The man who tried to kill Christmas

SERMON TOPIC: The man who tried to kill Christmas

Speaker: Gavin Paynter

Language: ENGLISH

Date: 24 December 2023


Sermon synopsis: Today, as we gather to celebrate the birth of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, let us reflect on a figure often overshadowed by the joyous events of that first Christmas—the first man who tried the suppress the birthday of the newborn king.

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Today, as we gather to celebrate the birth of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, let us reflect on a figure often overshadowed by the joyous events of that first Christmas—the first man who tried the suppress the birthday of the newborn king.

But this is not about the Grinch Who Stole Christmas or even Ebenezer Scrooge.

It is about the man known to history as Herod the Great.

The year was 63 BC and Judea had been ruled by the Hasmonean (Maccabean) dynasty since c. 140 BC.

There were two contenders for the throne:

the High Priest, John Hyrcanus II

his brother Aristobulus

JUDEA in 63 BC

They both sent envoys to the Roman General Pompey asking for his assistance.

Pompey gave assistance, but not the kind they had expected. He marched on Jerusalem and took it for himself and for Rome.




The Roman general Julius Caesar entrusted Antipater with the public affairs of Judea. Antipater was a foreigner from Idumea (Biblical Edom).

Antipater’s son, Herod was appointed provincial governor of Galilee in c. 47 BC, when he was about either 25 or 28 years old.

Herod’s brother Phasael was put in charge of Judea.



In 41 BC, the Roman leader Mark Anthony appointed Phasael and Herod as tetrarchs to support Hyrcanus.

The Sanhedrin (the council of 71 rabbis who served as Judea’s ecclesiastical judges) hated the young Herod. They reported his brutality to Mark Anthony but he dismissed the charges.


When Antipater died in 40 BC, the Jews seized the opportunity to regain their freedom from Rome. Antigonus, Hyrcanus' nephew, took the Judean throne from his uncle with the help of the Parthians. They imprisoned Herod’s brother Phasael – who subsequently committed suicide.

Herod barely escaped with his life. He made his way to Rome where he was sponsored by Mark Anthony and young Octavian (later Augustus), nephew to Julius Caesar. There the Senate crowned him king of the Jews (or rather “king of Judea”).


However, he was a king without a kingdom. At the behest of Mark Anthony, Herod was given command of a Roman legion to put down the rebellion of Antigonus and repel the Parthian invaders.

In 37 BC Herod captured Jerusalem. He then sent Antigonus to Mark Anthony to be executed.


In 31 BC when Octavian defeated Mark Anthony, Herod promptly switched allegiances to him. In 30 BC Octavian confirmed Herod as King of Judea.

Herod now began a reign that was to continue for the next 33 years. But while the Romans made him “King of the Jews” it was a title the Jews hated because:

He was not of pure Jewish descent

He was a dubious religious Jew


Herod was born in Idumea. His father was an Edomite with a Jewish mother; his ancestors had converted to Judaism. ** His mother was a Nabatean Arab princess from Petra, in present-day Jordan. *

** When John Hyrcanus conquered Idumea in 140–130 BC, he required all Idumaeans to obey Jewish law or to leave; most thus converted to Judaism, which meant that they had to be circumcised. Many intermarried with the Jews and adopted their customs. * https:// wiki/ Herod_the_Great


His religious commitment was rightfully questioned by some elements of Jewish society.

While Herod publicly identified himself as a religious Jew and was considered as such by some, this identification was undermined by the decadent lifestyle of the Herodians, which earned them the contempt of observant Jews.

Although Herod considered himself king of the Jews, he let it be known that he also represented the non-Jews living in Judea, building temples for other religions outside of the Jewish areas of his kingdom. *

* https:// wiki/ Herod_the_Great



In an attempt to legitimize his claim to the throne and gain some Jewish favour, Herod had banished his wife Doris and her child and married Mariamne I, a Hasmonean princess - the granddaughter of Hyrcanus II – renowned for her beauty.

* Picture from Herod the Great (1959), Vic Film

Herod undertook many massive building projects. His most famous and ambitious project was the expansion of the Second Temple in Jerusalem doubling the size of the Temple Mount area. With this reconstruction he hoped to gain more support from the Jews.


