Spirituality Information

Understanding the Gospel of Matthew and Why it Matters - Part 6

Matthew 2:16-18

Herod Kills the Children

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.

17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

18 "A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.

The 5th Prophecy Fulfilled

Matthew is continuing to convince us of Jesus' Messianic identity by pointing out the many events in Jesus' early life that fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. In this passage, the prophecy is that of Jeremiah, spoken six hundred years before its fulfillment.

When the wise men did not return to Herod, we are told that he became furious. The Greek word intimates that he was enraged, that he lost control of himself and became consumed in his anger. This is what the people of Jerusalem had feared when they first learned of the birth of a new king. King Herod's wrath was not poured out on the residents of Jerusalem, however, but on the helpless baby boys of Bethlehem.

We must not imagine hundreds or thousands of children slain in this massacre. Bethlehem was a small village, and most scholars estimate that only around two dozen children were killed. Nevertheless, this was a tragic and awful event. Jeremiah said, "A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children?" Ramah is a town about ten miles north of Bethlehem, on the other side of Jerusalem. Obviously the weeping in Bethlehem was not literally heard in Ramah, but the massacre in Bethlehem was horrendous enough that its effects were felt as far away as Ramah. Jeremiah calls Bethlehem "Rachel" because it is in Bethlehem that Rachel is buried.

No One Is Exempt From Tragedy

This passage reminds us that no one - not even little children - are safe from tragedy. Calamity is no respecter of persons. All people of every age, race, and social class will experience some degree of tragedy in their lives.

Sometimes unbelievers are promised a life free of pain and disaster if they will give their hearts to Christ. This is a false promise. In fact, the Bible actually guarantees that Christians will experience tragedy. Jesus warned his disciples that they would face all sorts of tribulation, that they would be hated by all nations and delivered to their deaths. Even the great Apostle Paul, with his strong faith in Jesus, was not spared the trouble of sickness. When writing to the Christian Jews who were facing unprecedented persecution for their faith, the author of Hebrews taught that their persecution was ordained by God for their good. "The Lord disciplines the one He loves," he said, "and chastises every son whom he receives."

On the day after Christmas in 2004, southeast Asia was struck by a tsunami that took the lives of over a quarter of a million people. Children and adults, poor and rich, believers and unbelievers - all were equally vulnerable to the devastating wave. The event was labeled as one of the worst natural disasters in human history.

How should we respond to a tragedy like this? Should be angry at God? Should we even assume that He had anything to do with the awful event? Consider Jesus' response to tragedy in Luke 13.

Some of Jesus' followers came to Him and informed Him of an outrage recently caused by Pontius Pilate. It seems that Pilate had killed a number of Gentiles and mixed their blood with the blood of sacrifices. Recently before this, the tower in Siloam fell and killed eighteen people. How did Jesus respond when these terrible occurrences were brought to His attention?:

"Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."

Jesus' point is that we are too often shocked by the wrong thing. Rather than being appalled that God would have a quarter million people die in a tsunami, we should be amazed at the fact that God is allowing 6.5 billion sinners to still live. God is the creator of all things, and He has the right to do with His creation whatever He wills - without needing our permission. If God so desired, He could take my life or your life at this very moment, and He would be good and just and right to do so. Indeed, at some point, He will do so. Everyone has been appointed by God to die, and it is He who has ordained when and where and how it will happen. So no one is exempt from tragedy.

Tragedies are a Part of God's Good Plan

We see this very clearly in the terrible massacre in Bethlehem. Though Herod acted rashly and angrily and out of the evil of his own heart, his actions were ultimately a part of a plan much bigger than him. God had already established that this event would happen, as Matthew makes clear by his inclusion of Jeremiah's prophecy.

This is a very difficult truth for many Christians to swallow. Would God really ordain for something evil to happen? Let me be very clear. I am not saying that God simply allows for evil things to happen, but I am going further and saying that God actually ordains all events - good and bad.

Would God really cause evil things to happen? Consider Job. He was the richest man of his time, before God gave the Devil the power to take it all away. Job lost his livestock, his servants, his children, and his health. Yet in the midst of all this unimaginable pain and suffering, Job says, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, naked I shall return, the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord."

Later, Job's wife approaches him and asks, "Do you still hold fast to your integrity? Curse God and die." Job's response is amazing: But he said to her, 'You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?"

