1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem 2 saying, “Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When King Herod heard this he was alarmed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 After assembling all the chief priests and experts in the law he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they said, “for it is written this way by the prophet: 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are in no way least among the rulers of Judah, for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” 7 Then Herod privately summoned the wise men and determined from them when the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and look carefully for the child. When you find him, inform me so that I can go and worship him as well.” 9 After listening to the king they left, and once again the star they saw when it rose led them until it stopped above the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star they shouted joyfully. 11 As they came into the house and saw the child with Mary his mother, they bowed down and worshiped him. They opened their treasure boxes and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 After being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back by another route to their own country. 13 After they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to look for the child to kill him.” 14 Then he got up, took the child and his mother at night, and went to Egypt. 15 He stayed there until Herod died. In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: “I called my Son out of Egypt.” 16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he became enraged. He sent men to kill all the children in Bethlehem and nearby from the age of two and under, according to the time he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud wailing, Rachel weeping for her children, and she did not want to be comforted, because they were gone.” 19 After Herod had died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 So he got up and took the child and his mother and returned to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. After being warned in a dream, he went to the regions of Galilee. 23 He came to a town called Nazareth and lived there. Then what had been spoken by the prophets was fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.21
Several years ago I was conducting a funeral for an older woman (who we will call Sarah) who grew up in Oklahoma. Before they met and married, both her mother and her father took part in the great land rush in Oklahoma. In those days, some there was still hostility between some Native Americans and the new settlers. Although it has been several years now since this woman died, I can still remember this story I was told by Sarah’s sister.
In those days at the end of the 19th century, people still traveled by wagon. Sarah had an adventurous uncle who wanted to see Pike’s Peak in Colorado, so he loaded up his family, and Sarah, and headed for Colorado. As I recall, this adventure lasted nearly a year. Can you imagine setting out for Colorado in a covered wagon, with hostile Indians, and a long, dangerous journey ahead? I can hardly visualize in my mind’s eye what it would have been like climbing Pike’s Peak in a covered wagon. What is even worse, I can’t imagine what it would have been like coming down the mountain from Pike’s Peak.
For me, this story from the late 1800’s is the closest approximation I can think of to the “incredible journey” the magi took from their far-away home in the East to Bethlehem and back. It would seem that this journey took the better part of a year, one way. These adventurous men left home and family and braved the dangers of travel, which surely included robbers. These were apparently wealthy men, and they must have looked the part, as they formed a caravan. They certainly had items that would be of interest to robbers: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They were following a mysterious star, and they would have to enter territory ruled by Herod, a very powerful and violent man.
This is not the only incredible journey, for Matthew 2 also includes a brief account of the journey Joseph, Mary and the Holy Child took from Bethlehem to Egypt. There was no time for advanced planning and preparation. They hurriedly packed up what few possessions they had and fled from Herod, who sought to kill the Christ Child. And then, of course, came the return trip.
It is the account of these two incredible journeys which takes up the greater portion of Matthew 2. The problem most of us face is that these accounts are so familiar to us we hardly stop to think about them. Nevertheless, there is much here worthy of our careful attention. We will begin by making a few observations about Matthew’s account, and then we will focus on the three major characters in this chapter: the Magi, Herod and the Jews of Jerusalem, and the Christ Child.
(1) Matthew carefully avoids any sensationalism. Matthew would not do well as a journalist in today’s marketplace. He just doesn’t seem able to sensationalize his material. Not only does he fail to embellish his account by stretching the truth, he even refuses to dramatize his account by including all that is true. For example, other accounts of our Lord’s journey to Egypt contain many miraculous embellishments:
Tradition, and the apocryphal gospels written many years later, tell many absurd and fanciful things about the flight of the family and their entrance into Egypt. The flowers were said to spring up in their steps as they entered the land; the palm trees to bow down in homage, and wild animals to come near in friendly approach.22
(2) Matthew omits much historical information that we would love to have known. Contrary to popular opinion, we don’t know how many Magi came to worship the Lord Jesus. We would certainly like to have been given more information about the Magi. Precisely where did they come from? What did they believe? What was the “star” that appeared, and just how did it guide them? How long was the journey, and what became of them later on? We would like to know how many babies Herod slaughtered, and we would very much enjoy reading a more graphic account of his death. How interesting it would be to read more of the time Jesus and His parents spent in Egypt! Matthew, like the other Gospel writers,23 was very selective in what he chose to include in his Gospel.
(3) Matthew’s choice of which Scriptures he chooses to cite or refer to is interesting, to say the least. We all know that Matthew cites the Old Testament more than any other Gospel writer. We should realize, however, that Matthew did not exhaust his Old Testament sources. Matthew did not quote every available Old Testament passage. Some of the passages Matthew cites are perplexing, to say the least. He cites Old Testament Scripture four times in chapter 2, and only one of these is what we might call a “direct” quotation. This would be his reference to Micah 5:2 in verse 6. The question Herod asked the chief priests and experts in the law was, “Where will the Christ be born?” Their answer came directly from Micah 5:2 – the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
But the three other “quotations” in chapter 2 are far less direct. No one would have considered these texts to be prophecy. Neither Hosea 11:1 (cited in verse 15) nor Jeremiah 31:15 (cited in verse 18) would have been understood as a prophecy that would be fulfilled in relation to the coming Messiah. Matthew’s reference to “what was spoken by the prophets” being fulfilled is even more obscure. Matthew’s use of these “obscure” prophecies is even more puzzling in the light of the fact that there were other texts which Matthew could have cited that would be much more readily understood as fulfilled prophecies. Note these passages, for example:
14 “And now, I am about to go to my people. Come now, and I will advise you as to what this people will do to your people in the future.” 15 And he took up his oracle, and said: “The oracle of Balaam son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eyes are open; 16 the oracle of him who hears the words of God, and who knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees a vision from the Almighty, although falling flat on the ground with eyes open: 17 ‘I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not close at hand; A star will march forth out of Jacob, and a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the skulls of Moab, and the heads of all the sons of Sheth. 18 And Edom will be a possession, Seir, his enemies, will also be a possession; but Israel will act valiantly. 19 A ruler will be established from Jacob, and will destroy the remains of the city’” (Numbers 24:14-19, emphasis mine).
1 “Arise! Shine! For your light arrives! The splendor of the Lord shines on you! 2 For, look, darkness covers the earth and deep darkness covers the nations, but the Lord shines on you; his splendor appears over you. 3 Nations come to your light, kings to your bright light. 4 Look all around you! They all gather and come to you—your sons come from far away and your daughters are escorted by guardians. 5 Then you will look and smile, you will be excited and your heart will swell with pride. For the riches of distant lands will belong to you and the wealth of nations will come to you. 6 Camel caravans will cover your roads, young camels from Midian and Ephah. All the merchants of Sheba will come, bringing gold and [frank]incense and praising the Lord. 7 All the sheep of Kedar will be gathered to you; the rams of Nebaioth will be available to you as sacrifices. They will be offered as acceptable sacrifices on my altar, and I will bestow honor on my majestic temple. 8 Who are these who float along like a cloud, who fly like doves to their shelters? 9 Indeed, the coastlands look eagerly for me, the large ships are in the lead, bringing your sons from far away, along with their silver and gold, to honor the Lord your God, the sovereign king of Israel, for he has bestowed honor on you. 10 Foreigners will rebuild your walls; their kings will serve you. Even though I struck you down in my anger, I will restore my favor and have compassion on you. 11 Your gates will remain open at all times; they will not be shut during the day or at night, so that the wealth of nations may be delivered, with their kings leading the way. 12 Indeed, nations or kingdoms that do not serve you will perish; such nations will be totally destroyed. 13 The splendor of Lebanon will come to you, its evergreens, firs, and cypresses together, to beautify my palace; I will bestow honor on my throne room. 14 The children of your oppressors will come bowing to you; all who treated you with disrespect will bow down at your feet. They will call you, ‘The City of the Lord, Zion of Israel’s Sovereign King’ (Isaiah 60:1-14, emphasis mine).
8 May he rule from sea to sea, and from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth! 9 Before him the coastlands will bow down, and his enemies will lick the dust. 10 The kings of Tarshish and the coastlands will offer gifts; the kings of Sheba and Seba will bring tribute. 11 All kings will bow down to him; all nations will serve him. 12 For he will rescue the needy when they cry out for help, and the oppressed who have no defender. 13 He will take pity on the poor and needy; the lives of the needy he will save. 14 From harm and violence he will defend them; he will value their lives. 15 May he live! May they offer him gold from Sheba! May they continually pray for him! May they pronounce blessings on him all day long! 16 May there be an abundance of grain in the earth; on the tops of the mountains may it sway! May its fruit trees flourish like the forests of Lebanon! May its crops be as abundant as the grass of the earth! 17 May his fame endure! May his dynasty last as long as the sun remains in the sky! May they use his name when they formulate their blessings! May all nations consider him to be favored by God! (Psalm 72:8-17, emphasis mine)
Matthew has not selected (or ignored) Old Testament texts at random; he has carefully chosen each text for a specific purpose. We will attempt to look at Matthew’s use of Scripture more in our next lesson. For now, we will move on to consider the three main personalities in Matthew 2.
(4) Matthew gives the sequence of events that took place in Jerusalem. It seems to me that when we come to Matthew’s account we tend to read far too much in between the lines, and thereby make some false assumptions. The way most of us read this account, the magi arrive in Jerusalem and go immediately to Herod’s palace (where else would one find the “King of the Jews”?). They ask Herod where the newly-born “King of the Jews” can be found. Herod is deeply troubled by this news, but conceals his feelings. He then calls the chief priests and experts in the law, and they tell Herod (along with the magi) about Micah’s prophecy. Sending everyone else away, Herod has a private meeting with the magi, at which time he questions them specifically about the time of the star’s appearing, thus determining the age of the Child. Then Herod sends the magi on their way to Bethlehem with the stipulation that they return and tell him exactly where the baby can be found. In my mind, this sequence of events does not square with what Matthew has actually told us.
Based solely on what Matthew does tell us, here is the way I understand the sequence of events that took place in Jerusalem:
(a) Jesus is born in Bethlehem, perhaps a year or so earlier.24
(b) The star leads the magi as far as Jerusalem, and then disappears.25
(c) Once in Jerusalem, the magi begin to inquire where the Christ Child can be found by asking the people of the city.
(d) Word reaches Herod that the magi have come to town seeking to find a newly-born “King of the Jews” so that they may worship Him.
(e) Herod is greatly troubled by this news, and consequently so are all those in Jerusalem.
(f) Herod summons the chief priests and experts in the law, inquiring of them where the Messiah was to be born. This gathering did not, in my opinion, include the magi. The religious elite inform Herod that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, citing as proof the prophecy of Micah 5:2.
(g) Herod then privately summons the magi and has a meeting with them (alone). He asks them when the “star” appeared, thus fixing the birth date of the Holy Child, and therefore His age.
(h) Herod then sends the magi to Bethlehem to find the Messiah, instructing them to return and inform him of the location of this Child, so that he can worship the Child.
(i) As the magi leave Jerusalem headed toward Bethlehem, the “star” appears once again, and the magi rejoice greatly because their divinely-provided guidance has returned.
(j) The “star” then leads the magi to the exact location of the Child, where they worship Him.
Are these two accounts all that different? Perhaps not, but it does not hurt to be precise. Observing this revised sequence of events has forced me to revise some statements that I have made in the next portion of this lesson.26
The “magi” or “wise men from the East” are fascinating fellows indeed. Matthew does not tell us how many of them arrived in Jerusalem, and he does not make any great effort to describe them. Frederick Bruner does provide us with some helpful background information from outside of Matthew’s account:
“The magoi (the plural of the Greek magos) to whom Matthew refers were, first of all, to be sure, wise men, scholars of the stars in (probably) Persia and the land of the two rivers. At the root of the ancient study of the stars was the conviction that the microcosm of humanity is in a magnetic-symbiotic relationship with the macrocosm of the heavenly bodies. Astronomy (“astral nomos or law”) was the study of the laws or movements of the stars; astrology (“astral logos or word”) was the study of the message or meaning of the stars’ movements for earthly life… . The two disciplines, now rightly separated, were combined in the same persons in the ancient world. Because of their skill in deciphering the meanings or messages of the stars, the magi were widely considered ‘wise men.’”27
While these magi may have been considered “wise men” in many parts of the world, they would most likely be viewed quite differently by the Jews. To begin with, they were Gentiles. In and of itself, this is nearly enough to condemn them. If this is not bad enough, “magi” are not well spoken of in the Scriptures. We find them, for example, in the Book of Daniel:
The king issued an order to summon the magicians, conjurers, sorcerers, and Chaldeans in order to explain his dreams to him. So they came and awaited the king’s instructions (Daniel 2:2, emphasis mine).
Babylon’s “wise men” were not very good company for a Jew. All these folks were unable to tell king Nebuchadnezzar his dream. Consider the way the Old Testament prophets speak of the heathen who seek to discern divine guidance by pagan means:
For the king of Babylon stands at the fork of the road—at the head of the two routes—to use divination; he shakes the arrows, he consults the teraphim, he inspects the liver (Ezekiel 21:21).
You are tired out from listening to so much advice. Let them take their stand— the ones who see omens in the sky, who gaze at the stars, who make monthly predictions— let them rescue you from the disaster that is coming upon you! (Isaiah 47:13).
Things do not get better in the New Testament. We find Simon the magician in Acts 8:9-13 who, like Balaam, wanted to exploit God’s power to make money. In Acts 13:6-11, we find a magician named Elymas (also known as Bar-Jesus), who sought to turn the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, away from the faith. The magi would not have been looked upon with favor or respect. They would have been disdained as heathen idolaters.28
Was it some kind of social blunder for Matthew to inform us that these “magi” had been invited to celebrate the birth of the Messiah? You should remember that Matthew himself was a tax collector, and one could hardly get any lower than that.
9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax booth. “Follow me,” he said to him. And he got up and followed him. 10 As Jesus was having a meal in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with Jesus and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 When Jesus heard this he said, “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. 13 Go and learn what this saying means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:9-13).
I believe that Matthew celebrates the fact that these Gentiles were divinely called to worship the Christ Child. While Matthew may have been a Jew, writing to Jews, he would not distort the gospel of Jesus Christ. We should remember the way this Gospel of Matthew ends:
18 Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, emphasis mine).
Someone might venture to say, “Yes, I can see that God intended the work of Jesus Christ to accomplish salvation for both Jews and Gentiles. I can see how God would purpose to have Gentiles participate in the celebration of Jesus’ birth. But why would God choose to reveal the coming of the Christ Child through this means, through the stars?”
Let us not forget that God has chosen to reveal Himself to men through nature:
1 The heavens declare God’s glory;
the sky displays his handiwork.
2 Day after day it speaks out;
night after night it reveals his greatness.
3 There is no actual speech or word,
nor is its voice literally heard.
4 Yet its voice echoes throughout the earth;
its words carry to the distant horizon.
In the sky he has pitched a tent for the sun (Psalm 19:1-4; compare Romans 11:18).
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, 19 because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse (Romans 1:18-20).
You will remember the account of our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when the crowds were crying out in praise to our Lord:
39 But some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if they keep silent, the very stones will cry out!” (Luke 19:39-40)
I am inclined to understand the leading of the star in a similar manner. Israel was to be a “light to the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:6), but they failed to do so. They did not take the good news of Messiah’s birth to the Gentiles; rather, the Gentiles brought the good news to them. When God’s people were “silent,” the “stars” (as it were, or the star) cried out, leading the magi to the Savior.
