Matthew 2: 1 -6
How long would it take to walk 10 kms? If you are in good shape, you could walk it in a couple of hours. If the terrain is relatively flat, you could easily cover 10 kms in an afternoon. That’s not much of a hike. If you wanted to walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, it’s only 10 kms so you could start in the morning and be there in the afternoon.
One of the most important events took place 10 kms from Jerusalem. 2000 years ago there was not much there. Bethlehem was indeed a “little town” as described in the Christmas carol. Although well-known as the birthplace of King David, the town itself was home to perhaps 200 permanent residents. Because it was close to Jerusalem, we can assume that the various inns and guesthouses were full of pilgrims making their way to and from Jerusalem and on their way to various ancestral hometowns to pay the census tax required by Caesar Augustus.
Just hold this thought in your mind. Jerusalem and Bethlehem were next-door neighbours, the first a large city and the second a tiny village that would not normally be a major destination. Bethlehem in that day was a place you stayed on your way to the big city. You spent the night in Bethlehem and the next day you walked 6 kms to Jerusalem.
Against that backdrop we read Matthew’s account of the coming of the Magi: Matt. 2: 1 - 6
So many questions come to mind when we read this: Who were the Magi? Where did they come from? How far did they journey? How many Magi came to Jerusalem? What was the “star” they saw in the east? How did they know what it meant? How did it lead them? Why did they come to worship the “king of the Jews"? Why was the whole city disturbed?
I want to focus on just one question that the text doesn’t entirely answer:Why didn’t the Jewish leaders go to Bethlehem?
It was so close. Only 10 kms away. If they knew that the Messiah was to be born there, why didn’t they go and check it out for themselves? The Magi knew so little, came so far, and gave so much. The teachers of the law knew so much, were so near, and did so little. It was such a short journey. Only 10 kms.
If Jesus came to Krugersdorp, would we go and see him? If someone said that Jesus was in Pretoria, would we stop what we were doing? If Jesus showed up in Sandton, would we go and greet him? Or would we be too busy to go see him?
Think of all that the teachers of the law knew about the coming of the Messiah: He would be born of the Seed of the woman. Genesis 3:15. He would be a descendant of Shem. Genesis 9:26. He would be of the seed of Abraham. Genesis 12:1-3. He would be a descendant of Isaac. Genesis 22:18. He would be a descendant of Jacob. Genesis 28:14. He would be of the tribe of Judah. Genesis 49:10. He would be a “son of David.” 2 Samuel 7. He would be born of a virgin. Isaiah 7:14. He would be born in Bethlehem. Micah 5:2.
We can summarise in 5 simple statements –
What the Jewish scholars knew about the Messiah:
1. He will be a Jew.
2. He will come from the tribe of Judah.
3. He will be a descendant of David.
4. He will be born in Bethlehem.
5. He will be born of a virgin.
Who were these scribes and chief priests and teachers of the law that Herod consulted? They were the best and brightest minds of the day. As professional students of the Torah of God, they studied the Old Testament day and night. They knew the Word of God, loved it, revered it, learned it, debated it, studied it, and memorized it. Some of them had memorized the first 5 books of the Bible in Hebrew. Others had memorized the Psalms in Hebrew.
When Herod asked where the Christ was to be born, immediately the religious leaders knew the answer, in Bethlehem of Judea because that’s what the prophet Micah had foretold some 700 years earlier. They knew it by heart. They didn’t have to look it up. They didn’t have to use a lifeline or say “let’s go 50/50 on that one.” If they knew the truth, why didn’t they go to Bethlehem? Let me suggest 3 answers to that question.
1. Their knowledge made them intellectually lazy.
Did you know it’s possible to know too much? You can study so long, compare so many opinions, read so many books, and debate so many ideas that you never get around to making a commitment to anything. You are “ever learning but never able to acknowledge the truth” (2 Timothy 3: 7). Knowledge is good but at some point you’ve got to decide what you personally believe. It’s not enough to say, “I’ve studied religion. I know what the Hindus believe, I know what the Muslims believe, I listen to all the experts, I’ve read the latest books, and I can intelligently discourse on the merits of all the major denominations.” Well and good. But of what use is your great knowledge if you never make a personal commitment?
