Matthew 2:1-2 Bethlehem was a small village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The religious leaders knew that Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the Messiah from the prophecy of Micah, and they tell this to Herod in v. 5-6 (Mic. 5:2; John 7:42). Herod the Great, referred to here, ruled from 37–4 B.C. He was an Idumean, a descendant of the Edomites, who were the offspring of Esau. Herod loved and oversaw grand building projects whose ruins can be seen today in modern Israel. His most notable project was the rebuilding of the temple at Jerusalem.
The number of wise men or magi is not given. The traditional notion that there were three, stems from the number of gifts they brought. However, there could have been any number of wise men who came. The account here is different from the events of Luke 2. The Shepherds of Luke 2 were present immediately following the birth of the Messiah. They were led to a stable and saw the Baby laying in a feeding trough. The Wise men in Matt. 2 saw a star when Jesus was born and then began their journey to behold the King of Israel. When they arrived, they came to His house and the child is no longer described as an infant. Herod uses the Greek word “paidos”, which refers to a child beyond infancy. In V. 7 Herod asks the Magi when they saw the star. Shortly after that he sends soldiers to kill all children two years old and younger. There is nothing in Scripture to show that these wise men were kings. The word Magi is a Greek term for wise men, more specifically astrologers. Generally, when Scriptures refers to the east it is a reference to Assyria, or Babylon, which today includes Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
How did these Babylonian astrologers know about a Jewish Messiah? What was this star? Since the star led them, and it appeared and disappeared, it was likely not an ordinary star. The Greek word for star is “radiance” or “brilliance.” In all likelihood this was the Shechinah Glory of God’s presence (Ex. 19:18 & 40:38) which led the wise men to the Lord. These Astrologers were likely the descendants of the counselors of the kings of Babylon and Persia who had been influenced by Daniel, Hannaiah, Azariah, Mishael (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abdingo) (Dan. 1:19‑20; 2:12‑13,47; 4:7‑9 5:11‑12). These men were familiar Daniel’s writings and the prophecy concerning the timing of his coming. Balaam as well prophesied of a star coming from Judah that would be related to the Messiah in Num. 24:17. Balaam was from Pethor, a city on the banks of the Euphrates River in Babylon (Num. 22:5; Dt. 23:4). It was not the stars or astrology that led them to the truth of the Messiah but knowing God’s Word through his appointed prophets. It should also be noted that there was a huge Jewish community that did not return to Israel from the captivity. They were prosperous and their Scriptures were known in the East.
Matthew 2:3-4 Herod was disturbed by this report of the birth of a child born king of the Jews since the wise men were not referring to any child of his. The people of Jerusalem were troubled as well because they feared Herod’s paranoid rages. Earlier he had killed his wife and sons who he suspected was plotting against his rule and throne. The chief priests oversaw the temple and the sacrifices. They were the Sadducees, named for Zadok a descendant of Aaron who served as High Priest under Solomon. They were the offspring of the Maccabees who had fought the Syrians and Antiochus, who had defiled the Temple. They came to power in the events celebrated in Hanukkah. Those events were prophesied by Daniel and foreshadowed the great tribulation of the last days The scribes were primarily Pharisees, trained in the skill of reproducing the scrolls of Scripture and were experts on Jewish law and often referred to as “lawyers”.
Matthew 2:5-6 Herod knew that the King of the Jews referred to the promised Messiah. He was and Idumean, descendants of the Edomites and was Jewish because of his family’s forced conversion by the Maccabees when they ruled over the Idumeans. Herod knew Jewish beliefs and customs and that messianic expectations were for a political and military deliverer. This was the initial belief of the disciples. The high priest presided over the Sanhedrin, consisted of seventy of the key Jewish religious leaders of Israel. These included Scribes, Sadducees and Pharisees. One of the chief priests was the captain of the Temple, who was appointed and answered to the high priest. Among his powers, approved by the Romans, was that ability to arrest and imprison. He therefore was allowed to have a contingent of Jewish soldiers, who acted as the Temple police. He ranked second to the high priest in authority. These Jewish religious leaders knew where the Messiah’s birth was predicted but Matthew records that they showed no belief or interest in the announcement of the magi. The phrase “who will shepherd My people Israel”, is not from Micah, but expresses the type of rule the Messiah will have. A shepherd speaks of tender care (Ps. 23), but also authority and strength in leading his flock. The combination of ruler and shepherd points to tender care but also divine dominance. The same Greek word is used in Revelation 2:27; 12:5; and 19:15 where the rule is “with a rod of iron.” Unlike Herod, Jesus not only would be a legitimate King of the Jews but also be the final and perfect Ruler of Israel.
Matthew 2:7-8 When Herod questioned the wise men, he had already planned to murder Jesus. He needed to determine the time when the star appeared so that he would know when and where the king was born. The wise men gave Herod the information he requested. He also asked that when they found him to let him know where he was located under the pretense of joining them in worship of him as well. Then he sent them off to Bethlehem, a short journey from Jerusalem to the south.
