Matthew 2:1-8 WORTH THE WAIT

Consider why God chose this moment in human history for the incarnation. You may recall that Matthew mentions four people or people groups at the outset of the nativity story: Herod the Great, the Sadducees, the Pharisees (or rabbis), and the Magi. Each of them provides some insight into God’s timing of the incarnation.

In Herod the Great, we find a remarkable intersection of the ancient world’s most powerful cultures. His mother was the daughter of an Arab sheik. His father was an Edomite (one of the Canaanite peoples) from a family forcibly converted to Judaism several generations before by the Maccabees, when they defeated the remnants of Alexander the Great’s Greek empire. Herod’s father had backed Julius Caesar in Rome’s civil war and thus became a Roman citizen with the title of “procurator” (or epitropos, the same title held later by Pontius Pilate). Through a process involving royal intrigue and a Roman war against the Parthians (who controlled the former Mesopotamia) Herod eventually attained authority over the former land of Israel, and assumed the Greek title basileus, or sovereign, of the Jews. He expanded his power through a carefully nurtured relationship with Mark Anthony (a co-ruler of the Roman Empire) and Cleopatra (Queen of Egypt), and later, thru similar patronage from Caesar Augustus. So in this one man, Herod the Great, we find connections to the Canaanites and Arabs, and the ancient empires of Greece, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Rome. Herod symbolized a unique moment in history: not since the days of Solomon had the Jewish homeland been so connected with so much of the known world. For centuries, the Promised Land had been a cultural dead end, but Palestine at the birth of Jesus was a well traveled crossroads from which news and ideas could spread throughout the western world. Thus, one reason “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us” at this particular moment in human history is because it was uniquely possible for the gospel to travel from the lips of an itinerant Jewish rabbi to so many other peoples and lands.

Matthew’s “people’s chief priests” were probably Sadducees, as we saw last time. These were aristocratic temple priests, possibly ideological descendants of the Hasmoneans, who strictly adhered to the Mosaic sacrificial rituals and believed they alone practiced the religion of Moses as taught in the Torah. They rejected the “traditions” or oral Torah, which later became Rabbinic Judaism’s Talmud, and insisted that Jewish religious life be governed only by the written Hebrew Scriptures, or Tanakh. Unfortunately, they also aligned themselves more closely with Rome and Herod than any other mainstream Jewish group, and they may have used their authority to enforce such Mosaic teachings as “an eye for an eye” literally. For those reasons they were not well liked by the typical Jew on the street at the time of Jesus. On the other hand, the “teachers of the law” mentioned in Matthew, were probably the Pharisees, who interpreted the Torah in light of their traditions, often in ways that seemed (to the Sadducees and to Jesus at any rate) to contradict the Torah’s p’shat, or plain sense meaning. While the New Testament usually portrays Pharisees as highly legalistic, in fact they were probably more humane than the Sadducees in their interpretations of the Law, and were almost certainly better liked. The only other major Jewish sect at this time was the Essenes, famous for leaving us the Dead Sea Scrolls. They are not mentioned in the New Testament, probably because they cloistered themselves in isolated communes where their brand of Judaism played little or no role in the daily life of their Jewish neighbors. So whether through political compromise, through the addition of a large canon of “traditions,” or through withdrawal from the everyday life of neighboring Jews, each of the three main forms of Judaism extant at the nativity had moved far from the form of religion described in the books of Moses. It seems likely God also chose this moment for the incarnation because his chosen people’s dysfunctional spiritual condition provided a good illustration of humanity’s need for the gospel.

The magi Matthew mentions were probably citizens of the mighty Parthian Empire, a foe even the Romans were unable to conquer in spite of many wars and conflicts. Parthia was one of the strongest and largest civilizations outside the Roman world. Like Rome, it incorporated many people groups and former nations. Generally speaking, Rome controlled the west and Parthia dominated the east. The magi were most likely believers in Zoroastrianism, a religion so ancient it even predates Mosaic Judaism, as we learned last time. Like their Jewish neighbors, Zoroastrians believed in a coming messiah, and Zoroastrianism was a monotheistic religion. In fact, since it predated Moses it may be the world’s first monotheistic religion. We should not be surprised when we encounter other cultures and religions with ideas and traditions that closely parallel Biblical truths. Skeptics sometimes say this is evidence that the Bible borrowed existing “myths”, but the New Testament tells us all creation speaks the truth, and the Hebrew Scriptures agree that God has placed a seed of the eternal truth within the heart of every man. In view of this, we should expect to find parallels to God’s Word in every culture and religion. But the more removed a culture is from the one true God, the more deformed the seed of truth becomes. Compare, for example, the righteousness achieved by the cross, versus its horrible perversion in the human sacrifices of the Aztec religion. The Torah says justice for sinfulness requires the shedding of blood. This idea has been shared by most of the world’s cultures since the Bronze Age and before. Parallels between ancient Greco/Roman and Hebrew sacrifices are particularly telling. Both religious systems allowed for one form of blood sacrifice to be consumed by man and God together, while another kind of sacrifice was totally destroyed, or given to the divine. Although much closer to the Lord’s intention than the Aztecs, the Greco/Roman instincts were exactly backwards. They believed the offerings shared by gods and men signified fellowship, while the Torah requires mutual participation only in the case of atonement for sin. Even now, human intuition would seem to argue for the Greek perspective, (after all, is fellowship not better represented by something shared?) but Jesus revealed the reason for the Torah’s counterintuitive command, as Matthew will later record. First however, Matthew directs our attention to the presence of the magi to help us understand God’s perfect timing, entering His creation in a moment when the eastern world stood poised to receive the gospel revelation.

In the setting Matthew presents, the Promised Land becomes an international crossroads, the chosen people illustrate all humanity’s crying need for a savior, and even magi from the east are eager for good news. At last all is ready. All is perfect. All the Hebrew scriptures are the story of God’s creation of the universe, and creation’s long wait for this particular moment, when “God so loved the world, he sent his only begotten son.”

Like the first century Jews, many Christians today wonder why the Messiah tarries. In this, as in so many other parts of life, we are impatient. Jesus said he would return when least expected. We will not know the day or hour, but afterwards we will look back and see it was the perfect moment.

In daily life as well, we often beg God to take action now, and yet He waits. Trust the Lord. He waits for a reason, and His reason is always love.

Note that the Magi and Herod both say they wish to “worship” this child. This, of course, is how we ought to fill our time while waiting on the Lord. Next time we will look at the words these men use and consider what it really means to worship God.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 8:42 AM  

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