3 January 2016

Matthew 2:1-12 (The visit of the wise men)

“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’” (vv. 1-2)

Psalm: Psalm 100


This passage brings together two kinds of narrative. There is the political narrative that locates the story in the historical world of kings and emperors, and chronological time (from the Greek word, kronos); then there is the kind of narrative that concerns the fulfilment of prophecy (Micah 5:2) that in God's good time (from the Greek concept of kairos) a true shepherd would be born to govern God's people, to whom the nations would come bringing gifts of gold and frankincense (Isaiah 60:6).

The interweaving of the two kinds of narrative is theologically important, demonstrating the Christian belief that God's purposes are fulfilled in human history and not on some esoteric spiritual plane.

The Herod in question in this passage is Herod the Great who is now right at the end of his reign, dying in 4 BC. (Ironically this puts Christ's birth 4 years BC!) He took the throne by force and ruled with Roman support. Using slave labour he created a prestigious port at Caesarea Maritima and the extravagantly flamboyant palace near Bethlehem called the Herodian. His reign seems to have ended in terror including the 'slaughter of the innocents' (Matthew 2:16) designed to get rid of any infant rivals.

In bringing together the narrative of Herod the Great and the prophecies of Micah and Isaiah in this passage, Matthew's Gospel puts side by side the hope of a true shepherd who would gather the sheep, feed and protect them and bring light to the nations, compared with the kind of shepherd Herod had been, who, in the words of the prophet Ezekiel had scattered the sheep, made them vulnerable to others and eaten at their expense, leaving them amongst clouds of thick darkness (Ezekiel 34:12).

It is not surprising therefore that Herod saw the birth of this 'king of the Jews' as a threat - whilst Jesus was not an earthly king (as he was to make clear before Pilate at his trial (John 18:36)), Jesus' reign certainly challenges all those who rule to do so with justice and equity.

To Ponder

  • In what ways do you think that Jesus the Good Shepherd challenges those who hold positions of leadership and authority in the world today?
  • The fulfilment of prophecy is a strong theme in this story. Why was it important to early Christians to demonstrate that Christ's birth had been foretold?
  • The fulfilment of prophecy is a strong belief amongst many religious people in the world, including some Christians and some Muslims. How do you relate to the idea that sacred texts foretell future events?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Jane Leach

Jane writes on ministry, pastoral supervision and pilgrimage..