Epiphany – Are You Like Herod or the Magi?

What we can learn from Herod…

When Herod met the Magi at the palace in Jerusalem, neither had met the infant Messiah. Both were experiencing their perceptions of who and what he might be. Herod is a vivid illustration of what the philosopher Epictetus observed, People are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them. The Primary Concept for us is: People and events don’t bother us, but our perceptions of them do.

The following comes from The Psychology of Jesus. For more information, see ‘Books’ on left menu bar.

Come with me to our local assisted living facility. We walk into the apartment of church member number one. She sits in her wheel chair, and you and I sit beside her in a couple of high back chairs. We ask about the home. “It’s a good place to live,” member number one tells us. “The food is okay. It is actually a little bit better since they hired a new cook. I like the staff; they are very nice to me. I’d rather be back at my house, but if I can’t be there, this is as good a place as any.”

We leave church member number one and go down the hall and around the corner to the apartment of church member number two. She sits in her wheel chair, and you and I sit beside her in a couple of high back chairs. We ask about the home. “I hate it,” she says. “It is a terrible place to live. The food is terrible. It is almost always cold. They serve breakfast too early. The staff members are too rough and are always mean to me.”

Now, both women live in the same building, on the same hall, with the same food, the same staff. It is not the home that is different for each; it is their perceptions of it. We don’t live in the world, we live in our image of the world. We don’t relate to others, we relate to our images of others. We don’t react to life, we react to our perceptions of life.

Read the following story of Herod “The Great” (who ruled at the time Jesus was born, not Herod Anitpas referred to later in the gospels). Note how he relates not to Jesus but to his perception of Jesus.


Text: Matthew 1: In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;

And then later, when the Magi had chosen to go home by another way,   16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.

Concept in the Text

Herod’s encounter with Jesus is different from all other encounters listed in this book. Unlike the rest, Herod never met Jesus. Herod never saw Jesus. Herod was never in the same room or the same town as Jesus, and was only in the same country as Jesus for the first two years of Jesus’ life. Yet, without any contact, Herod has the most intense reaction to Jesus of anyone. With the simple news of Jesus’ birth, unlike the Magi who were excited about the possibility and searched for the newborn king, Herod became so anxious that he had all the children under the age of two in Bethlehem killed.

Clearly, Herod wasn’t reacting to Jesus the person but Jesus the idea. It was not the magi, their message, or the newborn Jesus who scared Herod. Herod was frightened by his perception of Jesus, by the image of Jesus he had in his mind. We know that Jesus would actually play no threat to Herod or his position. Jesus would soon leave the country and Herod would be dead before Jesus returned.

To understand Herod’s choice, and how his horrifying actions might have made sense to anyone, we need a clearer understanding of how Herod imagined Jesus. Herod had several key assumptions when he heard of Jesus’ birth which led to his anxious response:

My place in the world is centered on my role as king.

My life is better when I am king than it would be if I’m not.

There can be only one king. There is not room for another. If another king arises, I would lose my place. Life as I know it would end.

Kings tend to kill other rulers who may be a threat. Kings are easier to kill as babies than as adults. If there is a newborn king, I must have him killed as soon as possible in order to stay safe.

Herod’s idea of Jesus didn’t fit into his idea of himself (as king) or his understanding of the world (there can be only one king of this region – me!). Lost in his thoughts and building on all the assumptions listed above, having all the babies in Bethlehem under the age of two killed in order to get to Jesus made a lot of sense to Herod.

Concept in Depth

Like Herod, we live our lives relating primarily to our perceptions of people and situations. That’s how our minds work. In the words of Alfred Adler,

Human beings live in the realm of meanings. We do not experience things in the abstract; we always experience them in human terms. Even at its source our experience is qualified by our human perspective. ‘Wood’ means ‘wood in its relation to humankind’, and ‘stone’ means ‘stone as a factor in human life’. Anyone who tried to consider circumstances, to the exclusion of meanings, would be very unfortunate: he would isolate himself from others and his actions would be useless to himself or to anyone else; in a word, they would be meaningless. But no human being can escape meanings. We experience reality only through the meaning we ascribe to it: not as a thing in itself, but as something interpreted. It is natural to conclude, therefore, that this meaning is always more or less unfinished, or incomplete, and even that it can never be altogether right. The realm of meanings is thus the realm of mistakes.

Adler wasn’t questioning God, truth, or reality, but simply our perceptions of them. A student of Adler, Rudolf Dreikurs commented that (People) are good observers, just lousy interpreters.

