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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Jesus Is Tempted by Satan — Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan!  It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and were tending to his needs. (Matthew 4:1-11 NRSV adapted)

Of the four gospels, only John’s does not record Jesus’ testing by Satan in the form we have it here. The three synoptic gospels agree in placing the event at the very beginning of his public ministry, thus establishing its purpose: to show Jesus’ moral and spiritual qualifications to be the Messianic king, as well as to show his right—by conquest over Satan—to evict demons from their victims wherever he found them. And, as I indicated in my introduction to the Gospel of Matthew, there is a strong parallel between David’s first military exploit, defeating Goliath, who was the Philistine champion, thus making his later victories over Philistine armies a foregone conclusion, and Jesus’ “binding the Strong Man,” Satan, and then being free to plunder his house. 

But of the gospels it is Matthew above all who wishes to present Jesus as the personification of the true Israel, the “Israel of God,“ who will recapitulate the major phases of the nation Israel’s redemptive history and act in each as the perfect obedient Israel. In chapter 2, Jesus was brought out of Egypt, as Israel was brought out in the exodus. In chapter 3 Jesus was baptized, as Israel received a kind of “baptism” while passing through the Red Sea on dry ground (see St. Paul on this metaphor in 1 Cor. 10:1-5). And here in chapter 4 Jesus will undergo tests permitted by God, but carried out by Satan, just as Israel was tested with hardships in the wilderness in order to see if they would trust God and obey his word. We read that this was the purpose of the wilderness miracles, such as the manna and the clothes that would not wear out for forty years, in the summary of those years that Moses gives in Deuteronomy 8, the very passage from which Jesus chose his answer to Satan in Matt 4:4.

And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. 3 And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 8:2-3)

Notice from this passage that the testing in the wilderness had a dual purpose: (1) to enable God to know if Israel would put obedience to him above demanding that their own needs be met; and (2) that Israel might come to know from the experiences that obedience to God’s word was more important than the very food that sustained life. Actually, any one who has been a teacher knows that this is the dual purpose of all tests: both the teacher who corrects and grades and the student who responds to the test questions will learn something from it.

In the case of Jesus, who is also tested in the wilderness, God knew in advance that his prize pupil would pass the tests, just as in the case of the testing of Job by Satan. But it was necessary to allow Satan, the great Adversary of God to administer the tests. In the case of Job it was through the death of his entire family, the loss of all his possessions, and excruciating bodily pain. In the case of Jesus it was through forty days of fasting followed by three challenges to his sonship issued by Satan, which he had to counter.  And, extraordinary as it may seen to us, although Jesus was the son of God, he “learned obedience through the things that he suffered,” as we are explicitly told in Hebrews 5:

So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; … 7 During his lifetime as a human, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through the things he suffered. 9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 5:5-10)

Interpreters of Hebrews cannot be sure, if by the “things he suffered” the author of Hebrews only has his physical death in mind or the death (i.e., failure) of his mission on earth. To be sure, the gospels tell us of the agony of Gethsemane, where his prayer was “If it be your will, let this cup pass from me.“ But equally surely the gospel accounts show that Jesus’ entire life of obedience as well as his death ("being made perfect") were necessary to enable him to “become the source of eternal salvation” for us. So it is possible to interpret even the Hebrews passage as indicating how in each testing of his public ministry Jesus cried out to his Father to keep him from failing to carry out everything necessary for our eternal salvation. One of these was passing the three tests in the wilderness.  As the "Israel of God," the Servant of Yahweh of Isaiah’s prophecy, he had to be perfectly obedient in life, and as the Suffering Servant, Israel’s savior, he must die for the disobediences of others (Isaiah 53). This seems to be Matthew’s first theme in this testing of Jesus in the wilderness. 

Matthew also may have regarded his inclusion of this verbal exchange between Jesus and Satan as a refutation of the false charge against Jesus, that he expelled demons by the power of Satan himself. In Jesus’ own reply to that charge he referred to the need to “bind the Strong Man” before entering his house to plunder it. And of the three gospels that record this controversy (Mt 12:22-30, Mk 3:22-27, and Lk 11:14-23) only Matthew mentions that the amazed witnesses of Jesus’ exorcisms asked “Can this be the son of David?” (Mt 12:23), thus suggesting not only his messiah status, but also his connection to David. And just as Saul—the incumbent holder of power—was deadly jealous of the fame that came to David through his victories (“Saul has slain his thousands, but David his ten thousands”), so the chief priests and scribes (= Pharisees) were offended at the acclamation of the crowds for Jesus’ exorcisms and healings. 

But as we have suggested, this episode also serves Matthew’s second theme: Jesus as the “son of David,” the perfect counterpart to the David of the Old Testament. As David was anointed by Samuel at God’s direction, so Jesus at his baptism received the anointing of the Holy Spirit and the proclamation “This is my son, the Beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.” And as David’s first great victory, long before he was recognized and received as Israel’s true king, was over Goliath, the Philistine champion, ensuring that God would enable him to defeat the Philistines time and again in the coming years until he had utterly eliminated them, so here Jesus defeated the Goliath of all evil, the Prince of the Demonic world, and so demonstrating that demons could not resist him throughout his subsequent mission. Having “bound the Strong Man” he could now at leisure “plunder his house.” 

All the crowds were amazed and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons.”  He knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand?  If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your own exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.  Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property, without first tying up the strong man? Then indeed the house can be plundered.  (Matthew 12:24-29 NRSV)

A second Davidic association may be the various testings that David underwent in the wilderness of Judah (midbar yĕhûdâ), while Saul was hunting him down. Among these were the occasions when he could have killed Saul, but refused to lay a hand on “the Lord’s anointed.” His refusal to take violent shortcuts to the throne showed his own superior qualifications to be the Lord’s anointed king-in-waiting. Jesus too is the Lord’s anointed “king-in-waiting,” ready to be presented to the nation for their acceptance, and first he must be tested.

4:1 This testing motif is further indicated by Matthew’s slight alteration of Mark’s wording. Matthew marks the transition between the baptism/acclamation scene in the Jordan Valley and the temptation in the wilderness by using the verb ἀνάγω anagō. The agent who performed this action on Jesus was the Holy Spirit. Mark, who uses a different verb which means “drove out (into the wilderness),” may have a different emphasis here. The “out” component (ἐκ ek) of Mark’s verb ἐκβάλλω ekballō stresses removing Jesus from the scene of John’s baptism and the divine acclamation. On the other hand, the primary meaning of Matthew’s verb (“to lead up”) could simply reference the fact that the Judean wilderness was a high plateau, the modern Negev Highlands, whereas the Jordan Valley is considerably below it. But anagō also has a secondary meaning, “bring up for judicial process, bring before (a judge).” The verb is used in just this way in Acts 12:4 ("After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover"). Since in the wilderness Jesus will have his messianic credentials and qualifications tested, i.e., judged, it is possible that Matthew hints at that with this verb. 

Mark doesn’t report the specific tests put to Jesus by Satan. By comparing the tests as recorded by Matthew and Luke, what do all three tests and Jesus’ responses to them have in common? Jesus replies to all three of the tests in the words of scripture, specifically from the Book of Deuteronomy. In only one of the three tests (Matthew’s second, which is Luke’s third) does the Tempter himself clothe his test with a scripture passage.

4:3-11 Matthew and Luke agree that the first test was to make stones into bread, but they differ in the order of the last two tests. One suspects that, whichever writer altered the sequence did so in order to climax and conclude with the most important one, or at least the most important reply by Jesus.  A case could be made for either. Does climaxing with Jesus’ words “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only you shall serve” better fit Matthew’s emphases? Or does climaxing with “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” better fit Luke’s emphases? Luke may have wanted the final remark of Jesus to be “You shall not tempt …?“ since he only concludes by saying that the devil “left him until an opportune time,“ meaning the final temptation in the garden of Gethsemane. Thus, while Mark (1:13) and Matthew (4:11) mention angels coming to strengthen Jesus after this temptation, Luke omits this and puts it after the final temptation in Gethsemane (Lk 22:43). That this happened twice I do not doubt. But the point is that each writer has mentioned it only once in order to fit an overall pattern of presentation of the Son of God’s battle against Satan.

