Matthew 2:1-12


That this comet is understood to be a sign of the birth of a "child who has been born King of the Jews" is particularly frightening to Herod since HE is King of the Jews and this unknown child is a threat to him and his heirs.

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Epiphany of the Lord
January 6  or  Previous Sunday

Read the passage at the bottom of this post: Matthew 2:1-12, The Message   or   Matthew 2:1-12, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

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Verse  1 - "In the time of King Herod." This King Herod died in 4 BC.

             - "Wise men from the East." They were astrologers, probably not kings. (Personal aside: I wonder if anyone has researched if there is remnant memory from the Babylonian exile that has informed these three "from the east?")

Verse  2 - "Observed his star at its rising" probably refers to a comet. "At its rising" could also be translated as "at the place of the rising of the sun, i.e., the east." Celestial events such as this were understood to be omens of the future. That this comet is understood to be a sign of the birth of a "child who has been born King of the Jews" is particularly frightening to Herod since HE is King of the Jews and this unknown child is a threat to him and his heirs.

Verse  3 - "(King Herod) was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him." That is, this news is not just about a change of who will be King. "All Jerusalem," that is, all the elites in Jerusalem, are also frightened because of the social turmoil that such a change in the status quo would bring. The occupying Roman armies would expect that THEY would be the ones to install any new King, and would not likely accept without a war this new baby King.

Verse  4 - "Calling together." Herod has no capacity to interpret this himself. Instead, he must call together (at great expense) the religious leaders of his time - priests and scribes - to tell him what this means.

Verse  6 - Is a reference to Micah 5:2. Although it was always a small village, Bethlehem was an auspicious place to be born because it was the birth place of the greatest King of Israel, David. It was to David that God promised a descendant of his would always be King of Israel. (See below for a discussion of the critical difference between "Judah" and "Israel.")

Verse  7 - "Secretly." Honourable business is always done openly. Therefore, when Herod meets "secretly with the wise men, they (and we, the readers) would know immediately that Herod's statements were deceitful and not to be trusted.

Verse  8 - "Stopped over the place." Assuming there really was a comet, and we can understand this story in reasonably natural terms, it might be better to read this as "Confirmed the place" or "Set below the horizon at the place." It is an anachronism to read this as a "magical" or "supernatural" event. At the time of Matthew, such events would have been understood to happen in purely "normal" and "natural" ways, because God was fully present - naturally and normally - in all events. And so special events or signs were just that: special but natural and NOT supernatural.

Verse 11 - "On entering the house." Note that Matthew has made no mention of Nazareth or of the need for a trip to Bethlehem. Without Luke, we would probably understand that Jesus was born at home in Joseph's house where they lived in Bethlehem.

              - "Gold, frankincense and myrrh" are all expensive gifts "fit for a King."

A few things to note:

  1. It is interesting that Matthew is the only Gospel to tell of the adoration of Jesus by foreigners. Matthew usually goes to great lengths to show how the life of Jesus "fulfills what is written" in the scriptures. But this event has no scriptural precedent. And so Epiphany opens us to unprecedented outside-the-box new events that reveal the presence of God.
  2. It is pure speculation on my part, but I wonder if these "Wise Men from the East" are not a remnant from the time when the Judean elite were taken in captivity to Babylon?
  3. It is difficult to place how soon after Jesus' birth that the wise men arrive. The following verses which tell of Herod killing all boys two years and younger suggests that they did not arrive close to the actual birth day. Tradition has placed their arrival 12 days after the birth.
  4. Today, the arrival of the wise men is celebrated on January 6, twelve days after December 25. This day is called "Epiphany" because it is a celebration that Jesus was born "for all," and that on this day, a few of those "all" responded to Jesus' birth and worshiped him. Their leaving of their homes to seek Jesus is a precursor of Peter, James and the other disciples leaving their homes to follow Jesus.
  5. The reference to "Jews" in all English translations is a mis-translation of the underlying Greek word for Judeans. Judeans are those from the southern-most province of Judah, where the capital city, Jerusalem, and the little town of Bethlehem are located.
    At the time of Jesus, Judah was one of 3 provinces of the people of Israel. The northern province of Galilee was where Nazareth was located. Galilee was considered by Judeans to be a backwater populated by hillbillies.
    Because the Roman occupiers dealt with the capital city Jerusalem, in Judah, they were not aware of the inner conflicts and status rankings, and referred to all the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - the nation of Israel - as "Judeans," or as we now say in English - as "Jews." But notice that Jesus always refers to his people as "Israel."
    Now, although the news of the birth of an unknown new king was frightening, it was to be expected that any King of Israel would be from Judah. But Matthew concludes his story of Jesus' birth (Matthew 2:23):   
          (Joseph) made his home in a town called Nazareth, 
          so that what had been spoken through the prophets
          might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean."
    And this is definitely a challenge and an insult for the elites in Jerusalem. ESPECIALLY when the Romans unknowingly kept referring to that local yokel hay-seed, Jesus, from that who's-ever-heard-of-back-water hamlet of Nazareth as THEIR King, "King of the Judeans." No way Hosea will Judean elites accept a Galilean as their King.

Unfortunately, this mis-translation has a bloody history as subsequent followers of Jesus with no roots in Israel failed to see the conflict between Jerusalem elites and Galilean nobodies, and in the name of Jesus created and validated hatred, persecution, and murder of Jesus' own people.

David Ewart,,
Short, easy to use, faith inspiring explanations of the meaning of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John for your sermon, homily, bible study, or reflection.

Note: Historical background information in this post is drawn primarily from Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, pages 26-29; and the writings of Amy-Jill Levine, et. al.

Matthew 25:31-46 (NRSV)

   1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 

   6 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, 
      are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; 
      for from you shall come a ruler 
      who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"

   7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Matthew 25:31-46 (The Message)

   1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory—this was during Herod's kingship—a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. 2 They asked around, "Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We're on pilgrimage to worship him." 

   3 When word of their inquiry got to Herod, he was terrified—and not Herod alone, but most of Jerusalem as well. 4 Herod lost no time. He gathered all the high priests and religion scholars in the city together and asked, "Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?"

   5 They told him, "Bethlehem, Judah territory. The prophet Micah wrote it plainly:

   6 It's you, Bethlehem, in Judah's land, 
         no longer bringing up the rear. 
      From you will come the leader 
         who will shepherd-rule my people, my Israel."

   7 Herod then arranged a secret meeting with the scholars from the East. Pretending to be as devout as they were, he got them to tell him exactly when the birth-announcement star appeared. 8 Then he told them the prophecy about Bethlehem, and said, "Go find this child. Leave no stone unturned. As soon as you find him, send word and I'll join you at once in your worship." 

   9 Instructed by the king, they set off. Then the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. 10 They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time! 

   11 They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh. 

   12 In a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they worked out another route, left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country.

Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.

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