The Agora
Bible Commentary

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Matthew 2

Mat 2:1

Vv 1-12: The visit of the wise men. The firstfruits of the Gentiles. "Kings of Sheba" (Psa 72:10) -- together with Isa 60:6,7 (about the Arabian peoples, which also mentions kings: v 3) -- suggests that the "wise men" of the east who brought presents to the child Jesus were not from Babylon or Persia, but from Edom and Arabia (perhaps from Yemen, where kings professed Judaism: LTJM 1:203). Popular opinion has generally favored those regions further east, where "magi" or wise men were well-known; but the Scriptural evidence all points in another direction. One cannot refrain from musing that wise men from the same areas today would bring the precious gift (at least to the industrialized world) of oil. On further reflection, such a thought might not be so far-fetched after all. History could well repeat itself in the twentieth-first century, when the King of the Jews returns to Israel. Both Psa 72 and Isa 60 mention that the Gentiles were kings. In this case, the common Christmas tradition has some basis in Scripture.

Mat 2:2

WHERE IS THE ONE WHO HAS BEEN BORN KING...?: The first question of the NT.

WHO HAS BEEN BORN: An ironic allusion to Herod's unlawful seizure of throne: some are "born" kings; others steal their thrones!

STAR: The problem of the star (Gr "aster") has taxed the ingenuity of countless scholars, who might have done better to spend the time on more spiritually beneficial questions. Their suggestions include a comet, a meteor, a planetary conjunction (several choices offered), and a supernova or star explosion. Each of these natural phenomena proves deficient when the facts of the narrative are considered. What do we know, for certain, about the star?

  1. It was seen by the wise men, and could be followed to Judea. This argues for some sign which would have remained in the heavens for a considerable time, and rules out meteors and most comets.
  2. The star led them first to Jerusalem (v 1). It is difficult to see how some ordinary star could lead followers to a precise location. Still less do the above suggestions mesh with the other details listed below.
  3. The star was apparently not seen by Herod (v 7).
  4. It disappeared from the wise men's view after they reached Jerusalem (v 8), then reappeared suddenly when they started toward Bethlehem (v 9).
  5. Thus the star changed direction. First it moved westward, and then southward.
  6. It was a moving object. It "went ahead of" the wise men (v 9), leading them as a procession.
  7. Then it stopped (v 9).
This sequence, carefully analyzed, rules out every natural explanation. The details of the activity of the star, however, call to mind a miracle, from the OT. The star, sometimes visible and sometimes invisible, led its followers, changed direction, and at times stopped. This is exactly what the "Shekinah" Glory of Yahweh -- the pillar of fire and cloud -- did for the children of Israel in the wilderness. It led them, changing direction, sometimes stopping for long periods; finally, of course, it disappeared. Here, then, is a simple, Bible-based explanation of the star of Bethlehem.

IN THE EAST: Or, "at its rising".

Other "star" prophecies: Num 24:17; Mat 24:30; Rev 16:12; 21:22-26. "A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel... Edom will be conquered; Seir, his enemy, will be conquered, but Israel will grow strong" (Num 24:17,18): Herod was an EDOMITE!

WORSHIP: See Lesson, Worship of Christ?

Mat 2:3

When King Herod is disturbed, EVERYBODY IS DISTURBED! Because the common people would know the hatred and murderous rages of Herod, and could imagine what the consequences might be for others. The Jewish capital is disturbed, but wise men of other nations rejoice exceedingly (v 10).

Mat 2:4

All Jews, in all lands, were -- at the time of Jesus' birth -- expecting Messiah to come (cp Joh 1:20,25; 10:24; 12:34; Mat 21:9; 26:63). In some measure, many Gentiles were also affected (because of the widely-scattered Jewish nation, and the LXX read among Gentiles.

Mat 2:5

BETHLEHEM: Out of the "house of bread" came the "bread of life"!

Mat 2:9

WHERE THE CHILD WAS: Apparently, the family had now taken up residence in Bethlehem, or else they would have been in no danger from Herod (v 13; cp v 22n).

Mat 2:11

The bringing of gifts by the Magi is probably the origin of the modern custom of gift giving at Christmas. Significantly, however, the gifts were given to Jesus and to no one else. The gifts which the wise men gave to Jesus, along with their loving adoration, are figurative of the service we can all give to our Lord:

(1) Gold is used by the Apostle Peter in his exhortation (1Pe 1:7) as representing the preciousness of a tried faith. Faith, until it has been purified by experience, persecution, and hard choices, is of little value. Our faith at the end of the journey will be a worthy gift to lay before Christ, precisely because it will have been perfected in the fiery trials of our probation.

(2) Frankincense represents the prayers of the saints (Psa 141:2; Rev 5:8; 8:4) which, like the clouds of smoke from the altar of incense, rise in praise to God. No greater gift can we give to God than our thanks and praise.

(3) Myrrh speaks of self-sacrifice. It is bitter, yet also purifying, soothing, and cleansing.

The gifts given to Jesus were also indicative of his mission in life, and revealed an awareness of this on the part of the givers. In reverse order the three gifts foreshadow the three stages of Christ's redemptive work: (1) the myrrh: his death (Mar 15:23; John 19:39); (2) frankincense: his mediatorship, interceding for the saints in their prayers to God, and (3) gold: his kingship, at his second coming.

