The Christmas Gospel 3

What is the good news, the gospel, at Christmas? Very simply there is one basic message we are invited to announce: Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, is the King. Notice this text from Matthew 2:1-12; it is one of my favorite Christmas stories and I hope you take the time to read the whole:

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magifrom the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

There’s lots of stuff going on in this text, but the following deserve to be mentioned and this develops what I say in my book The King Jesus Gospel:

First, there is a set-up at the literary level: Matthew tells us about King Herod in order to tell us that he’s about to come down and the son of Mary and Joseph will be enthroned.

Second, there’s a bitter edge to this: magi from the East, Jewish converts or not, are the ones who recognize Jesus as king — not King Herod and not the residents of Jerusalem or Bethlehem (which is just a bit southwest of Jerusalem).

Third, yet more: the Bible experts know where the Messiah/King will be born, but they haven’t the eyes to see he’s now born. Little Bethlehem has been chosen to be the birthplace of Israel’s messianic king.

Fourth, yet more: Bethlehem anticipates a theme everywhere in the Gospels: the unlikely are the ones God uses. This anticipates not just the many sinners who find the Messiah but the despised and disempowered Messiah.

Fifth, you can try but you can’t take down the Messiah until God’s own timing: opposition to Jesus begins as soon as he is born. This anticipates the cross.

Sixth, the powers don’t know the Messiah but God directs a star to “anoint” the Messiah as King.

Seventh, the Messiah King is adored and worshiped by Gentiles from the East — a powerful critique of the powers in Jerusalem. Gifts fit for a king.

Ah, it’s so fun to see King Herod’s plan foiled.

The Christmas gospel — it’s all here — is that Jesus is King.

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  • Amos Paul

    I also see kind of arrogant dominance on the part of Herod that feels indicative of the spirit of the age. It appears that Herod felt very secure in his power, even though he saw a mere ‘cultural threat’ of a baby ‘king’ to be put down. It was awkward to encounter some Magi from a foreign land travelling so far to see such an obscurity, but he still saw himself in enough control that he could casusally command them to go ‘search out’ this king and come back to tell Herod all about him.

    It harkens back to the Pharaoh in Exodus. Sure, the Hebrews’s growth as a people was a threat to Egyptian security, but not one that Pharaoh couldn’t put down with a few commands to the midwives–the ones ‘going to’ the babies. But, as we see (my interpretation here) as good gets *better*, ready to save, evil becomes desperate and worse.

  • Percival

    Very minor geographical point, Bethlehem is SW of Jerusalem. Bur how does the location relate to your point?

  • Percival

    Note: Bur = But in my own private language.

  • Scot McKnight

    Percival, indeed.

  • David D

    Love it…again! Had already planned to teach tonight on Matthew 2:1-6 (and Micah 5:2) at Church (Paducah, KY). The biggest thing I took away from this over the last week was v. 5…they knew! 🙂

  • Joshua Shepherd

    I share the following because I can’t stop thinking about “the despised and disempowered Messiah” and how he’s going to make his Advent among despised and disempowered people this Christmas.

    An urban, Spanish-speaking church in Kansas City wants to host an English-speaking gathering for Christmas eve, and the pastor invited me to preach. He and most of his congregation are undocumented. They are going to prepare a meal and are expecting mostly homeless people at the worship gathering.

    I hope this Christmas is like the first Christmas, with Jesus being born in places the government and religious authorities would never think to look.

  • Phil M

    Hi Scot,

    I’m enjoying this series, but I wonder if you will spell out the “why” somewhere along the way?

    ie., Why is the news that Jesus is King, good news?

  • Scot McKnight

    Phil M,

    That sort of question turns it into something about us, as you know.
    Because God planned the Story to lead to the Messiah.
    Because Israel/God’s people needs to be saved from sins.
    Because God is to dwell among us.
    Because God’s people needs a shepherd to lead them …

    … these from 1:1-2:12 in Matthew.

  • Jerry

    Scot, I’m starting to think we need some solid teaching about what it means to have a Jesus as King. Most Americans don’t get this on a deep level. After all, didn’t we fight a war to be rid of kings? Yes, we give lip service to Jesus as King, but what does this mean in our everyday lives. Your book helps point the way but I think there is a long way to go for most American Christians (at least in the circles in which I labor).

  • TmHeebner

    #9 Jerry, I’d like to have it taken a step further. How does Jesus as King relate to a non-Western world, who don’t have a Judeo-Christian background, no knowledge of the history/story of Israel, no ties to the Roman empire to see how the message of Jesus as king was such a startling claim again Caesar, and who have a different concept of kingdom as to what we Westerners have. Do they need to be first educated on the story first before they can understand this gospel? Does this interpretation of gospel need to be evolved to be more relevant to the Far-Eastern world? If American’s have a long way to go, then its even farther for a Chinese to go if this is what the gospel is.

  • Phil M

    Thanks Scot,

    You’re use of the word “turns” has a me a little confused. I get that the message is about Jesus, but was not the message about Jesus always *for* us?

    Jesus commissioned his disciples to go and spread the news of the Kingdom of God. No doubt when their listeners heard that news it made sense to them and they understood many of its implications. If I told someone today that “Jesus is the King”, what would that mean to them?

    I’m trying to understand the King Jesus gospel but I’m struggling against years of soterian teaching; how would the disciples go about their commission in modern day America, or New Zealand, etc?

  • Dave


    Minor point…I see the shepherds as the first to come, then worship (though perhaps not in the way tradition holds)–but also that this goes with #4–shepherds would have been, perhaps, the MOST disenfranchised who visited?

  • scotmcknight

    Dave, thanks for that.

  • Alan K

    Great post, Scot. I hope this series will venture over into Luke as well, where it seems the author most certainly is aligning Jesus with King David.

  • Tim Atwater

    Good post and good series.
    The part that always still disturbs me here is the Magi’s inadventently putting Herod on to the infant, very vulnerable Messiah — the flight into Egypt is ok — it’s the massacre of the innocents that befalls Bethlehem that is so awful to ponder.
    (Pasolini’s black and white low budget Gospel of Matthew makes it pretty terrifying…)
    I guess the strong dose of social realism is probably necessary…
    Like reading stories of war and trauma in the Christmas season…
    Still very unsettling.

  • Rev. Bryant J. Williams III

    Dear Scot,

    Excellent post. I like your seven facts. Several other facts that get out of the story is mentioned in 2:2-3, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.”

    The first fact is that Herod was NOT born King of the Jews. He was declared the King of Judea by an act of the Roman Senate, if I remember correctly in 40 BC.

    The second fact is that Herod is actually an Edomite. Edom was forcibly converted by John Hycannus I in 127 BC. Thus, we have an Edomite on a throne in Jerusalem.

    The third fact is that Herod was famous (or infamous depending on one’s POV) for his insecurity of his throne. Let’s see, an uncle, a wife, a brother-in-law, six sons, were all put to death by order of Herod. No wonder every one was disturbed. Did not Augustus say, “It was safer to be Herod’s pigs than to be one of his sons?” And we have not gotten to the “Slaughter of the Innocents” yet.

    The fourth fact is that Herod was NOT a worshiper of the God of the Jews especially of One who was “born King of the Jews.”

    Finally, the emphasis on Gentiles in the geneaology and birth narrative, the Magi from the East are Gentiles (as you mentioned in fact 7 above) and the four women in the Davidic or Messianic Line (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba).