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The Enemies of Jesuscomment (0)

January 4, 2007

By Bob Terry

The story of Jesus’ birth ends on a dissonant note as recorded in Matthew 2:16–18. Joseph, after being warned by an angel from God, flees with his family to Egypt right before the bloody wrath of Herod the Great is unleashed on the children of Bethlehem.

Herod, an old man by the time Jesus was born, ordered all the male children ages 2 and under murdered, lest a rival to his kingly throne emerge from the tiny village. Such carnage was not new to Herod. In 4 B.C., Torah students smashed what they considered to be an idolatrous statue of a golden eagle placed in the Jewish temple by Romans. In retaliation, Herod had the students burned alive.

Earlier he murdered three of his sons whom he feared were plotting to overthrow him. The act reportedly caused the emperor, Caesar Augustus, to joke that he would rather be one of Herod’s swine — safe from slaughter because the king kept kosher — than one of his sons.

Despite such a brutal background, some historians now argue that King Herod gets a bad rap, that he was no more vicious than other rulers of his day. In the book “Herod: King of the Jews, Friend of the Romans,” the author even argues that the murder of Bethlehem’s male children never occurred because it is not recorded anywhere else in history other than the Gospel of Matthew.

Forgive me, but I choose to believe the Bible. Even some who doubt the veracity of Matthew’s account of Herod’s actions concede that murdering the male children would not have been out of character for the tyrant.

Jesus’ first human enemy may have been the political establishment in the form of Herod, the one Rome proclaimed king of the Jews. But political enemies would not be His major foes. Almost from the beginning of His public ministry until His death on a cross, Jesus battled the religious establishment represented by the Pharisees and scribes.

The Pharisees attacked Jesus’ lifestyle (Matt. 9:14). They questioned His authority (Matt. 16:1). They denounced His teaching (Matt. 22:34ff). They plotted to kill Him (Matt. 12:14).

Jesus was no friend of the Pharisees either. Jesus criticized their customs and character, telling the people not to pray as the Pharisees did. In Matthew 21:31–32, He declared that tax collectors and prostitutes would get to heaven before the Pharisees. Seven times in Matthew 23, Jesus declares “Woe to you” to the Pharisees.

In his book, “A Work of the Heart,” Reggie McNeal describes the Pharisees as “[j]udgmental, haughty, legalistic, nationalistic, mercenary, power hungry, religiously fanatical but spiritually dead.” McNeal adds, “[T]hese characteristics described the leaders parading as representatives of his (Jesus’) Father.”

There is an important lesson there for Christians today. Religious leaders who try to usher in the kingdom of God by the power of political clout and social props keep alive the spirit of the Pharisees. Such leaders can become judgmental, haughty, legalistic, nationalistic, mercenary, power hungry, religiously fanatical but spiritually dead.

The Pharisees wanted the people of their day to believe right, act right, dress right, even have the right political leanings. They used both the political power of their position and the social props of their religion to coerce people into compliance.

To the dismay of the Pharisees, Jesus’ message was not about being good. It was about God’s grace. Jesus invited people to know God as a God of love, not a despot of law. Jesus said God was more interested in a relationship with His people than with detailed ritualistic observance.

Still the temptation exists to believe that God’s Kingdom depends on the right political party being in power, the right moral priorities of government or the right social actions of the people. Such outlooks have been plentiful as the 110th U.S. Congress organized and the battle for leadership of the Alabama Senate continues.

Please do not misunderstand. God’s people should be concerned about the moral priorities of government, about the social actions of society, about the values endorsed by political parties and leaders. This writer anticipates being involved in many moral and ethical issues that have political implications in this year.

But God’s Kingdom is greater than party or position. One enters the kingdom of God only when one’s heart is captured by the heart of God made known in Jesus Christ. Jesus said He came “to seek and to save that which is lost.” He is on a mission of redemption, and Jesus invites all of us to join Him in that quest.

When we choose otherwise, we not only disqualify ourselves as followers of the One who takes away the sins of the world but we also identify ourselves with the enemies of Jesus just like Herod, just like the Pharisees.

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