What happened to the gifts? Since they were very valuable, it is possible they all served an immediate purpose in financing the unplanned flight to Egypt and the sojourn there. But the myrrh, at least, so eminently testified of Jesus' eventual sacrifice that it can easily be imagined that it was kept for that purpose. The mind flashes forward thirty-three years to Golgotha, where Mary -- a sword piercing her own soul -- looks from afar upon her crucified son. What more fitting than the thought that she carried with her that myrrh given to Jesus so long before. "To this end was (he) born", and now the gift of the Magi sealed in death the perfect life whose beginning they had witnessed in Bethlehem.

COMING TO THE HOUSE: A more permanent dwelling. This was some time after the birth itself: as much as one or 1 1/2 years (cp v 16).

Mat 2:13

Like the OT Joseph, this Joseph had a dream and then went down into Egypt.

Mat 2:14

EGYPT: Where there were very populous and wealthy Jewish communities, esp in Alexandria.

Mat 2:15

OUT OF EGYPT HAVE I CALLED MY SON: The Exodus (Isa 11;15; Rev 11:8). God took a "vine" out of Egypt (Psa 80:15,17).

Mat 2:16

This atrocity is entirely in character for Herod, who had already murdered 2 of his own sons (Alexander and Aristobulus) because he feared they would usurp his throne. Once again "Esau" persecuted "Jacob".

TWO YEARS OLD AND UNDER: Evidently, Herod had checked as to time when star first appeared (prob 1 to 1 1/2 years earlier), and to be on safe side he had extended the target period to 2 years.

Mat 2:18

Life and death are never far apart in this present state. God's Son is born into the world, bringing the hope of eternal life to all men, but with him there comes death as well -- a sword for others, foreshadowing the "sword" marked for him. Life there will be, in all its abundance, but first there must be death. The whole creation is subject to vanity, groaning in travail to be delivered from its bondage by the manifestation of God's Son. Set alongside the coming of God's Son there is, graphically expressed in these brutal murders, the reason for his coming. The picture is deeper and more profound than it may first appear. The atrocity of Bethlehem was tragic, but no more so than countless other instances of suffering in that age, and before, and since. "Thorns and thistles" have sprung from the soil ever since the sin of our first parents, along with greed and hatred and murder; never will it be any different until God's Kingdom comes. Many "Rachels" have wept for many children, and husbands, brothers, and fathers, because Israel rejected her God and her king. The only bright spot in the bleak picture is that there remains a final hope for Israel: "I will not completely destroy you. I will discipline you but only with justice" (Jer 30:11), says God, indicating a limit to His punishment. And, eventually, "He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd... 'Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears... [for] there is hope,' declares the Lord. 'Your children [the scattered remnant of Israel] will return from the land of the enemy' " (Jer 31:10,16,17).

Cp Athaliah's massacre of all the royal seed: 2Ki 11:1.

Mat 2:20

// Exo 4:19 (LXX).

Mat 2:22

IN PLACE OF: Gr "anti", instead of, not necessarily against!

HE WAS AFRAID TO GO THERE: Did Joseph (and Mary) wish to raise their child near Jerusalem, because of proximity of temple, teachers, schools, feasts, and other opportunities?

Mat 2:23

NAZARETH: Their old home-town (Luk 1:26,27). Cp Luk 2:39.

WHAT WAS SAID: But not necessarily written (NR 74).

See Lesson, Nazarene (Mat 2:23).

"Jesus was poor. He was from Nazareth, a village of between 200 to 2000 people, about 7 km [4 mi] away from Sepphoris, a city of 40,000. And He would have gone through the process of socialization which anyone does who lives in a village under the shadow of the big town. He is described as a tekton or manual worker ('carpenter' in many translations). 'A tekton was at the lower end of the peasant class, more marginalized than a peasant who owned a small piece of land. We should not think of a tekton as being a step up from a subsistence farmer; rather, a tekton belonged to a family that had lost its land' (Geza Vermes, 'Jesus the Jew'). So Jesus was himself marginalized, the poorest of the poor, in one of the poorest corners of the Roman empire. The poor needn't think of Jesus as so heavenly that he doesn't know their crises; the crises that come from not having food or money, the problems of drought, the worry about the weather, the rains not coming, the problem of broken equipment and worn out clothes and shoes, the distress that a little brother is sick, and there's medicine in the nearby town, but no money for it... he knows. He really does. He can and does relate to all this. And it's why he is so especially watchful, according to his own teaching, of how we respond to those in such need. It means a lot to him; because as a poor man, he must have known what it was to receive charity, to be given a few eggs by a neighbour, some milk from a kind woman down the street. When he taught 'Blessed are the poor... the hungry', he immediately had a realness and credibility. For all the poor want to be better off. But he was so self-evidently content with who he was. The poor also want a bit more security for the future than just knowing that they have enough food for today. Yet Jesus could teach people to pray only for the food they needed for each day. And they were to forgive their debtors. This was radical stuff for people who lived a generally hand to mouth existence as day labourers and subsistence farmers. Only if Jesus was real and credible would people have flocked to hear him and taken his teaching seriously" (DH).

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