SCRIPTURE: Matthew 2:1-12
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The word epiphany means appearance or manifestation, and Epiphany marks the first manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles. We celebrate Epiphany on January 6. Easter, Pentecost, and Epiphany were the important holy days for the early church. Christmas came along later.
VERSES 1-12: OVERVIEW
"Matthew's sublime story of the adoration of the Magi has often been better understood by poets and artists than by scholars, whose microscopic analysis has missed its essence" (Hare, 12). What a wonderful insight! The difference is one of attitude. The poet and artist approach scripture with wonder and affection –– with the heart. The scholar approaches scripture systematically and analytically –– with the head. Both have their place, but this story shows how Christ enriches those who bring him their hearts. The Magi came with joy in their hearts to see the Christ child, and God allowed them to see wondrous things.
Matthew includes a number of dark elements in his story:
• Joseph resolves to put Mary away quietly (1:19).
• Herod kills babies in an attempt to do away with the newborn king (2:16-18).
• Joseph and his family flee to Egypt to escape the murderous king (2:13-15).
• When Joseph and family return from Egypt, they go to Nazareth rather than Bethlehem because another violent king was ruling Judea (2:19-23).
There are a number of important parallels between the stories of Moses and Jesus, including a ruler who engaged in a mass killing of babies. "When Matthew 2 is taken as a literary whole and read against the background of Exodus 1-2, Jesus emerges as a Moses-figure.... With the various stories in chapter 2 Matthew sought to express a continuity between Moses and Jesus" (Harrington, 49).
Another Old Testament allusion has to do with the story of Balak and Balaam in Numbers 22-24.
VERSES 1-2: WHERE IS THE CHILD?
1Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod, behold, wise men (Greek: magoi) from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, 2"Where is he who is born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east, and have come to worship him."
"Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea" (v. 1a). Jesus' birth is recounted in Matthew 1:18-25. The more detailed account is found in Luke 2.
"in the days of King Herod" (v. 1b). This is Herod the Great. His sons, Herod Archelaus, Herod Philip, and Herod Antipas, will succeed their father upon his death in 4 B.C. Herod the Great was, in many ways, a truly great king. He kept the peace. He built the Temple. He was sometimes generous. However, Herod seems genuinely paranoid –– murdering rivals, real or imagined. The Massacre of the Innocents (2:16-18), modeled after Pharaoh's killing of Israelite babies (Exodus 2:1-10), is thus very much in keeping with Herod's character.
"wise men (magoi) from the East came to Jerusalem" (v. 1c). We know little about the wise men or Magi from the East, except that they were probably members of a Persian priestly caste, and were called Magi (possibly astrologers or magicians).
Most significantly, these Magi were Gentiles. Matthew will treat favorably a Gentile Roman centurion (8:5-13) and a Gentile Canaanite woman (15:21-28).
We think of the wise men as three in number because they give three gifts, but they could be any number. Storytellers named them Melchior, Caspar (or Gaspar), and Balthasar, but those names are not found in scripture but "first appear in a mosaic in a 6th-century church in Ravenna, Italy" (Encarta).
"Where is he who is born King of the Jews?" (v. 2a). These Wise Men seem clueless that such a request would set off alarm bells for Herod. This title, King of the Jews," will reappear at the end of this Gospel (27:11, 29, 37).
"For we saw his star in the east" (v. 2b). Scholars have tried to identify the star that led the wise men but have been able to develop no consensus.
"and have come to worship him" (Greek: proskunesai –– from proskuneo) (v. 2c). Matthew uses this word proskuneo thirteen times. "The word itself can indicate either homage paid to a person of authority or the special homage known as worship which we offer to a deity. Here the two meanings appear to blend or merge" (Gardner, 46-47).
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VERSES 3-6: IN BETHLEHEM OF JUDEA
3When King Herod heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he asked them where the Christ would be born. 5They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is written through the prophet,
6'You Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are in no way least among the princes of Judah:
for out of you shall come forth a governor,
who shall shepherd my people, Israel.'"
"King Herod...was troubled" (v. 3a). Why would a king fear a baby? Perhaps it is paranoia. As noted above, Herod murdered any potential rival to his throne –– even members of his own family.
"and all Jerusalem with him" (v. 3b). "All Jerusalem" would seem to be two groups. The smaller group, the power elite who owe their power to Herod (including some religious leaders) would fear losing power if Herod were replaced with another king. The larger group, the general population, would fear what Herod might do in a murderous rage.
"Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people" (v. 4). In verses 3-4, Matthew gathers together the people who will serve as Jesus' opponents through his lifetime –– all Jerusalem, the chief priests and the scribes.
"In Bethlehem of Judea" (v. 5). Bethlehem, five miles south of Jerusalem, was David's birthplace. Matthew identifies it as Bethlehem of Judea to distinguish it from Bethlehem of Galilee, located a few miles north of Nazareth. Bethlehem is a small town, a lowly place, an appropriate setting for Jesus' humble birth. However, it is also a proud town, having given the Jewish people their greatest king.