So although it might have fitted Luke’s themes to switch the order of the final two temptation, we shall also see how Matthew’s order also fits his own emphasis. For that reason I think we should not try to determine the correct “historical” order and be content to see how well Matthew’s sequence fits his own themes. He (as opposed to Luke) would not wish to climax with “You shall not test the Lord your God,” because for him “the Lord your God” is a reference to Jesus, and the testing of the Messiah prior to his public ministry was essential. He, and not Mark or Luke, calls Satan here “the tester,“ for this is his essential role.  On the other hand, it does fit Matthew’s scheme to climax the tests with Jesus’ words “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only you shall serve,” since the immediately preceding scene contained the heavenly voice acclaiming Jesus as one worthy of worship. For Matthew, and not for Luke, Jesus as the son of David slays Goliath here, and does not need angelic strengthening in Gethsemane to continue besting the devil.  So much for the question of the sequence. Now let’s look at the individual tests and Jesus’ answers.

All the tests do not begin the same way. Two out of the three are similar, in that they begin with the words “If you are the son of God.”  In other words, they challenge Jesus to prove what the heavenly voice has already affirmed in the baptism scene (Mt 3:17 = Mk 1:11 = Lk 3:22). Essentially, this corresponds to Satan’s question to Eve  “Did God really say…?” Only he doesn’t quite put it that way here. Instead he invites Jesus to submit to two tests of his own devising: (1) making stones into bread and (2) throwing himself down from the tower of the temple. In Matthew’s sequence the Tempter gives up this type of testing after two failures: the third time he doesn’t question Jesus’ identity as the son of God, yet offers to simplify his path to power by surrendering earth’s kingdoms to him on the sole condition that Jesus offer him worship. 

4:3-4 Test 1: Create bread for yourself. 

In the first test Jesus was challenged to prove he was the son of God by satisfying his own hunger with a miracle. "Since you are the Son of God," Satan reasoned, "why should you deny yourself anything, much less needed food?" Later, during his public ministry, Jesus would twice perform the miracle of creating bread for the hungry crowds who followed him (Mt 14:13-21; 15:32-39), reproducing the miracle of manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16; Deuteronomy 8:3). But never in order to meet his personal need. Nor was God’s creation of manna for Israel in the wilderness in order to meet his own need, but that of his people. At the last supper (Mt 26:26; Mk 14:22; Lk 22:19)—and on other occasions (John 6:51, 54, 56)—Jesus would say that the bread represented his body that he would give to meet the need of his people for forgiveness and eternal life. Neither God in the exodus wilderness, nor Jesus in his earthly pilgrimage would feed themselves with miracles, but would use miracles to rescue those who responded to them in faith and worship. 

Jesus’ verbal reply to Satan added another reason why he would not do as the Tempter wished: quoting Deut. 8:3, he reminded him that physical food was not as important to himself as the true Israel of God as was obedience to the word of God. Luke quotes only the words “Man shall not live by bread alone,” but Matthew gives also the rest of the verse, “but by every word that issues from the mouth of God.” In Jesus' own case, the word that issued from the mouth of God was the commission to save his people from their sins (see Matthew 1:21). This he would do, denying himself every personal need that interfered with that role.  

4:5-7  Test 2: Dare God to Save You

Since this is the only test in which the Tempter justifies his test by citing a scripture passage, it is important for us to look at what that passage meant in its original context, and then at how Jesus counters the test. The scripture is taken from Psalm 91, whose theme is that those who trust in God keep themselves under his protection. But although many of the statements given about how God will protect his own seem to admit of obvious exceptions, and should never be claimed as without exception by believers—either those living in David’s day or our own—it is significant that nowhere in this psalm is the protected person described as putting himself deliberately in harm’s way. On the contrary, verse 10 says “no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.” That is, God will protect his own from attacks initiated by others who are evil, but not from self-inflicted ones.  

Jesus’ response to Satan, quoting Deuteronomy 6:16, “You must not put the LORD your God to the test,” can have meaning on two levels. The first and most obvious is that Jesus himself cannot do as Satan asks, because he (Jesus) would be putting God to a presumptuous and unnecessary test: doing something wrong and expecting God nevertheless to save him. The second is not quite as obvious, but must surely have occurred to all the gospel writers: Satan must not put Jesus, who is God, to the test.” This bears directly on the identification of Jesus the Messiah as deity. For Jesus to hurl himself from the pinnacle of the temple would be to expose himself to an unnecessary danger. The real danger from which he needed God’s protection was standing before him in the person of the Tempter. It was the words of Psalm 91, the very psalm from which Satan chose his testing scripture, that Jesus could count on to protect himself now from the personification of all evil. Throughout the years of Jesus’ public ministry, as we shall see in Matthew, he did not expose himself presumptuously to danger. This was one of the reasons he admonished his disciples not to spread the word too soon that he was the messiah (Mt 16:20). The time of his death  would come in due time, but all must be done according to the plan of God his Father: “not my will, but yours be done”.  

4:8-10  Test 3: Gain the World by Worshiping Me (cf. Matt 16:26; Mark 8:36; Luke 9:25). 

Later on during his public ministry and teaching, Jesus may have alluded to this temptation of the Devil, when he said: 

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Matthew 16:24-26 NRSV). 

A saying like this relies on the ability of the hearers to see two meanings for the word “life.” Otherwise, how could it be true that by losing one’s life one saves it? As applied to believers, it means we give up all that the world considers “life”—comforts, wealth, prestige—in order by humble service in God’s will to gain “life” in the sense of God’s approval and fellowship, both here and in eternity. In Jesus’ own case, he denied himself “life” in the sense of action independent of his Father’s will—gaining the whole world by a single act of betrayal of his Father—in order by obeying his Father to gain his real “life”: God’s approval. The voice from heaven at the baptism had said “this is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well-pleased.” Jesus will now confirm that testimony by denying himself and taking up his cross—his Father’s mission for him to save the world, not “gain” it. 

Not only was the end Satan promised an illicit one, but the price exacted was unthinkable for one who believed in One God. Quoting Deut 6:13, a verse that was central in Israel’s faith, “You shall worship the Lord your God and serve only him,” Jesus dismissed the Tempter, calling him here for the first time by his name, Satan.  Often in his later ministry, when he expelled demons from their hapless victims, Jesus would demand their names so as to command them by name to leave their victims (see the story about the demons called “Legion” in Mark 5:9, 15; Luke 8:30).

4:11 In his second test the Tempter had used scripture to promise Jesus angelic aid. Ironically, only Matthew records that it was instead after Jesus had successfully rejected all of Satan’s tests that he received angelic aid: “Then the Adversary (Greek diabolos, from which our word “devil” comes) left him, and suddenly angels appeared and were tending to his needs” (4:11). 

Often today, the Devil tempts us, implying that we have needs that can only be met by disobeying God's will. But he has twisted the truth. For it is when we are willing to bypass our own selfish ambitions and desires in order to do the will of our Father, that angels also come to us and minister to us. Have you not also experienced this? 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

John the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus — Mat 3

The message of John the Baptizer, the Messiah’s forerunner, 3:1-12 

Chapter two ends the material that is unique to Matthew. With the introduction of John the Baptist Matthew enters the stream of traditions shared with Mark, Luke and John.

Because this John was not one of the apostles, and was martyred before the death and resurrection of Jesus, Christians have a tendency to group him with Old Testament characters and minimize his importance to the work of our Lord Jesus. But this is a mistake. John was second only to Jesus in the importance of his ministry during the first three decades of the First Century. His career was noticed by non-Christian historians of that era. The famous Jewish historian Josephus, a contemporary of St. Paul, thought more highly of John than of Jesus.