In addition, Herod also used the latest technology in hydraulic cement and underwater construction to build the harbor at Caesarea Maritima. * Herod was a paranoid leader and built fortresses (Masada, Herodium, Alexandrium, Hyrcania, and Machaerus) in which he and his family could take refuge in case of insurrection.

* https:// wiki/ Herod_the_Great

Herod proved to be a clever but cruel dictator. He took many security measures aimed at suppressing the contempt his people, especially Jews, had towards him.

He had a bodyguard of 2,000 soldiers. It has been suggested that Herod used secret police to monitor and report the feelings of the general populace toward him. He sought to prohibit protests, and had opponents removed by force. *

Above everything else, he was a killer. That was his nature. He killed out of spite and to stay in power. Human life meant nothing to him. Over the years he executed many people including several members of his close family.

* https:// wiki/ Herod_the_Great


In 36 BC Herod made his 17-year-old brother-in-law Aristobulus III (Mariamne’s brother) high priest, fearing that the Jews would appoint him as king in his place.

In 35 BC at a party, Aristobulus was drowned by Herod’s guard on Herod’s orders. Herod was then summoned to Egypt to explain himself to Mark Anthony. *

* According to Josephus, Alexandra, the mother of Aristobulus, “wrote an account of this treacherous scene to Cleopatra; and how her son was murdered. But Cleopatra … made the case her own; and would not let Anthony be quiet: but excited him to punish the child’s murder. For that it was an unworthy thing that Herod, who had been by him made King of a Kingdom that no way belonged to him, should be guilty of such horrid crimes against those that were of the royal blood in reality.” [Antiquities of the Jews — Book XV, Ch 3.5]

Josephus relates that “he left his uncle Joseph procurator for his government… and gave him a private charge, that if Anthony should kill him, he also should kill Mariamne immediately. For that he had a tender affection for this his wife, and was afraid of the injury that should be offered him, if, after his death, she, for her beauty, should be engaged to some other man.” *

Joseph told Mariamne of Herod’s intentions, which left the young queen understandably bitter about the obsessive “love” of her husband. Furthermore Herod’s mother and sister, Salome, accused Mariamne of adultery with Joseph.

Herod believed his uncle would have only betrayed the death sentence to Mariamne if he had designs on her. So he executed him but spared Mariamne.

* Ibid.

However, over the years Mariamne’s enmity grew so much that Josephus says she refused to sleep with Herod. When Salome accused Mariamne of plotting to poison Herod, he executed his beloved 25-year-old wife in 29 BC. Herod grieved for her for many months.

Mariamne’s mother, Alexandra, then declared herself queen, stating that Herod was mentally unfit to serve. Josephus states that this is a strategic mistake because Herod then executed her without a trial. *

In 28 BC Herod executed his brother-in-law Costobar (husband of Salome) for conspiracy. *

John Hyrcanus II had been taken by the Parthians into captivity in Babylonia, where he lived for four years amid the Babylonian Jews. In 36 BC, fearing that Hyrcanus might persuade the Parthians to help him regain the throne, Herod invited him to return to Jerusalem. However, in 30 BC Herod charged the 80-year-old Hyrcanus of plotting with the Nabateans and put him to death.

* https:// wiki/ Herod_the_Great

In 8 BC Herod accused his sons Alexander and Aristobulus of plotting to overthrow him. He ordered them put to death … by strangling.

In 5-4 BC his son and new heir, Antipater, was brought before a court, charged with plotting to murder Herod and executed.

No wonder the Roman Emperor, Augustus, was said to have quipped, ‘It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son”, the joke being that, since Herod was a Jew, he didn't eat pork and his pig would be safe. *

* Macrobius (c. 400 AD), one of the last pagan writers in Rome, in his book Saturnalia, wrote: “When it was heard that, as part of the slaughter of boys up to two years old, Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered his own son to be killed, he [the Emperor Augustus] remarked, ‘It is better to be Herod’s pig [Gr. hys] than his son’ [Gr. hyios]”. - https:// wiki/ Herod_the_Great

So history shows Herod as an insecure king who will kill any potential challenger to his throne, and who has a good reason to distrust the Parthians. With that historical backdrop, we now reach the Biblical narrative.

