Matthew 2 Study Notes
2:1 The wise men were magi. Eastern magi mixed Zoroastrianism with astrology and black magic. They are described in Dn 2:2,4-5,10, where they are associated with diviner-priests, mediums, and sorcerers. The term magos (sg of magi) appears only once in the NT. It describes the sorcerer whom Paul portrayed as “full of all kinds of deceit and trickery” and a “son of the devil and enemy of all that is right” (Ac 13:6-10). The magus of whom Paul spoke would have held beliefs that were similar to those of the wise men. Thus, the summons of the magi to visit Jesus demonstrates God’s intention to save Gentiles from their futile religions. As an adult, Jesus cast out demons and broke Satan’s grip on beleaguered people. Here we see that even in his infancy, Christ plundered Satan’s kingdom and set captives free. The east may refer to Babylonia or Persia. King Herod was actually a client king ruling under Roman authority. Though he was Idumean and not a Jew, the Roman Senate named him king of Judea in 40 BC. He was an able ruler but brutal and suspicious.
2:2 The question posed by the wise men was an unintentional challenge to Herod’s reign. Jesus was born king in the sense that he was from David’s line and thus king by birthright. Herod, however, was neither a full Jew nor a descendant of David and thus was not genuinely qualified to reign as king. The word translated star can indicate many different astronomical phenomena, including comets, meteors, or planetary conjunctions. Matthew later (v. 9) described the star as moving through the sky in order to point the magi to Jesus’s precise location. This indicates that it was no ordinary star. At its rising indicates that the star mysteriously appeared in the eastern sky to signal Messiah’s birth. The interest of the magi in astrology, a practice condemned in the Bible (Is 47:13-15), probably first directed their attention to the star. In another profound display of grace, God condescended to use the magi’s pagan superstitions to draw them to Jesus.
2:3 Herod was disturbed by reports of the birth of a legitimate claimant to his throne. The people of Jerusalem were equally disturbed because they feared Herod’s paranoid and delusional rages. In the past he had killed even his favorite wife and sons in order to protect his rule.
2:4 Herod summoned expert scribes to learn where the OT said the Christ would be born. To this point the star had guided the wise men near to Jesus, but now the witness of the Scriptures was necessary before God caused the star to reappear and pinpoint the exact location. Thus the value of biblical revelation was upheld even as new revelations unfolded.
2:5-6 The “chief priests and scribes” (v. 3) knew Scripture well enough to identify Bethlehem as Christ’s birthplace (Mc 5:2; Jn 7:42), but nevertheless they later opposed his teachings. Knowledge of Scripture does not guarantee that your heart is right with God. The priestly opposition to Jesus is foreshadowed here by the fact that they made no effort to go visit him even as the magi undertook the last leg of a long journey to do so. Micah 5:2 foretold that Bethlehem would be the birthplace of a king, a ruler who would shepherd . . . Israel. Although Micah said that the promised prince would “rule” over Israel, Matthew’s translation says that Messiah will “shepherd” Israel. Matthew likely chose this word to reflect Micah’s use in 5:4 and thus show that the entirety of Mc 5 applies to Jesus. This indicates that Jesus is eternal since Micah says, “His origin is from antiquity, from ancient times” (v. 2). Micah’s prophecy also said that the shepherd’s “greatness will extend to the ends of the earth” (v. 4).
2:7-8 Herod questioned the magi about the exact time of the star’s appearance under the assumption that the star first appeared at the time of the child’s birth. On the basis of this date, he ordered the execution of all male children in Bethlehem two years of age and under (v. 16). This implies that the magi’s journey was lengthy and involved great sacrifice. Herod’s pretended desire to worship Messiah highlights his deceitfulness.
2:9-12 In contrast to the stable in which Jesus was born (Lk 2), Jesus’s family now lived in a house. This shows that the magi visited Jesus after the visit of the shepherds described by Luke. The magi worshiped Jesus openly, as did many other people during his lifetime (8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20; 28:9,17). Jesus’s reception of worship reinforces his identity as Immanuel, “God is with us” (1:23). Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were costly gifts. The latter two are aromatic resins. Frankincense was used in making incense and perfume (see Ex 30:34-35). Myrrh was used as an ingredient in anointing oil (30:23-25), as a perfume (Ps 45:8), and in burial preparations (Jn 19:39).
