Matthew 2: Jesus, the King of Kings

Gospel of Matthew blog chapter 2

At Equipping Pastors Worldwide, we recognise that ministry is often difficult and frustrating. Pastors we serve around the world tell us of times when it does not look like the gospel is powerful or as if God is in control. That can be demoralising and depressing, especially when pastors face persecution or have to endure suffering. That is why it helps to fix our eyes on the Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew month by month. In our first blog post on chapter 1, we saw three great truths in the coming of Christ. We were reminded that our God works on a grand scale, our God is with us in the mess and our God’s Spirit is amazingly powerful. We see three more realities to rejoice in when we turn to Matthew 2. First, notice, that:

1. Our God is the Lord of all (Matthew 2:1-12)

The incident with the wise men and the star in 2:1-12 is not there to provide more children with a part in the school nativity play. It is there to teach us that when Christ came into the world, when the eternal Son took on human flesh, the entire world order changed. God’s King had arrived on the scene and all powers must submit to him.

Herod the Great was the Roman supported leader of Judea. As an Edomite usurper, he had used all kinds of tricks to get power and to hold onto it for about 30 years until Jesus’ birth. He thought he had most bases covered. He was racially Arab, culturally Greek, politically Roman and religiously Jewish. But just to make sure, Herod had also murdered one of his wives, her two sons, her brother, mother and grandfather, and even his own first-born son. So bloodthirsty was Herod that Caesar Augustus famously remarked that it would be safer to be Herod’s pig than his son! Picture his surprise when these foreign stargazers turn up and tell him that he had been supplanted by the King of the Jews (2:1-3). Imagine his horror as he hears of Micah’s promise from 750 years earlier that God’s great King would be born in Bethlehem (2:4-6). Rejoice as God arranges signs in heaven, directs unsuspecting pagans, deposes powerful tyrants and announces that his long-promised King has arrived. This is the King before whom every knee will bow and every tongue will worship.

Herod’s cunning plan to locate this rival is foiled as God guides the Magi to Bethlehem and then home by an alternative route (2:7-12). I know that these events are familiar to us but we mustn’t miss their significance. In a hidden corner of the Roman Empire, pagan philosopher astrologers pay royal tribute to a peasant baby. Picture his Jewish parents standing by while these travellers worship their baby son. God then intervenes to take them home. We’re given no names, no details and no sequel. Because they are not Matthew’s focus. He wants us to notice that God’s cosmic King has come and not even a brutal upstart like Herod can stop God’s plan. That takes us to the second reality to rejoice in, namely that:

2. Our God works through suffering (Matthew 2:13-18)

What happens next is vintage Herod but, try as he might, this petty tyrant cannot stop the Lord of all. Given Herod’s track record, it is no great surprise that he seeks to destroy the Christ child (2:13-15). Although Jesus is the Spirit-filled, Davidic, Abrahamic hope of the world, Matthew wants us to see that he is in danger right from the very start of his human life. Not much changes as he grows up – Jesus’ life is marked by hostility and suffering. As JC Ryle reminds us: ‘The Lord Jesus is just the Saviour that the suffering and sorrowful need. He knows well what we mean when we tell Him in prayer of our troubles. He can sympathise with us when we cry to Him under cruel persecution. Let us keep nothing back from Him. Let us pour out our hearts before Him. He has had great experience of affliction.’’

However, even as Jesus’ family have to flee for their lives in the middle of the night, Matthew wants us to see the Old Testament connections, which you will be familiar with from our preaching conferences. God’s focus has narrowed in Matthew 1-2 from his people, Israel, to Jesus, who is the true Israel. In Christ, God is enacting a new exodus to set us free and so we read him going to Egypt in fulfilment of Hosea 11’s promise, ‘out of Egypt I called my son’. And yet, as we try to do on our conferences, it helps to notice the surprise in the text. Because in 2:13-14 the only movement is out of Israel and into Egypt. That complicates things because it presents the people of Israel in Jesus’ day as a new Egypt with a new Pharaoh, Herod. Matthew seems to suggest that God has rescued his Son from this new Egypt, that is Israel, to flee to a place of safety, which just happens to be Egypt (2:15). And doesn’t Herod look just like Pharaoh as his fear and fury boil over into a mass infanticide (2:16-18)? Do you see? Jesus’ childhood was marked by slaughter and tears.

But Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31 here not just because it echoes Rachel’s weeping as the people were led north into exile centuries before. Matthew wants to underline more than the grief of God’s people suffering. He wants us to rejoice in the hope of a return from exile. In the very next verse, Jeremiah says: ‘Thus says the LORD: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the LORD, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the LORD, and your children shall come back to their own country.”’ (Jer 31:16-17) Matthew knows that, in Christ, the promised King has come and therefore the exile has finally ended. Once again, just as in Jeremiah 31, Rachel’s tears are a sign of hope as God works through suffering to bring his people home. And that takes us to the final reality to rejoice in, which serves as something of a spoiler for the rest of this gospel.

3. Our God works in unexpected ways
(Matthew 2:19-23)

Herod’s death is recorded in graphic detail by the Jewish historian, Josephus, but Matthew simply says ‘But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.”’ (2:19-20) However, hearing that Archelaus (Herod’s son who was even worse than his father) was ruling over Judea, Joseph does the sensible thing and heads to a city called Nazareth in Galilee instead (2:21-23).

And again, just as in 2:1-12 and 2:13-18, we’re told that all of this fulfils another word from the prophets. However, the surprise here is that no prophecy in the OT comes close to talking about Nazareth. It was nowhere, an obscure nonentity of a place. Yet Matthew says that by taking Jesus there, Joseph and Mary are fulfilling the next part of God’s plan. So, what is going on? Commentators have suggested all manner of possible answers, including allusions to Samson’s Nazarite vow or to Isaiah 42. But most suggestions are not convincing … apart from one, first suggested by the early church leader, Jerome. Here at the end of Matthew’s soaring opening section of his gospel, he wants to remind us of the fact, that in human terms, Jesus is an outsider, a nobody who lives in the middle of nowhere. Matthew wants us to see that Jesus’ kingdom is unexpected and subversive. The rest of this gospel will show how the Lord Jesus Christ will unsettle and surprise us even as he does his work in us. But we have had a glimpse of that in these first two chapters, haven’t we?

Jesus Christ is the son of David, the son of Abraham, the fulfilment of all of God’s promises yet he grows up in the middle of nowhere. Jesus is the eternal Son made flesh in the power of the Spirit but as Immanuel come to sit with us in the mess. Jesus is the Lord of all nations and the one who will save us from our sins but he will do so by suffering in a way that none of us could expect. The rest of Matthew’s gospel will go on to show how Jesus will overturn all kinds of expectations as he establishes his upside-down kingdom.

So, pastoral ministry this week may be difficult. It may be frustrating. We may have to face persecution for our beliefs or endure suffering as we live in a broken world. But we can hold on to the fact that Christ has come as the Lord of all and one day every knee will bow and every tongue will worship him as Lord. We can rejoice that Jesus has endured the most awful suffering for our sake and for our salvation. And we can remind one another that our God has always been at work and continues to work today in ways that are very surprising and entirely unexpected.