Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Matthew 2:1-12
Matthew begins and ends his Gospel with the world-wide mission of Jesus Christ. The story of the wise men tells us that even Gentiles could “see the signs” pointing to Jesus, but the Jews who should have known better showed no interest in their new King.
Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and falling to their knees, they worshiped him. Matthew 2:11
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website. We are covering this passage as the Christmas lesson in 2021.]
Our Context in Matthew
This lesson is very straightforward, and I don’t think you’ll have any trouble understanding the point (we must worship Jesus)! However, behind the scenes are lots and lots of debates. We have a favorite set of characters that have spawned their own mythos, most of which is made up. We also have a primary target for Bible nay-sayers who think it’s pretty much all been made up. Most of what I give you in this handout is historical background and the best summary I can of what people argue about in here. If it helps you understand or appreciate our Bible, great! If it prepares you for non-Christian attacks on our Bible, great!
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Lifeway recommends talking about amazing things you’ve seen in the sky. The obvious connection is with the “star of Bethlehem.” I’m all for that if your group will connect with it!
Best Laid Plans . . .
In the “More Ideas” section, Lifeway says that our best laid plans (in this case, that of Herod) often fail and suggests recounting some of our biggest failed plans and what went wrong. That could be fun, too! Doesn’t every Scooby-doo episode end with “and I would have gotten away with it, too . . .”?
Here’s my suggestion (because we really only go through this once a year): bring in a nativity display. They’re all different, but my guess is that you will have Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, an angel, some sheep and a donkey, some shepherds, and a few men dressed up real fancy. Say, “Sometimes we learn our Bible from places other than the Bible. What can you tell me about the "three kings"?” My guess is that you’ll hear all sorts of things about them, including some people who say that we don’t know any of that for sure. Say that it’s okay to speculate about details the Bible doesn’t tell us, just so long as we remember the difference between what the Bible told us and what we made up for ourselves! In other words, if we start arguing about how many magi there were, or if they were kings, or what their names were, we’ve lost our way! The Bible doesn’t say! But if we use our imagination to help us put ourselves into this amazing story, I think that’s okay too.
This Week's Big Idea: Herod the Great’s Family “Tree” and Christianity
One of my favorite lessons I taught in Western Civ was on Herod the Great as an object lesson on the dysfunction of the Roman Republic (which is why it dissolved into an Empire) and an explanation of why the Jewish leaders acted so strangely about certain things. So, here’s a little historical soap opera for you . . .
Background. You might remember that during the time between the Testaments, Jews rebelled against Greek rule and achieved independence (the Hasmonean dynasty, descended from the Maccabees; 166-63 BC). Over time, through political intrigue, power-hungry individuals managed to get appointed governors of different Jewish regions, including a man named Antipater. Antipater and his son, Antipater II, became major power brokers in the region of Judea between 70-40 BC.
Weeeellllllll, during this time, the Roman Republic was unraveling. Two rival generals/consuls, Marius and Sulla, literally fought over control of the Roman Senate in the 80s, and when Marius suddenly died, Sulla appointed himself dictator and used the military to put down all rivals and rebels. One general, Pompey, crushed opposition to Sulla in Spain, North Africa, and the Near East in the 70s and 60s, conquering Jerusalem in 63 BC. He formed an alliance (The Great Triumvirate) with two other successful leaders, Julius Caesar and Crassus, and took control of the Senate in 59. Eventually, Pompey got jealous of Caesar and the two fought, Caesar winning and being appointed dictator in 46 BC, then being assassinated in 44. Caesar’s protégé, Octavian, formed a second Triumvirate with Mark Antony and Lepidus to avenge Caesar’s death, defeating Caesar’s murderers at the Battle of Philippi in 43 BC. Then, as you might expect, Octavian and Mark Antony (with Cleopatra) got jealous of one another and fought, Octavian winning and essentially appointing himself Augustus Caesar, the first Roman Emperor in 27 BC.
That’s a lot of names and dates. What’s the point? It’s simple: power is shifting at the highest levels quickly and dramatically. When someone comes into power through war, he appoints friends to positions of leadership regardless of qualification because he’s more worried about self-preservation than anything else. That’s exactly how Herod’s family came to power in Judea.
