The first two chapters of Matthew stand apart from the rest of the gospel in terms of both content and style. These opening chapters narrate a few of the circumstances around the birth of Jesus. They are characterized by a strong connection to the Old Testament as exhibited by the opening genealogy and the five-fold quotation formula followed by an Old Testament verse. The rest of Matthew takes place approximately thirty years later. The content focuses on the ministry, teaching, and passion of Jesus. The Old Testament connection is still there, but it is not as prominent as in the first two chapters.
The outline of these first two chapters is simple. Chapter 1 consists of two sections: verses 1-17 contain the genealogy of Jesus; verses 18-25 speak of Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit and acceptance by Joseph. Chapter 2 also has two sections: verses 1-12 describe the Magi’s search for the King of the Jews; verses 13-23 contain the report of the early childhood journeys of Jesus as his parents sought safety.
Jesus’ Genealogy - Matthew 1:1-17
The opening words of Matthew are literally, "The book of the genesis of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham." The expression, "The book of the genesis," comes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint) in Genesis 2:4 and 5:1. It may be entirely correct to translate the phrase, "the history of the origin." However, it is more important to recognize that Matthew deliberately chose a phrase that would immediately connect his readers’ minds to the Old Testament and especially to the opening book of the Old Testament, Genesis.
A comparison of this genealogy with that found in Luke 3:23-38 reveals a number of differences. The two gospel writers constructed their genealogies for different purposes. Neither of the genealogies contains the names of every ancestor of Jesus. Both writers picked and chose names to make the points they wanted to make. Several points are clear from Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.
First, Matthew states that his genealogy is constructed so there will be fourteen generations in the three major intervals of Israelite history. The fact that these three intervals were of significantly different lengths of time also tells us that Matthew selected the fourteen names he wanted for each section. Though many suggestions have been made, there is no definite answer to question of why Matthew selected fourteen.
Second, it is clear that David and Abraham are the most important figures mentioned in this genealogy. It is true that Abraham was considered the "father" of the Jewish people and that David was the greatest king in the memory of Israelite history. However, there is a more important reason for highlighting these two Old Testament heroes. Both were recipients of significant promises that shaped Jewish identity. To Abraham God had promised the land of Palestine, innumerable descendants, and that they would become a blessing to all nations (Genesis 12:2-3; 13:14-17 give the first statements of these promises). To David God had promised that his descendants would rule as kings forever in Israelite history (2 Samuel 7:12-16).
The Babylonian Exile had called these promises of God into serious question. The house of David no longer ruled. The land was lost. Jews regained occupancy, but not ownership of the land following the Babylonian Exile. They eagerly awaited the coming of the Messiah who bring back into reality the promises made to Abraham and David. And Matthew introduces this genealogy of Jesus as the "genesis" of Jesus the Messiah, son of David, son of Abraham.
There are four points at which Matthew’s genealogy breaks away from the normal pattern of Old Testament genealogies. First, when a genealogy is constructed forward in history (X became the father of Y), as this one is, it begins with the ancestral father. The person whose genealogy it is is not mentioned until last. However, Matthew mentions Jesus first in verse 1. This indicates his faith that Jesus is superior to Abraham and David and is the fulfillment of the promises made to them.
Second, the mention of Judah and his brothers in verse 2 and Jechoniah and his brothers in verse 11 is unusual. It appears that this is Matthew’s way of including all Israel in the genealogy. Judah and his brothers appear at the beginning of the first group of fourteen. Jechoniah and his brothers appear at the end of the second group of fourteen. No mention of "brothers" is made in the third and final group of fourteen. This must indicate that either Jesus himself will embody all Israel or that the disciples will become the new corporate expression of Israel.
The third unusual feature is the mention of four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah (Bathsheba). Not only is it unusual to mention women in a Jewish genealogy, these women were either Gentiles or first married to a Gentile. Further, Tamar posed as a prostitute to trap her father-in-law, Judah, into fathering children for her. Rahab was a prostitute, and the wife of Uriah was an adulteress. It would be unfair to say that these women were mentioned just to show that Christ came to save sinners. Judah and David are also mentioned and they were equally guilty or more so.
