Last week, David reminded us that this narrative of the gospel was about real people who were wrestling with the events that God ordained concerning the one that God chose to be the Messiah. The focus was on Mary and Joseph - who, by the way, were probably in their teen years during the time of the birth of Jesus.
***(It is possible/probable that Joseph was significantly older than Mary, which may account for his relatively early assumed death, but we don’t really know for sure.)
There are some other real people that Matthew includes in this narrative, and I think they are worth looking at as well. Remember that chapters 1-2 are setting a stage for the rest of the story for Matthew, so it is helpful to take time to examine all the details.
Matthew actually brings out at least 4 different people/groups of people and how the respond to the news of the birth of the King of the Jews.
As we read, let’s see if you can identify them with me: ⚡
Matthew 2:1–4 CSB
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod, wise men from the east arrived in Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star at its rising and have come to worship him.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was deeply disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 So he assembled all the chief priests and scribes of the people and asked them where the Messiah would be born.
Who did you notice? [Herod, wise men, all Jerusalem, chief priests & scribes].
Before we read the rest of the chapter, I want to introduce one of the main characters: Herod. There are actually several Herods in the Bible. This one in the one known as “Herod the Great”.
Herod the Great was given the title, “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate in 40 BC and he conquered Jerusalem in 37 BC. He was NOT from the line of David.
Herod was an Edomite. What does that mean? Well, when we read the genealogy of Jesus, we started with Abraham, then Isaac and then Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel). What was the name of Jacob’s older brother? Esau. And he was the father of the Edomites. So Herod was a Jew, but he was not from the line of Jacob, but rather of Esau - and, just as the sibling rivalry was strong between Jacob and Esau, there was hostility between the Edomites and the Israelites.
Herod was known for his introducing Hellenism [Greek linguistic, political, social, cultural, historical, and religious beliefs and practices] throughout Judea and also for his construction projects.
Caesarea - ⚡a major city on the northern coast of Judaea, located on the Mediterranean Sea and named for Caesar Augustus. Not only did it model Roman architecture, such the theater which is still used today, ⚡but it utilized the roman aqueduct system for getting water to it. This is the same place that many of the events in the book of Acts takes place. This opened up trade between Alexandria, Egypt and Rome. This is where Pontius Pilate eventually lived, who we will meet in Matthew 27.
The Herodium - ⚡a dessert fortress on top of a hill. This is the place he was eventually believed to be buried.
Masada - ⚡his palace fortress. “Masada’s name (“fortress”) offers a description of its imposing, natural features: a broad plateau of about 30 acres perched 400 meters (1,300 feet) above the surrounding landscape.”
Rebuilt Temple - Herod rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem! ⚡Of course, the Romans destroyed it again in AD 70, but this was one of his most lavish building projects. The “Western Wall” or “Wailing Wall” that people visit in Jerusalem is a remnant of Herod’s temple. This bigger version of the temple was completed before Jesus was born, though construction on other parts of the complex continued until 60 AD. The core of the temple remained the same, though embellished. It has the holy of holies, the sanctuary and the vestibule. Outside of that,⚡ Herod built four courts that rose in elevation the closer they got to the temple. Farthest out was the Court of the Gentiles, then the Court of the Women, then the Court of Israel (men only) and finally the Court of Priests located directly in front of the core temple.
This is the temple there the devil took Jesus to the top and tempted him. Matthew 4:5
This is the temple court where Jesus drove out the merchants. Matthew 22
This is the temple about which Jesus said, Matthew 12:6 “I tell you that something greater than the temple is here.”
Herod probably rebuilt the temple to try to keep the Jews happy. He also built a temple to Augustus, so he was certainly not a loyal Yahweh follower.
Another thing Herod was known for was his cruelty, not only to those who opposed him, but he was believed to have killed three of his sons, one of his wives (he had 10 of them) and her mother and grandmother.
He was a paranoid leader - which is the reason he killed his sons. He felt threatened and wanted to get rid of any threat to his throne.
The Lexham Bible Dictionary Demise
Herod issued two commands to be performed upon his death:
By the time the events of Matthew 1-2 took place, he was nearing the end of his days and continue to grow more paranoid and more cruel.