Many of John's contemporaries misread him, seeing him as a prophet only in the sense of a moral reformer. But the real importance of John, as the New Testament makes clear, was as forerunner to the Messiah Jesus.

Matthew omits some of the things that Mark, Luke and John say about him. Mark tells us that he was sent by God (Jn 1:6). Luke tells us that the word of God came to John (Lk 3:2). Both Mark and Luke tells us that John’s baptism signifying repentance was for the forgiveness of sins (Mk 1:4; Lk 3:3). Matthew omits these things, not because he didn’t believe them to be true, but because he wanted his readers not to miss the main thing about John, namely, that he was sent to prepare the Jewish world for the appearance of the Messiah and the inauguration of the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt 3:2-3). Of the four gospels only John is as explicit about this as John’s main role: not just a preacher of repentance, but the “friend of the bridegroom,” who introduces the Bridegroom (the Messiah) to the bride (the believing remnant of Israel): see John 3:28-30.

3:1-2 The message of John prior to his introducing Jesus as God’s Messiah is expressed here quite simply: “Repent, because the kingdom of God is near.” Although some have claimed that this was completely good news to all who heard him, because that kingdom was greatly longed for and in no way feared, John’s words sound more like a warning. Because this kingdom is ready to burst on the scene, it is vital that you all repent now! In Jesus' day many Jews thought that the kingdom of God would be inaugurated by a judgment of the nations. But John's message was that judgment was to begin with the people of God themselves. In order to make sure that they would be admitted to that kingdom, it was important, even for Jews, to put all their sins behind them and through repentance and a purifying bath be acceptable to God the Judge.

It may be that John assumed that recipients of this baptism accompanied by repentance and general confession of sins would also make the sacrifices in the temple that were required by the law. But the fact that none of the four gospels mentions it may indicate that John said nothing about the role of the temple sacrifices. The only explicit reference he is recorded as making to the means by which sins would be atoned for is in John’s gospel, where he points to Jesus as the Lamb of God who carries away (Greek αἴρειν airein) the sins of the world (Jn 1:29, 36).

3:3 But this was only part of John’s message. With this he combined a dual meaning in the prophecy in Isaiah 40:3-5.
A voice of one calling:  “In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. 5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:3–5 NIV)

The words “Prepare the way of the LORD” could be understood as making straight the formerly crooked paths of one’s own life, i.e., by repenting. But it could also be taken more literally to mean get ready to meet the LORD who will appear as Savior as well as Judge. The thoughts about Isaiah 40 led John eventually to think about Isaiah 53, the "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" (John 1). Admittedly, this aspect of the Baptist’s message is stressed more in the Gospel of John than by Matthew. But it is vital that we see this other side here as well.

3:4 John’s dress, behavior and preaching marked him as a prophet in the stamp of such Old Testament greats as Elijah. Like Elijah, he spent much time in the wilderness away from civilization. Like Elijah, his diet was simple and austere: locusts and wild honey. Like Elijah he was dressed in a rough garment made of camel’s hair tied with a leather belt. Old Testament prophets like Amos, Hosea (Hosea 1 and 3), Isaiah (Isa. 20:1-4), Jeremiah (Jer 28) and Ezekiel were told by God to do strange things as part of the "dramatization" of the message. John's message was more than words: it was inherent in everything about him. He was absolutely incorruptible and selfless, a man no one could accuse of being in league with moneyed or politically connected interests. He could and did speak with integrity and great power. He pulled no punches and made no compromises with the word of God. What you saw is what you got. When John spoke, people listened. Clearly he was a prophet, but his dress, his manner of life, and his message all point to a continuation of the role of Elijah the prophet. And for one whose message was going to focus entirely on repentance in order to endure God’s judgment, his dress, diet and lifestyle spoke eloquently of self-denial.

3:5-6 Part of how John understood Isaiah 40:3 was not only that God’s voice would cry out in the wilderness, but that God’s people would have to make their paths straight in that same wilderness. Therefore not only his preaching was done there, but also the rite of baptism which expressed outwardly the inner repentance and change of life intended in order to be ready for the kingdom’s inauguration. John is not recorded as commanding baptism, probably because Matthew doesn’t want to confuse the outer rite with what it was supposed to indicate. But clearly everyone who came to John and confessed their sins (3:6) as part of their repentance, also underwent baptism.

Baptism as John practiced it differed from other baptisms of his day—proselyte baptism and the baptism practiced at Qumran. John’s baptism was not self-administered like others. And John’s baptism was performed only once.

So the people “went out” to the wilderness. This seems to be a re-enactment of the experiences of the Israelites leaving Egypt at the time of the exodus. The doorway from Egyptian bondage into the discipleship experience of the wilderness was the experience at the Red Sea. There the Israelites received a “baptism” by passing through the Red Sea on dry ground. Paul refers to this as a “baptism” which did not save those who underwent it and failed to repent, for they later died in the wilderness (1 Cor 10:1-13). This was a warning to John’s visitors as well. Only true repentance at the time of the baptism would save them.

3:7-10 Among the crowds of sincere penitents John also saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism. At this point nothing in the narrative would suggest that they were insincere. So it comes as a shock to hear what John says to them: he calls them “offspring of poisonous snakes” (γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν, v 7) and implies that their coming will not be accompanied by truly changed lives that prove repentance (v 8). His third warning and criticism might equally apply to many classes of Jews in that day, not just to Pharisees and Sadducees: that they were depending on the merits of their “father” Abraham to enable them to avoid unfavorable judgment when the Messiah comes. One rabbinic tradition that might go back to that early period argued that, since Abraham being long dead could not personally inherit the promises God made to him,
"To whom else could it go than to us his 'children'? If not to us, then to whom? To the stones and the trees?” 

If this tradition was old enough to have been current already as the time of Jesus and John the Baptist, it would help to explain why John mentions stones and trees in his reply to the Pharisees. The promises to Abraham’s children don’t have to go to unrepentant Jews, just because they are Jews. It can indeed go to stones! And God will even make a distinction between righteous and unrighteous trees, chopping down those without the fruits of repentance.

By calling them “offspring (Greek γεννήματα) of vipers” John already rejected their claim to Abraham as their father. It may well be that Jesus alluded to this description of the hypocritical Jerusalem leaders when in John 8:34-47 he similarly rejected their claim to be Abraham’s children and accused them instead of being children of Satan the evil serpent.

3:8  To ensure that those sincerely coming for baptism knew what repentance involved, and in order to make clear what the “good fruit” was that God expected from the trees not to be chopped down, John both put questions to the people and answered their own, concerning how their lives needed to change. Luke records these questions and answers in Luke 3:10-14.2 Since we do not know if Matthew had knowledge of this aspect of John’s teaching, as Luke did, we can’t say that he deliberately omitted them in the interest of his own emphases. I would seriously doubt that, since Matthew everywhere highlights the ways in which John and Jesus taught alike, and Jesus certainly became very specific about ethical matters. Nevertheless, the recipients at this point were expressing an intention (Hebrew kavvānâ), and John made it clear to them that their forgiveness would hinge upon that intention being carried through. “Bring forth fruit appropriate to your repentance!” (Mt 3:8).

3:11-12 In verses 11-12 Matthew reports John’s words about someone greater than he who will come after him and whose activities strongly resemble what one would expect from the Messiah. Both Luke and John, in their versions, make it clear that John said these words in response to a question whether he himself might be the Messiah. Neither Mark nor Matthew include that information. The saying about carrying (so Matthew) or untying this one’s sandals (so Mark, Luke and John) is just a picturesque way of describing someone’s servant. When you entered another person’s home, you removed your sandals. A lowly servant took them off for you and carried them off to put them away until you departed. John declares himself not worthy to be the Messiah’s servant.