Rather, the point is two-fold. The Gentile background of these women shows the gospel to be universal. Also, they are examples of tenacious faith, the kind of faith that will be necessary to follow Christ. It is also probable that these four women are mentioned to prepare the readers for the introduction of the fifth woman, Mary.
The final break from the typical pattern of Jewish genealogies is the introduction of Joseph as the husband of Mary. Normally Mary would have been described as the wife of Joseph. Matthew also changes to the passive voice for his verb in verse 16. After all the active voices (X begat Y) in verses 2-15 he now states that it was from Mary that Jesus was begotten. Clearly Jesus’ birth was something very unusual. Though Mary was not a Gentile, she was pregnant before she was married to her husband Joseph. Matthew will carefully explain how this came about in the next section. However, the way God used Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba should remind the reader to not immediately reject Mary and what God was doing through her for his people.
The Miracle of Jesus - Matthew 1:18-25
This section of Matthew is often called the birth of Jesus. However, it is not about Christ’s birth but rather is about his conception and the survival of his parent’s marriage. The shift in verse 16 from the active voice to the passive voice (was begotten) meant that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus. Since he was not Jesus’ biological father why did Matthew spend so much time tracing his lineage through Joseph? Verses 18-25 are designed to answer these questions.
Verse 18 usually is translated, "Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place like this." However, the Greek text does not use the word "birth" but the word "genesis," as was the case in verse 1. Though it may be easy to think of Jesus’ beginning as his birth, the contemporary debates about when life begins should have sensitized us to Matthew’s idea that Jesus’ conception was his beginning.
Verse 18 also describes Mary as engaged or betrothed to Joseph. In the Jewish culture of that time, the process of engagement and marriage was quite different from that practiced in modern Western society. Marriages were arranged by parents for people while they were still children. The agreement of the parents meant that children knew whom they would marry when they grew up. In the early teen years, about a year to a year and a half before the wedding, the parents’ agreement was formalized by a betrothal. This was not a trial period for the relationship - the couple rarely spoke with each other and were generally kept apart. At the end of the betrothal period, a wedding ceremony and feast took place over a period of about a week. At that point the couple began to live together as husband and wife.
The betrothal was a pre-marriage marriage. The death of one of the partners caused the other to be labeled as a widow or widower. Sexual infidelity was considered adultery. Thus when verse 18 continued to say that Mary was "found" to be pregnant, Joseph had every reason to respond as to a case of adultery.
It has been widely claimed in sermons and Bible classes that Joseph could have had Mary stoned on the basis of Old Testament Law. While the Old Testament provided the death penalty for adultery, it was no longer used by Jesus’ time for cases of what we would call pre-marital infidelity. Rather the divorce laws of the Old Testament (see Deuteronomy 24:1ff) were applied, as verse 19 shows. The question Joseph faced was whether to proceed with a public trial to determine whether she had been seduced, raped, or had prostituted herself (Deuteronomy 22:13-25). This would have saved him the bride price he would otherwise have to pay. Or he could seek a private divorce.
Matthew describes Joseph as a "just" or "righteous man. The most natural meaning of that term is that he was a law-abiding person. Even a private divorce would have required two witnesses. Joseph’s conflict was how much public disgrace he would force Mary to suffer. Though Matthew had named the Holy Spirit as the agent of conception in verse 18, this fact was not revealed to Joseph until verse 20.
The debates over the historicity of the virgin birth during the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversies have led many to conclude that Matthew was arguing the truth of the virgin birth in this passage. Actually, he does not argue the case. He simply states it and assumes it to be true. Even the terminology of virgin birth is beside the point. It is the virgin conception of Jesus that both Matthew and Luke affirm. Matthew’s concern in this passage is to explain to us how Jesus came to have Joseph’s lineage for his genealogy. The climax to which this paragraph points is the naming of Jesus. By naming Jesus Joseph claims him for his own, and his (Joseph’s) lineage becomes Jesus’ also.