I see these magi as men like Balaam. Both were pagans, it would seem, but they were given divine revelation. While Balaam rejected God’s Word to his own destruction, the magi promptly obeyed God’s guidance to Jerusalem and then to the Christ Child in Bethlehem.
What are we to make of “the star”? There are many who are intent on finding some human explanation for it.29 Some suggest that it was Halley’s Comet; others, a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. I must confess that I do not find these explanations satisfactory or sufficient. First of all, if this were a known and predictable phenomenon, then why would the magi follow it? It would not have been that unusual at all. And how could it possibly lead the magi to the very house where Jesus and His parents were living?
Secondly, why is it so important to find a human explanation for a miracle, other than to avoid the fact that it was a miracle? Why is it, for example, that some commentators on the Book of Jonah (even some very good ones) find it profitable to produce examples of men who were swallowed by “great fish” and rescued alive? God may very well use natural means to accomplish His purposes, but He does not always do so. Sometimes God uses extraordinary measures, measures that have no counterpart in nature, so that the supernatural hand of God is undeniable. I am therefore inclined to the view that this “star” may have been a manifestation of the Shekinah Glory, which we sometimes find in the Old Testament.30
The gifts of the magi – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – were certainly very expensive items. I am of the opinion, along with others, that God provided these gifts to finance the sojourn of our Lord and His parents in Egypt. Some have sought to further spiritualize these gifts:
This may be in Matthew’s mind here, but it’s just a bit too much of a reach for me.
The magi, Matthew informs us, “went home by another route” (2:12). Bruner spiritualizes here, suggesting that everyone who comes to Jesus in saving faith leaves, walking in another way. I’m not sure that Matthew wanted us to understand any more than the fact that God divinely directed the magi to return home a different way so as to avoid Herod and thus to facilitate the Holy Child’s escape to Egypt. It should be obvious, however, that this involved considerable risk for the magi. If Herod had been able, I’m reasonably certain he would have made the magi pay for outwitting him in this way.
The magi remind me of Abraham. It may well be that Abraham and the magi came from the same area. Both were “gentiles” at the time God summoned them to the Holy Land. Neither knew exactly where they were going when they left their homeland. Both obeyed God (though the magi did so more promptly) and saw the Savior (see John 8:56). Both, incidentally, were instructed by the stars:
1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram! I am your shield and the one who will reward you in great abundance.” 2 But Abram said, “O Sovereign Lord, what will you give me since I continue to be childless, and my heir is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 Abram added, “Since you have not given me a descendant, then look, one born in my house will be my heir!” 4 But look, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but instead a son who comes from your own body will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Gaze into the sky and count the stars—if you are able to count them!” Then he said to him, “So will your descendants be.” 6 Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord considered his response of faith worthy of a reward (Genesis 15:1-6).
At the beginning of this lesson, I made some observations about the sequence of events in Jerusalem. I noted that Matthew gives no indication that the magi went first to Herod. If they knew anything about Herod, they would probably have made every effort to keep their distance from him. Herod seems to have indirectly learned about the magi, who were inquiring of the people of Jerusalem where the “King of the Jews” could be found so that they could worship Him.
I am grateful to Bruner for pointing out a most interesting fact about the way Matthew refers to Herod. In a very subtle way, Bruner indicates, Matthew “dethrones” Herod in this account.
The second major figure in Matthew’s cast of characters in this chapter is the person Matthew consistently calls “King” Herod until significantly, the magi worship Christ. For immediately after their worship, Herod is symbolically dethroned and is never again called king. The magi’s worship is Jesus’ coronation. In the words of the Christmas folk song, ‘a new king’s born today.’31
When word finally reached Herod that the magi were asking where the newborn King could be found, he quickly called for the Old Testament experts in the law. Surely they would know of any prophecies revealing the birthplace of the Messiah. And so they did. They pointed out Micah 5:2 and confidently informed Herod that this would be the birthplace of the promised Son of David.
