Seeking the Savior


Matthew’s report of the birth of Jesus has the theme of seeking the Christ child. Some sought him for worship; another, and others on his behalf, sought him for destruction. These are the two postures toward Jesus even today. Jesus has positioned himself in the world in such a way that it is impossible to be neutral about him. Neutrality puts one in the position of denying the claims of Jesus, for he accepted worship as the Son of God and claimed that in the end all the nations will gather before him and he will judge them [Matthew 25:31-33]. The more closely Jesus’ work and words come to our attention, the more we know that he cannot be ignored. We either will worship, or we will say, “Away with you; your claims are arrogant and false and I refuse to have “this man reign over me.” [see Luke 19:14, 27]

The Jews

A. Bethlehem – Matthew does not tell how they came to be in Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus. Luke provided that historical context and the interesting glance into the meticulous nature of divine providence that brought to pass the accuracy of a prophecy in Micah 5:2. Luke gives the providence and Matthew provides the reference to the prophecy. Ruth came with her mother-in-law Naomi to dwell in Bethlehem and in so ding came into the genealogical table of Jesus (Matthew 1:5). David tended his father’s sheep there and also was anointed by Samuel as king of Israel. It is located five miles south of Jerusalem. Matthew establishes this pattern early that the life of Jesus falls out in a variety of meticulous providences that fulfill Scripture [2:6, 2:18, 2:23; 4:12-16; 12:17ff; 13:34, 35; etc.]. Also the pattern of Jesus life replaces the history of Israel with perfect obedience and faithfulness instead of unfaithfulness, disobedience and idolatry. [2:15; 4:1-11; 5]

B   Herod – Governor of Galilee 47-37 B. C, appointed by his father Antipater, who had been appointed procurator of Judaea by Julius Caesar. . Seemed ambitious for an eastern empire during the Roman civil War;  His favors to Greeks won him the presidency of the Olympic Games.  Declared by Senate in Rome, 40 B. C., as “King of the Jews” upon the advice of Antony and Octavian, for they knew that he would diminish the threat of the Hasmonaean family. He became de facto king in 37 after fighting for three years against the Hasmonaean ruler of Judea, Antigonus. He confirmed and secured himself against Jewish resistance by bribes to Romans [Antony, Cleopatra, Augustus] and Romans force;  He married Mariamne, a beautiful heiress of the Maccabean line, seemingly the only person that he ever came close to loving; He alienated her, however, by his systematic elimination by murder of the entire Hasmonean family, including Mariamne’s brother, and eventually Mariamne herself in 29 BC  His two sons by her were designated heirs and had Hasmonean blood, so were acceptable to the Jews, but Herod’s mind was poisoned against them, so he had them murdered in 7BC. His Sons by Malthace (a Samaritan woman), Archelaus and Antipas, ruled after him and his line lasted till 100 A. D.  ISBE judged, “He was the incarnation of brute lust, [it seems that he had close to ten wives] which in turn became the burden of the lives of his children. History tells of few more immoral families than the house of Herod, which by intermarriage of its members so entangled the genealogical  tree as to make it a veritable puzzle.” When he died around 4 BC his body was as riddled with disease as his mind was with bitterness, suspicion, and jealousy. It would be exceedingly difficult to overestimate the spiraling descension of corruption, cruelty, and moral degradation in the life of this one man. He died around 4 BC. According to that calculation, Jesus birth must have been around 5 BC.

C.  Chief Priests and Scribes – of the sort that sat in Moses’s seat and gave teaching that could be followed but their practices were to be avoided. What an irony of history, or rather an impressive symmetry of divine providence, that the same class of Jewish leaders that plotted his death in the end were instrumental in giving Herod information in the effort to end his life even at the time of his birth {Matthew 23:1; 26:1-5;27:1, 2)

The Gentiles – The Magi


A.  Calvin calls them “the firstfruits of the nations.” When Jesus was forty days old, at the time of the required purification, Simeon called him “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” Within  weeks or just very few months the first group of Gentiles came to bow before him and worship.{2:2]  Apparently they know that he was much more than just a future temporal ruler on an earthly throne over an ethnically defined people. They wanted to “worship Him.” not curry favor with his family for the sake of temporal advantage. They were not of the nation that he would rule, except that they saw themselves, nevertheless, as his obedient subjects in a world-wide kingdom that would transcend the ages, and saw him not only as a king, but as God.

B. “The tradition that they were kings, found as early as Tertullian, doubtless grew out of the supposed prophecy that kings should do homage to Messiah (Psa. 68:29, 31; 72:10); and the traditional number three was apparently drawn from the number of their gifts.  These, with the traditional names, are on no authority, and of no consequence except as connected with modern Christian art.” Broadus’s Commentary on Matthew. Calvin noted, “It is really a childish error that led the Papists to make the figure three, on the ground that Matthew says they offered gold, incense, and myrrh, as though he gave each of them a separate task, when he is really saying that the three gifts were offered jointly.”

C. The magi were astrologers, not kings. How much mixture of their particular science with divine revelation there was, it would be vain to seek to determine. Doubtless there was a mixture, for they recognized the unusual nature of this star, not at all like others stars for they observed it “when it rose” and then saw it reappear as they left the palace of Herod; Also, unlike the stars far in the heavens, it gave them a precise location, perhaps focusing its light in laser-like fashion on the house where Jesus was. At what age this occurred, we cannot be precise, but in my opinion Jesus was not more than six months old at this time. Joseph would have found a house quickly, probably even before the circumcision at eight days. Certainly they had settled and perhaps had decided to reside in Bethlehem by the time of the presentation of the baby in the Temple in Jerusalem at forty days. That decision was changed quickly after the arrival of the magi (and the consequent warning given to Joseph in a dream)., which probably occurred before the child was six months old. The slaughter of all infants two years of age and under, does not indicate that the birth had happened two years before, but is explained by the tendency of Herod to over-reach in his destructive jealousy and insecurity.

