When the Roof Blows Off

What we notice when reading the first two chapters of this gospel is that Matthew very clearly sees the birth of Jesus as fulfilling numerous ancient promises that were foretold hundreds and hundreds of years before the incarnation of Christ a human being.

This promise-fulfillment motif is the basis for our current series in Matthew 1 and 2, Promises Made, Promises Kept.

At this point in Matthew, Jesus has been born and is living in Bethlehem with Mary and Joseph.

The Magi have visited Jesus and left, but being warned in a dream about Herod’splan, they defy the King’s order to tell him where the child resides.

Joseph also has been warned about Herod’s plan to kill Jesus.  Consequently, Joseph flees in the middle of the night taking Mary and Jesus to Egypt, outside of Herod’s jurisdiction.

Today, the narrative describes Herod’s reaction to this series of events.

But let’s not be too quick to judge. WhatI have found in studying this text is that I share more in common with Herod that I want to admit.

Let’s pick up the story in verse 16.

VERSE 16

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he hadbeen deceived [and made a fool by the wise men], became furious…

The Greek word translated“deceived” is ἐμπαίζω (empaizō), which means “to deceive, to make a fool, to mock, to ridicule.”

Herod wasn’t merely tricked or outwitted. When the Magi refused to report to Herod the location of the baby, they were defying his authority.

This was the ultimate insult a King could receive—an act of defiance to a direct order.

  • His position as King had been mocked.
  • He had been played for a fool.
  • He was humiliated.

It is from this state of humiliation that he reacts with fury.

He didn’t just lose his temper. He became uncontrollably irate.[1]

Why? Because he felt stripped—stripped of his righteousness – of his identity as King, as someone whom people admire, praise… and obey.

Isn’t this what happens to us when we feel someone trying to strip off our righteousness?  When we feel insulted?

I don’t know about you, but that is when my anger flares with its greatest intensity. When I feel insulted, especially when it is at the source of my righteousness.

Whether insulting my intelligence. My skill in teaching. Or my driving ability.

We may not launch the kind of assaults Herod does. But we launch assaults—with our words.

Yet Herod doesn’t launch merely a verbal assault.

VERSE 16b

16b and he sent [soldiers] and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in allthat region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he hadascertained from the wise men.[2]

My first reaction to this is “How could the soldiers obey such a cruel, heartless command?”

  • Maybe they feared for themselves or the lives of their own children. Repercussions.
  • Maybe they had just become desensitized to being human.

Archaeologists and demographers tell us that the region surrounding a town the size of Bethlehem would have 300-400 adult residents, making the estimate of deaths around 20 children, possibly more.[3]

While these numbers may not be on scale with contemporary genocides like Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan, and others, what took place in Bethlehem was a massacre—a slaughter that would have absolutely devested the community. It is hard to imagine any family not personally affected by emotionally crippling trauma.

Yet, even an unthinkable tragedy like this was permitted to take place, even ordained to transpire, in the sovereign providence of God.

We see this horrific event foretold in verses 17-18.

VERSES 17-18

17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:  18 “A cry was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Verse18 is quoted from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah 31:15, a passage written around 600 B.C. to predict the sounds of wailing that were going to be heard from those witnessing the Babylonian invasion of Judah in 586 B.C. [4]

Rachel was the wife of the Old Testament patriarch, Jacob. Since the LORD changed Jacob’s name to Israel, many Jews considered Rachel to be the “mother of the Jewish people.”[5]

Although she had been long dead by the time of Judah’s fall to Babylon in 586, the original image in Jeremiah 31 that is quoted in Matthew 2:18 is of Rachel, as a mother of the nation, rising from her grave to weep at the sight of her children being bound and carried away as slaves to a foreign land.

Matthew sees that original prophecy coming to ultimate fulfillment not through the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar but through a Roman King, Herod, whose decree would cause a similar cry to the one heard in 586 B.C.

The weeping and wailing caused by Herod’s decree would be so loud that it would be heard from Bethlehem to Ramah, which is about 12 miles north of Bethlehem.

That is a long way for human voices to carry, representing a deep, deep grief being released to heaven in wails of anguish.

While it may not make us feel good to hear these voices, I think we need to listen. I need to hear the wailing and lamentation. I need to hear the maternal groans and paternal pleadings for the soldiers to stop the madness.[6]

To grasp this passage, I need to feel their grief.

Some of us already have felt it. We don’t have to put ourselves in their shoes. We know from personal experience what it is to walk in the shoes of anguish and grief.

We know what it is like to weep so bitterly that we can barely breathe and would rather die when the pain of emotional trauma feels like a vice upon the body that threatens to crush the soul. We can’t imagine smiling again, much less laughing or enjoying anything.

All becomes darkness.

And if we haven’t worn those shoes, it is likely that, at some point, we will wear them.

In that moment ofdespair, a question will find its way to the surface. We may be uncomfortable asking it out loud, but we will think it. Some will scream it.

“How could a good, loving, wise, and sovereign God allow such evil to take place?”

Why does God allow sickness, suffering, crime, war, and death—especially the slaughter of children?

There are no simple answers that make grief easier to bear. The tone of Jeremiah’s prophecy expects nothing less than non-anesthetized emotional anguish.

Themes that I try to meditate upon when contemplating the presence of evil and suffering in view of God being good, loving and wise are these:

  • This life is not all that there is. The present life represents an infinitesimal dot on the line of eternity. This is not to devalue the present life or minimize our grief but simply to put it in context.
  • The world is not as it was originally designed to be nor as it will be when the new heavens and new earth are established. In Romans 8:18, the apostle Paul writes, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us.”
  • God is so sovereign that he is able to use evil actions to accomplish redemptive purposes.[7]

In Matthew 2, it would seem as if Jesus was spared from atrocity and Mary from grief. But we know that Jesus wasn’t spared and neither was Mary.