Let’s finish reading the chapter and then we can examine the response of each:
Matthew 2 (CSB)
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod, wise men from the east arrived in Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star at its rising and have come to worship him.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was deeply disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 So he assembled all the chief priests and scribes of the people and asked them where the Messiah would be born. 5 “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they told him, “because this is what was written by the prophet: 6 And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah: Because out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” 7 Then Herod secretly summoned the wise men and asked them the exact time the star appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you find him, report back to me so that I too can go and worship him.” 9 After hearing the king, they went on their way. And there it was—the star they had seen at its rising. It led them until it came and stopped above the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and falling to their knees, they worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their own country by another route. 13 After they were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Get up! Take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. For Herod is about to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night, and escaped to Egypt. 15 He stayed there until Herod’s death, so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled: Out of Egypt I called my Son. 16 Then Herod, when he realized that he had been outwitted by the wise men, flew into a rage. He gave orders to massacre all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, in keeping with the time he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then what was 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 consoled, because they are no more. 19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, because those who intended to kill the child are dead.” 21 So he got up, took the child and his mother, and entered the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned in a dream, he withdrew to the region of Galilee. 23 Then he went and settled in a town called Nazareth to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.
Probably the most famous of these groups of people is the wise guys. But the villain of this scene, and a guy whose family will remain in focus throughout the life of Jesus, is Herod.
So, when a paranoid man who was appointed king of the Jews by the Roman senate gets word that some magicians from out of town heard of a new King of the Jews (born into it, not appointed) he is going to do what he has historically done - try to eliminate the threat.
He attempts to learn who this new king is by having the wise men tell him. What a fox! When the wise men escape, Herod just broadened his target a little and ordered that all the children under age two killed - and that was the age he determined based upon the time the star appeared to the wise men.
God warned Joseph and they fled to Egypt.
When Herod killed all the 2 year old children, that was in and around Bethlehem, which was just a small village, so most likely that was a small number and not the mass annihilation of all Jewish children under the age of 2. It is still a horrific act!
In verse 19 we read that Herod the Great died.
Matthew 2:19 CSB
19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt,
QUIZ : what year was Jesus born?
The Herod mentioned in this passage died in 4 BC. That means Jesus was born before that. If Jesus was 1-2 years old at the time they took flight in Egypt then the latest birth date of Jesus would be 5 BC. However, if he was 2 years old and if they spent a few years in Egypt, then it could have been as early as 8 BC. Most seem to place the birth at 5-6 BC.
The Lexham Bible Dictionary Demise
Upon Herod’s request, his lands were divided among three of his sons:
Matthew mentioned that Archelaus was ruling and that Joseph was still afraid. He was the new Judean king and we do not hear much about him. Antipas (or Herod Antipas) become a sub ruler over the region of Galilee. Herod Antipas is the Herod we will learn more about in the gospel.
OK, so if we go back to Matthew 2:3 we are introduced to a second group of people: “3 When King Herod heard this, he was deeply disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.”
We are told that the people in Jerusalem were deeply disturbed, but we are not told why. Possibly:
because a Jewish uprising could bring the wrath of Herod the Great
because a Jewish uprising could bring the wrath of ROME!
maybe because Jews who were looking for the Messiah wanted to be free from Rome?
There was a lot of tension between the Jews and Rome. Since the day Herod the Great violently took over Jerusalem, resistance was present. It stayed underground for about 100 years when the first big Jewish Revolt took place. There were several revolts, and it was during these that the Romans finally destroyed Herod’s temple in 70 AD.
When the wise men arrived with their news, it made waves! It began a stir in the people and it was unsettling. Something big was about to happen but what? There was certainly tension among the people!
Speaking of the wise men… they brings us to our third group of people.
QUIZ - how many wise men were there? [answer: we have NO idea!]
These poor guys are very often mis-represented in their part of the story. For instance, we do not know how many there were. However, because it mentioned that 3 gifts were given it has been assumed that there were three of them.
Another thing we often do is put these guys in our little Christmas nativity scenes, with the shepherds and animals and Jesus in a manger. It is THEIR STAR that is often hovering above the manger scene. This is ridiculously inaccurate according to Matthew.
Matthew 2:9–10 CSB
9 After hearing the king, they went on their way. And there it was—the star they had seen at its rising. It led them until it came and stopped above the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overwhelmed with joy.
