Do you remember what it was like as a child to know your grandparents were coming for Christmas? If you were young enough, you probably didn’t have a strong concept of time—you simply knew they could arrive at any moment. That anticipation filled the day with excitement, as you eagerly kept watch for their arrival.
You might expect that all of Israel would have been similarly excited in anticipation of the promised Messiah—particularly the religious leaders, who would have been thoroughly acquainted with the prophecy regarding Christ’s birth.
But that was not the case. While the priests and scribes knew He was coming, they did not live in eager anticipation. In fact, Scripture shows us that they greeted the news of His arrival with apathetic indifference.
Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, [Herod] inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, Land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah, for out of you shall come forth a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.’” (Matthew 2:4-6)
In his commentary on Matthew’s gospel, John MacArthur notes what is missing in the priests’ and scribes’ reaction:
Although they proved that they knew where His birth was predicted to be (common knowledge among the Jews, John 7:42), they showed no belief or special interest in the announcement of the magi that they had seen the star given as a sign of that birth.  John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 1-7 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985), 33.
Part of their indifference may have been due to the common misconceptions about the kind of leader the Messiah was going to be. The gospels make it clear that the Jews anticipated a Messiah who would set them free from Rome’s rule—a military and political leader, not a humble Savior. If the religious leaders had similar expectations, they might have seen the Messiah’s arrival as a threat to the considerable political influence they wielded under Rome’s authority.
While Scripture doesn’t explicitly reveal the motivation for their indifference, John MacArthur explains that their response to Herod’s inquiry proves it was certainly not due to ignorance:
Even the unbelieving, politicized, self-serving Jewish leaders recognized that God’s Word clearly spoke of a literal, personal Messiah-a historical figure, born in Bethlehem in Judea, come to rule Israel. They did not accept Him when He was born or when He preached and taught or when He suffered and died; they were, in fact, His supreme enemies. Yet they acknowledged that the One predicted to come would be sent by the Lord to rule the Lord’s people. Contrary to what many, perhaps most, unbelieving Jews today think, those ancient teachers of Israel knew that the coming Messiah, the Christ, would be more than a godly attitude or the personified perfection of the Jewish kingdom. The Messiah would be a real man born among men, sent to rule men. Those chief priests and scribes had a far from perfect idea of what Christ would be like and of what He would do, but they had more than enough knowledge to have enabled them to recognize Him when He came and to know that they, like the magi, should worship Him. They knew, but they did not believe. Consequently, a few years later their initial indifference to Jesus would turn to rejection and persecution. These who now ignored Him would soon become His hateful, venomous murderers.  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 1-7, 33-34.
Plenty of people today react to the news of Christ’s birth with similar indifference and disdain. They might know the details of His incarnation, but they are utterly unmoved by the truth of His life and sacrifice on behalf of sinners. Perhaps they subscribe to a system of works-righteousness similar to the priests and scribes—one that erroneously makes Christ unnecessary to their acceptance into heaven.
Others simply assume they can deal with Jesus on their terms, according to their timetable. They don’t believe they’re in desperate need of a Savior, so they’re indifferent to the redemption He offers. Many professing believers fall into this category, as they have no true love for Christ because they have never truly bent their knees in repentance and faith in the first place.
However, as John MacArthur explains, no one stays totally indifferent to Christ.
Some, like Herod, are immediately hateful, wanting to know nothing of God’s way except how to attack and, if possible, destroy it. Others, like the chief priests and scribes, pay little if any attention to God and His way. They are those over whom Jeremiah heartbrokenly lamented, “Is it nothing to all you who pass this way?” (Lamentations 1:12). What they know of God they do not accept or obey. At most, He is given lip service. Eventually, of course, this second group inevitably joins the first-because indifference to God is simply hatred that is concealed and rejection that is delayed.  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 1-7, 34.
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