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THE PENTATEUCH --- GENESIS ---EXODUS--- LEVITICUS --- NUMBERS --- DEUTERONOMY --- THE BOOK OF JOSHUA --- THE BOOK OF JUDGES --- THE BOOK OF RUTH --- SAMUEL --- KINGS --- EZRA---NEHEMIAH--- ESTHER--- PSALMS 1-58--- PROVERBS---ECCLESIASTES--- SONG OF SOLOMON --- ISAIAH --- JEREMIAH --- LAMENTATIONS --- EZEKIEL --- DANIEL --- --- HOSEA --- --- JOEL ------ AMOS --- --- OBADIAH --- --- JONAH --- --- MICAH --- --- NAHUM --- --- HABAKKUK--- --- ZEPHANIAH --- --- HAGGAI --- ZECHARIAH --- --- MALACHI --- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW ---THE GOSPEL OF MARK--- THE GOSPEL OF LUKE --- THE GOSPEL OF JOHN --- THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES --- READINGS IN ROMANS --- 1 CORINTHIANS --- 2 CORINTHIANS ---GALATIANS --- EPHESIANS--- PHILIPPIANS --- COLOSSIANS --- 1 THESSALONIANS --- 2 THESSALONIANS --- 1 TIMOTHY --- 2 TIMOTHY --- TITUS --- PHILEMON --- HEBREWS --- JAMES --- 1 & 2 PETER --- JOHN'S LETTERS --- JUDE --- REVELATION --- THE GOSPELS & ACTS
The Gospel of Matthew is clearly divided into sections by five major discourses, each of which ends with a similar formula. These contain:
It will be noted that in ‘a’ the Law is expanded on and requires being taken seriously, or otherwise their house will fall, and this is accompanied by ‘seven blessings’, and in the parallel the Scribes and Pharisees are seen as not taking the Law seriously, but distorting it, and this is accompanied by seven ‘woes’, with the consequence being the destruction of Jerusalem and devastating judgment (their houses will fall). In ‘b’ He instructs His disciples concerning evangelisation and in the parallel He instructs them concerning the establishing of the new community that will result from that evangelism. And centrally in ‘c’ He proclaims to them the secrets of the Kingly Rule of Heaven.
Some therefore see chapter 13 as the central point of the Gospel, giving the Kingly Rule of Heaven a central position in His teaching (see Introduction). And while we may consider that in fact Matthew’s Gospel has a number of pivots (including the confession at Caesarea, with its emphasis on His Messiahship, followed by a new emphasis on His coming death and resurrection, and the story of the Canaanite woman, with its emphasis on a new turning towards the Gentiles, and followed by a new emphasis on Jesus’ activity in Gentile territory), we certainly cannot deny the centrality of the Kingly Rule of Heaven in Jesus’ teaching or in Matthew’s Gospel.
For it was to proclaim the Kingly Rule of Heaven that Jesus came (4.17). Thus He opens His ministry with the words ‘the Kingly Rule of Heaven is at hand’ (4.17, 23 compare 3.2), and He closes it with the command to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’ (28.19) because He has ‘received all authority in Heaven and earth’. By this Matthew indicates how the Kingly Rule of Heaven, already secure in Heaven, is now to be established on earth as a result of the fact that Jesus has taken up His throne in Heaven ‘with all authority in Heaven and earth’ (28.18), while at the same time assuring them that He will accompany them invisibly wherever they go (28.20).
We can compare with this how Luke also commences in a similar way with Jesus preaching the Kingly Rule of God from the beginning of His ministry (4.43 as explained in 4.18), while Acts (the continuation of Luke) ends with Paul proclaiming the Kingly Rule of God in Rome, something which is then interpreted in terms of ‘all things pertaining to the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Acts 28.23, 31). John similarly indicates at the commencement of his Gospel that He came offering ‘life’ (1.4), the ‘life of the coming age’ (John 3.16, 36) and ends with the description of how men may find that life through His Name (John 20.31).
In between these five major discourse sections of Matthew are a number of combined narrative and teaching sections, and in each case these lead up to the discourse section. Thus we find:
That being so we may therefore divide up the Gospel as follows (discourses in italics). The initial letters indicate the parallels in what is in the form of a chiasmus (i.e. has the form a b c d c b a).
The Filling Full of the Scriptures In Jesus.
But there is another important fact about Matthew’s Gospel which we must not overlook, and that is that he has connected it throughout with the idea of the ‘filling full’ in Him of all that the Old Testament has promised. He sees Jesus’ coming, not just as that of another bright star which rises, shines and then ceases to shine, but as the One to Whom all that has gone before has pointed. He is the ultimate Sun of Righteousness (Malachi 4.2), the final fulfilment of God’s promises.
By this the whole revelation of God as given to Israel, is seen as coming to its culmination in Jesus Christ. And this is made abundantly evident by Matthew’s citation of Scripture at crucial points in the narrative, Scriptures that reveal the purpose of His coming. And yet the interesting thing is that they have been included in such a way as not to alter the narrative, which can stand on its own without them. The narrative has not been shaped by the quotations. What they do is buttress the narrative and bring out what it is revealing.
He commences with a cluster of Scriptures which ‘prepare the way’. The opening two sections of the genealogy are mainly a citation of Scripture, in which it is brought out that Jesus the Messiah sums up both Abraham and David (1.1-12), and in the third section this idea is then filled in from genealogies available to him (1.13-18).
This is then followed by Scriptures given in quick succession which point:
And this is all revealed as being in accordance with Scripture. It should be noted that in this first phase of the Gospel Matthew’s prophetic model is Jeremiah who is the only named prophet (2.17).
But from 3.1 onwards the searchlight turns on Isaiah and his prophecies, which from now on are, significantly, clearly named (in contrast to 1.25).
This second phase is clearly built around the prophecies of Isaiah.
Now the Servant phase closes and attention is turned back to Jesus’ kingship, (partly already taken into account in 18.23-34).
But what should be noted here again is that while Matthew’s quotations buttress the narrative and reveal that it is filling to the full the revelation of the Old Testament and capping it off, rather than determining the course of the narrative, which could equally exist without them, they root it firmly and imbed it within the purposes of God. What they accomplish is to give Matthew the added significance that in his Gospel all that the Scriptures have said are being brought to completion.
Jesus Has Come As The Representative Of Israel.
One further theme that should be borne in mind is that Jesus has come as the Representative Head of Israel. He is the True Vine (John 15.1-6). He recapitulates the experiences of Moses and Israel in His own life. Thus:
COMMENTARY ON MATTHEW.
SECTION 1. INTRODUCTION TO JESUS THE CHRIST (1.1-17).
The introduction to the Gospel is in the form of a genealogy which indicates that Jesus is ‘the son of David’ and ‘the son of Abraham’. This description reveals His descent from, and intimate connection with, two of the greatest figures in salvation history. Indeed we might even say the two figures around whom salvation history pivots. For great though others like Moses may have been, they were never the foundations on whom the promises were laid.
Abraham was the man who was called by God in the midst of a dark world to commence the process of building up a new community of God, (which was to become the ‘congregation (or church/ekklesia) of Israel’ - Deuteronomy 4.10; 9.10; 18.16; 23.3, 8; etc. LXX; Psalm 22.22, 25 and often; Joel 2.16), and was counted as righteous because he believed God (Genesis 15.6). He was the one to whom God gave promises of blessing which would come to the whole world through his descendants (Genesis 12.3). He was the rock from which Israel was hewn (Isaiah 51.1-2). He was to be the springboard of all God’s purposes. David on the other hand was the archetypal ruler, the man after God’s own heart, who because of his faithfulness to God was to be the precursor to the everlasting king (2 Samuel 7.16; Psalm 2.7-9; Isaiah 11.1-4) as he ruled over God’s community, and was its life (Lamentations 4.20).
Both mirror their great Descendant who has come to pick up and restore that community/congregation (Jeremiah 30.20; Psalm 22.25), cutting out the dead wood, and building a new community from the ashes of the old, on the basis of His Messiahship (16.16, 18; 21.43), repurchasing it as it had once been purchased of old (20.28; Psalm 74.2; Exodus 20.2). He was to ‘gather the people and sanctify the church/congregation (of Israel)’ (Joel 2.16 LXX). He was to be the greater David, and the greater Abraham.
His direct descent from Abraham also revealed Him as a pure bred Israelite (Jew), Who was to inherit and fulfil the promises given to Abraham, and His descent in the line of David revealed Him as heir to the throne of Israel, and indicated that He was the final inheritor of the promises given concerning the Davidic house, and was thus the Messiah.
The themes of this introduction will then be directly taken up in the following narrative in 1.18-3.17, and be expanded throughout the remainder of the Gospel.
Analysis of 1.1-17.
Note that in ‘a’ the sources of Jesus’ line are described, and in the parallel ‘a’ they are described in the reverse order. In ‘b’ we have Abraham, the rock from which Israel is hewn (Isaiah 51.1-2), and in the parallel we have the Son of Abraham, Who is the rock on which the new Israel will be built (16.16, 18; 21.43), and from Whom it springs (John 15.1-6). In ‘c’ we have the gradual growth towards Kingship, culminating in David, and in the parallel we have the history of that kingship from David onwards, as it deteriorate and collapses The whole of Israel’s history and its kingship is thus seen to be summed up in Jesus, including the promises to Abraham, the promises in respect of the house of David, and the experience of Israel as it went into Exile. All are themes whihch will be taken up in the ensuing narrative. He will be:
And in the end it will be:
The idea of ‘the Anointed One’ (Messiah in Hebrew, Christ in Greek) arises early in the Old Testament. Quite apart from its application to priests and kings in general, to the patriarchs (Psalm 105.15), and at least once to a prophet taking over the mantle of another prophet (1 Kings 19.16), it came to indicate the one specially chosen of YHWH (1 Samuel 2.10; 1 Samuel 24.6, 10; 26.9, 11, 16, 23; Psalm 2.2; Lamentations 4.20; Daniel 9.25,26 compare Isaiah 45.1 where it is used figuratively of one who unconsciously was taken up in God’s purposes), and was later a special expression applied to the expected Coming King of the house of David as ‘the Messiah’ (Daniel 9.25), an idea amplified in later history.
The opening verse is then followed by a full history of salvation, expressed genealogically, from Abraham to Jesus the Messiah (1.2-15). We can divide these verses up in terms of the indications given in them. Thus the phrase ‘and his brothers’ occurs twice, each paralleling the other, and indicating on the one hand the establishment of the twelve tribes (verse 2), and on the other the chaos in the house of David at the Exile (verse 11); while ‘David the King’ (verse 6) and ‘Jesus Who is called the Messiah’ (verse 16) parallel each other, indicating the bud and the flowering. These expressions provide us with natural divisions.
Surrounding verses 2-16 are the opening and closing paragraphs (1 & 17) which introduce Jesus’ ancestry in summary form in one order, and then provide a final summary in reverse order. So the account is succint and beautifully planned. The fourteenfold patterns into which it is divided then also reveal a special emphasis on Abraham, David the King, the Exile, and Jesus the Christ.
We should thus note that this fourfold division indicates Jesus descent from Abraham, His descent from the twelve tribes of Israel (Judah and his brothers), His descent from David the King, and His descent from the suffering ones of the exile (Jechoniah and his brothers/relatives). The whole of Israel’s experience was summed up in Him.
The Opening Declaration (verse 1).
1.1 ‘The book of the generation of Jesus Messiah (Christ), the son of David, the son of Abraham.’
This may be seen as the heading of the whole book, or as the heading of the genealogical introduction, or indeed as the heading of both. Compare for this Mark 1.1 where there is a similar opening. Its emphasis is on Jesus Christ, on where He came from, and on Who and What He is. As the son of Abraham He is a pure bred Jew and heir to the promises given to Abraham (Genesis 12.2-3 and often), as the son of David He is the Expected Coming One (2 Samuel 7.12-13, 16; Isaiah 9.6-7; 11.1-4; Ezekiel 37.24-28; Daniel 7.13-14), as the Messiah He is the fulfilment of both, with the expectation therefore of being a blessing to the world (Genesis 12.3), and of bringing about deliverance for His own people resulting in worldwide rule (Isaiah 9.7; 11.1-4; Psalm 2.8-10; Daniel 7.14). Both these terms, ‘son of Abraham’ and ‘son of David’, are used Messianically in other Jewish literature, but not on a regular basis.
‘The book of the generation of Jesus Messiah (Christ).’ Almost the exact phrase, apart from the name, can be found in Genesis 2.4; 5.1, ‘the book of the generation of --’ (although LXX translates with the definite article, while Matthew does not have the article). There, in the case of Genesis 5.1, it could indicate either the ‘family history’ of Adam which has preceded it, as a tailpiece or colophon to it, or it could signify the following genealogy. Which Matthew read it as we do not know.
The Hebrew for ‘generations’ (Hebrew - toledoth; Greek - geneseows) can mean simply ‘family history’ (see Genesis 37.2). Thus here in Matthew also ‘geneseows’ may refer to the whole Gospel as signifying the ‘historical record’ of Jesus Christ, or it may specifically have in mind the genealogy. Some, however, see ‘geneseows’ here as signifying ‘origin’ or ‘birth’ (as with ‘genesis’ in 1.18), thus seeing it as describing the book of the origins, or birth and subsequent life, of Jesus Christ, and thus as indicating the new Genesis.
Alternately relating the use of the phrase here with Genesis 2.4 it might be seen as indicating that in Jesus Christ a new creation was seen as beginning (Galatians 6.15; 2 Corinthians 2.17), replacing the old. This would fit in with John the Baptist’s cry that God (as Creator) is able from the stones to raise up children to Abraham, and with the fact that the result of Jesus’ coming is to be a ‘regeneration’ (palin-genesia - 19.28). There may also be a deliberate contrast of ‘the beginnings (geneseows)’ here in 1.1 with the coming of ‘the end’ (sunteleias) in 28.20.
Another possibility is that the connection of the phrase with Adam in Genesis 5.1 might indicate that Jesus is to be seen as ‘the last Adam’, the ‘second Man’ (compare Romans 5.12, 17-19; 1 Corinthians 15.45-49), which would again link with the idea of a new creation, or ‘beginning’. But this idea appears nowhere else in Matthew and must therefore probably be discounted. Matthew’s concentration is on Jesus’ royalty, not on His relationship with Adam. As the Son of Abraham (the progenitor of royalty) He is the final ‘King Who will come from him’ (Genesis 17.6 compare Genesis 35.11) and as the Son of David He is the promised Davidic King (2 Samuel 7.13, 16; Psalm 2; Isaiah 9.6-7; 11.1-4 and often).
(Luke in his introductory chapters also looks back to Abraham and the promises related to him (Luke 1.55, 73; 3.8, 34), and even more to the Davidic Kingship (1.27, 32-33, 69; 2.4, 11), and he sees the source of Jesus’ coming as firmly rooted in Israel. But in Luke the mention of Abraham is secondary to the great project from Adam as the source of mankind (3.38). To him Jesus is connected with the source of all men. Mark’s Gospel emphasises His coming as being directly from God. John takes us even further back into eternity. It is these emphases which reveal why we needed four Gospels revealing Jesus as the Son of Abraham, the Son of Adam, the Son of God, and the eternal Word).
The Pre-History (Genealogy) Of Jesus The Messiah (1.2-16).
The genealogy of Jesus now follows being in reverse order to verse 1. Verse 1 refers from Jesus the Messiah back to His sources in David and Abraham, while verses 2-16 are in chronological order, referring forward from Abraham and revealing the onflowing of sacred history. Abraham is followed by Judah, from whom the sceptre will come (Genesis 49.10), is followed by David ‘the King’, is followed by ‘Jesus the Messiah (Christ)’, but with the Exile introduced as another focal point. This comes in with a jarring note emphasising to us that not all goes smoothly, because of man’s waywardness. The rise to Kingship will involve suffering. And all this will then be amplified in what follows, for:
Without chapter 3 the full significance of His coming as described in 1.1-17, and amplified in what follows, would tail off without being completed. The introductory explanation of the genealogy would be incomplete. Thus the three chapters are clearly to be seen as a unity.
Chapter 4 then reveals the commencement of the career of the Anointed One. As such He goes into the wilderness, as Israel had before Him, and there He too, like Israel, is tested as to whether He will prove faithful to God and His word. And there too He is called on to determine what His choices must be for the future (4.1-11). Having triumphed from both viewpoints, this then results in His emerging as God’s true light in preparation for His revelation as the Coming One Who is to have worldwide dominion (4.12-17 with Isaiah 6.2-7), and the nature of how this will be achieved is indicated in terms of His coming as a light in the darkness (4.16), a light which will come through the proclamation of the Good News. It results initially in a call to Israel to repent (4.17), in a calling of disciples who are to become ‘fishers of men’ in order to win men to Him (4.17-22) and by the commencement of His own powerful preaching and healing ministry (4.23-25). He is revealed by this as having come, not in order to conquer by force of arms or by crude politics, nor as having come to succeed by compromising with the world, but as having come in order to both succeed and conquer by proclaiming God’s truth to the nations and calling men to the Kingly Rule of Heaven. This Kingly Rule of Heaven, God’s present transforming Rule over the hearts of His true people, which will culminate in the everlasting glorious Kingdom, will take a prominent place from now on.
So having commenced with Abraham, and having connected Jesus firmly with Israel’s past, Matthew sets Him firmly on the road to the fulfilment of His purpose, which is to bring back Israel to Him; to be a light to both Israel and the Gentiles (Genesis 12.3; Isaiah 42.6; 49.6); and to establish the Kingly Rule of Heaven, through His word (and through the words of His disciples).
1.2 Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judah and his brothers.’
Matthew then begins his seemingly long and detailed genealogy, but before we switch off we should notice that for Israel each name, especially here and in the middle section, was pregnant with history. These were not just names in a list but leaders and kings of the past who had had their own effect on Israel’s history for good or bad, a history which is revealed throughout the Old Testament. Every name would have a meaning. Indeed in this very verse we have the names of those who led to the founding of God’s people Israel. And yet their being in the list, and not at the end of it, is the indication that they did not finally achieve the hope of Israel, the establishing of God’s everlasting Kingly Rule. Abraham is the source, but otherwise they are but steps on the way.
Having commenced with Abraham, in whom the new purposes of God began after man’s opening rebellions against God (Genesis 1-11), the genealogy follows with the major patriarchs, and the first indication of an important stage in the list is indicated by Judah ‘and his brothers’. Thus we have an emphasis, first on Jesus’ begetting by Abraham, with whom it all began, and then an emphasis on His begetting directly from the tribe of Judah, while at the same time being linked with the whole twelve tribes of Israel. It was to the tribe of Judah that the sceptre and ruler’s rod was promised, and it was from the tribe of Judah that the mysterious ‘Shiloh’ was to come to whom the peoples would gather (Genesis 49.10-12). Thus Jesus was in line to fulfil the promises. But there is also an emphasis here on His being a true son of Israel as descended from the joint patriarchs of the twelve tribes.
‘And his brothers.’ This connects Jesus with all the tribes of Israel. He is related to them all and has come on behalf of all, for they are all the seed of Abraham through the chosen line (Genesis 17.16, 19, 21). ‘The twelve tribes’ are later stressed in Matthew (19.28; compare also Luke 22.30; Acts 26.7; James 1.1; Revelation 21.12). That is why there are to be twelve Apostles (19.28). It is a reminder that the Messiah does not stand alone. He comes on behalf of His people, through whom His purposes will achieved. We can compare how both the coming Servant in Isaiah, and the coming Son of Man in Daniel are both individual and corporate figures. Jesus and His true people are one. And even the King is seen as in a sense the very ‘centre of being’ of His people (Lamentations 4.20).
The genealogy that follows contains known gaps. This is because names have been deliberately omitted. This was not unusual in a genealogy. It was quite normal to omit names which were not seen as important, especially when, in this case, there was a special reason for it, the making up of fourteen names. The same is probably true of the lists of names in Genesis 5 & 11, although in that case the names were limited to ten in order to indicate a full span.
1.3-6a ‘And Judah begat Perez and Zerah of Tamar; and Perez begat Hezron; and Hezron begat Ram; and Ram begat Amminadab; and Amminadab begat Nahshon; and Nahshon begat Salmon; and Salmon begat Boaz of Rahab; and Boaz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse; and Jesse begat David the king.
This next group leads down from Judah to ‘David the King’. As the ones who follow David are also kings, this specific designation of David as ‘the king’ is clearly intended to highlight David and to reveal him as the fountainhead of kingship. It is also to bring out the contrast of ‘David the King’ with ‘Jesus the Messiah’ (verse 16, compare 22.42-45). A greater than David was to be seen as then having come, finally arising in the name of David’s house. Furthermore ‘David the King’ is in great contrast to ‘Jehoiachin’ who heads up in the next section, but is given no title. He had lost his kingship. This was only to be restored at the coming of Jesus the Messiah.
Note the mention of Tamar (Genesis 38.1-30), Rahab (Joshua 2.1 ff) and Ruth. This is unusual because women’s names do not usually appear in a genealogy. It is possibly significant that Rahab and Ruth were both Gentiles (and even more significantly a Canaanite and a Moabite, both ‘rejected’ races), and Tamar might well also have been, while Rahab and Tamar were also both connected with doubtful sexual behaviour. But each of them, who were not so originally, did became true Israelites by adoption, and all of them revealed their fierce loyalty to God’s people. Thus it may be intended that David be seen as having come of combined Israelite/Gentile blood (but truly converted blood), and as having a ‘tainted’ ancestry, illustrating the fact that Jesus had come to save His people from their sins (1.21, 24), and that that included David. David was not the perfect man that Jesus was. Yet David could be declared to be a man whose heart was acceptable to God (1 Samuel 16.7), demonstrating by this a welcome within the purposes of a merciful God of both Jews and Gentiles, and of the tainted and forgiven, once their hearts are right before Him, for they too were summed up in David.
However the significance of these names must surely also be seen as including the fact that they expressed the faithfulness of their bearers. Tamar went to extreme lengths in order to produce an heir for her dead husband, which was her right and her duty (Judah admits that his was the greater sin). Rahab sacrificed everything in order to help Israel in their battle against Jericho, establishing her life among them (Joshua 6.25). Ruth’s faithfulness to Naomi was proverbial so as to produce seed to her deceased husband. Each was concerned with the preservation of Israel. Thus the mention of them together in the first section (the threefoldness indicating completeness) may very much have had this faithfulness to God’s purposes in mind, and there can be no doubt that most Jews would have honoured these names. They would have seen them as only adding distinction to the list. A further distinction is that they reveal the particular and unique activity of God at work in producing David the King.
The ‘wife of Uriah’ stands alone and unnamed in the second section. Her mention is not seen as adding distinction to the list. Her unfaithfulness resulted in the murder of her husband, and because of her sin her name is seen as ‘cut off’. Her presence in the genealogy helps to explain why the Exile finally followed. It was in fact her son who began the deterioration which resulted in the final collapse of the monarchy. Those in this second section are not noted for their faithfulness to God. Some stood out but even the best failed in the end.
But womanhood is restored in the third section in the mention of Mary of whom was born Jesus. Here pure womanhood is central in the production of the Messiah.
So the idea in the end is that God can take all kinds of materials in the bringing about of His purposes, and can in the process bring about His will. After all, apart from Jesus, every person in the list was a sinner, but it reveals that a gracious God can bring about His purposes through sinners, especially forgiven sinners.
However, probably the main purpose of the inclusion of the women is to remind us that God brings about His purposes in unusual ways. It indicates that we need not therefore be surprised when the Messiah Himself is born in an unusual way. Matthew may have been intending to counter the suggestion that Jesus’ inheritance from Joseph was irregular in view of the unusual birth, by indicating that it would not be the only irregularity in the lineage of David, which abounded in such irregularities, including the presence of Canaanites, and a Moabitess (see Deuteronomy 23.3). It is stressing that in spiritual matters nothing is straightforward.
For details of the genealogy as a whole see Ruth 4.18-22; 1 Chronicles 2.3-15. We have shown the names here as ‘modernised’, not as shown in the Greek text where they are ‘Hellenised’, but thereby less discernible to us. Greek transliterations were in fact varied (as often were Hebrew originals. Names were flexible and altered freely in order to convey ideas). Nahshon is described as ‘a prince of the sons of Judah’ in 1 Chronicles 2.10, suggesting his outstanding prominence and importance, and was the prince who led forward the tribe of Judah at the Exodus (Numbers 1.7). Salmon married Rahab, while Boaz, who is mentioned in Ruth 2.1 as a ‘prominent’ man, later married Ruth. Unimportant names have been omitted as is common in genealogies.
1.6b-11 ‘And David begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Uriah; and Solomon begat Rehoboam; and Rehoboam begat Abijah; and Abijah begat Asa; and Asa begat Jehoshaphat; and Jehoshaphat begat Joram; and Joram begat Uzziah; and Uzziah begat Jotham; and Jotham begat Ahaz; and Ahaz begat Hezekiah; and Hezekiah begat Manasseh; and Manasseh begat Amon; and Amon begat Josiah; and Josiah begat Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the carrying away to Babylon.’
This next section of the genealogy shows the royal line from David to Jechoniah, with omissions (see 1 Chronicles 3). Their lives are described in some detail in the books of Kings and Chronicles. Some think that the omissions of Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah arise from the curse placed on the house of Ahab in 1 Kings 21.21-24, 29, with it being seen as covering three generations until it was purged, for the house of Judah were associated with the house of Ahab at that time by marriage. Ahaziah was the son of Ahab’s daughter, and followed in Ahab’s ways (2 Kings 8.26-27) and was therefore implicated in the curse. All three kings who are omitted (both good and bad) met a violent end and were slain by conspirators. The kings that are, however, mentioned in the list also make up both good and bad, so that there is no distinction on those grounds. The connection with Ahab seems to be the significant factor.
When we come to the time of Jehoiakim and Jehoiachin the name ‘Yoakim’ (Jechoniah) was used in Greek and in LXX for both Jehoiakim and Jehoiachin. ‘And his brothers’ may suggest that the former is intended, but Matthew may in fact have intended both kings to be read in here, with the description ‘brothers’ indicating ‘relatives’ and intended to cover Jehoiakim’s different relatives who were associated with the throne over the period (thus including Jehoiachin his son and Zedekiah his brother, who both reigned, the latter at the same time as the former who was then in exile), and thus covering the final complicated situation of kingship over that period of three progressive exiles, with the new Jechoniah then seen as taking up from the old in the third part of the genealogy, for the name(s) ‘Jechoniah’ is/are needed in both lists to make up the fourteen, and he would not want to say ‘Jechoniah begat Jechoniah’ (i.e. that Jechoniah was Jechoniah’s heir). This would explain the mention of ‘his brothers’ in this case, for, unlike in the case of Judah, there is no real reason otherwise for mentioning Jehoiakim’s ‘brothers’. We should note that here in this middle section of the list there is the clear indication that this is a genealogy depicting heirs to the throne rather than actual direct descent.
Note the mention of ‘the wife of Uriah’, and the deliberate non-mention of her name (which differentiates her to some extent from the other three). The non-mention of her name, plus the link with her murdered husband, may suggest here a disapproving reference. Omission of names often indicates disapproval (compare the omission of Simon in Deuteronomy 33 after the sin at Baal-peor). The line was thus to be seen as not whiter than white. And yet she had no doubt sought and found forgiveness, as David also had (Psalm 51). We are reminded by this that the descent includes those who had been involved in deep sin. In the end even David was to be seen as marred, something which the mention of his adulterous wife and the man he murdered emphasises. This was indeed one reason why Jesus had to be born of a virgin. It is doubtful if the fact that Uriah was a Hittite is in mind here, otherwise Matthew would have mentioned the fact. Indeed it seems probable that Uriah was seen as a fully acclimatised proselyte, along with many of David’s mighty men, and was also possibly descended from one. But ‘the wife of Uriah’ was both the cause of David’s partial decline, and the mother of the king who started so promisingly and ended up totally discredited, something which led on to the division of Israel into two parts, and the final decline of both of those parts which resulted finally in the Exile.
1.12-16 ‘And after the carrying away to Babylon, Jechoniah begat Shealtiel; and Shealtiel begat Zerubbabel; and Zerubbabel begat Abiud; and Abiud begat Eliakim; and Eliakim begat Azor;and Azor begat Sadoc; and Sadoc begat Achim; and Achim begat Eliud; and Eliud begat Eleazar; and Eleazar begat Matthan; and Matthan begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.’
We now have the final list of fourteen names from the Exile to Jesus the Christ. Israel had descended to its lowest point in the Exile and the way could now begin for the raising up of the Messiah. But apart from a brief flurry under Zerubbabel (Zechariah 4.6-7; Haggai 2.21-24) the names now descend into insignificance. Time passes them by. It is a time of waiting, and of hoping.
Jechoniah is required in the list in order to make up fourteen names. Alternately Matthew may have intended us to ignore Jechoniah and distinguish between Jesus while on earth, and Jesus risen as the Christ. His idea may have been to draw attention to Jesus the man, and then to the eschatological nature of the Christ. On the other hand Matthew may in fact not have been too concerned about the mathematics and the consistency as long as there were fourteen names on the list. He was more interested in getting over his point, which the fact that there were fourteen names in the list achieves whether the names were mentioned before or not. Perhaps he was not as pedantic as we can sometimes be. He understood what illustrations were all about. This last list disagrees with that in Luke 3.23-31, but that is probably because Luke shows the line of actual blood descent, while Matthew shows the line of royal descent in terms of the heirs to the throne, the latter including switches to other relatives when there was no direct heir. Thus there could have been a movement from Jacob to Heli’s son, with Heli’s son Joseph having become the heir of a sonless Jacob. We must also take into account the possible effect of Levirate marriages where a brother produced an heir for his dead brother, the latter being the heir to the throne. ‘Begat’ did not necessarily indicate blood relationship. This wider use of ‘begat’ is well attested by archaeology.
But there is no reason to doubt the genuineness of the genealogies, whatever problems we might have with them. All ancient and important Jewish families who were proud of their purity of descent maintained the genealogies of their families, and many were kept on public record. Indeed it was regularly necessary for descent to be proved in order to enjoy certain privileges, such as that of providing the wood for the altar. Josephus mentions such records and Herod the Great in fact tried to destroy some of them through jealousy because he was not a true-born Israelite. There is therefore no need to doubt that the genealogies of the house of David were carefully preserved (and there is in fact also external evidence of the fact that the genealogy of the house of David was claimed to be known by some who cited it to prove their own claims).
The names here in Matthew cover a period of over four hundred years. It must thus be seen as very probable, indeed certain, that Matthew omits some names in order to achieve his fourteen names, doing it in line with normal practise at the time. Compare the much larger number of names in Luke over the same period.
(With regard to genealogies, we may incidentally note here how the genealogical line to the throne of Scotland was remembered orally over hundreds of years in a much more primitive country than Israel, and was repeated at every coronation, because of their pride in the ancestry of their kings. It is even more likely then that this would occur in a country famed for its interest in genealogies and in its history. To ancient peoples genealogy was considered important).
‘Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.’ Jacob begat Joseph, that is, Joseph succeeded to the royal line through Jacob, who may not have been his father but an heirless relative. Note that Joseph is deliberately not said to have ‘begotten’ Jesus, Who is rather said to be born of Mary. In fact as he had adopted Jesus as his heir ‘begat’ could have been used, (someone who was adopted could be described as ‘begotten’), but Matthew clearly wanted to avoid any possibility of misunderstanding. The emphasis is being laid here on His unusual birth, a ‘virgin conception and birth’ through Mary as verses 19-20, 23, 25 demonstrate.
(The suggestion that Mary had been raped is untenable. In those days, had she been raped Joseph, in view of his position and status, would not have married her, for we know that, while revealed as a compassionate man, his original purpose, even when he thought that she had committed adultery, is made clear (1.19). Rape would actually have been seen as even worse. So the honour of his house would have demanded at the very minimum a quiet withdrawal. There was no way in which he would have overlooked it).
1.17 ‘So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the carrying away to Babylon fourteen generations; and from the carrying away to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.’
