Advent Study: Birth of the Messiah (Matthew 2)


This past week our study took us into Matthew 2 and most of the way through Luke 1. This post will cover Matthew, and I’ll have a separate one for Luke in a few days.

The Visit of the Magi – Matthew 2:1-12

While Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth is the less familiar of the two in the Gospels, we finally come to some familiar territory with the arrival of Magi or Wisemen from the East. That being said it’s worth pausing a moment to hear what the text actually says.

Notice that the Magi arrive not on Christmas Eve, but sometime afterward. Matthew doesn’t tell us precisely when, but we can assume it took them a while to travel from Persia to Jerusalem (in the traditional Church calendar the Magi turn up 12 days after Christmas on Epiphany). Also note that the Magi are not called kings, nor are we told how many came (it’s the gifts that came in three).

So, who are these foreigners who turn up to bow before the newborn King of the Jews? The Magi were priests of the Zoroastrian religion of Persia. By the time of Jesus this ancient religion was a blend of monotheism and dualism, with a supreme God called Ahura Mazda opposed by an evil deity called Angra Mainyu. Astrology was a major part of their religion, which is why we find them searching the sky for signs.

More generally, the Magi represent the non-Jewish nations of the world (Gentiles). In the last post I highlighted the fact that God’s purpose in calling Abraham and forming the nation of Israel from his family was to bless all nations.  A number of Israel’s prophets looked forward to the day when this would become a reality (for example, Psalm 72:10-11 and  Isaiah 60:1-6). The Magi arrive to show the fulfillment of this promise, and to foreshadow the day when Jesus will send his Jewish followers to spread the blessings of his Kingdom to all nations (Matthew 28).

Isaiah 60 also explains the two of the three gifts brought by the Magi: “They shall bring gold and frankincense.” The third gift, myrrh, is more mysterious. It doesn’t correspond to any prophecies. It has usually be interpreted as foreshadowing Jesus death, as myrrh was often used for embalming bodies for burial.

To Egypt and Back – Matthew 2:13-23

Though the Magi are not described as kings by Matthew, there are two other Kings in the story of Jesus’ birth. The first is Jesus himself. The Messiah is the long promised king of David’s line, the true King of Israel and King of all Nations. The other king is also easy to spot, King Herod. This is Herod the Great, who was the Roman sponsored king of Judea from 40BC to 4BC.  Jesus was born right at the end of Herod’s reign (which shows us that the monk who developed the Gregorian calendar made some errors when figuring out what year should be 1 AD).

Herod was an Idumean (Edomite descendant of the patriarch Jacob’s brother Esau) whose father was prime minister to the last Maccabean king of Judea. Herod became king in the chaotic period when Rome was completing its conquest of what is now Turkey and Syria. Herod won the support of the Roman Senate to become king and then kept that support when Caesar Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, came to power. The Romans allowed Herod to rule because he was ruthless in maintaining order in Judea and ensured a steady flow of taxes and tribute. On the other hand, much of the the Jewish population despised Herod for his cruelty and for the fact that he was a foreigner. To try to win the support of the kingdom he began a massive rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem that tripled the size of the Temple Mount to what it is now.

In his later years Herod became increasingly paranoid and executed hundreds of people, including many members of the royal family. The Jewish historian Joseph tells the story of how a dying Herod ordered that a large number of distinguished citizens would be rounded up and killed upon his death so that the event would an occasion of national mourning (fortunately his successor ignored the order). So, while there is no other account of the massacre of infant boys in the area around Bethlehem described in Matthew 2, it is in keeping with Herod’s character and actions.

However, Matthew’s main reason for including this story is to highlight two key themes in his Gospel. The first is to draw parallels between Moses and Jesus. By telling the story of Herod and Jesus’ flight into Egypt the way he does, Matthew is encouraging us to see Herod as Pharaoh and Jesus as the baby Moses. Jesus’ journey to Egypt and back also parallels the journey of the people of Israel into Egypt at the time of Joseph followed by the Exodus and return to the Promised land under Moses and Joshua.