Many of us in reading this story might want to protest. "Wait a minute, Job! You've got it all wrong! God did not take away your livestock, servants, and children. It was the Devil. Don't blame God!" Yet, just to make it crystal clear that Job was exactly right in what he said, the author adds: "In all this Job did not sin with his lips."

Yes, Satan was the agent of destruction who directly caused the tragedy in Job's life, but Job was well aware that it was God Himself who had ordained for it to happen.

For another example, consider the Egyptians. They hated God's people who were under their captivity. Pharoah became overtaken with such hatred that he, in Herod-like fashion, ordered for all of the young Hebrew boys to be killed. Why were God's people made to suffer the hatred of the Egyptians? Psalm 105:25 tells us: "He [God] turned their hearts to hate his people, to deal craftily with his servants." God was ultimately responsible for the anger that the Egyptians directed toward His children.

Can you handle this kind of talk? Are you willing to accept a God who is free to do whatever He wills?

Consider the Canaanites. In Joshua 11 we read of the many different Canaanite armies that came against Israel in battle, all to be inevitably defeated. Why did all of these people come to make war against Israel? The answer is shocking: "For it was the LORD's doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the LORD commanded Moses."

Why did these armies continue to fight Israel and die? The Scripture is very clear: "It was the LORD's doing."

Consider Jeremiah. He was chosen by God in the womb to prophecy to the people of Judah about the coming destruction of Jerusalem. The people rejected his message, and ultimately, Jeremiah witnessed the fulfillment of his prophecies. In his surveying the destruction, he laments of the destroyed buildings, the dead bodies in the streets, and the lack of food that caused mothers to eat their own children. In the midst of this calamity he says, "Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?"

The prophet Amos once asked, "Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?" In fact, if you start to think about it, you should be able to call to mind several instances where God ordained for something tragic to take place. Was it not God who ordained for the worldwide flood in Genesis 7? Was it not God that caused fire and brimstone to fall on the people of Sodom in judgment for their sins? Was it not God that caused the Babylonians and the Assyrians to come against His own people in judgment of their idolatry? Indeed, even though Herod certainly acted on his own free will to murder the young boys in Bethlehem, his actions fell right in step with God's unchangeable plan.

Three points need to be made concerning God's sovereignty and man's freedom. (1) People do make real choices and are accountable for those choices. No one will be able to excuse their sins by blaming God's sovereignty. (2) Nevertheless, ultimately everything we do is a part of God's sovereign will. (3) Though God has ordained for people to do evil things, and is therefore indirectly responsible for sin, His plans are good and just and He remains blameless.

The Crucifixion of Jesus

If you are still struggling with the premise that God might ordain someone to do evil, consider the death of His Son. Certainly murder is against God's moral will. The sixth command speaks clearly: "Thou shall not murder." So Pontius Pilate, the angry crowd, and the soldiers who placed Christ on the cross will all have to answer for their evil involvement in murdering Jesus. Yet the Bible makes it very clear that this very evil deed (Could there be a greater sin than murdering the Son of God?!) was ordained by God Himself. Acts 2:23 says that Jesus was "delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God." Isaiah 53:10 says it clearly: "Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief."

Someone might ask, "If God had ordained for Jesus to be killed by these people, how can God hold them responsible for their sin?" Consider Shakespeare's play Macbeth. In that play, Macbeth murders King Duncan. Who, then, is responsible for King Duncan's death? Obviously Macbeth is responsible, but also Shakespeare. It was Macbeth who desired to commit the murder and who acted upon that desire. Yet it was Shakespeare who was sovereign over the whole event, and none of it could have taken place without the stroke of his pen.

God is the author of history. It truly is "His story." Though we are responsible for all of our thoughts, words, and actions, it is God who works through these things to accomplish His purpose.

Two Wrong Responses

Upon encountering this idea that God has ordained all that takes place - both good and bad - some try and rebel against God's sovereignty.

Tori Amos, the rock star from North Carolina and the daughter of a Methodist minister, experienced a miscarriage. "To the idea that this painful event may have been in God's will she responds, 'If it was, then I'm going to kick his ..., because I'm not interested in "thy will be done." As mother of this child, I wanted my will, not thy will.' (Foster's Sunday Citizen, Nov. 15, 1998)"

Heather MacDonald wrote an editorial in Slate magazine soon after the aforementioned tsunami. She titled her opinion piece "He Has Gone Too Far This Time". It began this way: "In the wake of the tsunami disaster, it's time for believers to take a more proactive role in world events. It's time to boycott God. Centuries of uncritical worship have clearly produced a monster?"

