Updated: May 2
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. Micah 5:2
I'm sure that even if you didn't grow up in the Church you're probably familiar with the classic Nativity scene. Usually, it includes Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, a few animals, a few shepherds, and three kings. The kings have even been given names by long-held Christian tradition. There might be a few things that surprise you then when you read Matthew 2. The first is that we're not given a specific number of kings its simply safe to assume that there were more than two. We generally portray them as three most likely for ease of imagery and because of the three gifts they brought with them. The second is that they more than likely did not arrive until a couple of years after the birth of Jesus, making it fairly inaccurate to include them in the Nativity. However, if you're thinking right now that you don't care about this particular fact and you're still going to include them in your Christmas decor... I'm right there with you. It doesn't affect our salvation either way whether we put the kings in the Nativity scene or not and I think there is very good reason to include them in our remembrance of the Advent.
Remember that at the beginning of Matthew's Gospel he seems to be establishing Jesus' pedigree. Who would this matter to? The Jewish people who knew and practiced the Scriptures. Think of this as the setup of a debate, the first question this group of people would be asking is, "How can you say this Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ?" Matthew says, well this is Jesus' family line... He is the rightful King of Israel by the line of David. The next question they would be asking is, "Well we know the prophecies and where the Messiah is supposed to be born and it's not in Nazareth. So explain yourself." Unlike the account of the Gospel of Luke, Matthew doesn't jump in with the reminder about the census and that Joseph would have been required to bring his young family home to Bethlehem, and that this journey took place while Mary was still with child. Instead, he reminds them of something far more tragic, memorable, and rich with the fulfillment of prophecy from the Scriptures they all would have been familiar with.
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, 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.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. Matthew 2:1-4
Reading this today I noticed something that has never jumped out at me before: Matthew says not only was King Herod troubled by the request and announcement of the wise men from the east all of Jerusalem was troubled with him! King Herod called together all the chief priests and scribes of the people... their religious leaders and prosecutors of the Law, the true experts in the Scriptures to ask them where Christ, the Messiah, was prophesied to be born. From the prophet Micah they answered the King,
They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “‘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.’” Matthew 2:5-6
This is the information King Herod passed along the wise men or kings from the east and they followed his directions taking the road to Bethlehem. Even more amazing still is that the star they had been following that had led them this far continued before them all the way until it came to rest above the house where Jesus was with his mother Mary.
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 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.” 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. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 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. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. Matthew 2:7-12
If you noted above that King Herod called the wise men to himself to deliver this information and send them on their way secretly, you probably recognize that something diabolical is afoot. Herod had no desire to worship this newborn Messiah, no! He was probably relieved the kings had come to give him a heads up that a threat to his own power had been born. We can see this by two things: first that the wise men were warned not to return to Herod and instead went home secretly by another route and secondly by Herod's own response when finds out the kings have gone. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself there because Matthew is about to give the people yet another proof that Jesus is their long-awaited Messiah by showing that He fulfilled another prophecy they would be looking for.
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Matthew 2:13-15
This time the prophecy comes from the prophet Hosea:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. Hosea 11:1
Now what I find interesting about this part of the story is considering Israel's historic relationship with Egypt. In the book of Genesis, we see Abraham flee to Egypt on multiple occasions to escape famine in the land the Lord has promised will be his inheritance. None of these times does God actually command Abraham to go to Egypt for help, but He does bless Abraham and build his wealth through the Egyptians. Later we see God tell Abraham that his descendants will be slaves in Egypt for 400 years before God delivers them and allows them to plunder Egypt as they escape. We see how that happens when Joseph is sold by his brothers to slavers who take him to Egypt and how God's providence reunites their family bringing them to live in the Egyptian province of Goshen where they will remain and become slaves exactly as God said. Now God warns Joseph to take refuge in Egypt because of the murderous intent of King Herod. What is so incredible to me in this, is that God is preparing through His Son the ultimate deliverance of all people who would turn to Him in repentance and faith for all time for rescue from our slavery to sin.
The next prophecy fulfilled is one of great tragedy at the hands of King Herod.
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” Matthew 2:16-18
From the prophet Jeremiah,
Thus says the Lord: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” Jeremiah 31:15
This horrific act by the King of Judea is one of those things that I've often pondered over in Scripture for why it had to take place. Why God could you not give a happier sign that this child is the Messiah? This act is unimaginably brutal and heart-rending, imagine the parents of these children if it was being explained to them decades later that the reason their precious sons had to die was as a fulfillment of prophecy that the Messiah had finally arrived! I for one would wrestle with that with great grief, anger, and no small amount of hostility towards the One who had declared this would be so and seen it accomplished. Yet when you go and read the full prophecy in Jeremiah it is one rich with the promise of God that their mourning is only the beginning of the story.
Thus says the Lord: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country. I have heard Ephraim grieving, ‘You have disciplined me, and I was disciplined, like an untrained calf; bring me back that I may be restored, for you are the Lord my God. Jeremiah 31:16-18
"There is hope for your future,..." says the Lord and He did indeed bring Joseph's family back to Israel when the evil King Herod had died, but seeing that his son Archelaus was really no better Joseph brought his family to Galilee to the town of Nazareth instead of returning to Judea.
But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene. Matthew 2:19-23
This final fulfillment of prophecy that we see at the end of chapter 2 has been the subject of debate and controversy because as modern readers and scholars of Scripture we do not immediately recognize what exactly Matthew is referring to here. There are a few theories about what he is pointing to and some who even claim that Scripture contradicts itself here and is so disproven. I would argue that those who see this as a contradiction are on extremely flimsy ground with that argument, but that is certainly up for you to decide in your own heart and spirit. Before you make up your mind, however, here is a great thesis paper written by an Honors student at Liberty University, I found their approach very helpful in regard to understanding Matthew's purpose in this final statement.
As we continue to study the Gospel of Matthew, I thought I would share one more tidbit from a Pastor who I listened to teaching through this book several years ago now. The perspective that he brought up, was in answer to why there are four different tellings of the Gospel included in the New Testament and why there are so many differences between these tellings. His answer was that each of these tellings was sent to different audiences with subtly different purposes. Matthew is very specific to a Jewish audience who would have been intimately familiar with the Hebrew Bible or what we call the Old Testament. Thus, the hyper-focus on the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy that Matthew brings to our attention throughout his gospel telling. We'll definitely be going over these differences in the gospels and what they mean later so stay tuned!
To bring this all back to why I believe you can still leave those wise men and their gifts in the Nativity scene here is what I would say, Matthew, places the wise men in his telling of the Nativity story and very abruptly transitions to the beginning of Christ's ministry next as we will see in the next chapter. The wise men seeking the infant Messiah and the testimony of the knowledge of all the experts of the Scriptures that led them to Him in Bethlehem are powerful reminders of why the birth of this baby is so important. Why this infant is worthy of worship by wise men even kings who are not even of the Chosen People. And finally, because their coming brings about King Herod's terrible act of vengeance that reminds the grieving people of Judea that God has not forgotten them... No, in the midst of their great grief and loss He was declaring, "There is hope for your future..."