Matthew 2 – Hail to the King

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Today’s PassageMatthew 2

Christmas is over. And in Matthew’s account, Jesus may have already been born, but the Christmas story continues even after his birth. Today’s chapter covers the visit from the magi, Herod’s plan to kill the recently-born Messiah, and Joseph’s escape to Egypt with his family.

One particular detail stood out to me on this pass through the chapter: the devotion of the magi. These wise men, possibly three in number but possibly numbering greater or fewer than three, are foreigners, coming “from the east” (1). It’s possible they were Persian or Babylonian, as the term “magi” is derived from a Persian term for Zoroastrianism’s priestly caste, but the text doesn’t give their nationalities explicitly.

It does, however, note that the magi intended to worship the Christ. When they arrive in Jerusalem, they ask, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him” (2). In Matthew’s original Greek, the word translated here as “worship” is προσκυνέωproskuneō, “to revere.” It’s derived from a description of the physical act of bowing down, as before a king, but can apparently be used to describe a posture of one’s spirit in deference, worship, or respect.

When Herod hears that the magi are in town looking for the prophesied child, he calls them to meet with him and instructs them, “Go and make careful search for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, that I too may come and worship Him” (8). But of course Herod has no intention of bowing down before Jesus. And when the magi return home without reporting to Herod, he orders a massacre of all males under two years in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the child.

I don’t know if the magi meant to worship Jesus Christ as divine or simply to pay respect to him as a king, but I can see two options. First, if they considered him divine, we see a group of foreign astrologers recognizing a truth that eluded many of the Messiah’s own countrymen. Since God called Abraham to reject the idolatry of his old homeland and follow him, the Jewish people had safeguarded themselves against worship of any being but God. Worshiping any human being was verboten; the Torah itself states, “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent” (Numbers 23:19). The Jews writ large had no expectation that the Messiah would be divine. Plenty of claimants to the Messianic title emerged in ancient Roman-occupied Judea, both before and after Jesus, and I know of none of them that also claimed to be God. The magi, at least in bowing down before Jesus, were ahead of the curve.

Second, the magi may have simply wanted to pay homage to the King of the Jews without viewing him as the Son of God. After all, the gifts they give him are the sort one would give to a king. But Herod doesn’t come off well in either scenario. He lies to the magi either way, and if he intends to snuff out blasphemy by snuffing out the male infants of Bethlehem, he murders a multitude of innocents and lets those who actually worshiped the Christ child get off the hook. It seems much more likely to me that Herod wants to cut off a potential threat to his rule, while said threat is still learning to walk.

But as the chapter draws to a close, Herod has died, and Jesus Christ is still alive. Today’s lesson: don’t try to kill the Son of God. If Herod couldn’t do it while Jesus was a child, how much more impossible will it be now that Jesus has grown to adulthood, already died, risen again, and ascended to heaven, where he sits at the right hand of the Father? Worship the Son. Don’t be like Herod.

 

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