One of the most peculiar stories in the Bible also happens to be one of the most familiar.
It tells of an event that took place shortly after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, when some foreigners—called ‘Magi’—showed up in Jerusalem, unannounced (Matthew 2:1-12). Traditionally, we have come to know them as the “Three Kings of Orient,” but the Bible never gives a number or labels them as royalty. So don’t believe every Christmas carol you hear.
These Magi were likely astrologers from Babylon, Persia, or Arabia who had—rightly—seen and interpreted a sign in the stars that an important king was about to be born. Figuring this king would be born in the royal palace, they made a long journey to the City of David, Jerusalem, home of Rome’s puppet-king, Herod the Great. They came looking for a new prince–possibly in the royal household–but found none. Instead, they stirred up trouble, because “[w]hen Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3).
It would be troubling, wouldn’t it, that strange and foreign, non-Jewish purveyors of occult practices and magic would show up unannounced to announce a royal birth before the royal family itself was even aware of it? It was certainly troubling to King Herod the Great, who was so famously paranoid of competition that he had one of his wives and two of his own sons executed. And in this instance, if these Magi were correct, this sign must refer to another challenger to the crown.
Intent to flush out and end the threat, Herod quickly made use of the religious leaders and scholars to nail down the anticipated prophetic birthplace of the anticipated Jewish King, the Messiah. Likely running through Herod’s mind was that there was an uprising amongst the people, intent on replacing him and enthroning one of their own in his place. He then surreptitiously sent these Magi to Bethlehem and commanded them to report back after they found the child. However, after finding Jesus and his parents, they are tipped off to Herod’s scheming and sneak out of the country undetected.
Herod is troubled and furious because he realizes that this baby—this upstart king—is dangerous. So in the wake of the Magi’s secret defection from Palestine, Herod responds with characteristic violence: “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” (Matthew 2:16).
Kings do not like it when their kingdoms are threatened.
But to see a baby as a threat? How could a small child, born to an insignificant peasant couple, possibly be a threat?
Interestingly, this is exactly what the prophets anticipate:
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 9:6-7)
What does this mean?
It means that this child-king will shake the foundations of every existing power structure until they topple, taking the authority to rule upon himself. He will eventually overthrow every political power and subdue every opposing authority. So as crazy as he was, Herod was right to be troubled. The child promised was not simply “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” but the conquering Prince of Peace who has come to upend ALL human kingdoms.
As the Prince of Peace, “of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end.” In other words, his kingdom will last forever and it will spread forever. It will be a Kingdom of Peace—the Hebrew term here is shalom. Shalom refers to a state in which all things are as they should be, where instead of conflict, there is universal flourishing and wholeness: “justice and righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.”
Don’t miss what happens here: the Prince of Peace brings peace, not by allowing everyone to do what they want, but through upending all human kingdoms—dismantling them and throwing them down.
Yes, this includes your kingdom, and it includes mine.
You see, every single one of us spends our lives building up our own kingdoms. And even if we call ourselves “Christians,” what we often mean by that is that we simply want Jesus to protect our kingdom. We demand that he guard our self-rule and self-reliance. We’re not interested in him actually ruling.
But Baby Jesus has come to call us all out: to remind us that as the Prince of Peace, he will countenance no rival. He will not give place to usurpers and challengers to his throne.
And yes, like Herod, we want to silence the infant King. We don’t do it so brazenly as Herod, sending our troops to murder innocent children. Instead, we do it by relegating Jesus to the manger. We keep him bound in swaddling cloths, a perpetual infant, day after day, year after year. Like Ricky Bobby, we prefer Baby Jesus, because when Jesus stays in diapers, he’s not a threat. We like baby Jesus because he doesn’t demand anything from us. If he stays a harmless child, who requires nothing of us, then we have nothing to lose.
But Jesus didn’t stay a baby. And he’s not harmless.
No, Jesus grew up to become a man. And that man said some hard things, challenged established authority, and then gave himself over to be arrested, tortured, and murdered by those who saw him as a threat to their kingdoms. And that man who died didn’t stay dead, but came back to life—conquering even the dark hold of the kingdom of death.
And that man lives even now, at the right hand of the throne of God, wielding all power and all authority in the universe. And from there, he will return again to judge and conquer and subdue every and any kingdom that sets itself up against him—including yours and mine.
Jesus is the Prince of Peace. Therefore, your kingdom has no chance. But let me promise you this: His Kingdom is so much better! He is the only king who can give you peace—and oh, does he promise to give you peace!—when you lay down your arms and bend the knee to King Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
The government shall be upon his shoulders. Of its increase—and the increase of peace—there will be no end. Amen.
Photo by Robert Thiemann on Unsplash