The pattern of ‘fourteen’, deliberately brought about by omitting names, is now emphasised. The idea is probably of ‘seven intensified’, indicating here divine perfection (compare the ‘fourteen’ made up of two seven year periods in Genesis 31.41). The further threefoldness would then indicate further perfection. The idea of six sevens (three fourteens) may be intended to indicate that they are followed by a seventh seven, either the tumultuous ‘seven’ which is to sum up the period leading up to the end (Daniel 9.27), or a seven which expresses the ultimate perfection of the Messianic age, as summed up in the Messiah (note the sevenfold attributes of the coming King in Isaiah 11.2). Note here that the carrying away into Babylon is now emphasised along with Abraham and David. It is to have a significant part to play in what follows.
Others have seen in the fourteen either a reference to ‘David’, for the letters of his name in gematria (dwd = 4 + 6 + 4) add up to fourteen, or as being patterned on the number of high priests from Aaron to the establishment of the Temple (Aaron to Azariah - 1 Chronicles 6.6-10), followed by the fourteen named priests, leading up to Jaddua (1 Chronicles 6.11-15; Nehemiah 12.10-11), the last high priest mentioned in the Old Testament. In either case the significance would still be of the divine perfection of the number. Thus the explanation in terms of ‘seven intensified’ (seven doubled) multiplied three times is the more likely emphasis. It would be seen as indicating the divine perfection of God’s working. Such numbers were regularly seen as having an emphatic significance.
The device of splitting the genealogy by the means of mentioning important happenings in Israel’s history is paralleled in 1 Chronicles 6.6-15, and is as old as the ancient Sumerian king lists.
SECTION 2. THE BIRTH AND RISE OF JESUS THE MESSIAH (THE CHRIST) (1.18-4.25).
In this section, following the introduction, Matthew reveals the greatness of Jesus the Christ. He will now describe the unique birth of Jesus, the homage paid to Him by important Gentiles, His exile and protection in Egypt followed by His subsequent bringing forth out of Egypt to reside in lowly Nazareth, His being drenched with the Holy Spirit as God’s beloved Son and Servant, His temptations in the wilderness which would then determine how He was to fulfil His role, and His coming forth to begin His task by the spreading of the Good News of the Kingly Rule of Heaven, to be entered by repentance and by looking to Him as the One Who is over that Kingly Rule. To this end He appoints disciples who are to become ‘fishers of men’, and begins His ministry of preaching and of ‘Messianic’ works in order to demonstrate the nature of the Kingly Rule.
The section (1.18-4.25) may be analysed as follows:
Note how in ‘a’ the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit reveals His true sonship, and in the parallel similar miraculous working of the Holy Spirit reveals Him for Who He is. In ‘b’ men who are Gentiles seek Him with expensive gifts to pay Him homage, and in the parallel He seeks men in Galilee of the Gentiles and demands from them the yielding of full homage to Him, and the giving of the most expensive gift of all, their whole lives. In ‘c’ He goes into exile from the earthly king Herod, and returns taking the way of humility, and in the parallel is Himself offered an earthly kingship and is tempted not to take the way of humility. In ‘d’ and centrally He receives the Holy Spirit on behalf of His people and is declared to be God’s beloved Son and blameless Servant.
The Birth of Jesus the Christ (1.18-25).
Jesus the Messiah having been introduced as a fulfilment of history from Abraham onwards, the narrative now commences with His birth. Given what a remarkable event it was the account is soberly told, and this underlines its reliability. An invented story would have greatly ‘improved’ on what happened, (as an examination of the apocryphal Gospels will confirm). The comment about Joseph (verse 19) adds to its veracity. The description of him is as a man of noble heart who nevertheless is aware that he must uphold the family honour and do the right thing. No taint must be allowed to enter the house of David. It is only those who refuse to let God act in His world in His own way who have any difficulty with the story.
In his account in Luke’s Gospel the writer only provides us with the details of Mary’s experiences and behaviour, and he takes almost no interest in Joseph’s part in things at all. For Luke was intent on stressing Jesus’ manhood, alongside His Messiahship, as the son of Adam, and that manhood came through His mother. But Matthew stresses Joseph because he wants all attention on His kingship. He wants us to be quite clear that He was of royal lineage. Matthew’s new material should not really surprise us. For we would expect something to be known about Joseph’s side of the story, for that would actually have been the side most taken notice of by most Jews, (excluding the bits that Joseph wanted to keep secret). And it must be quite apparent to anyone who thinks about it that Joseph would have had to be prepared by God in his own way for what was to happen, in order for the scheme to go through successfully. He was after all a man of noble ancestry caught up in something that was beyond him. So without God’s intervention the marriage would undoubtedly have foundered, with the baby being left without an earthly father. And yet unlike Mary he receives no direct vision of angels. He sees it all ‘in a dream’. From the divine point of view his part was secondary, and guidance was all that he required. However, from the point of view of Jesus’ acceptance as the heir to David’s kingship his part was crucial.
Luke’s account would not have suited Matthew’s purpose at all. Matthew was concerned to demonstrate that Jesus was the Messiah from the house of David, receiving His right to kingship through Joseph’s royal ancestry, and he was thus deeply concerned that his readers should be involved in Joseph’s side of the story, and see that Joseph fully accepted Jesus as his own son, and to this end he consigns Mary very much to the background. Matthew’s source for the information may well have been Mary, but if so the story contains some hint of the reserve with which Joseph must have told her what had happened to him. It is always, however, possible that Matthew had met Joseph before Joseph actually died. Furthermore Matthew’s stress should not surprise us for another reason. It was far more in line with what we would expect from a Jew, to whom the woman’s side would not be so important. Luke, however, on his side continually lays great emphasis on women.
The genealogy has already revealed that Jesus comes in fulfilment of Scripture, and this is now confirmed. It should be noted that neither the details in the quotation nor the name given in it are then incorporated into the text of the story, an evidence that the text has not influenced the story. Yet it is through the text that we discover that, in Jesus the Messiah, ‘God is with us’.
Analysis of 1.18-25.
Note the careful parallels. The statement concerning the birth and betrothal in ‘a’ is paralleled in reverse order by Joseph’s taking of his wife and ‘not knowing her’ (similarly to a betrothal) and Jesus’ birth. The description is then given in ‘b’ of the inevitable consequence of a miraculous birth, so that Mary is found with child by the Holy Spirit, and in the parallel the Scriptural explanation of this is given, demonstrating that she will be with child through God’s working. Central in ‘c’ is the significance of the baby’s birth, He will save His people from their sins. A further point to note is how central Jesus is throughout the passage:
1.18-19 ‘Now the birth of Jesus Christ came about in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found with child of the Holy Spirit, and Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privately.’
The verse opens with what almost seems to be a public announcement. This is what we would expect for the birth is of Jesus the Messiah, and how it came about is thus to be seen as important. Note that Mary is not seen as doing anything positive towards the child’s conception. It is simply seen as something that happens to her. She was ‘found with child’. All is of God’s activity through the Holy Spirit, and she remains secondary. After that Joseph takes over. Unlike the ancient myths which crudely saw ‘gods’ as mating with earthly women there is no suggestion here of any kind of sexual activity, even spiritual sexual activity. Indeed in Jesus’ eyes (and Matthew’s eyes) heavenly beings do not engage in such activity, for that is very much an earthly phenomenon (22.30), while what happens here is heavenly. There is no parallel in ancient literature to the way in which Jesus was born.
This lack of sexual activity is confirmed by the phrase ‘ek Pneumatos Hagiou’ which, apart from its being without the article, parallels the description of the four women in the genealogy (ek tes Thamar; etc). It indicates the woman’s part, not the man’s. The Holy Spirit is thus seen as cooperating with Mary in the conception and birth, not as impregnating her.
Note Matthew’s great emphasis on Joseph’s side of things, and this to such an extent that he puts Mary deliberately into the background, and plays down her part in things. This being his aim it is not surprising that he tells us nothing about the Annunciation and other activities in which Mary was involved. It would have placed too much attention on her and diverted his readers’ thoughts away from his main purpose, which was that of establishing Jesus as the heir of Joseph, and thus the titular son of David, even though at the same time he was emphasising His birth through a virgin.
Mary was at the time betrothed to Joseph, who was the heir to the throne of David, and thus a man of high honour from a proud family. Betrothal was a binding state from which it was only possible to be released by divorce or death. It was at betrothal that the marriage covenant was signed and sealed, and all settlements agreed on. The wedding was only the final confirmation. But it would not have been seen as acceptable in the best families that sexual intercourse take place during this period. She would still be living at her father’s house, awaiting the marriage. Indeed Joseph and Mary may well have had little to do with each other. Their marriage would have been arranged.
It is apparent that she had given him no notification of the pregnancy, but eventually the fact would have to come out, and the expression ‘she was found with child’ may possibly express this idea. Once this was clear her parents no doubt contacted Joseph and informed him of the situation. Recognising the situation as he saw it, and being a ‘righteous man’, that is, one who would do the right thing, he then determined to divorce her. It was not a matter of having an option. For him not to do so would bring disgrace on his name and on his family, and would be to be in breach of the Law and of public decency.
It would have been a very ‘liberal’ minded man who would not have done so, and it would have revealed one who would not have been respected in the best circles, for it would have been to go against the very principles of the Law which was that she now ‘belonged’ to the man who had ‘known her’. She had been made one with him. (See 1 Corinthians 6.15-16. This is also confirmed in the Mishnah). Love would thus not have come into it for a man in Joseph’s position. It would have been even more so if she had been raped.
But being also genuinely righteous in a godly fashion, in a way exceeding the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5.20), he did not wish to bring her into total and open disrepute by a public investigation (compare Numbers 5.11-31 for such an investigation, although that was where a child was not involved), so he decided to come to an arrangement for the divorce to proceed privately. This would involve the granting of a certificate of divorce before two witnesses and her then remaining at home in her father’s house until a suitable marriage could be arranged with someone else. He would probably by this forego his right to recover marriage settlements and confiscate her dowry, but he was a compassionate man and did not consider such things. In view of the fact that he knew that the child was not his, which emphasises the fact that he had not had sexual relations with her, no trial was necessary unless he wanted one. The matter could thus be quietly resolved, with as little public shame as possible to Mary. She would then be able to accept any offer that she might receive, probably from an older close relative looking for a nubile second wife who would recognise her place. That would be the best that she could hope for.
1.20 ‘But when he thought on these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, you son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” ’
Joseph dropped off to sleep thinking over how he would go about the arrangements, and probably deeply grieved over it. How natural this sounds. And then while he was asleep he had a dream. Such dreams were not common in the New Testament. Note that none of Luke’s accounts indicate such a dream situation, for Luke almost ignores Joseph at this stage, while here in Matthew there was no prophecy by Joseph and thus a dream was sufficient. This was taking place away from the centre of things in the house of Joseph. There is nothing of the excitement of Luke, only grief. It is a private situation between him and the Lord. And there is no imitation of Luke (or vice-versa).
And in the dream he is addressed by ‘an angel of the Lord’. This situation is unique. The angel of the Lord appears in the service of God regularly in the Old and New Testaments, but never, apart from to Joseph, in a dream (see 1.20, 24. 2.13, 19). Usually the angel only appears where there is a face-to-face confrontation. Furthermore in the Old Testament the ‘angel of the Lord’ is usually, but not always, synonymous with God. Thus this situation is unique. This is further demonstration that Matthew is describing it as it was, not inventing it on the basis of Old Testament ideas. Furthermore of the evangelists only Matthew ever speaks of ‘the angel of the Lord’, a further sign of his own Jewishness, and the fact that he has Jews very much in mind. Note also that there is no physical ‘appearance’ of an angel described. It is all in Joseph’s dream.
Some may not be happy with information received in a dream. But history (even recent history) contains many examples of accurate information received through dreams and premonitions, too many to be totally discounted, for it is a way by which God sometimes chooses to speak (Genesis 23.6; 28.12; 31.24; 1 Kings 3.5). Drugs can also speak through dreams too, but not reliably. However this was no drug induced dream. The Israelites in fact seem to have expected that information would sometimes come through dreams (Numbers 12.6; Deuteronomy 13.1; 1 Samuel 28.6). But it was very much a secondary method of revelation (Numbers 12.6-8).
On the other hand Scripture has also warned against over-reliance on dreams, and against the danger of ‘dreamers of dreams’ (Deuteronomy 13.1-5). Thus in the New Testament, in spite of God’s words through Joel (Acts 2.18) mentioned at Pentecost, dreams are a rarity. Both Jewish and Gentile believers receive information from God through visions rather than dreams (Acts 9.10; 10.3; 16.9; 18.9). A vision of the night was not necessarily a dream. Paul may well have been consciously engaged in prayer. It must be seen as more than a coincidence then that Joseph alone is seen as receiving all his messages, usually from the angel of the Lord, in dreams, and that over a period (see also 2.13, 19, 22). This suggests that Joseph was in fact unusually susceptible to dreams, and had the gift mentioned in Acts 2.18, which would explain their unusual prominence in this account. That the Magi (2.12) and Pilate’s wife (27.19) also received their messages through dreams is explicable by the fact that they were not strictly ‘believers’, even though the Magi may have been well on the way to being so. Unbelievers did not receive direct visions, unless with the purpose of making them believers. Warnings to unbelievers thus necessarily came through dreams, as they had to people like Laban of old (Genesis 31.29).
In his dream the angel of the Lord tells Joseph not to be afraid of finalising his marriage to Mary his (betrothed) wife, because what is conceived in her is ‘born of the Holy Spirit’, ‘ek Pneumatos Hagiou’ (see on verse 18). What is happening is the work of God and Him alone. ‘The Holy Spirit’ (or ‘Spirit of God’) is a term which is always used to describe God in invisible action where the results are outwardly apparent, and in the Old Testament it is very closely associated with the idea of God Himself. The Holy Spirit is never thought of as having a form. He is pure Spirit. (There is only one remarkable exception to this in the whole of Scripture, and that a unique one for a unique purpose, as found in 3.16).
‘Do not be afraid.’ Normally to take someone as a wife who was bearing someone else’s child would be seen as degrading and disobedient to the Law. It would be the equivalent of adultery. Under normal circumstances Joseph would not even have considered it. It went against everything in which he believed. Thus it is clear that Joseph certainly came to believe in the virginal conception of Jesus, and he would have taken some convincing! Those who do not accept the virgin birth have to explain how Joseph, the Son of the Davidic house, was persuaded to go against all his breeding at a time when such things were seen as all important (he could hardly have been in doubt about whether the child was his or not). However, by saying nothing at the time he at least kept their shame in the eyes of others down to the thought that they had had sexual relations when only betrothed, something not really satisfactory in the most righteous circles, but certainly understandable and something which in some ways would be sympathised with. The Mishnah sees sexual relations as sometimes bringing about a betrothal, and never specifically frowns on the idea.
The Holy Spirit is sometimes connected with the birth process in the Old Testament (see Job 33.4; Psalm 104.30), but here it is different. He takes it over completely in His creative power. Mary is merely a passive instrument. This is unquestionably totally different from anything that has happened before.
(It is completely different from the so-called virgin births of Greek mythology where they were not really virgin births at all but the result of gods having sexual relations with the woman in question).
1.21 “And she will bring forth a son, and you shall call his name JESUS, for it is he who will save his people from their sins.”
Mary is to bear a son and His name is to be called Ye-sus, ‘YHWH is salvation’, for he will save His people from their sins. We can compare here Psalm 130.8, where it is said, ‘and He (YHWH) shall redeem Israel from all her iniquities’. So Jesus is to act on behalf of YHWH as a Saviour. As in Luke the emphasis is on a Saviour acting on behalf of God the Saviour (compare Luke 1.47; 2.11). Here at the very commencement of the Gospel then we have the declared purpose of His coming. It is for the salvation of people from their sins (from their comings short, their missing the mark), and from the consequences of their sins. Its deliberate connection with His name means that the idea is thus to be seen as emphasised throughout the whole Gospel wherever the name of Jesus is mentioned. We can always therefore replace the name ‘Jesus’ with ‘God the Saviour’ (see especially 20.28. Also 10.22; 18.11; 24.13, 22).
While saving from sin was undoubtedly a trait of the ‘popular Messiah’, it was not a prominent one, certainly not as prominent as it is made to be here where it is pre-eminent. It was certainly a part of the future hope in general (Isaiah 1.18; 43.25; 44.22), but not as a major aspect of Messiah’s work, for Messiah was seen as coming to establish justice and to judge (Isaiah 11.1-4; Psalm of Solomon 17.28-29, 41), although that would necessarily involve a measure of forgiveness. But the thought of forgiveness was not prominent, and that is why Jesus had to emphasise that as the Son of Man He had the right on earth to forgive sins (9.6). Thus it is made clear that this was to be a different form of Messiah from the One Who was usually expected, One Who would equate with the Servant, Who would suffer on behalf of His own. Compare 9.2, 5, 6; 26.28; and see Isaiah 53; Jeremiah 31.31-34; Ezekiel 36.24-31. We note from the Lord’s prayer (6.12, 14-15; see also 18.21-35) how central forgiveness was to the ministry of Jesus. Forgiving and being forgiven were both essential aspects of the Kingly Rule of Heaven.
1.22 ‘Now all this is come about that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying,’
Here we have the first prophetic formula, and yet this one shares its uniqueness with one other, for it is only here and in 2.15 that it is said to be ‘spoken by the Lord’. Matthew is very careful in his use of formulae (see introduction), and while he is quoting Isaiah here he does not mention his name. The mention of Isaiah’s name is reserved for a special section of Matthew which is openly based on the fulfilment of Isaianic prophecy (3.3; 4.14; 8.17; 12.17; 13.14; 15.7) in which is revealed the coming of the Messiah (4.14) and Servant (8.17; 12.17), and which is preparing for the revelation and reinterpretation of His Messiahship in 16.16, 21, His revelation in glory in 17.1-8, and the confirmation of His Redemptive Servanthood in 20.28.
The reason for the emphasis on ‘the Lord’ here and in 2.15 is that what is being described is God’s direct action in His Son. The point is that He Himself is bringing His Son into the world, and in Him He will bring His people out of ‘Egypt’ (2.15), that is out of the tyranny of darkness and of the world and under His own heavenly Kingship. The word ‘fulfilled’ means ‘fill to the full, bring to completion, bring to its destined end’. It is never to be read in Matthew as though it was just a glib ‘fulfilment of prophecy’. It always means more than that, indicating the bringing about of a greater purpose.
1.23 “Behold, the virgin will be with child, and will bring forth a son, and they will call his name Immanuel,” which is, being interpreted, God with us.’
This quotation is taken from Isaiah 7.14. There the birth of an heir to the throne of David (Isaiah 9.6-7) was to be by a virgin (in LXX, translating ‘almah - an unmarried woman of marriageable age who can be assumed to be a virgin (see Excursus below)). The reason for this was that God had rejected the house of David in His rejection of Ahaz because of his refusal to ask for the miraculous sign that God had offered him, which was simply because he did not want to have to do what God required. Ahaz wanted rather to trust in Assyria (with no real conception of what it would involve). Thus because of his refusal a miraculous sign was thrust on him, one that he did not want, and one which would signal the doom of his house. And that was that he must now recognise that the future hopes of the house of David would no longer rest in his seed, because the Coming One would be born of a virgin. God would by-pass the then current house of David.
(‘God Himself will give you a sign’ (Isaiah 7.14) meant, ‘God will now give you a sign which is expressed in the words that He now declares to you concerning a great wonder to occur in the future, a wonder which will indicate your rejection. It will be a wonder greater even than any you could ask for in Heaven and earth, and it will later be accomplished as a result of His miraculous power and be the end of the hopes of your house, for by it the Coming King will be born of no seed of man’. It was not intended to be a sign like the one that God had originally promised. Ahaz had forfeited that).
The virgin would bear a son without human father, thus supplanting the house of Ahaz, and this son would then be called ‘GOD WITH US’, a reminder to Ahaz that, while God had by Him come among His people, He would no longer be with him. The child would bring about what by his unbelief he had lost. So the point behind the sign is not as something from which Ahaz could take hope, something for Ahaz to believe in, but as something by which he would be made to recognise his own failure and rejection. When it actually took place would therefore not be important. What mattered was God’s emphasis on the fact that it would take place on the basis of His word, and that it COULD, (but not certainly) feasibly be sufficiently imminent for lessons to be drawn from it. (Compare how Abraham was told, ‘kings will be born of you’ (Genesis 17.6). But it did not occur for a long time)
Now, says Matthew, we see that prophecy being filled to the full. It is being brought to completion in that now a virgin will produce a child who will truly be the indication that ‘God is with us’ in a unique sense.
‘They will call.’ When ‘they’ is used as a vague subject, as it is here in Matthew’s version of the quotation, it is a regular Semitic generalisation indicating ‘Many will call Him’. (MT has ‘she will call’. LXX has ‘you will call’).
The names applied to the coming babe are important in Matthew, and are emphasised. Here He is Immanu-el, an indication of ‘God with us’. This is His prophetic name, a prophetic declaration of what He is. His given name, given by both God and man, will be ‘Jesus’, an indication that He is the Saviour from sin. In these two names are summed up the Christian message. He is God, He is with us, He is our Saviour.
EXCURSUS on Isaiah 7.14.
This is a prophecy concerning Immanuel, the expected Chosen One of God. The ‘prophecy’ (forth-telling) which is cited here in Matthew is, “Behold a virgin will be with child and will bring forth a son, and they will call His name Immanuel” which is being interpreted, ‘God with us’. As we have seen this is especially emphasised by Matthew as having been spoken by ‘the Lord’ and it is taken from Isaiah 7.14. It need hardly be pointed out that huge discussions have resulted from a study of this verse. To examine all those views is, however, beyond the scope of what we are trying to do here and we must therefore limit ourselves to what we see as the main points that come out of it.
The first is that the verse in Matthew refers to a ‘virgin’ (parthenos) who will bring forth a son, ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit’ (1.20). And we should note in this regard that 1.24-25 in Matthew certainly affirm that Mary had had no sexual intercourse with her husband until after the birth. So however sceptical some readers might be about his conclusion, there is no doubt that Matthew is indicating by this a ‘virgin conception and birth’, and moreover is indicating by it a supernatural birth in which only one party has been involved. This last fact is important. It demonstrates that it bears no resemblance to other so-called ‘virgin births’ in extant literature which are often cited as parallels. In those cases a god in the form of a man had had intercourse with a human maiden. But that idea is excluded here. It has therefore to be considered as coming from a totally different sphere and environment. Here this unique birth is seen to be the result of the working of the Holy Spirit producing a child ‘miraculously’ without any hint of sexual activity whether human or divine. It is not modelled on a pagan myth.
More likely parallels than pagan myths are ‘and the Lord visited Sarah as He had said’ (Genesis 21.1); and ‘and it came about that Hannah conceived and bore a son’ (1 Samuel 1.20), in both cases with divine assistance. But these are more parallel with the birth of John the Baptiser than with that of Jesus, for in those cases intercourse is assumed to have taken place.
But how then can the birth of Jesus be seen as the ‘fulfilment’ or ‘filling full’ or ‘bringing to completion’ of the words taken from Isaiah, which are seen as specifically the words of YHWH?
In Isaiah the promise was of an unmarried young woman of marriageable age (‘almah in Hebrew, parthenos in LXX) who would bear a child which would reveal to Israel that God was with them, and would be a sign to Ahaz that God had rejected him and his house.
The Hebrew word used for young woman in Isaiah 7.14 (‘almah) is never, as far as is known, used of a non-virgin or a married woman. It refers to a young woman of marriageable age, with growing sexual desires, who is not yet married, and thus is assumed to be a virgin. The use of ‘almah in Song of Solomon 6.8-9 especially confirms this. There it is contrasted with queens and concubines and clearly describes those who are in the same situation as the loved one also being described, unmarried and virginal, and in verse 9 is associated with ‘the daughters’ of their mothers, (they have not yet left their own households), the many compared with the one. It is a word containing the idea of sexual purity, without the taint that had come on the often cited word bethulah (often translated ‘virgin’). Bethulah was specifically linked with pagan deities of doubtful morality at Ugarit, and could be used to describe fertility goddesses, who were certainly not virgins. It did not strictly mean a pure virgin at the time of the prophecy, whatever it came to mean later. Compare Joel 1.8 where a bethulah mourning the husband of her youth is described where there are no grounds at all for considering that they had only been betrothed.
Some have used Proverbs 30.19 as an example of ‘almah being used of a non-virgin, when it speaks of ‘the way of a man with a maid’. But there are no real grounds at all for suggesting that that indicates sexual activity. Indeed it is the opposite that is more clearly indicated. There the writer is dealing with the movements of different creatures. Using sexual movements as an example of someone’s movements, as being watched by others, would, with an innocent couple in view, have been heavily frowned on. And we only have to look at what it is being compared with to recognise that it is being paralleled with flight and directional movement which is watched by others. The thought is thus more of a couple on the move in their flirtatious activity, or even of the man’s behaviour of which the young woman is not so much aware, the observers being the amused onlookers as he trails her and tries to be noticed by her. It thus rather supports the use of ‘almah for an unmarried maiden than the opposite.
We can therefore understand why here the LXX translators translated ‘almah by the word ‘virgin’ (parthenos), just as they did in Genesis 24.43. They recognised the emphasis that Isaiah was placing on this woman as being unmarried and pure.
It is true that the word used for ‘virgin’ (parthenos) does not always refer to what is today indicated by the term virgin, an intact virgin who has not had relations with a man, but there is nevertheless always behind it the thought of a kind of underlying purity. The term could, for example, be applied to sacred prostitutes in Greek temples, who were by no means intact virgins. But these were seen as having their own kind of ‘purity’ by those who wrote of them, for they were seen as daughters of the temples and of the gods, not as common prostitutes. They were ‘holy’. On the other hand, they were certainly not technically virgins. Furthermore after Dinah had been raped in Genesis 34.2 she was still called a parthenos in verse 3 (LXX). She was seen as pure at heart even though she had been violated and was no longer an intact virgin. And in Isaiah 47 the ‘virgin daughter of Babylon’ could lose her children and be brought to widowhood (Isaiah 47.1, 9). In none of these cases then are parthenoi seen as intact virgins. On the other hand, the idea of purity might be seen as lying behind them all.
Nor did Hebrew at this time have a word for ‘intact virgin’. Virginity was assumed for all unmarried young women, unless there was reason to think otherwise, and then it was a shame to speak of it. The often cited ‘bethulah’ did not indicate that at that time. Nor did it necessarily indicate purity. As we have seen above it was specifically linked with pagan deities of doubtful morality at Ugarit, and could be used to describe fertility goddesses, who were certainly not virgins, or even pure. They were far more lascivious and lustful than human beings. And in Joel 1.8 a bethulah mourning the husband of her youth is described. There are no grounds for thinking that she was a virgin. Indeed if she had had a husband for even one night she would not have been. (It is true that a betrothed man could be called a husband, but in a general statement like that in Joel it would not be the obvious meaning). Furthermore the word bethulah sometimes has to be accompanied by the words, ‘neither had any man known her’ (Genesis 24.16; compare also Leviticus 21.3; Judges 11.39; 21.12). That comparison would have been unnecessary if bethulah had specifically indicated a virgin. So a bethulah is a young woman, whether married or not, with no indication of her virginal state. An ‘alma is an unmarried young woman of marriageable age, who if pure (which she would be assumed to be) could in Israel be called a parthenos, a pure woman.
The next thing we note is that this unmarried and pure woman who is to bring forth a child is to be a sign to Ahaz of the rejection of him and his house (demonstrated by the coming of Assyria on them - Isaiah 7.17), and an indication that he will shortly see that God can really do what He says and can empty the lands of both his enemies, something which will also be a warning to him, for what can be done to them can also be done to him.
Who then was this son who would act as a sign in this way? A number of suggestions have been made of which we will select the three most prominent.
In order to decide which one was meant we must consider the context. In context God had offered to keep Ahaz safe under his protection, and in order to give him assurance in the face of what lay before him, had offered to give him a sign of miraculous proportions (an example of which we find later on when the sun goes back ten degrees under Hezekiah - Isaiah 38.5-8). God says, ‘Ask a sign of YHWH, whether it be as high as Heaven or as deep as Sheol’ (7.11). This was an offer which Ahaz suavely rejected, because he preferred to look to the King of Assyria. But if only he had accepted it in faith this sign once given would have been the sign that Ahaz would be ‘established’. It was thus related not only to the deliverance from the current problem, but also to the guaranteeing of the future establishment of the house of David through the line of Ahaz, protecting him from all comers.
And it is on his refusal to respond to God’s offer that God says that He will nevertheless give him a sign, but that this time it will be a sign that he will not like. Rather than being a sign of God’s help and protection, it will be the sign of the king of Assyria coming on him, (thus he will not be established). And the sign will be ‘that the coming child will be born of an ‘almah’.
The first thing that must be said about these words is that it suggests in context that God intends to bring before him a sign that will indeed be one of miraculous proportions, ‘as high as Heaven or as deep as Sheol’, in accordance with what He has previously described, even though it is one which will not be of benefit to him at all. For only such a sign could demonstrate the certainty that the future of the house of Ahaz was no longer ensured. And if that was to be so then only a virgin birth would fit the bill. It was the virgin birth of the Coming One that guaranteed that He would not be of Ahaz’ house, and that, instead of that being so, God Himself would have stepped in, in the production of a royal child.
1) The suggestion that it refers to a child to be born of the royal house, or of Isaiah’s wife, whose very birth would act as a sign.
The birth of a son to the royal house in the normal course of events (Hezekiah had already been born) or to the prophetess could hardly have been such a sign as the Lord has described above. For one thing no one would have believed that the child was born of a virgin. And indeed it was not possible for the prophetess who was no longer a ‘virgin’ to produce a child in this way. It is true the prophetess bears two sons, both of whom by their names will be signs to Judah/Israel, as would their father (8.18), but note that while the prophetess was mentioned earlier in respect of one of the sons (8.3), she is not mentioned in verse 18 where we have the mention of the ‘signs and portents’ referring to both sons and their father. There is therefore no emphasis on it being the prophetess who bears both sons who were ‘signs and portents in Israel’ (along with their father) even though she had in fact done so. The emphasis here is on the father.
However, the argument is often that that is the point. The emphasis is in fact on her bearing one of the sons, Maher-shalal-hash-baz (8.3), who will be a sign of the devastation of the two kings, something which in 7.16 was to be gathered from the sign of the ‘almah with child. But here we should note that in 8.3 this is not in fact specifically described as a sign. It is rather seen as a prophetic acting out of what was to be, which is not quite the same thing. Of course we may accept that it was an indication of what was to be, and in that sense a sign. But it was equally certainly not the kind of sign that the Lord had originally spoken of, a sign of startling proportions. Nor is it said to relate to the now greater matters that were involved, that Ahaz’s house would no longer be established, and that the king of Assyria was about to descend on him and his land because he had forfeited the Lord’s protection.
We may therefore justifiably see the birth of Maher-shalal-hash-baz as a partial sign, but not as the great sign. The child’s birth, through the name given to him, was indeed a sign that the kings would be destroyed from their lands within a short while, but that was all that he is described as being. But he was not born of an ‘almah, and he is not said to be a sign of the larger matter in hand, the rejection of the house of Ahaz as manifested by the coming of Assyria and devastation of Judah. Nor is he said to be the sign of the coming of a king who would achieve what Ahaz has failed to achieve (Isaiah 9.7), that is, of the fulfilment of the promises to the house of David. (A fact that will later be made even clearer by the rejection of his son Hezekiah and his seed - Isaiah 39.5-7). The same problems as these lie with any attempt to relate the birth of the child to the birth of any child in the house of Ahaz. The birth of such a child would hardly rank as an unusual sign, and would be even less significant than that born to the prophetess. For we must remember that the heir, Hezekiah, had already been born before this happened.
2) The suggestion that it refers to any child born at the time the emphasis being on the fact that before it was weaned what God had said would happen.
This suffers from even more disadvantages than the first, for it does not even have the partial support in context that the first interpretation has when related to the prophetess. It is fine as an evidence of how short a time it will be before both of Ahaz’s opponents are devastated, but it has nothing to say about the non-establishment of the house of Ahaz or of the coming of the king of Assyria, nor could it possibly be seen as in any way parallel with the kind of sign that the Lord had spoken about. For the truth is that if the Lord made His great declaration about ‘a sign almost as beyond the conception of man as it could possibly be’, and then gave one which was merely a birth in the usual run of things, it would appear to all that all that He had offered was a damp squib.
