Matthew 1:18-2:23

Matthew and Luke each tell a portion of the Christmas story.  Luke gives the background to Mary’s pregnancy while Matthew highlights the events that take place after Mary’s pregnancy becomes known.  In both cases we see God interceding in history in an unprecedented and miraculous way.  All of the Old Testament points to this – the Messiah comes and He comes as a baby born to a virgin.  The God of the universe enters His creation and in His entry does the impossible – He comes in both glory and humility.

1:18-25
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.

  • Don’t you love how Matthew phrases this? “Before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.”  Just another day in Nazareth – a virgin is pregnant by the Holy Spirit.  No need to highlight that this is just a little outside the norm.
  • Betrothal is just as binding as marriage – it requires a divorce to terminate. It typically lasts about one year.  If a man dies during the betrothal the woman is considered a widow.
  • By this time Mary is probably three or four months pregnant since she spent three months with Elizabeth (Lk 1:36, 39, 56) right after conception.
  • No way of knowing what she was found to be with child How does Joseph find out?  Does Mary tell him or is her family involved?  How many people know?
  • Nothing is said about either family’s reaction.
  • Virgin birth is not any more believable in Mary’s time than now. People around Mary don’t just write it off and say, “Good thing we’re Bible people, otherwise this would be really hard to believe.  But as we all know, things like this happen to Bible people, so we’re good.”  We have to remember that these are real people being asked to believe something that we would never believe in the same situation now.

19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly.

  • Notice that he’s called ‘her husband’ – this points to how betrothal is viewed.
  • Joseph is a righteous man. He cannot in good conscience marry a woman who has been unfaithful.  He cannot condone her violation of the Law.
  • If he marries her, he effectively admits that he’s the father.
  • Her pregnancy apparently is not known outside the family yet.
  • Mary technically could be stoned for adultery, but this is rarely done by this time. Instead she will be publicly humiliated and shunned if this gets out.  That’s why it’s merciful of Joseph to want to put her away secretly.  He could make a spectacle of her if he wanted to.
  • The scandal of this never goes away – see John 8:41.

20 But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.

  • Matthew doesn’t record anything about Mary trying to explain things to Joseph. Perhaps she does but since it’s not germane to the story Matthew doesn’t record it (this is very much Matthew’s style).  However, it could also be that she doesn’t try to explain what she knows he will never believe.  Or perhaps she knows God will take care of it?
  • Likely that the angel in Joseph’s dream is Gabriel (who appeared to Mary – Lk 1:26).
  • Isn’t it interesting how many times in the Bible God asks people to do outrageous things that have really difficult ramifications? And in asking them to do those things the payoff is just as outrageous and likely beyond the vision of the person being tasked?  “Joseph, your betrothed is pregnant but it’s of the Holy Spirit and you still need to marry her because the baby is the MESSIAH.  And don’t worry that no one will believe any of this and you’ll carry the stigma of fathering a child out of wedlock the rest of your life, because the baby is the MESSIAH.”  We must remember this when God superintends events and circumstances in our lives that seem to make no sense.
  • What a way to start a marriage! “You had an angel come to you?  So did I!”

21 She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”

  • Jesus = Yahweh saves.
  • His people = initially means the Jews, but ultimately will include all believers (Matt 12:50 and John 1:11-13).

22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.”
This is part of the prophecy given to Ahaz king of Judah when Pekah of Israel and Rezin of Aram tried to conquer Jerusalem and install their own king – II Kings 16.

24 And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife,
25 but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.

  • Like Mary in Luke 1, Joseph obeys without objection. He has to know what is in front of him.  He is now marked by scandal just like her.  He cannot claim she was unfaithful to him if he marries her.  He is now marked as an immoral man who could not wait until the wedding night to consummate the marriage with his betrothed.
  • Nothing compares to Mary’s experience, but how weird for Joseph to be a virgin father and know his oldest son is not his – but also is not anyone else’s?
  • Interesting thing to consider – do they still have a wedding? They are now considered married by society since they have obviously consummated the relationship.  That being the case – along with the likelihood that no one would attend a wedding of someone now scorned – could mean that no wedding ever takes place.  This is another way Mary’s life is turned upside down.
  • Remember what Nazareth is at this time. It is a town of 1500-2000 people that is considered the backwater of Galilee (a province considered a backwater by those who lived in Judea).  When Nathanael the disciple first hears Jesus is from Nazareth his instant response is, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).  This is the place that will reject Jesus after He begins His ministry and try to stone Him (Lk 4:16-30).  It is not too hard to imagine a very closed community where everyone knows everyone’s business and scandal spreads quickly.  Not a happy place for a pregnant virgin and her betrothed.
  • …until she gave birth to a Son = no reason to believe that Mary continues to be a virgin after the birth of Jesus. Why would Joseph go along with that???

