Matthew 2

Structure of the Passage

The King of the Jews Born in the City of David (Mt. 2:1–12)

Verse 1-2 The Magi’s arrival and question

Verse 3-4 Herod’s response

Verse 5-8 Explaining Scriptures and Herod’s Plot

Verse 9-12 The Magi in Bethlehem

God’s Son Brought out of Egypt (Mt. 2:13–15)

Verse 13-15a Josephs Second dream and obedience

Verse 16-18 The End of Herod

Return to Nazareth (Mt. 2:16-23)


First of all, Matthew shows God’s sovereign control over human schemes. Secondly, the first proof that Gentiles will come while the Jews reject are given here. Thirdly, the prophesy of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, and His up growing in Nazareth is fulfilled.

Exposition of the verses

Verse 1-2 The Magi’s arrival and question

The time that the magi (μάγοι) arrived after Jesus birth is not very clear. The passive genitive participle γεννηθέντος (was born, or having been born) is consistent with the passive verb forms in Mt. 1:16, 20. Some believe that magi evidently arrived about two years after the birth. The magi were likely comparable to “Chaldeans” mentioned in Daniel (Mt. 1:4; 2:2; 4:7; 5:7), who were adept in the interpretation of dreams. In other parts of the NT, these μάγοι are viewed quite unfavorably (Acts 8:9; 13:6, 8), but here they are the first ones (gentiles) who worship Christ. Some say that they had been aware of the prophesy of Balaam in Num. 24:17, and it is slightly strange that these magi are mentioned as worshipers since astrology was forbidden in the Bible, Isa. 47:13–15; Jer. 10:1–2. For this conflicting reason, people have sought alternate explanations for their visit, like the queen of Sheba visiting Salomon (someone greater than Salomon is here…), and Balaam blessing Israel instead of cursing it. However, the foreign magi acknowledging the King who came to save the world fits very well in the story of salvation.
The exact birth of Jesus is under discussion. Herod died in the spring of 4 B.C, so the magi had to have arrived before that date. Luke 1:5 dates the conception of John the Baptist (and thus also Jesus) during Herod’s reign. The puzzling BCE dating of Christ’s birth is due to mistakes made when the Christian calendar was instituted in 525 CE by Dionysius Exiguus. Herod the Great was known for his harsh dealings with anyone who seemed to come close to the throne.[footnote]Macrobius (Sat. II. iv. II) notes that Augustus said that it was better to be Herod’s sow (ὑς [hus]) than his son (υἱος [huios]), for the sow had a better chance of life. A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1933), Mt 2:16.[/footnote] Matthew seems less interested in the time of the event. Matthew mentions Bethlehem and connects it with Micah 5:2 though says nothing about Caesar Augustus’ decree. Matthew is clearly selective with what he mentions, and only mentions that which serves his theological interest. Another good reason to mention Herod, is the biblical connection to Moses and Pharaoh, who destroyed the children of the Israelites in order to stop their savior to be born.
Matthew’s mentioning of Herod as king is for a purpose of putting him in contrast to Christ. Herod’s kingship is merely a political office while Jesus’s kingship, like David’s (Mt. 1:6), is genuine and legitimate, given to him by God at birth (Mt. 2:2). It is appropriate that the magi arrive in Jerusalem, David’s capital city, the city of the great king (Mt. 5:35; Ps. 48:2). It is the city of Solomon’s temple, but Jesus is greater than Solomon and his temple (Mt. 12:6, 42). He must cleanse the temple when he enters the city as its rightful king (Mt. 21), only to be crucified there a few days later (Mt. 27).
The magi, coming from the east (Mt. 8:11, 24:27) come for the born king of the Jews (ὁ τεχθεὶς βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων) for they have seen his star when it arose (ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ). The men come to worship (προσκυνῆσαι), bowing, kneeling or paying respect to a superior like a king (Mt. 18:26). In God’s law, which is shown in Jesus’ exchange with Satan, worship should only be given to God (Mt. 4:9–10). Matthew presents Christ here again as superior King, the Son of God, Immanuel.
There are theories of what the star was, whether a comet, a planetary conjunction, a nova. Matthew describes how the star first rises, but also leads them and comes to rest above the house in which Jesus was staying. In the end we can only know for sure that it was a miraculous event that God used to bring people to Himself.