The second theme is that of the two kingdoms. Matthew sees the universe as divided into two realms: the Kingdom of the World (in its present fallen state) ruled by the Satan, and the Kingdom of Heaven (or Kingdom of God) ruled by Jesus Christ. These two kingdoms are at war, and Jesus as the world’s true king is in danger from the moment of his birth. The irony is that the victory of the Kingdom of Heaven will come through Jesus’ death on the cross – but that death must come at the right time and the right circumstances. So until then Jesus is kept safe.

Joseph and Our Role in God’s Purpose

Now all of this brings us back to Joseph and his role in Jesus’ birth. On the one hand the story Matthew tells assures us that God’s plan and purpose will succeed. Though Jesus is in danger from the moment of his conception (when Mary could have been stoned as an adulterer), God’s hand was at work to ensure his Son was born and would live to fulfill his destiny as Saviour of the world. There was no doubt as to the outcome.

On the other hand, God’s purpose depends on the actions of human beings. Most critically we see this in Mary who wholeheartedly accepts God’s choice of her to be the mother of the Messiah. But here in Matthew we also see the critical role played by Joseph. On three occasions an angel from God speaks to Joseph in a dream and in all three occasions Joseph responds with obedience. He accepts the news that Mary’s child is from the Holy Spirit and provides protection and legitimacy to Mary and Jesus. He takes the warning about Herod seriously and immediately takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt where they will be safe. Finally, he believes the news that it is safe for the family to return to Israel so that Jesus take take his rightful place among his people, and grow up in Galilee where he will carry out his mission.

All of these things depend on Joseph. And there we have the paradox. God’s good plan and purpose cannot be held back or defeated. God’s will shall be done. Yet, mysteriously God chooses to carry out his will through weak, fallible human beings who have the ability to reject God’s purpose for them. God is sovereign, yet all the same our choices matter. Question: Meditate on the role of Joseph in the story of Jesus’ birth. What might this say about your role in God’s good plan and purpose for the world, and for your community? What role might God calling you to take? What might God be calling on you to do that no one else can?

Advent Study: Birth of the Messiah (Matthew 1)


We begin our look at what the New Testament says about the birth and incarnation of Jesus with the ‘other’ Christmas story. I say other, because the birth story that is traditionally read on Christmas is the one found in the Gospel of Luke. The result is that when we think of Jesus’ birth, that’s the story we usually of – Gabriel’s message to Mary, the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the inn and stable, the angels and shepherds. But though there are a number of essential points in common between the two Gospels (something we’ll look at in week 3), Matthew’s story, as told in the first two chapters of the Gospel, is quite distinct  from the one told in Luke.

Read Matthew 1:1-25. What parts of the familiar Christmas story are there? What is missing? Are there details that aren’t in Luke’s story?

A Brief Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew

  • Matthew was the favourite gospel of the early church who found it most useful for teaching new Christians. This is why it is placed first.
  • Matthew is a gospel written by a Jewish Christian to a Jewish audience.
    • Jesus is the Messiah, the long-promised King of from the house of David.
    • Matthew also presents Jesus as the promised Prophet like Moses to whom Israel must listen.
  • The Gospel was probably completed between 70 and 80AD by Jewish members of the Jerusalem Church who fled to Galilee or Syria after the destruction of the city and Temple by the Romans.
  • Matthew, together with Mark and Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels (lit. to be read together) All three follow the same basic narrative, and include a large number of stories and teaching that are identical or quite similar.

The Genealogy of Jesus the Messiah (Matthew 1:1-17)

If you’re like most people, the various genealogies and name lists in the Bible probably make your eyes glaze over. However, genealogies were very important to ancient cultures because they help tell the big story of a people. The genealogy that opens the Gospel of Matthew is no different. For the reader who knows the stories behind names listed, the genealogy shows who Jesus fits into the story of the people of Israel and God’s great plan of redemption that begins with the first person in the list: Abraham.

