The Visit by the Magi in Matthew 2:1-12

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This is what I presented as a Sunday School lesson to a small group of adults this morning.  It is a modified version of a paper I did for my seminary class in Matthew that I took a while back.  Hopefully others will find it interesting and inspiring.

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Introduction

There are a lot of details in the Christmas story. I selected the episode of the Magi’s visit from Matthew 2:1-12.  This narrative focuses on a group of Gentile astrologers from the east that came to worship Jesus after his birth.  It contrasts their knowledge of the prophecies about the Christ and their worshipful response to His divinity with that of King Herod, the chief priests, and teachers of the law, who also knew of the Christ and yet decided to oppose Him instead.

Carson (1994, 11) observes, “Matthew’s main purpose in this story is to contrast the eagerness of the Magi to worship Jesus, despite their limited knowledge, with the apathy of the Jewish leaders and the hostility of Herod’s court – all of whom had the Scriptures to inform them.”  Blomberg (1992, 61)  agrees, stating, “Despite their pagan background and powerful influence in the Babylonian or Persian courts, the Magi recognize and worship the Christ child for who he is.  Despite his role as legally installed ruler of Israel and his professed conversion to Judaism, Herod rejects the newborn king and plots to destroy him.”

Book (What does it say?)

1) Read Matthew 2:1-12. Who are the main characters?  What do each of them think of Jesus?  How many kings are mentioned in this story?

2) Key themes:

Key biblical themes I see in this episode include Jesus’ fulfillment of the history, ethics, and prophecies spoken by the Lord through the prophets as written in the Hebrew Scriptures (2:5-6); God’s sovereign control over His creation (2:2, 9); God’s desire to include the Gentiles in His redemptive plan (the Magi); the increasing opposition of the Jewish establishment (2:7-8); the Kingdom of God (2:11); and the majesty of Jesus who is worthy of worship (2:2, 10-11).

As Matthew’s gospel progresses, we continue to see most of these same major themes.  Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy is well placed throughout (2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 27:9).  In addition to the Magi who are highlighted in this episode, God’s desire to include the Gentiles in His redemptive plan is well-represented throughout the gospel: there are several Gentile women found in the genealogy (1:3, 5, 6); Jesus heals a centurion’s servant (8:5-13), delivers a Canaanite woman’s daughter from demon-possession (15:22-28), and issues the Great Commission to take the gospel of the kingdom to all nations (28:19).  God’s sovereign control over His creation is harder to find, but is clearly seen when Jesus calms the storm in 8:26, at His crucifixion in 27:51, and at the resurrection in 28:2. The themes of increasing opposition of the Jewish establishment, the Kingdom of God, and the divinity of Jesus are prevalent throughout.

3) Literary context:

Before we present details in this text, it is imperative that we put the story in its proper literary context to show how it fits in with what comes before and after. Carson (1994, 6) mentions that overall, Matthew’s prologue (1:1-2:23) “introduces such themes as the son of David, the fulfillment of prophecy, the supernatural origin of Jesus the Messiah, and the Father’s sovereign protection of his Son in order to bring him to Nazareth and accomplish the divine plan of salvation from sin.”

After the lengthy genealogy (1:1-17), there is the story of Mary and Joseph (1:18-25), who were chosen by God to be the parents of Jesus. Matthew emphasizes that Mary’s virginal conception was in direct fulfillment of Old Testament Scripture. This story of the Magi’s visit in 2:1-12 takes place one to two years later, if one compares verses 7 and 16 (Blomberg 1992, 61).

Verses 1-12 comprise the first of four sections in chapter 2, focusing on Jesus’ fulfillment of Scripture; the others are found in verses 13-15, 16-18, and 19-23. This chapter can also be seen as a “drama in two acts” (vv. 1-12 and vv. 13-23), contrasting the Magi’s faithfulness with the faithlessness of Herod (Turner 2008, 76).  In addition, there are portions in this and following passages that bring to mind the story of Pharaoh killing the Jewish baby boys in Egypt in Exodus 1:22, which would make Pharaoh a type of Herod and Moses a type of Christ (Turner 2008, 78).

This story of the Magi sets the stage well for what is to follow. In the rest of the chapter, we find that another angel of the Lord leads Mary and Joseph to escape into Egypt, again fulfilling prophecy. This also demonstrates God’s protection of His Son from Herod and others in the religious establishment who violently opposed Him.  They then return to Nazareth.

4) Historical/social/cultural setting:

This episode occurred during the reign of Herod the Great, most likely between 7 and 4 B.C. (Turner 2008, 78). These critical events come after the long four-century intertestamental period where nothing of significance was recorded.  Israel was under Roman rule at this time.