Herod is slowly dying. Josephus describes his disease as a kind of foul distemper. His body racked with convulsions, his breath foul, his skin covered with loathsome sores, he is rapidly losing his mind. But he is still the king. *

One day word comes to him in Jerusalem that some visitors have journeyed across the desert with a strange question. They are Magi, the Wise Men from the East.

* https:// sermon/ herod-the-man-who-tried-to-kill-christmas


Matt 2:1-12 (NASB) Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem

Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.

No one knows, including Herod. But he knew he’d better find out what this was all about. They were looking for someone “born” king of the Jews. What were these strangers talking about?


This question hit a sore spot with Herod. At present, he is the king of the Jews.

Furthermore, he was never BORN the King of the Jews. He is a foreigner. He is not of the royal line of David. He is not even Jewish. He has never been fully accepted by many Jews.

Matt 2:3 (NASB) When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.


In the earliest depictions (2nd century), the Magi are shown wearing Persian clothes.

The common belief among the Church Fathers is that the Magi were from Persia, which was then part of the Parthian Empire, the enemy of Rome and of Herod.


It was not just their strange question that troubled Herod, but probably the rank and origin of the strangers asking it.

The Magi were a very powerful political body. No king could rule on the throne of Parthia (a Persian empire) until he had first been accepted by the Magi.

Do you remember who Herod had to fight to regain Judea? It was the Parthians!


The Parthians have been continuously at war with Rome during all these years. And now this group of religious King-Makers have come to Jerusalem asking about a newborn king of the Jews.

You can imagine Herod’s consternation when a delegation of Parthian king-makers arrive in Jerusalem, looking for the one who has been “born King of the Jews.”

The paranoid Herod might rightfully think, “Could this be another plot on the part of the Parthians to overthrow me and place another on my throne.”

Matt 2:4-6 (NASB) Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.


Herod knew the Jews were looking for a Messiah, the one God would send to save them from their enemies and to reign as King. It becomes evident to him that the Magi have come to seek out the Messiah, the one who's coming was foretold in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The chief priest and scribes now respond by informing him of the prediction in Micah that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.


Remember that Herod was not born with the title “King of the Jews” – he had to fight and kill to obtain that position.

After a lifetime killing spree, he had finally eliminated all his enemies. But now there was more competition to eliminate. Would a man who was brought up being taught about the coming Messiah seriously try to kill the Christ of God? Herod did.

All tyrants are cowards at heart. They rule by force and the one thing they fear most is a force greater than theirs. If Messiah had come, then it meant that Herod was ruling in opposition to God. Therefore, he must kill that baby … and he must do it now! So Herod hatched a clever plot. *

* Ibid.

Matt 2:7 (NASB) Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared.

Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.

Matt 2:9 (NASB) After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was.

Matt 2:10 (NASB) After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him.

Matt 2:12 (NASB) And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the Magi left for their own country by another way.

Matt 2:13 (NASB) When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream …

Matt 2:13 (NASB) … “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

Matt 2:14 (NASB) So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt …

Matt 2:15 (NASB) where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When the Magi left his palace, Herod may have been congratulating himself. How stupid those foreigners are to fall for a trick like that.

Fools! Ah, but you’re the fool, Herod, not them. They are gone and so is the child. Your plan boomeranged. You thought to make them do your dirty work for you. But God thought otherwise. *

The Bible says that when Herod saw he had been tricked by the Magi, he became enraged. Why? The trickster had been tricked; the con man had been conned. The liar had been double-crossed. *

He lost his mind and did something worthy of Hitler, Stalin or Mao. He lashes out indiscriminately.

* Ibid.


Matt 2:16 (NASB) When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious…

… and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.

Matt 2:17 (NASB) Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

Matt 2:18 (NASB) “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Herod’s plan was nothing less than the assassination of the Messiah. He plans to have the Christ child eliminated before he could challenge his throne or his dynasty. It is estimated that he may have killed as many as 33 boys. *

This is consistent with everything we know about Herod the Great. Killing was how he stayed on top for 41 years. A man who killed his own sons because they might threaten his throne had no qualms about wiping out all the baby boys of Bethlehem just to make sure he’d killed the right one.

Back in Jerusalem Herod hears the news that all the babies are dead. He can rest now. He has killed his last foe. There is no rival “King of the Jews”.

