Lexegete™ | Year A | Matthew
EPIPHANY OF OUR LORD
January 6, 2008
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 (11)
1a. CONTEXT: MATTHEW 2:1-12
This pericope has little to connect it with the preceding chapter except
the birth of Jesus, but just as with the foregoing, the interest is not
biographical. The story has two main emphases. The first is the struggle
between King Herod and the baby king. This conflict calls to mind the Old
Testament story of Pharaoh and the Infant Moses (cf. Hebrews 3:1-6). As
in the birth of Jesus, Moses' birth was foretold by an Egyptian scholar-
astrologer and a turmoil ensues. Pharaoh calls together all the Egyptian
astrologers. Based upon their information he orders the execution of all
Hebrew male infants, hoping to slay the newborn savior of Israel
(Josephus, ANTIQUITIES, ii 205-6, 215). In like manner, Herod convenes
the chief priests and teachers of the law to learn what he can about this
newborn king, but he relies upon the return of the Magi for complete
information. One wonders why he didn't send soldiers or at least spies,
rather that trust strangers.
Matthew has an interest in establishing Jesus' birth in the royal city of
David, Bethlehem. This is done by means of inserting Micah 5:1-2 in his
story at verse 6. This quotation already was interpreted in a messianic
way by the Jews. The last line of verse 6 suggests Micah 5:3-4, but its
actual wording is found in 2 Samuel 5:2, which is a promise to David.
The "Herod" of verse 1 is undoubtedly Herod the Great, thus Jesus' birth
is dated in 7 B.C. when a brilliant conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter lit up
However this date is not easily confirmed, for about 11 B.C. Halley's
comet shot across the skies, and in the years through 2 B.C.l, there was
another rare phenomenon. On the first day of the Egyptian month of Mesori,
the dog star Sirius rose at sunrise and shone incandescently. There is
unusual significance here, for the name Mesori means "birth of a prince"
and to astrologers such a star would herald the nativity of a great king.
To further complicate the matter, the Lucan narrative dates Jesus' birth
6-7 A.D. because of the tax enrollment and the governorship of Quirinius.
But the Matthean author knows nothing of a journey to Bethlehem.
There is some evidence from Herodotus that the Magi were Medes, a
part of the Persian Empire which became a tribe of priests much like the
Levites in Israel. They were knowledgeable in the sciences, interpreting
dreams, and were men of wisdom and holiness; hence the name "wisemen."
Like all learned men of their day, they practiced astrology. Since it was
their profession to watch the heavens, such a brilliant heavenly display
bespoke the birth of a king.
Tacitus tells of the belief widespread throughout the known world at
the time of Jesus' birth that a king was to be born: "There was a firm
persuasion...that at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and
rulers coming from Judaea were to acquire universal empire." (Tacitus,
HISTORIES, 5:13.) We find other such references in Josephus, Suetonius,
as well as Virgil, the Roman poet who wrote of the golden days to come.
In Numbers 24:17, the messiah himself is referred to as a star. The phrase
"king of the Jews" (basileus ton Ioudaion) places the infant Jesus in
opposition to Herod the Great, as does yearning of foreign dignitaries to
"fall down and worship him."
In this story we see one of the central themes of Matthew, the
relationship between Israel and the gentiles illuminated both by the
pagans who worship the child and the Jewish king who refuses to accept
him. Jesus is portrayed as the new Moses, sent by God to save the people
of Israel and at peril from those holding worldly authority, even in the
manger. Unlike Moses, Jesus is worshipped as king of the universe. The
messiah is exalted by those who nothing of God except the beacons they
see in the heavens, while the recognized authorities reject him. Hence
both Israel's rejection and the nature of his kingdom are indicated, and
even the city of the messiah....Bethlehem...will not be a haven for long.
Matthew's author wants to portray the unique status of Jesus as the
savior of all humankind. Additionally, he is concerned with the image of
Jesus as a forerunner of the life of Christian discipleship. At birth Jesus
is Immanuel, the Son of God; forced to wander, at enmity with the world
whose servant-king he is, but guided and protected by God Almighty.
