The child born in the City of David

[Sermon audio here.]

If you want to convince someone to believe something, you need to start by proving that it is true.  When it comes to the Bible, the truth-claims could not be more staggering.  Arguably Matthew’s biggest burden in his gospel is to prove that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah of the OT.  If Jesus does not fulfill the types and shadows and prophecies of the OT then he loses credibility as a candidate for the title, Son of God.  However, having knowledge that Jesus is Messiah is not enough to make a Christian.  Scripture is clear that this knowledge must also be coupled with affirmation of the truth as well as trust in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour from sin.  These are the components of true faith.

In our passage this morning, Matthew gives us another proof that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ.  We have already seen from Jesus’ family tree that he has the required royal ancestry. He is a son of king David through the legal adoption of Joseph.  Now, in Matt. 2:1-12, Matthew shows us that Jesus is qualified as King of the Jews because he is born in the city of David, which is Bethlehem of Judea. We shall also see that there are other circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus, which reveal his fulfillment of the OT Scriptures.  Whoever, despite all this evidence, king Herod and authorities of the church in his day rejected their Messiah.  And the unlikely wise men or magi from the east worshipped him.

You are about to hear the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.  How will you respond?

The birth of Jesus

No sooner does Matthew introduce the birth of Jesus into his gospel account than a rival king arrives on the scene called Herod.  Entering the stage as well, from the east, are three wise men or magi.  Here we have Herod and three magi with knowledge of Messiah and they want more, but for very different reasons.

At this point, you may be asking why Matthew overlooks so many of the details surrounding the birth of Jesus – like the manger, the shepherds and the angels – that Luke includes?  Why the differences between the various gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus?  The reason is that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all have their God-inspired purposes for recording and not recording certain events in the life of Jesus.  While there is substantial agreement as to the life and message of Jesus, from time to time the gospels differ in form and content in order to convey certain theological truths.  Taken together the four gospels provide for us a rich multi-dimensional picture of the person and work of Jesus – which, by the working of the Holy Spirit produces and strengthens faith in us.

It should also, therefore, come as no surprise that Matthew, like the other evangelists, does not attempt to capture comprehensively all the facts surrounding the birth of Jesus.  An important lesson for us here is that we should not read the Bible like a history textbook or a science manual.  We should not expect precision or detail that it does not wish to offer.  Remember that Matthew’s burden is ultimately to record for us those events in the life of Jesus that disclose his identity and his mission as our redeemer.

Now getting back to story.  In verse 2 we read of “three wise men” that had come from the east and are asking: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?”  What are we to make of these so-called wise men that often appear on cards and in nativity scenes around the time of Christmas?  Well, it is a bit difficult to nail down exactly who they were.  What we do know is that they were not Jews.  And in fact, the Greek word used for them here is “magi”, which is where we get our word “magician” from.  In NT times, the word “magi” covered a wide range of meanings, from astronomers and fortunetellers to counselors and magicians.  Matthew most likely has astronomers in mind here.

But more important than whom exactly they are, is whom they are seeking out to worship. We are told that in their quest for Messiah, a star or some celestial body had guided them to Bethlehem.  Here too, Matthew does not give us much on the nature of this star.  Perhaps it was Haley’s Comet or a planetary conjunction or a supernova.  We don’t know because Matthew does not tell us.  And he himself, with his pre-scientific knowledge, probably did not know either. The point is that God supernaturally guided these foreign dignitaries to Jesus.

In verse 3, the attention shifts to our other figure in the story, which is king Herod or otherwise known as Herod the Great.  This is one of those figures that seems larger than life.  He was a man of boundless ambition, which was both a good and a bad thing.  After the Romans made him king of Judea, he earned a reputation for being the greatest builder in Jewish history.  Among his feats was finishing the Second Jewish Temple.  He is also known to have lowered taxes and helped the poor during times of famine.  However, Herod is better remembered for being a brutal man.  For example, his legendary paranoia over losing power and his personal insecurities drove him to execute in cold blood one of his wives and two of his sons; and not to mention a handful of so-called insubordinate rabbis and extended members of his family.