It is easy to understand why Herod would be greatly disturbed by news of the birth of the “King of the Jews.” Herod wanted no rivals to the throne, even if he was an old man.32 Herod was not a legitimate heir to the throne. He was not even a full-blooded Jew. The fear of the majority of those in Jerusalem is also easily explained. If Herod is uneasy about his throne, then no one close to him would be safe, including his family:
He slaughtered the last remnants of the Hasmonean dynasty. He executed more than half the Sanhedrin. He killed three hundred court officers out of hand. He executed his own wife, Mariamne, her mother Alexandra, his sons Antipater, Aristobulus and Alexander. Finally, as he lay dying, he arranged for all the notable men of Jerusalem to be assembled in the hippodrome and killed the moment his own death was announced. A man of ruthless cruelty and with a fanatical neurosis about any competition, it is quite in character that he should order the execution of the male children in Bethlehem.33
But why were the religious clergy of Jerusalem – the chief priests and experts in the law – alarmed? There were other Old Testament prophecies which may well have been known to them – texts related to the coming of Messiah – which were far from comforting:
1 The Lord says, “The leaders of my people are sure to be judged. They were supposed to watch over my people like shepherds watch over their sheep. But they are causing my people to be destroyed and scattered. 2 So the Lord God of Israel has this to say about the leaders who are ruling over his people: “You have caused my people to be dispersed and driven into exile. You have not taken care of them. So I will punish you for the evil that you have done. I, the Lord, affirm it. 3 Then I myself will regather those of my people who are still left alive from all the countries where I have driven them. I will bring them back to their homeland. They will greatly increase in number. 4 I will install rulers over them who will care for them. Then they will no longer need to fear or be terrified. None of them will turn up missing. I, the Lord, promise it. 5 “I, the Lord, promise that a new time will certainly come when I will raise up for them a righteous descendant of David. He will rule over them with wisdom and understanding and will do what is just and right in the land. 6 Under his rule Judah will enjoy safety and Israel will live in security. This is the name he will go by: ‘The Lord has provided us with justice.’ 7 “So I, the Lord, say, ‘A new time will certainly come. People now affirm their oaths with “I swear as surely as the Lord lives who delivered the people of Israel out of Egypt.” 8 But at that time they will affirm them with “I swear as surely as the Lord lives who delivered the descendants of the former nation of Israel from the land of the north and from all the other lands where he had banished them.” At that time they will live in their own land’” (Jeremiah 23:1-8).
The coming of Israel’s King, the “King of the Jews,” meant a whole new regime, a whole new administration. After hearing of the magi, who were looking for Him who was born “King of the Jews,” the mood in Jerusalem was something like Washington D.C. after a landslide victory for the opposing political party.
We will certainly have more to say about the death of the innocent infants in our next lesson, but for the moment, suffice it to say that Herod was a cruel and calculating killer. This execution was premeditated murder of the worst kind. From the time he sought to learn when the star first appeared, Herod must have had this slaughter of the innocent in his mind. He instructs the magi to return to Jerusalem, so that he might know where the child is, so that he can worship Him. Perhaps worst of all, he appears to leave himself a margin for error. I can almost hear Herod say to himself, “Let’s see now, the star appeared about a year ago. That would make this “King” a year old. Just to be safe, let’s kill all the babies of the region up to two years old.”
What restraint we see in Matthew, who does not provide his readers with the gory details of Herod’s death, not long afterward! If it were not for the certainty of the resurrection of the wicked to eternal punishment, death for this man would seem unjust.
We happily leave Herod behind, and close this lesson by focusing on the Lord Jesus. Who better to dominate our thoughts in this chapter, or any other? The first thing Matthew has told us about this Child is that He is human. We see this from the genealogy of 1:1-17. In addition to this, Jesus is divine. He is, as His name indicates, God with us. How could this child be both human and divine? By means of His virginal conception. The Child conceived in Mary’s womb was not conceived by a man, but by the Holy Spirit (1:18-25). Because of His unique identity, this Child will “save His people from their sins” (1:21).
Four times in chapter 2, Matthew claims Jesus is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. We will talk about this in greater detail in our next lesson. Let us dwell momentarily on several aspects of our Lord’s identity in this chapter.
First, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. This seems like such a trivial point, but let us not lose its significance, not only in Matthew, but in the other Gospels. Matthew tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (2:1), just as Micah had prophesied (2:6). This seems so obvious to us, but later events in this chapter will cause our Lord to grow up in Nazareth of Galilee, and thus our Lord will be known as “Jesus of Nazareth” (Matthew 2:23, etc.).
It was the false but commonly held assumption in Jesus’ day that He was merely a Nazarene:
45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the law, and the prophets also wrote about—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 Nathanael replied, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip replied, “Come and see” (John 1:45-46).
40 When they heard these words, some of the crowd began to say, “This really is the Prophet!” 41 Others said, “This is the Christ!” But still others said, “No, for the Christ doesn’t come from Galilee, does he? 42 Don’t the scriptures say that the Christ is a descendant of David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” (John 7:40-42)
50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before and who was one of the rulers, said, 51 “Our law doesn’t condemn a man unless it first hears from him and learns what he is doing, does it?” 52 They replied, “You aren’t from Galilee too, are you? Investigate carefully and you will see that no prophet comes from Galilee!” (John 7:50-52)
Matthew, along with Luke, makes it very clear that while Jesus was truly a “Nazarene” and a “Galilean,” He was also born in Bethlehem. In this way, Jesus fulfills all the prophecies concerning His geographical associations.
Second, Jesus exhibits a certain “weakness,” but this “weakness” is stronger than men.34 Apocryphal documents contain all kinds of fanciful “miraculous” events surrounding the Christ Child:
The baby does not, as in the apocryphal Gospels and even in the Koran, speak precocious wisdom or do miracles from the crib. He is a baby. No halos are in evidence, no great glory. And reverence is given exclusively to the child (… , not Mary).35
In Matthew 2, we once again are reminded of Jesus’ humanity, and thus of a kind of frailty as an infant. This Holy Child needed parents to feed and clothe Him and to protect Him from the clutches of Herod, who was intent on killing Him. He had to be carried off to Egypt and then brought back to Israel. It was Joseph to whom God spoke by dreams and who acted to save this child from His enemies. And yet in the midst of events which underscore His humanity, there are other events which indicate that He is much more than just human. He is the One who is born “King of the Jews” (2:2). His birth is proclaimed through the miraculous appearance and guidance of a star. Wealthy Gentiles come from afar to worship Him, offering Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (2:11).36 This Child is so unique, so threatening, that He has Herod in a dither.