Geographically, Bethlehem was just a short five miles to the south of Jerusalem. Turner (2008, 78) points out, “Readers of Matthew who were familiar with the Bible would recognize Bethlehem as David’s city and connect it with Matthew’s earlier stress on David (Matt. 1:1, 6, 17, 20). Luke 2:4, 11 explicitly stresses Bethlehem as the city of David (cf. John 7:42).”  Additionally, “The double place name Bethlehem Ephrathah reflects a tribal distinction within the Bethlehem community and also reinforces the tie to David’s family” (Walton, et al 2000, 784.)  It is also quite interesting to discover that “Christ, who is the Bread of Life, was cradled in a town whose name means ‘house of bread’” (Youngblood 1995, 182).

Herod the Great was half-Jewish, and came to power in Israel in 37 B.C. He had a reputation as a great builder and wise diplomat.  As he grew older, though, he became extremely paranoid concerning perceived threats against his position.  He even had family members put to death (Blomberg 1992, 62).  His reign was characterized by violence, lasting for 34 years.  Herod was seen by the Romans as a successful ruler (Bromiley 1988, vol. 2, 693-4).

There were other antagonists in this story. In verse 3, Matthew, using a bit of hyperbole, described the individuals who were disturbed along with Herod as “all Jerusalem”. This most likely refers to the religious leaders in Israel who “dominated the city, many of whom were also personally installed by Herod” (Blomberg 1992, 63).  Keener (1993, 49) clarifies: “The chief priests belonged mainly to the wealthy aristocracy of Sadducees; ‘scribes’ in the narrow sense in which the term is used here applies to experts in the Jewish law, most of whom were also teachers of the law.” Carson (1994, 5) observes, “Matthew also often links the Sadducees together with the Pharisees, not because the views of these two groups were similar, but because they were united in their opposition to Jesus.”  Most readers of the gospels know that the Jewish religious officials and teachers of the law in Jesus’ time had a reputation for being too political, corrupt, and were not truly living up to the full intent of the Law and Prophets.

The Magi spoken of here “were pagan astrologers whose divinatory skills were widely respected in the Greco-Roman world . . . everyone agreed that the best astrologers lived in the East” (Keener 1993, 48). There is no indication in the text that there were three of them in number, despite what the traditional Christmas carol has taught us.  There were in fact three gifts given to Jesus, but Matthew does not specify that there was one-to-one correspondence between givers and gifts.  Blomberg (1992, 62) states that they were not kings, but wise men, possibly priests, who “combined astronomical observation with astrological speculation.” In addition, Turner (2008, 79) informs us that they were probably “prominent priestly professionals who studied the stars and discerned the signs of the times. They may have come from Arabia, Babylon, or Persia.” The gifts the Magi presented to Jesus to honor Him as King were “typically associated with royalty.” Gold was a valuable precious metal, and frankincense and myrrh were fragrant perfumes that were also appropriate as expensive gifts (Blomberg 1992, 65-6).

5) Interpretive questions/problems:

One of the common interpretative questions is concerning the nature of the star, whether or not it could have been a scientifically-proven astronomical phenomenon, a miracle, or both. Either way, Matthew clearly saw this event as a miracle (Turner 2008, 80). Blomberg (1992, 62) observes that a new star frequently indicated “the birth of a significant person in the land over which the star shone.”  He adds that a variety of efforts to pair the divine star with several historical astronomical incidents such as a comet or alignment of planets especially for the purpose of dating the event are interesting but not worth much (1992, 65).  Blomberg (1992, 66) also suggests that the appearance of the star is in fulfillment of Messianic prophecy in Numbers 24:17, “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.”

Others disagree with Blomberg, citing that the star of Bethlehem may have been a comet, a nova, or conjunction of Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn in the constellation Pisces. The difficulty in interpreting how the star could have gone before the Magi in Mt. 2:9 can possibly be answered by the following: “As they traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem the star was ahead of them to the south. As they came near to Bethlehem the star was low enough in the sky to appear to touch down over the roof of the house they were seeking” (Bromiley 1988, vol. 1, 344).  God’s leading the Magi by a star calls to mind how God led Israel by “fire and cloud” (Keener 1993, 49).

Another critical interpretative question would be in regards to Matthew’s use of the Hebrew Scriptures in 2:6. This is the second of his fulfillment passages, the first being found in Mt. 1:22-23, regarding the virgin conception of the Messiah. This verse is an apparent direct prediction of Micah 5:2 (combined with 2 Sam 5:2).  It stands apart from the other fulfillment formula verses found throughout Matthew, as the Greek word, pleroo (fulfill), does not appear here, as it does in ten occasions out of the fifty formal Hebrew Scripture quotations Matthew uses (Turner 2008, 17-18).  However, he does clearly indicate in verse 5 that the quote he is about to provide originates from Hebrew Scriptures, “for this is what the prophet has written.”  Blomberg (1992, 64) adds, “Here is as close to a straightforward prediction-fulfillment scheme as is found anywhere in Matthew.  The context of the passage in Micah seems clearly messianic and was regularly so taken by pre-Christian Jews.”