And this is especially so because in the past He had specialised in special births in that a number of past ‘greats’ had been born miraculously (even though not from an ‘almah), and almost with the same words. Thus Isaac was born ‘miraculously’ (Genesis 18.10-11, 14; 21.2 - ‘conceived and bore a son’), Samson was born ‘miraculously’ (Judges 13.3 - ‘will conceive and bear a son’), Samuel was born ‘miraculously’ (1 Samuel 1.5, 20 - ‘conceived and bore a son’). And all these births would be engraved on Israelite hearts. But there is no suggestion that they were born of ‘almah’s, nor was the child of the prophetess in fact born ‘miraculously’, even though she ‘conceived and bore a son’. Indeed she had already previously had another son. It will be noted that the only exact parallel to ‘will conceive and bear a son’ in the whole of the Old Testament is Judges 13.3, 5, 7, and that of a birth that was certainly unusual and unexpected.
3) The suggestion that it refers to the child described in Isaiah 9.6-7, the coming One Who would be greater than David, Who would be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, and would rule over the whole world, thus indicating that He would be miraculously born of an ‘almah (parthenos, virgin).
There can be no question that this suggestion of the virgin birth of the coming hope of the house of David has the most going for it from an Israelite’s point of view and from the point of view of the context. It would tie in with the past history of conceiving and bearing a ‘miraculous child’ as being signs to Israel. It would tie in with the Lord’s promise that He would give a remarkable miraculous sign. It would tie in with the following description of the ‘birth of a child’ in 9.6. It would give full weight to the use of ‘almah. It would explain why it demonstrated that ‘God is with us’. It would confirm that the hope of the house of David was indeed coming, in spite of present appearances, even though Ahaz’ house would be excluded. And in the context of Matthew it would explain why He would be able to save His people from their sins.
And as no one knew when the child would be born (it could be at any time) the indication that both kings would be devastated before the child could possibly grow to boyhood was a sufficient indicator of time, especially when associated with the actual example of the birth of the son to the prophetess. Indeed the only question that it might raise is, how could such a birth in the future possibly be a sign to Ahaz?
The answer to this question lies in the nature of the sign. It should be noted that it was no longer intended to be a sign to Ahaz that he was to be established (7.9). But what it certainly was, was a sign of the fact that he would not be established, and while that did not really require a great present miracle at the time then current, God was determined that the one who had refused a miraculous sign would be given a miraculous sign which would demonstrate the fact in an inescapable way. Ahaz lived at a time when all hopes were on the coming of the future triumphant son of David, who would be of the line of David, and who would rule the world (Psalm 2). And Ahaz would pride himself in the fact that it would be of his seed. Thus to inform Ahaz that he was now receiving God’s words as a sign that this coming David would actually in fact be born of a virgin, and not be of his seed, was indeed a sign that he would not be established, and was an unwelcome sign indeed. It was an indication vouchsafed by the word of YHWH that the future throne would go to one not born of Ahaz’s seed. The sign was thus now not a matter of when the child would be born, but of what his birth would signify as regards the hopes for the future. Furthermore we have a good example in the past of precisely such an idea of a sign that was given as a sign to its recipient, with the actual working out of the sign being a future event. For such an example see Exodus 3.12. There the sign that Moses had been sent would be the fact that the people to whom he went would one day ‘serve God on this mountain’. The sign was a promise of a better future that had to be believed in, and that they could hold on to, and in which they had to continue to believe. It was a sign that had to be accepted on the basis of God’s promise. It was a sign of a future which would actually be the result of their response of faith, just as this sign in Isaiah 7.14 was a similar promise of a better future in which the people were called on to believe, in contrast to Ahaz (Isaiah 7.9).
Strictly speaking in fact Ahaz did not want or merit a sign. He had refused it. He had already made up his mind to look to Assyria. Thus the point here is that he was now to receive a verbal sign that he did not want, which demonstrated the very opposite of what the original promised sign would have indicated. And that sign was God’s own word that the Coming One would now be born of a virgin, and not of the seed of Ahaz. It demonstrated his rejection by God. Meanwhile Israel could indeed be confident that one day it would receive its promised king Whose coming would prove that God was with them, but they would now know that He would not be born of the seed of Ahaz, but would rather be born of a virgin. We should also note that while this might cause problems to our scientific age, it would have caused no problems to Israelites, nor indeed to Matthew. They would not be looking for some interpretation that avoided the ‘miraculous’. They would have seen no difficulty in the idea of the Creator bringing about a virgin birth.
This being so it is quite reasonable to see that to Matthew Isaiah was seen as promising that the great Son of David would be born of a virgin, and that it therefore directly related to what had happened in the case of Jesus, Who, as that Son of David had indeed been born of a virgin. He thus saw His birth from a virgin as ‘filling in full’ the prophecy which had only partly been fulfilled by Maher-shalal-hash-baz.
End of EXCURSUS.
1.24-25 ‘And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took to himself his wife, and knew her not until she had brought forth a son, and he called his name JESUS.’
Note how it is made clear that this was a genuine dream. There is no suggestion that the angel had actually been present, except in his thoughts. Thus far from there being so-called ‘legendary accretions’ the opposite is the truth. On the other hand Joseph had no doubt that a messenger from the Lord had spoken to him, and the result was that he altered his plans and invited Mary to be wedded to him and come to live with him. ‘He took to himself his wife’. But what he did not do was ‘know’ her, that is, have sexual relations with her. And he did not do so ‘until she had brought forth a son’. The Greek construction used here clearly indicates that after that he did so. Had there been any truth in the idea of her perpetual virginity this would have been the point at which it would have been emphasised.
‘Called His name Jesus.’ Joseph’s naming of Jesus was important. It was his final act by which he acknowledged Him as his son. From then on no one could deny it. Compare Isaiah 43.1, ‘I have called you by name, you are Mine’. Jesus was now the acknowledged heir to the throne of David. Passing on the heirdom through an adopted son was perfectly acceptable.
The Visit of The Magi (2.1-11).
The visit of the Magi/Eminent Astrologers to Jesus is important for a number of reasons. It emphasises:
A number of instances are known of when Magi (learned astrologers) did attend at the birthplace of those with prominent connections because of what they considered to be indications from the stars (Augustus Caesar and Nero to name but two). And when this is combined with the fact that in the 1st century AD there was a great expectation of the rise of world rulers in Judaea, it should not surprise us that they felt guided towards Judaea. With regard to this last, Tacitus, the Roman historian tells us that ‘there was a firm persuasion --- that at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers coming from Judaea were to acquire universal empire’, while Suetonius, another Roman historian declares in the days of Vespasian, ‘there had been spread over all the Orient an old and established belief that it was fated at that time that men coming from Judaea would rule the world’. So it was very likely that Magi would be interested in Judaea, and rather than suggesting therefore that this is ‘borrowed material’ we should see in it an indication that these Magi, guided by God, were carrying out the normal practise of Magi, and, in accordance with the beliefs of the time, were following up their discoveries of signs in the heavens in a way that would be expected. Men like these believed that to those who could ‘see’ them the skies were constantly revealing phenomenon which had to be interpreted, and it no doubt led many of them on a considerable number of wild goose chases. But in this case God took the opportunity to speak through it. This was one time when their ‘art’ would have good results.
It must, however, be stressed that they did not follow the star about all over the place (‘field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star’ as the carol quite wrongly suggests). They saw it when they were in the East (or ‘at its rising’) and they then only saw it again on the final stage of their journey on the Bethlehem Road after they had left Jerusalem behind. The remainder of their actions arose from their own interpretation of what they had seen, and from what they were told in Jerusalem. The star was noticeably absent.
In fact this draws attention to the fact that the very consistency of the narrative, without excessive embellishment, confirms its truth. It is ‘borrowed’ material that usually becomes absurd, not historical accounts like this. It is quite frankly impossible to think of Matthew embellishing wild legends about Moses (or anyone else) and then as a result producing so sober an account. Nor is it likely that as a Christian he would have introduced the idea of astrology had it not been known to have happened.
The basic idea is clear. While studying the stars in the East, these men (whose number we are not told) saw a particular manifestation in the heavens which indicated to them the birth in Jerusalem of a ‘world ruler’. The manifestation may well have been connected with the planet Jupiter (whose name itself indicates world ruler), and some have seen in this the conjunction of Jupiter (the world ruler) and Saturn (the last days) in the constellation of Pisces (which represents Israel) which occurred at least twice in the decade ending in 1 BC, namely in 7 and 5 BC. Experiments carried out at the London Planetarium have confirmed that this would in fact have appeared as one very bright ‘star’, but not so bright as to have significance for everyone.
There are, however, a number of alternative possibilities, for the last decade of the old era was full of interesting astrological phenomena. For example, in the September of 3 BC, Jupiter came into conjunction with Regulus, the star of kingship, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo, and Leo was the constellation of kings, and was associated with the Lion of Judah. The royal planet thus approached the royal star in the royal constellation representing Judah. Furthermore just a month earlier, Jupiter and Venus, the Mother planet, had almost seemed to touch each other in another close conjunction, also in Leo. After this the conjunction between Jupiter and Regulus was repeated, not once but twice, in February and May of 2 BC. Finally, in June of 2 BC, Jupiter and Venus, the two brightest objects in the sky apart from the sun and moon, experienced an even closer encounter when their discs appeared to touch. To the naked eye they would have become a single object above the setting sun. And in fact these are only the highlights selected out of an impressive series of planetary motions and conjunctions fraught with a variety of astrological meanings, involving all the other known planets of the period, Mercury, Mars, and Saturn, which occurred around this time. So the astrological significance of impressive events similar to these may well have been seen by the Magi as indicating the impending birth of a great king of Israel, especially when combined with the widespread expectation of a Judaean ruler of great importance.
Having seen ‘the star’ (the term signified any light in the Heavens) and interpreted it as indicating the birth of a King of the Jews, possibly in connection with what they had read in ancient Jewish books, for there were many learned Jews in places like Babylon, they naturally went to the religious capital of the Jews, Jerusalem, a city famed in antiquity, by following the recognised trade routes. On arrival there they then began to enquire as to where the king was whom they were confident, on the basis of their studies, had been born. When the ever-suspicious Herod heard this he immediately called them in. If such an event had happened he wanted to know about it, purportedly so that he too could greet the child, but really so that he could deal with the menace once and for all. It is then significant that it is the ‘wise men’ of Jerusalem who were able to provide the necessary directions from the Scriptures. If indeed such a king had been born, the Magi needed the guidance of the Scriptures, and it was through the Scriptures that the Jewish ‘wise men’ were able to point to Bethlehem (and when we read the verse that these Jewish wise men took into consideration we have no difficulty in seeing why).
Provided with this information the Magi took the road to Bethlehem, a mere five mile journey from Jerusalem, on a road on which they needed no guidance. But as they were on this final stretch they were excited when they saw the star again appear, this time ahead of them. Their excitement arose because this seemed to confirm that their interpretation had been correct, and that their journey was not in vain, and they hurried on to Bethlehem, with the star in front of them and seeming to go before them, as stars do when we are moving. But it should be noted that it does not say that they followed the star. They did not need to. There was only one road. And then when Bethlehem came into sight it was as though the star was shining over Bethlehem and thus indicating the presence of the young prince. This is not the stuff of legend (which would have been made much more exciting). This represents sober descriptions of real life, as it would actually appear to men. There is not a single one of us who has not seen the stars going on before us as we travel, and especially so for sailors where the stars were once important as a method of guidance. Once they had arrived in Bethlehem a few discreet enquiries would soon indicate the house of the royal line of Israel, so that entering in they were able to present their gifts to the young lad Whom they found there with His parents. (It is not as picturesque as the carols, which tend to show what Matthew could have done with the story had he been prone to invention or to using so-called ‘pesher’ methods of inventing stories to illustrate a passage of Scripture, something which would not happen for another three hundred years. Matthew’s account is pure fact).
As we have seen Matthew’s purpose in describing this was as confirmation that here was the true son of David, honoured and owned by the wise of the world. It also demonstrated that Gentiles came to Him bearing gifts as the Scriptures had promised (e.g. Isaiah 60.6; Psalm 72.10, 11, 15), for it was well recognised that He was to be a light of revelation to the Gentiles and to be the glory of His people Israel (Luke 2.32; compare Isaiah 42.6; 49.6). Yet interestingly Matthew cites no Scripture to suggest this. It may even suggest that he did not think of them. His concentration was on what really happened, not on artificially contrived stories.
We will now consider the passage in more detail.
Note how in ‘a’ the Magi come from their home in the East seeking the new born King of the Jews, they are guided by the star, and they come in order to pay Him homage, and in the parallel they are again guided by the star, they do find the young child whom they are seeking, and they pay Him homage. In ‘b’ Herod enquires of his ‘wise men’ where the Christ is to be born, and in the parallel he enquires of the Magi at what time the child was signified as due to be born. Centrally in ‘c’ is the fact that the Scriptures are being filled to the full by what is happening.
2.1-2 ‘Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who is born King of the Jews? for we saw his star in the east (or ‘at its rising’), and are come to pay him homage.”
Matthew makes quite clear here that he is dealing with what he sees as historical facts. He could not have made it more obvious. If he did not believe that it really happened then here he was being deceitful. He declares that Jesus was born, without going into detail (in line with his emphasis on Joseph, the son of David, and not on the bearer, Mary), that it was in Bethlehem of Judea, and that it was in the days of Herod the king, that is, of Herod the Great who died between 5 and 1 BC. The ‘of Judea’ differentiates this Bethlehem, five miles from Jerusalem, from other Bethlehems such as Bethlehem in Zebulun, which was north west of Nazareth (Bethlehem means ‘the house of bread’ or ‘the granary’). All this agrees with Luke and yet is distinctive. And all is clearly intended to be historical.
It should be noted that Matthew had had no reason to mention Bethlehem before this (he has not mentioned places). In chapter 1.18 ff, apart from the opening summary in verse 18a, the recognition of Mary’s pregnancy probably occurred in Nazareth, and Joseph might well have posted there to deal with the matter, with only verse 25 occurring in Bethlehem. But at that stage place was hardly of importance. Indeed it is normal for Matthew to be indistinct about geography except when he thinks that it matters. And here geography only became of importance when the birth took place.
(Matthew appears to deliberately ignore the use of place names, so much so that when he does use them we need to prick up our ears and ask why. In this chapter he mentions Bethlehem (four times) and Nazareth but in each case so as to connect with a quotation from Scripture. He mentions Nazareth and Capernaum in 4.13 again connected with a ‘that it might be fulfilled’ statement. Thus the first straight mention of a place name in Matthew is Capernaum in 8.5 (‘his own city’ in 9.1) followed by ‘the country of the Gadarenes’ in 8.28. After that the next place name is Gennesaret in 14.34. We would not have known that Jesus visited Chorazin and Bethsaida, along with Capernaum, had it not been for His condemnation of them (11.21). In general He visits ‘cities and villages’. Thus NOT to have a place name mentioned is normal for Matthew).
‘Magi from the East.’ The word ‘Magi’ could indicate either ‘high level’ astrologers or crude magicians. The context suggests the former. Their interest in and response to the message of the stars indicates it. There is nowhere any indication of magic. These are distinguished men who read the stars as part of their studies. We are not told whether ‘the East’ indicates Babylon, Persia or Arabia. The point is that they came, with their caravan, from distant, and possibly mysterious, places.
Note on Herod the Great.
By this time Herod the king had been on the throne for over thirty years. Although a tyrant he generally kept the peace, was loyal to his Roman masters, and was adept enough to keep in with different emperors. He was usually militarily successful, and engaged in splendid large-scale building, including commencing the building of the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem. He established spectacular athletics contests, and was skilled in providing famine relief. In some ways therefore he was a good ruler. But there was a very much darker side to his character. Certainly those who were heavily and brutally taxed in order to pay for his building projects did not appreciate it, nor did they like the added brutality of the ‘games’ which the Romans and Greeks delighted in. Furthermore being an Idumaean (Edomite Jew) he was looked on as a usurper by many of the Jews, and in return treated the high priesthood with contempt, installing and removing high priests (whose tenure was Scripturally life-long) at will, and he similarly removed all the powers of the Sanhedrin. He was a brute of a man, and had a very cruel streak which became worse with increasing paranoia. He struck out left, right and centre at any whom he saw as rivals, even members of his own family, and overall behaved with total arrogance towards the Jewish leadership (which they on the whole attempted to reciprocate), and even at times towards the people as a whole. In his declining years he executed his wife and three of his sons, and finally died hated by the nation. His aim had in fact been that his death be turned into a bloodbath, and he had left instructions accordingly (ordering a number of executions to take place when he died) so as to ensure that there would be mourning at his funeral, but these instructions were fortunately not carried out. Such a man would have seen the slaughter of twenty or so innocents at Bethlehem (2.16) as just a sideshow.
End of note.
Note on Bethlehem.
We know that Mary was originally growing up in, and living in, Nazareth. We know nothing about where Joseph was living over the period before his marriage, and he may have had businesses in both Nazareth and Bethlehem, living at the family home when in Bethlehem. Or he may simply have lived at Bethlehem. He may well hardly ever have seen Mary. The marriage would almost certainly have been an arranged one. However, once the position with regard to Mary was settled in his mind he would go to Nazareth in order to sort things out. On their marriage taking place they would return to Bethlehem at a time when Mary was ‘great with child’ (there is no indication in the Gospels that the birth happened on the night of their arrival in Bethlehem). At the time when all the family gathered for the enrolment mentioned in Luke the guest chamber (kataluma - resting place, not necessarily an inn and possibly the guest chamber) may well have been taken over by his father and his relatives. This would explain why he and Mary had to sleep downstairs on the ground floor in what would be seen as a normal ‘bedroom’ even though it was shared with the domestic animals in accordance with good Palestinian practise. This in order to make room for everyone at a difficult time. The fact that he slept there does not mean that normally he did not live in Bethlehem. Nor would the room have been especially uncomfortable, while the manger would be utilised because it was both comfortable and warm. (Were it to have happened in my household it would not be the first time that I have given up my bedroom for guests).
So once the marriage had taken place Mary naturally joined her husband in Bethlehem. When, however, circumstance rendered Bethlehem unsafe Nazareth was a natural place to go to, once they had been warned to avoid Judaea. (They were not ‘directed’ to Nazareth, even though it turned out to be within God’s purposes. They were simply directed to avoid Judea). And from then on Nazareth was ‘home’.
To suggest that this does not accord with Luke 2.39 is ultra criticism. In Luke that verse is simply a bridging verse between events, and summarises a period in Jesus life that ends up in Nazareth. It is not particularising. Luke simply has no interest in providing the intermediate detail.
End of note.
Matthew then goes on to describe how some Magi (learned men who were also astrologers) arrived in Jerusalem from the East, asking concerning the birth of a ‘King of the Jews’, the typically Gentile way of describing the King of Israel (e.g. 27.11, 29, 37). For no sooner had they gathered from the stars that a special King of the Jews was shortly to be born, or had been born, then Jerusalem would have seemed to them the best place to make for. It was the ancient central city of the Jews. (We note that there is no suggestion that they ‘followed the star’. The ‘star’ that they had seen would have been no longer visible as such. But the star, which was quite possibly a conjunction of another heavenly light with Jupiter, had by its appearing told them all that they wanted to know. Many people might have seen an extra bright star which had appeared for a short while, but for most it would have passed them by as simply a curiosity. Bright stars were not all that unusual, apart from to those in the know. But these men constantly watched the stars, and connection with the planet Jupiter would have brought out the importance of this young prince to the ‘wise’, and thus these men had come to acknowledge Him and pay Him homage.
‘In the East.’ This should probably be translated ‘at its rising’, indicating a special astronomical phenomenon, or it could signify that they had spotted it immediately on its occurrence.
It should be noted that reference to the ‘star which arises out of Jacob’, in Numbers 2.7 refers to the ruler himself. It is therefore irrelevant here, and Matthew gives no indication of any connection with it.
2.3 ‘And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.’
The arrival of such men in Jerusalem asking questions about a royal birth and speaking of a ‘King of the Jews’ would soon become known to Herod’s informers, and when the bloodthirsty Herod heard the news of the possibility of the birth of a young prince important enough to be heralded by a star, and bearing a title that he saw as his, he was greatly troubled, for he was superstitious enough to believe it. Indeed there were many among both Jews and Gentiles who believed in astrology, even though the Scriptures discouraged it (Isaiah 47.13-15; Daniel 1.20; 2.27 etc.). All his life Herod had fought to keep his throne, and in the process had killed off a number of perceived threats, including some of his own sons and his beloved wife Mariamne. He was totally paranoid, and when it came to keeping the throne, he was completely determined to do so, whatever the cost in bloodshed. And none knew better than he the stories going around about the coming of a promised King to deliver Israel from all their troubles, for he had feared it all his reign. So if such a king was to be born he wanted to know about it as soon as could be.
Jerusalem would also be troubled along with him. Some because they knew that they would lose out by his being replaced, and the majority because of their fear of the way in which such news might cause Herod to behave. They had seen it all before. No one would be safe. It is understandable therefore that the arrival of the Magi with their questions thus produced huge concern throughout the whole city. Both Herod’s friends and Herod’s enemies were upset, for differing reasons.
But Matthew’s purpose in stressing this was in order to bring home the importance of the news, and the reaction of Jerusalem to it. John says a similar thing when he says, ‘He came to His own and His own received Him not’ (John 1.11). It is being made apparent that on the whole Jesus was not initially received by the inhabitants of Jerusalem, who were the ones who finally condemned Him. They did not want the status quo upset, except in their favour, although a substantial minority did become more amenable after the resurrection, as we learn from Acts. Jerusalem on the whole, however, was anti-Jesus, as Matthew recognised here, and as their behaviour in Acts 12 demonstrates, and as the martyrdoms of the two James’s were to prove (consider the martyrdom of James the Apostle in Acts 12 and the description of the martyrdom of James the Lord’s brother in Josephus), both occurring in order to please the people of Jerusalem in one way or another, even though many deplored what happened to James, the Lord’s brother.
We should note how this picture of a troubled Jerusalem is in direct contrast with the exceedingly great joy of the Magi (2.10). The holy city rejects the Holy One, while the unholy Gentiles exalt Him and rejoice in Him. Had they gone out to Him Jerusalem too would have had great joy. It is salutary to recognise that they discovered the truth in the Scriptures, but left it to the Gentiles to seek Jesus. As Paul would later put it, a veil was over their hearts (2 Corinthians 3).
2.4 ‘And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he enquired of them where the Christ should be born.’
Aware that he needed to discover the whereabouts of such a prince, if one had indeed been born, Herod gathered together all the leaders of the Jews, ‘the chief priests’ who were responsible for the Temple. This definition would include the high priests past and present, the Temple treasurer, the overseers of the priestly courses, and other leading priests. ‘The Scribes’ were the learned teachers of the Law. And from them he enquired where the Messiah was to be born. If anyone knew, they would.
‘Scribes of the people’ contrasts with the chief priests. The chief priests received a certain respect because of their position but were mainly not appreciated by the people, whereas the Scribes tended to be looked up to by them. The chief priests and Scribes were enemies and they may in fact have been called in separately. But even if not, they would hardly have allowed their enmity to prevent them from responding to Herod’s ‘invitation’. It would have been dangerous to do so. And they may well have thought that he was calling a meeting of the almost defunct Sanhedrin which included both chief priests and Scribes.
We should possibly note that ‘the Scribes’ could include both Sadducees and Pharisees, as well possibly as more general Scribes. ‘Scribes of the people’ may thus be intended to distinguish the ones who were at loggerheads with the Sadducean priesthood. Matthew seems to have taken a delight in linking the Sadducees and Pharisees together, who whilst being enemies with each other, were united by their common bond of hatred of Jesus. Once the Sanhedrin again came into its own they would necessarily have to work together, however much they hated each other (something that is constantly brought out - Acts 5.33-34; 23.6-9). And even Paul the Pharisee was appointed by the Sadducees for his task of rooting out Christians (Acts 9.1-2), being prepared to work under their authority for the greater ‘good’. Compare ‘elders of the people’ who were the independent, usually wealthy, aristocrats, although that is not to deny that they may have had various leanings one way or the other.
2.5 ‘And they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judaea, for thus it is written through the prophet,”
Whether they were able to answer almost immediately, or whether they had to go into in depth consultation we are not told, but if the latter we can be sure that they took a great deal of trouble about it. For Herod in this mood was not a man to be crossed. Eventually (or possibly even immediately, although if so they probably made the most of it) they were able to give him his answer. According to the prophet it would be in Bethlehem of Judaea. For that was what was written ‘through the prophet’ (in Micah 5.2 with a sprinkling of 2 Samuel 5.2). The citation is an amplified translation of combined texts, which may well be why he does not name ‘the prophet’. For such combined texts compare Mark 1.2-3. The version from which they were taken is not known to us, and it may have been Matthew’s (or the Scribes’) own paraphrase.
The verse in Micah comes in a context which is dealing with the days when God will finally establish His king in triumph over Jerusalem and the world, after the tribulations that they have been through. The idea is that then will arise the promised Davidic king. Bethlehem was the home of the house of David, and thus the king was seen as necessarily coming from Bethlehem, David’s home town. The thought is that small though Bethlehem might be, it had produced a great house (1 Samuel 16.4-13), the house that God had chosen, and the house through which He would establish His name. Thus as David had come forth from Bethlehem, so would the greater David.
2.6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are in no wise least among the princes of Judah, for out of you will come forth a governor, who will be shepherd of my people Israel.”
We have no evidence elsewhere that this verse was commonly seen as declaring where the Messiah would be born, for it is not cited in such a way anywhere else (but compare John 7.27, although that may simply be a reference to the mysteriousness of the Messiah, not to his birthplace), but it seems unlikely that such a clear reference had never been spotted before, at least as the source from which the Davidic Messiah would come. They would naturally have expected a son of David to be connected with Bethlehem. Certainly, however, to a group of men fearing the worst if they discovered nothing, Micah’s reference would have seemed like manna from Heaven. But they did not follow up their words with action. It may be that they were too apathetic to follow the situation up, or it may simply be that they had no confidence in ‘those astrologers’.
We may compare the rendering here with MT (Hebrew text) and LXX (Greek text). There are some differences, although they make little difference to the overall sense.
‘But you, Bethlehem----------‘And you, Bethleem, house,---- ‘And you, Bethlehem
Ephrathah, which is little-----of Ephratha are few in----------in the land of Judah
to be -------------------------------number to be reckoned---------are in no wise least
among the thousands----------among the thousands ----------among the princes
(clans) of Judah, out of ------- (clans) of Juda, yet out of -----of Judah, for out of
you will one come forth-------you will one come forth--------- you will come forth
to me, to be a ruler of Israel---to me, who is to be ruler-------a governor, who will
in Israel, whose goings---------in Israel, and his goings----------------------------------
forth are from of old,-----------forth were from the---------------------------------------
from everlasting. ----------------beginning, even from-------------------------------------
---------------------------------------eternity. - - - - - - -
And he shall stand and --------And the Lord shall stand, -----be shepherd of my
shall feed his flock in -----------and see, and feed his flock---- people Israel.
the strength of the Lord.--------with power,
It will be noted that MT and LXX are very similar to each other, while the ‘Matthaean’ version differs, in that in MT and LXX Bethlehem is described as little or few in number among the clans of Judah, whereas in Matthew Bethlehem is described as in no wise least among the princes of Judah. At first it appears to be a contradiction, but it is in fact not so, for Matthew’s version does not say ‘is in no wise few in number’, but ‘in no wise least among the princes’. ‘In no wise least’ suggests small, but not the smallest, and yet for all that its prince is not insignificant. He merely then stresses that its status is not small princewise (it produced David). It is true that it does at first sight appear, probably deliberately, to give a different impression. But the difference is more apparent than real, for what follows in MT and LXX confirms that while few in number they are not ‘least’ in status as a result of what will ensue, the coming forth of a ruler of Israel. That could only indicate a higher status. No town that produced the glorious Davidic house could be called insignificant. Thus in the end they are all three saying the same thing. The alteration simply helps to draw attention to what all are saying, that the One Who is to come forth from Bethlehem gives to Bethlehem a prestige that lifts up its head among the clans/princes of Judah.
The other difference in emphasis is that MT and LXX are assessing Bethlehem’s size in contrast with the size of the clans of Judah, while Matthew’s version appears to be assessing Bethlehem’s status in the eyes of the princes of Judah, the leaders of the clans. (That is unless we assume that by using ‘princes’ he is really indicating ‘princedoms’, and therefore signifying ‘clans’, which is quite possible. The same consonants in Hebrew can in fact mean both). Thus he is saying that while few in number, Bethlehem is high in status, either in contrast with the princedoms of Judah or in the eyes of the Princes of Judah. We may certainly feel that Matthew’s version is giving an additional boost to Jesus’ Messianic status in that He is thereby being seen as recognised by the princes of Judah, but that is not his major emphasis, nor does it on the whole disagree with the significance of the other renderings. All are in the end saying that Bethlehem is exalted because of the house of David that has sprung from her. Indeed it is unlikely that Matthew, if it had not already been in his text, would have invented this, as the MT would have been more suitable to his purpose, in that the princes of Judah on the whole did not acknowledge Jesus, (although of course some like Joseph of Arimathea did). It may, however, be that Matthew wants to draw out a contrast between Herod and the princes of Judah.
Matthew’s version then goes on to add the clause about the shepherd, (possibly making use of 2 Samuel 5.2, but having in mind Micah 5.4), while excluding the reference back to eternity. Certainly the shepherd theme points forward to the coming David (compare Ezekiel 34.23). But then so does the reference to a ruler coming from Bethlehem. This additional phrase immediately brings out the fact that Matthew’s is not to be seen as a direct quotation from Micah 5.2 but as an accumulation of ideas. Nor does it actually claim to be an exact rendering of Micah 5.2.
But none of these alterations were in fact needed in order to get over the point, and it therefore seems probable that we are to see Matthew’s citation as taken from some paraphrase known either to him, or to the Sanhedrin, with the differences not being seen as important. After all the main point of the quotation in all versions, is that while Bethlehem is small it should not be discounted for that reason, because one day it will produce a great King who will watch over his people. And thus it will be the home of the Messiah. And that was what whoever quoted it was wanting to bring out.
(We should possibly note here the struggles of some scholars to try to prove that the Messiah was not in fact expected from Bethlehem, while others seek to prove that this ‘revised version’ was inserted precisely because He was. We might feel justified in thinking sometimes that their efforts simply cancel each other out).
2.7 ‘Then Herod privately called the Magi, and learned of them exactly what time the star appeared.’
Having learned from his own ‘wise men’ what he wanted to know, Herod now summoned the Magi in private audience and discovered from them at what time the star had appeared. It was important to him for it would tell him something about the age of the child.
2.8 ‘And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, “Go and search out exactly concerning the young child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I also may come and pay him homage him.’
Having discovered from them what he wanted to know he then informed them that their destination must be Bethlehem, no doubt knowledgeably citing the Scripture to them so as to impress them. Then he earnestly told them to seek out what they could about the young child, and then bring him back word so that he too could hasten to pay Him homage. As he said it he must have leered to himself. He knew exactly what kind of homage he intended to pay Him. See verse 13, ‘For Herod will seek the young child to destroy Him.’
Some have asked why Herod did not send his own men with the Magi, but as he would have had no reason to doubt that they would do as he asked, he would not necessarily have thought it necessary, especially because any of his own men would have been instantly recognised had they gone with them, which might well have hindered what the Magi were seeking to do. If they saw any of Herod’s men, no one who knew him, especially in a suspicious small town, would have been in any doubt about what his intentions were, and why he had sent them. The group would then have been met with a look of innocent surprise and a total lack of knowledge about any such child. So he obviously felt it better to leave the initial search in the hands of these men who clearly had unique powers.
2.9 ‘And they, having heard the king, went their way, and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.’
Having heard what the king had to say the Magi took the well known route to Bethlehem. It was now simply a matter of following this well defined route, and then making enquiries in Bethlehem. And then something happened that rejoiced their hearts. For as they travelled they saw in front of them the same star as they had first seen ‘at its rising’. That is, it was the same astronomical phenomenon as they had previously observed when in the East. Here was evidence that they were on the right track both physically and intellectually. It confirmed their greatest hopes.