This Child, for all His humanity and weakness, was the living God. Nothing could keep Him from fulfilling God’s purposes. Who would have thought that God would have sent the Savior into the world as a tiny, helpless Child?
Third, Jesus was despised and rejected by men, particularly His fellow Jews. The “prophecy” of Matthew 2:23 troubles many:
He came to a town called Nazareth and lived there. Then what had been spoken by the prophets was fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.
It has been noted by nearly all Bible scholars that there is no one text which says, “Jesus will be called a Nazarene.” James Montgomery Boice calls attention to two key observations:
First, we should note that Matthew introduces the verse by referring to prophets (plural, ‘through the prophets’), rather than saying, as he does in other instances, ‘This took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet’ (Matt. 1:22) or ‘For this is what the prophet has written’ (Matt. 2:5). This seems to indicate a general rather than a specific Old Testament reference.37
Further, he replaces the verb he usually uses in such introductory formulas (‘said’) with the conjunction hoti, which means ‘that.’ This is the only place such a substitution occurs in the Gospel. Matthew is probably not citing a specific Old Testament text but instead is referring only to a general teaching of Scripture. A right rendering of his words might be, ‘This was to fulfill the teaching of the prophets that he would be called a Nazarene.’38
Boice then shows that nowhere in the Old Testament do we find a prophecy which states that Jesus shall be called a Nazarene. How then can this problem be solved? In my mind, Boice provides us with the best explanation:
A better explanation is probably found in the fact that Nazareth was a despised place, the kind of village we might refer to disparagingly as ‘Podunk’ or ‘Endsville.’ It would have had that immediate ring to any Jew of that day who heard the name. What Matthew seems to be saying is that the prophets predicted the Messiah would be a despised person, the victim of slurs such as this.39
Bruner seems to reach the same conclusion:
For theological reasons I like to consider the … possibility, and it is no more than a possibility, that for Matthew a person from Nazareth, a Nazorean, was considered a nobody and that this, too, is what prophets had often predicted the Christ would at first be considered and become for us.40
“He shall be called a Nazorean,” then, may mean at least this: “he shall be considered a nobody.”41
I find the explanations of Boice and Bruner most satisfying and most consistent with the prophecies that do pertain to the Messiah. Thus we find a number of prophecies which speak of a despised Savior:
3 He was despised and rejected by people,
one who experienced pain and was acquainted with illness;
people hid their faces from him;
he was despised, and we considered him insignificant (Isaiah 53:3).42
Fourth, Jesus is the New Israel. In chapter 1, Matthew linked our Lord with Abraham and David (1:1-17). In chapter 2, Matthew establishes some broader connections. First, we see Jesus somewhat subtly linked with Moses. Moses was the “deliverer” God had appointed to deliver His people, and thus his life was sought by the King (Pharaoh) even in his infancy.43 God rescued Moses just as He did Jesus.
Matthew also links Jesus with the nation Israel. We are somewhat surprised to find this “prophecy” in Hosea 11:1 fulfilled by our Lord:
13 After they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to look for the child to kill him.” 14 Then he got up, took the child and his mother at night, and went to Egypt. 15 He stayed there until Herod died. In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: “I called my Son out of Egypt” (Matthew 2:13-15).
How in the world would any Jew of Jesus’ day have considered Hosea 11:1 a prophecy? This fulfilled prophecy catches us all off guard, does it not? And yet we can see Matthew’s logic here. Israel left the land of Canaan and sojourned in Egypt for around 400 years. At the end of this time, God sent Moses to deliver His people and to lead them back into the Promised Land (compare Genesis 15:12-21). In Matthew’s account, Jesus virtually retraces the steps of Israel. In His infancy, Jesus is taken down to Egypt (where God providentially protects His people, just as He protects the Lord Jesus). After His sojourn in Egypt, Jesus returns from Egypt to the Promised Land, just as Israel returned from Egypt to Canaan.
God promised Abraham that He would bless the nations through his (Abraham’s) seed (Genesis 12:1-3). Because of their sins, no Israelite was righteous enough to become the source of blessing for the nations. Jesus is the perfect Israelite, the perfect replacement for the nation. Jesus was this “seed,” the One through whom the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant would be poured out:
15 Brothers and sisters, I offer an example from everyday life: When a covenant has been ratified, even though it is only a human contract, no one can set it aside or add anything to it. 16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his descendant. Scripture does not say, “and to the descendants,” referring to many, but “and to your descendant,” referring to one, who is Christ (Galatians 3:15-16).