2:1-23
1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,

  • We don’t know how long after the birth the magi come to Jerusalem. It’s interesting that Joseph and Mary are still in Bethlehem.  Since they’re about to leave for Egypt once Joseph has his dream, it seems to make sense that they just as easily could’ve traveled back to Nazareth before the wise men came.  That they didn’t may mean they don’t intend to go back at all.  Perhaps the scandal and scorn waiting for them at home makes them want to settle somewhere else.
  • Some traditions teach this part of the story takes place roughly two years after Jesus’ birth because of Herod’s instructions to execute all babies up to two years old (2:16). However, it’s likely that he issues those instructions to make sure every possible future Jewish king is killed.  Herod’s not known for subtle actions when his reign is threatened.  Thus, there’s really no way to know how long it’s been since Jesus’ birth when the wise men appear in Jerusalem.  We know they don’t come to the stable, but they could come to Bethlehem the next night (probably not, simply because Mary can make the trip to Egypt) or perhaps several months later.
  • Herod the Great was appointed king by the Roman Senate in 40 BC. He reigns until his death in 4 BC (a date arrived at from Josephus’ writings).  Christ was apparently born before 4 BC – long enough before to have the wise men come sometime during the first two years of His life and for His family to flee to Egypt to wait for Herod’s death.  Tertullian, the great Christian lawyer of the early third century, reported that the birth of Jesus occurred seven or eight years before the supposed date.  Censuses took place every 14 years – AD 20, 34, and 48.  Counting backward, previous censuses would have been in AD 6 and 8 BC.  So when Luke wrote, “Now it came about in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth,” the census in which the Holy Family was included would have been in 8 BC, agreeing with Tertullian’s estimate.  (Jock Elliott, Inventing Christmas)

2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”

  • The Magi may be familiar with OT writings through the large Jewish community living in Babylon (if that’s where they’re from). This would explain them asking for the King of the Jews.
  • No one really knows what His star refers to.
  • …worship him = may mean pay homage to a king rather than worship God.
  • Since they’re looking for the King of the Jews it makes sense for them to come to Jerusalem (the capital city and home to the current King of the Jews – Herod). They somehow know from the star that Israel is the place to go – but the star doesn’t guide them to any exact spot.
  • Why does God have the wise men go to Jerusalem? If He sends them directly to Bethlehem the slaughter of the boys doesn’t happen.  Even the prophecy cited by Matthew (2:18) could be interpreted as referring to something in the OT, meaning the massacre doesn’t have to happen to fulfill it.  We can never know, but perhaps God wants to show just how awful the sin Jesus comes to conquer really is.  A world where someone would murder a group of babies just to remove a threat is completely hopeless without a Savior.  Herod is really a type of all mankind – a vivid illustration of what we are apart from the Messiah.

3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

  • Herod had three sons, one wife, two brothers-in-law, and a mother-in-law [hard to fault him here] killed because of his paranoia, so it is not hard to imagine how much this troubles him. HE is the current “King of the Jews” – the title bestowed on him by the Roman Senate.
  • All Jerusalem is troubled because they don’t know what their maniac king might do in reaction to the message of the Magi.

4 Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
Interesting that Herod knows ‘King of the Jews’ means Messiah.

5 They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; for out of you shall come forth a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

  • It’s quite a commentary on their belief that the priests and scribes come up with this answer but don’t pursue it any further. They were just asked where the Messiah’s supposed to be born, but they don’t appear to want to go to Bethlehem and see what’s happened.  The magi have put their whole lives on hold and the local guys who know all the scriptures express no interest at all.  Does Herod keep the reason for his interest hidden (hard to believe he could if “all Jerusalem” was troubled over the magi’s question)?  Or are they so consumed by their books and learning that they no longer see?  They know the prophecy but apparently have no desire to find out if it’s been fulfilled.  This is what Bible knowledge without belief looks like.  This is also perhaps the first sign of the ultimate rejection of Christ by the Jews.
  • Who will shepherd My people Israel = Matthew adds this to the Micah 5:2 passage. It’s actually from II Samuel 5:2.

7 Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared.
8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.”