The star ‘went before them’. It does not say that they specifically followed it. That was unnecessary. They only had to follow the road, and there is no more reason to think that the star moved as it ‘went before them’, than there would have been to think that the road moved if it had said that they ‘followed the road’. It is the language of appearance (just as we say that ‘the sun rises’ when we know perfectly well that literally it does not). All that was necessary was that they thought that it moved before them, because that was what it appeared to do. After all they knew that stars moved, otherwise their months and years spent in calculating their movements would have been a waste of time, and those who travel widely often feel that the stars are moving before them. Many a mariner has spoken of following the north star, and of the north star, or some other heavenly lights, going before their ship, when it was only their ship that moved.
And then Bethlehem came into sight with the star still in front of them and to their delight it appeared as though the star hovered over Bethlehem. There was Bethlehem below them, and the light of the star appeared to be reflecting on the town. It was clear to them from this that the wonder child was indeed there. They had reached the end of their journey. Note the very vague ‘over where the young child was’. It is totally open to interpretation. We may make of it what we want.
(Whether the star did actually in any way stop, apart from because they were stopping, we do not know. But for any who quibble about whether a star could ‘stop’ we supply the following extract from an article by an expert astronomer, based on the assumption that having seen the conjunction of Jupiter with another star, producing an excessively bright star, they had continued to monitor Jupiter while on their travels, something which must be considered quite likely. They were after all observers of the stars. “The word "stop" was used for what we now call a planet's "stationary point." A planet normally moves eastward through the stars from night to night and month to month, but regularly exhibits a "retrograde loop." As it approaches the opposite point in the sky from the sun, it appears to slow, come to a full stop, and move backward (westward) through the sky for some weeks. Again it slows, stops, and resumes its eastward course. It seems plausible that the Magi were "overjoyed" at again seeing before them, as they travelled southward, the ‘star’, Jupiter, which at its stationary point was standing still over Bethlehem. We do know for certain that Jupiter performed a retrograde loop in 2 BC, and that it was actually stationary on December 25, interestingly enough, during Hanukkah, the season for giving presents.
But it should be noted that there is nothing in this story that any modern twenty-first century man and woman could not have said in the same circumstances, given a recognition of astrology and a descriptive frame of mind. It must not, however, be seen as vindicating astrology, which is disapproved of in Scripture. It simply indicates that God can use any instrument in His purposes. For we should note that no magic was involved. All that happened was a matter of interpretation. Had this been simply an invented account we can be sure that it would have been made much more exciting. But Matthew simply gives us the facts as he was probably told them by either Joseph, Mary or the Magi (from whom Joseph and Mary would have learned it).
2.10 ‘And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.’
The sight of the star filled them with great joy. It vindicated the activities of the past few months, justified their journey, and indicated that they would shortly see this great prince for themselves. No wonder then that they were filled with joy. However, it might well be that Matthew wants us to see in it the joy of the believer (13.44; 25.21; 28.8). His Gospel thus begins with joy and ends with joy (28.8), both at the anticipated thought of Jesus.
2.11 ‘And they came into the house and saw the young child with Mary his mother; and they fell down and paid him homage, and opening their treasures they offered to him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.’
And then, having made enquiries, they came to the house where the young child was, and saw Him with Mary His mother. And they fell down before Him and paid Him homage, opening up their treasures and offering Him gold and frankincense and myrrh (compare Isaiah 60.6; Psalm 72.10, 11, 15). Note how Joseph, who has been prominent all the way through chapter 1 is here kept out of sight. All the homage, and even worship, was for the young child. There were eyes for no one but Jesus only. Mary is only introduced because He was on His mother’s knee, being little more than a year old. To have introduced Joseph would have been to distort the picture and detract attention from Jesus. Mary is only mentioned because she was the necessary framework so as to emphasise that the young child was an infant (note her description as ‘His mother’ and the ‘Him’ --- ‘Him’). The centre of attention had to be kept on Jesus.
(Any suggestion that this non-mention of Joseph therefore indicates another ‘source’ is to miss the point completely. Whatever sources there may have been they cannot be found by this means).
‘They offered to him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.’ These were three of the greatest portable treasures that the world could afford, and all three were involved in Israel’s worship. But gold is the delight of the hearts of men, indicating kingship and wealth; frankincense (Isaiah 60.6; Jeremiah 6.20) was used in worship and for perfuming king’s palaces; and myrrh is what sweetens men and women in both life and death (Genesis 37.25; 43.11; Esther 2.12; Psalm 45.8; Proverbs 7.17; Song of Solomon 1.13; 3.6; 4.6 etc.; Mark 15.23; John 19.39). They are in the end simply illustrations of luxury gifts fit for a King. Frankincense is an odiferous resinous gum coming from certain trees growing in Arabia, India and Somalia. Myrrh is similar and is found in Arabia and Ethiopia. It is noteworthy that there is no verse in Scripture where all three are brought together as gifts, apart from here. Had Matthew simply wanted to deliberately imitate Scripture he would surely have chosen alternatives about which he could find a quotation.
We may close our dealings with the passage by emphasising its significance.
Jesus is Driven Into Exile And Finally Returns to Lowly Nazareth (2.12-23).
As a result of a warning dream the Magi did not return to Herod but slipped out of the country ‘another way’, while Joseph sought refuge in Egypt as Israel had done long before. And there he remained with his wife and Jesus until Herod was dead. (Had he had other sons at the time, it is unlikely that they would not be mentioned here). Meanwhile the innocent suffered as so often happens in an evil world. All the male sons around Bethlehem of under two years old were slain by Herod in a desperate attempt to ensure that the young prince did not escape (they would probably not have numbered more than twenty). But quick though he was, Herod was not quick enough for God.
Yet in all this Matthew saw clearly written the hand of God. All was bringing to the full what the Scriptures revealed about life and about the future:
And all in accordance with what was written in the Scriptures. No earthly threat could hinder the workings of God.
Note how in ‘a’ the Magi were warned of God in a dream and avoided Jerusalem, and in the parallel Joseph is warned by God in a dream and avoids Judaea. In ‘b’ the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, and directs his movements, and in the parallel he does the same again some time later. In ‘c’ it is ‘until the death of Herod’ and in the parallel Herod is dead. A certain inevitability about his death is indicated. In ‘d’ the Scriptures are filled to the full, and in the parallel they are again filled to the full. Notice how the positive act is described as spoken ‘by the Lord through the prophet’, while the negative result is spoken ‘by the prophet’, for the latter was not the Lord’s direct doing. Centrally in ‘e’ is the gruesome behaviour of Herod in dealing out death to the children of Bethlehem which we can gather finally led to his death, as what precedes and follows makes clear, ‘until he dies’ - ‘he died’.
2.12 ‘And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.’
Having paid homage to the King of the Jews the Magi began to plan their journey home, but they were warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod. But to whom did the dream come? We are not told. Perhaps then it was to Joseph, the man with the gift of dreams? (Note how there is here the same wording as where Joseph is in mind in 2.22). Or perhaps it was to one of the Magi or even to more than one? Matthew is not interested in who the recipient of the dream was, (and perhaps his source did not tell him). He is only interested in its divine source. He does not want to direct attention to human beings, for salvation history is being played out. Joseph therefore may well have been the source and it would fit in with his clear gift in that direction. On the other hand we can argue that it was anonymous precisely because it was to one or more of the Magi. The angel of the Lord might very well not have appeared to them in this dream. A warning dream would be sufficient.
In strict obedience to the dream the Magi took a way out of Judaea which avoided Jerusalem, and made their way back to where they came from.
2.13 ‘And when they were departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and you must remain there until I tell you, for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.” ’
Then as soon as they had departed the angel of the Lord approached Joseph, again in a dream (compare 1.20), and bade him ‘Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and you must remain there until I tell you, for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.” Note the emphasis on the young child. The mother is again secondary. (It is not ‘take your wife and child’). And they were to flee to Egypt and remain there until they were told further what to do. They were now under divine supervision. And the reason for the urgency is then explained, Herod will seek the young child to destroy Him.
We should note here the reason why Herod was seeking to destroy Him. It was because He was ‘the King of the Jews’. This has not only been stated by the Magi but has also been the burden of Matthew’s presentation up to this point. So the King of the Jews was now to take refuge in Egypt where Israel had once taken refuge so long before. This is not surprising. Egypt regularly acted as an asylum for threatened Jews, and there were in fact at this time already over a million Jews in Egypt.
2.14-15a ‘And he arose and took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod.’
Obediently Joseph did as he was told, and taking the young child and His mother by night, fled to Egypt. Egypt had always provided a place of refuge for Israel in times of danger, and indeed over a million Jews lived there at that time. It had sheltered Israel in the days of the previous Joseph as described in Genesis, it would do the same for the hope of Israel now. Note how Jesus is treading the same path as Israel trod, as He takes refuge in Egypt.
2.15b ‘That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt did I call my son.’
And all this was to be seen as a ‘filling full’ of God’s purposes for Israel. Matthew here refers back to a passage in Hosea 11.1. That verse had referred to God’s call to Israel as His ‘firstborn’ in the time of Moses (Exodus 4.22), and it was at that time that He had ‘called them out of Egypt’. He had looked on them as His son. But Hosea does not stop with that. He then goes on to point out that they had not obeyed the call. They had not responded to God’s love. They had left Egypt physically, but their hearts had remained in Egypt (verse 2). And thus God had caused them to return again to Egypt until such a time as they were ready to truly respond (This is described in verse 5, in MT by taking it as a question, ‘shall he not return to Egypt, and Assyria shall be his king?’, (which is what is required in context) or in LXX by literal translation ‘they will return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria will be their king, because they refused to return to Me’). Then He would one day call them again. But this had never happened. Israel’s heart had remained in Egypt, and a million Jews were still there in order to prove it. Now, however, God was going to call them one last time in the person of their Messiah. For He had sent Him to Egypt too, as an exile, and He would call Him from there and He would come. His heart would not remain in Egypt. The idea would seem to be that through Him their call out of Egypt would also become a reality, at least in so far as the faithful were concerned, for they would come out in Him. Their hearts would be wooed from Egypt once and for all through the activity of this child Who was His Son as no other had been. For He was the Saviour.
And that this would now proceed with reasonable urgency comes out in that what has been spoken has been spoken directly by ‘the Lord’. He will Himself act to bring it about, as the next few years would reveal. There was nothing of Egypt about Jesus.
The idea contained here is important if we are to understand what follows in Matthew. God is calling His King to come out from Egypt. But with what purpose? There could surely only be one purpose, so as to fulfil the original purpose of God in calling His son out of Egypt, in other words to initially establish in Palestine the Kingly Rule of God. That had been the original intention previously, and Moses had gone into the mountain in order to view that kingdom afar off, but God’s purpose in this had failed because of Israel’s failure to truly come out of Egypt in their hearts. Now God was in action again, and was bringing His Son out of Egypt. It is no accident that John the Baptist will shortly declare that, ‘The Kingly Rule of Heaven is at hand’ (3.2) as he begins to prepare the way for the King, and that God will declare of His King, ‘This is My beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased.’ It was His coronation.
In view of the complexity of this verse we will now consider it in more detail, on behalf of those who are puzzled about it, in an Excursus.
EXCURSUS. On ‘Out of Egypt Have I Called My Son.’
In considering this quotation one or two factors need to be born in mind. And the first is as to what is meant by ‘prophecy’. The prophets are not to be seen as a kind of glorified fortune-teller. That is not how they saw themselves at all. Rather they are to be seen as men who spoke from God, and who spoke in God’s name, and who in that speaking sought to cover the whole range of history. They were forth-tellers rather than fore-tellers. Thus the greatest of the prophets ‘prophesied’ about the past, they ‘prophesied’ about the present and they ‘prophesied’ about the future. And they sought to bring it all together as one, as descriptive of the purposes of God. In other words they were God’s mouthpiece as regards the whole of the past, the present and the future. And thus all their writings were to be seen as ‘prophecy’, the forth-telling of the mighty ways and acts of God.
That means that they were not all to be seen as simply foretelling future events. Far from it. Rather they were to be seen as relating the future to the past and the present. Clearly the future was important to them, but it was important, not as something to be forecast so as to show how clever they were, but as something that was in the hands of God, and as something in which God was going to act in fulfilling the promises of the past, precisely because of that past, taking into account the present. And their main aim in speaking was in order to affect that present. So even in the case of their looking into the future it is better to think of them as declaring what God was going to do in the future in fulfilment of the promises and warnings of the past, rather than as simply an attempt to discern the future. That is not to doubt that sometimes they did specifically act to discern the future, and did even lay claim at times to be heard because what they said came about (for they were confident that God was speaking through them), but it was not to be seen as the central purpose of prophecy. (It is the modern not the ancient view of prophecy that prophecy is merely about foretelling).
A further thing that we need to keep in mind when considering the application of Old Testament Scriptures to the days of Jesus was the Jewish sense of being a part of their past. They did not see the past as something that was of little concern to them apart from being a matter of historical interest. They felt themselves as bound up in that past. Thus each year when they met to celebrate the Feast of the Passover, they felt that they were at one with those people in Egypt who had first celebrated the Passover. As they ate ‘the bread of affliction’ they saw themselves as sharing in their experience. And they looked ahead for a similar great deliverance for themselves. They believed that the past would be repeated in their own futures. And it was not only so with the Passover. In the whole of their worship there was the same sense of unity with the past, for they saw themselves as connected with Moses and the past in all that they did. Thus prophecies concerning Israel could very much be seen as equally applying in their day. They felt that the promises of Moses and the prophets had been made to them. For they considered themselves to be the same as the Israel of the past, the same as those to whom the promises and warning were originally given, they were YHWH’s firstborn son. So when Matthew spoke of ‘fulfilment’, of prophecy being ‘filled to the full’, it would be an idea close to their hearts
The next thing that must be recognised as we consider these ‘prophecies’ is that Matthew saw Jesus as very much a continuation of the promises and history of the Old Testament. Indeed he saw Him as the One Who summed them up. Jesus is the son of Abraham (1.1). He is the son of David (1.1). He is, in His family, One Who has, as it were, endured Exile (1.12, 17), just as the patriarchs with their families had long before (Exodus 1.1). And now He is One Who has left behind the ties of Egypt (2.15) and is therefore the hope of all who are in exile. His coming spurs again the weeping of Rachel as she awaits the deliverance of her children (2.17). He is One Who bears the name of being despised and rejected, ‘a Nazarene’ (2.23). Like Israel of old He goes into the wilderness to be tested, although in His case He emerges from it as triumphant (4.1-11). He is the One Who confirms and establishes the Law, bringing out its deeper meaning (5-7). He is the Servant of the Lord of Isaiah (12.17-21) Who has been described as ‘Israel’ by God (Isaiah 49.3). Thus in His person He is to be seen as representing Israel in every way, and in such a way that God would be able to say of Him, just as He did of the Servant in Isaiah 49.3, ‘You are My Servant Israel, in Whom I will be glorified’. This idea that Jesus represents Israel is elsewhere most obviously emphasised by John in John 15.1-6 where Jesus declares Himself to be ‘the true Vine’ in contrast with the old Israel, the degenerate vine, and in the other synoptic Gospels by, for example, the cursing of the fig tree. It is also confirmed by the fact that the New Testament writers saw the new people of God as being the continuation of the true Israel of the Old Testament, what are often called the Remnant. They saw them as the new ‘congregation (of Israel)’ set up on the rock of Christ and His Apostles and on what they believed about Him (Matthew 16.16-19). Or to put it in modern parlance, they believed that the true church, as made up of all true believers, was the true Israel (so Romans 11.16-28; Galatians 3.27-29; 4.26-31; 6.16; Ephesians 2.11-22; 1 Peter 2.5-9; etc.).
And this therefore is partly why Matthew can see Him as ‘fulfilling’ certain prophecies. But in saying this we must not stop there. We must also note again what the content of the word ‘fulfilled’ has for Matthew, as for Judaism. The word means ‘to fulfil’, ‘to complete’, and often ‘to complete something already begun’. Thus Matthew is not necessarily saying that the prophecies that He ‘fulfils’ referred solely to Jesus, so that first we have the foretelling out of the blue, and then He fulfils that foretelling. The argument is often rather that in the end things which are stated by the prophets, which have never really come to their final completion, do find their completion in Him (see above).
So even if we stopped there we could see good reason for Matthew applying this verse to Jesus on the grounds that 1). He was Israel. 2) Because they were His people and had come out of Egypt He could see Himself as being involved with Israel in coming out of Egypt. 3) Because it could be seen as a further fulfilment of the prophecy.
But in fact we do not have to stop there, because when we look at what Hosea actually said we realise that there is an even greater significance in the words. So keeping these ideas in mind we will now consider these words cite in Matthew 2.15 in their original context. There we read, ‘This was to fulfil (or ‘bring to completion’) what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son”.’ Here Matthew is undoubtedly referring to the fact that Jesus had been taken to Egypt, and would therefore return from there as the representative of Israel in accordance with God’s calling and purpose. But while at first it might seem as though Matthew has simply done this, he did not in fact do it by simply selecting a convenient prophecy, and then giving it a new meaning on the basis of the ideas described above. He did it as something which was to be seen as genuinely ‘completing’ the original prophecy.
Many fail to see this because they do not sufficiently consider the context in Hosea. They suggest that here Matthew (or whoever previously brought this citation to notice in connection with the coming of Jesus) has merely taken the words of Hosea 11.1 out of context, and has given them a meaning which has little to do with what Hosea prophesied or meant, and that he (or they) have done this in order to give the impression (to ignoramuses?) of ‘fulfilled prophecy’. They then speak of a list of such ‘prophecies’ as occurring in Matthew, which are all treated in the same way, that is simply as proof texts wrenched out of context, and they therefore look on Matthew also as naive. But the question that must be asked is, ‘is that really what Matthew was doing? Is that really what he saw himself as signifying?’
Having this in mind let us first consider the words of Hosea 11.1, and see them in context so as to understand what their significance was to Hosea. Hosea 11.1 reads, ‘when Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son’. Now it cannot be doubted that this was in a sense a clear ‘prophecy’ about the past. That is, that initially it was looking back to the original calling of Israel out of Egypt. Hosea is here declaring that God had said that He had set His love on Israel, had seen them as His son and had ‘called them out of Egypt’ (see Exodus 4.22-23), and this with the purpose of delivering them from Egypt and all that it stood for. And not only was this so, but we should also note that the events that appear to demonstrate this are themselves recorded in Israel’s history, as Hosea was well aware. At first sight then it seems clear that this prophecy cannot strictly be applied to Jesus because it had already been fulfilled.
But before we come to too hasty a decision on that question there is something else that we ought to do. We ought to ask ourselves why Hosea said this? For when we do we will see that he makes it clear that it was not in fact just his intention to speak about something that happened in the past. He had a specific reason for saying it, a reason that applied to the future. And the reason for his declaration is in fact then made crystal clear. For these words are spoken in a context in which we discover that in Hosea’s eyes that ‘calling’ failed, it did not happen. For to him the problem was that although bodily the people of Israel had moved from Egypt, in their minds they had brought Egypt with them. Mentally and spiritually they were still in Egypt. Thus the point was that they had not truly responded to God’s call. God’s call had not been effective. It had not been fulfilled. Yes, he said, they had left Egypt in their bodies. But the problem was that they had brought Egypt with them. They were still indulging in the same old idolatries and spurning God’s love in the same old way. And thus, because he knew that God could not in the end fail in His calling, he recognised that that calling which had been made had not been fulfilled, and that as yet that calling had not proved effective. He saw that that calling was in fact still a continuous process, which was in process of fulfilment. It was something that went on and on, and would go on and on, until it was finally achieved. God had called His people out of Egypt, and out of Egypt therefore they would surely have to come, even though as yet they had not done so.
This is made clear in the verses which follow, for if we follow texts on which the Septuagint was probably based, he then says, ‘The more I called them the more they went from Me’ (11.2 RSV, which takes into account LXX. LXX has here the 1st person singular). There the idea is quite clearly that up to this point the calling of God had been ineffective because their hearts had remained in Egypt. They had brought Egypt with them. He continued to call them, but the more He did so the more they rejected Him. They had not really been delivered from Egypt at all, because they still continued with the same old idolatry as they always had, and looked to other gods, spurning the love of the Lord (11.2-4). They were still refusing to listen to His calling. It was a calling that had as yet not been made effective. Thus while He had called them out of Egypt, with the intention that they leave Egypt behind, they had not truly come. In their hearts ‘His son’ was still in Egypt.
Alternately if we go by the MT it says, ‘as they called them, so they went from them’. In this case there are two possibilities.
So whichever way we take it Matthew here saw Hosea as declaring that God’s call from Egypt was a continuing process that had not yet been completed. God had called but as yet His people had not truly responded. And then he saw Hosea as going on to describe the continuation of that call as outlined in the following verses. For the idea all the way through Hosea 11 is that while Israel may have left Egypt physically, they had not done so spiritually. In their hearts they were still in Egypt, as was evidenced by their idolatry and lack of love for the Lord. And thus the call of God had not been inwardly effective. Their hearts still needed to be ‘called out of Egypt’. But because the call was the call of God it was still active, and would have to remain active until it came about.
Thus Hosea sees that there is only one solution to this problem. In order to achieve His purpose God would have to return His people to Egypt so that He might be able to call them out again, so that this time, hopefully, having learned their lesson, His previous call might be made effective, with the result that they would be wholly delivered from Egypt. Thus, (following RSV, again translated with LXX in mind), he says in verse 5, ‘they will return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria will be their king, because they refused to return to Me’. In other words, God is saying, the initial result of their calling out of Egypt will have to be temporarily reversed by their being returned to Egypt (and to Assyria) to await another deliverance. And that theologically there must be another deliverance comes out in the fact that, although the calling of God may be delayed, it cannot be cancelled. ‘The gifts and calling of God are without repentance’ (Romans 11.29). For the promises to Abraham must be fulfilled.
Alternatively, if we read in the text the negative as in MT, we must translate as, ‘Shall they not return to Egypt, and Assyria be their king, because they would not return to Me?’. (This is an equally possible translation of MT). That this translation is required is evidenced in verse 11 which again shows them as later being in both Egypt and Assyria. So whichever way the text is taken, whether as in LXX or as in MT, the same thing is in mind. The idea basically is that their particular calling has been reversed because of their disobedience, so that they are being returned to Egypt, and to its equivalent Assyria, but that that calling will then need to be ‘fulfilled’ or brought to completion at a later time. God had indeed called His son out of Egypt, but because as yet ‘he’ had not fully and completely come out, God will repeat His call, or ‘make it full’. For as God’s original call must finally be effective because of Who He is, there will have to be a further re-calling out so that His purposes are really fulfilled.
That this is so comes out in that in verse 11 Hosea once more sees Israel as again coming out of Egypt. ‘They will come trembling like birds from Egypt and like doves from the land of Assyria, and I will return them to their homes (or ‘make them dwell in their houses’)’. The idea here is that God, having first removed them from their homes and having taken them back to Egypt and Assyria because their hearts had proved to be still there, would once again ‘bring them out of Egypt’, and this time would bring ‘home’ not only their bodies but their hearts, so that they would worship and serve Him only. His call out of Egypt would therefore at last be fully effective, it would be carried out to the full. It would be ‘fulfilled’.
So, to Hosea, God’s original call was seen to have failed, and was seen as something still in process of completion, and ‘out of Israel have I called My son’ was thus to be seen as still having to be fulfilled. This is not just Matthew’s view. This is Hosea’s view which Matthew accepts. But even then, as always, we must assume that its completion will depend on their final obedient response to Him. For if the calling is really God’s it must finally be effective. Until that was so the call of God could not be said to have been ‘fulfilled’. And the problem was, as Matthew saw clearly, that that kind of obedience had never really happened. Even in his own time he recognised that their hearts were still ‘in Egypt’, and that in fact over a million Jews literally were still there, largely in Alexandria..
So when Matthew cites this verse in respect of Jesus coming out of Egypt, having first represented Jesus as the expected seed of Abraham, and as thus the representative of Israel; as David’s son, the Messiah who was to be Israel’s representative before God (for the king always represented his people); and as the One who had in His ancestors previously been in Exile (1.12), it is with these factors in mind. Matthew is saying, ‘as yet, while it is true that God did call His son Israel out of Egypt, this calling of Israel out of Egypt has not yet been fully consummated’, and we should note that this is not just what Matthew says, it is what Hosea had also declared. Indeed it was the whole point of what Hosea was saying. God did call with a call which must eventually be effective because it was His, but the problem was that in their hearts Israel had up to this point not fully responded to the call. So at the time of the birth of Jesus Israel was therefore still to be seen as ‘in Egypt’ in their hearts. And this could not have been more emphasised than by the fact that in the time of Jesus there were over a million Jews in Egypt just as Hosea had said.
‘And thus,’ says Matthew, ‘God has now acted in Jesus in such a way as to commence the final deliverance from Egypt that Hosea had spoken of so long ago.’ He has now brought out of Egypt the One Who represents in Himself the seed of Abraham, the son of David, and the children of the Exile, He Who is the new Israel, the Messiah, the Servant, the One Who embodies in Himself the whole of Israel, so as to bring back Israel to Him and also in order to be a light to the Gentiles (Isaiah 49.3, 6). His heart will not be left in Egypt. He will come out totally, in body, soul and spirit. Nor will the hearts of those who follow Him remain in Egypt.
Through Jesus therefore this ‘prophecy’, says Matthew, which had never been fully completed, will come to its final consummation, so that the true Israel might finally be delivered from ‘Egypt’. By this means the prophecy is being ‘brought to completion’, it is ‘being filled full’. His return from exile is the beginning of a genuine ‘coming out of Egypt’ for the true Israel. In Jesus God’s purposes for Israel will now come into fulfilment. Thus far from Matthew’s quotation being naive, it is full of deep significance, and that by taking it in its true context. (Some may not like Matthew’s interpretation, but they have no right to despise it, for it is based firmly on what Hosea was saying, and it was an interpretation that would certainly have spoken quite clearly to his Jewish readers. They still very much saw Israel as not fully established in Palestine. This is a further indication of how much Matthew, in his Gospel, has in mind the Jews, both Christian and otherwise).
That Jesus did in fact see Himself as Israel in this way comes out in His description of Himself as the Son of Man (which in Daniel 7 represented both Israel and their king) and especially in John 15.1-6, where He depicts Himself as the true Vine. It is also found in His recognition that He Himself would need to found a new nation (‘My congregation’). This last comes out clearly later on in Matthew, for there He speaks of founding ‘My congregation’ (the new congregation of Israel - 16.18; 18.17-18) on the rock of His Messiahship. Furthermore He also speaks of the ‘bringing forth of a new nation’ in 21.43, which will replace the old. So the thought in Matthew’s words in 2.15 is to be seen as far more complicated than just a simplistic ‘fulfilling’ of some convenient words which have been misapplied. It is not an attempt to ‘prove’ anything by a rather conveniently worded prophecy. Rather it is indicating that Jesus is an essential part of Israel’s ongoing history and promised deliverance, and is evidence of the fact that the final fulfilling of that first call of God to His people is about to take place. God had called them out of Egypt, but the calling had not succeeded, and now therefore He will finally make that call effective so that they will never yearn to return there again, but will at last respond to God’s cords of love (Hosea 11.4), and this will be through Jesus Christ, just as Isaiah had in his own way promised (19.23-25).
Rather therefore than being a naive claim to be a successful piece of fortune-telling, this is a declaration that God’s calling is always finally effective, even though its fulfilment might take over a thousand years.
End of EXCURSUS.
2.16 ‘Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the Magi, was extremely angry, and sent forth, and slew all the male children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had exactly learned of the Magi.’
Meanwhile Herod was livid with anger. The impossible had happened, and it had become apparent that those lily-livered Magi had deceived him. They had basically cocked a snook at him. And he immediately gave the command that all male children in Bethlehem and its surrounds who were of two years old and under should be put to death at once without delay. No quarter was to be shown. And in accordance with his command all male children within his definition were sought out, and were put to death. It was not, however, a large massacre by his standards, probably encompassing around twenty children. And the reason for his choice of age is then given. It was according to the time since the star had first appeared, in accord with the information he had been given by the Magi. How wise he had been not to leave anything to chance.
We can only cringe at the thought of the deaths of these children, but in ancient warfare children were killed indiscriminately without a second thought. It would not therefore have been looked at with quite the same eyes as we look at it, except by the people involved. People would simply have said when they heard of it, ‘How typical of Herod’. But a further thought needs to be born in mind. This purposeless killing was precisely because God was seeking to do good to the world. God did not cause the killing. It arose because He had sent His Son to die to save men and women. It was actually caused by a man who was so evil that God’s very act in sending a Saviour resulted in the killing.
2.17 ‘Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying,’
Again this suffering was seen as adding to the ‘filling full’ of the warnings that Scripture had given. For Scripture regularly emphasises the sufferings that Israel had yet to face, in the same way as they had at the Exile. For there it had included the loss of their children to exile, and prior to that the deaths of children in their own land in the face of the merciless invading armies. Large numbers had been slaughtered. Large numbers had gone into exile. And now it was to happen again, even if on a smaller scale. But the scale did not matter. The grief would be the same for those involved. One of their children would disappear into exile in Egypt, and others would be slain in the land. It was all part of the expected ‘Messianic sufferings’, the birth pangs that would introduce the last days.
Note how Matthew uses a special formula for introducing Jeremiah’s prophecies, which is only used of them. It is probably only a technicality, but it demonstrates what thought he had put into composing these formulae, and interestingly the formulae that introduce Jeremiah are the ones that have no stress on ‘in order that’ (hina or hopows). Perhaps it was because they were in a savage context.
The prophecy is taken from Jeremiah 31.15. There Israel is seen in terms of Rachel, the mother of the clans of Joseph and Benjamin, Ephraim and Manasseh. But the sons of her slave would also be seen as hers, and apparently Leah’s children as well. For Rachel is seen as weeping for all Israel. And why is she weeping? In context it is because her children have gone. They are either dead or in exile. They ‘are not’. And now another child has gone into exile, and others are dead, slaughtered by man’s inhumanity to man
But why was she weeping in Ramah? The answer is that it was because Ramah is where she was buried. So she is seen as weeping in her grave at Ramah for her beloved children, both dead and exiled, originally at the time of Jeremiah, but continuing on to the present day. And her weeping is not just for them. It is a weeping that reaches out into the future because of what is yet to come on Israel. It is a weeping that will not cease until she sees all her children restored. For just prior to the words in Jeremiah is his description of the hoped for restoration of God’s people (Jeremiah 31.10-14). And her weeping is to precede this hope of theirs, a hope which will be fulfilled ‘in the latter end’ (Jeremiah 31.17), when her weeping will be rewarded by their restoration, when the new covenant will be made with them by God which will transform their hearts (Jeremiah 31.31-34).
So, says Matthew, do not be surprised at this cause of weeping which results from Herod’s cruelty and slaughter, and at the need for the One Who represents Israel to go into exile. Such weeping is but a sign that God’s purposes are still going forward, even in the midst of suffering. And in this case it is a sign that Messiah is coming, indeed is almost here. Soon He will return from exile bringing with Him the hopes of Israel. Here Israel’s weeping is seen as being brought to its climax in view of the good time that is coming, which will result from the coming of Jesus, Who will bring them to God’s perfect rest. The experience is coming to its ‘filling full’, after which it will cease. (In future there will be weeping, but it will be because of the machinations of evil men, including many Jews, who will persecute God’s people. But it will no longer be a weeping of hopelessness).
EXCURSUS on Rachel’s Weeping.
We must apply similar methods of interpretation to Matthew 2.17-18 as we have done previously. Here we read, ‘Then was fulfilled (or ‘filled to the full’) that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be comforted for they are not.” ’ It is then often asked, ‘what has Ramah to do with Bethlehem-judah?’ As we have already seen it need not have anything to do with it. It may simply be indicating where Rachel was to be found in her tomb at Ramah. However, other significant facts are that Ramah was on the way between Bethel and Bethlehem, and that Rachel’s death was also in fact connected with Bethlehem (Genesis 35.16-19). But that is clearly not the full answer, and again we must consider its context, this time in Jeremiah 31.15.
