A missional reading of Matthew 2

August 10, 2011 in Bible, Mark, Mission, Theology by Mark

Our Bible study group continued a couple of weeks ago in our study of Matthew, trying to read each chapter as the original hearers would have heard it, in order to understand the missional implications of Matthew’s words for them in their situation, and then for us in ours. Here are some of our thoughts…

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, 2 “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose,and we have come to worship him.”

3 King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. 4 He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:

6 ‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
are not least among the ruling cities of Judah,
for a ruler will come from you
who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. 8 Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”

9 After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! 11 They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

12 When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.

The Escape to Egypt

13After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,” the angel said. “Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 That night Joseph left for Egypt with the child and Mary, his mother, 15 and they stayed there until Herod’s death. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “I called my Son out of Egypt.”

16 Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance. 17 Herod’s brutal action fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A cry was heard in Ramah—
weeping and great mourning.
Rachel weeps for her children,
refusing to be comforted,
for they are dead.”

The Return to Nazareth

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. 20“Get up!” the angel said. “Take the child and his mother back to the land of Israel, because those who were trying to kill the child are dead.”

21 So Joseph got up and returned to the land of Israel with Jesus and his mother. 22 But when he learned that the new ruler of Judea was Herod’s son Archelaus, he was afraid to go there. Then, after being warned in a dream, he left for the region of Galilee. 23 So the family went and lived in a town called Nazareth. This fulfilled what the prophets had said: “He will be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2)

The wise men are Gentiles coming from the East. They are the first to call Jesus the King of the Jews. This is mirrored by another Gentile, Pilate, calling Jesus the King of the Jews in very different circumstances at the end of the gospel.

The prophecy that Matthew highlights in verse 6 is a combination of Micah 5:2-3, speaking of the return of Israel from exile, together with 2 Samuel 5:2, where the words are spoken of in reference to King David.

So in these first few verses we again have the key themes from chapter one of the kingship of Jesus, the return from exile of Israel, and people of all nations being part of what God is doing.

The theme of kingship also highlights stark contrasts between Jesus and Herod. Herod is the illegitimate king, whereas Jesus is from the true royal ancestral line. Herod has earthly power but no genuine authority. Jesus has complete legitimacy and authority but no worldly power – he is just a baby. Herod isn’t even accepted by his own people, whereas wise men travel from far away to pay their respects to Jesus. Herod rules by power and fear, but Jesus will shepherd his people.

Matthew then goes on to narrate the escape to Egypt of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, and their subsequent return, with many echoes of Moses and the people of Israel escaping from Egypt. It is interesting that in some of these parallels Jesus is identified with Moses, the one who led Israel out of captivity (Jesus escapes being killed by the king as a baby, Jesus is exiled but returns “when those who were tying to kill him were dead”, c.f. Exodus 4:19), while at other times he is identified with the people of Israel themselves, who are being rescued (he is the son who is called out of Egypt, c.f. Hosea 11:1 where Israel is the son). There is a sense in which Matthew is identifying Jesus with both Moses, who led Israel out of captivity, and Israel herself who needed rescuing.

The last two prophecies again are interesting – one from Jeremiah relating again to the return of Israel from exile, and the other… apparently not from anywhere! No one seems quite sure what Matthew had in mind when he “quoted” the prophecy “he will be called a Nazarene”, as there is no such reference in the Old Testament, or in any other known texts. In fact it is thought that Nazareth wasn’t even built until after Old Testament times. To me the most likely explanation derives precisely from the fact that Nazareth was an obscure place that was never mentioned in the Old Testament – it wasn’t somewhere where God’s messiah could be expected to come from (c.f. John 1:46), and hence Matthew is pointing out that Jesus will be rejected, called a nobody, and overlooked due to the apparent insignificance of his birth and upbringing.

What does all this have to do with God’s mission?

We can see God’s mission continue to be worked out through this chapter. Matthew is strongly hinting that the exile (at least in a spiritual and political sense) that is still being experienced is coming to an end and God is rescuing his people, although there are some surprises in how he is doing so. The genuine king has arrived, but it is not just the Jews who will acknowledge and come to him. In fact he may be honoured by those from afar while at the same time being ignored and rejected in large part by his own people. The messiah has come, but he has needed rescuing from Herod, and is identified with Israel being rescued from captivity in Egypt.

As we seek to join in with God’s mission it is vital that we understand what kind of mission it is. This mission involves people returning to God and God returning to his people, but that seems to look different to what might have been expected. It is about enthroning the rightful king, but while this king has ultimate authority he apparently yields no earthly power or force. It is about God’s chosen one putting things right, but he appears to be as vulnerable, if not more so, than those he has come to save. He will lead his people, but as a shepherd, not through power, fear or intimidation. While God’s mission fulfills all the ancient prophecies, it is at the same time surprising, with those who seemed far away from God being the first to recognise what he is doing.

What does it mean for the church to join in with God’s mission as we see it demonstrated here in Matthew 2?

  • We need to expect the unexpected, with God working in and through people we may have considered to be far from him, and through places or situations we might have regarded as insignificant or ungodly.
  • We should understand that while God has ultimate authority in the world, his kingdom is not about exerting power or force to achieve his purposes.
  • The church, like Jesus, should expect to be rejected and misunderstood, to be both ignored and persecuted. God’s mission is good news for all, but is also deeply threatening to those who are clinging insecurely to apparent power, so the church shouldn’t expect God’s good news to be popular with all.
  • As we continue to read Matthew we will follow the theme of Jesus being both the rescuer of God’s people Israel, but at the same time being identified with Israel, the one who needed to be rescued. Maybe the church also needs to be vulnerable, standing in and with those who are hurting and taking on their burdens, while at the same time pointing to the rescuer.
  • Matthew has shown that Jesus is the long-awaited messiah and king, but that there are many surprises now that he has arrived. How can the church creatively communicate to the world that we believe Jesus is king and ruler, but that his rule may be very different to what we might have imagined?

What do you think?

Wise men