• The BaptistWay lesson for Dec. 6 focuses on Matthew 1:18-2:12.
This is the first lesson discussing the Gospel of Matthew. Before treating the specific passage, some introductory comments about the book are necessary. First, the Gospel is written in the latter portion of the first century (80-90 A.D.).
Many scholars identify a Jewish audience for the text due to the Jewish themes prominent within its recounting of Jesus’ life. For instance, Matthew strongly highlights Jesus is the promised Messiah of the Old Testament (v. 16), and he fulfills the Old Testament. Moreover, the Gospel is divided into five sections, just like the Pentateuch. Joined with numerous thematic elements, it becomes clear Matthew aims to depict Jesus as the new Moses for God’s people.
A missing manger
Turning to the opening chapters of the Gospel, we expect to find a story of the birth of Jesus. We do find something along these lines, but not one that matches our nativity scenes. In Matthew’s Gospel, there is no mention of a manger, a packed-out inn or a stable full of livestock birth witnesses. Instead, we find attention given to Mary’s unexpected pregnancy—at least as far as Joseph was concerned.
Joseph, who is described as “faithful to the law,” displays the compassion of this law by seeking to “divorce her quietly” rather than subject her to public ridicule (v. 19). But then, the first of several communications from God via dreams occur, prompting Joseph to abandon his earlier plan and move forward with his marriage to Mary. He is told, regarding Mary’s pregnancy, “what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (v. 20). The actual birth itself, however, is narrated rather quickly. What we find in 1:24-25 simply mentions the child is born, and Joseph follows the angel’s instructions.
Matthew’s Gospel gives two names to Jesus, and together they speak of his goal and the power of his presence. The first, his more well-known name, is related to the Hebrew name Joshua and means “Yahweh saves.” In his dream, the angel tells Joseph this child “will save his people from their sins” (v. 21). This name foreshadows Jesus’ ultimate role in the story, yet more is at stake here. It is significant Joseph is the one who names Jesus (v. 25).
The opening genealogy only stated Joseph was husband of the mother of Jesus (v. 16). The reader is left wondering whether Jesus is Joseph’s son—adopted or otherwise. As David Garland notes, Matthew’s discussion of Jesus being named by Joseph indicates Joseph accepts paternity of Jesus and sets his will in line with God’s plan already in motion.
Deeper theolgical claims
The child’s other name is not one used by any characters in the story. Instead, it serves to make a deeper theological claim about him. Matthew notes Jesus’ arrival fulfills what the prophet Isaiah said in Isaiah 7:14—this miraculous child will be called Immanuel, meaning “God with us.” For Matthew, Jesus’ identity as the God who lives and walks with us will continue throughout the Gospel and even appear again at the conclusion of the text. For now, it is significant to note Matthew sees Jesus as the God intimately present in the world.
While most of the nativity scene is absent from Matthew’s story, his is the only Gospel where we find magi, sometimes called “wise men” or “kings.” While these commonly used expressions captivate our imaginations—even their number is not stated in the text—the word “magi” likely indicates some sort of astrologer, which is not surprising since these travelers from the East had a keen interest in the stars. The magi arrive in Jerusalem looking for the “born king of the Jews” (2:2). In short, the first heralds of God’s miraculous workings in the world are outsiders to the Jewish faith. These Gentile observers have recognized the Messiah’s birth through the cosmos and now come to present gifts and to worship him (vv. 2, 11).
Herod, the appointed king of the Jews, understandably is troubled by this news (v. 3). From historical records, we know Herod was ruthless in maintaining power, even to the point of killing his own family members if he feared they might usurp his position. From Matthew’s telling of this story, Herod may have something similar in mind. After discovering from the chief priests and teachers the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem—a small town removed from the power grabbing of Jerusalem—Herod asks the magi to report back to him when they find the newborn king. However, our second instance of an angelic dream shifts our travelers’ route so Herod never discovers the specific details about Jesus’ whereabouts (v. 12).
Left in the middle of the story
Even though the passage for this lesson ends at verse 12, we are left in the middle of the story. That is, one loose end needs to be tied up—Herod and his intentions regarding Jesus. Twice more, an angel of the Lord instructs Joseph in a dream (vv. 13, 19), this time he is to move his family in order to avoid the plans of the reigning king of the Jews. Herod, in an attempt to eliminate this newborn king who stands as a rival, “gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were 2 years old and under” (v. 16). Joseph and his family, however, have fled to Egypt.
The suffering of this moment is palpable, and Matthew describes it by invoking the mournful cries of Rachel weeping for her children (v. 18). Joseph, Mary and Jesus only return to Palestine after Herod’s death, and even then steer clear of Jerusalem by living in Nazareth (v. 23). However, even this event places Jesus alongside Moses, who himself escaped an infanticide of horrific proportions (Exodus 2:1-10).