Joseph’s thinking regarding the divorce was interrupted by an angel of the Lord who appeared to him in a dream. Matthew gives none of the dramatic trapping of the angelology that had become common in Judaism at that time. Rather, he describes the angelic visit and message in the restrained pattern of the Old Testament appearances of angels who communicated God’s will to the patriarchs (Genesis 16:7ff 22:11ff; 31:11ff). Both the Hebrew and the Greek word for "angel" had the basic meaning of "messenger." That was the function of this angel - to deliver a message from God to Joseph.
The message from God had five points. First, Joseph was not to be afraid to proceed with his marriage to Mary. Second, her pregnancy was the product of the Holy Spirit, not of infidelity. Third, the unborn child would be a son. Fourth, Joseph was to name him Jesus. The act of naming him would be an act of acknowledging the child to be his own. It would be an adoption of Jesus to provide him a name, a lineage, and a place of honor in that society. Fifth, the child would save his people from their sins.
The name "Jesus" is the English form of a Greek name normally used for males whose Hebrew name was Yeshua (which comes into English as Joshua). The Hebrew roots meant "Yahweh will save," and thus the name "Jesus" spoke of the saving work this child would provide.
Verse 23 introduces the name Emmanuel to the narrative. As the text points out this Hebrew word meant God is with us. Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah 7:14 in verse 23 has been the occasion of much discussion also. The Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 speaks of a young woman having a child (see Isaiah 7:14 Translation Issues). Isaiah’s point is that in less than nine months the enemies King Ahaz feared would be out of the picture. Virginity is no issue in Isaiah.
However, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, used the Greek word for virgin when it translated Isaiah 7:14. Matthew chose to quote from the Greek translation because it accomplished two purposes for him. First, it did support the virgin conception narrative he was conveying better than the Hebrew would have. Secondly, and more importantly for Matthew, it allowed him to translate "Emmanuel" into "God with us." The idea that God is present with us in the person of Jesus was an important idea for Matthew, as the final words of his gospel (Matthew 28:19-20) show (Immanuel in Isaiah and Matthew).
The angel’s message was effective. Joseph proceeded to follow through on all the instructions he had received. The paragraph concludes with Joseph naming the child Jesus at his birth, as the angel had directed him.
The Visit of the Magi - Matthew 2:1-12
Matthew 2:1 dates Jesus’ birth during the reign of Herod the Great. Historical evidence places the death of Herod in 4 B.C. Matthew 2 implies that the magi arrived in Bethlehem some while after Jesus was born. The fact that Herod had all the male children two years of age and under killed has often been taken as evidence that Jesus’ birth must have been at least 2 years prior to Herod’s death. That view is based on the assumption that Jesus was born at the same time the star appeared to the Magi. It may or may not have been the case. Nevertheless it is unlikely that Jesus was born earlier than 7 B.C. or later than 4 B.C. The gap between this date and "0" on the time line is the product of faulty information about the dating system used in the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus’ birth.
The term "Magi" is a transliteration from Greek letters to English letters of the original Greek word Matthew used. The word referred to magicians and astrologers. It is possible that it came into Greek from Persia where it referred to the priestly caste. The awareness of the stars that the magi had suggests that they were astrologers. In the ancient world, however, astrologers were not the superstitious producers of newspaper horoscopes. They were the closest things the ancient East had to scientists. Assuming a unity of purpose in the divine control of history and the stars they sought to understand the relationship of human history and movements of the stars. The popular description of these men as wise men is not completely wrong.
Modern speculation about the star has taken three major directions. First, it has been suggested to have been a comet, usually Halley’s comet. Halley’s comet would have appeared in 12 or 11 B.C. and thus it is too early to be the likely explanation.