The Place of Divine Revelation

The Appearance of the Star – Why did they call it his star? Were Jews in Persia, or Babylonia, like Simeon and Anna who could have instrumental in their conclusions. Many individual instances of revelation occurred surrounding the birth of Jesus and is not implausible that God would have pointed these magi to a sign that he was setting in the sky to lead them to the “King of the Jews,” one that would fulfill the Jewish prophecies.

The Word of Scripture [“what has been written by the prophet”] Indeed we find these magi being led to hear a word from the written prophecy Verse s 5, 6} for an objective corroboration of the non-verbal leadership of a star. We see the same pattern in verses 15, 18, 23.


Dreams – Joseph already had been instructed in a dream [1:18ff] to take Mary as his wife although she was found pregnant before his marriage to her. He was told to name the child Jesus. Matthew points out that all this fulfilled Scripture {1:23]. Then the Magi were given a dream not to go back to inform Herod of the child’s whereabouts. This could surely indicate that they already had received revelatory information about the child and began their journey to find him in response. Again, Joseph is given vital instruction by means of a dream, this time to save the child from Herod. The ways in which God could have accomplished this are innumerable. That he did it to allow Joseph to be the caretaker and to allow Herod to go to the lowest point of his utterly grotesque sinfulness and perverse rebellion against God shows the immanence of God in history “working all things after the counsel of his own will” [Ephesians 1:11].. The greatest crime here was not the actual slaughter of infants, a crime of inestimable evil in itself, but the attempt to maintain his power over one that was actually prophesied in Scripture as both ruler and shepherd over Israel. Herod’s actions show that he is willing to fight against God Himself and to kill the very Messiah in order to maintain the ascendency of his house.

Our passage closes with the move to Egypt where they would be safe until the death of Herod. Then they would leave Egypt to return to Israel, and even then they had to settle in a place apart from the authority of the son of Herod. Abram went to Egypt to escape a famine [Genesis 12:10} and, after God’s infliction of plagues n Pharaoh, Abram left with great wealth. Joseph was sold into slavery and ended up in Egypt, where he rose to a place of great authority and wealth. His brothers came to Egypt to escape a famine and moved there. Their descendents left after God inflicted a series of ten plagues on the Egyptian and the house of Pharaoh with great wealth. Now Jesus move to Egypt and his eventual return to Israel to fulfill his gospel labors is seen as a significant conformity to that pattern: “Out of Egypt I called my Son.” The flight to Egypt was a picture of the humiliation to which Christ had committed himself in his humiliation, but like Abraham, Joseph, and the Israelites he would emerge with great wealth, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to me” [Ephesians 4:8] quoting Psalm 68:18, a Psalm of God’s triumph over his enemies for the sake of his people. That Psalm gives as an example of the complete victory of Christ a scenario in which “Nobles shall come from Egypt; Cush shall hasten to stretch out her hands to God.”

Sincerity and Deceit

The Magi grasping for all the information they can find in order to pay homage to, or worship, the new-born king. This is the condition of mind and heart that the worthiness of Jesus deserves. If we see what is truly at stake in the coming of Christ as a man, thus making the real birth of Jesus necessary, to be the last Adam, to be made  like his brethren in all things in order effectively to be the mediator between God and man, we will understand the “Neither is there salvation in any other.”

Herod seeking earnestly for information that he might use it to kill him and maintain his line of dominance. Herod shows how radical the principle of rebellion is in each of us. His sinful and aggressive effort to snuff out this baby arises from principles that are present in all of our hearts. He simply had greater opportunity for nursing and bringing to maturity the God-hatred that drives all the sons of Adam. We must say “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Jesus ministry was characterized by those that sought him truly, in humble faith, [Matthew 8:5-13; 15:21-28] and by those that plotted to kill him.[21:43-46; 26:3-5; 26:59]. What made the difference, if at bottom we all are like Herod; Look at Jesus’ words in 11:25-30.

Spiritual Lessons

Compare the Homage of one to the hostility of the other

Except a man is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God – The Magi saw it

The Heart of flesh is enmity against God – Herod demonstrates what is naturally in all our hearts

Consider the use of divine revelation

Some seek to use the Bible to contradict the ways of God: Satan did this in the temptations of Jesus. Flippant and self-serving quotation of Scripture will never yield a saving knowledge of God. We must not use the Bible as a justification for living in contradiction to its real message.

To show oneself knowledgeable of deep issues: One may know the cognitive part of Scripture and discuss the deep doctrines of justification, the trinity, the duality of natures in Christ, original sin, divine providence and human freedom and even delight in it as a mental exercise, but still not grasp the true beauty of holiness, and divine righteousness intrinsic to God’s character and central to gospel truth. If we are destitute of that, all of our knowledge and ability of critical thinking is vain [1 Corinthians 13:2]

For transformation to the divine image – This is the true purpose of knowledge of divine revelation. [Romans 12:1, 2; Philippians 3:12-16]

The Wise contrivance of providence superior to all human machination

The direct action of God in saving the child Jesus is no more directly controlled by God than any other event.

We are given special insight, however, into Providence in those particular events that more directly concern the Gospel [cf. Phil 1]

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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