Mark (1:4) and Luke (3:3) describe John’s baptism as a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Matthew omits this, not because he would deny that repenting and following John’s advice to believe in the “more powerful one” who would follow him (3:11) would result in the forgiveness of sins, but because he wants to guard against the false impression that John’s baptism itself was enough for that forgiveness. Matthew makes it clear in several places (Mt 9:2-7; 26:28) that such forgiveness can only come through Jesus.

Mark and John have the shortest versions of John’s next saying. Although John baptizes with water, the Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Matthew and Luke add: “and with fire.” It is likely that John means the faithful will be baptized with the Spirit, while the unbelieving will be baptized with the fires of judgment.3 This interpretation gains support from Matthew’s and Luke’s addition about the Messiah separating the wheat from the chaff by winnowing. The wheat represents the faithful and repentant who are gathered into the barn of God’s kingdom, while the chaff are the unfaithful, the hypocrites, and the unrepentant who are like chaff that is burned in fire.4

This winnowing and separating is the figurative language for God’s judgment, which inaugurates his kingdom. Later in Jesus’ public ministry he will speak of the same process in other imagery: the wedding banquet at which some guests will be admitted, and others kept out,5 the shepherd’s separating his sheep from his goats,6 etc. Jesus makes it clear later in the gospels that the separation of the wheat from the chaff will not take place until the end of the age (Mt 13:36-43).

When Matthew uses both the warning about trees bearing fruit and about the Messiah winnowing the wheat from the chaff, he alludes to Psalm 1, where the righteous person is like a tree planted by streams and that brings forth fruit, while the unrighteous is like the chaff driven away by the wind in the winnowing process. Both of these images would have been well-known to John’s audience, as well as to Matthew’s Jewish Christian readers.

Movements requiring ethical reform and expressions of a desire to repent didn’t arouse opposition from the priests and Pharisee scribes, so long as they involved no claim of a real Messiah’s arrival. For the latter spelled possible trouble with the Romans and the disruption of the cooperation with Rome that had become so comfortable to these entrenched Jewish leaders. Therefore, just as in Jesus’ early Galilean ministry the great crowds that were attracted to him also included Pharisees, who approved of his healings and ethical teachings so long as he didn’t claim to be able to forgive sins or present himself as the King Messiah, so also here John’s ministry brought out “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea” (3:5), the children of the Jerusalemites who thirty years earlier had shared Herod the Great’s concern about the Magi and their report of a “born-king of the Jews.”  

The baptism of Jesus, 3:13-17 

3:13-15 In Mark’s version (Mk 1:9) Jesus merely comes to be baptized and nothing is said about John refusing him. This doesn’t mean Matthew made this up: he had sources additional to Mark’s gospel. His addition makes a nice contrast to what immediately precedes. There John sought to prevent persons coming for baptism who were insincere and unrepentant. For them, baptism would be a mere ceremony empty of reality. It would make a mockery of God and of his prophet John. Jesus was the exact opposite. John sought to prevent him for the opposite reason: he didn’t need to repent, since he was already a perfectly righteous man. In fact, John claims here that he needs to be baptized by Jesus! This also allows Matthew to show his readers the real reason for Jesus seeking baptism, a reason they would not get from reading Mark’s account alone: Jesus was here identifying himself with those among Israel who want to be ready for God’s kingdom. In order to provide forgiveness for them through his death and resurrection, he must first identify with them. In one sense, he has already identified with them by being born of a Jewish mother (Matthew 1), who herself was a distant descendant of King David. But he must now reinforce that identification by joining the righteous remnant seeking cleansing before the kingdom of God comes. It is this that Jesus refers to in his answer to John: “Let it be so now. For thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (v 15).

3:16 What happened when Jesus was baptized was seen not only by Jesus, but also by others standing by. John himself says that he saw the dove descend upon Jesus and knew by this that he was the Messiah who would baptize with the Holy Spirit (John 1:32-33).

In Matthew's plot, the Spirit descends upon the son of David as it did upon David himself when he was anointed king by Samuel (1 Sam. 16:13).[i] That is, God has anointed and empowered Jesus as messianic king. Although Matthew's narrative does not say so, this would have been regarded as fulfilling conventional expectations about the close connection between the messiah and the Spirit (lsa. 11:2; Pss. Sol. 17.37; 4Q161 3.11-25; 1 En. 49.3; 62.2). Also part of conventional expectation would have been the recognition that there would be an interval between Jesus's anointing as messiah and the beginning of his reign (Matt. 28:18-20), as was the case with David (anointed in 1 Sam. 16; beginning to reign over Judah in 2 Sam. 2:4, 7 and over Israel in 2 Sam. 5:3-4). [Talbert, 57]

[i] “So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came powerfully upon David.”

3:17 The verbal testimony of the voice from heaven fits nicely into the themes that Matthew has indicated he wishes to pursue about Jesus. One of these was that he was the true “son of David,” not just genealogically, but also morally and spiritually. In his promises to David in 2 Samuel 7 and again in Psalm 2:7, the Lord confers the status of “my son” upon David and his royal successors. And in one of his songs of praise to God, David wrote: “He brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me" (2 Samuel 22:20 NRSV). The term “delighted in” in the ancient Greek translation (the Septuagint) is the identical term used of Jesus here and translated “well-pleased with” (εὐδόκησεν ἐν). This same verb was also used in of God’s choice of David in 1 Chr 28:4. This expression often means choosing. Yahweh had chosen David, and now he shows that he has chosen Jesus.

If you compare the exact wording of this voice from heaven in Matthew with those in Mark and Luke, another small, but perhaps significant difference occurs. Mark and Luke read “you are my Son,” while Matthew records “This is my Son.” Matthew’s version addresses the words from heaven not to Jesus himself, but to those standing by and witnessing the scene, including (remotely) Matthew’s own readers!

It is possible to read these words as God’s testimony to the life Jesus had already lived to this point. But more likely the phrase “I am well-pleased with (him)” means “I have chosen (him),” in which case the statement looks forward to Jesus’ public ministry which would begin at this point.7 This interpretation is also supported by the fact that the term “beloved” also frequently has the sense of “the chosen one.”8 In the form in which Mark and Luke give the heavenly testimony, it is addressed to Jesus himself, affirming the Trinitarian decision that God the Son should now begin his public ministry. In the form that Matthew gives the words, they are addressed to the world in which Jesus will not begin to proclaim the arrival of the kingdom.

The entire opening verses of Isaiah 42 present a picture of Yahweh’s Servant, the personification of Israel herself, in terms that fit Matthew’s presentation quite well:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth righteousness. 4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established righteousness in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. 5 Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6 I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.. (Isaiah 42:1-7 NRSV adapted) 

We need not worry ourselves over what seems like a contradiction or historical discrepancy in the reporting here, for words spoken from heaven can often be heard in different ways by members of a crowd. And the Holy Spirit, who inspired Mark, Luke and Matthew certainly has the right to report the words differently in the respective gospels, in order to bring out two different, but complementary truths of equal importance. To most of us Matthew’s version is more understanding, since we don’t think of Jesus as the all-knowing Son of God as needing to hear such a confession. Did he not know that this point in his life that he was God’s beloved Son? I think most of us would say, “He certainly did.” Then why the version of Mark and Luke, “You are my Son”? It is quite possible, although they do not quote it directly, that Mark and Luke have in mind the passage in Psalm 2, where God says to the Davidic king: “You are my son; this day I have begotten you.” And they wish to make that connection clear to their hearers by this wording.

Many interpreters consider Psalm 2 a kind of enthronement psalm, which celebrates the day on which the new king ascends the throne and becomes Yahweh’s son: I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you. (Psalms 2:7 NRSV)

This explains what is meant by the words “today I have begotten you”: the new king only became Yahweh’s “son” when he assumed the throne, not previously while he was the crown prince. Theologians could have saved themselves much tortuous reasoning and bad theology, if they had understood this, instead of trying to attribute this literally to Jesus and figure out how the eternal Son of God could ever have been "eternally begotten"!