* The population of Bethlehem is estimated to have been a few hundred, perhaps as high as a thousand, during this era. If the latter, 500 would have been male. Assuming an average life expectancy of 60 years and even age distribution, there would have been 16.7 boys 2 years and under. But both birth and mortality rates were high back then, so there were more boys than old men. If the number 16.7 is increased by 100%, Herod slaughtered as many as 33 innocent boys. - https:// matthew/ matthew2-slaughter-of-the-innocents.htm


There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom.

Knowledge is what you know. Wisdom is who you are in the light of what you know.

The religious leaders had knowledge, but when the Wise Men discovered that same knowledge - it changed their lives.


In fact, Herod, the religious leaders in Jerusalem and the Magi all had the same knowledge - A KING HAS BEEN BORN IN BETHLEHEM. But what they do with that knowledge is what differentiates them.

Herod uses his knowledge to try and silence the voice of the King forever (hostility).

The religious leaders appear to ignore what has happened (indifference).

The Magi uses their knowledge to seek out the king, pay him tribute in worship and gifts and then refuse to assist Herod in silencing him (wisdom).


Herod stands as a symbol for the kind of world Jesus came into. He represents the world’s welcoming committee for the Son of God. It’s not the way you thought it would be, is it? Jesus is born and the rulers try to kill him. The Bible says, “He came to what was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:11)*

Herod stands for the bloodthirsty, cruel, vindictive side of the world system. A world where human life is cheap. A world where killing is accepted and even expected. *

* https:// sermon/ herod-the-man-who-tried-to-kill-christmas

Herod saw Jesus as a threat. He saw Jesus as an interference with his life. A lot of people see Jesus as only an interference. He gets in the way with what they want to do. *

Herod has no intention of worshipping the new king as he pretends to the Magi. He has set himself up as king and there is room for no other.

And so, he sets out to murder Jesus. What is at stake here? If Herod’s plan succeeds, then there will be no cross, no salvation … and we all will die in our sins!

Herod died but his spirit lives on. To this day there are those who are offended by Jesus, even by the mere mention of his name. They oppose spiritual truth and want to erase every trace of Christianity from public life.

* John Stevenson - https:// nt/ theology/ mt02.html


The chief priests and the scribes represent the religiously indifferent. These are the insiders who know all the facts and do nothing about it. They don’t care enough to get excited. They should have been rejoicing because the Messiah had come; instead, they ignored his birth.

When Herod calls for them, he acknowledges that they are the experts in matters regarding prophecy about the Messiah. He asks where the baby is to be born and they know the answer. The panel of experts all agree. There is no debate. They were professional Bible students. The prophet Micah has made it very clear. The Messiah is to the born in Bethlehem.

They told Herod and the Magi where to look but didn’t care enough to investigate for themselves. They don’t appear to do anything with their knowledge.

Bethlehem was only 8 km from Jerusalem but even that was too far to go. It was all academic to them. “Hope you have a nice trip. If you find the Messiah, let us know.” *

What are your 8 km? What is keeping you from following God? Most people in our country have some basic knowledge of the Bible. The problem is that they do not follow up on what they know. What are those things that you know you ought to do but are not doing?

* https:// sermon/ herod-the-man-who-tried-to-kill-christmas


There is one final group on stage. They are the Wise Men who when they found the baby, bowed down and worshipped him. It is an ironic twist of the Christmas story that it is the pagans who recognize Jesus for who he really is. *

Herod tries to kill him; the scribes ignore him. But the Wise Men prove themselves worthy of their name. When they found him, they worshipped him and offer him gifts.

* https:// sermon/ herod-the-man-who-tried-to-kill-christmas

The Magi knew something Herod never knew–that little baby in an insignificant village would someday rule the world.

They were not ashamed to give him gifts fit for the “King of the Jews”.


These three responses are the same ways people respond to Jesus now. Some will be hostile; some will be indifferent; some will worship him.

Sometimes you will see all three responses in one family; often you will see all three responses in the place where you work. After 2,000 years Herod has many grandchildren, the scribes are still too busy to go to Bethlehem, and Wise Men still seek him. *

* Ibid.

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 your king?


If information alone could save you, then even Herod would have been saved. But it is not what you know but what you do with what you know that saves you.

If you believe that Jesus is the Son of God from heaven - the promised Messiah.

If you believe that he died on the cross in your place.

If you believe that he is the Saviour of the world who can save you from your sins.

