King of the Jews (Matthew 2:1-10)

Who was king of the Jews — Jesus, or Herod?

Models: Masada and Herodium

Open Matthew 2:1-12.

Mary, Joseph, wise men, shepherds, and perhaps angels. Ask people to name the key players in the Christmas story, and that’s probably what you’ll get. There’s someone else who doesn’t make our Christmas lists. That’s because we don’t read the Bible as a kingdom story.

Before we had BC and AD, events were dated by the reigning monarch. “The fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar” is how Luke dates Jesus’ birth (Luke 3:1). Matthew refers to the local king: “in the days of Herod the king” (Matthew 2:1). But … if Herod is king, and Jesus is born “king of the Jews,” is there a clash of kingdoms?

Herod was alarmed when some foreign dignitaries arrived in Jerusalem to give homage to someone they called the king of the Jews (2:2). In 40 BC, Herod had travelled to Rome to be honoured with the title King of Judea by Antony, Octavius, and the Senate. Any rival claim was treason not only against Herod, but against Empire. Talk about throwing the cat among the pigeons in the capital!

Matthew 2:3 (ESV)
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

So Herod launched an investigation into the credibility of the threat. His paranoia was legendary. This is the Herod who built the hilltop fortress of Masada in the Judean wilderness as a place to escape if the Jews turned against him. Then he built a closer fortress palace—the Herodium near Bethlehem—so deep was his mistrust of his subjects. This is the Herod who executed three of his sons and one of his wives.

Herod summoned the chief priests and Torah teachers to appear before his inquiry (2:7). He knew of their hope for a “Christ” (2:4). As we’ve seen, the “Christ” referred to the hoped-for son of David whom Heaven would anoint as king over God’s nation. Such a Christ would be a threat to Herod’s kingship.

The head priests and Torah lawyers told Herod’s inquest that the Davidic king was expected not in Jerusalem but in Bethlehem—King David’s town. But the Jewish leaders themselves knew nothing about the birth of any king. Matthew’s first century Jewish audience would have been very conscious of how he portrayed their leaders—initially unaware, and then too busy colluding with Herod to investigate.

Does this strike you as ironic? Foreign diplomats recognized the long-awaited king of the Jews, while Israel’s leaders did not. The wise men’s country of origin is uncertain, but they came “from the east” (2:1) and magi is a Persian word. That suggests they were from the region of Persia or Babylonia. The word magi is used in Daniel 2:2, 10 (LXX) to describe some of the advisors to Babylon, which later fell to the Persia. They seem to officials from the very powers that destroyed Judea.

If that’s right, it links directly back to the story Matthew has been telling. It was Babylon that interrupted the Davidic kingship (Matthew 1:11-17). Babylon, and then Persia and subsequent empires perpetrated the seemingly interminable centuries of oppression for God’s people, oppression to which the Immanuel child is finally the solution (Matthew 1:18-23).

Matthew’s staggering story is that officials from Israel’s historical enemies recognized the new king and came to bow before him, while the leaders of God’s own nation were asleep at the wheel. Representatives of the powers that terminated the Davidic kingship came to honour the restoration of that kingship. They knelt before him in submission. They recognized him with gifts that symbolized their allegiance. They found the king they sought. Discovering him overwhelmed them with exceedingly great joy (ἐχάρησαν χαρὰν μεγάλην σφόδρα — 2:10).

This is more than irony. It’s the great reversal. When this child restores God’s kingdom, it will be taken from rich rulers like Herod, and distributed to the impoverished. His realm will be taken from the powerful and given to the meek. God’s people who’ve been crushed for centuries will finally be comforted. Those who’ve thirsted for right rule will finally be given justice (Matthew 5:3-6).

But it’s even more than that! The kingdom of God is not about bringing down the wrong rulers who oppressed humanity. There will be an amnesty for the oppressors. The magi—official representatives of the nations that oppressed God’s people and destroyed his reign—come to bow before Israel’s king, to acknowledge his kingship.

That’s why Christmas is so inspiring. The Christ child is the hope of the whole world restored under God’s reign.


What others are saying

Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 105:

The threefold repetition of homage (2:2, 8, 11) reinforces the point of the narrative: if Israel will not honor Jesus, the Gentiles will (Harrington 1982: 17). Homage to Jesus also reflects some recognition of his identity (e.g., 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25), climaxing in the homage of 28:9, 17, a context that declares Jesus’ royal authority equivalent to the Father’s (28:18–20; cf. 4:10; Meier 1980: 11; Edwards 1987).

Adam Kolman Marshak, “From Pompey to Hadrian,” in Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 41–42:

Herod the Great was arguably the most powerful and influential Jewish monarch in history. During his long reign (40–4 b.c.e.), he amassed extraordinary wealth, implemented an elaborate and comprehensive building program, and transformed Judea from a small petty kingdom into an economic center of the Eastern Mediterranean. Jerusalem, too, changed from a crowded and dilapidated provincial city into a major pilgrimage site and tourist attraction of the Greco-Roman world. Despite his significant achievements, Herod’s reign was not a smooth one. In his early years, one of his major concerns was establishing and maintaining his own legitimacy. As a usurper who had risen to power through Roman support, his claims to legitimacy were somewhat suspect. … Thus, by the end of his reign, Herod ruled over a kingdom that rivaled all previous Jewish monarchies in size, wealth, and importance within the Mediterranean world.

Despite his numerous political and economic successes, Herod’s reign was also marked by considerable domestic difficulties. His relationship with his Jewish subjects was periodically strained partially due to his somewhat ambiguous attitude toward Judaism. Internal dissension among his own family also caused Herod numerous problems and resulted in the execution of three sons and one wife as well as several other relatives and friends.

[previous: Our king among us]

[next: How did the magi find Jesus?]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

3 thoughts on “King of the Jews (Matthew 2:1-10)”

  1. Very interesting insights, thank you. The Magi remind us that there is only one saviour of the world. Jesus is The Saviour of the whole world. It is not a rejection of God’s promise to the Jews but a fulfilment. The Jews were to be a light to the nations. For salvation is from the the Jews but not restricted just to the Jews. There are two olive trees and two covenants. The arrival of the Magi celebrate the faithfulness of God to all His people. I have sheep you know nothing about. The Church is mystery. Come Lord Jesus!


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