It is difficult for any Christian to think of Jesus as being in any sense a “disciple” of another human being. For that reason, suggestions by scholars that Jesus may have begun as a disciple of John’s and then, encouraged by both his teacher’s words and by this word from heaven at his baptism, branched out on his own. Yet one can hardly doubt that there was a very strong continuity between what John the Baptist began and what Jesus continued in his own public ministry.

Some of Jesus’ first disciples, members of his innermost circle of the Twelve, came to him after being John’s disciples. And repeatedly in the course of Jesus’ public ministry he built upon the message and practices of John. The Gospel of John even informs us that, although Jesus himself didn’t baptize followers, his disciples—acting for him—did so (John 14:1-2).9 And the striking similarity between the two was not missed by Herod Antipas, who, when Jesus’ miracles were reported to him, expressed the opinion that Jesus might be John the Baptist risen from the dead (Mt 14:1-2)!   R. T. France summarizes the situation well:
References to John the Baptist occur quite frequently in the Synoptic accounts of Jesus’ ministry, and in each case the inference is suggested that the two men stand in the same prophetic line. In Luke 11:1-4 Jesus teaches his disciples to pray just as John had done. In Matt 11:1-15 Jesus presents himself as the one John was expecting to succeed him, and endorses John's ministry as "more than a prophet," the one in whom the period of preparation has come to an end and the period of fulfillment has dawned. 


1 You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44 NRSV).

2 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” (Luke 3:10-14 NRSV)

3 See G. E. Ladd, Theology of the New Testament, 33.

4 The imagery here is adapted to the horrific fate of the wicked in eternal fire, for in ancient Palestinian life neither chaff nor the wood of unfruitful trees would be wasted by burning (see Ladd, Theology, 34-35 n. 12).

5 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. (Matthew 22:2-4, 8-12; 25:10 NRSV).

6 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Matthew 25:31-36 NRSV).

7 It is also possible, since as Dalman pointed out long ago God’s being well-pleased occurs with the Isaiah Servant in Isa. 42:1-2 [Ιακωβ ὁ παῖς μου,  ντιλήμψομαι αὐτοῦ· Ισραηλ ὁ ἐκλεκτός μου, προσεδέξατο αὐτὸν ἡ ψυχή μου· (Isaiah 42:1 LXX1)], that the utterance here and in the Transfiguration scene (Mt 17:5) point forward to Jesus’ death as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53.

8 In Luke 9:35 (Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him!”), Luke’s version of the event recorded in Mark 9:7 and Matthew 17:5, where a similar acclamation of Jesus comes in a voice from heaven, Luke replaces Mark’s and Matthew’s “beloved” with the synonym “chosen” (ὁ ἐκλελεγμένος). The key to understanding all of this is the fact that in Old Testament Hebrew the verb אהב 'ahav “to love” has as one of its root ideas “to prefer (one person or thing to another)”, and the verb “to hate” means “not to prefer” (Malachi 1:1-3). We see this idea even in the New Testament, where Jesus warns that it is impossible to serve two masters, because one will always love one and hate the other. This doesn’t mean literally that one will hate the other; merely that one will be preferred to the other. So the “beloved” son is the one preferred and chosen over all others.

9 Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” 2 —although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— 3 he left Judea and started back to Galilee. (John 4:1-3 NRSV). 10 At that time Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus; and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him (Matthew 14:1-2 NRSV).

Sunday, February 06, 2011

The Magi and the Refuge in Egypt — Matthew 2

Chapters 1 and 2 of Matthew constitute his “prologue” to Jesus’s public ministry. They intend to put it in a context that guides the reader’s interpretation.  The material in Matthew 1 (the genealogy and the announcement to Joseph of the divine nature of the child and his role as Savior of his people from their sins) help us to focus on those aspects in the rest of the gospel. The two main stories in chapter 2 then explain just who “his people” are. Both of these two stories set up a pattern of God coming to the chosen people of Israel and refusing to be deterred by the opposition He finds there (Herod, Archelaus), yet opening the doors at the same time to non-Jews who are seeking him (the Magi).  He offers invitations to both groups in language they can understand, if they are willing: to the Magi in an astrological form, to Jerusalem in prophetic scripture.

The visit of the Magi, 2:1-12        

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 born-king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose 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 Messiah 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 shepherd 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 search carefully 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 when it rose 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, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. 

2:1 For those of us familiar with the whole story of events leading up to and including the birth of Jesus—in other words, Luke’s opening chapters—it is easy to supply them in our minds and to overlook what Matthew—perhaps even deliberately(?)—doesn’t include and Matthew’s first readers might not know: the Roman census, which God used to bring Joseph and his new wife to Bethlehem, the story of the caravansary being full and requiring the couple to bed down in the guest quarters of a nearby home, and the nighttime visit by the shepherds who had been notified by the chorus of angels in the sky. Scholars can’t seem to agree as to whether Matthew may have known these stories and chose not to use them or that he knew nothing more than he actually includes here: that Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the reign of King Herod I. But one thing is clear: that what Matthew adds here to Mark is essential to his picture of Jesus and God’s plan through Jesus.
The story focuses on pagan Gentiles: astrologers from the east, either Babylonia or Persia. An unlikely bunch of potential worshipers, we might think. In their homeland they most likely worshiped many gods and goddesses. They had no knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures, unless they had contact in their homeland with someone like Esther or Mordecai, that is, Jews living in the Diaspora. But somehow—either Matthew didn’t know because the Magi did not tell Mary the details, he or thought they were not essential for his readers—the Magi understood that a heavenly phenomenon[1] that they observed in their homeland announced the birth of a Jewish king, who was significant enough to them, to require that they travel a great distance and bring him expensive gifts and their “worship” (or “homage”).
Matthew introduces a story here that is not found anywhere else in the NT. Since we believe it is true, not just made up, the logical ultimate source of it would have been Mary, Jesus’ mother.[2] Either she told Jesus about it as a child, and he told it to his intimate circle of disciples at some point during his public ministry, or she may have been a direct source to Matthew after Jesus’ resurrection.
It is an amazing story in several respects. The “heroes” are pagan astrologers—called Magi[3] (Greek μάγοι magoi, transliterated in Latin as magi)—from lands to the east of Palestine, either Arabia, Babylonia or Persia. They are “heroes” because they believed in an astrological “sign” and took great pains to follow its direction, traveling for hundreds of miles, all in the hope of finding one born “king of the Jews.” This doesn’t mean that we today should look to astrological signs for divine guidance: our guidance is Jesus’ own words and those of the Old and New Testament writers.
In antiquity, stars, comets, and constellations were believed to signal the birth of a ruler. Cicero (Div. 1.47) says that on the night of Alexander the Great's birth, Magi prophesied on the basis of a brilliant constellation that the destroyer of Asia had been born. Tacitus (Annals, 14.22) asserts that it is the general belief that the appearance of a comet means a change of emperors. So when a comet appeared during Nero's reign, people speculated about Nero's successor as though Nero were already deceased. In the Testament of Levi 18.3,[4] it is said about the priestly Messiah: "His star will rise in the heaven as of a king.”

What these astrologers saw, as once suggested by the famous astronomer Johannes Kepler, may have been a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which occurred three times in 7 B.C. And since Jupiter in ancient astrological lore represented kingship and Saturn the people of Israel, the conclusion of the magi recorded here would have followed naturally. 

2:2-6 The Magi came to Jerusalem, because they were seeking "the born-king of the Jews,” which forms a natural opposition to the king merely appointed by the Roman overlords. Jerusalem was the capital city of “the Jews,” the place where a king of the Jews would be found. In Matthew’s account they tell everyone they meet about having seen a “star” that portends the birth of a Jewish king. They claim to have seen it “at its rising.” They further announce that they have come to find this born-king and to worship him. How remarkable that they should think that the king of the small Jewish state should command their homage and worship! If it had been a newly born king of Egypt or some other great nation, we could understand their taking such pains. All of this suggests that God had been preparing their minds and hearts to appreciate the crucial role of the Jewish people in the world’s redemption.

