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Announcing the 2017 Advent Devotional: Register today to receive daily email Advent Devotionals

November 02, 2017

 Announcing the 2017 Advent Devotional:

Click here to register today and receive daily email devotionals authored by Gordon-Conwell faculty members starting Dec. 3, in preparation for Christmas season.
Read below for an Advent Devotional preview authored by Dr. Tom Pfizenmaier, Associate Professor of Formation and Leadership Development, Director of Formation and Leadership Development, Dean of the Hamilton Campus.


A Tale of Two Kingdoms

Matthew 2:1-12

The Slaughter of the Innocents in Matthew’s gospel can be read, I think, as a cautionary “Tale of Two Kingdoms.”

Most of us wonder why Herod behaved as he did in the killing of all the male children under two years of age in Bethlehem when the Magi came. It seems a very “over the top” reaction. But was it? Some have suggested that it was simply Herod being his paranoid (and possibly schizophrenic) self. We know that he was a man who was prone to eliminate any threats to his power. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us in his Antiquities that Herod murdered his beloved wife, Miriamme, as well as her two sons, her brother, her grandfather and her mother, as well as three of his own sons.  But why does this specific announcement by the Magi trigger this response of killing innocent children he didn’t even know? I believe the answer lies in our understanding of who the Magi really were.

First, the Magi were elites. They were scholar-priests, probably Zoroastrians, who read the heavens for signs and portents related to the rising and falling of dynasties and kingdoms. In their time this was considered a precise enterprise, and was highly respected as science is in our time. Politically, the Magi held great power and influence at court. Herod knew who they were when they arrived; notice in the text how deferential he is toward them. They were likely not kings, an understanding which seeped into the tradition much later as the result of theological reflection on Isaiah 60:3, Psalm 68:29 and Psalm 72:10. Nor were they simply “wise men,” although we know from Daniel that he had contact with them in Babylon, and this may be how they first became aware of the Jewish prophecies of a Messianic King. But why did their arrival trigger Herod’s response of killing the children?

Matthew tells us the Magi came “from the east,” and this is important. Literally from “the place of the rising” meant they were Parthians. The Parthian empire stretched from what would now be eastern Turkey across Iraq and into Iran. It was a massive, powerful empire, an empire the Romans had never been able to conquer. Indeed Palestine served as a buffer state between them. So now we have powerful elites on a diplomatic mission of sorts, but does this explain Herod’s violent response to their visit? There’s more.

In the year 40 BC, the Parthians invaded Palestine, civil war broke out and Herod fled for his life to Rome. There he sat for three years, as a ruler in exile. He never forgot this. Even after he was given Roman troops and drove the Parthians back into their own territory, they still sat as a menacing threat on his eastern border, where he built a series of fortresses to protect his fragile kingdom. This also explains the reaction of the leaders when Matthew tells us, “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him” (2:3).

But finally, and this is the decisive thing, it was the news they brought that provoked Herod’s action. These Parthian Magi came with news of a new king whose star they had seen. The implications were clear. Herod was about to be overthrown. Given Herod’s psychological disposition, his personal history with the Parthian invasion, and his knowledge of the clout and influence of the Magi, we can begin to sense the tsunami which was building within him. Herod, of course, tells the Magi that he would like to know where the new king is so he can come to worship him, which is a perfect lie. He desires only to eliminate him. When God warns them in a dream not to return to Herod, he sets out on a rampage to kill all possible pretenders to his throne. Thus the slaughter of the innocents.

For those of us who follow King Jesus, we recognize in this Christmas story a deep irony in play. Yes, a new kingdom was coming, but not the kind Herod feared. The new King would be the anti-Herod. Rather than slaughter the innocents, Israel’s true king would be the Innocent, slaughtered. Rather than act selfishly to preserve a worldly kingdom, Jesus would die sacrificially to inaugurate a heavenly one. Rather than act out of fear to preserve a reign grounded in principalities and powers, Jesus would act out of faith to launch a kingdom grounded in the reign of God.

Herod the Great was right to be threatened, but not for the reasons he supposed. This Child whose star the Magi had seen was destined to be king of the Jews—and the whole world. The “slaughter of the Innocents” still goes on today, in many modes, on many levels, in many lands. Those who carry it out also feel threatened, and so they should, but not for the reasons they suppose. Their kingdoms too shall fall, not through power, might or coercion, but through the relentless power of love. Now, as then, it belongs to those who worship the One before whom the Magi knelt, to serve their King with “energy, intelligence, imagination and love.” Ours is to proclaim and live out the tale of another kingdom which has come, and is coming, in the midst of the Herods of this world who are passing away.

Dr. Tom Pfizenmaier, Dean of the Hamilton Campus; Director of Formation and Leadership Development; Associate Professor of Formation and Leadership Development. Dr. Pfizenmaier is married to Donna, and has three adult daughters: Lenevieve, Kate and Ann. Also a dog named Brewster. He is a native Bostonian, having grown up in Hingham MA. He has served Churches in Oklahoma City, OK; Arcadia, CA as an Associate Pastor, and served for 20 years as the Senior Pastor of Bonhomme Presbyterian Church in the St. Louis area. He holds a Ph.D. from Fuller Seminary in Historical Theology, but teaches in the areas of spiritual formation, leadership and leads the seminary's discipleship initiative. He enjoys reading, cooking and movies. Dr. Pfizenmaier loves spending time with family and friends over good meals. He speaks English, but is fluent in Boston.





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