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?