Matthew 2:9-12 The star guiding them was not a star as we know since it was able to move and guide them to the house where Jesus and His family were living. This is like how God guided Israel in the wilderness in Exodus 40:34–38. The magi were overwhelmed with joy that they were led to the place where the Messiah was born. Since they were led to a house and not a stable, the timing is after Luke’s account. When they entered the home, they bow and worship Him. They presented their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh to the child. Their gifts were an expression of worship, to both the child and the Heavenly Father who led them. Gold continues to be the most precious of metals and a universal symbol of value and wealth. It was used in the construction of the Temple (1 Kings 6–7, 9: 2 Chron. 2–4). It also pointed to nobility and royalty (Gen. 41:4; 1 Kings 10:1–13). Frankincense was used in the offerings at the Tabernacle and Temple (Lev. 2:2, 15–16. Myrrh was a valuable perfume used as an anesthetic (Mark 15:23) and when mixed with other spices was used in preparing bodies for burial as in the case of Jesus’ body (John 19:39). With their mission completed, the magi left but were warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod and departed for home by another way.
Matthew 2:13-15 God knew what the reaction of Herod would be and so He instructed Joseph to take Miriam and Jesus to Egypt. Joseph probably went to Alexandria where there was large Jewish community where he would find work, fellowship and support. The period in Egypt was probably no more than three years until Herod died. The reason given was to fulfill the prophecy of Hosea 11:1. Israel was God’s son (Ex 4:22-23) and as Yeshua was a second Adam so He was a second Israel, the perfect son that nation failed to be. In a sense Jesus was in Egypt with Israel at the time of Moses as Heb. 7:10 cites. We too become sons of God by virtue of our relationship to Jesus. Sons who will never be totally forsaken. Disciplined, but not cast off.
Matthew 2:16-18 Herod thought he was king of the Jews and feared any wind that might blow ill of him or his family. He had killed his own children and wife on the suspicion they were plotting against him, how much more a religious pretender to his throne. In order to be safe, he doubled the time from when the Magi told him they had first seen the star’s appearing. Quoting Jer. 31:15 which originally expressed the lament of mothers grieved over sons sent into the Babylonian exile. Matthew implies here that Israel was again in exile, estranged from God, and in need of redemption. This passage from Jeremiah 31 includes weeping and concludes with the promise that God would establish a new covenant with His people, forgive their sins and write His law on their hearts. Matthew links the massacre in Bethlehem and the coming of the Messiah. Just as the weeping mothers preceded the promise of the new covenant. The weeping of mothers of Bethlehem precede the establishment of the new covenant through Yeshua. Matthew sees not only the tears that began the Babylonian captivity but now the slaughter in Bethlehem. Herod points to the rulers of the world doing all they can to keep God’s King from taking back the world for God (Ps. 2).
Matthew 2:19-23 As Israel was protected in Egypt until the fullness of the evil of the Amorites as prophesied to Abraham in Gen. 15:16, so Jesus was protected in Egypt until the fullness of Herod. Joseph settled in Nazareth because Archelaus was nearly as cruel as Herod. Archelaus was one of Herod’s sons, and Herod had willed him the title of king. However, because of his evil behavior the Jewish leadership sent a delegation to Rome to protest his crowning. Augustus Caesar agreed and made Archelaus an ethnarch over half of his father’s kingdom. Joseph knew his family would be no safer under Archelaus than they had been under Herod. God confirmed his fears and spoke to Joseph in a dream to take his family North to Nazareth, which had been their home when Yeshua was conceived. Matthew points out that this too was foretold in the Scriptures. Matthew did not refer only to one prophet but “which was spoken by the prophets” (plural). There is no specific prophecy that called Jesus a “Nazarene.” The term Nazarene was one of derision (John 1:46). Many Old Testament prophecies spoke of the Messiah’s rejection and scorn and this is what likely Matthew had in mind (Ps. 22; Isa. 53:2–3, 8). The term “Nazarene” was applied both to Jesus and His followers (Acts 24:5); and He was often called “Jesus of Nazareth” (Matt. 21:11; Mark 14:67; John 18:5, 7).
The name Nazareth comes from the same Hebrew word (netzer) that means “branch” and was used in Isaiah 11:1 to describe the Messiah. He would be the “branch” that would spring out of the stump of Jesse. Jeremiah also announced a coming day when God would “raise up for David a righteous Branch” who would “reign as king” (Jer. 23:5). Zechariah also announced the coming of “my servant the Branch” (Zech. 3:8) whom he later described as “the man whose name is ‘the Branch’” (Zech. 6:12). The Messiah was the netzer, and Matthew saw Nazareth as the town of the “branch”.