So, it is not odd then that when Herod heard about the birth of Jesus, verse 3, “he was troubled, and all of Jerusalem with him.”  Herod was distressed because Jesus is a threat to his throne.  This is confirmed for us in verse 16 where he orders that all male children of two years or younger be put to death.  Herod felt particularly vulnerable as king because he was not an ethnic Jew.  His father was an Idumean adventurer and his mother likely an Arabian.  Herod’s family had converted to Judaism and therefore he was not a blood-member of the royal house of Judah.

The fact that Matthew also tells us that “all of Jerusalem” was troubled as well is likely because they feared what violent reaction Herod might have to someone challenging his rule; and how that violence might have an effect on everyone around him.

So what does Herod do?  In verse 4 we are told that he assembled “the chief priests and the scribes of the people” and “inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.”  Basically, Herod looked to the church for help.  The scribes back then were the Bible scholars.  They should have been searching the Scriptures diligently for Messiah.  Matthew’s reference to the “chief priests” in the plural here is noteworthy because according to OT law there should only be one high priest in service to God.  He is the one who offered sacrifices to God on behalf of the sins of the people.  To have more than one priest is a blatant violation of God’s OT law.

Apparently, things are not all well with the church.  Magicians, instead of scribes, are searching for Jesus.  And the fact that there were multiple high priests is evidence that the church at the time of Herod was more concerned with social power and politics than being a covenant community governed by God’s Word and devoted to worship.

It is also interesting to note from Herod’s inquiry here that he does not call Jesus “King of the Jews”, like the magi do; but rather “Christ.”  This is because, for one, Herod believes himself to be the king of the Jews and is by no means ready to relinquish the title.  And second, Herod’s probing here has a theological purpose.  He wants confirmation that this child of Mary’s really is the Messiah.

One of the clues that Matthew gives is where he will be born.

Points of fulfillment

In verse 5, the magi answer Herod’s question by telling him that the Christ will be born in “Bethlehem of Judea” – which is a place of no little consequence in the OT. Knowing this, the chief priests and the scribes recall a prophecy by the OT minor prophet, Micah, from Micah 5:2 (as well as make a partial allusion to 2 Sam. 5:2): “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd the people of Israel.”

Now, if any of you know Micah 5:2 off by heart or are maybe looking at it right now, you will notice that Matthew takes some liberties in re-citing the words of the prophet.  Most obvious is that while Micah says that Bethlehem is “too little [or the smallest] among the clans of Judah,” Matthew says that Bethlehem is “by no means the least among the rulers of Judah.”

Is Matthew being careless with the Scriptures here?  Well, no, in fact he is doing something not uncommon to the NT’s use of the OT.  Remember the NT builds upon and is the fulfillment of the OT.  The NT succeeds and interprets the OT.  So, in our passage Matthew has changed the wording of Micah to emphasize progression in the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation.  Yes, Bethlehem of the tribe of Judah was once quite inconspicuous in the life of God’s OT people. But now it is the capital city because the glory of God’s Son has descended upon it!

What we have in Matthew 2:5-6 is the second of five fulfillment formulas in the gospel of Matthew so far, which testifies to Jesus as the prophesied Messiah of God.  In chapter 1, we saw that Jesus is a son of king David.  Now Matthew gives further proof that Jesus is Messiah as one born in the royal city of David – to fulfill Scripture.

But this is not the only line of OT fulfillment that Matthew connects in our passage.  There are others here as well, which magnify the unfolding of God’s saving acts in history and also highlight the God-given genius of Matthew.

For example, in 1 Kings 10:1-10, we read of the Queen of Sheba who heard about the great wisdom and fame of king Solomon, the son of David.  And in response, she along with her entourage of advisors – bearing extravagant gifts – paid a visit to Solomon to honor him.  In Matt. 12:42, Matthew declares that someone greater than Solomon is here.

And then there is the story of Balak, the pagan king of Moab, and his prophet or fortuneteller, Balaam, in the Num. 24.  Back then, Balak was concerned about the threat of the Israelites and he looked to Balaam for help.  And yet, Balaam was compelled to speak on behalf of God and even about the coming of Messiah. In Num. 24:17, he prophecies to Balaam: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come up out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth.”

It is also by no means a stretch to draw parallels between Pharoah, king of Egypt, and Balak, and the brutally iron-fisted king Herod – the so-called king of the Jews.