1b. TEXT: MATTHEW 2:1-12
The Visit of the Wise Men
2:1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men  from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose  and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
-- ESV: English Standard Version
GreekBible.com Online Text Copyright Info
Novum Testamentum Graece, Nestle-Aland 26th edition
© 1979, Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart;
The Greek New Testament, 3rd edition
© 1975, United Bible Societies, London
1του δε ιησου γεννηθεντος εν βηθλεεμ της ιουδαιας εν ημεραις ηρωδου του βασιλεως, ιδου μαγοι απο ανατολων παρεγενοντο εις ιεροσολυμα 2λεγοντες, που εστιν ο τεχθεις βασιλευς των ιουδαιων; ειδομεν γαρ αυτου τον αστερα εν τη ανατολη και ηλθομεν προσκυνησαι αυτω. 3ακουσας δε ο βασιλευς ηρωδης εταραχθη και πασα ιεροσολυμα μετ αυτου, 4και συναγαγων παντας τους αρχιερεις και γραμματεις του λαου επυνθανετο παρ αυτων που ο χριστος γενναται. 5οι δε ειπαν αυτω, εν βηθλεεμ της ιουδαιας: ουτως γαρ γεγραπται δια του προφητου: 6και συ, βηθλεεμ γη ιουδα, ουδαμως ελαχιστη ει εν τοις ηγεμοσιν ιουδα: εκ σου γαρ εξελευσεται ηγουμενος, οστις ποιμανει τον λαον μου τον ισραηλ. 7τοτε ηρωδης λαθρα καλεσας τους μαγους ηκριβωσεν παρ αυτων τον χρονον του φαινομενου αστερος, 8και πεμψας αυτους εις βηθλεεμ ειπεν, πορευθεντες εξετασατε ακριβως περι του παιδιου: επαν δε ευρητε απαγγειλατε μοι, οπως καγω ελθων προσκυνησω αυτω. 9οι δε ακουσαντες του βασιλεως επορευθησαν, και ιδου ο αστηρ ον ειδον εν τη ανατολη προηγεν αυτους εως ελθων εσταθη επανω ου ην το παιδιον. 10ιδοντες δε τον αστερα εχαρησαν χαραν μεγαλην σφοδρα. 11και ελθοντες εις την οικιαν ειδον το παιδιον μετα μαριας της μητρος αυτου, και πεσοντες προσεκυνησαν αυτω, και ανοιξαντες τους θησαυρους αυτων προσηνεγκαν αυτω δωρα, χρυσον και λιβανον και σμυρναν. 12και χρηματισθεντες κατ οναρ μη ανακαμψαι προς ηρωδην, δι αλλης οδου ανεχωρησαν εις την χωραν αυτων.
2. ANALYSIS: MATTHEW 2:1-12
MATTHEW 2:1 - Bethlehem was a little town 6 mi. to the south of
Jerusalem. Also it was the place Ruth lived after she married Boaz, and it
is the site of the pillar beside the grave where Jacob buried his beloved
Rachel. Most of all Bethlehem was the city of David. It was here that
Jews expected the birth of God's anointed one. The name Bethlehem means
"The House of Bread" and it was here the one who as the bread of life
entered the world in a stable.
Mt. 2:2 - The verb "to worship" (proskuneisai) refers to prostration in the
presence of the king or God and means worship in the literal sense of the
word. Hence the desire of the Magi to worship him stresses the universal
significance of Jesus from the very beginning.
Mt. 2:3 - Herod's terror at the idea of a messiah was well-founded. Herod
was half Jews and half Idumaean. There was Edomite blood in his veins
and his parents were Jewish converts. He had been a tool of Rome. He was
called "The Great" because he had brought peace and order to Palestine.
And he was a great builder, having built the Temple in Jerusalem. Yet his
nature was bitter, warped and murderous. He killed his wife, his
mother-in-law and three sons when he thought they might rival his power.
Thus he feared any messianic movement that might dispute his right to the
Mt. 2:4 - There was a history of severe tension between the chief priests
and the teachers of the law of the people. It is difficult to believe that
even Herod could have successfully called them together.
Mt. 2:10 - The astrologers' joy at finding the baby is powerfully portrayed
in the Greek. "When they say the star they rejoiced (echareisan) with
exceeding (sphodra), great (megalein) joy (charan). How happy they were,
what gladness they felt" (cf. Luke 2:10).
Mt. 2:11 - The gifts are royal gifts (Ps. 72:10-11, 15; 45:7-9; also Isaiah
60:6; Song of Solomon 3:6) of gold (chrusos) for the king Jesus "the Man
born to be King," frankincense (libanos) for the priest and bridge-builder to
God, and myrrh (smurna) for the embalming of the dead, and Jesus is the
one who is to die.
Mt. 2:12 - Once again a dream plays an important role as the vehicle for
God's message. The magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod and
they do not. Joseph was told in a dream "...take Mary to be your wife...she
will give birth to a son...he will save his people from their sins."
Matthew's church is thought to have been located in Syria around AD 70.
An association with Palestinian Judaism and the fundamental
interpretation of the law is clearly delineated. Likewise a familiarity
with the gentile world and the admission of pagans into the church are
accepted facts. The Jewish background of Matthew's gospel is apparent.