How humbling this story was to Matthew's Jewish believers! Instead of believing Jews taking the good news to the Gentiles, these unbelieving Gentiles brought the news of the King's birth to Jerusalem—to learned Jewish Bible scholars who didn't have a clue what was happening! 

The magi told a fantastic story and feared no ridicule. How is it with us? We have also an incredible story to tell, a miraculous one that both humbles hearers because it requires admitting sinfulness and offers hope through the promise of forgiveness and eternal life. Are we reluctant to share it with others? Or are we busy just telling simply what we have seen in the Bible and experienced in our lives?
2:3 When news of their inquiry reaches the present “king,” Herod I, Matthew doesn’t tell us immediately that he was insulted, furious or filled with a desire to find and kill any such impostor. But when Matthew tells us that the king “was worried/disturbed” (ἐταράχθη) and all Jerusalem with him,” this implies that all the citizens of Jerusalem sensed that violence would soon follow and might accidentally affect them, as indeed it later did to the mothers of infants in Bethlehem (2:16-18). Herod, you see, had a history of killing off anyone who threatened his control of the kingdom, even members of his own immediate family. He had killed some of his own wives for crossing him. In fact, when eventually his attempt to use the magi failed, Herod was more than “disturbed”: he became absolutely furious (verse16) and murdered all the innocent male children of Bethlehem. Herod was not of Jewish ancestry, but Edomite. He owed his kingship to political connections in Rome, not to any Jewish or Old Testament law. And he was only observant of God’s law when it suited him politically. 

It is easy to see why  Herod would be unhappy at the possibility of a born king of the Jews. But wouldn't you think that the people of Jerusalem would be overjoyed at the possibility? Yet because of Herod's influence, they too consider the possible birth of the Messiah to be an unwelcome intrusion in their lives. Matthew gives us just a foretaste here of what Jerusalem's attitude toward Jesus will be at the end of his gospel, when he entered Jerusalem for the last time (Matt 21:10-11). There too the city was "shaken" instead of overjoyed. 

Everyone in Jerusalem was disturbed and worried, but the magi! They simply gave their testimony of what they had seen. The magi told a threatening story to a potentially hostile and dangerous king. How is it with us? Does fear of a hostile response keep us from sharing the good news with others?
2:4-6  Up to this point Herod had not met the magi: only heard the excited news circulating in Jerusalem. Herod could take no steps to suppress this possible rebellion against his throne without further knowledge. The news the Magi had brought had taken him quite by surprise, which for a king who prided himself on his network of spies and informers must have shaken him to the core! He would need to disguise his hostile intentions and do some crafty inquiring, both from his own scholars and from these visiting ones.
2:4 He began with his own native scholars, two groups which Matthew describes as “chief priests and scribes.” The “chief priests” comprised the current high priest and any former ones still living in Jerusalem, all of whom would have been Sadducees, while the “scribes” (or “teachers of the law” NIV) would have been Pharisees.
The Magi had asked about a “born-king of the Jews.” This couldn't be just any ordinary person in line to obtain the kingship over the Roman province of Judea! And why would an ordinary person’s birth be announced by a star? For this reason, and because the Roman occupation of Judea had increased the longing of the Jews for the promised Messiah to come and free them, as Moses once did when they were slaves in Egypt, Herod immediately thought this might be the Messiah. And even if he didn’t personally believe such promises—he was, after all, an Edomite who owed his throne to the pagan Roman occupiers—he would fear that his Jewish subjects might back such a person to replace him by force. Why he would fear this, however, is inscrutable, since it would take such a newborn around 20 years to become old enough to lead a rebellion!
Since these two groups—the Sadducean high priests and the Pharisaic scholars of the Torah—hated each other, Herod may have summoned the two groups separately and compared their responses to his questions. If on the other hand Herod did actually convene them together, their remarkable willingness to cooperate should be compared with their cooperation later in bringing Jesus to trial and to execution. More than they hated each other, they hated the thought that the Messiah would come and make them unnecessary to the people! These Jewish scholars would not know much about astrology, but they would certainly know the prophetic scriptures in detail. Herod assumed that somewhere in those prophecies would be information about where—if not also when—the Messiah was to be born. Could it be in Jerusalem itself?
2:5-6 The Torah scholars quoted to him the words of the prophet Micah, who predicted in Micah 5:2 (Micah 5:1 in the Hebrew and Greek versions) that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judah. Bethlehem was the town where David had been born. Micah’s oracle builds upon the earlier one of the prophet Nathan to David (2 Samuel 7), that the true “son of David” whose reign God had said would last forever (2 Samuel 7:12-13) would be born in David’s hometown.
Here we meet an ironic contrast which Matthew certainly wants us to notice. The behavior of the Magi is in stark contrast to that of the Jewish scholars who had a detailed prophetic knowledge about the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem and who wouldn’t take the trouble to travel 20 miles to the south of Jerusalem themselves, although they were the Messiah’s own people! ! Furthermore, with a view to his own times, Matthew used this episode to portray how the Jewish “establishment” valued their own comfortable symbiosis with the Roman authorities over throwing in their lot with God’s messiah, implications of whose advent might anger the powers that be.

The religious authorities had accurate knowledge of the scriptures, but doubted the claim of the magi. They made no effort to investigate. Was it pride? Pride that refused to believe that God would give information to these pagans and mediate it by them to the chosen people? Because these authorities didn't believe what the magi told them, they robbed themselves of the opportunity to see their true God-sent king. And out of spite for these pagan visitors, they told them only the minimum information: that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Nothing about his glories or his mission to not only restore Israel but be a light to the nations!  

These religious authorities also had no real desire to experience their fulfillment in their own lives. This can be true of us as well, my friends. We can know a great deal of factual information from the Bible, but have no particular interest in experiencing its truths by getting involved in service and in witness. 
2:7-8 The second part of Herod’s plan to locate and kill the newborn pretender to his throne involved getting information from the Magi themselves. But since he didn't want his people—not even his Torah scholars—to know that he put any credence in the magi's story about a star, he summoned them to a meeting secretly. 

Already by telling him how long ago the star first appeared they could provide him with the newborn’s approximate age. If they said, “About two years ago,” he would know that the child would have to be two years old or less. Later (in 2:16) we learn that this was about the length of time he had been given. So after summoning the astrologers to his court, asked them when the star first appeared, and then informed them that the king they were seeking was foretold in Jewish scripture to be born in Bethlehem. He would give them directions to that town, he said, but he wanted a favor in return. He asked them to locate the child and bring back word to him, so that he could also go and worship him. Of course, he had no such intention, but since these strangers might not know how ruthless he was, he was hoping they would innocently give him the information he needed to kill the newborn Messiah.
2:9 Confident of his success, Herod sent no escort with the Magi. This was not “absurdly trusting” (as Schweizer claims in his commentary, Matthew), since the deception depended on winning the Magi’s confidence. To send an escort would have made them suspicious and uncooperative. Their cooperation was vital to the success of Herod’s plan.
2:9-10 The text doesn’t say that they followed a moving star all the way from their home in the east to Bethlehem. On the contrary, they simply saw it at its rising in their homeland, and because it portended the birth of a Jewish king, they knew to travel to Jerusalem, the Jewish capital city to inquire further. Once informed about Bethlehem, they needed no star to guide them there, but when it appeared again on their way from Jerusalem toward Bethlehem, and they recognized it as the same one they had seen in their homeland, and it stood over Bethlehem to the south, they took this as confirmation of the Jewish scripture quoted to them by Herod’s scholars, and they continued to Bethlehem, where they believed they would need to “search diligently for the child,” as Herod had requested them to do (Matthew 2:8 ESV). As it turned out, God guided them without need of a "diligent" search (Mat 2:9). Either the “star” was something like an angel, who actually moved and then stopped over the house where Mary, Joseph and Jesus were living, or God simply guided their steps by other means so that they found the house, whereupon the star also “stopped” when they stopped moving. The text can bear either interpretation.