"You Bethlehem, land of Judah" (v. 6). The prophets quoted are Micah (5:2) and Samuel (2 Samuel 5:2). Matthew has a higher interest in the fulfillment of scripture than any other Gospel writer. Here he establishes not only that the prophets foretold Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, but also that the religious establishment has reason to understand what is happening and yet does nothing about it.
"are in no way least among the princes of Judah" (v. 6). Matthew makes a significant change in Micah's wording at this point. Micah spoke of Bethlehem as "one of the little clans of Judah," but Matthew changes that wording to "are by no means least among the rulers of Judah." His intent was "to show that the fulfillment of this prophecy has transformed Bethlehem from a relatively insignificant town into a city of great honor.... Discerning Jewish readers would have known the wording of the original text and would have recognized that Matthew's addition was not a mistake in quoting the Scriptures but an interpretative explanation" (Blomberg, 64).
The wise men get their first clue from nature; they see a star in the East. The information from that source, however, is incomplete. They need the scriptures to inform them more fully. They must come to Jerusalem, the center of Jewish worship, to be led by the scriptures to Bethlehem. "On the other hand, simply knowing the scripture is not enough to bring one to authentic Christian worship. The chief priests and scribes know the Bible, but they miss the Messiah" (Long, 19).
VERSES 7-8: BRING ME WORD
7Then Herod secretly called the wise men, and learned from them exactly what time the star appeared. 8He sent them to Bethlehem, and said, "Go and search diligently for the young child. When you have found him, bring me word, so that I also may come and worship him."
Herod is concerned about the exact time that the star appeared, because that information will help him to track down the baby. He decides to kill all the children in Bethlehem two years old and under (v. 16), drawing the lines broadly enough to be sure of removing the baby who threatens his throne (2:16-18).
VERSES 9-11: THEY OFFERED HIM GIFTS
9They, having heard the king, went their way; and behold, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over (oikan--the house) where the young child was. 10When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. 11They came into the house and saw the young child with Mary, his mother, and they fell down and worshiped (Greek: proseknesan –– from proskuneo) him. Opening their treasures, they offered to him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
"until it came and stood over where the young child was" (v. 9). Stars do not stop in their orbits. This is not a natural phenomenon, but a sign from God.
"they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy" (v. 10). Note the contrast between the joy of these Gentiles and the fear of Herod and Jerusalem. The people who should be ready to receive Christ with great joy are instead afraid. Those least likely to care anything about a Jewish Messiah receive him joyfully.
"they offered to him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh" (v. 11). The gifts seem odd for a baby. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh, however, speak to Jesus' future. Gold is a gift fit for a king. Frankincense is used in temple worship (Exodus 30:34) –– a gift fit for a priest. The high priest uses myrrh as an anointing oil (Exodus 30:23). It is also used to prepare bodies for burial, and Nicodemus will bring a mixture of aloe and myrrh to prepare Jesus' body for burial (John 19:39-40).
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh are not only expensive gifts, but they are also portable. It seems possible that they represent God's provision for Joseph's family when they are forced to flee to Egypt.
VERSE 12: HAVING BEEN WARNED IN A DREAM
12Being warned in a dream that they shouldn't return to Herod, they went back to their own country another way (Greek: hodos).
Try as he might, Herod cannot derail God's plan for the salvation of the world. The Herods of this world are no match for God –– or God's people. God enlightens these wise men with regard to Herod's intentions, so they avoid Herod on the way home.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Abbey, Merrill R. and Edwards, O.C., Proclamation, Epiphany, Series A (Fortress Press, 1980)
Augsburger, Myron S., The Preacher's Commentary: Matthew (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982). Formerly known as The Communicator's Commentary.
Barclay, William, Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1956)
Bergant, Dianne with Fragomeni, Richard, Preaching the New Lectionary, Year A (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2001)
Blomberg , Craig L., New American Commentary: Matthew, Vol. 22 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Boring, M. Eugene, The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV –– Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Bruner, Frederick Dale, Matthew: Volume 1, The Christbook, Matthew 1-12 (Dallas: Word, 1987)
Burgess, Joseph A. and Winn, Albert C., Proclamation 2: Epiphany, Series A (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Gardner, Richard B., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Matthew (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1990)
Hagner, Donald A., Word Biblical Commentary: Matthew 1-13, Vol. 33a (Dallas: Word, 1993)
Hamm, Dennis, Let the Scriptures Speak, Year A (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2001)
Hare, Douglas R. A., Interpretation: Matthew (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993)
Harrington, Daniel J., S.J., Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Matthew (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991)
Hedahl, Susan B., Proclamation 6: Epiphany, Series A (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995)
Hendriksen, William, and Kistemaker, Simon J., New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, Vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973)
Hoezee, Scott in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001)
Hultgren, Arland J. Lectionary Bible Studies: The Year of Matthew: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977)
Johnson, Sherman E. and Buttrick, George A., The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 7 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1951)
Long, Thomas G., Westminster Bible Companion: Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)
Morris, Leon, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1992)
Pilch, John J., The Cultural World of Jesus: Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1995)
Senior, Donald, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Matthew (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Soards, Marion; Dozeman, Thomas; McCabe, Kendall, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Year A (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993)
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
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