Antipater II backed Pompey and Caesar, which got him killed in 43. His son, Herod, happened to be friends with Caesar’s protégé, Octavian, which earned him appointment as “King of the Jews” in 40 BC. This is the “Herod the Great” of Matthew 2. Shockingly, Herod backed Mark Antony due to Antony’s proximity in Egypt, but earned a pardon from Octavian (Augustus) and was reconfirmed as King of the Jews. Why did that happen? Not because Octavian really liked him, but because Herod was a master conniver and Octavian needed someone to keep the traditionally unstable region of Judea under control. And that’s exactly what Herod did. He was an architectural genius, most noted for building a new Temple of Jerusalem according to his own design. He had a complicated relationship with the Jews. He practiced Judaism, but he was an Edomite. The people liked his massive buildings because they employed lots of Jews and gave great prestige, but at the cost of massive taxes. He was a paranoid megalomaniac. On the family tree to the left (which includes where we find the people mentioned in the Bible), the boxes represent family members Herod had killed. Even Augustus Caesar famously said, “It would be safer to be one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons.” It was he who ordered the death of baby boys in Bethlehem after the arrival of the Magi.
(Aside on dates. Most historians put Herod’s death in 4 BC, which is why many scholars say that Jesus was born in 6 or 5 BC.)
In his will, Herod ordered that his kingdom be divided between his three surviving sons, Herod Archelaus (Mt 2:22), Herod Philip (Luke 3:1), and Herod Antipas. They were not called “kings” but “tetrarchs.” Herod Antipas was the Herod of the Gospels; he reigned in Jerusalem from 4 BC—33 AD. He was just as paranoid as his father, and also just as egotistical, currying favor with Rome through massive building projects (most notably Caesarea Philippi). He had John the Baptist killed (Matt 14) and participated in Jesus’ mock trials (Luke 23).
But the story doesn’t end there! Herod’s cousin, Agrippa, had been taken to Rome at a young age as “collateral” for Herod the Great’s continued support. Agrippa befriended a Roman named Gaius Germanicus who eventually became the Emperor Caligula. As a result, when Agrippa accused Herod of treason, Caligula exiled Herod to Spain where he died and appointed Agrippa king of Judea. This is the King Agrippa who had James killed (Acts 12:1-4) and died an awful death for impersonating deity (Acts 12:20-23). The Emperor Nero later allowed Agrippa’s son, Agrippa II, to rule over a small portion of his father’s “kingdom.” This is the Agrippa who interviewed Paul in Acts 25-26. Phew!
Why did I give you so much information on this awful family? Because I think it helps us understand the New Testament. A madman (father then son) was ruling on behalf of the Romans in Jerusalem throughout Jesus’ entire life. The Jews walked on eggshells around him and were terrified of any possibility of an uprising because that would set him off. Jesus and His followers avoided Jerusalem partly for that same reason (although, as you might expect, the madman was fascinated with both Jesus and John, though that couldn’t stop him from having them both killed). In a nutshell, we have far less to complain about with our government today!
Bonus Big Idea: Bethlehem
Bethlehem was about 5 miles south of Jerusalem, kind of a “suburb” of the capital, insulated from the worst political intrigue, but still under careful “watch.” Bethlehem, which means “house of bread”, was Naomi’s home before she escaped famine to Moab, eventually returning with Ruth, who met and married Boaz in Bethlehem. That’s where David was born and raised (this, as Micah 5:2 makes clear, is another example of typology—David’s birthplace would become another’s).
Bethlehem was a small town, so it wouldn’t have had many inns and guest rooms, and it probably didn’t have any real accommodations for giving birth! The word Luke used for “inn” is the same as for the “upper room” in 22:11, literally a spare room designated for travelers—no privacy. Perhaps we should see the innkeeper as a hero who understood Mary’s needs? He had a cave/stable that would have been private and safe. We don’t know how long they were there. Joseph could have brought her early in her third trimester for all we know to escape insult! And they stayed there until after the Magi’s visit, possibly more than a year, so Joseph was able to find work there.
Part 1: The Search (Matthew 2:1-2)
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod, wise men from the east arrived unexpectedly in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”
I guess there’s a little bit of method to my madness. I’ve covered Bethlehem, wise men, a bunch on Herod, and an ending about following stars. About Herod—don’t be confused that Herod literally named everyone in his family “Herod”, so the Herod of Jesus’ trial is this guy’s son. And many other Roman officials in the New Testament are also related to this guy, but they go by their "middle" name.
About the wise men. They are literally “magi” (“magoi” plural). Whether they are connected with Daniel’s magi is uncertain. But they seemed to be here based on astronomical calculations. They were looking for a king, which is why they ended up in Jerusalem. History has turned them into kings themselves probably because the Old Testament says that kings will worship Jesus (Ps 68, Ps 72, Isa 60).