Israel as a nation was a stubborn and rebellious people. Even their finest leaders like Moses and David and Solomon were sinners. Only Jesus, the “Son of Abraham,” and the “Son of David,” was also the “Son of God.” He alone fulfilled Israel’s destiny. He is the source of every spiritual blessing. And so it is that Matthew depicts Jesus as the fulfillment of all of God’s promised blessings and Israel’s hopes:
On closer investigation, interpreters have discovered that Jesus’ career in chapter 2 retraces the career of Old Israel almost exactly. Jesus goes from the promised land in Israel to the classic land of escape, Egypt, just as all the patriarchs (from Abraham to Joseph) had done in the beginning. Then, like a second Moses in a kind of second Exodus, Jesus is called up out of Egypt to return to the land of promise again (‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’). By means of his itinerary, Matthew is saying: “Look, the New Israel!”44
As Matthew 1 taught the New Genesis given history by the birth of the promised Son of Abraham, Son of David, so Matthew 2 teaches the New Exodus in the migration in and out of Egypt of Jesus the New Moses (cf. Brown). Jesus fulfills the accepted scriptural requirements for messiahship: Matthew chapter 1 shows this in the persons from whom Jesus descended (Abraham and David); Matthew chapter 2 shows this in the places Jesus touches (Bethlehem, Egypt, Israel) … .45
… Jesus takes up into himself the whole of Israel’s (and so, representatively, the whole of humanity’s) experience, drinks it to the dregs, and “fulfills” it. “What Israel was has now been absorbed into the person of Jesus” (Meier, Vis., 55, n. 19). In the singular career of the New Israel who is Jesus, Israel finally does everything predicted of her in Scripture. All of Isaiah’s promises come true in Jesus. Israel comes through in one Israelite. It is the biblical principle of what Oscar Cullmann called “progressive reduction.” When all humanity failed (Gen 1-11), Israel was recruited to be the way of salvation for all humanity (Gen 12ff). When Israel failed, Jesus of Nazareth, the Israelite, succeeded in the name and for the sake of Israel (Matt 1ff). Then in “progressive expansion” Jesus forms his church, the new people of God, to be the salt, light, and discipler of all nations (Matt 5;13-16; 28:18-20) until his return for the consummation of the ages. Jesus recapitulates in his person and reinaugurates in his church Israel’s history of salvation in the world.46
Let me close with a few thoughts to ponder.
First, Jesus is the great divider of men. The contrast is clearly evident in Matthew 2. On the one side, there are the magi, who came from afar (and at great sacrifice) to find and to worship the King of the Jews. On the other side are Herod, the religious clergy, and the people of Jerusalem. Herod, at the extreme, seeks to kill the baby Jesus. The others merely appear to ignore Him. Whenever men come face to face with Jesus, they must decide whether they will fall down before Him as God’s promised Savior, or whether they will reject Him. As you have considered this chapter, my friend, you have been confronted by a choice: Will you receive Jesus as the promised Savior, or will you reject Him? There is no middle ground. There never has been. Whose side will you take, Herod’s or the magi’s?
Second, this chapter reminds us that possessing scriptural knowledge about Jesus is not enough. One must act upon the knowledge they have in order to be saved. The Gentile magi did not have as much knowledge about Jesus as the religious clergy in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, they acted on the knowledge they had. They found the Christ Child and worshipped Him. They found salvation; by and large, the people of Jerusalem did not.
Is this not the “bottom line” that Jesus put before His audience at the Sermon on the Mount?
24 “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, but it did not collapse because it had been founded on rock. 26 Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, and it collapsed; it was utterly destroyed!” (Matthew 7:24-27)
Having heard these words about Jesus, have you acted on them? Knowledge is not enough.
Third, these early chapters in Matthew serve to prepare us for all that will follow in the later chapters of this book. We have learned that Jesus is both the “Son of God” and the “Son of Man.” Jesus is both man and God. Everything Jesus says and does later in this Gospel leads us to the same conclusion. In His birth, Jesus was rejected by some and believed in by others. Nothing will change as time passes. Jesus was rejected by His own people (John 1:11-12), and yet He was believed in by heathen Gentiles. Jesus is the true Israel, the fulfillment of all of God’s promises and of Israel’s hopes. Matthew’s introduction to this great Gospel prepares us for what lies ahead in it.
Fourth, Matthew should revolutionize our reading of the Old Testament. Matthew sees Jesus in the Old Testament where we would never have expected to see Him. This is because Jesus is, in many ways, the new Israel. He sums up God’s promises and Israel’s hopes. He can see Jesus in the exodus from Egypt (Hosea 11:1). He sees Jesus where we do not. Perhaps this tells us that we should look more carefully for Jesus in the Old Testament, and expect to see Him more often. We should not be surprised when we read this from the pen of the Apostle Paul:
3 And all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they were all drinking from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:3-4).
Let us look for Jesus when we read the Old Testament. He is there much more often than we might think.
Fifth, Matthew is “missions minded,” not just at the end of his Gospel (28:18-20), but from the very outset of this Gospel. Why does a Jewish author, writing primarily to a Jewish audience, write of Gentiles as he does in chapter 1 and 2? It is because an essential part of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that God has provided salvation and blessing for people of every nation, and not just for Israel. The Abrahamic Covenant was the promise of blessing for both Israel and the nations. This is why Jesus quickly made the Gentile factor clear in Luke 4:16-30, and why Matthew included Gentiles in his genealogy and now again in chapter 2. We, as Gentiles, should see that we have a choice to make concerning our sin and Christ’s offer of forgiveness through His blood. Also, the Jews must own up to their rebellion and rejection of Jesus. Matthew is a Gospel; it is the proclamation of the good news that God has offered the gift of eternal life and the forgiveness of sins to all men.