Second, many have suggested that the star was actually a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. Astronomers are able to determine that there was a conjunction of the two planets in the constellation Pisces in 7 BC. Since Jupiter was the planet of royalty, Saturn the planet of Palestine, and Pisces the sign of the last days, astrologers could easily interpret this conjunction as indication of the appearance of the end-time king of the Jews.
A third conjecture has been that the star was the explosion of a nova or supernova. While some such astronomical phenomenon may have been the light seen by the magi, Matthew understood it as a sign from God miraculously directing the magi to Jerusalem. He would have thought of it in terms of Numbers 24:17 where the prophet Balaam spoke of a star rising out of Jacob.
The message that the king of the Jews had been born led the magi to logically travel to Jerusalem. Herod’s emotional response was typical of what ancient history reveals about him. He had three of his own sons killed because of his paranoid fear that they were plotting to take over his throne. That all Jerusalem would have been as upset as Herod is less understandable. We might have expected rejoicing at the news that Herod’s days were numbered. However, when a tyrannical king is upset, even his subjects who hate him have reason to be worried.
That Herod would have consulted with the chief priests and scribes is also surprising, but the wily old monarch was cunning. It is not surprising that the Jewish religious leaders reported to Herod that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. John 7:41-42 suggests that even the crowds, untrained in biblical studies, knew that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
Matthew paraphrases the quotation from Micah 5:2 fairly freely. The Hebrew text of Micah 5:2 depreciates Bethlehem. Matthew turns it around to heighten respect for Bethlehem by his phrase, "by no means the least." He also enlarges the reference to a shepherd by adding words from 2 Samuel 5:2 which were originally spoken of David. Because he believed that one greater than David had been born in David’s city, Matthew adapts his quotation to show Jesus in an exalted way.
The magi do not need the instructions of Herod, the priests, and the scribes. The star reappears to lead them to the place where Jesus would be found. The key concept in verses 9-12 is worship. The picture of the magi worshipping Jesus came to be seen as fulfillment of such scriptures as Psalm 72:10ff and Isaiah 60:1ff.
Gold and frankincense are mentioned in Psalm 72:15 and Isaiah 60:6. The association with these passages led to the popular ascription of the title "kings" to the magi. Psalm 45:8 and Song of Solomon 3:6 show that myrrh was also seen as a gift fit for a king. Modern Christians note the use of myrrh at the crucifixion (Mark 15:23) and burial (John 19:39) of Jesus and associate it with his suffering and death. However, the Old Testament saw it as a symbol of joy and celebration. After the scene of worship Matthew quietly notes that the angel of the Lord warned the magi to return to their own country without communicating the child’s whereabouts to Herod.
To Egypt and Home - Matthew 2:13-23
The final section of the birth narrative in Matthew consists of a series of three brief vignettes taking Jesus to Egypt and then to Nazareth. Each is anchored by a quotation from the Old Testament.
The first narrative describes the angelic revelation that the new family should flee to Egypt. The paragraph concludes in verse 15 by portraying the flight to Egypt as the fulfillment of Hosea 11:1. Though skeptics have claimed that this is Matthew at his proof-texting worst, the citation reveals a profound theological understanding of Jesus. Hosea 11:1 originally referred to God’s bringing of the children of Israel out of Egypt. Through this citation Matthew expresses a common conviction of the early church - that Jesus represented all Israel and summed up in himself the promises of God to Israel. The quotation also introduces a Moses motif that Matthew will develop throughout the gospel.
The second vignette, verses 16-18, confirms the wisdom of the flight to Egypt. It describes Herod’s rage at being deceived by the magi when they failed to report to him. In a fashion very typical of Herod, he ordered the slaughter of all the male children two years old and under in the area of Bethlehem. Though such savagery is shocking to us, it is not likely that as many were killed in this incident as in several other incidents in Herod’s brutal reign.