2. Their religion made them spiritually indifferent.
Answering Herod’s question was like playing a game of Bible Trivia where you know all the answers in advance. Religion can deaden the heart and mind. Even good religion, even Bible-based religion. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of saying, “I’m Baptist” or “I’m Catholic” or “I’m Lutheran” or “I’m Presbyterian” - as if going to heaven is determined by church affiliation. It’s too easy for all of us to “play by the rules” of whatever church we attend and still keep Christ at arm’s length. As long as Jesus is just a theory to us, he will be of no benefit to us personally.
3. Their background made them culturally arrogant.
I think this may be a central reason. Think about it for a moment. One day some strangers show up in your town, claiming to have seen a star in the east that led them in search of a baby born “king of the Jews.” What a bizarre story. And who are these guys anyway? How do we know they’re for real? Who sent them? Where did they come from? And what was this star? Where is it? Why can’t we see it?
Plus they look different. They talk different. They dress strange. Everything about them screams, “We’re not from around here.” No wonder the town was in an uproar. It’s always easy to discount people who aren’t like us.
If the heart is not right, no amount of religion can save it. If the heart is not right, no amount of Bible knowledge can make up the difference. Sluggishness - not one of the Jews offers himself as an escort to those foreigners, to go and see the King who had been promised to their own nation.
Sluggishness - “wicked ingratitude.” Perhaps they feared Herod’s anger if they went with the Magi. But so what? Such fear shows how far the Jews had sunk in spiritual bondage. They were 10 kms from Jesus! 10 kms!
But whether from fear or ingratitude or sluggishness or indifference, the Jewish leaders wouldn’t go 10 kms to see Jesus.
Come, Thou long-expected Jesus ... Only 10 kms.
Born to set thy people free ... Only 10 kms.
O come, all ye faithful ... Only 10 kms.
O come, let us adore him ... Only 10 kms.
10 kms - and none of the scribes cared enough to go and check out the rumour that the long-awaited Messiah had been born. 10 kms from Jesus. 10 kms from salvation. 10 kms from forgiveness. 10 kms from eternal life. They were too busy studying the Bible to see for themselves.
As I read Matthew 2, one fact strikes me above all others. Everybody involved had the same basic information. They all knew a baby had been born in Bethlehem and they all knew who the baby was. Herod knew and tried to kill him; the scribes knew and ignored him; the Wise Men knew and worshipped him.
The Bible scholars knew the answer to the question, knew that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, but their knowledge condemned them all the more because they did nothing about the truth they knew. Let no one miss this solemn lesson: It is possible to know a great deal and still miss the truth.
Jesus stands at the end of life’s road for all of us. There can be no middle ground. To ignore him is the same as to hate him because you end up without him either way. To ignore Jesus altogether means to live as if he doesn’t matter at all. But no one can ignore him forever. We all have an appointment with Christ sooner or later.
The ultimate question is not how someone else responds but how you respond to Jesus. That’s really the only thing that matters. Are you with Herod or with the scribes or with the Wise Men? Are you hostile to Jesus? Are you too busy to get involved? Are you coming to worship him as Saviour and Lord?
Perhaps we’ve been religious and no doubt many do believe in Jesus. But for some of us, that belief has never led to a moment of personal commitment. It’s possible that in these days leading up to Christmas, anger, worry, fear, doubt, and other inner distractions are draining all the joy from your heart. So this is the invitation from the Lord to you. Open your heart. Let go of your doubts and fears. Give up your anger. Say farewell to your bitterness. Let go of the things that chain you to the past.
Say this prayer: “O Lord, make my heart a manger where the Christ child can be born.”
Those words could change your life today. Christ never turns away from any heart that is open to him. Those who seek him will find him every time. May that be your experience during this Christmas season.