Turner (2008, 83-4) points out that the text Matthew uses from Micah 5:2 differs slightly from the Masoretic Text (MT) or Septuagint (LXX) translations in use at the time. He observes: “The key difference between Matthew and MT/LXX is his addition of the word oudamos, by no means) to the second line of the quote.  Whereas MT and LXX make a simple assertion to the effect that Bethlehem is insignificant among the clans of Judah, Matthew’s addition asserts the contrary: ‘You by no means are least among the rulers of Judah.’”  Furthermore, he explains the importance of this: “One could interpretively translate the MT as follows: ‘Even though you are insignificant among the clans of Judah, nevertheless from you one will go forth for me to be ruler in Israel.’  Micah foresees that the Messiah will rise from a geographically insignificant town . . . the birth of Jesus has transformed the significance of Bethlehem.”

When comparing Micah 5:2 with Mt. 2:6, one can also notice that Matthew left off an important part of the prophet’s message. Matthew leaves out “whose origins are from of old, from ancient times”, replacing it with a phrase from 2 Sam 5:2, “who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.”  McComiskey, in his commentary on Micah, enlightens us with this statement: “The terms ‘old’ and ‘ancient times’ may denote ‘great antiquity’ as well as ‘eternity’ in the strictest sense . . . and its application to a future ruler – one yet to appear on the scene of Israel’s history – is strong evidence that Micah expected a supernatural figure (cf. Isa. 9:6; cf. also Isa. 24:23; Mic. 4:7).  Only in Christ does this prophecy find fulfillment” (McComiskey 1994, 1475).  Much of the differences in wording can be accounted for by understanding that Matthew “made the quotations his own in his portrayal of Jesus as the Messiah” (Bromiley 1988, vol. 3, 284).

6) Key theological implications:

There are several essential theological implications in this story. The first would be the obvious contrast between the Magi, who were Gentile believers, and the Jewish establishment, who were portrayed as unbelievers. The positive focus on the Magi highlights a key element of the Abrahamic covenant from Genesis 17:4 and 22:18, where Yahweh promises to make Abraham a father of many nations, implying many Gentiles. Overall, Matthew’s gospel paints a clear picture of growing opposition from Jewish leaders which leads to an increasing openness to and anticipation of the spread of the Kingdom of God through the Spirit-led church to all nations.  Jesus thus brings the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant to the world (Blomberg 1992, 26).

A second one is that of the absolute sovereignty of God. He supernaturally orchestrated numerous prophecies spoken centuries before to line up with astronomical phenomena and believing astrologers at just the right time and place to fulfill His plans to present Jesus His Son and our Messiah and King into the world.  This story illustrates many of God’s perfect attributes: His mighty power, His will that cannot be resisted, His wisdom, His mercy and compassion.  His Word is completely trustworthy and He is always faithful to bring His good plans to completion.

A third implication in this account is of the demonstration of the divinity of Jesus Christ.  The Magi certainly recognized it starting in verses 1-2; they were the first to acknowledge that the God of the universe had used His own creation to proclaim His only Son’s birth. This star continued to lead them straight to Him in verse 9, reminiscent of the fire and smoke that led the Israelites through the wilderness.  In verse 11 they humbled themselves and worshipped Jesus, again pointing to His deity.  Matthew also clearly points out that this child’s birthplace fulfilled Hebrew prophecy of the Messiah (2:5-6).  Jesus truly was “Immanuel . . . God with us” (1:23).

A final implication from this passage would be the focus of the humanity of Jesus Christ.  This story illustrates well His humble beginnings.  Even though He was born “King of the Jews” (1:2), He was only treated as such by a select few.  Matthew’s lengthy genealogy in chapter one emphasizes his physical connection to the human race.  And, as Paul eloquently mentions in Phil. 2:5-8, Jesus the Son willingly laid aside His divine nature, became human from conception, and took on the essence of man.  In so doing, He was fully qualified to pay the penalty for our sins.

Bibliography

Blomberg, Craig L., The New American Commentary: Matthew.  Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 1992.

Bromiley, Geoffrey W., ed. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (4 vols.). Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1988.

Carson, D.A., Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary (vol. 2). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.

Henry, Matthew, Matthew Henry’s Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961.

Keener, Craig S., The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove: IVP, 1993.

McComiskey, Thomas E., Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary (vol. 1). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.

Turner, David L. Matthew: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.

Walton, John H., Matthews, Victor H., and Chavalas, Mark W., The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. Downers Grove: IVP, 2000.

Youngblood, Ronald F., ed., Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995.

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