They were sweet words, but murderous intent lurked in the shadows, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” 
Obsessed with power, Herod was troubled when the Magi from the East visited Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews?” Herod himself was King of the Jews! What did these strange visitors from foreign lands mean? Yes, he ruled under the ultimate authority of Rome, but for all intents and purposes, he was in charge of Judea. If another ‘king’ had been born, he needed to know.
Herod was not a man to trifle with. Politically astute, a gifted soldier, and responsible for many illustrious building projects, Herod was internationally recognized for his prowess. Yet beneath his obvious accomplishments was a sadistic and cruel madman. When he first became King, he executed 45 members of the Sanhedrin (the traditional Jewish law-making body), apparently because they opposed his appointment. He also had his favourite wife, Mariamne, strangled under the false accusation of adultery. Three of Herod’s own sons were murdered by his orders as he suspected them of plotting against him. And these were just some of those who suffered at his bidding.
Paranoid, deeply troubled and brutal, Herod had no intention of going to ‘worship’ a babe granted his title. So he asked the chief priests and teachers of the law for an exact location - where would the Messiah be born? They revealed Bethlehem as the place where King David’s heir would arrive. In secret, he then called the Magi back to pinpoint the exact timing of the child’s birth. There was a two-year window to account for. Herod had a plan, but it was not to bow down. It was to destroy.
If books could capture and transmit sights, sounds and smells, then the grief arising from the three verses in Matthew describing Herod’s massacre in Bethlehem would be too much to bear. After reading it once, I don’t think I would ever be able to open my Bible to the account again. Bethlehem was not large and scholars agree that there were perhaps twenty to thirty babies aged two and under who were slaughtered by Herod’s soldiers on that dreadful day. The panic, the drumming of hooves, the desperate attempts to conceal children – it is beyond imagination. Evil arrived in Bethlehem a mere two years after Love was born.
Fast-forward thirty-one years and we find a survivor of Herod’s demonic plan. As a child, Jesus had been whisked away to safety, just evading the terror in Bethlehem. But all these years later, Darkness rejoiced that he had not escaped altogether. Jesus had been betrayed, tried, mocked, and hung on a Roman cross. His death would complete (the now dead) Herod’s mission – destroy the pretender, snuff out the light, extinguish hope. For it wasn’t just the intention of one man to retain power, Hell itself intended to rule the hearts and minds of man. Victory seemed to be at hand.
Crucifixion was a form of execution reserved for the worst offenders. “It was officially accepted as the most painful and disgraceful form of capital punishment, more so than decapitation, being thrown to wild animals or even being burned alive.” Victims were often flogged or tortured before being crucified. Leather whips, with bone or metal imbedded in the cord, would be used simultaneously by two soldiers to exchange blows across the body. This beating was limited to forty lashes as it was believed a person would die from anymore. Often the skin would be so damaged that “arteries would be lacerated and organs would be exposed.”
Jesus’ hands were nailed to the crossbeam, his broken and bloody body hoisted onto the vertical stake that was then erected upright. Without blocks for his feet to rest on, the weight of his body would have dragged downwards, prohibiting breathing and circulation and leading to both brain and heart failure. With the blocks, a person might linger for up to three days. It was a tortuous way to die. One of mankind’s most sinister imaginations.
But the worst was still to come. Deuteronomy 21:23 says that, “anyone hung on a pole is under God’s curse.” And Jesus’ agonized cry at three o’clock in the afternoon confirmed this. It was a devastating reality, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His Father, the One whose company and communion he had enjoyed for all eternity, had turned His face away. And Hell received with glee the only one who had ever threatened its power. Separated from God, Jesus experienced a spiritual death more gruesome than even the horrors of the cross. “The Messiah was completely alone, bearing the guilt of all sinners. It was an indescribable abandonment.” It was His darkest hour.
It is these two stories that form bookends around the life of Jesus: Herod’s incomprehensible slaughter of babies and the atrocities of the cross. These stories contain the combined message of Christmas and Easter. It is these two stories that reveal the depth of our depravity, the power of our sin and the reason Jesus came to earth. We were tearing ourselves and each other apart and we desperately needed a Saviour. These stories also throw up a mirror. We recognize Herod’s sadistic legacy in the brutality reported daily on the evening news: terrorism, school shootings, dictators – the list goes on and on. But even the best of us have our moments. We want what we want. We are selfish. We all get a little headstrong at times. There is no escaping it, none of us are blameless.
Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Do you hear that? While we were still sinners.
While we wander away from him. While we do our own thing. While we hurt the people we love. While we betray trust. While we harm ourselves and drink ourselves silly. While we proudly declare that we are not in need of him. While we were still sinners…
Jesus came. He took on our pain. He offered healing and wholeness. This was (and is) a Saviour we could relate to. This is a Saviour who knew what it was to be troubled, to mourn, to lose, to be betrayed, to suffer, to be separated. Indeed, he experienced what no man or woman will ever have to feel: the complete abandonment of God. Because Jesus willingly gave up His life, we will never walk alone.
Hell’s victory was short-sighted. What was seen as a death-blow to God’s great rescue plan, was in fact the fulfilment of an ancient covenant. Three days after Jesus was crucified and buried in a borrowed tomb, Life stirred and Light dawned. He was alive again. And, this time, the darkness had no comeback.
One of the great themes of the Bible is redemption. God had always intended to provide a way back for those who had wandered away. Our deepest darkness does not exclude us. “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” – Isaiah 1:18
So, be encouraged this Easter. Together, the story of Christmas and the story of Easter proclaim this truth: however deep your secrets, however dark your night, however much the weight of your guilt, your debt is paid. Jesus’ darkest hour was the price He paid for your freedom.
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Just a note: If you are reading this and have questions about Jesus, the meaning of Easter or how to let go of pain and/or regret, then find someone you trust, someone who knows Jesus, and be honest with them. Alternatively, there are churches throughout New Zealand celebrating the message of Easter this weekend. Be brave, walk through the doors and seek out a friendly face. Any church advertising an Alpha Course is a good place to start. Our prayer is that you will find hope this Easter and begin the journey of knowing Jesus. He is Life, He is Love, He is the reason we can be brave.
 Matthew 2:8
 Matthew 2:2
 Archaeological Study Bible, pp 1630
 John Drane, Son of Man, pp 20-21
 Logos International Bible Commentary, pp 15
 Drane, pp 21
 Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, pp 1610
 Matthew 2:4
 Matthew 2:7
 Matthew 2:13
 Archaeological Study Bible, pp 1757
 Logos International Bible Commentary, pp 317
 Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, pp 1852
 Matthew 27:46
 Max Anders, Holman New Testament Commentary - Matthew