son into an evil world to solve the ultimate human problem.

Jesus wasn’t born into a protected bubble in a palace. His life was threatened from infancy. He later suffered horribly at the hands of sinners. His death on the cross is God’s provision for the root cause of evil in this world, human sin. When He comes again in power and glory, He will defeat the devil and judge all who persist in rebellion against Him. He will create a new heaven and earth in which righteousness dwells, where there will be no death, mourning, crying, or pain (Rev. 21:4).

But to reap the blessings of God’s salvation through Jesus, you have to trust personally in Him as your Savior from God’s judgment. When we talk about horribly evil tyrants like Herod, it’s easy to think, “Thank God, I’m not like that! I’ve never killed anyone. I’m a good person. Surely, I won’t face God’s judgment.”

But the Bible is clear (Rom. 3:23), “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” While punishment will be worse for murderers like Herod, the Bible warns that all who have sinned will face God’s judgment. But the good news is, He offers mercy and forgiveness to every sinner! Heaven is not the reward for those who do good deeds. Rather, it’s offered as God’s free gift (Rom. 6:23): “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Paul explains (Rom. 4:4-5), “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” Have you stopped trusting in your works and trusted instead in Jesus’ work for you on the cross? If not, don’t delay. Today is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2). Tomorrow may be too late!

But, since evil has seemed to prevail throughout human history, how can we know that Jesus will return and ultimately triumph over evil? In a world where evil people oppress the innocent, how can we be sure that our trust in Christ will not be in vain?

C. We can trust God and know that He will certainly save all who trust Him because He protected our Savior from destruction.

In his treatment of Jesus’ birth, Matthew is at pains to show how everything fulfilled God’s word. Since God overcame Herod’s evil intent by protecting the Savior, we can trust Him to save us even when evil people seem to be prevailing.

In chapter 1, when Mary became pregnant through the Holy Spirit, Matthew (1:22-23) shows, “Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us.’” And, Joseph trusted God by obeying Him and taking Mary as his wife. Genuine faith always results in obedience.

Also, Matthew (2:5-6) shows that Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem fulfilled the prophecy of Micah 5:2. When Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled to Egypt, Matthew (2:15) says, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called My Son.’” He’s citing Hosea 11:1, which refers to God delivering His people from Egypt during the exodus. Matthew wants us to see that Jesus is the embodiment of His son Israel. Jesus is the perfect Son who, in contrast to Israel, obeyed His Father. He fulfilled what the first exodus pictured, leading His people free from bondage to sin.

And, as we’ve seen, even Herod’s awful slaughter of the children of Bethlehem fulfilled Jeremiah’s reference to Rachel’s sorrow at the time of the Babylonian captivity. But Israel’s disobedience and Babylon’s merciless slaughter did not thwart God’s promise of a new covenant through Christ, when He would forgive His people’s sins and be their God (Heb. 8:8-12).

Finally, Matthew (2:23) also sees Joseph’s settling his family in Nazareth as a fulfillment of “what was spoken through the prophets, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’” But the problem here is that there is no Old Testament text declaring that Messiah would be called a Nazarene. Scholars suggest three main explanations (Craig Blomberg, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament [Baker], ed. by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, p. 11). First, Matthew may be making a play on words between “Nazarene” and the Hebrew word for branch (netzer, Isa. 11:1), “Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.” Second, he may be using “Nazarene” as a derogatory slang term to refer to someone from the insignificant town of Nazareth in Galilee (John 1:46; cf. Isa. 53:2-3; Ps. 22:6-8). Third, Matthew could be alluding to Judges 13:7, where the Lord tells Samson’s mother that her son will be a Nazirite. But, since Jesus wasn’t a Nazirite and the term has no connection with Nazareth, the third view isn’t likely (Carson, Expositor’s, 8:97).

This is the only time that Matthew uses “prophets” (plural), so he is probably summing up a theme found in several of the prophets, who predicted that the Messiah would be despised. This may include the reference to the branch, which “affirmed that David’s son would emerge from humble obscurity and low state” (ibid.).

But Matthew’s point in citing all of these Old Testament texts is that in spite of evil attempts to kill God’s Son, He protected Him so that He could fulfill His mission to “save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). As Matthew and all the apostles proclaim, God raised Jesus from the dead and gave Him all authority in heaven and earth. He promised to return in power and glory (Matt. 26:64). So we can trust Him to save us for eternity, even if we suffer persecution or martyrdom at the hands of evil people.


In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth there are three responses (cf. John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Matthew 1-7 [Moody Press], p. 34). First, there is the response of Herod, who did everything he could to eliminate anyone who threatened his rule. Like him, some people go to extremes to resist bowing before Jesus as Lord.

Second, there is the response of the Jewish leaders, who studied and knew the Bible. They obeyed it outwardly, but they didn’t bother to make the five-mile trip to Bethlehem to see whether their Messiah and Savior was born there. Eventually, their indifference turned to hostility when Jesus confronted their sin. They refused to submit to Jesus as Lord.

Finally, there is the response of the magi. Although they were pagan Gentiles, they made the long, difficult trip to Bethlehem, sought Jesus until they found Him, and bowed before Him in worship. In the same vein, in obedience to God Mary and Joseph were willing to endure scorn and hardship. Be like the magi! Be like Mary and Joseph! Trust in Jesus as your Savior! Worship Him as your Lord! Obey Him even when it seems that evil is prevailing!

Application Questions

  1. A skeptic asks, “How can God permit or even ordain evil and yet not be responsible for it?” Your reply?
  2. How would you counsel a fellow Christian who said that based on a dream, he believed that God was directing him to make some major decision?
  3. Some evangelicals argue that it is possible to accept Jesus as your Savior, but submission to Him as Lord is a later option. Which Scriptures refute this?
  4. A Christian challenges you: “If God is sovereign, then people don’t have free will.” Your reply?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christmas