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1.1 Synoptics -- The Birth of Jesus: Matthew

If anything would cause us to challenge the term "synoptic" as applied to the first three Gospels, it would be the openings of these books -- there is no common viewpoint at all. Matthew and Luke describe different events in the birth of Jesus, and Mark omits the subject entirely! There is significant racial material in these accounts.

The Book of Matthew opens with the genealogy of Jesus, and the very first verse establishes the continuity of Jesus with the destiny of Israel:

         A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham (Mat 1:1).


         The highest racial hopes are represented in these three people: the fulfilment, the forerunner, and archetype or origin. The point is that Jesus was of royal Jewish lineage. The New Covenant has an irreproachable pedigree in the Old. Here is One who is the fulfilment of the ancient prophecy of the pagan prophet Balaam:

         "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the sons of Sheth" (Num 24:17).


After the genealogy, Matthew records the annunciation, the angel’s message to Mary, in which he tells her that Jesus “will save his people from their sins” (Mat 1:21). He then quotes the prophecy of Isaiah:

        "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel --which means, 'God with us'" (Mat 1:23).

Thus the introduction of Matthew links Jesus very closely to Jewish history and faith. In the view of the Old Testament, the Jews were the representatives and highest order of humanity. And for Matthew, Jesus was the representative and highest example of the Jews. It is wrong to speak of Jesus as the Perfect Man in an idealized sense, because that is too generic -- he did not bear the features of all races, he was not a synthesis of all the world's physical types. He was no cosmic Everyman. The Perfect Man was Jewish in physiognomy, Aramaic in language. Jesus was a Son of the Old Covenant, and bore within himself its demands and its fulfilment.

But in chapter two, Matthew introduces the “Gentile problem,” with the visit of the wise men. This episode is not mentioned by any of the other Gospel writers. Though trivialized today as an annual Christmas production of bathrobe-garbed Sunday School children, the “adoration of the magi” foreshadowed two important future themes of Jesus’ life: 1. the hostility of the national leadership to him, who saw him as a threat. 2. the attraction of some Gentiles to his works and teaching.

Consider – here we have a religious establishment with expert knowledge of the messianic hope of Israel. The scribes and Pharisees could quote for Herod the prophecy of Micah about the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2), yet none of them accompanied the wise men to seek him. There was no passion in them for his coming. And Herod wanted to find him only to destroy him. The prophetic word about his arrival was 7 centuries old -- there was no contemporary prophetic voice to declare the coming of the Messiah. Israel was in a condition of spiritual darkness.


On the other hand, Gentile pagans, Mesopotamian astrologers, learned of the birth of a king not from Jewish revelation but from plotting the courses of the stars and comets. Not content with theoretical speculations, they journeyed long and far to pay him homage, even though they had no part in Israel, no hope for participation in God's Kingdom. They were spiritual descendants of Balaam -- another outsider who had authentic mystical knowledge. And as God used Balaam to declare His purpose for Israel, He used the Magi to tell the rulers of Israel about the birth of their own Messiah. This was a great irony -- eight centuries early, the Jewish prophet Isaiah declared God's judgments on the nations. Now, at the birth of Jesus, it was three Gentile wise men who declared God's purpose to Israel.

So Matthew starts off with a theological puzzle. There is no explicit statement at this point of Gentile inclusion in the promise of God, but we cannot miss the symbolic import of their obeisance to the Christ child. In their worship is pre-figured the acknowledgement of the rulership of Christ over the nations. It harks back to the first word of God to Abram:

         "All peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (Gen 12:3).

          It is this promise, this pre-Mosaic deposit, that the wise men were connecting with. They had no interest in the history of Israel per se, they were probably ignorant of it, and they had no intention of converting to Judaism to show their devotion to its new king. Let’s be clear – these were uncircumcised pork-eaters! Significantly, their relationship to God was based on a tradition predating Israel. Then they did an end run around 1800 years of God’s exclusive concern with the nation of Israel, and re-connected with Him at the stable in Bethlehem. This is not unlike the route Paul maps out for Gentiles in the book of Romans, in his discourse on natural revelation:

        Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made (Rom 1:20).

        The stars pointed the astrologers to the Incarnation.

We must also note that these foreigners fill the prophetic vacuum in Israel at the most critical moment in her history. Note the astounding terminology used in their meeting with Herod:

         "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?" (Mat 2:2)

          Who taught them this title? We are more familiar with it being used in a derogatory manner by the Romans at the end of Jesus’ life. But here, at the beginning of it, the wise men knew intuitively, from the mystic stars, not from any acquaintance with Jewish prophecy, that a king had been born. When they spoke these words to Herod, he shook with fear and rage upon his throne. But the wise men assumed that the Jews, as custodians of the Promise, already knew of his birth and welcomed it. Compare Herod’s reaction to that of these astrologers:

         "When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy" (Mat 2:10 RSV).

The strangers, who had no hope in Israel, no part in its restoration, “rejoiced exceedingly” even as the natural sons of the Promise schemed to destroy it. Such are the paradoxes of Scripture, if we look for them. Yet why are the wise men joyful, if there is not a hope of inclusion, a sense that the time had come when the Covenant blessing was to move beyond the territory of Israel and reach to “all peoples”? Thus, in his introductory chapters, Matthew presents Jesus both as a blueblood of royal stock, and as a King of worldwide significance.

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