Read Genesis 12:1-9. This is one of the most important passages in the Old Testament. What does the call of Abraham (here called by his original name of Abram) say about God’s purpose of calling and creating a special people who would become known as Israel? (Hint: Focus on vs.1-3)

The other key name on the list is David. Like his ancestor Abraham, God made a special promise or contract with David called a covenant. This covenant expressed the role of the King for the people of Israel and how the King would help Israel fulfill its mission to be God’s chosen people.

Read Psalm 89:18-37 and Psalm 72. What do these Psalms say about God’s promise to David, and the special role Israel’s King was to play in the world?

Aside from these two big names, notice one other thing about Jesus’ family tree here in Matthew. Unlike most other genealogies from the ancient world it includes a number of women. Each of these women has her own story, and each story contains some unexpected turns and more than a little scandal.

Read the stories of Tamar (Genesis  38); Rahab (Joshua 6); Ruth (Book of Ruth); and Bathsheba (2 Samuel: 11&12). If you’re pressed for time just read Tamar’s story. What is Matthew doing by highlighting these stories of unorthodox women, and unusual circumstances around the bith of children? What might he be saying about Jesus’ birth?

The Birth of Jesus the Messiah (Matthew 1:18-25)

A moment ago I asked you to think about the distinctions between Matthew’s story and the one found in Luke. Now I’ll list the big ones that always stand out for me: The story is entirely from Joseph’s perspective (we hear nothing from Mary); there is no Roman census or journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem; there is no stable and no angels or shepherds. All we have is Joseph’s dream, his response, and a single sentence about Jesus’ birth. While there are the Magi or Wisemen (who are only in Matthew), they don’t appear until after Jesus is born in chapter 2.

Joseph and a Different Kind of Righteousness

Yet for all it’s brevity, there is a simple power to Matthew’s birth story. Joseph, though not Jesus’ biological father, plays an essential role in protecting Mary and Jesus and embodies the distinct kind of righteousness that Jesus will preach throughout his ministry: “Mary’s husband Joseph was a righteous man…” (Matthew 1:19)

Righteousness in the Biblical sense means being in right relationship with God and with other people. This means it covers what we would call justice. Among many of the religious leaders around the time of Jesus, the focus was on narrowly keeping the requirements of God’s Law as given to Moses and particularly on avoiding sin and impurity. Yet there was a broader definition that went back to the prophets of Israel: “For I desire mercy and love, not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings;” (Hosea 6:6) “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

Joseph embodies this merciful, loving form of justice in how he responds to the news of Mary’s unexpected pregnancy. By custom he could have had Mary stoned to death for adultery, or at least shamed in front of the whole village – instead he chooses mercy: “Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

He goes further than this when he receives a dream assuring him that Mary has not committed adultery, but rather “the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:20) Though this choice will bring him shame and likely cost him his reputation as a righteous man (by marrying a woman that many will believe cheated on him), he trusts God and does what is right in God’s eyes. In doing so he ensures Mary’s well-being, ensures Jesus has a human father, and  brings Jesus into the line of King David by claiming him as his own son.

Question: So often today the only kind of righteous we see is self-righteousness.What do you think about what I’ve just said about the righteousness of Joseph and the full meaning of righteousness in the Bible? Is this a kind of righteousness that is appealing to you, something to strive for?

The Name of Jesus

“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:22) Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Yehoshua or Joshua, and means ‘the LORD saves.’ Jesus or Joshua was a popular name for Jewish boys, that looked back to the Joshua who succeeded Moses and led Israel into the promised land. With this in mind we see that Matthew is telling us that Jesus saves us from from more than just the particular sins of individuals. Saviour had the meaning of ‘Liberator’ at that time, and we should understand Jesus as the one who rescues people from the slavery of sin and brings them into the promised land of God’s Kingdom.

