Herod and the Scribes
Families tell stories. Often they tell the same stories over and over again. They elicit the same laughter at just the right moment. They are familiar. I heard one person even quip that instead of retelling the stories they should number them so at family gatherings they can call out the numbers and everyone will laugh! Some Bible stories have that same familiar sense about them. The birth narratives are among that group. However, it is good to listen with fresh ears when we are able. What is being said that is not often noticed? I would like to point out a few of those things in Matthew 2:1-12. At least, I hope they are some things that will help you to hear afresh!
First, we meet Herod the king. Every Bible reader knows that Herod was an evil man. Once when Herod thought his sons were greedy for his throne he was going to take serious action against them. At that time Caesar Augustus got involved and brought them to the point of reconciliation. However, it didn’t last. A few years later Herod suspected the same sons of the same mischief and asked Augustus for permission to execute his two sons. The Emperor agreed but was reported to have said to those close to him, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.” So, when the magi showed up it is not surprising to read that Herod was troubled and all Jerusalem with him. Unstable leaders have a tendency of doing that to us.
Now, all of that is nothing new. We know Herod. He is a bad guy. But notice what happens next. The magi asked a question about the birth of Messiah. Where was he to be born? Herod does not know the answer. But Herod was not alone in his ignorance. In John’s gospel (7:25ff.) we read that some of the people of Jerusalem were saying of Jesus,
Is not this the man whom they seek to kill?....Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Christ? But we know where this man comes from, and when the Christ appears, no one will know where he comes from.”
Did you “hear” that? When the Christ comes “no one will know where he comes from.” In other words, there seems to be general ignorance about the Messiah’s origin from the king down to the people of Judea. But there are men who know. The scribes know.
Recent work has been done on the role of a scribe. Apparently, being literate in a pervasively illiterate culture Scribes played a prominent role as keepers of intellectual tradition and especially the Torah. In Ben Sira, a second century BC Apocryphal book written by a professional scribe, we read about a Scribe’s training, “How different the one who devotes himself to the study of the law…he seeks wisdom…is concerned with prophecies…He serves among the great ones and appears before rulers.” It is not surprising then that Herod called upon the Scribes. They immediately knew the answer. But this leads to another important point.
Have you ever noticed that the Magi come looking for the Messiah based on general revelation used in God’s service? I’m talking about the star that directed them to Jerusalem. How staggering to think that they had been guided by a star to the people of God but seemingly no one among God’s people, save the scribes, knew where the Christ was to be born. In other words, those with special revelation knew less than those with general revelation!
This ought to be a lesson to every preacher and Bible teacher. As our culture trends more and more in a godless direction we must teach and proclaim the truth of the gospel openly, boldly and lovingly to the entire world. So, I say to my brothers who stand in the pulpit from Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day, be ignorant of sin and a knower and lover of the truth such that it has become a fire in your bones! And so, preach as you have never preached before!
Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is also an online instructor for Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and has published academic articles and book reviews in various journals. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth (placefortruth.org) an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.