You are probably familiar the story of Christmas, at least as presented in countless school plays about the birth of Jesus all across the world: the virgin Mary has a baby, angels tell shepherds to go see Him and sing of His glory, wise men arrive from far off with gifts to offer in worship to the King of the Jews. Today I’d like to take a closer look at a few details of this account from Matthew chapters 1 and 2.
The Genealogy of Jesus
The account opens with a genealogical listing of the ancestry of Jesus, from Abraham to Joseph. This listing is meaningless to us in the sense that, in our understanding of genetics, none of the people listed are genetic contributors to the baby Jesus because Joseph was not His father: the Holy Spirit was. The only person listed who may have contributed anything genetic is Mary, and that is uncertain.
Mary bore and gave birth to the child, that much is certain. Whether one of Mary’s eggs was used to produce this pregnancy or whether a divinely crafted zygote was implanted in Mary is not known. And it doesn’t really matter: Mary was chosen by God to be the Mother of the Christ child, that is what matters.
The genealogy is interesting nonetheless, for in it are listed the patriarch of the Jewish nation, several kings, some commoners, and some highly disreputable persons. Also, quite against Jewish tradition, several women were listed as being the wife through whom some of the begots were done. In chapter 1 verse 5 “Salmon begot Boaz by Rahab”. Rahab was the pagan prostitute who helped Salmon – one of the two men Joshua sent to spy out Jericho – escape capture because she believed that God had given Canaan to the Isrealites. In return the spies promised that she would be spared when the city was overrun and captured (Joshua 2).
Also mentioned is Tamara, who used harlotry to force Judah to keep his promise to her of marriage into his family (Genesis 38). Ruth was a Moabite, one of two tribes that sprang from the incestuous union between Lot and his daughters (Genesis 19). Bathsheba, of course, was the wife of Uriah, a Hittite, and the victim of King David’s adulterous attentions.
The purpose of documenting these less-than-ideal family members is to show that Jesus is Lord to all who will come to Him, not just the squeaky-clean.
All of this genealogy was that of Joseph. Joseph was of royal lineage and therefore a potential king himself, but in fact was a poor man as evidenced by his sacrifice at the temple after Jesus was born (Luke 2:24). But he was a good man who trusted God. When Mary, his espoused, was found to be pregnant Joseph could have had her stoned for immorality. But he loved her so he chose to “put her away secretly”(Matt 1:19). He planned to abandon the marriage, but to send her away without fanfare or punishment.
When an angel told Joseph to take Mary as his wife and that the child she bore was of divine nature, Joseph obeyed despite the persecution that he and Mary would suffer for her being pregnant out of wedlock.
Matthew is careful, in his genealogy to list Joseph as the husband of Mary, not as the father of Jesus. Matthew 1:23 quotes Isaiah 7:14,”Behold the virgin shall be with child and bear a son…”. It is especially important here that the text does not say “a virgin shall” but “the virgin shall”. In Hebrew the word translated as virgin is preceded by a definite article (the) which indicates that the young woman being discussed was not a random happening, but a specific person chosen by God.
The Place of Birth
The prophet Micah wrote (5:2) about the birthplace of the Israelite Messiah. He used two names for the place, Bethlehem, and Ephrathah. Bethlehem means “house of bread” and Ephrathah (a much older name for the place) means “to be fruitful”. Jesus would later be called “the Bread of Life” (John 6:22-40) who teaches His followers to have a fruitful life.
The wise men who came from the East to honor Jesus, were scientists or scholars of their day. We would call them astrologers, for they used the movements of the heavens and changes in nature to predict the future. They came from Persia and were sometimes called “The King Makers”.
According to the ancient historian Herodotus, the Magi were a hereditary priesthood tribe, somewhat like the Levites in Israel.
The Magi rose to a place of enormous political power by virtue of their very unique priestly function: occult powers of divination through knowledge of astrology. During the four world empires, they served in a powerfully influential capacity as advisers to the royalty in the East, consequently earning the reputation of being ‘wise men’.
The Magi were so powerful that historians tell us that no Persian was ever able to become king except he be approved of and crowned by the Magi.
In short, the Magi were the king makers.
These wise men probably read Daniel’s account of the coming Messiah and recognized the new star placed by God to guide them to coronate the child-king of Israel. It was because of the reputation of these men that Herod was so troubled by their inquiry as to the whereabouts of Israels’ new king.
The gifts that the Magi brought (Matt 2:11) were confirmation that they came to worship a king, priest, and savior. In truth we do not know how many wise men there were, only that three gifts were presented. But given the value of these gifts and the long distance traveled through thief infested territories, it is likely that the Magi came as a delegation with a considerable escort.
Gold: Extremely rare, precious, and durable. A metal used extensively in temples and the palaces of kings. A royal gift indeed.
Frankincense: Mixed with oil, this was used to anoint a new priest. In Jesus day, frankincense was sometimes used to make an offering of thanksgiving and praise to God. A priestly gift.
Myrrh: Unusual as a gift, myrrh was used to prepare dead bodies for burial by wrapping the corpse in layers of cloth with Myrrh (and other spices) between the layers to mask the odor of decay. A foreshadowing of the sacrifice Jesus would make as Savior.
The Unrecognized King
While the angels, the Magi, Mary and Joseph knew who this child was the rest of Israel did not. Herod the Great, insecure is his own power, was so threatened by the claims of the Magi that he ordered a slaughter of Israel’s children.
Perhaps, when Jesus was grown and began His ministry the events of His birth were forgotten by all but Mary. None of the ruling class welcomed him as King and Savior.
This was mostly because they were (for some reason) looking for a military man or High Priest who would lead them in rebellion against Rome and restore Israel as the preeminent nation on Earth as it was in the time of Kings David and Solomon. The virgin birth in a predicted location went unnoticed. The teachings of the adult Jesus were rebuffed and denied. The Jewish leaders totally missed the coming of the Messiah they had anticipated for so long.
But Christians know Jesus as Messiah, Savior, Son of God, and more. At Christmas we celebrate an infant in a manger, but it’s what started at that birth and ended with the resurrection and assention that is the true meaning of Christmas. The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus fulfilled hundreds of Old Testament prophesies written over thousands of years. Only through Jesus can mankind hope to abide with God in Heaven.
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