  • …secretly called = Herod may worry about making news of the Messiah public. He also does not want someone to warn the magi about his true motives.
  • He assumes the star appeared at Christ’s birth. He’s already planning for who and how many he might have to kill if he can’t find Jesus.  He doesn’t send an escort with the magi because they buy his story, and if he sends someone it will only arouse suspicion (God obviously works here to protect Jesus).
  • Amazing that Herod is threatened by the birth of a baby since he’s around 69 at this time. He could be worried about his sons’ claims to the throne, but he’s certainly never worried too much about them up to this point (since he killed three of them he thought were trying to overthrow him).  Paranoia and self-absorption are awful things and lead to irrational thinking.

9 After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was.

  • They already know to go to Bethlehem, so the star apparently just shows them the actual house.
  • Some have conjectured the star is an angel – this makes sense in that it can move and guide.

10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.
Apparently the star has not guided them continually.  They saw it in the East and now above Bethlehem.  This explains why they came to Jerusalem to ask for guidance.

11 After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
12 And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.

  • Notice that Joseph and Mary are in a house. Either they’re with family – which argues for the stable being just a place to deliver the baby – or they’re in permanent residence (which may explain why Joseph will want to return to Bethlehem after they come back from Egypt).
  • The magi worship only Jesus, not Mary.
  • Probably can’t read too much symbolism into the gifts other than they’re valuable and meant for a king. The gifts are possibly used to finance Joseph and Mary’s trip to Egypt.

13 Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.”
Egypt has a settlement of approximately 1MM Jews in Alexandria at this time.  It is a Roman province outside the jurisdiction of Herod.  That’s why it’s chosen over sending them back to Nazareth, where they’d still be within Herod’s reach.

14 So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt.
15 He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”

  • Egypt is 75-80 miles from Bethlehem.
  • Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1 which seems to be about Israel and the exodus. Matthew may refer to it here to show Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of God’s chosen Son.  Israel was the type of God’s Son but now the actual Son has come.
  • No way to know how long they’re in Egypt. It’s interesting, however, to consider that if Jesus was born in 8 BC and Herod died in 4 BC, and Herod had every child under 2 executed, then perhaps the family goes to Egypt sometime during the first two years of Jesus’ life and spends somewhere around two to three years there.  This, of course, is pure conjecture.

16 Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi.
17 Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more.”

  • Based on Bethlehem’s population this is probably 10-30 boys (a tragedy, but not one large enough in that day and age to be recorded for history). Just like Moses, Jesus is spared in the midst of horrific calamity.
  • Jeremiah 31 refers to the hope of the exiles that they will return. Perhaps Matthew quotes it here to show that out of this tragedy there is hope because Messiah has escaped.  Jeremiah 31:15 refers to weeping as Judah is exiled to Babylon.

19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, and said,
20 “Get up, take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child’s life are dead.”
21 So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel.
Per Josephus Herod dies a hideously painful death.  [His entrails were exulcerated, and the chief violence of his pain lay on his colon; an aqueous and transparent liquor also settled itself about his feet, and a like matter afflicted him at the bottom of his belly.  Nay, farther, his privy-member was putrified, and produced worms; and when he sat upright he had difficulty breathing, which was very loathsome, on account of the stench of his breath, and the quickness of its returns; he had also convulsions in all parts of his body, which increased in strength to an insufferable degree.  Josephus goes on to say that this was God’s judgment on a horrible life.]  Herod orders that one man from every wealthy Jewish family under his rule be killed as soon as he dies, so his death will be mourned and not celebrated.  Thankfully this command is not carried out.

22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee,
Herod changes his will shortly before his death and splits his kingdom into three parts instead of giving all of it to one son.  Antipas (who was in line for the whole kingdom) is given Galilee.  Archelaus (ahr-kee-LAY-uhs) – who is ruthless and maniacal like his father – is given Judea.  Philip, the third son, receives the northern and western parts of Herod’s kingdom (parts of modern-day Syria).  The text makes it sound like Joseph initially tries to return to Bethlehem but fears Archelaus as the psycho chip off the old block.  God tells him in a dream to return to Galilee, but it’s interesting to speculate about how excited he and Mary are to return there (“Are you sure we have to go back?  Maybe you should go dream again!”).  If it’s in fact been several years since they left, is it a strange homecoming when they return with a little boy and perhaps other children?

23 and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

  • It’s interesting how Matthew phrases this. He makes it sound like this is a random city they just happen to settle in instead of noting that it’s their hometown.  Perhaps he does this because he hasn’t mentioned Nazareth to this point in the story.
  • He shall be called a Nazarene = no OT text says this. Matthew may be saying that living in Nazareth ensures Messiah will be despised (Isaiah 49:7).  As noted above, Nazareth is considered a less than desirable place to live.
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