Christmas and why the disciples thought Jesus would overthrow Rome.
I’ve always been fascinated by the moments in Jesus’s ministry when it was painfully clear that everyone around him fundamentally misunderstood what he was doing. Like when Peter chopped off Malchus’s ear, or when the 5,000—with bellies full of fish and bread—decided to install Jesus as their king “by force” (John 6:15). Or when—after Jesus’s death and resurrection!—the disciples asked, “Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?” (Acts 1:6). Why, I always wondered, were the people around Jesus so confused about his mission? If it was obvious to me that Jesus came to free us from sin and death, why were the people next to him so convinced that he was going to establish a political kingdom?
Well, the disciples and crowds—not to mention Herod, the chief priests, and the scribes in Matthew’s gospel—were so confused simply because they were reading the Old Testament. In Matthew 2—a passage we’ll likely all be reading during this Christmas season—we read that wise men come from the east to worship Jesus. Along the way, they do the only sensible thing and ask the ruler of that region where this king of the Jews is. Herod is deeply disturbed to learn of the birth of a new king, and he does the sensible thing and asks the Jewish scholars where this Messiah would be born.
Herod was right to be worried, and it seems like the rest of the people around Jesus were right to be confused.
The scribes and chief priests unhesitatingly name Bethlehem, the home town of Israel’s iconic King David. They know the Messiah will be born there, they say, because the prophet Micah foretold it centuries ago. The key for our question—why did the people living during that time expect a revolutionary to overthrow the oppressive Roman government and set his people free?—lies in the words of that ancient prophet.
Micah preached to Israel and Judah over a span of about fifty years some seven centuries before Jesus was born. His primary concern was to call God’s people—in particular the political and religious leaders—to repentance for their idolatry and unjust treatment of others. In short, they repeatedly failed to fulfill the two greatest commandments: love God and love neighbor. If they refused to repent (spoiler: they refused), then God would demonstrate his covenant faithfulness by keeping his promise to judge them. Micah 5 is sort of a summary of the book’s overall message, and that’s where we learn that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem.
The chapter divides into two sections, with verses 1–6 promising judgment and restoration, and verses 7–15 describing how God will protect the remnant of his people, judge the nations who rebelled against him, and destroy all vestiges of idolatry from his people. Let’s key in on the first section, because it shows us why the disciples and everyone else thought Jesus should enter Jerusalem on a horse instead of a donkey.
Verse 1 describes a humiliating attack against God’s people, which was realized first in 722 B.C. when Assyria destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel and more fully in 586 B.C. when Babylon overthrew Jerusalem and decimated the temple. Verse 2 gives the good news—an ancient ruler will arise. But verse 3 throws us back into the bad news—Israel will be delivered to her enemies for an unspecified period of time. Then verses 4–6 tell us that the ancient ruler will “stand and shepherd” God’s people “in the strength of the Lord.” When this happens, God’s people “will live securely, for then his greatness will extend to the ends of the earth” and the shepherd “will be their peace.”
Who wants to follow a Jesus whose disciples pull out their swords instead of offering forgiveness, who seize the opportunity to collect their pound of flesh rather than dying to their desire for vengeance?
Sound familiar? The chief priests and scribes conveniently leave out the next part: this shepherd will “rescue us from Assyria when it invades our land, when it marches against our territory.” Assyria—the fearsome nation who exiled the Northern Kingdom—is a stand-in for any enemy of Israel, kind of like how the feared enemy in the video games I played as a kid was always Russia.
So, to bring us back to the book of Matthew and this beloved passage that my family reads every Christmas, Herod was right to be worried, and it seems like the rest of the people around Jesus were right to be confused. Or at least it makes sense that they expected an ancient shepherd to overthrow Rome. Micah had promised that this eschatological King of the Jews would turn everything on its head and pull God’s people out of Micah 5:3 (“Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor has given birth”) and into Micah 5:4–6. Of course, Jesus does ultimately overthrow Rome—along with sin, death, and every other kingdom on this planet. It just didn’t happen like anyone would have expected.
And if I’m honest, I’m part of that “anyone,” despite my raised eyebrows and chuckle at the disciples’ expense. My dad died about ten years ago; we never had much of a relationship after he left when I was six. I can’t tell you how many times I wished he would die–at least then there’d be a reason he wasn’t around. Once my dad told me that his wife, with whom he had a daughter just a few months older than me while married to my mom, had cheated on him and they were getting divorced. “Good,” I responded, looking my dad in the eyes. “Now you know how it feels.”
In that moment, and in so many after, I felt completely righteous in my condemnation–you reap what you sow, and all that. I’d shared the gospel with my dad before that day, and I did it again later, but it’s really no wonder my words fell flat. Who wants to follow a Jesus whose disciples pull out their swords instead of offering forgiveness, who seize the opportunity to collect their pound of flesh rather than dying to their desire for vengeance?
I don’t know what would have happened if I could have forgiven my dad while he was still alive. Honestly, I’m not even sure I’ve really forgiven him now, a decade after his death. But I do know that I’m not so different from the scribes and Pharisees, the disciples, the crowds, and even Herod and Pontius Pilate. Like them, I struggle to understand–and certainly to live out–Jesus’s call to establish a different sort of kingdom, one that conquers sin and death through love and forgiveness.