The thing is, the high priests and the scribes should have been tracing these lines of fulfillment and seeking out the Messiah who is about to arrive in their backyard.  And yet it is the three foreigners from the east who are looking for Jesus.  So Herod turns to them for further help.

In verse 9, Herod commands the magi to go and seek diligently after news about the Messiah.  He asks them to bring news of his whereabouts so that he can “worship” Jesus.  But, here Herod is scheming.  Worshipping someone other than himself is really the furthest thing from his mind.

Nevertheless, the magi dutifully listen to the king.  And the same star that led them to Bethlehem now leads them to the manger of Jesus.  Matthew tells us in verse 10 that when they saw the star resting over the place of Christ’s birth, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” [p] It is difficult to capture the emotion expressed here.  The magnitude of their joy was extreme.  They were absolutely delighted or “thrilled to bits”!  When “they saw the child” they “fell down and worshipped him.”  And then they offered their gifts of the most expensive stuff around: “gold” – the symbol of ultimate wealth – “and frankincense and myrrh.”  These were gifts fitting for a king!

Points of departure

And then, verse 12, Matthew tells us about another act of divine intervention in the journey of the magi.  This time God speaks to them in a dream warning them “not to return to Herod.”  So, they bypassed the earthly king and “departed to their own country by another way.”

Why?  Because Herod is really a God-hater.  And he’ll soon prove it in a very nasty way…

Brothers and sisters, children, and friends, do you see the glorious tapestry that Matthew has woven for us here from the OT – which is Jesus our Saviour from sin?  Even though Mary and Joseph were in fact residents of off-the-beaten-track Nazareth, God saw to it that Jesus be born in Bethlehem in order to fulfill the Scriptures.  Jesus is Messiah because he was born in the city David as a son of David, and of Abraham and of God.  He, and not Herod, is the true King of the Jews.

The next time Matthew will use the title “King of the Jews” is when Jesus is nailed to a Roman cross.  The importance of him using it here, right at the beginning of the life of Jesus, is to certify that Jesus is indeed the anointed Son of God from his very conception and birth.  As we shall see as the gospel of Matthew unfolds, the entire life of our Savior has redeeming significance for us.

But friends, it is not enough to know about Jesus.  Herod and the corrupt church in his day knew about Messiah.  Yet they did not agree with the claims about him clearly set forth in Scripture.  And they did not submit to him as Lord and trust in him as Saviour.  Instead, they twisted God’s Word or just flat out ignored it for the sake of their own worldly agenda.  In the end, their own unbelief and rebellion against God drove them to crucify their King.

The greatest threat to Christ and his gospel has always come from within the church.

May we, therefore, take heed and not be like so many in the church of Herod’s day that lacked faith.  May we instead be like the magi in our story – some of the first Gentiles – who sought hard after Christ.  May we turn away from our sins and follow God’s Word – even the very Word you have heard right now, this morning – to your redeemer and King, Jesus.  And let us rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory!  And let us offer up our gifts of thanksgiving to him this day forth and forevermore.  Amen.

Simon Jooste, RCSS, 19 May 2013

Jesus is the son of David and of God

[Sermon audio here.]

One of the ways that a good book or a good movie keeps us engaged is by creating tension or anticipation.  Oftentimes the close of chapter or an episode leaves us wondering what will come next, especially if it ends with some twist or turn in the story.

Matthew’s genealogy in Matt. 1:1-17 is the first episode as it were on the life of Jesus, which ends on a note of tantalizing incompletion.  If you recall, in Matt. 1:1 Matthew introduces the family history of Jesus with the words: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”  In the next 16 verses he proceeds to fill in the history that identifies Jesus as the Messianic son of David.  But the problem is that Jesus does not have a biological or earthly father.  In verse 16 we find a disturbing break in the line of fatherly succession.  We read that Matthan is the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph.  But then Matthew tells us that Mary, the wife of Joseph, is the mother of Jesus.  Joseph is not identified as the biological father of Jesus.

Herein lies profound discontinuity in the royal line of David.  How, then, can Jesus be the son of David and therefore the promised Messiah?

