Matthew’s report of the birth of Jesus has the theme of seeking the Christ child either for worship or destruction, to bow before him or to work to erase him. In Matthew 25:31, looking to a distant and different time, Jesus revealed, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne,” and clearly identifies himself as “the King” (34, 40). Psalm 24: 7 views Jesus at his ascension coming into his glory with the refrain, “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. When asked “Who is the King of glory?” the answer swells, “The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle! …the Lord of hosts.” These visitors from the East recognized him as the King in the state of his humility, showing no propensity as he lay in a manger that he was mighty in battle. Spurgeon noted, “The wise men were not content with having ‘seen his star,’ they must see himself; and, seeing, they must adore.” Some, those described in the text for this day, 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, “We do not want this man to reign over us.” That said by any of us, he will say, “As for these enemies of mine, . . . bring them here and slaughter them before me” (Luke 19:14, 27).
I. 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 (Luke 2:1-5) and Matthew provides the reference to the prophecy. Ruth came with her mother-in-law Naomi to dwell in Bethlehem and in so doing 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 – He was a relentlessly ambitious power-seeker for over 42 years. He tasted power as Governor of Galilee 47-37 B. C, a position to which he was appointed at 25 years of age by his father, Antipater. Antipater had been appointed procurator of Judea by Julius Caesar. Herod, one of Antipater’s four sons, seemed ambitious for an eastern empire during the Roman civil War; his favors to Greeks won him the presidency of the Olympic Games. In 40 B.C. the Roman senate declared him “King of the Jews” upon the advice of Antony and Octavian. They knew that he would diminish the threat of the Hasmonaean family. He became de factoking in 37 B. C. 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]. He divorced a wife, Doris, and 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 of the entire Hasmonean family, including Mariamne’s brother, and eventually Mariamne herself in 29 B.C. 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. The Son of God was not sent into a safe world with a benign attitude, but into a world in which he immediately prompted the murderous jealousy of one of the most ruthless rulers of history. He does not call us to carry his cross in any greater peril than that to which he submitted himself.
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 Heavenly Father shielded him from the first but delivered him up to the second (Acts 4:27, 28).
II. 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 the first group of Gentiles came to bow before him and worship (2:2). Apparently they knew 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.
III. The Place of Divine Revelation
A. 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 been instrumental in their conclusions? Many individual instances of revelation occurred surrounding the birth of Jesus. It 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.
B. 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 (Verses 5, 6) for an objective corroboration of the non-verbal leadership of a star. We see the same pattern in verses 15, 18, 23.
C. 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, give all his might to overcome the certainty of Scripture, and to kill the very Messiah in order to maintain the ascendency of his house. What a testimony to the possibilities of human perversity!
D. 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 on 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 with great wealth after God inflicted a series of ten plagues on the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh. Now Jesus’ move to Egypt and his eventual return to Israel to fulfill his gospel labors are 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 incarnation, 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 men” (Ephesians 4:8). Paul is 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.”
IV. Sincerity and Deceit
A. The Magi grasped 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 that “Neither is there salvation in any other” (Acts 4:12).
B. Herod, too, was in earnest in his search for the new-born king but in his malevolent intent was willing to use deceit to accomplish his purpose. He sought 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.”
C. Jesus’ ministry was characterized by those that sought him truly, in humble faith, In Matthew 8:5-13 a Centurion seeks Jesus; in 15:21-28 a Canaanite woman finds him worthy of her difficult quest; also, great energy was expended by those that plotted to kill him (21:43-46; 26:3-5 – “the chief priests and elders of the people . . . plotted together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.” 26:59). What made the difference, if at bottom we all are like Herod; look at Jesus’ words in 11:25-30.
V. Spiritual Lessons
A. 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 (Romans 8:7, 8).
B. 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).
C. The Wise contrivance of providence is 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 1:12-14).