This is a Gospel which ends with the command that we take the good news to every nation. This we should do. But let us also learn from our text that even when men fail to carry out their God-given responsibility to be a “light to the nations,” God is able to bring those He has chosen to Himself. Even when the people of Israel failed to be a “light to the Gentiles” God was able to reach out to the magi and to draw them to the worship of His Son. This is not an excuse for us to disobey our command to evangelize; it is an encouragement that God will never allow any of His chosen to slip away, whether due to our sin, or to our human inability to reach certain people who are far away.
As we think of the divine “calling” of the magi, one cannot help but be reminded of Paul’s words to the Ephesians which speak of God’s love and grace in calling Gentiles to Himself:
11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh—who are called “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” that is performed in the body by hands— 12 that you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:11-13).
20 Copyright 2003 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 2 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on February 23, 2003.
21 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
22 J. W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels, p. 41. Everett Harrison, in his book, Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), summarizes on page 118 the Apocryphal Gospel of Thomas:
“This famous writing, known at least as early as the time of Origin, presents the boy Jesus in the light of a wonder worker. It does not seem to matter that he works harm as well as good by his miraculous power. Here the thaumaturgic element has outrun any ethical norm. Jesus molds clay pigeons on the Sabbath. When objection is raised he claps his hands, whereupon the pigeons take to the air and fly away. When a child running through the village bumps him on the shoulder, he cries, ‘Thou shalt not finish thy course,’ and forthwith the child drops dead. When the parents come to expostulate with Joseph, they are smitten with blindness. A certain teacher, desiring to have Jesus as a pupil, soon regrets the arrangement, for when he is asked by the child to explain the letter Alpha and is unable to do so, Jesus elaborates its meaning and makes fun of his teacher, to the great discomfort of the latter. This incident reflects an esoteric interest and may be a Gnostic touch in the childhood tradition.”
23 See John 21:25
24 Note verse 1: “After Jesus was born in Jerusalem… .” Further notice the age of the children who are slaughtered, and the fact that the baby Jesus is not in a manger, but in a house (2:11).
25 Why else would Matthew tell us the “star” once again appeared, and that the magi greatly rejoiced when they saw it (2:9-10)?
26 Frederick Bruner seeks to get God “off the hook” for leading the magi by the stars, rather than by His revealed Word: “The despised and pagan astrologers who have nothing but their natural idols are led to Israel who has the written Word, and, when this Word is heard (by both groups!), it is the pagans who eagerly follow it, while the leadership of the people of God sits complacently (or conspiratorially) at home. The despised believe the Word, the devout ignore it. This was exactly the situation Matthew found in the late first century, too.” (Bruner, The Christbook: A Historical/Theological Commentary, Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987, vol. 1, pp. 47-48). If my sequence of events is accurate, the magi may or may not have been informed about the prophecy of Micah 5:2. They may only have been told that the “King of the Jews” would be born in Bethlehem.
27 Bruner, p. 45.
28 “In Israel’s conviction the magi were idolaters, short and simple. This conviction is carried over into the New Testament where every other reference to a magos is unfavorable (see, e.g., Acts 8:9-24 for Simon the magos, and Acts 13:6-11 for Elymas or Bar-Jesus, the magos or false prophet). The magi were held to be people who looked, and who taught others to look, to beggarly creatures rather than to the Creator for guidance; they looked to their own calculations, ‘wisdom,’ and mental creations (to zodiacs, for example), for delivering the meaning of things. Israel cordially despised the magicians and astrologers of the gentile world and felt that God had decisively rescued his people from the tyranny of the stars and from those who claimed to know their secrets.” Bruner, p. 45.
29 For an overview of some of the astronomical expectations of that day, read Michael Green, Matthew For Today: Expository Study of Matthew (Dallas, Texas: Word Publishing, 1989), pp. 49-50.
30 For this view, see James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2001), vol. 1, p. 30.
31 Bruner, p. 50. As I read the text, Bruner is not precisely correct. It is not after the magi worship Christ that the term “king” is dropped, but rather after the citation of Micah 5:2. The simple expression “Herod” occurs in 2:7, before the magi have even left Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Bruner’s observation is noteworthy.
32 If my information is correct, Herod was 33 at his inauguration (Green, p. 48). He was inaugurated in 40 B.C. and reigned until 4 B.C. He would thus have been very close to 70 years old at the time of his death. How could a man this old fear a baby? Perhaps Herod was like most of us, assuming his death was at some distant point in time.
33 Green, p. 52.
34 See 1 Corinthians 1:25
35 Bruner, p. 49.
36 “Jesus is ‘worshipped’ in Mark’s Gospel only once, but in Matthew ten times; … .” Bruner, p. 49.
37 Boice, vol. 1, p. 42.
38 Bruner, vol. 1, p. 42.
39 Ibid, vol. 1, p. 42.
40 Ibid, p. 62.
41 Ibid, p. 62.
42 See also Psalm 22:6-8, 13, 17; 69:9, 19-21; Isaiah 49:7; 50:6; Daniel 9:26.
43 One might even see a link between Jesus and David. David, who had been anointed by Samuel as the new king of Israel, often had to flee from Saul, the current king of Israel, who was seeking to kill his successor.
44 Bruner, p. 57.
45 Ibid, p. 59.
46 Bruner, p. 60.