That is the part we like to quote, BUT… read verse 11:
Matthew 2:11 CSB
11 Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and falling to their knees, they worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
What type of structure did the wise men enter? A house. Not a stable. So the star came to stop over a house, not a barn full of animals. Apparently this is some time after the census, and Mary and Joseph were able to get out of the barn and move into a home.
Also, when Herod flew into a rage, notice the age of the kids he had killed:
Matthew 2:16 CSB
16 Then Herod, when he realized that he had been outwitted by the wise men, flew into a rage. He gave orders to massacre all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, in keeping with the time he had learned from the wise men.
Most likely, Jesus was between one and two, not a baby wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger, by the time the wise men visit.
If the star appeared about two years prior, this also means that these wise men may have been traveling for 1-2 years just to find Jesus!
They saw the star and knew it announced the king of the Jews. HOW they knew this we do not know. BUT, during a time of Roman control, these magi from the east came to give gifts and honor to a child who would be king.
They were from the EAST. East is where Babylon and Assyria are. These were people from the land that was distant from God and symbolic of pagan worship. Their title, magi, is where we get our word “magician” and it conjures up all sort of images.
It is rather interesting that Matthew, who is writing to a Jewish audience, does NOT introduce us to the group of Jewish Shepherds that were watching over their sheep. Instead, he focuses on the actions of the pagan king and the journey of mystics from the East.
These guys truly are wise! Listen to their encounter with Jesus and with God:
We expect God to speak to Joseph and Mary, right? But in the same way that God spoke to Joseph he also spoke to the wise men - in a dream:
Matthew 2:12 CSB
12 And being warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their own country by another route.
God chose to protect these guys from Herod!
Imagine taking a trip for a census and uprooting your family, to then try to work out a living in a new town. THEN, god tells you to go to another place 400 miles away. How do you finance that? God provided through these wise guys from the east. They were the instrument God used to provide the resources for Joseph ad his family.
In the most literal sense, they knelt before him. The word used here for worship is translated at kneel as well.
Why this focus?
To have people from the east come and worship Jesus is a tremendous picture of God’s plan.
God did not choose Israel at the expense of the other nations, but through it to bless the other nations. These wise men represent the other nations! God’s gift of salvation was for all nations, and this was presented even at the birth of Jesus.
That brings us to the last group:
Matthew 2:4–6 CSB
4 So he assembled all the chief priests and scribes of the people and asked them where the Messiah would be born. 5 “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they told him, “because this is what was written by the prophet: 6 And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah: Because out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”
They KNEW where the child would be born, and they knew that this group of mystics was searching for the one who was born the Messiah. Why would they stay put? Wouldn’t they want to go and see for themselves that the Messiah had come?!
The Sanhedrin, the ruling religious board of the day, was at odds with Herod the Great. They did NOT have a good relationship. This group of religious leaders should have been VERY excited about the possibility of the Messiah!
Those that SHOULD have been seeking Jesus did nothing.
Maybe they could not for fear of Herod? Maybe they were just indifferent? But I have a feeling if any of them had said, “We can go corroborate and bring you a full report”, the paranoid Herod would have let them!
These 4 people groups represent the ways that people throughout the gospel will respond to Jesus:
some will feel threatened and do what they can to destroy Jesus.
some will act indifferent and just sit back on the sidelines watching others.
some will seek Jesus and worship him.
others, though they know about Jesus, will not actually seek him.
But these people groups also represent the way people still react to Jesus today. Those of us who are Christians will, of course, share the good news with others. When we do we can expect the some types of responses.
I would ask you to consider which group you associate with today?
Some will feel threatened because the life Jesus brings is in opposition to the way they are living.
Others will seem indifferent or even overly accepting - like they accept all religions and all people and do not see anything special about Jesus.
Others will see the reality of who Jesus is, what God accomplished by sending Jesus and the life and hope that He brings. That will cause them to kneel at the feet of Jesus and surrender their very lives to Him.
Which are you? Does the life that Jesus talked about threaten you? Does the Bible just seem like a good moral code to live by and Jesus a great role model? Or, has your searching brought you to the place to humble submission to God’s rule in your life?