“In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth” (Luke 1:5).
It is “In the days of Herod, king of Judea” that the Gospel narrative begins (Lk. 1:5). It’s a historical footnote for the modern-day reader, but for Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds in the field and the sheep, and the I-don’t-know-maybe-three wise men, as long as Herod was considered the king of Judea, the true King of Judea had not yet come.
Herod was a king in the way Moses might have been king had he never met that burning bush who knew his name. Moses was born to a family of Hebrew slaves but through a strange series of events was adopted by a family of Egyptian overlords. The daughter of Pharaoh, the wealthiest and most powerful man on the planet, took him in as her own at a time when all the other little Hebrew boys were being tossed out. So not only was his life spared, but he now stood in line to eventually be put in charge over some region of grandpa’s empire, perhaps the region where all the Hebrew slaves were living, slaving. He looked like them, after all. In that case, he would have been a Hebrew “king” over Hebrew slaves but ultimately under the rule of Pharaoh.
Herod was something like that: a Jewish “king” over a predominantly Jewish region but ultimately under the rule of Caesar.
But let’s just say Herod was one chopstick short of being a fully functional human. For example, of his many wives, Mariamne was his favorite—until he murdered her. And when he was first appointed king over Judea, he made his most respected brother the high priest in Jerusalem. Makes sense. Then he had him drowned at a dinner party. Also, when the two sons he had with Mariamne grew up, he promoted them to a track of royal succession. A redemptive gesture—until he had them both killed. He seemed to soften with age and so made his son Antipater the first heir in his will. Then, while lying in his deathbed, he decided, “Ah, what the heck…” and had him killed too.
Then he died.
But before that, there was also that time the [not so] wise men inquired to him, the so-called “king of Judea,” about “the King of the Jews” being born in Bethlehem (Mt. 2:2). Needless to say, there wasn’t enough room in Judea for two kings, so Herod had every male child under the age of two executed (Mt. 2:16-17). And in so doing the “king of Judea” had, ironically enough, followed in the footsteps of the king of Egypt, an apple fallen not far from Pharaoh’s tree (cf. Exod. 1:22). You don’t have to be in Egypt to be in captivity.
So it’s hard to say: did Israel need liberation from Caesar’s captivity or from Herod’s? Was it the ruler without or the ruler within that posed the more immanent threat of freedom? Is it Islamic radicalism or is it American consumerism? Or, for that matter, is it American consumerism or is it my impulsive spending habits? Is it civil strife or the kind I find in my home, or the kind I hide in my heart? Is it sex trafficking in Thailand or is it the international pornography industry, or is it the iPhone industry, or is it the iPhone in my pocket?
The severest form of human slavery on the planet always comes in the form of the human will: “my will be done.” Luther called it “the bondage of the will.” We all, deep down, have a little bit of Herod in our heart. We all want freedom from sin, except that part of us that wants the freedom to sin. We want to be healthy, but we don’t want to not feed our habits. We all want people to just love each other and stop firing missiles, except I don’t want to stop keeping a ‘record of wrongs’ (cf. 1 Cor. 13:5) and firing back comments that cut, sarcasm that covers. We all want to do God’s will, except we never want “Not my will…” (Lk. 22:42).
Come give us freedom, Lord Jesus, from death and hell, from hopelessness and fear, liberate us from our enemies and our obstacles. Amen, hallelujah! But don’t save us from our pride and from our selfishness. Don’t offer us liberation from our throne of independence!
But the Gospel offers no other kind of freedom but that—
Liberation by means of a cross means the world needs liberated from me, and that I need liberated from me. I need to be raised from the dead, but I first need to be “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20-22). But humans do not typically want this kind of freedom. We want control.
Control feels like freedom because control means “my will be done.” So it feels like freedom to the one who has it, but true freedom does not come at the expense of another’s freedom. Control does. Control is the kind of “freedom” Herod had. Control is the kind of freedom you can have by listening to your inner Herod. Pharaoh had freedom like that. And God had to rescue His people precisely from Pharaoh’s freedom, and now he would have to rescue His people from their own “king’s” freedom.
In Paul’s language, that inner Herod is called “the lusts of the flesh,” which always stands in opposition to the Spirit’s “lusts” within us.
“For the lusts of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the lusts of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”Galatians 5:17
You are home to a civil war. The inner Christ and the inner Herod are at war for your freedom, for everyone’s freedom. Paul says “It was for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). The yoke of slavery, or the lusts of the flesh, inhibits anyone from living in freedom (“sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these”), while the yoke of freedom, or the lusts of the Spirit, enables everyone to live in freedom (“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”).
The Spirit lusts to give. The flesh lusts to take. The Spirit lusts to make us like Christ, so that others can be free of our tyranny. The flesh lusts to make us like Herod, so that others will live in our captivity, or under our control or manipulation or attempts at such. The Spirit lusts to free us from our slavery to self-service, the flesh lusts to “liberate” us from the freedom of self-control, which is the defining fruit of spiritual freedom. Self-control is the truest mark of freedom because the “self” here (in Paul’s, not modern psychology’s, use of the term) is that little inner high-chair tyrant that needs to die: Herod needs to die. Self-control starves your inner Herod. Faith in Christ means “I am crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20). Self-control in the Spirit means “I die every day” (1 Cor. 15:34).
So perhaps today we could dare to ask ourselves: Who is living under the burden of my control? Do people feel free around me or do people feel the need to live up to my expectations, my will? Does it feel like “the days of Herod” around me—or does it feel like Christmas?
Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother
And in his name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we
Let all within us praise His holy name
Christ is the Lord! Oh praise his name forever
His power and glory ever more proclaim
Oh, night divine, oh night when Christ was born