Her solution to God's misbehaving is preposterous: "Let the human race play hard to get. Imagine God's discombobulation if, after the next mass slaughter of human life, the hymns of praise and incense do not rise up. He checks the Sunday census; the pews are empty. Week after week, the churches and mosques are unattended?He starts to worry. Has he gone too far this time? Maybe he should've exercised his much heralded powers of intervention, the same powers that his erstwhile worshipers presupposed every time they prayed for him to cure a cancer victim, or get them into law school?And so, no longer guaranteed an adoring public, he starts to make nice. He calls back avalanches poised to wipe out whole villages; he brings rain to drought-stricken communities; he cures fatally handicapped babies in the womb, or prevents such flawed conceptions before they happen. He presents tokens of his love to malaria victims and children paralyzed by auto accidents. Africa blooms with peace and prosperity."

Do you hear what Mrs. MacDonald is saying? She is proposing that if we just stick our noses up at God and refuse to love Him, commit not to worship Him, then perhaps God will straighten up His act and stop ordaining evil things.

There are several things wrong with Mrs. MacDonald's perception of God. First, she seems to have this idea that God needs our worship, and that without it He will somehow become lonely or depressed. This is simply untrue. God is not "served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything." Even if all mankind did refuse to worship God, Jesus tells us in Luke 19:40 that "the very stones would cry out."

Mrs. MacDonald also seems to believe that God would allow men to dictate what He does. This flies in the face of all that the Bible teaches. The clay does not tell the potter how it ought to be shaped, or what its purpose ought to be. The clay is always at the mercy of the potter, never the other way around.

Her crucial mistake, however, is that Mrs. MacDonald believes that God is somehow behaving badly, when the truth is that everything He does -EVERYTHING HE DOES - is good, right, just, and even loving, whether we perceive it that way or not.

The Worst Response

The most horrific response a Christian can have towards tragedy - whether it be the slaughter of baby boys in Bethlehem, a car accident which paralyzes a person's body, or simply finding out you have cancer - is to deny God's control.

I was told that a popular pastor responded to the tragic events of 9/11 in this way: "Well, I guess there are some things God just can't control." That is completely wrong. I would rather believe that God has ordained bad things and is working them out for good than to believe that He has no control over them at all. If God is not in control, then He is not trustworthy. What right does God have to promise salvation, inner peace, and blessings if there are forces in the world that He cannot control that might disrupt His plans? No. At all cost, whatever the world might say, we must hold to the sovereignty of God.

Are you going through some sort of tragedy in your life? Has God brought you into a time of trouble or distress? Then consider these words of Charles Spurgeon, and find comfort for your soul.

"There is no attribute more comforting to His children than that of God's Sovereignty. Under the most adverse circumstances, in the most severe trials, they believe that Sovereignty has ordained their afflictions, that Sovereignty overrules them, and that Sovereignty will sanctify them all. There is nothing for which the children ought more earnestly to contend than the doctrine of their Master over all creation - the Kingship of God over all the works of His own hands - the Throne of God and His right to sit upon that Throne. On the other hand, there is no doctrine more hated by [unbelievers], no truth of which they have made such a football, as the great, stupendous, but yet most certain doctrine of the Sovereignty of the infinite Jehovah. Men will allow God to be everywhere except on His throne. They will allow Him to be in His workshop to fashion worlds and make stars. They will allow Him to be in His almonry to dispense alms and bestow His bounties. They will allow Him to sustain the earth and bear up the pillars thereof, or light the lamps of heaven, or rule the waves of the ever-moving ocean; but when God ascends His throne, His creatures then gnash their teeth. And we proclaim an enthroned God, and His right to do as He wills with His own, to dispose of His creatures as He thinks well, without consulting them in the matter; then it is that we are hissed and execrated, and then it is that men turn a deaf ear to us, for God on His throne is not the God they love. But it is God upon the throne that we love to preach. It is God upon His throne whom we trust."

Justin Nale is the pastor of Mount Hermon Missionary Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist Church in Rocky Mount, NC - http://www.mhmbc.org


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