In Jeremiah’s prophecy these words in reality stand very much on their own, but the principle behind them is nevertheless clear and that is that it is Israel who are seen as weeping, and this in terms of their deceased ancestress Rachel. And she is weeping because many of their people are either dead or in exile, because ‘they are not’. As with the quotation from Hosea he has in mind those who are far from the land and ‘in exile’. This Ramah was presumably the Ramah near Gibeon (Joshua 18.25) some miles north of Jerusalem, in Benjamite territory. In contrast Bethlehem-judah was six miles south of Jerusalem in the territory of Judah. But Jeremiah’s words are not based on the association of the one with the other but almost certainly on the fact that Rachel was thought to be buried near Ramah.
(In 1 Samuel 10.2 it is said to have been at Selsah, on the border of Benjamin, which is not definitely identified, but must have been near Ramah, while Genesis 35.16, 19 says that it was ‘on the way to Ephrath’, the old name for Bethlehem, a road that passed through what would later be Benjamite territory by Ramah. It was thus on the approach to Bethlehem (see also Ruth 4.11). We must remember that in ancient days geography was not an exact science and places would therefore be identified by the nearest well known name).
But the vivid picture is not of the children of Ramah. It is of Rachel in her tomb at Ramah weeping because all her children, the whole of Israel, were suffering (we must remember that she was mother of Joseph and Benjamin, and therefore grandmother of Ephraim and Manasseh, and that the children of her maid would also be seen as hers, but she is probably to be seen as weeping for all Israel and Judah). And her weeping was because they were no longer before her eyes. Many were in Exile, others were dead. The verse is then followed by the promise that there is hope for their latter end (Jeremiah 31.17), hope following the Messianic feast (Jeremiah 31.13-14) when presumably Rachel (Israel) will be able to cease weeping, and when will be fulfilled the change of heart and mind in Israel that God requires (Jeremiah 31.31-34). Thus Rachel’s weeping is seen by Jeremiah as something that would carry on until the end times when through God’s activity it would cease because God’s work of restoration would begin. It was therefore very appropriate for what Matthew saw as the beginning of ‘the last days’, the times of the Messiah. For the Messiah would remove the necessity for this kind of weeping. And to Matthew this exiling of the One Who represented Israel, and the accompanying needless destruction of twenty or so male children by Herod, was therefore to be seen as the last throes of the old dispensation as Rachel (Israel) continued to weep for her children.
Rachel’s death was a tragic one, although not in an uncommon way, for she died in childbirth (Genesis 35.16-19) as did so many women in those days. Her tears would thus have been seen as very apt for a situation where children were involved. And the fact that she was depicted as weeping for children who were lost to her, and would continue to do so until they were brought home, made it very applicable to this case. Thus Matthew is simply pointing out that Rachel (as representative of mother Israel) wept whenever children who were born in Israel ‘were not’ as a result of man’s inhumanity. And that was why this slaughter of Israel’s children was to be seen as one of ‘her’ causes of weeping, and a very significant one because it heralded the coming of the Messiah. He is taking the verse as signifying the perpetual grief of the symbolic Rachel for Israel’s suffering, in whatever form that suffering takes, right up to the end times, and especially in such cases as this, until her children return to her. She is therefore also weeping for the return of the Exiled One. So the present generation are to be comforted by the thought of the past, and to see their suffering as part of the completion of the process whereby finally the good times would come through the appearance of the Messiah.
Each time Israel suffered, a partial fulfilment of these words was to be seen. At such times Rachel was to be seen as weeping in Ramah, especially when the problems related to children. And now when the coming of the Messiah seemed to be bringing hope to the world, it was not, says Matthew, to be seen as surprising that this weeping was intensified as a result of the sufferings that accompanied His birth. This weeping then represented and symbolised the birth pangs of the Messianic age which had been so clearly portended (Isaiah 13.8; 26.17; Jeremiah 4.31; 6.24; Micah 4.9-10. See also 2 Esdras 16.38-39). And ‘Rachel’ therefore felt them most intensely. Who better to have in mind in view of how she died? Here at last Jeremiah’s words were being ‘filled to the full’
So Matthew clearly saw that the weeping for these children in Bethlehem was all part of the weeping of ‘Rachel’, a weeping that was expected in the end to result in the coming of the Messianic Banquet (Jeremiah 31.13-14). And he knew that it would speak to the hearts of those who were still weeping, awaiting His coming. He may well also have wanted the actual mothers of these slain sons to know that ‘Rachel’, as one who understood such situations, was weeping for them, something which would help to comfort all who were finding their suffering difficult to understand. It would make them aware that God was not insensitive to their cries, but knew what was happening (compare Luke 18.7). Matthew may even himself have known people who were still grieving over their lost sons in Bethlehem. But even more was he aware of unbelieving Israel’s constant weeping as they looked ahead in hope of deliverance. Thus again, far from being a naive application of words that were irrelevant, this is to be seen as something pregnant with meaning concerning the coming of Jesus, and as having a direct message at that time for his Jewish readers. The weeping of Israel was soon coming to an end. For Israel would finally be ‘called out of Egypt’ in Jesus, and true Israel would genuinely respond to Him in their hearts, and would no longer need to see themselves as ‘in Exile’ and away from where God could be worshipped (John 4.20-23), and this all because of the activity of Jesus.
This then links his use of this prophecy, with the previous one. When God ‘called His son out of Egypt’ it followed a time when Rachel truly had been weeping for her children, for the Gentile world had been seeking to destroy them in the form of Pharaoh’s annihilation of the sons of Israel (Exodus 1.15-22), a destruction that Herod was now imitating. But one son survived that annihilation and led Israel out of Egypt. Now Rachel is weeping for her children again, but again one child will survive the annihilation, and will ‘lead His people out of Egypt’. It is to be the end of Rachel’s weeping.
End of EXCURSUS.
2.19 ‘But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appears in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying,’
This comment contains within it the idea of the inevitability of Herod’s death. It was to be expected in view of what he had done. For death comes to all who sin. And immediately after it God sprang into action. The angel of the Lord again appears to Joseph, this time in a dream in Egypt. God was about to effectively call His Son out of Egypt, the next stage in His process of salvation.
2.20 “Arise and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel, for they are dead who sought the young child’s life.”
Joseph is told to arise and take the young child, with His mother, and go into ‘the land of Israel’. Note again the reference to His mother as an added extra. All attention is on Jesus. She is mentioned in order to emphasise Jesus youthfulness. He is still a ‘young child’.
The description ‘the land of Israel’ (repeated in the next verse, and nowhere else in the New Testament), deliberately takes the mind back to the time of early Israel when Israel was a newish nation in the time of the Judges, and even more to Ezekiel’s vision of the return from exile. It was a reminder of the land that was available to them but which for a time they had lost. ‘And you will know that I am the Lord, when I bring you into the land of Israel, into the country for the which I lifted up my hand to give it to your fathers’ (Ezekiel 20.42, compare 11.17). Now Jesus is entering in to possess ‘the land of Israel’.
‘For they are dead who sought the young child’s life.’ Compare Exodus 4.19. They had tried to kill Him, just as another once had Moses, but now it was they who were dead. The plural suggests that it was not only Herod who was unhappy about the prospective alteration to the status quo. The ‘they’ probably has in mind Herod’s commanders and his sycophants, whose influence would be dead even if they were not. However, it may well also have arisen because the Exodus 4.19 parallel is in mind. But whoever they were, His enemies were all known to God, and for the time at least they had been seen off.
The loose use of the phrase from Exodus 4.19 draws our attention to the parallels between Jesus and Moses. Moses had been delivered when children around him had been slaughtered, and he had also fled from a king to a place of safety, and had been called back once that king was dead. But that had been in a foreign land. In Jesus’ case it had been in His own land, and by a supposed King of the Jews. He is as it were rejected even before He begins His mission, but like Moses enjoys God’s protection. In the back of Matthew’s mind may also have been the thought that while Moses returned to Egypt, Jesus was, on behalf of His people, leaving Egypt behind for ever. Here was a greater than Moses, taking the final stage in the deliverance of God’s people. (In general there are no real grounds, apart from here, for thinking that Matthew was trying to portray Jesus as a new Moses. Elsewhere He is seen as representing the whole of Israel).
2.21 ‘And he arose and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel.’
And Joseph did precisely as God had commanded. Note the repetition of the phraseology in order to bring out the point. They ‘came into the land of Israel’. God’s will and purpose from the beginning was going forward through full obedience in the face of hardship.
2.22-23a ‘But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned of God in a dream, he withdrew into the parts of Galilee, and came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth.’
However, when he learned that Archelaus was now ruling Judaea, knowing the quality of the man he was afraid to go there, and his fears were confirmed by another dream. This time no angel is mentioned (as with the Magi). Perhaps no special information had to be given. All that was needed was an awareness of the danger. So instead he moved into Galilee to his wife’s home town of Nazareth. At least there they would be among friends, and, where it nestled in the mountains, away from prying eyes.
We should note that when Herod the Great had died his kingdom was divided into three. Judaea, Samaria and Idumaea were given to Archelaus; Galilee and Peraea to Herod Antipas; and the remainder to Herod Philip. Archelaus was made Ethnarch, with the promise of kingship if he proved his worth. But his rule was cruel and inefficient and in the end he was deposed around 6 AD, and it was then that a Roman official was introduced in order to take charge of his section of Herod’s former kingdom.
2.23b ‘That it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophets, that he should be called a Nazarene.’
To be ‘called a Nazarene’ was to be looked down on as backward and insignificant, for Nazareth was an obscure hill town in Galilee, and even Galilee was spoken of contemptuously by the people of Judaea as ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’, unorthodox and tainted by association with the Gentiles. So to be a Nazarene was to be a nonentity, living in an obscure town in despised Galilee. It was to be like a root struggling to survive in dry ground (Isaiah 53.2). For while Galilean Jews were accepted as being full Jews, (although many of their fathers had been forced to become so by compulsory circumcision), they were seen as somewhat unorthodox, and even their Rabbis were not considered to be quite as orthodox as they should be. And they were intermingled with Gentiles. Thus they were ‘looked down on’ by their more orthodox brethren in Judaea and Jerusalem (see for example John 7.41, 52). But even more looked down on were the residents of Nazareth in Galilee. For Nazareth was a smallish out of the way town in the hills, away from the main thoroughfares, which it overlooked from a height, a town which had somehow gained a reputation for being a backward nonentity. Thus if Galilee was despised, Nazareth was even more despised, for it was despised even by those who lived in Galilee. It was the lowest of the low. That was why Nathaniel could say, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ (John 1.46). And even at the time that Matthew was written, (whenever it was), the Jews looked down on Christians and called them ‘the sect of the Nazarenes’, which was intended to be insulting indicating these backward people living in obscurity (Acts 24.5).
Note that this ‘quotation’ is not said to be a direct citation. His statement is not referred to ‘a prophet’. It is referred to ‘the prophets’ as a whole. It is thus to be seen as representing a general principle spoken of by the prophets which was to be ‘filled to the full’.
So Matthew’s point here is that quite deliberately Joseph and Mary have gone back to live in that unpretentious town in the hills where Mary at least had once had her home, thus fulfilling all the Old Testament prophecies which spoke of the Coming One as being the lowliest of men (see especially Psalm 22.6; Isaiah 53.1-5; Zechariah 9.12; 11.7-14). Here therefore ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’ indicates that He would be seen as the lowest of the low, as the Scriptures had declared would be the case.
Matthew has previously not mentioned any connection of Mary and Joseph with Nazareth, and that has been deliberate. For he had been concerned to emphasise the Davidic connection of Jesus, and His royal birth and treatment by the Magi, but now he also seeks to draw attention to His lowliness as He ‘returns from Exile’, thus filling in both aspects of Zechariah 9.12. The One Who was the Son of David, born in royal Bethlehem and honoured by the Magi, had like Israel of old fled to Egypt, and had now descended in status to lowly Nazareth. It was fitting for One Who would later have nowhere to lay His head, and was to be depicted as the humble Servant of the Lord.
Other have connected the words with Isaiah 11.1, where the ‘branch’ is a ‘netser’. Thus ‘He will be called a netser’. But the connection of this with the name of Nazareth is tenuous, and if Matthew had intended that he would surely have drawn attention to the fact, for it is not obvious in the Greek. The same is true of interpretations that seek to connect the idea with Nazirites, which is spelled differently and comes from a different root. All also founder on the fact that Matthew referred it to ‘the prophets’ not ‘the prophet’. Thus the probability is that we are to see Matthew as reading into the words ‘He will be called a Nazarene’ all the contempt that was intrinsic in the idea of being an inhabitant of Nazareth.
Note on Galilee.
That Galileans were despised by the Judeans is unquestionable, but this should not hide from us the fact that Galilee was a flourishing country, with a large population for its size (it was fifty miles by twenty five miles), with many populous ‘cities’, and very fertile, rich soil and pasturage. Indeed its fertility was proverbial. The Galileans were innovative, courageous, and ‘disposed to change and delighting in seditions’. They were ever ready for a fight. But they were also brave, true and honourable. Many of them were fanatical Jews, even though looked on by Judeans as a little unorthodox, although their Jewishness was not in question. Furthermore the trade routes all passed though Galilee. It thus had far greater contact with the Gentile world than did out of the way Judaea. Indeed it was surrounded by Gentiles, with Samaritans to the South, and many Gentiles lived among them. It had in fact been largely Gentile, and 100 or so years earlier Aristobulus had conquered Galilee for the Jewish nation, with the result that many Gentiles had been forced to be circumcised and become Jews. So it was not for nothing that it was called ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’.
End of note.
The Ministry of John the Baptist. The Messiah Is Revealed To The World (3.1-17).
Many years had passed by of which Matthew tells us nothing. He is not concerned to give us a biography of Jesus’ life. He is more concerned with Him in connection with His mission and purpose in coming into the world. For he has already informed us that He has come into the world as the Messiah (1.1, 16), in order to be a Saviour from sin (1.21).
He has told us that the Messiah has come into the world:
Now, when the fullness of the time has come, He has to be introduced to the world and anointed for His work. And for this purpose God sent a forerunner, a herald, in the person of John the Baptist. He came ‘to make ready the way of the Lord’, (the way of both God and Jesus), and to prepare the path in front of Him, as men prepared the way before kings, just as Isaiah had said (3.3). It was ever the practise when an important king was visiting a city that the roads were patched up and straightened, holes were filled in, rough places were smoothed, undulations were flattened out, and all was made ready for his arrival. This was figuratively what John the Baptist would do for Jesus. And the way in which he would do it was by calling on the people to make themselves ready, ‘prepare the way of the Lord, all of you’ (compare Luke 1.16-17).
This citation from Isaiah is the first of a number of such citations, in each case described as Isaianic, which will be made in the next ten chapters. Indeed, apart from one citation from the Psalms he cites no other. This suggests that Matthew saw these promises of the prophet Isaiah as underlying what he has written throughout these chapters. In them He will be revealed as both Son and Servant (3.17), bearing their infirmities and diseases (8.17, compare Isaiah 53.3)), bringing justice to the world while at the same time dealing gently with His people as He ministers through the power of the Spirit to both Jew and Gentile (12.18-22, compare Isaiah 42.1-4), active among them as a people who are hardened, deaf and blind (13.14-15, compare Isaiah 6.9-10), opening the eyes of the blind, enabling the lame to walk, cleansing the skin-diseased, making the deaf hear, and proclaiming the good news to the poor and lowly (11.4-5, compare Isaiah 35.5-6; 32.3; 61.1-2), all as Isaiah had promised. These Scriptures are not casual, unconnected quotations, added on out of interest, for while they do not obviously influence the construction of the text they underlie His whole message.
Analysis of 3.1-17.
Note that in ‘a’ John came in the wilderness proclaiming the Kingly Rule of Heaven and calling for repentance, and in the parallel Jesus receives the Holy Spirit from Heaven, and needs no repentance (in Whom I am well pleased). In Him the Kingly Rule of Heaven has come. While John is a son of the wilderness, Jesus is God’s beloved Son. In ‘b’ John is to make ready the way of the Lord, and in the parallel this includes enabling Him to ‘fulfil all righteousness’. In ‘c’ John is clothed as a prophet from the wilderness, depicting his recognition of his own unworthiness, and in the parallel he acknowledges that Jesus has no such unworthiness. In ‘d’ Jerusalem and Judea and Beyond Jordan come to be baptised of John confessing their sins, and in the parallel Jesus comes to be baptised by him. The parallel is demonstrating that Jesus sums up in Himself the whole of Israel, and is being baptised as it were on their behalf, so that on their behalf He might receive the Holy Spirit, of which baptism is the symbol. In ‘e’ John warns the Pharisees and Sadducees (possibly members of the Sanhedrin coming to check him out) of the wrath to come, and in the parallel describes the work of the coming One Who will cleanse His threshing-floor and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. In ‘f’ John calls on them to produce fruits worthy of repentance, and in the parallel reminds them that his baptism is a baptism unto repentance. They are not to look to Abraham, whose sons can be produced by God from stones, but to the Coming One who can drench them with the Holy Spirit and fire. And centrally in ‘f’ is the declaration that this is the time of salvation and the day of vengeance. The axe is being set against the root of the trees. Those which produce good fruit will be allowed to survive, those which do not will be cut down and cast in the fire.
The Ministry of John (3.1-10).
The ministry of John is first described. He has come to the Judaean wilderness with a message of fruitfulness and hope, calling for a change of heart towards God and towards sin, and this in accordance with the words of Isaiah. And his call is for them to openly admit their sins and produce the fruit that demonstrates true repentance. But attached to his message is also a warning of what will happen to those who do not. This smaller passage is also in the form of a chiasmus:
Note how in ‘a’ John has gone out into the wilderness of Judaea, and in the parallel the spiritual ‘wilderness of Judaea’ is described. In ‘b’ he calls for repentance, and in the parallel calls for fruit worthy of repentance. In ‘c’ he is the one whom makes ready the way of the Lord, and in the parallel is described how he does it by baptising the repentant and warning the rebels. Centrally in ‘d’ his prophetic status as the coming Elijah (Malachi 4.5-6) is made clear.
3.1 ‘And in those days comes John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, saying,’
‘In those days’ is a loose connection timewise with what has gone before. ‘Those days’ in context probably refer to the pre-Messiah days, the days of preparation prior to the revealing of the Messiah, which commenced with His birth and continued with what followed, and has culminated in John’s ministry. It indicates the ‘then’ and ‘now’ idea so common in the New Testament. Note in this regard how later in Matthew Jesus distinguishes the time of His own ministry from all that has gone before, thus thinking in terms of ‘these days’ and ‘those days’ - 11.11-13). Thus ‘in those days’ deliberately connects with the central themes which have gone before, indicating that they were a part of the preparations for the presentation of the Messiah which were now well on their way to fruition.
‘John the Baptist.’ John stands out from all others because he ‘baptises’, drenches people with water. This is so regularly connected in the present day with Old Testament ‘washings’, (and was so even by Josephus who also did not understand it), that it is difficult to remove the impression. Nevertheless we must seek to do so. There is in fact no hint anywhere in John’s preaching of ritual washing (which in the Old Testament never cleansed, but only preceded cleaning), nor indeed of being washed. The thought is all of fruitfulness and growth, (or otherwise), resulting from the pouring out of rain, (or the lack of it) (verses 8, 10, 12). Thus John’s baptism is a symbolic acting out of the promises about the pouring out like rain of the Holy Spirit as described by the prophets, promising the soon coming pouring out of the Holy Spirit through the Messiah on those who come for baptism in genuine repentance (verse 11; compare Isaiah 32.15; 44.1-5; 55.10-13; Ezekiel 36.25-28). His baptism therefore depicted the spiritual rain, and was administered by him personally (baptised by him - verses 6 & 11), something never true of ritual washings. It is noteworthy in this regard that the Pharisees never raised any objection to his actual practise of baptism, only to what he was claiming to be by doing it (John 1.25). They would certainly have raised an objection to the practise if they had thought that he was depicting proselyte washing for Jews, which they would have found offensive, or was saying that their own washings were insufficient.
While not wishing to go into the matter in depth here, we should note that the vast majority of references to baptism in the New Testament have nothing to do with ‘ritual washing’. They have to do with the coming of the Holy Spirit on men, and on the idea of dying and rising again to a new life (Romans 6.3-4), in a similar way to seeds springing up into fruitfulness (John 12.24). They have to do with the washing of new birth and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3.5). Indeed Peter denies that baptism should be seen in terms of ritual washing, connecting it rather with spiritual change and with the resurrection (1 Peter 3.21).
John comes in the wilderness of Judaea. The ‘wilderness’ is not desert, but is nevertheless not fruitful land. Here it is the hot, dry land by the River Jordan. Both Moses and Elijah were also closely connected with the wilderness, so that John is being depicted as in the true prophetic line, leaving the distractions of the world, and coming to a place where men can hear the voice of God. And if men wanted to hear that voice, they too must come out into the wilderness in order to hear what he has to say. It is there that God will speak with them.
Furthermore it was in the wilderness that God was to plead with the people once their trial by exile was over (Ezekiel 20.35-36; Hosea 2.14). Thus there is in this an indication that God is now seeking to speak to His people. But the chiasmus also suggests that we may see an indication in this that Judaea is itself ‘a wilderness’ because of the state of its people, a wilderness that needs to be transformed in order to become fruitful (verses 4, 6).
3.2 “Repent you, for the Kingly Rule of Heaven is at hand.”
His message is simple, and yet profound. He is calling on them to ‘repent,’, to turn to God and to turn from sin, because all that the prophets had hoped for is now to come to fulfilment. The Kingly Rule of Heaven, that time when God will break through into the world in order to exercise His rule, is ‘at hand’.
‘Repent you.’ By these words Matthew is rooting John’s (and Jesus’ - 4.17) message firmly in the line of the Old Testament prophets (Jeremiah 8.6; 20.16; Ezekiel 14.6; 18.30). He is proclaiming that in the words that he is speaking what the prophets prophesied concerning the coming of the final Kingly Rule of God was in process of fulfilment (e.g. Isaiah 9.6-7; 11.1-10; Ezekiel 37.22-28).
The prophets make clear what is meant by ‘repentance’. It is the opposite of ‘holding fast to deceit and refusing to return to God’ (Jeremiah 8.5). It is the opposite of ‘failing to speak what is true and right’ (Jeremiah 8.6). It is ‘repenting from wickedness’ by saying ‘what have I done?’ (Jeremiah 8.6). It is a turning away from holding on to the things that caused God in the past to bring judgment on cities (Jeremiah 20.16). It is turning away from all idolatry and abominations (Ezekiel 14.6). It is a turning away from all transgressions against God’s Law (Ezekiel 18.30). It is thus a turning to God and a turning away from all that is seen to be sinful and wrong.
The idea of ‘turning to God’ is emphasised in Hosea 6.1-2, where the call is to ‘return to the Lord’ in order to be healed and restored (compare Hosea 14.1). It was necessary for them to turn from sin and to return to God, because God alone could deal with their sins. But there is also the idea of ‘turning from all that is sinful and wrong’, which is emphasised in Isaiah 1.16-17, in which it is made clear that a turning from their evil ways and doings will issue in forgiveness and total cleansing from sin (Isaiah 1.18). Both are brought together in Hosea 12.6, ‘Turn to your God, keep mercy and righteous judgment, and wait on your God continually’. And we might parallel that with Micah’s words, ‘What does the Lord require of you but to do what is right, to love compassion and to walk humbly with your God?’ (Micah 6.8).
‘The Kingly Rule of Heaven.’ The whole of the Old Testament had looked for the establishment of God’s Rule over His people. That was why God had called Abraham so that He might provide the means by which such a Kingly Rule might be established (Genesis 12.2-3; 17.6; 35.11). That was the motive of the giving of the covenant in the form of a ‘suzerainty treaty’, through which YHWH would be established as overlord over His people because of what in His mercy He had done for them (Exodus 20.1-18). That was the purpose of the raising up of David to be prince over God’s people (2 Samuel 7.12-16). That was the hope of all the prophets as they looked forward into the future when God would restore His true people. All longed for the establishment of the Kingly Rule of God. And that was to be the purpose of the coming of the Messiah, the final establishment of the Kingly Rule of God, when Messiah would rule over God’s true restored people in the everlasting Kingdom (Isaiah 9.6-7; 11.1-10; Ezekiel 37.24-28; Daniel 7.13-14).
Matthew uses the term ‘Kingly Rule of Heaven’ over against the use of ‘Kingly Rule of God’ by the other evangelists, and in many cases in exactly the same context demonstrating that it is a parallel phrase and mainly a matter of translation, the Aramaic words of Jesus being the same in both cases. This brings out Matthew’s Jewishness. Jews tried to avoid excessive use of the word ‘God. Thus they replaced it with words such as ‘Heaven’, ‘the Blessed’, and so on. They were referring to God, but without actually using His name. Jesus, therefore, probably mainly said ‘the Kingly Rule of Heaven’ with Mark and Luke translating as ‘God’ (which was what Jesus meant) for their Gentile readers.
Certainly we may also see that ‘Heaven’ makes clear the heavenly nature of the Kingdom, but then so does the term ‘God’. (Our danger is that we can begin to see God almost as a personal name rather than as conveying the idea of His ‘heavenliness’). And in fact Matthew does use the expression ‘Kingly Rule of God’ five times (6.33; 12.28; 19.24; 21.31; 21.43). He represents it as something that they are to seek in their daily lives rather than food and clothing (6.33), as something that has come among them at that present time in the Holy Spirit’s activity of casting out evil spirits (12.28), as something which it is hard for a rich man to enter because his riches hold him back (19.24), as something which the tax-gatherers and sinners are entering in priority to the Scribes and Pharisees (21.31), and as something which is being taken away from the nation of Israel in order to be given to a new nation which will produce its fruits. (21.43). This last is simply a way of saying that not all who see themselves as Israel will enjoy the Kingly Rule of God, but only those who respond to God’s Kingly Rule and begin to live accordingly (and as we shall later see we could add, including both Jew and Gentile). They will become God’s new nation (1 Peter 2.9). It will be noted that in each of these examples there is a sense of immediacy, a sense of urgency, and an emphasis on present personal experience, with some included who are unexpected, and others excluded who should have been entering. Perhaps we may put it that when Matthew uses the term Kingly Rule of God (rather than Heaven) there is an emphasis on the need for men and women to ‘know God’ personally, in the way that many of the Psalmists are seen as knowing Him. Perhaps Matthew thought that the translation ‘Heaven’ would have taken away the personal emphasis in these particular references. In other words he forewent the need to indicate respect for God’s name, because he wanted to emphasise something deeper. It was not a different concept, but a different way of expressing it. It may well be that Jesus also used two separate phrases, and that it is the other evangelists who have translated ‘God’ in both cases for the sake of their Gentile readers.
On the other hand Matthew uses the term ‘Kingly Rule of Heaven’ over thirty times. And that includes its use in very similar contexts to those just mentioned (e.g. 11.11-12). The terms are thus not mutually exclusive. But it also expands to include the idea of world outreach, and to look ahead to the future, glorious, everlasting Kingdom, concepts which in the other Gospels are actually applied to the Kingly Rule of God. The idea is that Heaven is breaking in among men, and bringing them under God’s effective rule, first on earth, and then by establishing a final everlasting, eternal Kingdom. But we must not make two kingdoms. Those who become His enter under the eternal Kingly Rule of God now, by being changed so as to have the openness towards God of ‘little children’ (18.3-4). The eternal future is then a continuation of this as resurrected and fully transformed people, with a greater sense of immediacy to God. Now we see dimly as though in a mirror (1 Corinthians 13.12), but then face to face. But it is the same Kingly Rule. Those who become His are even now translated out from under the tyranny of darkness into the Kingly Rule of His beloved Son (Colossians 1.13). And in that Kingly Rule we enjoy ‘righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 14.17).
‘At hand.’ That is, it is about to break in on them, and shortly to be enjoyed by many of them, for it is there among them within reach, especially in the coming of the King. But that it was more than just ‘very near in time’ in the time of John, Jesus makes clear, for He tells the Chief Priests and the Elders of the people, ‘Truly I say to you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes go into the Kingly Rule of God before you, for John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him, and even when you saw it you did not afterwards repent and believe him’ (21.31-32). In the last part it is made clear that He is speaking about the time of John the Baptist, when the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him and believed in the way of righteousness, while the Chief Priests and Elders did not, for He stresses that the latter did not even believe in John after the tax collectors and prostitutes had believed. That stresses also that the tax-collectors and prostitutes are seen as having believed in the way of righteousness in the time of John and as having thus entered under the Kingly Rule of God. So He connects this with the tax-collectors and the prostitutes going into the Kingly Rule of God before them, while they themselves will not even enter afterwards. It is difficult therefore to see how a fair assessment of this can fail to see in it an indication that they entered the Kingly Rule of God in the time of John.
This being so the Kingly Rule of God must then have been ‘at hand’ by being there and available to all who would respond, and not just as something in the future. And yet John himself is not seen as being in the Kingly Rule of Heaven as he was in his prophetic status, for ‘he who is last in the Kingly Rule of Heaven is greater than he’ (11.11). What we are intended to see by this is the distinction between the old age and the new. It did not mean that John was totally excluded from the Kingly Rule of Heaven when he came to it as a repentant sinner submitting to the King, only that in his official status as a prophet he was outside it and ‘came before it’, simply because as such he was pointing towards it. But no doubt as a humble sinner along with the tax-collectors and prostitutes he was able to enter it when he submitted to Jesus. For what this does emphasise is that the Kingly Rule of Heaven must be seen as having been available and present at some stage in the time of John, possibly potentially, and becoming a reality once the King had been confirmed at His baptism. Although in fact God’s rule over those who were truly His people goes right back to the beginning of things (compare 1 Samuel 8.7). For a fuller treatment of the Kingly Rule of Heaven see our introductory articles.
It is often noted that Matthew omits the idea of forgiveness that is found in Mark 1.4. That may be because he wanted to retain the mentioning of forgiveness for Jesus’ ministry (6.12, 14-15; 9.2, 6; 18.21-35) as the One Who will save His people from their sins, but the absence is more apparent than real. The whole point of repentance, and openly admitting their sin, and signifying their desire for the coming work of the Holy Spirit, assumes that forgiveness will be given. That is the whole reason for it (compare Isaiah 1.15-18). They have turned back to God, and turned away from their old sins. They have committed themselves to a totally new way of living. They are looking for the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. And that can only be because they believe that God will forgive them as a result of their repentance. And that is indeed what He had promised in Isaiah 1.16-18. And we may add that forgiveness was one of the blessings especially associated with the last days (Isaiah 43.25; 44.22; 55.7; Jeremiah 50.20; Ezekiel 36.24-26). It will indeed be as a result of this that their lives will be fruitful. Repentance and forgiveness come first. The fruitfulness then follows.
3.3 ‘For this is he who was spoken of through Isaiah the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make you ready the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” ’
We now learn that the arrival of John was no accident. He had come, as God had foreordained and declared, in order to bring about all that Isaiah had spoken of (Isaiah 40.3). His arrival was the arrival of the one who was to persuade the people to prepare the way for God finally to act, and who was to call on them to smooth the way for His coming, to smooth the way for the coming of the King. The Isaianic prophecies are in process of being ‘filled to the full’. The difference now is that ‘the Lord’ will come among men as a human being.
Thus the way was to be smoothed for the Lord’s coming by the effect of Johns preaching on them which would make them also smooth the way for His coming (compare Malachi 4.5-6), in a way similar to that in which the prominent townspeople of a town would repair the roads that led to the town and make them level if some great king was coming. For in Him was coming the Isaianic King and Servant (see 3.17), and the way had to be prepared for Him spiritually in the hearts of men.
‘Spoken of through Isaiah the prophet.’ As we have already seen, there is surely no coincidence in the fact that Isaiah is here named for the first time (in contrast with the anonymous 1.23) and that the quotations which are pinpointed in the next few chapters (up to 13.14) are all from Isaiah and are all specifically referenced with his name (as against mainly anonymous quotations elsewhere, with the exception of Jeremiah). Thus we may consider that this opening formula to the Isaiah sayings is worded differently so as to open the series. Matthew wants us to see Jesus over this period as very much the King and Servant of Isaiah, and as fulfilling all that Isaiah had declared and revealed.
3.4 ‘Now John himself had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle about his loins, and his food was locusts and wild honey.’