What we shall see this morning is that Jesus did indeed become a descendent of king David by the legal of adoption of Joseph.  The fact that Jesus is the son of David while not being the biological son of Joseph is to fulfill the prophetic promise in verses 21-23 of our passage, which is the focus of my sermon.  While Jesus did take to himself human flesh in the line of David, he nevertheless remains the one born of virgin so that he might be our Savior from sin – as the God-man.

Joseph adopts Jesus as his son

In Matt. 1:18 Matthew signals for us that he is still concerned with revealing the origin of Jesus as the Messiah.  The best translation of the first part of this verse, which connects to verse 1, is as follows: “The Messiah’s origin or Genesis took place in this way.”  In this narrative section following his genealogy, Matthew is still busy with the task of proving that Jesus is indeed the Messianic son of David.

So, Matthew continues telling us the story about the origin of Messiah by introducing a little known woman called Mary, who was betrothed or engaged to a humble carpenter named Joseph.  Now, we must appreciate that engagement back in the first century world was much more serious commitment than what we understand it to be today.  Engagement was a binding contract entered into before witnesses that could only be terminated by divorce or death.  One of the valid grounds of divorce was sexual infidelity.  Only once a couple had moved in together and entered into sexual relations would the engagement officially become marriage.

The engagement of Joseph and Mary was by no means ordinary.  For we are told that: “before they came together” to consummate the marriage, Mary “was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.”

Without hesitation and in with a few words, Matthew reports the incredible, something unheard of in the history of humankind.  A woman will conceive a child that is not the result of human procreation or the will of man, but rather the work of the Spirit of God, which is from heaven.

In the incarnation, Jesus did truly become part of the human race.  He assumed a human nature of body and soul from the substance of his mother Mary.  And yet, Jesus was not a human creation, and therefore not the result of a sexual union.  While born to his mother Mary, Jesus, however, never ceased to be what he had always been, which is the eternal Word of God.  In the stupendous mystery of the union of God and man, Jesus took to himself human flesh, while never becoming organically connected to it.  Jesus took to himself a body and soul, while not inheriting our sinful nature in the process – so that he might become the perfect mediator between God and sinful man.

The virgin conception set into motion Christ’s life of humiliation.  By assuming our flesh, Jesus entered into an existence of weakness, suffering and death.  He then lived a life of incomparable suffering as one of us, which culminated with death, so that we might have life.

Joseph, however, was unaware of the supernatural conception of Mary’s child, and the implications of it, at least at this point.  So, verse 19, he “being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”  Joseph was a just man in that he was a law-abiding citizen.  He knew that the consequence for adultery was divorce and he intended to severe ties with Mary for her apparent unfaithfulness.  However, Joseph planned to do so in a compassionate way by sending her away quietly.  He did not want to expose her to public shame unnecessarily, while still being in the bounds of the law.

So, here you have it, Joseph is about to end his engagement to Mary.  And he has no idea that by doing so Jesus will be cut off from the royal line of David.

Jesus is the Son of God

Verse 20 tells us that Joseph had made up his mind and was ready to act.  Butsuddenly” or “behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream…” A messenger from God literally stopped Joseph dead in his tracks and reversed the seeming inevitable.  The angel proceeds to assure Joseph that Mary is guilty of no wrongdoing.  And therefore he should take her as his wife.  Despite the apparent contradiction that Mary is pregnant – but not by Joseph – she is nevertheless free of the charge of unfaithfulness!  For, the Holy Spirit conceived the child in Mary’s womb.

The angel of the Lord continues in verse 21 to declare to Joseph that Mary will bear a son and that he shall call his name Jesus.  Now, Jesus was a common name among the Jews at the time.  It meant, “Yahweh is salvation” or “God will save.”  It would have reminded Matthew’s first century readers of Joshua, the Hebrew version of Jesus.  Joshua symbolised salvation in that he led Israel into the Promised Land of Canaan.  The thing about naming Mary’s son Jesus, however, is that this child is God and he will accomplish salvation in his very own flesh. He will save because he is not, like Joshua, just a man.  But he is the God-man.  This is why the angel carries on by saying: “… for he will save his people from their sins.”

The angel of the Lord prophesies that this child, hailing from the most humble background in the first-century world, will save Israel from her sins.