That atrocity would come later.

It is the atrocity of his crucifixion—a desperately evil act—that God would use for the ultimate good.

In the original context of Jeremiah’s prophecy of wailing and sorrow, 31:15 is immediately followed by Jeremiah 31:16-17:

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for… they will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your future,’ declares the Lord.”

History records how the Jews actually were released from their captivity in537 B.C. by the Persian King, Cyrus, who had conquered the Babylonians. The Israelites would return. They would go back home. [8]

A promise was made and a promise was fulfilled.

As a result,

  • grief would turn to joy,
  • despair would turn into hope, and
  • weeping would turn to laughter.

God had promised that there would be grace in the grief and purpose in the pain.

In the same way that the patriarch Joseph in the Old Testament was able to say to his wicked brothers in Genesis 50:20,

“What you did to me you meant for evil, but he LORD intended it for good, the saving of many lives.”

The same thing was true for Jesus. In Acts2:23, the first post-resurrection sermon, the apostle Peter declares to his Jewish audience, “Jesus was delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, to be crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”

Grace for Grief and Purpose in Pain

Dr. Jamie Aten is a cancer survivor and a Christian who researches how people respond to trauma. Two years ago he wrote an article in The Washington Post that urged trauma survivors like himself to “make meaning of [the] experience.”

One of the stories he mentions is from a victim of Hurricane Sandy, known as Superstorm Sandy, that struck New York and NewJersey on October 29, 2012.  

As relief crews descended upon the devastation, one team came across a man whose roof had been blown off of his home. It was dark but calm and the skies were clear. They were surprised when he quipped, “Sometimes you have to lose the roof to see the stars.”[9]

The roof was blown off of the grieving families in Bethlehem. The roof eventually would be blown off of Mary’s life, too. She was spared while Jesus was a baby, but not when he was a man.

When the roof blows off, the Lord wants us to look up—not to see the stars but the scars of the Jesus who was stripped, mocked, insulted, and made a fool.[10]

We read in Matthew 27:28-31,

28 [His crucifiers]stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. 30 They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. 31 A After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

And Matthew 27:41,

41 In the same way, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him.[11]

The word “mocked” used in Matthew 27 is ἐμπαίζω (empaizō), the same word used by Matthew in chapter 2 to describe what happened to Herod when the Magi defied his command.

Herod was stripped of his honor, dignity, and self-worth—his righteousness… and he grew furious.

“That baby is going to pay!”

Yes, the baby would pay.

Yet unlike Herod’s response (and unlike mine), when Jesus was called on to pay our sin debt, as he was stripped, insulted, and mocked, he did not retaliate with fury.

Instead, Jesus retaliated with mercy, praying, “Father forgive them.”

I suppose that in that moment, as the roof was blown off, Jesus was able to look up into the heart of the Father (watching his own son be slaughtered) and know that there is grace in grief and purpose in pain as he cried out to heaven, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” followed by “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”

The Father’s purpose was for the Son to take the nails that the law had reserved for us—for him to endure the penalty of divine justice so that we can be forgiven of sin and reconciled to God as Father as fully forgiven beloved sons and daughters.

The cross teaches us that, what looks like God’s absence in the presence of evil and suffering is actually his purpose being accomplished through it.

So, when the roof blows off, let’s help each other look up—up to the nail-scarred hands of Jesus which tell us that there is grace in grief, purpose in pain, and that “our present sufferings are not worthy to be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us.”


[1] θυμόω (thymoō) – to be enraged, irate

[2] Remember, after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary stayed in Bethlehem. The Magi visited not at the birth in the stable but at their home sometime in the first two years of Jesus’ earthly life. This is why the “two-years and under” line of demarcation.

[3] Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 8. “Why, ask skeptics and skeptical critics, is not this massacre, if it really occurred, recorded by Josephus, who is minute enough in detailing the cruelties of Herod? To this the answer is not difficult. If we consider how small a town Bethlehem was, it is not likely there would be many male children in it from two years old and under; and when we think of the number of fouler atrocities which Josephus has recorded of him, it is unreasonable to make anything of his silence on this.”

[4] Louis A. Barbieri, Jr., “Matthew,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 23.

[5] John Peter Lange and Philip Schaff, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Matthew (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 63.

[6] A town that in Hebrew means “house of bread” had become a “house of blood.”

[7] While God is not the author of evil, he has chosen to permit it in this temporary season of eternity.

[8] Stuart K. Weber, Matthew, vol. 1, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 22. Perhaps a number of bereaved parents in and around Bethlehem found comfort in the Lord’s promise, trusting, without understanding, that there was some kind of meaning behind their tragedy. Matthew probably intended his readers, familiar as they were with the Old Testament, to understand the context of hope in which this tragic verse was originally planted, and so to be led one step closer to finding hope in the Messiah.

[9] Dr. Jamie Aten, “Spiritual Advice for surviving cancer and other disasters,” The Washington Post (8-9-16)

[10] The same word for tricked, deceived, mocked, to make fun, to make a fool that is used of the Magi’s defying of Herod’s orders is used to describe what happened to Jesus. See Matthew 20:19; 27:29, 41. In Matthew 20:18-19, the gospel writer would use the same word for Herod’s mocking that he used of Jesus’, relating Jesus fortelling of his own death, “They will condemn him to death 19 and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified.”

[11] The passage continues, “42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44 In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.”