John is described in prophetic terms. His raiment of coarse camel’s hair, his leather (dried skin) girdle and his wilderness food all depict the prophet (compare 2 Kings 1.8; Zechariah 12.4). He is a man of the wilderness, separated to God, and away from the world, unfettered by the things of this life, seeking first the Kingly Rule of God and His righteousness. Locusts were regular desert food, and wild honey was freely available in the wilderness. John lived at the minimum.
There are a number of similarities between John and Elijah. Both appear suddenly, both live a solitary life, both wear ascetic clothing, both become objects of revenge from the king’s wife. As Jesus will explain (11.14; 17.12), John is in fact the new Elijah spoken of by Malachi 4.5. John in fact also exemplifies the one who seeks first the Kingly Rule of God and His righteousness in preference to food and clothing (6.33). He is an example to be followed.
It has been suggested that John was connected with the Qumran community. However, while he would almost certainly have had contact with them he was not inward looking and aiming to start a closed community. He did not try to gather a community around him but rather encouraged an open and more loose community where people returned home to live out their lives there, in contrast with the Qumranis inward looking attitude. Nor did he establish a series of ritual washings, or produce detailed regulations for the conduct of their lives. There is thus no real reason why we should connect him too closely with them. Like Jesus after him, he was content that the people continued to hear the teaching of the Scribes. What they had to do was avoid their tendency to hypocrisy (23.2).
3.5-6 ‘Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about the Jordan, and they were baptised of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.’
The impact of John’s ministry is made clear, covering Jerusalem, Judaea and the Region Round Jordan. Jerusalem had always seen itself as distinctive from Judaea. It was the city of David. Judaea was the southern part of the ancient Israel, south of Samaria. Round Jordan were the towns and cities in the Jordan valley and on the surrounding slopes, including in Peraea. ‘All’ is not of course to be taken literally. It simply indicates a great number, so much so that it seemed that all were there. And they came to be baptised and to admit their sins before God. It was a great revival movement. This too was the work of the Holy Spirit, for without the Spirit of God no such work could have taken place. The point about the later coming of the Spirit was that it would have a wider scope and a wider outreach, and reach out more extensively, not that it would be the first time that the Spirit was at work.
We should note how abbreviated this description of John’s ministry is. They would in fact first go out to hear him preach. Then moved with conviction of sin, they came to openly admit their sins to God (to ‘confess’, to say along with God, ‘this is sin’). The purpose of such confession was in order to receive forgiveness, but that is not mentioned either, probably because of the brief nature of the description. Yet it would be assumed. For Isaiah had made quite clear that if men turned from their evil ways their sins would be forgiven (Isaiah 1.16-18; 43.25; 44.22 compare Exodus 34.7; Psalm 25.18; 32.1).
Once this was accomplished they would be baptised. By this prophetic acting out they were indicating their desire to partake in the soon coming Holy Spirit that had been promised by the prophets, often in terms of rain (Isaiah 32.15; 44.1-5; Joel 2.28; Ezekiel 36.25-28).
3.7 ‘But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
It is not clear whether the Pharisees and Sadducees actually came to be baptised, or whether they had in fact come in order to decide whether John should be authenticated. It may well be that this indicates an official investigative body from the Sanhedrin. It was the responsibility of the Sanhedrin to see to the vetting of such religious figures. Note that they are seen as a combined unit by the one definite article applying to both. The only thing that could have united these bitter opponents was official duty. They had to work together in the Sanhedrin against a common ‘foe’ whether they liked it or not. On the other hand the suggestion that they are depicted as possibly heeding God’s warning might suggest that some at least were indeed coming genuinely. Then the common article would indicate that even such great enemies were being united by the ministry of John. So we may see John as just being hopeful, and even possibly a little sarcastic. On the other hand it could be that some among them did come forward for baptism, and yet possibly with such arrogance and with such a desire not to be contaminated by the common people that John was moved to his open criticism.
John would have got on no better with them than Jesus did, and they themselves admitted that most of them had not listened to John (21.25). The Pharisees laid great stress on ritual washings, on tithing, on fasting, and on good works. As well as believing in the Scriptures they held to the ‘secret’ teaching of the Elders, ‘the traditions of the elders’, the words of the Scribes which they claimed had been passed down, and which Jesus pointed out often distorted what the Scriptures said. John may well have feared that they would see his baptism as just another ritual washing. The Sadducees restricted themselves to the Scriptures, with a major emphasis on the Law. But to them the ritual of the Temple was all important. They above all wanted to maintain the status quo. John’s straight talking and ‘revolutionary ideas’ must have made them shudder. Both were therefore natural opponents of both John and Jesus.
“You offspring of vipers.” The psalmists likened men to vipers because of the venom of their mouths (Psalm 58.4; 140.3) and because of their deafness in the face of entreaty (Psalm 58.4). Thus John may be warning them not to be like their fathers had been, venomous and deaf. However, behind the picture is the idea of the snakes who fled from the cornfields when they were reaped or when the stubble was burned. Note also the beautiful picture in Jeremiah 46.22 of the snakes slipping away before the axes of their enemies (compare verse 10). So what he is saying to them is that it is useless for them to be like snakes who merely flee from the flames or from the axes, but are deaf to entreaty. They must rather undergo a real change of heart and mind. They must recognise that the wrath to come is not so easily avoided. The idea of ‘wrath’ is of God’s innate antipathy towards sin, which must inevitably result in judgment for those who refuse to repent.
Luke has these words addressed to all. In a sense, of course, they were. But Matthew may well have learned from those who were there that John had been looking especially at the party of Pharisees and Sadducees when he spoke.
We should note here that Jesus takes up John’s description of the Scribes and Pharisees as ‘the offspring of vipers’ in 12.34; 23.33. There is a tendency with some to see John as the fierce preacher, and Jesus as the prophet of love. However, there can be no question but that Jesus’ preaching could be equally as fierce as that of John, and that John is being slightly misrepresented simply because it is the eschatological aspect of his teaching that is mainly presented in the Gospels, so that he is rarely seen as a moral preacher in his own right. But if we look at Luke 3.10-14 we see that this is partly redressed. And Jesus in fact learned much from him, for He made good use of John’s images.
3.8-9 “Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of repentance, and think not to say within yourselves, ‘We have Abraham to our father,’ for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”
These words are probably now more generalised. All who are listening to him are therefore to bring forth fruit which is worthy of ‘repentance’, of indicating that their hearts and minds are truly changed (truly repentant) by bringing forth fruit which will indicate that God has rained on them with the water of His word and Spirit (Isaiah 32.15; 44.1-5; 55.10-11; Ephesians 5.26; Titus 3.5), as his baptism indicates. Serpents were always looked on as worldly wise (Matthew 10.16). That might mean that he saw the purpose of some of these who came to him for baptism as a rather naive way of attempting to obtain blessing without true response.
Nor were they to assume that because they could claim Abraham as their father all would be right. They needed to recognise that being ‘a son of Abraham’ was of no value unless they believed and walked like Abraham. Indeed let them recognise that God could even take the stones that they saw around them, and could turn them into sons of Abraham.
Many Israelites did in fact believe that being a pure-bred son of Abraham would mean that their inheritance in the eternal Kingdom was ensured. And they regularly ensured marriage with similarly minded people in order to preserve their position. John is making quite clear that this was not so. (As a priest’s son he could not be accused of sour grapes, for it meant that his own lineage would be seen as pure). Their hearts had to be genuine, for let them not be in any doubt, God was not restricted in whom He could turn into sons of Abraham. While John probably mainly had in mind the tax-gatherers and sinners, and those of despised trades, the fact that he also welcomed soldiers suggest that he was not averse to including some Gentiles, for local auxiliary soldiers would be mainly local Gentiles.
The idea of a connection with stones may spring from Isaiah 51.1 where Israel were told to seek the Lord and look to the rock from which they were hewn and the quarry from which they were dug, namely to Abraham their father. Thus Abraham was there seen as a rock from which stones were hewn. This could then be a sarcastic statement that they should recognise the folly of their position. God can produce children to Abraham from any kind of rocks. Coming from Abraham means no more than coming from the rocks around them, unless their hearts are like Abraham’s. Thus being a son of Abraham counts for nothing unless they walk in his ways (compare Galatians 3.6-9, 29; Romans 4).
He may also have been influenced by the similarity between abnayya (stones) and benayya (children) in Aramaic thus saying sarcastically ‘from these abnayya God can raise up benayya’ (John would be speaking in Aramaic), just as He had previously raised them up from the rock that bore them. And those raised up from the stones would then have the same standing before God, for it was not physical birth from Abraham that counted, it was spiritual birth. It was in a sense prophetic. For God would in future raise up sons to Abraham from among the Gentiles who became his sons through faith (Galatians 3.29).
So he makes clear that his baptism will be totally ineffective unless their lives and hearts are changed. Those who would come for baptism must have begun (or have determined to begin) fruit-bearing lives or their baptism will mean nothing.
3.10 “And even now the axe lies at the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bring forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.”
For he wants them to be clear about the fact that his baptism in itself is no protection against the axe of God, nor is their descent from Abraham. The only way of escape is by fruitfulness, by the evidence of changed hearts and lives (resulting from the pouring out (drenching) of the Spirit - verse 15). So they need to recognise that God’s axe is ready to start work (see Isaiah 10.33-34; and note Jeremiah 46.22, where however the emphasis is more like verse 7), and that He is ready to start cutting at the root of all the trees which do not produce good fruit (compare 13.7-9). And once He has cut them down He will cast them into the fire. Fire is a favourite description of judgment throughout Scripture (compare 7.19; 13.30, 42; 18.8, 9; 22.7; 25.41; John 15.6; Amos 2.5; 5.6; and often in the Old Testament). Its searing heat destroys until nothing is left. Thus it is necessary for them to be totally genuine towards God if they are to escape His judgment.
Being put ‘to the root of the trees’ may indicate the marking of a tree for cutting down, for normally the cutting down would occur above the roots. On the other hand, John may have deliberately been speaking of the roots in order to demonstrate that they would be destroyed from their very roots. Alternately the term for ‘axe’ may indicate a wedge put in place at the base of the tree ready to be driven in so as to bring the tree crashing down.
‘At the root of the trees.’ Compare Isaiah 5.24. He may especially have in mind here that ‘the Pharisees and Sadducees’ are to be included (they would have agreed wholeheartedly about the common people not bearing sufficient fruit), as the root from whom Israel should have been receiving its life, but who only ministered death to them, because they were barren themselves. Thus it may be that John wants them to know that God’s axe will also be levelled at them, and that unless they do repent God will bring them crashing down because of His holiness.
‘Hewn down and cast into the fire.’ Such trees have only one use, to be burned for cooking purposes, and thus turned to ashes. It may, however, be that John has in mind an even bigger bonfire. He may have been thinking in terms of Isaiah 66.24. Compare Ezekiel 5.4.
Compare here Jesus’ words in 7.19. This whole picture built up by John is in Jesus’ mind there. He had probably heard this constant message of John and demonstrates that He wholeheartedly approved of it, and concurs with it. In fact Matthew deliberately parallels his summaries of John’s teaching with that of Jesus in this way. See also 3.2 with 4.17. It is his way of indicating that they have brought the same message, and that Jesus is continuing what John had commenced. But he has no doubt that in the end the difference between them is a large one, for he make clear that while John was the Herald, Jesus is the fulfilment. Both brought the good news about the Kingly Rule of Heaven , but only Jesus is the King in Whom that Kingly Rule is physically manifested. John is still a part of ‘the Law and the Prophets’ (11.13). He is the Elijah who was to precede the Lord’s coming (11.14).
It will be noted that this verse is paralleled in the chiasmus to the passage (see above) with John’s being in the wilderness of Judaea. Here the thought is of trees that are barren and fruitless, just like trees in the wilderness. It is this latter condition in ‘the wilderness which is Judaea’ which John is seeking to put right and bring back into fruitfulness (compare Isaiah 5.1-7 with Isaiah 4.2; 27.1-6; see Jeremiah 2.13, 17, 21; 11.16-17 ).
The Coming One (3.11-17).
John’s large-scale ministry having been established in these few verses, Matthew now turns his attention to Jesus. We do not know how long John had been preaching before this incident now described occurred, but that he had a widespread and effective ministry, possibly over a number of years, Josephus also testifies. What we do know from external sources is that his ministry was so effective and so far reaching that disciples of John were found around the world for decades to come (compare Acts 18.24-25; 19.1-6).
But John was ever aware that he was preaching in readiness for ‘the last days’ and that the Coming One would soon arrive. This was central to his message. And yet, as his later doubts would reveal, he no more than anyone else was expecting someone like Jesus. He was anticipating someone a little more fierce and somewhat more politically active than Jesus, and as he later lay in prison waiting for the great movement and climactic events that he thought would be necessary in order to justify what he had taught, he could not understand why so little seemed to be happening (11.3). He genuinely began to wonder whether Jesus really was the Coming One. Like so many, he had in the end a wrong appreciation of the Kingly Rule of Heaven, even though he understood what lay at its roots. It was its outworking that he could not understand.
But at this stage he had no doubts about Jesus’ superiority, even though he had not yet learned the full truth about Him. Jesus was his cousin, and he knew enough about Him to recognise and acknowledge His infinite superiority to himself. (There is no reason to think that John had cut off all communication with his wider family after his parents had died, especially as he must have known something about the mystery of Jesus’ birth, even if not the full story). Here was One Whom he knew put his own life to shame. And now God would shortly reveal to him that Jesus was indeed the Coming One, for he himself would witness His being anointed by the Holy Spirit (an experience made very clear in John 1.32-34).
Analysis of 3.11-17.
Note that in ‘a’ John is aware of Jesus’ holiness and righteousness, and that He is the Mightier One, and in the parallel it is confirmed by God, that He is His beloved Son, and that He is well pleasing to Him. In ‘b’ He is the One Who will ‘baptise’ (drench) in the Holy Spirit and fire, and in the parallel He is depicted as receiving the Holy Spirit for that purpose. In ‘c’ Jesus comes to John in order to be baptised by him, and in the parallel He persuades him to do it. Centrally in ‘d’ is John’s declaration that it is he who should be baptised by Jesus. That Jesus is greater than he.
3.11 “I indeed baptise you in water to repentance, but he who comes after (or ‘behind’) me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear. He will baptise you in the Holy Spirit and fire,”
John has ever before his eyes the One Who is coming. That is why he is baptising in water. His baptism is as an acted out prophecy of what is coming, and in order to prepare men for it. It is a picture of the fact that the One Who is coming will fulfil the promises of the prophets and drench them with the Holy Spirit and fire. He, John, is preparing them for it, but he wants them to be aware of the fact that one day soon the greater reality will come. See Isaiah 32.15; 44.1-5; Joel 2.28; Ezekiel 36.25-27; Malachi 3.1b-3; Isaiah 4.4; Zechariah 13.9.
‘He who comes after (opisow) me.’ ‘After’ (opisow) is not usually a time word (never elsewhere in Matthew, see 4.19; 10.38; 16.24), although instances are known. The thought may therefore be that John knows that the Coming One will become his follower (come after him), but will in the end prove to be high above him. Alternately we may see it as a rare use of it as meaning ‘after’ in time.
‘I indeed (ego men).’ This is a typical Matthaean emphasis bringing out a contrast. Here it signifies ‘I in contrast with Him’.
“I indeed baptise you in water to repentance.” He recognises that his baptism is the lesser work of God, a prophetic acting out of a greater reality yet to come. ‘To repentance’ is probably better rendered ‘because of repentance’. It was not inducing repentance but accepting that it had taken place, as the very coming of the people to him, and their open admission of sins, revealed. But that was all that John could do. While God could change their inner hearts, there was nothing that he himself could do about it except preach and then leave it to God. How different it would be in the case of the One Who was coming Who had the power within Himself to give life (John 5.21), and Who could drench men in the Holy Spirit.
‘He is mightier than I.’ The Coming One would be the Reality to which John was the shadow. John wants all to know that although he himself may be a prophet, and powerful through God, he is but in the end an ordinary man. But this One Who is coming is God’s ‘Superman’, with a power that will be far greater than his. He is the mightier than John. Indeed, as we learn later, while Satan can be thought of as a ‘strong man’ (12.29) Jesus is ‘the stronger than he’ (Luke 11.22), a fact which will shortly be demonstrated by Jesus in the same wilderness (4.1-11). Thus His mightiness is here first revealed by John in order for it to be demonstrated by His resistance to the wiles of the Devil. He will be all-powerful and all-prevailing. We could add with Isaiah, ‘He will be the Mighty God’ (Isaiah 9.6). But how far John was aware of the full implications of this we do not know.
For we should note that it is possible to be aware of the divinity of Jesus without being able to put it into words. The inner sense is there even when it cannot be verbalised. Indeed throughout the ages no one has been able to put it into words in a full satisfactory way, for human language does not have the means to do so. Many who have been heretics in their words have been orthodox in their hearts. Many an Arian died willingly for Christ out of love for Him, and not all have the refined ability of the advanced theologian. And many church members today are heretics without knowing it because of what they would say that they believed about Jesus as the Son of God, although their hearts would say otherwise, because their belief has never been tested out or corrected. But fortunately God looks at the heart and understands the problem. He knows how difficult it is for us to grasp the full significance of His tri-unity.
And John sees Him as not only greater than he but as holier as well, for John sees himself as not fit even to take off and carry His shoes (the carrying of the shoes assumes that they have either just been taken off or are about to be put on, so that it also indicates the taking off of the shoes). Dealing with a man’s shoes in this way was the task of the lowest slave, (the Rabbis declared that even a Teacher in those days would not expect his disciples, who would perform most general tasks for him, to perform a task like this for him), and thus by these words John is humbling himself into the very dust. He is declaring that he is not even fit to be the Coming One’s humblest slave. So the Coming One will be mighty and holy. In the words of Isaiah He will be the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace, the One Who is powerful, compassionate and merciful (Isaiah 9.7). Note how these two aspects described by John, His mightiness and His holiness, will be brought out in the parallel where the voice from Heaven will declare Him to be God’s beloved Son, and the One Who is totally pleasing to God (verse 17).
But as we shall later see, while John was right in what he said about Him, he was not fully right in his own interpretation of it. He saw the Coming One as the One Who would come like a powerful wind, a wind of the Lord driving a rushing river (Isaiah 59.19), a powerful tempest toppling trees before Him, a sweeper away and burner of chaff. He was a little short on what stamped Jesus off as unique, His love, and compassion, and mercy; His gentleness and tenderness. As Jesus would later have to point out to an anxious John, lying puzzled in his stinking and dark prison, while it was true that He had come like ‘a rushing wind’, it was first of all as a wind of healing and of hope as Isaiah had also prophesied, dealing gently with the bruised reeds and fanning the dying embers of the flax into flame, rather than dousing them in His fury (11.1-12.21).
‘He will baptise (drench, overwhelm) you in the Holy Spirit and fire,” John’s baptism pictured this forthcoming climax. He would come like deluging, life-giving rain, and purifying and consuming fire. On those who were ready to receive Him He would come like the life-giving rain, the Holy Breath, in the ‘washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit’ (Titus 3.5). He would produce fruitfulness and blessing as the prophets had made clear (Isaiah 44.1-5; Ezekiel 34.26; 36.25-27; 37.1-10, 14; Jeremiah 31.27-34; Psalm 72.6; Zechariah 10.1). And He would come like refining fire (Malachi 3.1b-2; Zechariah 13.9). Purity, holiness and goodness would abound. But the same fire that would refine would also burn up what was only chaff (Isaiah 5.24; 66.16, 24; Ezekiel 15.6-7; 22.21-22). His fire would not only purify, but would also destroy. The message is one of sharp division. To those who believe, life and blessing, refreshing rain and a purifying wind, and along with it the purifying fire, but to those who do not believe He would be a scattering tempest and a fire of destruction.
3.12 “Whose winnowing fork (or ‘shovel’) is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing-floor; and he will gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.”
The ancient way of threshing grain among the relatively poor was to toss it into the prevailing wind with a winnowing fork, and then with a shovel. The good grain would then fall to the ground, and would be shovelled away and taken to the barn, and the useless chaff would be blown to one side, some to be gathered up and burned, other to be blown away on the winds and lost for ever. And this is the activity that John pictures with regard to the coming Mightier One as the Great Winnower.
Thus here the whole of Israel (and the whole world) is seen as God’s threshing floor. All are as it were gathered there, multitudes, multitudes in the Valley of Decision (Joel 3.13-14). The world is His threshing-floor. And that threshing-floor will then be thoroughly cleansed. Nothing will escape His attention. All will in the end be dealt with and that with the thoroughness of God. Those who have repented and openly admitted their sins to God, and have become fruitful, and have enjoyed the life-giving showers of the Holy Spirit, will prove to be like harvested grain. And they will be gathered into God’s Barn. But those who have proved themselves to be chaff will be blown to one side, gathered up and burned in the fire that can never be quenched (Isaiah 66.24; 1.31; 34.10; Jeremiah 4.4; 17.27; 21.12; Ezekiel 20.47-48).
That Matthew saw this process as going on in the ministry of Jesus is unquestionable. We must not interpret Matthew by Luke. What Luke would write later was unknown to Matthew (and Luke also would have the Holy Spirit active throughout the life of Jesus - Luke 4.1, 18; 11.13). We must recognise therefore that Matthew is to be seen as providing his own answers. And it is inconceivable that he would show this ‘drenching with the Holy Spirit’ as lying at the very root of what the Anointed One was coming to do and then not show in what followed how He would bring it about. To Matthew therefore Jesus’ presence and great success demonstrated that the Spirit had come in the coming of the Kingly Rule of Heaven in Jesus (12.28). He was here as the Spirit-filled Servant of Isaiah (12.18). That was why men could even now pray in expectancy for the ‘good things’ of the Messianic age (7.11) which Luke describes in terms of the Holy Spirit (11.13). And that was why his description of the ongoing future was in terms of the presence of Jesus with His people (28.20). To Matthew, Jesus as the Anointed One among His people was the absolute proof of the presence and outworking of the Holy Spirit, as He continued His work through Him, satisfying men’s thirst and welling up in men in eternal life (John 4.10-14).
Our problem is that by misinterpreting Luke, who in fact also makes clear the presence of the Holy Spirit from the beginning (Luke 1-2) and as continuing throughout the ministry of Jesus (Luke 4.1, 18 and onwards, see our commentary), we overlook Matthew’s vital message, that the work of Jesus as the Drencher with the Holy Spirit began immediately that He commenced His ministry. John also makes this absolutely clear (John 3.1-4; 4.10-14; 7.38 where the drinking had begun even though the floods would come later). What would occur later in Acts 2 was the wider outreach of this Drenching reaching out to the wider world, the inauguration of the people of God as the living evidence of God’s presence in the world in the absence of the physical Jesus because of His resurrection, ascension and enthronement. It was in order that they might replace Jesus as God’s physical witness to the world on earth, by being indwelt by the Holy One Himself, Who was there manifested in wind and fire. They would now be the channels of the Holy Spirit. But Pentecost was by no means the commencement of the work of the Holy Spirit, as Luke makes clear in 11.13, and as John’s Gospel makes clear in 3.1-6; 4.10-14), especially when he speaks of Jesus’ words about the drinking of the Holy Spirit as occurring at the time that Jesus was on earth, while in the next breath speaking of the future outpouring as following Jesus’ glorification (John 7.37-39). This is something that Jesus also makes clear in the Upper Room after His resurrection where He breathes on His Apostles and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit, which is there the Spirit in His function of leading them into all truth (John 20.22; compare John 16.13) as He enthrones them on their ‘thrones’ over His people, ‘the twelve tribes of Israel’ with the power to bind and loose (John 20.21-23, compare Matthew 19.28; Luke 22.30 in context).
So Matthew pictures this drenching with Holy Spirit and fire as going on in the ministry of Jesus, as continuing in the ministry of the Apostles, and as resulting also in the destruction of Jerusalem by ‘burning’ (22.7), (which burning did not literally fully occur in Jerusalem apart from the Temple, but the parable does not say that it was speaking specifically of Jerusalem), and in the end of all things (13.30, 42, 50).
3.13 ‘Then comes Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptised by him.’
Having described what is to be, Matthew now moves on to the first stage of its coming into fruition. Jesus travels from Galilee to where John is preaching by the Jordan in order to be baptised by him. This was an act of deliberate and determined choice. By it Jesus demonstrated that He thoroughly approved of the ministry of John, and saw it as the work of God on behalf of Israel. It was the picture of what God was about to do in Israel and He wanted to indicate that He was at one with His people in it. Being baptised by John was the right thing for all men to do, and therefore it was necessary for Him to be a part of it. For He must demonstrate that He was fully a man among men, and at one with all who sought righteousness. It is probable that He also saw the need for Him to admit the need for repentance, not on His own behalf, but on behalf of His people, as the One Who stood in their place to act as their Representative in order to plead on their behalf (see Isaiah 59.16-17, 20). His was a representative repentance as he manifested His people’s repentance before God on their behalf.
3.14 ‘But John would have prevented him, saying, “I have need to be baptised of you, and do you come to me?” ’
When John saw Jesus coming he felt himself unworthy to baptise Him. As his cousin he had good reason to know of Jesus’ purity of life and special holiness towards God. While he did not yet know that He was the Anointed One (John 1.33), he knew that He was better far than he was himself. How then could he baptise Someone who was so far his moral superior? He recognised therefore that if anyone should do the baptising here it should be Jesus. And so he sought to prevent Him, not from being baptised, but from being baptised by him. He probably did not think through the fact that there was no one else fit to baptise Him either. The One Who had perplexed the great Teachers in the Temple (Luke 2.41-51), was now perplexing the greatest of all the Prophets. In both cases they had never met His like before. How then could they deal with Someone like this?
Alternatively by ‘I have need to be baptised by You’, John may have been referring to His baptising him in the Holy Spirit and fire’. Both alternatives were in fact true. But as at this stage he would not seem to have been sure that Jesus was the Coming One, it is unlikely that this was what he meant.
We have only to think to realise what a problem this must have been for John. It was not a question of trying to show that Jesus was superior to John. Of that there was no doubt, either in John’s mind or in the minds of all who really knew them both. It had been so from birth. No one could have lived the life that Jesus lived without being remarked on. His life had shone with unsullied purity from the beginning, even in the carpenter’s shop. How then could a spiritually and morally minded man like John not have been fully aware of it? But it is clear from this that even a man as holy as John was, felt himself utterly unworthy before Him. And being aware of it, how could he not then feel himself unworthy to baptise Him?
Incidentally this confirms that John did not perform mass baptisms, with many flocking into the water and baptising themselves. Had that been so Jesus could have slipped into the water and enjoyed such a baptism without John being troubled. It was because John was conscious of being the personal agent of God when he baptised that the problem arose.
3.15 ‘But Jesus answering said to him, “Allow it now, for thus it becomes us to fulfil all righteousness (or ‘do fully what is right’ or ‘advance the way of righteousness to the full’).” Then he allows him.’
But Jesus then set about persuading John. He clearly knew how baptising Him would make John feel, but He asked him to allow it. By this He was emphasising how important He saw His being baptised to be. It was not just to be a matter of doing what others did. It was to have a deeper significance.
We can understand John’s dilemma. How could he be expected to baptise One Whom he knew was so far above him morally? And for us the question comes with even more force, for we must ask, why should the One Who had come to save His people from their sins (1.21), and was Himself sinless and in no need of repentance, be baptised with a baptism which seemingly indicated repentance? But while we recognise the dilemma we should note what John’s problem was. It was not the same as ours. In his eyes the problem was not concerning whether Jesus should be baptised. Of that he seemingly had no doubt. His problem lay in the sense of his own unworthiness. This suggests that John did not quite see his baptism in the way that we interpret it.
It therefore initially raises the question of the significance of John’s baptism. It is true that it was a baptism ‘in view of (‘unto’) repentance and forgiveness of sins’, that is, because those who were baptised had repented of their sins and had been forgiven. But what was the baptism itself really signifying? John in fact in his proclamation makes this clear, for he parallels his baptism with the Coming One’s action in pouring out the Holy Spirit (3.11). This suggests that he saw his own baptism as a prophetic portrayal of the expected pouring out of the Holy Spirit, the drenching with the Spirit promised by the prophets (Isaiah 32.15; 44.1-5; Ezekiel 36. 25-27). It was an acting out of what the prophets had promised in readiness for its final fulfilment, and by being baptised people were declaring their desire to have a part in His working. And this is confirmed in the remainder of John’s preaching where his emphasis is on fruitfulness and harvest, which are both the products of the pouring down of the rain. This would therefore indicate that by being baptised Jesus was simply indicating His desire to partake in the coming outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And as we know this is what He did then do in verse 16.
Note on the significance of John’s Baptism.
It is probable that whatever commentary or article you read on baptism, it will refer in explaining it, to being cleansed from sin (with the inference of being washed), and to Old Testament ritual washings, combined with the idea of proselyte baptism. And that is also how Josephus saw it. We must, however, remember in this regard that Josephus had among other things a Pharisaic background and we might therefore have expected him to see it in that way if he did not really stop to think about it. And modern men are steeped in long centuries of misinterpretation. But it is quite frankly difficult to see how anyone who considers it in its context, and does stop to think about it, can see it in those terms. For there is absolutely nothing in John’s preaching that would suggest this, nor interestingly is there any indication in the attitude of the Scribes and Pharisees that would seem to confirm it. We will deal with this latter fact first.
The Scribes and Pharisees do not appear to have questioned the act of baptism itself, for they seem to have assumed that had John been the Messiah, or the coming Elijah, or the coming Prophet it would have been explicable (John 1.25), although they do not say why. It would suggest, however, that they saw it as a prophetic action and not a priestly one. And the prophetic link with water is of it as a picture of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.
There is nothing about John’s baptism which parallels Pharisaic washings, Old Testament washings or proselyte washing. In all cases but proselyte washing the washings had to be continually performed, and in all cases, including proselyte washing they were self-administered. In all cases they were ritualistic, and connected with other rituals. John’s baptism on the other hand stood alone, apart from all ritual, was administered by him, and was once for all. Furthermore in all cases ritual washings were not seen as cleansing from sin, but as removing defilement (the only exception is where the water is treated with sacrificial ashes). In the case of the Old Testament washings we have the constant refrain that the one who performed the act had then to separate himself and would ‘not be clean until the evening’. This indicates that the washing was not seen as cleansing, but as preparatory to later cleansing. It was a washing away of the ‘filth of the flesh’ so that the person in question could wait on God until the evening, the latter resulting in the cleansing. The Pharisaic washings were similarly for ritual purification, that is, for the removal of the defilement caused by contact with an impure world, that is, a world which did not conform to Jewish requirements for the maintenance of ritual purity. Proselyte washing was similarly a once for all act of removing the defilement of the Gentile world. There is nothing in all this about cleansing from sin (which was seen as resulting from the sacrifices). And in regard to all this we should note that Peter makes quite clear that baptism was not for the purpose of removing such defilement. It was not for the removal of ‘the defilement of the flesh’ (1 Peter 3.21). We would also suggest that if the Pharisees had considered that John was indicating the need for Jews to have a proselyte baptism they would have been more than irate. They were no doubt angry enough at his suggestion that being a child of Abraham was no grounds for their acceptance by God. To suggest beyond that that they required the same baptism as that required by Gentile proselytes would have added fuel to the fire. They would hardly have refrained from commenting on the matter.
John also gives no indication whatsoever in all his preaching that this is how he saw it. He certainly saw it as connected with repentance, that is, with a change of heart and mind and a turning to God, but the only actual indication of its significance lies in his paralleling it with the Coming One’s ‘drenching in Holy Spirit’ in accordance with the prophets (Isaiah 32.15; 44.1-5; Ezekiel 36.25-27, compare also Isaiah 35.6-7; 55.10-11; Ezekiel 47.1-12). And this ties in with his constant reference to fruitfulness and harvest, both the results in Palestine of rain poured from above. In an agricultural community that was the main benefit of water.
We should also note in this regard that the main emphasis elsewhere in the New Testament is also of baptism as a sign of the renewal of life (e.g. Romans 6.3-4) and of the ‘washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit’ (Titus 3.5), rather than as cleansing by washing. Where washing is referred to it is as ‘the washing of water with the word’, which could again well signify the washing of regeneration (compare Isaiah 55.10-13 where word and Spirit are connected), but has to be manipulated in order for it to refer to baptism. The only possible exception in Acts 22.16 is ambiguous, for there the washing away of Paul’s sins connects more directly with his calling on the name of the Lord than with his being baptised (compare Romans 10.9-10 and see Isaiah 1.16-20 which is in total contrast with ritual activity as depicted in Isaiah 1.11-15) . It should be noted that in the parallel Acts 9.17-18 Paul’s baptism is connected with his receiving his sight and being filled with the Holy Spirit. Furthermore whatever the significance with regard to Christian baptism, this should not be read back into John’s baptism.
End of note.
Jesus’ reply to John’s questions as to why He should be baptised by John is that it is in order ‘for us to fulfil all righteousness’. So the question that we must then consider is as to what exactly He means by that.
We must first note that in any interpretation of these words we must take into account the ‘us’. By saying ‘us’ Jesus is indicating that He is involving more than just Himself in His action. Any interpretation cannot thus just be personal to Him. This ‘us’ may therefore be seen in one of two ways, either as linking Jesus with John in the action, or as linking Him with the crowds of believers gathered for baptism as He is being baptised along with them. If we see it as linking Him with John in the action there are at least two possible alternative explanations.
If we see Him as linking Himself with the believing crowds in His action we may see in it that:
This serves to confirm that Jesus is very much aware that it is precisely by His being associated with John’s baptism that His own future will come to fulfilment, simply because that is God’s declared plan and purpose. He must do His Father’s will. First must come the forerunner, and then the Messiah Who has been involved with the forerunner in his work. And thus by being baptised He will be identifying Himself with that work.
And as John’s Gospel makes clear, Jesus did in fact constantly refuse to supplant John all the time that John was preaching, and rather preached alongside him, with His disciples baptising as John did, so much so that when it did seem that He might be supplanting John He withdrew to Galilee (John 4.1-3). He was determined that the work of His forerunner would fulfil its course and not be interfered with. And His recognition of the unique work of John was indeed one reason why, when He did begin His own ministry, He began it in Galilee. For it was important, when He did commence it, that it was not just seen as a continuation of John’s ministry, as Elisha’s had been of Elijah. It was in order to demonstrate that He had a greater ministry than that of John, one that was independent and not just a follow-up to John’s.
So by being baptised by John, Jesus would both validate John’s baptism, and at the same time be identified by it with righteous Israel, and be shown as ‘repenting’ along with them on their behalf. He had come bringing ‘righteousness and salvation’ (Isaiah 59.16-17, 20). He had come to bring them repentance and forgiveness of sins. And He was thus demonstrating by this that without their repenting and receiving the Holy Spirit there could be no righteousness and no salvation. And at the same time He would Himself be fulfilling the perfect way of the righteous man on Israel’s behalf. (Compare here Luke 3.21). So by being baptised by John, and then walking in the way of the Holy Spirit that that baptism signified, both on behalf of Himself and on behalf of Israel (on whose behalf He had come out of Egypt - 2.15), He would then ‘fill to the full’ all righteousness on their behalf, and would draw after Him all who were truly His, who would also walk in the same way of righteousness. And it would all be seen as commencing with John’s baptism which under God’s hand would unite them together under that baptism’s portrayal of the uniting Holy Spirit. For John had come from God ‘in the way of righteousness’ (21.32), and this way of righteousness, which was open to all who responded in repentance, was now to find its completion in Him. He would move it forward in the way that John had begun it and would ‘fill it to the full’.
To put it another way, by being baptised by John He would be identifying Himself with what John had begun, would be doing what was truly right for all men, indeed was at this time necessary for all righteous people to do, and would be identifying Himself with His people in doing so, as the One Who would bring it all about on their behalf. For in the end all needed to partake in the new work of the Holy Spirit, both He Who would receive the Holy Spirit in order to ‘dispense’ Him, and those who would receive Him from Jesus. In this sense ‘all righteousness’ would thus spring from the significance of John’s simple act of baptising Him. For the point was that John’s baptism was not just John’s own idea. He had been sent by God to baptise with water (John 1.33), as the precursor to what was to come, and it was therefore necessary for Jesus to be aligned with it in the continuation of God’s purpose.
Jesus Himself might also have quietly seen in His act of being baptised His own submission to His future death on the cross, something which baptism came later to symbolise (Romans 6.3), and something which John the Baptist also soon came to see. From John 1.29 it is clear that John came to understand the Coming One in terms of the Servant of Isaiah 53. Thus as the Lamb of God Who would take away the sin of the world Jesus is now recognising that He must die in order to rise again in newness of resurrection life, something which He is now symbolising by His being baptised.
Had John thought about it he would have recognised that all His life Jesus had so identified Himself with a sinful people. Offerings had been offered for Him Who needed no atonement, by unworthy priests, as revealing His thanksgiving to, and worship of, God, and oneness with His people. He had regularly partaken of the Passover and other aspects of the feasts of Israel. For in all things He had wanted to show that He and His people were one. Thus His being baptised as an indication that He too was repentant on their behalf, and would partake in the Holy Spirit as well as they, was all one with all that had gone before.
This serves to demonstrate quite clearly that baptism did not symbolise washing from sin. For that Jesus could not have partaken in (as He no doubt never offered a sin or trespass offering). What baptism did symbolise was that the one who was being baptised was putting away any sin of the past, if there was any, by repentance, and was seeking to be a part of the work of God’s Holy Spirit upon his life for the future. As with the offerings only a part of this applied to Jesus. And what followed then emphasised the significance of baptism.
Other interpretations of why He was baptised include:
3.16 ‘And Jesus when he was baptised, went up immediately from the water, and lo, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming on him,’
Having been baptised by John, Jesus came out of the water, and immediately ‘the Heavens were opened’. Nothing visible would have been seen which was being described in these words. The opening of the Heavens was a way of speaking of God acting from Heaven. God as it were opens the door of Heaven so that Heaven may break through on earth. But the only thing that was actually visible was ‘the Spirit of God’ (Luke - ‘the Holy Spirit’) coming down from Heaven like a dove and settling on Jesus. Luke makes absolutely clear that what was seen was something ‘physical’ with an appearance almost like a dove. While too much dogmatism is ruled out, what is important is that something that appeared physical was actually seen. A phenomenon was actually observed.
The Spirit of God (or the Lord) coming on someone is a common feature in the Old Testament where the Spirit comes on charismatic leaders (the Judges, Saul and David), on prophets, on the coming Righteous King (Isaiah 11.1-4), on the Servant of YHWH (Isaiah 42.1-4), and on the Anointed Prophet (Isaiah 61.1-2). The idea of the Servant of YHWH is most apposite in view of 12.18-21, because it is clearly something that Matthew has in mind. On the other hand it is the Coming King Who has been most in view up to this point in Matthew. We can really discount the Spirit coming on the charismatic leaders and the prophets as being too closely associated with what happened, for there was no thought that they would receive the Spirit in order to pass Him on to many as a means of transforming the people of God, (it is true that the Spirit of Moses is passed on from Moses to seventy elders, but that is simply a larger example of what happened when Elijah passed on the Spirit on to Elisha. It was an empowering of men appointed for a particular service, not a general effusion of the Spirit). And mention of the Spirit coming on people ends with David. Thus we may see it here as indicating that the Coming King, Servant and Prophet of Isaiah was being authenticated as the King and Servant by the Voice from Heaven, and as the Prophet by Jesus’ words in Luke 4.18. This also ties in with Matthew’s continual and pointed emphasis on Isaiah’s prophecies from 3.3 to 13.17, a passage which then continues through to 20.28. In other words Jesus is to fill to the full the prophecies concerning the King, the Servant and the Prophet in Isaiah.
That then was a most momentous event. But what is even more startling is the reference to the Spirit visibly descending (in Luke ‘in bodily form’). This is unique in Scripture. The whole pattern of references to the Spirit in the Old Testament point to the fact that He represents the invisible activity of God revealed in its results. The Spirit is never seen. It is the Angel of YHWH Who is seen, but not the Spirit. When the Spirit works something happens and men are aware that it is due to the Spirit of God simply because of the results. But the Spirit is never visibly ‘seen’, only His effective working is seen. The same also applies in the New. (The fire at Pentecost is not actually said to be the Spirit. It is God appearing in fire. The Spirit does the filling for the purposes of prophecy and tongues - Acts 2.1-4). No wonder then that Luke felt that he had to emphasise the unique fact of what happened by calling it ‘bodily’. It was almost incredible for anyone who knew the Scriptures that the Spirit would come visibly. It must here therefore indicate something very special indeed, something that was totally unique, and with a unique significance.
One thing that it does suggest is that for the first time ‘the Spirit of God’ is being portrayed as in some way distinctive from the One Who sent Him. He has proceeded from the Father, and yet is in some way distinct from the Father. For here He is in visible form. It also appears to indicate that when Jesus receives the Spirit it is not as a kind of temporary loan from the Father, with Himself as an extension of the Father, (as the war leaders and prophets had been an extension of God’s mighty arm, or had been enclothed with Him - for ‘the Spirit of God clothes Himself with Gideon’), but as an outright giving of the Spirit to be under His control. Symbolically the Spirit has, as it were, come from the Father and has come to the earthly Jesus. He Himself can therefore drench men in the Holy Spirit on the basis of His own will precisely because the Holy Spirit now proceeds from Him.
How long it took those closest to Jesus to recognise that this experience indicated this fact we do not know, but it does explain why John the Baptiser was able to declare, ‘I saw and bear witness that this is the Son of God’ (John 1.34). He instinctively recognised the significance of what he had seen. None but the true and only beloved Son could receive the Spirit in this completeness, going far beyond anything experienced on earth before.
By this God was indicating, not just that Jesus was filled with the Spirit, but that the Spirit was on earth in bodily form in Jesus, as in no other before or since. In Jesus earth and Heaven had been combined from the beginning through His birth (1.18, 20), and now they were uniquely combined for His future task. By it God was indicating what the situation now was. Jesus in His physical presence was the spiritual connection between earth and Heaven (compare John 3.13), with all the resources of God available to Him on earth. That did not mean, of course, that He acted separately from the Father. Indeed He would go out of His way to emphasise that He and His Father always acted together (John 5.19; 9.3-4). But it drew out that He could be compared with no other. All others received the Spirit by measure. He alone received the Spirit in all His fullness (John 3.34). And that was why Matthew saw so clearly that in the presence of the King there was the activity of the Spirit, whether on earth or in Heaven. That was why Jesus could cast out evil spirits by the Spirit of God (12.28). It was in this way that the Kingly Rule of Heaven was now on earth in all who enjoyed the Spirit’s working as gifted to them by Jesus (11.27). (The Apostles would also cast out evil spirits by the Spirit of God as imparted to them by Jesus - 10.1)
‘Like a dove.’ More strictly we should say ‘like a bird’, such as a dove or a pigeon. Bird types were not then as strictly differentiated as they are today. This would be a reminder of the Spirit of God hovering over creation when God began His creative work (Genesis 1.2), and may thus be seen as indicating that God was as it were beginning a new creative work. It would also be a reminder of the dove who returned to the ark with the symbol of coming fruitfulness in its beak (Genesis 8.11), the symbol that judgment was at least temporarily put aside and of a new opportunity for creation to begin again. But important too is the idea that it was no eagle Who descended here. Here it was a gentle bird with peaceful intent (compare 10.16). It symbolised what would lie beneath the activity of ‘the Holy Spirit and fire’. The idea is quite remarkable. No combination of pictures could better express the ministry of Jesus. The dove depicts the One Who is meek and lowly in heart (11.29), the One Who does not break the bruised reed or quench the still smoking flax (12.20), Who through His Spirit gives life to those who seek Him (John 6.63), producing righteousness within them through the soft refreshing rain of the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 44.1-4), and yet the fire depicts One Who is harsh with sin, and will if necessary refine it with fire (3.12; Malachi 3.3), and Who in the end will be harsher still with those who harden themselves against repentance and must receive the full weight of His fiery judgment (3.13; Isaiah 5.24; 66.16, 24; Ezekiel 15.6-7; 22.21-22).
‘He saw’ almost certainly refers to John, as the voice in the third person in verse 17 makes clear. This was a manifestation to John as well as to Jesus. Whether anyone else saw it we do not know.
We should recognise that this was the initial true ‘Pentecost’. This was the moment from which the Holy Spirit’s mighty work would blossom out from the King and would fan out to those of Israel who were ready to receive Him. What happened at the ‘other’ Pentecost (and in the Upper Room - John 20.22) would be a repeating of this on the whole body of Christ (and on the whole band of Apostles) at the time. But there, if the signs are to be seen as indicating the Holy Spirit and not the God of Sinai Himself, the dove was replaced by the wind and fire, possibly based partly on John’s symbolism.
The coming of the Holy Spirit on Jesus was like a coronation. It was an anointing of Him (already the Anointed One) as God’s Messiah (Acts 4.27; 10.38). It was the revelation that now, from Him, the Holy Spirit would reach out to all around Him, through His words, through His healings, through His casting out of evil spirits, and through His whole life (Luke 4.18-19; Isaiah 61.1-2). From now on the rain of the Spirit would fall and the fire of the Spirit would burn, and it would make many responsive and fruitful, would purify many, and would sadly cause others to wither and die. For now that the King was present and operative, men must either enter under His Kingly Rule and obey His words, or they must turn from His Kingly Rule and refuse to acknowledge Him. And sadly even some who professed to come under His Kingly Rule would not in fact do so. They would draw near to Him with their lips and honour Him with their mouths but their hearts would be far from Him. There would even be those who drew back and remained no longer with Him (15.8; 7.21-22; John 6.66).
3.17 ‘And lo, a voice out of the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, (or ‘My Son, the Beloved’) in whom I am well pleased.” ’
And then the Voice spoke from Heaven. Here was no whisper of a voice, the quiet ‘bath qol’ (daughter of a voice) spoken of by the Scribes and Pharisees which had replaced the resounding words of the prophets. It was the voice of God Himself, loud and clear, although who it was clear to we are not told. Perhaps to many it sounded like thunder (compare John 12.29). But it was clear to both John and Jesus. This is made openly apparent by the evangelists. Matthew has John in mind when he translates as, ‘This is My beloved Son’. Mark and Luke had Jesus in mind when they translated as ‘You are My beloved Son’. The Aramaic (or even possibly Hebrew) was presumably less clear, with no initial pronoun in the sentence. The Voice may well have said, “My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased,” the indicating pronoun being assumed, as it often is in Aramaic. But when God is speaking who can dogmatise as to what is heard, or how it is heard?
The Voice described Jesus in terms of two Old Testament figures. ‘You are My Son’ identifies Him with the anointed King in Psalm 2.7. ‘My beloved in Whom I am well pleased’ (see 12.18) identifies Him with the Servant of YHWH of Isaiah. And this is the pattern of Matthew’s Gospel. It begins and ends with great emphasis on Jesus as the Anointed One, the King, the Son of David par excellence (1-2; 3.3 - the way is prepared for a king; 4.15-16 in its Isaianic context; 21.5; 22.1-14, 44-45; 25.31-46; 26.63-64; 27.11, 17, 22, 37; 28.18). But in its central part his Gospel also lays great emphasis on Jesus as the Servant of the Lord (here, 8.17; 12.18-21; 20.28, and the contexts in which they are found). We will expand on these themes as we go through the Gospel.
But the idea of sonship must be seen as going beyond that of just a son of David. He is ‘the beloved’, and the beloved is the Servant of YHWH (12.18) and the transfigured One (17.5). He is a unique eschatological figure. Furthermore the Devil will challenge Him with the fact of His awareness that He is the Son of God with almost limitless powers, powers that can create bread from stones, that can enable Him to throw Himself from the top of the Temple into the valley far beneath without hurt, and that can enable Him with the Devil’s assistance to conquer the world. And had Jesus not thought that He could do these things they would have been no temptation. (Most of us have never felt tempted to do any of them). And it is because He is the Son of God that evil spirits do His bidding (8.29). Add to this that He is the only Son (in Luke ‘My beloved son’) in contrast with the prophets (21.37-38, compare 22.2) and David’s Lord (22.44) and we recognise that He stands alone uniquely apart as God’s Son, Whom no one knows but the Father (11.27), and Who Himself uniquely knows the Father but can reveal Him to His own (11.27), because he who has seen Him has seen the Father (John 14.9).
Jesus Faces Up To His Future In The Wilderness (4.1-11).
The most momentous moment of His conscious life to date having taken place, Jesus will now have to face up to what it involves. For having been:
And having received the Holy Spirit in a way never known by man before (visibly and ‘bodily’, with all that that signified), Jesus now has to face up to what His future holds. With God having broken into the world in a new way in Him He must now face up to what will follow.
In order to do this He goes aside into the wilderness, as John had done, and fasts for forty days and forty nights. The wilderness was the place where a man could get alone with God, as Moses and Elijah had done before them. Both therefore saw it as a place where they could commune alone with God. The purpose of fasting was to keep the mind from distractions, and throughout this time spent in prayer and fasting many thoughts would pass through His mind, for He had to consider how best to fulfil His calling and how He should go about it. Very conscious of the unusual powers that He possessed He had to think out what His approach was going to be. He had to ask Himself, ‘What would be the best way to win men to God and to establish the Kingly Rule of Heaven over men’s lives?’
That He was tested throughout the whole of this period we need have no doubt, and Mark confirms it (Mark 1.13), for such testing in thought will always face the one who does his thinking with the possibility of bad as well as good alternatives in front of him. But towards the end, weak and hungry, there were two or three ideas which clearly kept forcing themselves into His mind. And the detailing of the three tests described may well be intended to indicate the whole range of testing, for three regularly indicates completeness.
Luke gives a very similar account, so that both are apparently based on a common tradition received from Jesus Himself, but whether they themselves received it in written or oral form we do not know.
However, while both cover the same three tests, each centres on a different test with which to end the series, depending on their viewpoints. Matthew’s stress up to this point has been mainly on the kingship of Jesus, and he thus finally centres in on the temptation to rule the world by responding positively to the Devil as the temptation that best fits his emphasis, thus focusing on kingship. In Luke the Temple had witnessed to Jesus from the beginning. Thus Luke centres in on making a spectacular display in the Temple, and by that means winning religious support, for the Temple has been one of Luke’s themes, and had welcomed Him as a boy. In fact, of course, both temptations would persist with Him until the end of His period in the wilderness as His mind flashed from one thought to another, and the chronology was finally thus unimportant, except for emphasis. On the one hand the question was, should He seek political authority by political means, and side with the civil authorities? By this means He could, with a little help in the right places, achieve worldwide power and success in a very short time. Or, on the other, should He major on impressing the religious authorities and seeking their support? Aligned with them His influence would rapidly reach throughout the land, and after that throughout the Dispersion (the Jews scattered around the world). Both would thus appear to be possible ways of reaching His goal.
But as He considered the matter further He would recognise that the one would require compromise with the Roman state, and in the end with the Roman gods, while the other would require the giving of spectacular signs (‘the Jews seek after signs’) and would require compromise with the ways and teachings of the religious leaders with which He did not fully agree. He would have to bend to their will. He would not be acceptable otherwise. Thus neither could even be considered as a viable option.
Living in Galilee He would probably not be fully aware of the antagonism that there was among these leaders, and to begin with He may well have had an idealistic view of all the religious leaders, especially of the Chief Priests, who were responsible for God’s holy Temple, and of the Teachers in Jerusalem who were so honoured countrywide, and whom He had rarely come across at all, apart from on His visits to the Temple for the feasts, when they had given Him answers to His questions as He grew up and learned more and more. On the other hand He would certainly have been aware of the resentments of His own Galilean people about them. But He might well have felt those to be a little over-exaggerated, and possibly too nationalistic. For Judaea did not look with favour on Galilee, nor Galilee on Judaea.
And then there was the question of the common people. How best could He influence them? His Father had anointed Him with the Holy Spirit, giving Him, even as a man, powers that were hardly conceivable. The question was how should He use them in the fulfilment of His task? What was He to do with them? He had lived all His life in a remote Galilean town, although no doubt moving about Galilee and especially visiting the populous towns along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. But His experience of life on a wider scale than that may well have been limited to the feasts. He had therefore much to think about. He was not quite just the honest country boy coming to town, and He was certainly learned in the Scriptures, but He was far from being ‘worldly wise’. On the other hand, as His first venture at purifying the Temple revealed (John 2.14-21), He would catch up very quickly with situations, although at that time it should be noted that it was the market atmosphere which interfered with prayer that upset Him. It was only later that He became aware of the blatant dishonesty that resulted in the second ‘cleansing’ of the Temple that would take place at the end of His ministry (21.12-13).
And gradually as He thought matters over in the wilderness, things began to fall into place. As He wrestled with His own thoughts, and with the thoughts that were constantly being fed into His mind by the Tempter, He finally formulated His plan. He would first support John the Baptiser, and once John ceased his ministry He would go about proclaiming that the Kingly Rule of God was now here and that men must respond to it. He would show them the ways of God in truth, establish God’s Law in their hearts, and build up a community which would be the basis of a new Israel. And because He was aware of the needs of the people around Him, and because He knew that the Scriptures had promised a time of healing when the Coming One arrived, He would heal those who came to Him, while ensuring that His preaching of the word aalways took precedence. Hopefully they would all then respond to His teaching (consider His grief when Bethsaida, Chorazin and Capernaum did not - Luke 10.13-15). And then if the political and religious leaders also responded to His teaching, He could build on from there. But He realised that central to His ministry must not be compromise, but must be the proclamation of the whole truth of the word of God (Mark 7.13) and of the Kingly Rule of Heaven (4.17). It was that on which all had to be built. To rely on any other method would be to fail in His mission.
We may, however, see another aspect to His testing which was probably in Matthew’s mind. In chapter 2 Jesus had come out of exile in Egypt on behalf of His people, because in their hearts they themselves had failed to ‘leave Egypt’, and it was now to be His responsibility to break those ties with ‘the spirit of Egypt’. Thus in the account that follows He may be seen as enduring again Israel’s time of testing in the wilderness, when they too had been tested about their futures, as He was being tested now, and had had to choose the way in which they should go, and had failed. And it is significant in this regard that all the verses cited by Jesus come from the Book of Deuteronomy, which is connected with Moses’ summary of that time in the wilderness. Now, like them, He must on their behalf face up to similar temptations in the wilderness, with the same weapons that they had had at their command. And He must succeed. It was only by going through the whole human experience without sin that He could be fitted for His task of finally delivering God’s true people. This in fact explains the very personal nature of the first temptation. It was precisely at the point where Israel had constantly failed, the need to trust God and obey His word especially when assailed by physical desires for food and water, that He was first tempted.
Note that following the patterns used in the Pentateuch threefold events are treated in sequence within a chiasmus (see for example our commentary on Numbers 22.15-40; 22.41-24.13). In ‘a’ He goes into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil, and hungers, and in the parallel the Devil leaves Him, having been defeated, and the angels minister to Him. And then follows a threefold pattern of attack and riposte, (b and c) with Jesus each time citing Deuteronomy.
4.1 ‘Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.’
Jesus was ‘led up of the Spirit’ into the wilderness. The Spirit knew how important it was that He understood how to approach His future, and guided Him to find a quiet place. ‘Led up’ suggests that leaving the Jordan valley He climbed up onto the slopes of the wilderness of Judaea. And there He was to be tempted by the Devil.
It was not that temptation was the prime purpose of the Spirit Who led Jesus into the wilderness, but rather that it was the inevitable consequence of His doing so. For He could not possibly face up to His life work without facing up to the Tempter, who would continually be one of His main opponents. He would ever be lurking in the background ready to pounce when he felt that he could trip Jesus up, and ever fearful that this One Whom God had raised up and anointed, Who had a unique relationship with God that he did not fully understand, would one day prove his downfall, and would meanwhile be carrying out assaults on his own cosy position. But Jesus was being led by the Spirit. And He knew that if He walked step by step by the Spirit He would be led into all truth.
But who were the main players in this drama? We should now perhaps pause to consider each of them.
It was He Who had hovered over creation when all things began. It was He Who had given wisdom, first to Moses, and then to the elders in the wilderness (Numbers 11.17), as the people were led through towards their triumphal entry into Canaan. It was He Who when they were in dire straits from their enemies had empowered charismatic leaders to deliver them from bondage (regularly in Judges). It was He Who had empowered their first kings, and especially David, the man of God’s choosing (1 Samuel 16.13), and whom God had appreciated. And when the kings had ceased to enjoy His empowering, beginning with the failure of Solomon, He had inspired prophets to bring the word of God to the people, and the Psalmists to inspire the people to worship. Always working invisibly He had been revealed by His actions. And He had continually maintained in Israel a minority of faithful, believing people, who had remained true to God. And now He was commencing the final surge which would bring all God’s purposes to fulfilment. Working in and through Jesus, the Spirit anointed King (Isaiah 11.1-4), Servant (Isaiah 42.1-6) and Prophet (Isaiah 61.1-2) of Isaiah, and later through His Apostles and His new community of people, He would reach out into the world with the word of God, bringing to God those who were His chosen, a multitude which no man can number, until one day the full number will have been gathered in.
It was he who in the shadows of the Plain of Eden had used the snake to lure the Man and the Woman into their failed rebellion against God (Genesis 3). It was he, through his minions, who had infiltrated the world of humans by ‘possession’ so that God had had to destroy the large part of mankind in the Flood (Genesis 6.1-4). It was he with his princes whose shadowy figure lay behind much of the turbulent history of mankind (Daniel 10). It was he who at times received authority to test the faith of those who were faithful to God (Job 1-2). It was he who sought to oppose and prevent the deliverance of God’s people from sin (Zechariah 3). And now he was engaged in his greatest struggle, the prevention of the success of this One Who had been raised up by God, Whoever He might be, (for he was not quite sure). But one thing he did know and that was that He had been declared to be God’s own beloved Son, whatever that might mean. And it was necessary somehow to prevent His success.
And now here they were together in the wilderness, as the final purposes of God, to which the prophets had looked, began to unfold. And only God knew how long these ‘last days’ were going to last.
4.2 ‘And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he afterward hungered.’
Throughout His forty days and nights, (that is, for over a moon period), Jesus fasted, His body weakened but His spirit intensified, and during it He prayed and thought and planned, and during it He was conscious of thoughts being continually fed into His mind seeking to direct Him in the wrong ways. And as His resolution grew stronger, and His resistance greater, so did the temptations, as the Tempter gathered for his final assault. We do not know exactly what form it took. Certainly it was largely in the mind, for what is described went beyond the possibility of literal human fulfilment (there is no mountain from which the whole world can be seen, except in the mind). It is, of course, always possible that Satan arranged for a desert dweller, even possibly one connected with Qumran, to approach and feed His mind with false ideas. It is even possible that Satan himself appeared in human form. But this is a mystery into which Jesus did not permit His disciples to enter. All they knew was that He had met him in ‘face to face’ combat.
‘Forty days and forty nights.’ This phrase probably means ‘for longer than a moon period’. It was the period of initial judgment at the Flood when the rains were unceasing. It was the time spent twice by Moses in the Mount as he received the Law of God and enjoyed the ecstasy of His veiled presence (Exodus 24.18; 34.28: Deuteronomy 9.9, 18). It was the time spent by Elijah in the wilderness (1 Kings 19.8) when he was supernaturally sustained. It was the time for which Israel trembled in front of Goliath before David emerged victorious (1 Samuel 17.16). It spoke of crucial encounters with God, and with God’s enemies. It possibly also has in mind the forty years of Israel’s hunger and thirst in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8.2-3), preparatory to establishing the Kingly Rule of God in Canaan, a period that in a way Jesus was now duplicating.
It would seem that over the period Jesus was so taken up with His time with His Father that He was not conscious of weakness or hunger, and it was not therefore until He came out of that state that He ‘became hungry’. As His period of meeting with His Father was coming to an end He became conscious of a great need for food.
4.3 ‘And the tempter came and said to him, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” ’
Then He became conscious of a malevolent presence, probably speaking in His mind. For forty days and nights He had been considering the significance of the words at His baptism, and now came the challenge. ‘You are hungry. If you really are the Son of God look around you. See these flat white stones that look like bread. Did not God provide manna in the wilderness? Why do you not turn them into bread and feed yourself, ensuring your preservation for the sake of mankind? It is after all important that you keep yourself fit and well. And at the same time you will be able to prove to yourself what you can do. Turning these stones into bread can only give you greater confidence in God. It can only be for good. You have done well. Now reap your reward.’
Jesus would be aware of what John had said about God turning stones into the sons of Abraham. The thought may be, if God can consider doing that, what harm can there be in the Son of God turning stones into bread? But it was not the act that would be wrong. It would be why it was done. Later He would turn a few small loaves into sufficient to feed a large crowd. But that would be in order to confirm that they were a new covenant community whom God promised to feed spiritually (14.15-21; 15.32-38). Here, however, it would simply be in order to satisfy His own needs in a way not available to others. By it He would cease to be a man among men. He would fall at the first hurdle.
4.4 ‘But he answered and said, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” ’
But Jesus searched the Scriptures in His mind, especially conscious that He was in the wilderness as His people had once been, and no doubt guided by the Spirit, and He found what He sought. Bread is good, and man needs bread. But bread is not the most important thing in life. More important is it to feed on and obey the words of God. The basis for the words are found in Deuteronomy 8.3. They reminded Him, and remind us all, that what must be preeminent in our lives is to hear the word of God and keep it. Here then was His first victory of these final three temptations (a threesome which sums up the whole). It would result in a mindset that would mean that He would not at any time allow any material consideration to interfere with His heeding and obeying the words of God. Like all of us, each victory would prepare Him for the next. From now on (as it had always been for Him) it would be, ‘Your will be done’.
Had Jesus failed here He would have proved that He was unsuited for what lay ahead, for it was necessary for Him to undergo the sufferings of the world to the full. He could not in any way seek to use His powers to prevent His facing up to the Father’s will and the world’s sufferings. For their sake He was enduring something of what Israel had endured in the wilderness.
No doubt important in this was the overall lesson that His powers must not be used simply for Himself. They were a trust from God, not a personal power bank. They must be used only in accordance with His direction. To do otherwise would be to sin. Personal considerations must not come into it. It would be to misappropriate what God had given Him. (It would be the equivalent, but of course at a much higher level, of His being tempted to steal the office stationery and appropriate it for His own use).
Note His words, ‘it is written.’ Because ‘it was written’ (gegraptai) in the Scriptures (graphais) He saw it as the infallible word of God.
4.5 ‘Then the devil takes him into the holy city; and he set him on the pinnacle of the temple,’
But now His thoughts were turned again towards the question of success in His mission. How was He to gain the support of the Temple, and the Temple authorities. How was He to obtain the attention of the Teachers and the people? One possible way was a spectacular demonstration of His powers, for no one loved signs more than the Jews. They were renowned for it (1 Corinthians 1.22). Indeed He knew that they would demand them. They believed in a God Who had constantly given signs to His people. Why not give them a great sign that they would never forget? And to aid Him in this the Devil took Him into the holy city and set Him on the small wing of the Temple. We are not told whether it was in His mind, or in reality. Note the mention of ‘the holy city’. In Isaiah 52.1 it describes what we might call the Messianic city, the city from which all uncleanness has been removed. It may hint at the fact that the Devil was seeking to surround what he was doing with an aura of holiness. In the holy city such a presentation of His Messiahship must surely be holy? In mind here as well may have been Ezekiel’s similar visit to the Temple, which also took place by extraordinary means, in Ezekiel 8.1-3; 11.24.
‘The pinnacle of the temple.’ Literally ‘the small wing’. We cannot certainly identify it but it was possibly a projection on the part of the Temple that towered over the Kidron valley far below. It would have made a spectacular fall.
4.6 ‘And says to him, “If You are the Son of God, cast yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge concerning you,’ and, ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest it happen that you dash your foot against a stone’ .” ’
So Satan again approached His mind with a suggestion, taking Him in His mind to the temple precincts. Why not throw Himself from the topmost tower which towered over the valley beneath, in front of all the festal crowds. As He stood there ready to jump the whole of Jerusalem would quickly gather to watch what He was doing. The Chief Priests, and the great Teachers, and the aristocratic elders, and everyone who counted, (even no doubt the Roman representatives) would be there. They would all gather. Then He could spectacularly launch Himself, confident that He would be upheld by angels. If He really was the Son of God, and really believed it, that is what He would do, so that all might know Him for what He was.
Note the deliberate possibility of doubt he was seeking to sow in Jesus’ mind. He was not expressing specific doubt. He was emphasising what he knew that Jesus believed. But it left open the possibility of doubt, and if he could get Him to doubt that He was the Son of God so that He was not sure whether He could do it, he would have achieved his goal. Alternately his hope was that it would spur Him to foolish action. For Satan knew perfectly well that what he was suggesting would have aligned Jesus on his side. It was exactly in accordance with his own methods. Win men’s hearts by giving them what they want, whether it will do them good or not. Act for the short term and leave the future to look after itself.
And this time he had a Scripture to back it up. Was it not God’s promise that He would protect His true people who trusted in Him, and put His angels in charge of them? (Psalm 91.11). Had He not specifically promised that angels would bear His people up and prevent them being dashed on the stones? (Psalm 91.12). Surely, applied to One Who was the Son of God, that must be a guarantee of total protection? And its clear and practical fulfilment could only bring honour to the Scriptures. What better visual aid than that?
To many of us that sounds a very sensible idea. That is precisely what we are constantly wondering. Why did God not do something like this, for if we could, that is precisely what we would have done. For many do often ask, why does God not do something spectacular to win the belief of men and women? How easily He could gain support if He did so. How easily He could force everyone to believe. The only atheists left would be the ones who were trying to work out what strange wind forces had made it happen. And even they would be baffled, although their minds would be set against belief. (Those who do not want to believe will always find some excuse). But the question was, how many of the people who saw Him do it would have been any better for it? How many wowuld have become men changed at heart? A few short months and it would have to be done all over again.
We must be content with the fact that both God, and the Devil knew what the result of his proposal would be (the Devil would not have suggested it if he had thought that it would work). Both know that such belief would not change men’s hearts. Both know that a world won in that way would go on as it had before, wanting to be pandered to by constant miracles, and never changing at its heart. It would possibly have produced a show of godliness, but not true godliness. Such a world would honour Him with its mouth, but its heart would be far from Him. It would basically be left just as it was before.
4.7 ‘Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, You shall not make trial of the Lord your God.” ’
But Jesus again drew on the reserves of Scripture, this time found in Deuteronomy 6.16. His years of careful study of the Scriptures was standing Him in good stead. And He declared, “Again it is written, You shall not make trial of the Lord your God.” It was true that He had powers to use in God’s purposes and in God’s way, but not in order to make a trial of God. That could never be right. That would again be to misuse what God had given Him.
The passage has in mind the testing of Israel at Massah when Israel, desperately short of water, had said, ‘Is the Lord with us or not?’ It gives Jesus’ reply to the Devil’s similar attempt to throw doubt in His mind. He did not need to test God. He knew that the Lord was with Him and would accomplish His will.
4.8 ‘Again, the devil takes him to an extremely high mountain, and shows him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them.’
Matthew then describes last the temptation that centred on what he has described in the previous chapters, the kingship of Jesus. In vision, or in His mind’s eye, Satan takes Jesus onto ‘a very high mountain’ from which all the kingdoms of the world can be seen. Even granted that this meant all the kingdoms of the known world, or of the Roman world, this was not physically possible. But in the mind’s eye anything is possible. And there, stretched before Him, Jesus visualised all the nations of the world. And before His vision was brought also the fullness of their glory. He knew that the promises of God for Him included dominion over the whole world and its glory (Daniel 7.14). And here it all was now in front of Him awaiting, His pleasure.
Matthew may intend us to contrast this high mountain with that in 17.1. On this high mountain Jesus was offered the kingdoms and the glory of the world. On the high mountain in 17.1 He would manifest the glory of God that was truly His. There He would manifest His true Kingly Rule to those who were to establish it on earth.
There was something of a parallel here with Moses on Mount Nebo when God showed him the country of Canaan (Deuteronomy 34.1-4), but if so it is in order to hint to Jesus that He could succeed where Moses had failed. It is possibly significant that Moses had been there because of his own failure to trust God and walk in humble obedience. And now, humanly speaking, Jesus on this high mountain could make the same mistake.
4.9 ‘And he said to him, “All these things will I give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” ’
Then the Devil assured Him that if only He would submit to him and his ways, he could show Him how all this could be His by using His powers and winning His way into high favour, on which He would then be able to extinguish all opposition. All that was necessary was that He pay him homage, and do things his way. How far we stress ‘worship’ is questionable. It is doubtful if the Devil thought that Jesus would literally worship him, at least not yet. But there might have been in mind the idea of offering incense to Roma and the emperor. And included in it would be an acknowledgement of the Devil’s superiority. But in the end any activity in this way would have been worship. For it would have been to give to the Devil the honour that was due to God.
It is often questioned whether the Devil has such authority over the kingdoms of the world. And in one sense the answer is probably no. But the Devil knew, and Jesus knew, that the Devil could sway the world to his will. He had been doing it for centuries. He knew precisely how Jesus could be given the powers he was describing, for he knew how to manipulate the world (compare John 12.31; 2 Corinthians 4.4; 1 John 5.19). If we think that this was not a very subtle temptation we should consider how easily man always falls for it. Manipulation in order to get our own way is at the very heart of man’s thinking (even of believers), and especially of politicians.
4.10 ‘Then Jesus says to him, “Get you from here, Satan, for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.”
For the final time Jesus calls on Scripture (Deuteronomy 6.13). And with it He despatches Satan from Him. Satan had promised Him authority. Now He called on His own authority. He had been strengthened, not weakened, by His temptations. Satan must now leave at His command. Note His final exposure of ‘Satan’ as being the source of all His trouble. He was an ‘Adversary’ (satanas) indeed.
As Matthew has made clear, Jesus had come into the world as one born to be King. His birth had been signalled by creation, and His kingship proclaimed by the readers of the heavenly bodies (the Magi), and the angels. His destiny was sure. But it had to be achieved in God’s way, and that was not the way that Satan had in mind.
And Jesus pointed out that to the one who knows God, God must be everything. He alone must be the object of their worship and their homage. All else must take second place. And that meant hearing His voice and doing His will, and not turning to expediency, or listening to other voices than His. He must be all in all. Jesus would yet receive His kingship. In a sense He was already ‘born King of the Jews’. But it must only be in God’s way and in God’s time. There could be no short cuts.
‘Get you out from here Satan.’ This must indicate the end of the temptations. Having sought to overcome Him Satan finds himself defeated and has to submit to His will. This serves to confirm that this was the final temptation. It explains why Luke drops this sentence. He does so when he alters the order of the temptations, in order to place emphasis on the Temple.
4.11 ‘Then the devil leaves him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.’
And then in obedience to Jesus’ dismissal Satan left him (for a while) and angels came and ministered to Him. How they ministered we are not told. Perhaps the imperfect tense ‘were ministering’ informs us that their ministry had been withdrawn for a while so that Jesus had had to face Satan alone (something we never have to do), but that now they had returned again to provide their continual assistance. But they clearly now provided what was necessary for Him to recover from His ordeal. Ironically this fulfilled the promises in Psalm 91.11. The promises did apply for those who were faithful to God. However, not as something to be tested out facetiously. We are reminded here also of how Elijah was similarly sustained by God in the wilderness (1 Kings 19.5-8). Whether this time in the case of Jesus it was also with food we are not told. But whatever it was His Father met Him at the point of His need, as He always does.
The Light Commences To Shine, And The Messiah Prepares For World Conquest Through the Word (4.12-22).
Having determined His future course Jesus wastes no time in putting it into effect. But the death of John further determines Him to continue His work in Galilee, while His move from Nazareth to Capernaum lifts Him out of a place of relative obscurity into a more central part where there were more people. It may also indicate the feelings in Nazareth against Him (see Mark 6.1-6; Luke 4.16-30) but if so Matthew does not wish to draw attention to it. And Matthew recognises that this work in Galilee was just what the Scriptures had said would happen, and that it links Him with the prophecies of Isaiah, and especially with the promise of the Coming King in Isaiah 9.2-7.
From now on Jesus proclaims that the Kingly Rule of Heaven is present and available to those whose hearts are changed by turning to God from sin. And He demonstrates the way that lies ahead by calling four laymen, ‘ordinary people’, who are to become ‘fishers of men’. It is through ordinary people that His work is now to go forward. Then after this He continues His preaching ministry and fulfils what was expected of the Coming One, in the healing of the sick, and the casting out of evil spirits (see 11.4-5). His way ahead was now clear. His Messiahship is being revealed by example if not openly by name.
As with Mark and Luke, Matthew ignores Jesus’ earlier ministry in Judaea alongside John the Baptiser. He may well have known little about it for it was before he was called. But whether he did or not it was not considered important for his portrayal of Jesus, for that had been the continuation of John’s ministry and not Jesus’ own. It had been a time of waiting prior to the commencement of Jesus’ unique ministry. None of the evangelists were interested in just providing a history, and Matthew especially concentrates on Galilee (compare chapter 28). While sticking to the facts they all wanted to bring out Who Jesus was. And that was only fully revealed when He began His own ministry.
Matthew’s specific emphasis should be noted. Here Jesus withdraws to Galilee and He is not seen again as entering Judaea until 19.1, where He is followed by great crowds, presumably from Galilee. Then we read of the opposition of the Pharisees (19.3-12), the response to Him of little children (19.13-15), and the cold shoulder given to Him by the rich (19.16-30). And from then on He is going up to Jerusalem to die (20.17-28). So to Matthew Judaea and Jerusalem are not places of profitable ministry. He wants men’s minds to be concentrated on the free air of Galilee away from the centres where the Chief Priests and Rabbis hold sway. And that is where he again takes us in his resurrection narrative (28.6-20). For, as a Christian Jew, and aware of its grip and its ability to stifle true spirituality, he does not want Jewish Christians to feel too bound to Jerusalem.
(As John’s Gospel makes clear Jesus did year by year attend regularly at Jerusalem for some of the major feasts, especially the Passover, along with many Galileans. It would have been unusual had He not, as a pious Jew, done so. But Matthew does not consider that these visits were worthy of mention. They were not seen as an essential part of His ministry).
Note how in ‘a’ the sphere of His ministry is emphasised with geographical detail (partly preparing for the quotation from Isaiah), and in the parallel are described those who came to hear Him, with some geographical detail emphasising the wideness of His impact. In ‘b’ the promised light is declared to have come to those in darkness and the shadow of death, and in the parallel the arrival of this light is described in terms of the fulfilment of prophecies concerning the Coming One, He heals the sick and delivers captives from darkness (Isaiah 42.7; 49.9; 45.13; 49.25; 61.1). It should be noted that we have now entered the special section where citations from Isaiah as a named prophet are central (3.3; 4.14; 8.17; 12.17; 13.14). See introduction. In ‘c’ Jesus proclaims the nearness of the Kingly Rule of Heaven and in the parallel He teaches in their Synagogues and preaches the good news of the Kingly Rule. In ‘d’ and its parallel we have the calling of the two sets of brothers to follow Him, which they immediately do. In ‘e’ and centrally they have been called to be ‘fishers of men’. There is here an interesting parallel with a feature of Old Testament chiasmi, a phrase followed by a repetition of a similar phrase in the second part of a chiasmus, in this case slightly different, ‘And they immediately left the nets, and followed Him’, ‘And they immediately left the boat and their father, and followed Him’.
4.12-13 ‘Now when he heard that John was delivered up (or ‘arrested’), he withdrew into Galilee, and leaving Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the borders of Zebulun and Naphtali.’
Note how this geographical description is later paralleled at the end of the passage by further detailed geographical description in the chiasmus. Both indicate that this is intended to be a historical description of an historical ministry.
Jesus’ ‘withdrawal’ on John’s arrest hints at His previous ministry alongside John in Judaea which the first three Gospels ignore, the reason being that it was of historical interest but not of theological interest. For it was not until John was arrested that Jesus felt free to strike out on His own on His greater ministry, so that it was then that the Messianic ministry began. It should be noted that ‘when He heard’ is a time note. Matthew is not actually saying that John’s imprisonment was the reason why He went into Galilee. After all Galilee was under the same ruler as the one who had imprisoned John. It may rather be that the imprisonment of John was seen by Him as releasing Him from responsibility in Judaea, and it may even be that Jesus wanted to indicate to Herod that He was not afraid.
There is on the other hand an interesting contrast here between Jesus bold entry into the wilderness to face Satan down (4.1-11), and His possible strategic withdrawal into Galilee at the top north west end of the Sea of Galilee. It suggests that He knew that there is a time to be bold, and a time for discretion. Whichever way we take it the delivering up of John to prison was both a warning, and an indication that now His own unique ministry must begin in earnest, and He thus made His choice where He considered that it would be best for Him to commence His ministry, in the towns that bordered the Sea of Galilee. These were both populous and on the trade routes. It should be noted that the whole of Galilee was itself a heavily populated area, and that there were large numbers of Jews there, mingled with many Gentiles.
Thus He left his home in isolated Nazareth, for that was no centre from which to reach out to Galilee, (and as we know from both Mark and Luke He was basically unwelcome there), and took up His quarters in Capernaum. This was by the Sea of Galilee ‘in the borders of Zebulun and Naphtali’, and being on the trade routes was more open and willing to receive new things. This description is given at least partly in order to prepare us for the verse that follows. Capernaum was in fact in Naphtali. But Zebulun bordered on Naphtali, and was included in His wider outreach. And Nazareth was in Zebulun.
4.14 ‘That it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying,’
Note again the emphasis that it is Isaiah’s prophecy that is being ‘filled to the full’. And similarly to Luke (in Luke 4.18) he wants us to recognise that here we have the anointed King as described by Isaiah, for in Isaiah ‘the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light’ (Isaiah 9.2) comes prior to ‘the child has been born and the son has been given’ (Isaiah 9.6) who was to rule from David’s throne for ever (1.1, 18, 21, 23, 25; Isaiah 9.2-7; 11.1-4). And also that we have the anointed Prophet of Isaiah, as the One Who was to go about ‘preaching good news to the meek, and deliverance of captives’ -- ‘and of the afflicted’, -- with ‘the Spirit of the Lord on Him’ (Isaiah 61.1-2). For Jesus comes preaching the Good News of the Kingly Rule of Heaven, healing the sick and afflicted, and releasing the captives of evil spirits (4.17, 23-24 compare Isaiah 61.1-2). It is seen as important that the Kingly Rule of Heaven be established by drawing men under God’s Rule.
Note the parallels with the ministry of John and yet the great differences. Both ministries are introduced by a quotation from Isaiah, but one comes as a herald and preparer of the way, the other as the shining light who arrives and lightens the darkness (Isaiah 9.2). It is He Who is the child Who is born, and the Son Who is given (Isaiah 9.6 - compare 1.18, 21, 25; 2.15; 3.17 - the implication can hardly be missed) as Matthew has already explained. Both seemingly proclaim the same message, ‘repent for the Kingly Rule of Heaven is at hand’ (3.2 with 4.17). And yet it is patently not the same message, for John has made clear that while he has introduced the shadow, Jesus is to reveal the sun, for while he has baptised in water, Jesus baptises in the Holy Spirit and fire. It is the same basic message, but it is one that is advancing and expanding. The one has pointed forward to the other.
Matthew’s main emphasis in the use of this quotation is to indicate that Jesus has commenced His new ministry in the very place where God said it would take place, and then to bring out the wonder of that ministry. To Matthew it helps to explain why God has begun here. Originally the idea in Isaiah was that these were the furthest outposts of Palestine which were ever the first to be subjected to invading forces, and the point was that with the coming of the child who would be born to be king those fears would disappear, so that where there was darkness and death there would now be light.
Thus now that the Child has been born and the Son has been given, the people who have been in darkness, will now experience a great light, as Isaiah had said. Light and life will come to those who sit in darkness and death, and to such an extent that they too, having received that light, must themselves let it shine out to men (5.16). Jesus’ ministry is to be a ministry of light (compare 5.45, ‘God causes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good’; 6.22, ‘if your eye is single your whole body will be full of light’; 17.2, ‘He was transfigured before them, and His face shone like the sun, and His clothing became white as light’; 24.17, ‘for as the lightning comes forth from the east, and is seen even to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be’). For those who respond to Him are to become the light of the world (5.14), a light revealed by the purity and goodness of their lives, which shines permanently because they are truly His (25.4). It is thus in order to receive this light that men must open their eyes, for the alternative will be pitch darkness (6.22-23). This makes clear that these words are very closely associated with the message in the Sermon on the Mount through which the light is revealed as shining. But note that those to whom He is speaking in the Sermon on the Mount are mainly those who have already received this light (although some of them may be responding hypocritically - 7.13-27). Their eyes have already been opened and they have become disciples.
‘Toward the sea, beyond the Jordan’ may be intended to suggest the Great Sea (the Mediterranean) and the borders of the Jordan, illustrating the width of Jesus’ ministry. Or Matthew’s idea may be to relate ‘the Sea’ to the Sea of Galilee. ‘Beyond Jordan’ can refer to both sides of the Jordan for it was a popular name for the land around the Jordan. But these place names and ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ are mainly cited because they were contained in the quotation, which is probably taken from a Hebrew text of Isaiah of a type predating the LXX. It is Naphtali and Zebulun that Matthew mainly draws attention to. On the other hand we may certainly gather from all this a further implication (compare 2.1-2) that the Gentiles are at some stage to be involved in the coming of the light, for as well as mentioning ‘Galilee of the nations’ (Isaiah 9.2) Isaiah had also pointed out that the Servant of the Lord would be a light to the Gentiles (Isaiah 42.6; 49.6). And the very fact that He preaches in this very mixed region reveals the magnitude of His thinking. Nevertheless it will be made clear that there are lost sheep of the house of Israel out there (10.6), and that they have the first claim on His attention, before He can reach out to the Gentiles (15.24, 27).
4.17 ‘From that time began Jesus to preach, and to say, “Repent you, for the Kingly Rule of heaven is at hand.” ’
From that time.’ That is from the time of John’s imprisonment, which provided Jesus with the opportunity and necessity of establishing His own ministry. What must have seemed a disaster for the true people of God was in fact to be the beginning of an even greater work of God, as so often happens in God’s planning.
Jesus’ preaching is deliberately given by Matthew in the same words as John’s. Matthew thus makes clear that Jesus has not supplanted John, but is carrying on where he had left off. For while we are not as much aware of it as they were in those days, we should recognise that John’s ministry had had a huge impact, affecting many people in Judaea, Peraea and Galilee (among them some of those who would now be Jesus’ disciples) and reaching out far into the Dispersion. Thus when the Gospel eventually did go out among the nations there would be many disciples of John who would gladly receive it (and, such is the perversity of human nature, some who would even consider John, in spite of what he himself had said, superior to Jesus).
But while the words are the same the content of their messages is in fact to be seen as very different, for John could only look to the future, while for Jesus it had become the present. In Him ‘the last days’ were here. And we can see quite clearly the way in which Jesus’ message expanded by considering His discourses, especially chapter 13. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, backs up His calls for awakening and repentance, and bases those calls on a new interpretation of the Law that John would never have dreamed of. The parables of the Kingly Rule of Heaven proclaim the Kingly Rule of Heaven in more depth, and greatly expand on the idea. What a contrast Jesus’ teaching and ministry is with John’s message. John spoke with the authority of the Old Testament prophets, and with the authority of his calling, but Jesus speaks on His own authority, an authority that is beyond that of the prophets. He alone can declare, ‘I say to you’. John proclaims the Kingly Rule of Heaven that is coming, without expanding the idea very much further, although we must recognise that in his preaching of the way of righteousness many entered into it (21.31-32). Yet that Kingly Rule is still to him, as a prophet, something to come in the future, even though near at hand, for ‘he who is least in the Kingly Rule of Heaven is greater than he’ (11.11), and this is true even though the tax-collectors and prostitutes under his ministry have entered it (21.31-32, compare 23.13). But we may see it as probable that as a humble sinner responding to his own preaching, on the same terms as the tax-collectors, he was able to enter it without necessarily realising it, for after all the King was now present.
Jesus proclaims the Kingly Rule of Heaven and expands on it and explains it in great detail and reveals that it is now present. John does no miracle (John 10.41), for the Kingly Rule was not yet manifested. But once Jesus arrives in Galilee He is constantly doing miracles (seemingly He would not do so while John was preaching, out of deference to John). Thus it is revealed that the Kingly Rule of Heaven was now not just promised, but was definitely present in power! Consider 4.23-25; 11.4-5; and the expectancy that He would heal as ‘the Son of David’ (9.27-31; 12.22-23; 20.29-34; 21.14-15).
‘Repent and believe the Good News.’ What Matthew is saying is that this was, as with John, the essence of His message. But it must be quite obvious to anyone who thinks at all that Jesus must have said much more than this at the time. He was not just a one verse preacher. Prior to the Sermon on the Mount He must clearly have had a considerable preaching ministry. He must therefore have said many things. But in essence, says Matthew, basic to His message (as with John) was that He was calling on men to repent, to turn to God from sin, to find forgiveness (this is the assumption from the requirement to repent, and is assumed in, for example, 6.12; 9.2) and to respond to the Kingly Rule of Heaven now present among them, (which they could not have done without forgiveness). What the fuller content was we must gather by reading on in Matthew’s Gospel. But it was sufficient to gain Him a good following of ‘disciples’, that is, of those who followed Him because they had responded to His words and in order to learn more.
Jesus Begins To Establish The Basis Of His New Community (4.18-22).
Jesus’ plan for the future now begins to unfold. He begins to call men to follow Him, men whom He can instruct and train, with the intention of them becoming ‘fishers of men’. He already has in mind His new community (His congregation of the new Israel - 16.18) The first ones that He called, as far as Matthew is concerned, were men whom He already knew, men who had served with Him while He Himself was supporting John the Baptiser, and who had come back to Galilee with Him earlier. (Philip may well, however, have also been with Him, as described in John 1.43).
The calling of these four symbolises the call of all His disciples. They are probably mentioned because of their importance, for Peter, James and John are regularly selected out for special experiences (Mark 5.17 - Jairus’ daughter; 17.1 - the Transfiguration, 26.17 - in Gethsemane). But we learn later that others are called on to follow Him in the same way, men such as Matthew (9.9), an unknown disciple (8.22) and (unsuccessfully) the young man (19.21). We are probably to see these as examples of what must have included many others (compare 8.19; Luke 8.2; 9.57-62).
We should note that Jesus method of seeking out the disciples who would become prominent, rather than waiting for them to approach Him, parallels Elijah’s call of Elisha. In the case of Elisha, Elijah sought him out and called him to follow him, and Elisha then did leave all and follow him, having first said goodbye to those at home, and having destroyed any temptation to return home (1 Kings 19.19-21). This copying of Elijah, but in more abundance, may suggest that He saw His disciples as intended to be the prophets of the new era.
4.18 ‘And walking by the sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen.’
Jesus knew, of course, where to look for the ones whom He was about to call for He knew that they were fishermen and lived in Capernaum, having originally come from Bethsaida (John 1.44). Thus He went walking by the sea where the boats of the Capernaum fishermen could be found. And there he found Peter and Andrew industriously casting their round throwing nets from the shore in order to try to catch some fish. (Matthew gives us none of the detail. He is only interested in the end in view, and in preparing for Jesus’ next words). In terms of their day Simon and Andrew would not have been seen as poor, but they were certainly not wealthy or politically influential. Thus they would class among ‘the poor’ spoken of by the Psalmists, the lowly and unimportant. Simon’s name was Hebrew, but Andrew’s was Greek, reflecting the mixed culture of Galilee. Both names had clearly been seen as equally natural to their parents.
‘The Sea of Galilee.’ A not very large fresh water lake, twenty one kilometres by eleven kilometres (thirteen miles by seven miles), which was in the Jordan rift valley about 700 feet below sea level and was fed by the Jordan, abounding in fish but subject to infamous sudden storms. All fishermen knew of friends who had perished in such storms.
4.19 ‘And he says to them, “You come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” ’
So Jesus approached them and called them to leave everything and follow Him. Once they had done so, He promised, He would make them ‘fishers of men’. All knew what He meant. He was calling them to a long term commitment. They were to learn from Him and then become evangelists and teachers, themselves calling men to follow Him, and passing judgment on those who refused to do so (10.14). By this He was making clear His own unique authority, and His right to call men to do His bidding without question. Only Someone very conscious of God’s authority would have felt able to behave in this way, for we note that the only reward was to be that they would be fishers of men, in His Name (5.11).
The call for them to become fishers of men may be seen as connecting with Jeremiah 16.16, which were words spoken concerning ‘the last days’ (and therefore, to the Gospel writers, the days of Jesus). ‘Behold I will send for many fishermen, says the Lord, and they will fish them’. However, the words of Jeremiah primarily had judgment in mind, and while that would certainly be one of the responsibilities of the disciples (10.14) it was only the darker side. For Jesus had now come with a more positive message as well. Before judgment must come the offer of salvation (Isaiah 61.2a, compare its use by Jesus in Luke 4.19-20). In contrast to Jeremiah we have the prophecy in Ezekiel 47.10 where the outflowing of the river of life from the Temple results in many fish which will be fished by the Lord’s people who will spread their nets to take them. So the acceptable year of the Lord and of salvation is to precede the Day of vengeance (Luke 4.19). And as always when God is about to judge men, some are also to be won to righteousness by His judgments. Thus these Apostles will have a twofold ministry, being called to win men to righteousness, while also consigning those who refuse their words to judgment. Even while taking men alive for Christ, they would necessarily become the cause of judgment on those who refused (10.14). For they are drenched not only with the Holy Spirit but with fire (3.11).
We can also compare here the parable of the casting of the net in 13.47-50. That too has fishers of men in mind. But there those who cast the net are the angels at the end of the age. Nevertheless the same principles apply. The net catches both good and bad, and those caught are judged by how they have responded to the Good News of the Kingly Rule of Heaven. By this it is made clear that what the people of God will begin and continue, the angels will finalise.
4.20 ‘And they immediately left the nets, and followed him.’
The response is seen to be brief and to the point. They immediately left their nets and followed Him. They needed no second bidding. From now on their lives would be dedicated to His service, and their nets would be left to others. Fishing nets would be of no use in the fishing of men. We are given no background of any other arrangements that were made for their departure. They mattered nothing to Matthew. What mattered was their instant response and obedience to the King, and their leaving of all to follow Him, a response required of all men. Nothing else was now to matter to them but to serve Jesus.
4.21 ‘And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them.’
With His two new disciples following him He then walked further along the shore and came to where two other brothers were sitting in their boats with their father mending their nets. And He called them in the same way. Their father was no doubt well aware of their enthusiasm for Jesus and His message, and he seemingly made no effort to stop them. He recognised the inevitable, and probably even rejoiced at heart, for they were seemingly a godly family, even if their mother was, like most mothers, ambitious for her sons (20.20-21). They were indeed quite a prosperous family, for we learn elsewhere that they had hired servants to assist with the fishing (Mark 1.20).
It may be that the mention of their ‘mending their nets’ in this case (as with the ‘casting of nets’ of Simon and Andrew) is intended to be an indicator of their future work of caring for the people of God.
4.22 ‘And they immediately left the boat and their father, and followed him.’
Responding to the same voice of authority they left their boat and their father and followed Him. So whether it was nets, boats or family, all had to take second place to Jesus. Thus was revealed that there was a shout of a king among them (Numbers 23.21). It was recognised that here was One Who had the right to commandeer men’s lives. Other teachers gained a following from those who chose to follow them. It was only Jesus Who claimed the right to demand it of whom He would, demonstrating that He saw His position and ministry as unique. These men had already previously entered under the Kingly Rule of Heaven, but now they were brought to see that that commitment must be total.
The Light Begins To Shine Throughout All Galilee, And Even Beyond (4.23-25).
From now on a great work of the Spirit commences throughout all Galilee, as Jesus goes about teaching in their synagogues, preaching the Good News of the Kingly Rule of Heaven, and healing all manner of diseases and sicknesses, so much so that people flock to Him, not only from all over Galilee, but also from Decapolis, Jerusalem and Judaea, in order to hear Him. These were no doubt mainly Jews. Decapolis was an area on the other side of the Sea of Galilee ruled over by ten towns, and largely contained Gentiles, but many Jews lived there as well. Jerusalem as always is mentioned separately. It looked on itself as being distinct from Judaea.
4.23 ‘And Jesus went about in all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the good news of the Kingly Rule, and healing all manner of disease and all manner of sickness among the people.’
In the chiasmus above this parallels His proclamation concerning the need to repent because of the presence of the Kingly Rule of Heaven. The Kingly Rule of Heaven is now being manifested in His teaching, in His preaching of the Good News of the Kingly Rule of Heaven, and in His works of heavenly power which revealed that Kingly Rule as now present among them (compare also 9.35 and 11.4). He has come among them as the Spirit-filled Prophet promised by Isaiah 61.1-2, proclaiming the Good News to the poor, and releasing those who were captives and bound. By this means He is now building up a following of many disciples.
‘Their synagogues.’ That is, the synagogues of the people of Galilee (compare ‘their Scribes’ in 7.29). His ministry is at this stage concentrated on the Jews. Matthew is looking at the synagogues (and the Scribes) from the point of view of the people. They saw them as ‘ours’. Each synagogue was locally owned (and therefore would be very much seen by the people as ‘theirs’) and was watched over by a group of elders who would have appointed a ‘ruler of the synagogue’ to manage its affairs. It was a place where the people met on the Sabbath to pray and hear the Scriptures read. They could also meet there for prayer during the week. Any prominent visitor could be called on to preach on the Sabbath once the Law had been read, and at this stage Jesus was regularly offered the opportunity of doing so. The synagogue was also available for daily prayer and reading of the Scriptures, and Jewish children would be taught to read the Scriptures in the synagogue schools.
‘Preaching the Good News of the Kingly Rule.’ The reference to ‘Good News’ primarily has Isaiah 61.1-2 in mind (compare Luke 4.18). But see also Isaiah 41.27; 52.7. The Good News of the Kingly Rule was that God was now at work among them by His Holy Spirit through the One Whom He had sent (3.11), calling to repentance and forgiveness, and to a new way of life (4.17; Isaiah 45.23). Forgiveness was an essential aspect of the expected Kingly Rule (Isaiah 1.16-18; 43.25; 44.22, compare Mark 1.4), and it had to lead on to forgiving others (6.12). They were therefore to respond with the faith typical of little children (18.3-4), submitting to the authority of the One Whom God had sent, the One Who was their Lord and Who required their full obedience to His words (7.21-27).
‘And healing all manner of disease and all manner of sickness among the people.’ This was a further evidence that the Kingly Rule of Heaven was now here and that the Coming One had arrived, the One Who would ‘take their infirmities and carry their sicknesses’ (8.17; 11.4-6). He was present among them restoring those who were sick and diseased. As Matthew will point out later this was very much the activity of the Servant of the Lord (8.17; Isaiah 53.4) and of the Coming One (11.4-5; Isaiah 35.5-6) as Jesus went among men taking their afflictions and diseases on Himself.
4.24 ‘And the report about him went forth into all Syria, and they brought to him all who were sick, gripped with many various diseases and torments, possessed with demons, and epileptic, and palsied, and he healed them.’
In the chiasmus this parallels the shining forth of the great light. The mention of Syria might be seen as suggesting that the news of Him spread among the Jews throughout the whole Roman province of Syria, which included all Palestine apart from Galilee, or alternately it may indicate that it went beyond the borders of Galilee into the district of Syria to the north and north west. The former seems more likely in view of the fact that it stands by itself, and presumably therefore covers most of the areas in verse 25. And the crowds responded to Him in faith and trust, bringing their sick and afflicted, and He healed them there. Light had come out of darkness. The Messianic age, when all would be put right, was beginning. The sick were being cured. Diseases and afflictions were being removed. Those possessed by demons were being liberated. The mentally ill and paralysed were being restored. All were being made whole. All these afflictions were seen as being the result of sin, and here was the One Who had come to bear their sins (8.17; 1.21). Thus this now suggested that the One Who would finally deal with sin was here. For that was why His name was Jesus. It was because He would save His people from their sins.
4.25 ‘And there followed him great crowds from Galilee and Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judaea and from beyond the Jordan.’
And soon great crowds had gathered coming from far afield. They came from all over Galilee, from Decapolis, on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and from Jerusalem and Judaea to the south. They flocked from every quarter. There were huge crowds wherever He went, so much so that it was difficult for Him to give special teaching to His new disciples. The idea of ‘great crowds’ is repeated in 8.1, 18.
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