God still works in these ways today. Sometimes he guides our decisions by circumstances (like the star), but more often he does it by truths that we have learned from the scriptures. It is usually the best course to follow the truths of scripture in general and then let God refine that guidance as we proceed, using circumstances and our good sense. 
Verse 11 tells us that considerable time has elapsed since Jesus’ birth. For the family is no longer living in a stable or a cave, but in a “house,” and Jesus is not described as an “infant” (as in Luke), but as a “child” (Greek παιδίον). Joseph may have been away at the time, for when the Magi entered the house, they did not see him, but only Mary and her child Jesus. The first reaction of the pagan astrologers to seeing this new “king of the Jews” was to “fall down” and offer him homage (“worship”). The did this, although they were not themselves Jews, nor did they know that he was to be the Savior of the world. Part of the holy mystery of this text is this curious behavior: that they had no ostensible reason to worship a “king of the Jews.” But here too lies Matthew’s contrast with Herod and the chief priests and teachers of the law, who had every reason to worship him, and yet did not!

Please keep in mind also that, unlike the pictures we see in Bible story books or on stained glass windows in churches, the magi didn’t see golden halos around the heads of Jesus and his parents. This baby looked just like any other baby. They were prompted to worship him on the basis of what they had learned from the star and from the scriptures quoted to them in Jerusalem. These men present quite a contrast to the skeptical religious leaders who later in Matthew’s gospel would reserve judgment on Jesus or even declare him an impostor, even after seeing him heal the sick and raise the dead. How does anyone today come to know that Jesus is someone we should worship? Isn’t it also on the basis of (1) what we know from the scriptures and (2) what we have “seen” of him in the lives of those whom he has already transformed? 
2:11 Although Jesus’ mother Mary is mentioned prominently in this verse, it is significant that Jesus himself—although he is only toddler here—holds center stage. It is he whom they worship, not his mother. After bowing in homage, the Magi produced gifts for the new king of the Jews, gifts they had brought from their homeland: gold, incense and myrrh. These gifts could have been purchased almost anywhere in the areas to the east of Palestine and cannot therefore identify the homeland. The three products—but not necessarily the Magi who had bought them—most likely originated in southern Arabia. What became of these gifts? How were they used? Matthew leaves us to speculate, if we will. Perhaps they helped to finance the trip to Egypt and the long return to Nazareth. The gifts are described in order to show us the faith and love of the givers. These valuable gifts served show what value these pagan sages placed on the child of Bethlehem, the future king of the Jews. 
In terms of what Matthew wishes to indicate about God's plan for Jesus' ministry, since he is at this point a mere child, the people from distant lands do not come to hear him speak or to perform miracles, but simply to worship him. They have heard the "voice" of God in nature—i.e., in the "General Revelation" of astrology, and on the basis of that limited and faulty knowledge they respond in faith and worship. Matthew will say this again and again in delineating Jesus' contacts with pagans: with the Roman centurion who comes for him to heal his servant (Mat 8:5-13), with the “Canaanite” woman,[5] etc. It is not abundance of correct knowledge that ensures a correct response to Jesus, but openness to it and willingness to go where it leads.

Furthermore, the appropriate response to Jesus is the same as what it is to God: worship. Matthew will show that response throughout his gospel: by a leper (8:2), by a ruler (9:18), by his disciples (14:33), by a Canaanite woman (15:25), and others (20:20; 26:6-13; 28:9). And at the very end of this gospel the disciples worship the resurrected Jesus on the mountain (28:17). The theme runs throughout the gospel. Now cynical or skeptical Jews of Jerusalem, seeing what the magi did, might sneer and say: "Pagans will worship anything! They worship idols!" But this is not Matthew's view. this is no superstitious and gullible worship: it is perceptive and full of faith.  
2:12 These pagan astrologers continue to receive direct revelation from God in the form of dreams, just as Joseph, Jesus’ own (foster) father did! God’s spoken words were by no means limited to believers or to his chosen people Israel: God speaks to whomever will listen to him and show themselves responsive. These astrologers had already done that by coming all the way from their homeland in the east. Now God would not only protect them, but in doing so also protect Joseph, Mary and the young messiah from Herod’s violence. Joseph, whose main role throughout Matthew 1-2 is that of the Messiah’s protector, reminds us of Jacob’s son Joseph, who also served as the protector of his father and brothers, providing a safe home and food for them in Egypt when famine in Palestine might have killed them all (Genesis 45:4-8).
The dream vision said, in effect: “Do not return to King Herod and tell him where you have found the young king of the Jews!” The dream vision was essential, for up to this point the magi did not suspect that Herod planned to harm the child. Nor did Joseph or Mary.
The astrologers departed for their homeland, bypassing Jerusalem, so that Herod would not immediately learn that his plot was discovered. In the whole complex of the magi story Matthew may have seen close connections to the account of Balaam’s attempt to curse Israel in Numbers 22-24. The Moabite king Balak tries to use the pagan prophet Balaam to destroy Israel by cursing, but God prevents Balaam from doing so and instead forces him to utter blessing on Israel, which infuriates Balak (Num 24:10-11). In the course of Balaam’s blessing he foresees a “star” rising out of Jacob which will some day bring destruction to Moab (Num 24:17). This prophecy found a literal (and partial) fulfillment in David’s conquest of Moab in 2 Samuel 8:2. Matthew probably correctly saw a parallel here, with the Edomite king Herod trying to use the pagan star-gazer magi to lead him to the infant Messiah, the son of David and personification of Israel, to destroy him. But God overrules and uses the magi to thwart Herod’s plan, leaving him infuriated. In the process God also uses a star to guide the magi to the one whose kingdom will some day supplant every kingdom on earth. Repeatedly in the coming chapters Matthew will show us many examples of how Jesus thwarts the plans of Satan, turning his own human instruments against him. The ultimate example will be Judas, the “son of perdition” (John 17:12), whose treachery that led to the arrest and sentence of death to the Messiah backfired on Satan, since the Messiah’s death expiated the sins of humankind and led to the resurrection! He will show us how God always knows how to bring good out of attempted evil.  

To Egypt and back, and the massacre of the infants, 2:13-23

Joseph’s dream and the escape to Egypt, 2:13-15

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.” 

2:13 The angelic dream message did not come to Joseph until the night following the astrologers’ departure. Note that the dream did not come to Mary, because it was the role of the husband to decide on matters like moving to another place, and because—as I just mentioned—Joseph’s assigned role in all of this is to be the protector of the Messiah. The angel mentions the “child” (Greek τὸ παιδίον) Jesus before his mother Mary, because it was Jesus who was the real target of Herod’s wrath.

Egypt was a natural place to which to flee. It was nearby, a well-ordered Roman province outside Herod’s jurisdiction; and, according to Philo (writing around A.D. 40), its population included about a million Jews. Earlier generations of Israelites fleeing their homeland (1 Kings 11:40 [Jeroboam fleeing Solomon]; Jer 26:21-23; 43:7 [Uriah fleeing Jehoiakim]) had sought refuge in Egypt.
In Egypt, Joseph would have had no relatives that we know of. He would have sought work in a large Jewish community, perhaps in Alexandria, as a woodworker/carpenter.

God could have miraculously protected Jesus, if he had stayed in Bethlehem. But sometimes it is his preference to use ordinary and prudent means. It is not wrong to avoid danger, if God has not asked us to confront it. In Matthew 4 Satan urged Jesus to test his Father’s care by jumping off the pinnacle of the temple, and Jesus refused, quoting scripture, “You should not put the Lord your God to the test.”  For Joseph to ignore the dream and stay in Bethlehem would have been putting God to an unnecessary test.  