If you believe all of that … then do what the Wise Men did. Acknowledge Christ as king of your life, bow down and worship him.

Matt 2:19 (NASB) After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt

Matt 2:20 (NASB) and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

Matt 2:21 (NASB) So he got up, took the child and his mother …

… and went to the land of Israel.

The Bible concludes the story by noting the death of Herod.

Herod died in Jericho after an excruciatingly painful, putrefying illness of uncertain cause.

Josephus states that the pain of his illness led Herod to attempt suicide by stabbing. He says that maggots had eaten away part of Herod’s body and that he died in agony–insane, tormented and delirious.

Josephus wrote that Herod was so concerned that no one would mourn his death that he commanded a large group of distinguished men to come to Jericho, and he gave an order that they should be killed at the time of his death so that the displays of grief that he craved would take place.

Fortunately his brother in law, Alexas, and his sister, Salome, did not carry out this wish.

The man who tried to kill Christmas … almost succeeded … but he didn’t. In his life, Herod the Great murdered many people and slaughtered the infants of Bethlehem. But he didn’t get the one that mattered the most – God saw to that.



Jesus and Herod were opposites in every way; morally, culturally, spiritually, and especially in terms of their worldly status.

Herod’s life revolved around sacrificing others – in order to bring glory to himself.

Jesus gave his life as a sacrifice for others – in order to bring glory to the Father.


Ultimately, Herod's glory and strength were forgotten. Few people remember the accomplishments of this proud king. Rather, he is remembered as a paranoid tyrant who killed family members and children in an effort to preserve his throne.

Jesus' legacy continues to impact millions of people throughout the world. Even non-Christians have heard about his life and death. Today, his followers still study his words and seek to follow the humble example of his life.

https:// herod-and-jesus-a-contrast-between-two-kings


These two men were both called “King of the Jews”.

Herod: Paranoid, jealous, suspicious, ruthless, a lying murderer. His only interest was in the preservation of his own wealth and power.

Christ: Holy, pure, merciful. We see him in Matthew 2 as the recipient of the gifts of the Magi, but really he came to give the greatest gift of all.


Today you give allegiance to one of these two kings. You might say, “I may not be a Christian, but that doesn't mean that I would give allegiance to Herod!”

You are missing the point. If you have not become a disciple of Jesus, then you aren’t merely worshiping Herod. You ARE Herod. You have set up yourself as king of your universe. And Christ will not allow two kings to reign. *

* John Stevenson - https:// nt/ theology/ mt02.html

At Christmas we remember the First Coming of the King. But we also look forward to the Second Coming of the King.

The first time he came as a baby. The second time he will come riding on a white horse leading the armies of heaven.

All people will ultimately meet Christ. I invite you to meet him now as your Saviour. If not, you will meet him later as your Judge.

AUTHOR: Gavin Paynter

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NOTE 1: Biblical illustrations by Jim Padgett, courtesy of http://

NOTE 2: Illustration from http://

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Gold was a kingly gift.

Frankincense was a type of perfume used in the Levitical offerings. It was also a kingly gift (Isaiah 60:6).

Myrrh had many uses. It was a perfume but it was also used as a narcotic to ease pain, in addition to being used in the process of embalming the dead. This wasn't the sort of gift that you would normally give to a king. It was a gift that looked forward to the suffering and death of Jesus. Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh on the cross and the women intended to embalm him with myrrh.

You see, Jesus came as a baby, but He didn't stay a baby. The baby grew up into a man. And as a man, He died for our sins. The chubby little hands were destined to be pierced with nails. The little smiling cheeks would one day have a beard ripped from them. That little body would be broken and bruised as it bore all of the righteous anger of God against sin. *

* John Stevenson - https:// nt/ theology/ mt02.html

During World War 2, a father received news that his son only had been killed in combat. He was stricken with grief and when his pastor came to visit him and he lashed out saying, “Preacher, where was your God when my son was killed?” The pastor quietly replied, “In the same place He was when His own Son was killed.” *

Do you see the point? It is that His death was no accident. What was death to Him was a gift of life to us. And as we see the Magi presenting their gifts, we cannot help but notice that one of those gifts reflects the gift that the Child Himself would give. *

* John Stevenson - https:// nt/ theology/ mt02.html

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