Verse 3-4 Herod’s response

The verse starts with the conjunction δέ, introducing an explanation or a contrast. Herod is troubled (ἐταράχθη). ἐταράχθη is an aorist passive verb, and is connected to ἀκούσας, akousas which is a temporal or causal participle. There is an alarm in “all Jerusalem.” That is strange, for apparently Herod (who was an Idumean) was loved by the Jews, who would have embraced a king on David’s throne. Perhaps it was fear for Herod’s response, but likely it was Jerusalem who always rejected the gospel and the true Messiah. It will be there in Jerusalem that eventually “all the people” will accept responsibility for the death of their Messiah (Mt. 27:24–25).
Herod seeks help from the Jewish religious leaders. They form the Sanhedrin (central Jewish authority under the Roman leadership). He summons the scribes (γραμματεῖς), who applied the Scriptures to Jewish life. Matthew speaks of these men who are often mentioned with the Pharisees in the other verses (Mt. 5:20; 12:38; 15:1; 23:2, 13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29). Likely he writes about them in the beginning of his book for they reappear at Jesus’ death (Mt. 16:21; 20:18; 21:15; 26:57). Though Herod dies, these leaders continue to fight against Jesus Christ.
Herod starts asking them (ἐπυνθάνετο) when the Messiah will be born, who this “king of the Jews” is and who the “Messiah” is supposed to be. Though he asks for the birthplace of the Messiah in order to act directly against this, he probably aimed to know more of the messianic expectation.

Verse 5-8 Explaining Scriptures and Herod’s Plot

Herod’s question is answered by the citation of Micah 5:2 and 2 Samuel 5:2. It is in Bethlehem Judea, the home of Jesse and David, as written by the prophet (οὕτως γὰρ γέγραπται διὰ τοῦ προφήτου). The perfect-tense verb γέγραπται (it is written) speaks of God’s divine agency, is passive regarding men, implies authority of God, while the prepositional phrase διὰ τοῦ προφήτου expresses the human means used by the divine agency.[footnote]Moulton and Turner provide the following examples of δια with at genitive object being used to show agency: Rom 11:36, 1 Cor 1:9 12:8, Gal 1:1, Phm 1:7, Heb 2:10, Heb 13:11, 1 Pt 2:14. James Hope Moulton and Nigel Turner, A Grammar of New Testament Greek: Syntax., vol. 3 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1963–), 267.[/footnote] The reason why Matthew speaks of “Bethlehem, land of Judah” is to emphasize Jesus’ Judean origins. Origin is very important to Matthew. Like Micah, he mentions the smallness of Bethlehem, the insignificance and the contrast to the glory which will come to her.
Matthew has changed the words of the prophesy slightly. This was not uncommon. France mentions about this,

“This relatively free and creative handling of the text (not unlike that found in contemporary Aramaic targums) differs little from the practice of many modern preachers who, if not reading directly out of the Bible, will often (probably quite unconsciously) quote a text in an adapted from which helps the audience to see how the text relates to the argument. No one is misled, and the hermeneutical procedure is well understood.”[footnote]France, R. T. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew (p. 73). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co.[/footnote]

Herod already plotted the murder of Jesus when he sent the magi off, and for some reason he trusted the magicians enough to return to him with the truth. The magicians are portrayed as somewhat ignorant, Matthew and most readers are immediately aware of Herod’s evil plans.