“In the east” can also mean “when it rose” (the sun “rises” in the east). The men certainly came from the east, but we don’t know exactly what they saw. We certainly don’t know that it was “super-bright” as the leader guide says! It was simply noteworthy. Johannes Kepler noted that there was a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in the constellation of Pisces (for some reason associated with Judaism) in 7 BC. That could have been it. Kepler himself thought it was a supernova.
Application. Let me throw this out there for you: these guys knew the Bible, and they cared about it enough to come and look for Jesus, but they didn’t know Jesus. And it turns out they were wrong in their expectations. How true is that of us today? We know just enough of the Bible to be dangerous? But at least the wise men acted on it. How many people today don’t care enough any more even to go to a Drive-Through Nativity or a Christmas Eve service?
Aside on the Magi
The Magi (wise men) are very popular figures in popular Christianity. They even have names: Balthasar (king of Arabia), Melchior (king of Persia), and Caspar (king of India)! The truth is that we really don’t know much about them. We don’t know how many there were (there are three gifts identified), and we don’t know their lineage (i.e. if they were kings or royalty of any kind).
In the 5th century BC, “magi” was used to describe a specific group of Persian priests of the Zoroastrian religion who disagreed with Zoroaster about the acceptability of sorcery (which is where we get “magic”) and the existence of only one god. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything about the magi of Matthew 2, though! We know that they studied the stars (see the back page) and that they came from the east. Babylon was a center of astrology, Persia was a center of Zoroastrianism, and Arabia was a major source for frankincense and myrrh, so all three of those locations have been suggested as origin points. But we just don’t know. Magi were known for embracing elements of all religions, which is likely how these guys knew anything about Judaism. They may have started out on their journey just out of curiosity, like King Agrippa or others who were interested in learning more about Jesus for the sake of knowledge, but it seems that they had a truly transforming encounter with Jesus. At the very least, they listened to God when He warned them not to go back to Herod. The Bible says nothing else about them, so we will have to wait for heaven to learn more. For my part, I hope to see them there.
Part 2: The Inquiry (Matthew 2:3-6)
When King Herod heard this, he was deeply disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. So he assembled all the chief priests and scribes of the people and asked them where the Messiah would be born. “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they told him, “because this is what was written by the prophet: And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah: because out of you will come a leader who will shepherd My people Israel.”
All Jerusalem was disturbed because Herod was a madman. They wanted him happy. But Herod knew he wasn’t of David’s line (he was half-Edomite) and any prospective king was a legitimate threat to his power. As I said, he had numerous of his own sons killed out of his paranoia. In fact, he had one son killed while he was on his deathbed! (For that matter, he ordered that a number of Jewish leaders also be killed while on his deathbed to make sure there would be mourning in the land.) He was cunning enough to know where to look for the answer to his question—a simple answer, really. But note that the Jews didn’t quote Micah 5:2 in its entirety! They left out the part about the Messiah being eternal. The word “leader” is the same root as “hegemony” which just means strong leadership. The point is that the Messiah will be a strong leader through shepherding (completely unlike Herod). God reinforced the association between good leadership and shepherding by choosing David, who had been a shepherd. God then made that kind of care and provision an expectation for all leaders of His people.
Application: How did the Jewish leaders miss this? In what ways do we miss God’s activity today? But the even bigger deal—why didn’t a single Jewish leader go to Bethlehem to investigate for himself? In what ways do we fail to put “feet” to what we claim to believe?
Part 3: The Plot (Matthew 2:7-8)
Then Herod secretly summoned the wise men and asked them the exact time the star appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you find Him, report back to me so that I too can go and worship Him.”
Obviously, Herod lied to the wise men. If he would kill his own sons out of paranoia, he would kill anyone. The lesson doesn’t go on to talk about the massacre of the innocents in 2:16, but that’s one reason why we don’t believe the wise men showed up at the birth scene, but rather perhaps a year or more later (Herod ordered all boys 2 and under killed). But the wise men knew better . . .
Application. I think Lifeway is on the right track with a “wolves in sheep’s clothing” view. Herod, the ultimate secular humanist, tried to show support for Jesus in order to manipulate Jesus to his own ends. Praise God the wise men weren’t fooled! This happens all the time in our day, and sadly we have been fooled . . . supporting self-proclaimed Christians who end up twisting Jesus’ words or (worse) offering compromises with Jesus’ enemies. How does this happen and how can we protect ourselves?