The debate on keeping the Law is a central question (5:17-20) and the
Sabbath is being observed (24:20). Plainly the evangelist author of
Matthew was a Jewish Christian of the Syrian church, who had to deal
with Gentile and Jew. Hence the universal theme of Matthew 2:1-12 would
have struck a responsive chord with his community, as would the call to
follow Christ's life as a wanderer, yet obedient to God in the life of
3. STRATEGY: Matthew 2:1-12
The Universal theme of this Matthean pericope is strengthened when
combined with the Lectionary text Ephesians 3:1-12. There Paul speaks
of how "...the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of
one body, and shares together in the promise in Christ Jesus." It is a
powerful message for the universal church which has become a reality
Psalm 60:1-6, which states that "kings will come to the brightness of
your dawn...bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the
Lord," shows in the visit by the Magi the fulfillment of the promise given
in the Old Testament. There is a reluctance today to see the New
Testament as a fulfillment of the Old Testament. Though this can be
overdone, certain great scholars, such as Gerhard Von Rad, affirm the
validity of doing so [see THE MESSAGE OF THE PROPHETS].
Hence it would be possible and authentic to develop a sermon based upon
the similarities between the Moses-Pharaoh story and the Jesus-Herod
story. This could become quite interesting. One would have to be cautious
and clearly delineate the differences. Only one, Jesus, was the Son of
God, the one who died on the cross.
Another theme that might be explored is what it means to be a disciple
of Christ...the wanderer, the king with no throne, the lover of the world
who is the brunt of its enmity and the savior of all the nations...still
unaccepted by even those who know him well. If this is to be our way,
how do we live in such an alien place?
Our text divides its participants into three groups:
(1) Herod, who despised Jesus and sought to kill him rather than
share his power.
(2) The chief priests and teachers of the Law who were indifferent to him.
They were preoccupied with their rituals and legal discourses. They had
little time for him.
(3) The Magi, the outsiders, the aliens who sought him out and when they
found him were overjoyed and worshipped him. How are we to exist
in this world when we face these same three types of people?
What do we do? We have our moments of seeing, but the journey of faith
is sometimes in darkness.
John Killinger wrote a small piece entitled "At the end of the journey is
Christ." In it he pointed out that we often think that the Christian is to
experience Christ as the journey's beginning. But the real surprise in store
for us all is that he is at the journey's end as well. He goes on to develop
the theme of pilgrimage through the darkness, noting that for the wise
men there was no question about whether the journey was worthwhile.
Killinger says this is "good news to those who are in a darkened phase of
their life's journey, isn't it? When you have lost the star, hold on; you will
come out on the other end of the darkness, and there will be light you
cannot no believe. That is what our faith is all about: He has been there
all the time. Through all the darkness and all the struggles, past all the
pitfalls and all the valleys, he is there. And that is what sustains all wise
men, or women, on their journeys" (p. 116).
Paul ends his message with these words, "I ask you, therefore, not to be
discouraged..." This word of encouragment might be the most powerful theme
of all as we celebrate the Epiphany, the festival of the manifestation
of Christ to us, the Gentiles. Immanuel--God is with us.
4. REFERENCES: Matthew 2:1-12
Josephus. COMPLETE WORKS. (See Book Two: THE JEWISH ANTIQUITIES.)
Grand Rapids,MI: Kregel, 1960.
Schweizer, Eduard. THE GOOD NEWS ACCORDING TO MATTHEW. Atlanta
John Knox Press, 1975.
Killinger, John, "At the End of the Journey is Christ," in James Cox,ed.
THE MINISTER'S MANUAL 1986. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986.
von Rad, Gerhard. THE MESSAGE OF THE PROPHETS. New York: Harper and
5. WORSHIP SUGGESTIONS: Matthew 2:1-12
Three hymns that are suggested for Epiphany by the United Methodist
IN BETHLEHEM 'NEATH STARLIT SKIES (UMH 377),
AS WITH GLADNESS MEN OF OLD (UMH 397, HB 119,LBW 82), and
BRIGHTEST AND BEST OF THE STARS OF THE MORNING (UMH 400,LBW 84,
HB 117/8). Two of these are based on the Matthean pericope.
Other recommended hymns for this day are:
IN CHRIST THERE IS NO EAST OR WEST (UMH 192,HB 529,LBW359)
COME THOU LONG EXPECTED JESUS(UMH 350,HB 66, LBW30)
WE THREE KINGS OF ORIENT ARE (UMH 402,HB 128)
O LOVE, HOW DEEP (LBW 88,HB 448/9)
O WONDROUS TYPE, O VISION FAIR (LBW 80,HB 136/7)
There is a scarcity of children's messages which address this theme, but
one which I have used to develop the universality of Christ for children is
the song "Ordinary Baby" from a song in the cantata HE STARTED THE
WHOLE WORLD SINGING by Bill and Gloria Gaither. When presenting this
message I try to help the children grasp the significance of Christ as an
infant, hungry, helpless, crying and needing love as we all did and do.
Exegete: Rev. Saundra Craig
LEXEGETE © 2008