Years after Adler, Albert Ellis, with a similar basis on human perceptions, developed Rational Emotive Therapy. Instead of looking at what is wrong with us (Freud), Ellis asked “What’s wrong with our thinking?” Ellis believed that it is thinking which leads to action, so dysfunctional thinking will lead to unhealthy actions. Ellis summed up his theory by quoting the first century philosopher Epictetus, Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them. For Ellis, events don’t make us ‘feel good’ or ‘feel bad’. We do it to ourselves with the thoughts we choose. For Ellis, thoughts, feelings and behavior are all related.

If you want to change how you feel about an event or a person, change how you think about them.2

To examine our thoughts, behaviors, and feelings, Rational-Emotive Therapy offers a helpful tool:

The ABC’S of Behavior.

A = Activating Event or Circumstance: What happened.

B = Belief System: What I was thinking.

C = Consequence (Emotional): What I felt.

C = Consequence (Behavioral): What I did. [i]

Applying the ABC’s of Behavior to Herod, we see how his thinking influenced his feeling (anxiety) and behavior (killing children).

A =Activating Event or Circumstance: What happened. Magi from the East came and told me of a new star which is a sign of a new born king.

B = Belief System: What I was thinking. A new king would be a threat. I could lose everything.

C = Consequence (Emotional): What I felt. Afraid.

C = Consequence (Behavioral): What I did. I sought to assure my place in the world by killing the newborn king. To make sure he was dead, I had all males less than two years of age put to death.

Had Herod interpreted the announcement of the new king differently then Herod would have felt and acted differently. If Herod had interpreted the news of the new born king by thinking, The new king is the promised Messiah; He will teach us a new way to live and bring a kingdom of peace, then he might have gone with the magi. His goal clearly would have been safety for children of Bethlehem and not death. Herod had a choice – he could see Jesus as an opportunity or a threat. By choosing to see Jesus as a threat, his emotions and reactions followed.


The ABC’s of Behavior works well for not only examining kings, but the rest of us as well. Robert L. Leahy in Cognitive Therapy Techniques offers the following chart to illustrate how thinking affects our feelings and our behaviors in response to everyday situations.[ii] The first two rows are answered for you.


A = Activating Event B = Belief (Thought) C = Consequence: Feelings C = Consequence: Behaviors
I hear the window rattling. Someone is breaking into my house. Anxious Lock the door, call police.
I hear the window rattling. It’s windy outside and the window is old and loose. Slightly irritated Try to tighten the window, go back to sleep.
A man is approaching me on a dark, empty street. I’m going to get mugged.
A man is approaching me on a dark, empty street. I wonder if that’s my old friend Steve.
My husband is sitting reading the newspaper. He doesn’t care about my feelings.
My husband is sitting reading the newspaper. He’s withdrawing from me because he’s angry with me. .
I feel my heart beating rapidly. I’m having a heart attack.
I feel my heart beating rapidly. I’ve had too much coffee.


Similar to Herod, the above situations can all be divided into two perceptions (threat or opportunity.) Like Herod, we have the choice in every situation to see opportunity or threat. We can rest assured that it is never the threat itself that bothers us; it is our perception of it.

Challenge for Us

On several occasions in the gospels, Jesus asks, “What do you think?” And that’s where he starts. Before we examine what’s wrong with the world, the first place to look is our own thinking. Jesus would have us consider how we think about God, others, the world, our own problems and consider how our actions are shaped by what we think. Are we living healthy productive lives in lasting relationships? If not, what’s wrong with our thinking?


Read the story and the following quotes. How do you see them exhibited in the above story of Herod and in the theory of Albert Ellis?

Experience is not what happens to a man. It is what a man does with what happens to him. – Aldous Huxley

Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts.– Soren Kierkegaard

Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them. – Epictetus

Conflict often comes when members fail to see each other as separate human beings but as abstractions: powerful entities, threatening forces, wild images. Caught in a storm of anger, each is a threat to the power of the other, not a person.– Carl Whitaker


Describe a situation about which you felt afraid.

A = Activating event. What happened that triggered your fear?

B = Beliefs. What did you think at the time?

C = Consequences (Emotional): How did you feel? How were your feelings a product of your thinking?

C = Consequences (Behavioral): What did you do?

D = Dispute. How would you have felt and acted differently if you had interpreted the situation differently?


[i]Adapted from Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy (6th Edition) by Gerald Corey.

[ii] Robert L. Leahy, Cognitive Therapy Techniques, p. 12.

See Inside The Psychology of Jesus Psychology of Jesus FRONT Cover 20141

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