Verse 18 then quotes from Jeremiah 31:15, though the introductory formula is different here. Matthew is not claiming that Herod’s slaughtering the infants happened on purpose to fulfill scripture. Rather, the result of the killing was a fuller meaning for Jeremiah 31:15.
Finally, Matthew 2:19-23 narrates the return of Jesus to Judea and then the move to Nazareth in Galilee. Verse 23 sees the move to Nazareth as fulfillment of scripture, but the quotation formula is quite vague. Perhaps this vagueness is because we can find no scripture that describes the Messiah as coming from Nazareth. Several explanations have been suggested based on similar words in Hebrew (see Nazareth and the Branch). Regardless of the explanation, Matthew is sure that Jesus fulfills all the hopes of Scripture. And he is right.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day, ask the Lord to help you understand the Scriptures and to apply their meaning to your own heart and life.
First Day: Read the notes on Matthew 1:1-2:23. Look up the Scripture references given.
Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Why are they important?
Is there a spiritual truth in Matthew 1-2 that is especially significant for you? Jot it down and explain why it is important for you.
Write a brief prayer asking God to help you worship Christ as truly as the Magi did.
Second Day: Read Matthew 3:1-17. Now focus on Matthew 3:1-12.
Summarize the message of John the Baptist in your own words. What two or three things does he want his listeners to do?
Verse 3 quotes from Isaiah 40:3. Read Isaiah 40:1-11. What themes that seem to apply to Jesus do you find in this passage from Isaiah?
Verses 11-12 speak of purification and the judgment of God. What areas of your life need to be purified before you would like to face God's judgment? Ask the Lord to transform you in these areas.
Third Day: Read Matthew 3:1-17. Focus in on Matthew 3:13-17.
Why do you think John was reluctant to baptize Jesus? How do 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Hebrews 4:15 contribute to an answer to this question?
Do you think John should have baptized Jesus" Why? Or why not? What do you think Jesus means when he speaks of fulfilling "all righteousness" by means of being baptized? Does Jesus' baptism have any significance for the question of believers being baptized? If so, how?
The voice form heaven seems to use the words of Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 41:1. read Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42:1-9. What other phrases in those passages remind you of Jesus? Why?
Fourth Day: Read Matthew 3:13-4:17. Focus your attention on Matthew 4:1-11.
Why do you think Matthew narrated the story of Jesus' baptism and the story of his temptation back to back? What title for Jesus unites these stories? How does that title suggest an application for us?
Verse 4 quotes from Deuteronomy 8:3. Read Deuteronomy 8. What instructions does that passage have that would help you in the midst of temptation?
Verses 7 and 10 quote form Deuteronomy 6:16 and 13. All of Jesus' responses to Satan came in the words of Scripture quotations. Write a brief statements about how you believe Scripture can help us become victorious over temptation.
Fifth Day: Read Matthew 4:1-25. Now focus in on Matthew 4:12-17.
Matthew explains Jesus' ministry in Galilee by quoting Isaiah 9:1-2. Read Isaiah 9:1-7. What other references that describe Jesus or his ministry do you find there.
What is the event that seemed to trigger Jesus' movement to Galilee and the beginning of his ministry? Are you aware of other times when bad news or a crisis led to God beginning a new work? Why do you think this might be a pattern for God?
How does Jesus' message in Matthew 4:17 compare with the message of John the Baptist mentioned in Matthew 3:2? What is different about Jesus from John? Why is that important?
Sixth Day: Read Matthew 4:1-25. Now focus on Matthew 4:18-25.
What is the call of Jesus upon Peter and Andrew? To what degree do you think their call is also our calling? Why?
What is the three-part picture of Jesus’ ministry that Matthew gives in verse 23? In what ways does the church continue these three ministries? Do we need to do more than these three? Why or why not?
What is the response to Jesus that these focus verses describe? How do you respond to Christ and to his call upon your life? Write a brief prayer telling him how you respond to him and to his call.