Verse 9-12 The Magi in Bethlehem

The magi travel onward to the place of the Messiah’s birth. One author notes that “it is ironic that the birth of Jesus produces only anxious fear in the leaders of Israel (Mt. 2:3) whereas it is the occasion of overwhelming joy in the mysterious gentile magi.”[footnote]Turner, D. L. (2008). Matthew (p. 85). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.[/footnote] Above the house the star “having come took its stand” – aorist form. The star must have indicated the specific house in which Jesus was, since the birthplace was announced to them by Herod.
The assumption that Jesus was born in a stable is most likely wrong. Luke speaks of a manger, which was in a Palestinian home in the house, next to the living area where animals would stay over night. The point of Luke’s mention of the manger is not therefore that Jesus’ birth took place outside a normal house, but that in that particular house the “guest-room” was already occupied (by other census visitors?) so that the baby was placed in the most comfortable remaining area, a manger on the living-room floor. This might have been a different house than the one in which the magicians arrived.
The gifts brought into this house were gifts of a king. Gold then as now the symbol of ultimate value, and exotic spices which would not normally come within the budget of an ordinary Jewish family. Frankincense (which came from Southern Arabia and Somalia) was an expensive perfume, and was burned not only in worship but at important social occasions; for its non-religious use (with myrrh) see Song 3:6; 4:6, 14; cf. Sir 24:15. Myrrh was primarily used as a luxurious cosmetic fragrance (Esth 2:12; Ps 45:8; Prov 7:17; Song 1:13; 5:1,5). Commentators from Origen have found symbolic significance in these gifts: gold for a king, frankincense for Jesus’s divinity, and myrrh for death.
Verse 12 speaks of the dream which warns the magi’s not to return to Herod. The word “warned” (χρηματισθέντες) is also used for divine messages, see Luke 2:26; Acts 10:22; Heb 8:5; 11:7; 12:25. Dreams are mentioned often by Matthew (Mt. 1:20; 2:12, 13, 19, 22). Perhaps they took the trade route through Judah’s wilderness back, in the direction of the Dead Sea. The story of the magicians is remarkable and fits Matthew. Matthew 11:25–27 explains God’s initiative in drawing people to him in faith, and Matt. 11:28–29 supplies Jesus’s invitation to follow example of the magi. God’s work is mysterious and He draws the most unlikely people to Himself.

Verse 13-15a Joseph’s Second Dream and Obedience

Joseph has been given three dreams concerning Herod, covering the first and second chapter of Matthew:

Dream: Joseph should marry Mary and name the child Jesus (1:18–25)

Treachery: Herod enlists magi to find Jesus (2:1–12)

Dream: Joseph should take Jesus and Mary to Egypt (2:13–15)

Treachery: Herod murders the male infants of Bethlehem (2:16–18)

Dream: Joseph should return to Israel (2:19–23)

The magi have withdrawn (ἀναχωρησάντων) the coming of the angel is announced with the historical present φαίνεται, which might indicate that the appearance coincides with the magi’s withdrawal. The angel tells Joseph to take his wife and child to Egypt, for Herod is plotting Jesus’ murder. Matthew mentions “the child” before “his mother,” like also in Mt. 2:14, 20, 21. Egypt counted many exiled Jews, primarily in Alexandria. There was a substitute temple for those who had sought asylum in Egypt. Herod had no jurisdiction there. Joseph obeys immediately and leaves in the night, though traveling at night was dangerous. It was a travel of at least 150 miles, about a week’s journey.
Matthew quotes the prophesy of Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” God’s purpose of the prophetic message is fulfilled. Matthew directly quotes the MT, and the LXX reads slightly different, using the compound aorist verb μετεκάλεσα (recall/call back) while Matthew uses ἐκάλεσα (call). The LXX reads that God summoned “his children” (τὰ τέκνα αὐτοῦ), not “my son” (τὸν υἱόν μου) from Egypt. Another connection to the exodus from Egypt. The exodus demonstrated Israel’s unique status as God’s firstborn son. What was true of Israel on a metaphorical level is more profoundly true of Jesus the Messiah. In the Hebrew Bible the nation is the son of God (Exod. 4:22–23; Jer. 31:9, 20; Hos. 1:10), and the Davidic kings are sons of God (2 Sam. 7:14–15; Pss. 2:6–7, 12; 72:1; 89:26–37). God’s special love and covenant loyalty are promised to both the nation and the kings. Both Hosea and Matthew believed that God’s true people would turn to God and God’s Davidic king in the last days (Hos. 3:5; Matt. 1:21). Hosea 11:1 is not a prediction of Jesus but is part of an emotional appeal for Israel to turn from apostasy to its loving God.