The Prophecy of Isaiah and the Virgin Birth

Matthew gives Jesus another important name that comes from the book of Isaiah. “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14) The original context of this prophecy was a King of Judah who was afraid that his nation would be wiped out by their neighbours. The child was a sign that God ‘was with with his people’ to rescue them. But in light of what Matthew has told us about Jesus’ unique conception (unlike any that appears elsewhere in the Bible) Emmanuel takes on a deeper meaning. Jesus is “God with us” in a way the first child covered by the prophecy was not, God truly present in a human being. Matthew doesn’t come out and say this directly, but it will become apparent with all that Jesus says, does and experiences in his life and ministry.

Two quick notes before we finish this chapter. Before the Gospel of Matthew, no one understood Isaiah 7:14 as being about the Messiah. While there are many passages in the Old Testament and especially in the book of Isaiah that were seen as pointing to the Messiah, this isn’t one of them. No one was expecting a virgin birth. This means Matthew didn’t make up the virgin birth to fit prophecy – he went looking for a prophecy that would explain and make sense of the virgin birth. He found it here in Isaiah 7:14.

The other thing to observe is the last two verses of the chapter: “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” (Matthew 1:24-25) While the belief that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus’ birth developed quite early, it is not solidly based on Scripture. A plain reading of vs. 25 would suggest that Mary and Joseph had normal marital relations after Jesus’ birth, which would make Jesus the oldest in the family and his siblings (his brothers James, Joseph, Jude and Simon, and sisters who are not named) the children of Joseph and Mary. In other words, Jesus grew up in a normal Jewish family – likely one where only his mother and father knew the unusual circumstances of his conception.


Advent Study: Birth of the Messiah (Introduction)


For the season of Advent leading into Christmas, I am doing a short 4 week Bible study looking at the birth of Jesus in the New Testament. This study will start in the obvious places (the birth stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke) but go a bit deeper in looking at the big picture we get from the whole New Testament.

Here’s the plan for the next 4 weeks:

  • Week 1: Introduction & Matthew’s Story
  • Week 2: Luke’s Story
  • Week 3: One Messiah, Two Birth Stories
  • Week 4: John, Mark and Paul

While there are 4 weeks to the study happening at the church,  I’m going to break these weeks into several smaller blog posts.

Introductory Question: How important is Christmas and the Christmas story to your faith? Are the birth stories a central part of how you understand Jesus and the Gospel, or something you only think of around Christmas?

I ask this question for a couple of reasons. The first reason is fairly straightforward: The key story in all four of the Gospels is the Cross and Resurrection , while only 2 of the 4 Gospels include the birth story. The same goes for the rest of the New Testament. While the Incarnation (the Son of God being born as an ordinary human being) is necessary for the rest of the story of Jesus to make sense, the focus of the rest of the New Testament is Jesus’ teaching, his death, resurrection and coming again. The birth stories only make up a small part of the New Testament.

On the other hand the secular celebration of Christmas  is by far the biggest holiday of the year in North America. Even for dedicated Christians, it can be hard to separate the story of Jesus birth and it’s spiritual meaning from the bright lights of the ‘Holiday Season.’ I know that even as a minister, I find it a challenge to get into the Christmas story with the same depth I do with the story of Easter.

Yet for all this, the small place the birth stories fill in the New Testament and the huge space that secular Christmas fills in our culture, the details of Jesus’ birth are extremely important to our faith. The whole story of Jesus only makes sense when we start with his birth as God born among us as a fragile human child.

The most profound illustration of this comes from one of my favourite passages in the letters of Paul – Philippians 2:5-11. This text is both a hymn of praise and a statement of faith which Paul either composed for his churches, or received from one of the Apostles before him.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Taking a cue from the Paul, both of the central faith statements of the early church (The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed) take Jesus’ birth as an essential part of our faith. Every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper at St. Andrew’s we confess that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.”

So what I want to explore is what we learn about Jesus and the big message of the Gospel when we look at the stories of his birth, and the other parts of the New Testament that speak of him as the Son of God born as a human being. Or put another way, what does it mean for us to sing, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

Next post, we’ll start to consider this by looking at the Gospel of Matthew.