2:13-14 Again an angel visited Joseph in a dream warning him of Herod’s intent. Herod was a cruel and paranoid ruler. See note at 2:3. So it is not surprising that he would commit treachery against children due to a perceived threat (v. 16). Joseph promptly obeyed when he was told to flee to Egypt. See note at 1:24-25.
2:15 That what was spoken had to be fulfilled indicates that the Bible is inspired by God and authoritative over history. In its original context, the calling of the son out of Egypt in Hs 11 is a reference to Israel’s exodus from Egypt, not young Messiah’s trip back home. Matthew understood this, but under the Spirit’s direction he recognized Jesus as the new Moses who will lead a new and climactic exodus. Just as Moses delivered his people from slavery to Pharaoh, Jesus will deliver people from slavery to Satan. Thus Matthew rightly regarded Hs 11:1 and other portions of the OT as foreshadows of Jesus and events in his life.
2:16 Skeptics deny that Herod ever slaughtered the boys of Bethlehem since no extrabiblical source documents this horrific event. However, the murders are consistent with his documented dealings, such as his murdering his own family. The Jewish historian Josephus reported that Herod arranged for many Jewish nobles to be murdered upon his death in order to ensure that the land mourned his passing (Ant. 17.167-69). Herod’s behavior is reminiscent of Pharaoh’s around the time of Moses’s birth (Ex 1:15-22). This and other striking similarities to Moses’s birth narrative strengthen Matthew’s presentation of Jesus as the new Moses whom God promised in Dt 18:15-19. Ancient Jews thought of Moses as a deliverer (Ac 7:25,35). By highlighting parallels between Moses and Jesus, Matthew shows that Jesus was the promised deliverer who would save his people from their sins (see notes at Mt 1:7-16 and 2:20-21). Herod killed all boys two years old and under in and around Bethlehem because the star had appeared to the magi two years previously, presumably at the moment of Jesus’s birth.
2:17-18 Once again Matthew introduces a quotation in a way that implies that the OT author (Jeremiah in this case) was used by God to proclaim his message. This was the unquestioned view among religious Jews from the day of the prophets down to Jesus’s day. In v. 18 Matthew quotes Jr 31:15, which originally expressed the lament of mothers who grieved over sons who were sent into exile. Matthew’s application here implies that Israel was again in exile, estranged from God, and in need of redemption. Since Jr 31 includes the weeping and then climaxes with the joyous promise that God would establish a new covenant with his people, one in which he would forgive their sins and write his law on their hearts, Matthew likely intends to call this to mind and apply it to the Bethlehem massacre and the coming of Jesus. Just as the weeping of mothers preceded the promise of the new covenant in Jr 31, so now the weeping of mothers preceded the establishment of the new covenant through Jesus (see note at 26:27-28).
2:19 Since Herod died in 4 BC and since Jesus was born roughly two years before Herod ordered the massacre of the Bethlehem boys, it seems that Jesus was born in 5 or 6 BC. It also seems likely that the shameless Bethlehem massacre was one of Herod’s final acts.
2:20-21 The angel’s words are almost identical to the words the Lord spoke to Moses from the burning bush (Ex 4:19, LXX). This allusion to the Moses narrative again identifies Jesus as the new Moses (see notes at 2:15 and 2:16). Jesus, now perhaps three years old, returns from Egypt with his family.
2:22-23 Archelaus, son of Herod the Great, inherited his father’s violent traits. His rule over Judea signaled that the holy family should settle elsewhere, and so Joseph led his family to resettle in the obscure Galilean village of Nazareth, where Joseph and Mary had previously lived (Lk 1:26). Rather than a specific OT text, Matthew was probably referring to an OT theme, the prophecies that describe the Messiah as a “branch.” The term used for “branch” in Is 11:1 (netser) may be transliterated with the first three consonants (nzr) that compose the nouns “Nazareth” and “Nazarene.” This messianic prophecy is closely connected to others (Is 4:2; Jr 23:5; 33:15) that told of a righteous descendant of David whose wise and just rule would be empowered by the Spirit and who would bring salvation to Judah. Matthew thus saw Jesus’s hometown as a subtle clue to his identity as Messiah.