Few passages of Scripture are heavier than Matthew 2:16–18, the historical account of Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children in Bethlehem. But few passages are also able to reach the depths of human loss and comfort the grieving in their deepest pain.
When read in conjunction with Jeremiah 31:15, which Matthew quotes in verse 18, we find in Matthew’s Gospel a promise of resurrection—even at Christmas time. In other words, God promises that what death steals, the Lord has recover through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And all who trust in him can experience his resurrection life.
If you are feeling the soul-crushing effects of sin and death, I pray this message might bring you encouragement. You can listen to or read the sermon notes online. Discussion questions are below, along with some further resources. But first, let me encourage you to take eleven minutes to watch this video by John Piper. In it Piper the theologian-poet reads from his story of the Innkeeper, a fictitious but faithful story of the effects of Herod’s rage on the residents of Bethlehem.
As much as we want to turn away from such pain, we need to embrace the power of the resurrection to heal us and help us in our loss. May God be pleased to use these resources to bring comfort to you.
Matthew 2:13–18 and Jeremiah 31:15 (with vv. 7–22)
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
7 For thus says the Lord: “Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, ‘O Lord, save your people, the remnant of Israel.’ 8 Behold, I will bring them from the north country and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, the pregnant woman and she who is in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. 9 With weeping they shall come, and with pleas for mercy I will lead them back, I will make them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble, for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn. 10 “Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock.’ 11 For the Lord has ransomed Jacob and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. 12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more. 13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. 14 I will feast the soul of the priests with abundance, and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness, declares the Lord.”
15 Thus says the Lord: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.”
16 Thus says the Lord: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. 17 There is hope for your future, declares the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country. 18 I have heard Ephraim grieving, ‘You have disciplined me, and I was disciplined, like an untrained calf; bring me back that I may be restored, for you are the Lord my God. 19 For after I had turned away, I relented, and after I was instructed, I struck my thigh; I was ashamed, and I was confounded, because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’ 20 Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he my darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, declares the Lord. 21 “Set up road markers for yourself; make yourself guideposts; consider well the highway, the road by which you went. Return, O virgin Israel, return to these your cities. 22 How long will you waver, O faithless daughter? For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth: a woman encircles a man.”
- What is the crisis in Matthew 2:16–18? Where does it come from? Why does Matthew include it? What might someone think or feel about God from this passage? How might this passage connect with people suffering loss today?
- What are the promises of Jeremiah 30–31? How does Jeremiah 31:15 fit into the flow of thought in Jeremiah 31? What is the problem in Jeremiah 31:15? How does God respond in Jeremiah?
- What is the new covenant (read Jeremiah 31:31–34)? What was the new covenant in Jeremiah’s time, and what about today (see Hebrews 8:8–13)? How does it bring new creation (read vv. 23–40)? N.B. Be sure to emphasize, the resurrection is the firstfruits of the new creation (see 1 Corinthians 15:20–28; 2 Corinthians 4:17; 5:17).
- What hope does Matthew find in Jeremiah 31:15 for the children and their parents in Bethlehem? Where do we find this hope in his gospel? (Hint: The whole Gospel is moving to identify Jesus as God with us who will be crucified and raised to life).
- Based on Matthew 1–2, who is Jesus? How does this story in Matthew 2:16–18 shape our understanding of who Jesus is, or what he has come to do?
- In Acts, each gospel sermon places emphasis on the resurrection (not the crucifixion). Why is the resurrection so central to the message of the gospel? How might your evangelism change (or improve) if you spent more time focusing on the resurrection?
- How does the resurrection of Jesus Christ impact your daily life? How might it comfort past losses or prepare your heart for future losses? What is the ultimate goal of the resurrection (hint: it must be God-centered, not man-centered).
- The Innkeeper by John Piper
- How Long O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil by D. A. Carson
- The First Days of Christmas: The Story of the Incarnation by Andreas Köstenberger and Alexander Stewart
- Where Do Infants God When They Die? — an article affirming the saving hope that children who die in infancy go to be with the Lord.
- “When Darkness Falls at Christmas” — another excerpt from The Innkeeper
- The Slaughter of the Innocents: Historical Fact or Legendary Fiction? by Gordon Franz — features historical information about Bethlehem, Herod, and the Slaughter of the Innocents
- Theological Commentary on Jeremiah 30–31 — a running (unedited) commentary on Jeremiah 30–31
- The Date of the Nativity and the Chronology of Jesus’ Life by Paul Maier
Lord, be gracious to you children. Comfort those suffering the loss of little ones and grant mercy to them as they look to you and the Son who raised from the dead.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds