Page last updated




by Douglas Clark,

Matthew 2:1-12

Toward the end of the Christmas pageant performed downstairs on December 14, there was a surprise--and silent--visit from three bearded men dressed in regal robes. It was the wise men, come to pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews. The magi of Riverside certainly needed no introduction, for their visit is a familiar part of the Christmas story. I understand that this particular characterization of the magi was one of Kevin Hoggard’s additions to the script, and I thought it worked beautifully.

This morning I want to direct our attention to Matthew’s narrative of the visit of the three kings to Bethlehem. And I want us to consider Matthew independently of Luke, so that we have a clearer understanding of those themes that are unique to Matthew’ story of Jesus. The Catholic biblical scholar Raymond Brown, in his thorough and wonderful book The Birth of the Messiah, notes that Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus is a drama in two acts.

In the first act, “The magi from the East, representing the Gentiles, receive God’s revelation about the birth of the Messiah through a proclamation in nature, a star. They come to Jerusalem and are further enlightened about the place of the Messiah’s birth through the Jewish Scriptures. They go to Bethlehem to pay him homage with gifts, and return [to the East] another way.”

In the second act, the evil Herod, who has been lurking in the background in the first act, moves into the foreground. “Despite a knowledge of the Scripture in which he has been instructed by Jewish officialdom, Herod seeks to kill the newborn king. But through God’s [guidance], the Messiah is taken away to Egypt, [thus escaping the massacre of the innocents,] and later brought back alive, to Nazareth.” (Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, pp. 178, 179.) In the first act, God directs the magi to the Messiah through both nature and scripture. In the second act, God directs Joseph to protect his infant son through a series of dreams. And in the transition between the first act and the second act, God directs the magi through a dream to avoid Herod on their way home.

The wise men--scientists and scholars from the Gentile world--respond to the news of the Jewish Messiah’s birth by undertaking a long journey to the place of his birth and there showing him their respect and their devotion. But the secular ruler Herod responds to this same news by seeking to destroy the child--a quest that cannot succeed because it is contrary to the will of God. And Jesus’ father Joseph takes his family on a long journey that is a kind of reliving of both Exodus and Exile, those foundational narratives of Israel’s history as God’s chosen people.

Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ birth and infancy thus hearkens back to the whole scriptural narrative of the history of Israel, and tries to show how Jesus is the fulfillment of this Jewish story. But the infancy narrative also foreshadows the crucial events of Jesus’ adult life, especially his death and resurrection.

In the figure of Herod the Great, we can hear echoes of Pharaoh and see shadows of Pontius Pilate. In the figure of Joseph--husband and father--we meet a righteous Jew who is faithful to the teachings and traditions of his people, and who is the guardian of the Messiah. And in the figures of the magi and their devotion, we can see hints of the Gentile church of the future, including the church of the late twentieth century. In the first century, it didn’t take long for the community of Jesus to leave behind many of its Jewish roots as it became a mixed Jewish and Gentile church, and then an almost exclusively Gentile church.

By the time the gospel of Matthew was written, in the final quarter of the first century, Matthew’s community was a mixed community consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, but with “dominance now shifting over to the Gentile side.” In writing his gospel for this community, “Matthew is concerned to show that Jesus has always had meaning for both Jew and Gentile.” (Brown, p. 47.)