Verse 16-18 The End of Herod

The end of Herod’s life is marked by obsession to defend his throne. Herod’s ruthless decision to murder all the young boys of Bethlehem showed a fury against God (Ps. 2; Acts 4:24-28). Matthew mentions again a prophesy which is fulfilled, namely Jeremiah 31:15, with some minor differences to the original text. Only the first four and last three words agree with the LXX.

First, he uses τότε (then), instead of ἵνα (in order that). Turner believes that this might be for the implication that God’s purpose was fulfilled by the atrocity.

Second, Matthew omits the phrase “by the Lord,” which appeared in Mt. 1:22; 2:15; he thereby makes the divine origin of the text less explicit here.

Third, Matthew mentions here for the first time the name of the prophet he is citing. Jeremiah is named only by Matthew in the NT (Mt. 2:17; 16:14; 27:9).

The use of Ramah is original. In the OT, it was in Ramah that the exiles were gathered for the march to Babylon in 586 B.C. (Jer. 40:1). Further in the prophesy Jeremiah speaks of Rachel to stop lamenting for her children will return. Though not mentioning this, there might have been a hope in Matthew that the tragedy will be turned for good, somehow (further reading, read France).

Verse 19-23 Return to Nazareth

Matthew tells on with the same word construction as verse 13, using the participle ἰδού which announces an unexpected development. An angel comes again; Joseph needs to return γάρ (for) Herod had died (a horrible death). They do not return to hostile Jerusalem, and Bethlehem is too close, so Joseph moves to Galilee in the north (v22), and Jesus became “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah from Bethlehem.
Herod’s sons were now rulers over the territory. Archelaus rules Judea now, reigning over Judea, Samaria and Idumea. Antipas was to rule Galilee and Perea, and Philip received Iturea and Trachonitis (Luke 3:1). Joseph is warned against Archelaus, a ruthless man who was banished to Gaul around 6 C.E. The fear of Joseph and the plan of God go hand in hand.
They move to Nazareth (Ναζαρέτ), a town of approximately 500 people in the beginning of the first century. It sat on the northern rim of the Megiddo valley just south of the thriving city of Sepphoris. Sepphoris was a Hellenistic city that was built by Antipas as the capital of Galilee. Luke had written that Joseph and Mary had lived in Nazareth before (Luke 1:26-27), but Matthew does not mention this, only mentioning that it was the fulfillment of the prophesies of old. “Galilee of the Gentiles” (4:15) is important in Matthews writings. From there, the disciples are sent to all the nations (Mt. 28:7, 16).
The fulfillment of the prophesies is very important to Matthew. They moved to Nazareth so that/in order that (conjunction ὅπως) there would be a fulfillment through the prophets (διὰ τῶν προφητῶν), saying (λεγόντων) “He will be called a Nazarene (Ναζωραῖος).” A Nazarene is a wordplay for someone who was totally dedicated to God by ascetic practices (Num. 6:2, 13, 18-21; Judg. 13:5, 7; etc). Jesus was, just like John, living an ascetic lifestyle. Another link is the reference to the Messiah as a “branch” (נֵצֶר) from Jesse’s roots as mentioned in Isaiah 11:1. Matthew connects the sound of the place name Nazareth with the messianic term נֵצֶר, which fits into Matthew’s Davidic stress. So there are several possible wordplays that are a part of Jesus’ identity as Nazarene.