1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him."

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written:

6" 'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'"

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him."

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him." 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son."

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 "A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more."

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child's life are dead."

21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene."

COMMENTS

General:

  • The irony of this passage is that outsiders -- foreigners (the Magi) -- recognize the kingship of Jesus, while his own people do not. In fact Herod, King of the Jews, is threatened by Jesus. This is a major theme in Matthew -- that outsiders to the covenant are not only included in God's plan, but often get the "big picture" before the insiders do!
  • Commonly quoted around Christmas time: "Wise men seek him still."
  • Of course Herod was right to feel threatened: no one could serve two kings (or two masters, as Jesus put it). For any government to demand people's supreme allegiance is wrong, for this belongs to God alone.
  • Warned in a dream, Joseph takes his family to Egypt. The following scene (vv.16-18) has been called "the Slaughter of the Innocents." Given Bethlehem's likely population, the number of infant boys killed may have been two dozen.
  • God speaks to Joseph in dreams, as he did to the prophets of the O.T. (Numbers 12:6). However, there is no passage assuring Christians that God speaks to us in our dreams. We must be careful not to interpret the projections of our own minds as the counsel of God, otherwise we will be in the same situation as the false prophets of Jeremiah 23.
  • Jesus was in grave danger.
    • Herod was so paranoid about the security of his rule that he killed a couple of his sons, as well as a beloved wife. Given the chance, he would have gladly killed Jesus.
    • It was not just Herod who was behind the plot to kill him, but Satan himself. For an interesting Bible study, trace Jesus' ancestry (using the genealogy of chapter 1 if you like, or that of Luke 3), and see how many times one of Jesus' forefathers nearly died before producing the ancestor of Christ.
    • At this point, God protects his Son from death, but not from eventual suffering and execution. In the same way, God looks out for us, for our good, but that doesn't mean he will exempt us from suffering. The NIV version of the "Prayer of Jabez" is not a prayer we can demand to be answered. For one, the translation may be wrong; see other versions, in which Jabez asks that he be spared from evil, or that he himself not bring harm to others, or something to that effect. We will have much more to say about this in the commentary on chapter 6.
  • By the end of the chapter, Jesus is in Galilee, or the upper portion of first century Israel (at that time, in the Roman province of Syria). This fulfills a prophecy of Isaiah 9:1-2:
    • "Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honour Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.
    • This prophecy is in fact quoted by Matthew in 4:16.
    • His "public ministry" will not begin until about 28 AD (33 years later). God needed Jesus to learn responsibility as eldest son, especially after the presumable death of Joseph, who is not mentioned as living after Jesus is 12 years old (Luke 2:48).
  • Notice how little space has been given to Jesus' birth and childhood.
    • In this respect, the gospels are not like modern biographies, which normally spend a good deal of time dwelling on the person's birth and upbringing. Rather, this is ancient biography.
    • When we begin chapter 3, Jesus is an adult.
    • This is typical of the Bible, which tells us what we need to hear, not what we would like to hear!

Advanced:

  • The Magi (v.1) are thought by most to be Zoroastrian astrologer-priests. If so, they probably began their journey in Persia (roughly modern Iran). If they are from an area nearer Israel, it would be Arabia. Either way, this was a long journey. In Ezra 7:8-9, to illustrate, Ezra came from Babylon (modern Iraq), taking four months to arrive!
  • The Magi learn of the birth of Jesus, apparently, after he has been born. That is, the text reads as though the star shows that he has now entered the world. It is not a guiding star, taking them to the (future) birth location. This contradicts the traditional story.
  • Since it would likely have taken the Magi a few months to arrive, Jesus is no longer a newborn when they do. He may even have been around a year old, perhaps older. That would explain why Herod would want to kill all the males up to two years of age (v.16). At any rate, the traditional account is wrong on several counts:
    • The shepherds were not the Magi, as in some depictions.
    • The Magi's and the shepherds' visits did not overlap.
    • There were not three wise men mentioned in the Bible, only three different gifts. The number is unspecified.
    • The Magi are nowhere said to be "kings," though they did come from the Orient (the East).
  • The "star" may be a phenomenological description -- that is, a way of describing what looked like a star: planet or planets, comet, or some other celestial happening. Astronomical analysis does not necessarily help us, and I would urge us not to put too much stock in any "scientific" explanation, since there are too many variables and too little evidence.
  • This Herod is Herod the Great (v.3). There were several other Herods in the NT. Herod the Great died in 4 BC -- which is why many scholars place the birth of Jesus at 6 BC. His actual tomb was discovered in 2007.
  • Bethlehem (v.5) is the southern Bethlehem (in Judah), not the northern one (in Zebulun -- see Joshua 19:15, Judges 12:8). The meaning of Bethlehem is "house of bread," or bakery.
  • When the Magi reached him, Jesus' family was in a house (v.11). What does this mean?
    • Had they moved on from an inferior location?
    • Was the katáluma (see Luke's account) an inn, or an upper room (or guest room)? Both are valid translations.
    • Had the family decided to stay in Bethlehem and not return to Nazareth?
  • Hosea "prophesied" about Jesus. Yet Hosea 11:1 does not seem to be directly Messianic, so what is going on? God's "son" in Hosea is unfaithful Israel. Israel was brought out of Egypt to safety. Jesus, God's faithful son, was taken to Egypt for safety! There are many parallels between Jesus and Israel, each of whom are God's "sons." Mark develops this theme extensively, and Matthew, who seems to have used Mark's gospel as a source for his own, takes over the theme. Seen this way, the citation of Hosea does not seem so unreasonable. Keep in mind that many things in Jesus' life recapitulate the experience of Israel (the attempt to kill the baby boys, the testing in the desert, and much more).
  • The quote is from Jeremiah 31:15, the famous "new covenant" passage.
    • Jeremiah brings comfort at a time when most Israelites see nothing but doom.
    • The reference to Rachel requires some explanation. She is the wife of Jacob, "father" of the 12 tribes. Thus the tribes, although technically descended from Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah, can be considered as the children of Rachel. (Similarly, in Jeremiah 31:20, we read of Ephraim, one of Jacob's sons. And yet Ephraim also represents (northern) Israel in the O.T.) Jesus comes to earth amidst a time when Israel is in great distress, even as his own life is in danger. In this respect he is a second Moses. (The writer of Hebrews draws the same parallel in Hebrews 3.)
  • Archelaus (v.22) is one of Herod's four sons, among whom the kingdom was divided at his death.
  • About the "Nazarene" (v.21): This is not a direct scripture quotation, and so several explanations have been offered as to its origin and meaning. The most likely explanation I believe lies in the Messianic prophecy Isaiah 11:1ff. Here the Netser, Hebrew for root or shoot, means a descendant of Jesse (David's father) through whom blessing will come to Israel and the world.
  • In Luke 2:4 Joseph left Nazareth for Bethlehem because of the Census. In Matthew, he is already there, and it seems that his relocation to Nazareth after Egypt was his first visit there. There may be ways to harmonize the texts, but these are strained. It may be best to let them stand as they are. For more on this, read the excellent book by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.

Thought questions:

  • Is there room in your heart to serve Jesus and Herod? Can anyone serve two kings? Who is he to whom you give your ultimate allegiance, Christ or self?
  • The wise men devoted time, energy, and expense to worship Christ. Can we offer any less?