Aside: Skeptics and the Nativity Narratives
If you do much research on the Nativity, you will find many articles calling Matthew’s account myth and legend. Why is that and what do we do about it? To make a long story short, Luke’s account says that Mary and Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem to be circumcised at 8 days then went home to Nazareth. Matthew’s account says that they returned to Bethlehem where the Magi eventually found them being guided by a star, but then they fled to Egypt to escape Herod, then after all of that eventually returned to Nazareth. Skeptics say that Matthew made up all of these other details so as to create a supernatural flair to the birth and make some obscure connections between Jesus, Gentiles, and Egypt. After all, Augustus Caesar had a myth about a star heralding his birth, so why not Jesus too? Plus, some magi had visited Rome about Halley’s Comet in AD 66 (which is when they say Matthew wrote his Gospel), so Matthew simply and uncreatively copied that event. Indeed, neither Mark nor John mention Bethlehem at all (and people in John thought Jesus came from Nazareth), leading some to go so far as to say that Matthew and Luke completely made up the Bethlehem connection to make Jesus better fulfill Jewish prophecy.
So, how to we respond to these accusations? Not by disputing accepted historical facts, and certainly not by saying that one of the Gospel writers may have been mistaken in his timeline! I explain it the same way I explain all of the so-called “discrepancies” in the Gospels: differences of purpose. For Matthew, the parental emphasis is on Joseph (in deference to his Jewish audience). Joseph is the one told by God when to flee to Egypt and when to return. For Luke, the emphasis is on Mary. She is the one who ponders the words of the shepherds and Simeon in her heart, and she is the one distraught over the boy Jesus staying behind in the Temple. Their accounts are not mutually exclusive! Matthew simply reported one thing and Luke another. Arguing from silence, as the skeptics do, is usually a weak approach and certainly never conclusive.
Part 4: The Presentation (Matthew 2:9-12)
9 After hearing the king, they went on their way. And there it was—the star they had seen at its rising. It led them until it came and stopped above the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and falling to their knees, they worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their own country by another route.
I’ve run out of space. Bethlehem was not large—this entourage probably would have caused quite a commotion! And note that they entered a “house.” This could mean what David said in his sermon last Sunday, that Jesus was born in someone’s house where they kept their animals, or it could also mean (if it is a year or more later) that Joseph has built a house or rented a house for the time they lived in Bethlehem (probably keeping Mary from ridicule at her home). The wise men entered and “worshiped.” This word can mean “pay homage to” in the sense of a king rather than a god, but it is clear that Matthew included this episode as part of his global focus; he starts with Gentile connections with Jesus’ birth and ends with a worldwide Great Commission. While Christians have gone to great lengths to connect “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” with the roles and actions of Jesus (and I’m not saying God didn’t work it that way) we should see these gifts simply as the most expensive things the wise men had with them. They gave Jesus their very best. And this would be how a poor carpenter could afford to flee to Egypt for an extended period of time. God helped Joseph as only He could.
Closing Thoughts: Astrology and the Star of Bethlehem
Astrology is not astronomy. Astrology is studying the stars for the sake of finding answers to life’s questions through complicated interpretive methods. The magi studied the stars, which led them to Bethlehem to seek “the king of the Jews” and then to the very house where Jesus lived. How could that possibly work? It’s not like the stars are motionless in the sky, right? And the magi could have been traveling for months! Well, one common approach is to say that Matthew made it all up. Another common (and more conservative) approach, is to study references to major heavenly phenomena at the time and try to associate the appearance of something like a supernova or comet. Here’s what I say (for what it’s worth). These magi observed some spectacular event that God caused them to associate with their studies of Judaism. It doesn’t say they followed the star to Jerusalem, only that they went there (because where else would they go to seek the king of the Jews?). Then, when they left Jerusalem, the star aligned with Bethlehem, which they would have reached in a matter of hours. Now, how did the star “stop” over Jesus’ house? This is where the rotation of the earth fits into everything (at least, in my head) - they had been observing this phenomenon, and something like a supernova can appear in the sky for years. When they left Herod’s palace, it was following a path that intersected with theirs right at the house of Jesus. I also think that God injected a little supernatural clarification, whether that be a confirmation in their minds. [I've also heard someone suggest that an angel served in the role of "the star".] That’s not so important. What matters is that these guys “followed a star” to Jesus.