Herod massacres Bethlehem’s infants, 2:16-18

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.” 

2:16 Herod would have run out of patience quickly for the return of the magi. Furious because they had disobeyed him and tricked him, and now desperate to kill this child pretender to his throne, he sent his guards to kill all male children in Bethlehem two years old and younger. Herod guessed the age of the child from the time the magi had told him the star had first appeared. Of course, he couldn’t know if this figure was exact, but using it he set the upper limit at 2 years. We are in just a bad a position to know Jesus’ age at the time of the massacre, since the exact date of his birth is in dispute.[6] If we knew it, we could measure the time between that date and the known date of Herod’s death (4 BC). He died in early April of 4 BC in Jericho and was buried in a tomb 7.5 miles south of Jerusalem, near the Herodium. If Jesus was born in the year 6 BC, as many scholars believe, he could not have been over 2 years old at the time Herod ordered the massacre, and probably was much younger. There is no doubt that this massacre is historical. But it is also clear that for Matthew it provided a reminder to his readers of the futile and equally brutal act of the Egyptian pharaoh who ordered the murder of all the boy babies at the time of Moses' birth. There too, God was able to shield Moses from this fate, but at the cost of the lives of many other boy babies, whose mothers cried their hearts out like the mothers of Bethlehem. 
Because of the especially hideous nature of the act recorded here, Matthew departs from his usual way of quoting an Old Testament prediction. Usually he writes “Such-and-such occurred in order that it might be fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet.” Here he avoids “in order that,” saying only “then  the scripture was fulfilled …” This is because God never deliberately decrees cruelty and wickedness just to make a point.  
For the rest of his life Herod would wonder if the massacre of Bethlehem’s little children had included the promised child. In vain he would seek for the newborn King of the Jews, but never locate him.  That agony was a small part of his punishment for not repenting of his many sins and trusting in God’s appointed Savior. Even a man as wicked as Herod could have been saved by the child he sought to kill, if he had only repented and believed.
The death of Herod brought relief to many. Only then, for instance, did the community of Jewish “monks” at Qumran return to their center, which had been destroyed in 31 B.C., and rebuild it. In Egypt, Herod’s death made it possible for Joseph, Mary and the child, who awaited a word from the Lord, to return to their homeland. Because Herod knew how hated he was by so many Jews, in order to ensure that there would be mourning instead of rejoicing at the time of his death, he ordered in advance that a large number of prominent people should be executed at that time.

It has been well observed that “no one sings in Matthew’s infancy narrative as they do in Luke’s; instead they weep."

What a sorry picture of a human being was Herod the Great! God created humans in his own image, but Satan invites them to replace that image with his own. The picture is not a pretty one. I sometimes think that, if I could only see myself from the viewpoint of others around me, when I am sinning, would I not be nauseated at the sight? But the amazing thing is that God does see each of us from the outside—and in addition can even see us from the inside as we see ourselves—and instead of being nauseated, he longs to forgive us and lead us to repentance and renewed holiness. Only a god like our God can do that. Those rare Christians who gladly adopt His viewpoint can see the possibilities, even in a Herod, for repentance, faith and transformation.

Joseph and Mary return and settle in Nazareth, 2:19-23

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, that he would be called a Nazarene.

Refugees living in another country often choose to return home on the death of their former ruler. An ancient Egyptian named Sinuhe, who lived during the period of the Israelite patriarchs, ran afoul of the King of Egypt and fled to Palestine, where—like Moses in Midian years later—he impressed the locals, married the daughter of a local chieftain, and prospered in the land. But when news from Egypt told of the king’s death there, he couldn’t resist returning home, so that he might be buried in his home country. The patriarch Joseph also gave instructions that long after his death, when the Israelites succeeded in leaving Egypt to return to the Promised Land, they should take his bones up there with them and re-bury him in the land of his ancestors.
After word came to Mary’s husband Joseph in Egypt that Herod the Great had died, God sent a message in a dream to Joseph, instructing him to take Jesus and Mary and return to the land of Israel. On the way to Bethlehem, Joseph learned from Judeans that the Romans had installed one of Herod’s sons, Archelaus, over Judea, who was equally dangerous to Jesus. 

Matthew uses geography as symbols. For him—but not for the other gospel writers—Judea is a place filled with unbelief and danger for Jesus. Had his parents stopped and settled in Judea this time, he would have been killed. On his last visit to Judea he would be killed. It Matthew's symbolic vocabulary Galilee represents spiritual ignorance but a place where Jesus' ministry is welcome. Judea on the other hand represents knowledge, but stubborn and hardened unbelief and opposition to Jesus.  

The danger of Judea to the family of Jesus was confirmed by a second dream which warned Joseph not to stay in the southern province of Judea. So Joseph traveling north into Galilee, which was a safer region. Matthew doesn’t say that the dream specified their destination in Galilee, much less the specific town of Nazareth. But he does say that their choice of Nazareth fulfilled a prediction that he would be called a “Nazarene” (Matt 2:23), which implies that they chose the town that God had in mind for them all along. Luke tells us that Nazareth had been their original home, which they had left when traveling to Bethlehem for the Roman census (Luke 2:4). So now they were returning to an area that they knew well, with friends and relatives to protect and support them.
The role that the non-Jewish magi and the land of Egypt as a refuge played in protecting the Messiah is part of Matthew’s repeated theme of the Messiah’s broader mission and the receptivity of many among the gentiles. It is not a theme that was original with Matthew. In fact, one can find this theme even in many places in the Old Testament. It was an Egyptian pharaoh who, after Joseph’s brothers first sought to kill him and then sold him into slavery, raised him to the office of second-in-command over all Egypt. And there are many other examples one could cite. But it is important, nevertheless, to recognize what Matthew is trying to stress. He alone of the four gospels mentions the incidents of the magi and the seeking safety in Egypt; there has to be a reason for these inclusions. But equally important, Matthew reports that the family of Jesus knew that Jesus’ mission was to be first and foremost to his own Jewish people, and that such a mission could only be properly fulfilled by living in the land of Israel, not in Egypt. Creature comforts of Alexandria had to be sacrificed in the interest of the plan of God for Jerusalem, Judea and Galilee to behold the Messiah and believe in him.[7]

[1] Called a “star” in our translations. Astronomers have speculated whether it was a comet, an asteroid, or some temporary conjunction of visible planets. Again, although appealing to our curiosity, specifying the phenomenon is unimportant to the gospel message. Many think it was not a “natural” phenomenon at all, but an angelic manifestation.
[2] See Luke 2:19. Which indicates that she was certainly the source of Luke’s infancy accounts. Since Joseph never appears in the gospel narratives after the childhood of Jesus (he last appears in Luke 2:41-52), and up to that point he is portrayed as a believer, it is probable that he died before Jesus began his public ministry. Otherwise, of course, he too could have been Matthew’s source.
[3] For more information see the articles on the Magi, more briefly in the Holman Bible Dictionary and more fully in ISBE.
[4] The Testament of Levi is part of a composition called The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. This work is a part of the apocryphal scriptures connected with the Bible. It is a pseudepigraphical work comprising the dying commands of the twelve sons of Jacob.
[5] γυνὴ Χαναναία Mat 15:21-28 = Ἑλληνίς Συροφοινίκισσα Mk 7:26.
[6] ISBE gives the following: “Though challenged by some … the usual date for the death of Herod the Great, March, 4 BC (year of Rome 750), may be assumed as correct … . The birth of Jesus was before, and apparently not very long before, this event (Mt 2). It may therefore be placed with probability in the latter part of the previous year (5 BC), the ordinary dating of the commencement of the Christian era being thus, as is generally recognized, four years too late.”
[7] This theme is well stated by Gernot Garbe in his fascinating recent commentary on Matthew (in the German language) titled Der Hirte Israels (“The Shepherd of Israel”, Neukirchen, 2005).