And yet, as we shall see, as we get deeper into the gospel of Matthew, the Jews did not for the most part recognise Jesus as their Messiah.  Why? Because Jesus did not conform to the popular Jewish expectations of the day.  They were looking for a grand political conqueror who would re-establish the kingdom of Israel in Jerusalem.  In the end, they killed Jesus for not giving them what they wanted.

The thing is that had the Jews understood Scripture, they would have known their greatest need was not for political liberation but salvation from sin.  And in turn they would have recognised Jesus as their promised Messiah.  For notice Matthew’s commentary right after recording the prophetic words of the angel in verse 21.  Matthew states in no uncertain terms that what the angel has just declared is not the wisdom of man, but rather the fulfillment of Holy Scripture.  More specifically, the birth of Jesus is to fulfill the prophesy of Is. 7:14:  “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us.)

In verse 22, we have the first of at least ten instances in the gospel of Matthew where he uses something like the formula: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken…” The reason for this is that one of the defining features of Matthew’s gospel is to show that Jesus is the fulfillment of not only explicit and implicit OT prophesy, but also OT stories, historical characters and its cultic patterns, as well as the very law itself.

In his first use of the fulfillment formula in Matt. 1, Matthew wants us to see that Jesus is uniquely qualified as our Savior by drawing lines of connection and development from the prophecy of Isaiah.  Here the Spirit takes the multi-layered prophetic words of Isaiah originally intended for King Ahaz and his wife, and for the House of David, in about 735 BC, and applies them to Jesus. Jesus too will be born of virgin, but conception will come through the Holy Spirit.  Jesus too is Immanuel, God with us.  But he is so much more than what OT ever had.  He is the one prophesied of in Is. 53 as the Savior from sin.

Jesus will come to take away the sins of his people.  This does not mean every man, woman and child.  But, rather, every person that God the Father gave Jesus before the foundation of the world.  Jesus came initially to God’s OT people, the Jews.  But as we shall see from the rest of the gospel, God’s people are not limited to ethnic Jews, but include Gentiles as well.  This fact is already hinted at in the genealogy of Jesus in Matt. 1, where even in the OT times God was pleased to save foreigners, like the Tamar, Rahab and Ruth.  In the NT, however, the floodgates of God’s grace have burst forth to envelope sinners from every tongue, tribe and nation.

We are sons of God through Jesus

In verse 24 of our passage, Matthew recommences his narrative on the origin of Jesus by returning to Joseph, his adoptive father.  He tells us that Joseph woke from his sleep and then proceeded to do what the angel of the Lord commanded him.  Instead of divorcing Mary he took her as his wife.  And instead of consummating the marriage immediately, Joseph chose to wait until Jesus was born.  Why?  So that no one could claim that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus.

Beloved, the point of Matthew’s narrative following the genealogical list of Jesus is to further reveal to us the origin of Messiah.  Matthews chief burden in our passage is to prove that Jesus is indeed the promised deliverer of the OT because he is the son of king David.  In order for Jesus to be recognised as Messiah in fulfillment of Scripture, he had to be a son of Abraham and a son of David.  He had to be of Israelite descent and he had to have royal pedigree.  He had to be one born under the demands of the Old Covenant law.

This is why it is so crucial that Joseph did not send Mary away.  In marrying Mary, Joseph legally adopted Jesus has his son.  In doing so, Jesus became the son of David, while remaining the eternal Son of God.

Brothers and sisters, even though we have all fallen like the first Adam into sin.  Even though we like OT Israel have rebelled against God and broken his law, the good news of the gospel is that God has adopted us into his family because of Jesus: because Jesus is the sinless second Adam and the true Israel of God.  By turning from our sins and putting our faith in him, we too become sons of Abraham and sons of David; we too become descendents of Jesus and sons of the living God.

And yes, like the story of Joseph and Jesus, things in our lives may unfold in ways that often times seem contradictory and even self-defeating.  But, nevertheless, we may take comfort in Christ’s Word to us this morning that while God does indeed works in mysterious ways, his purposes are always for our good and his glory.  If he can fulfill his ancient promise to redeem humanity through the royal lineage, life, death and resurrection of his eternally begotten Son, he can most certainly save us from our sins and sustain us in joy and gladness through this life, and into the life to come.  Amen.

 

Simon Jooste, RCSS, May 12, 2013