Connections 12.29.2019: Infant Jesus vs. the Empire

Matthew 2:13-23

This week’s lesson text makes at least three main points.

First, God guides Joseph to protect the Christ child.

Second, what happens to and around Jesus fulfills Scripture.

Third, Jesus’ experience reflects Moses’ experience.

Matthew makes these points as he tells us about Herod’s effort to kill the infant Jesus. He wants to eliminate the One the Wise Men had told him was born to be king of the Jews.

The infant Jesus survives Herod’s murderous intent because Joseph listens to an angel’s warning he receives in a dream and takes the child and his mother Mary to Egypt.

But Herod doesn’t know that Jesus’ family has escaped. He only knows that the Wise Men didn’t come back to tell him the child’s identity and exact location as they had promised to do. So he does the math to approximate when the child would have been born.

And then Herod does something truly awful. He orders the killing of the children of Bethlehem who are two years old or younger. In his effort to eliminate one child, he orders the killing of many children.

Herod orders this cruel and despicable act because he wants to preserve his power. He wants to eliminate what he perceives to be a threat to his throne.

Herod will do whatever he thinks he has to do to hold onto power.

We’re not told what Herod’s advisers think of his strategy. We do know that people will go along with inhumane policies out of fear of reprisal from the despot or out of a desire to preserve their position near the throne.

To Herod, the children of Bethlehem are not children. They are not even human beings. They are objects to be manipulated. They are obstacles to be eliminated. They are possible impediments to power. They are pawns in his political game.

When preserving power is your goal, you stop thinking of people as people. You think of them as either opportunities to be taken advantage of or obstacles to be overcome or, if necessary, eliminated.

But the story makes one thing clear: the empire, represented by its client King Herod, sees the infant Jesus as a threat, and responds to that threat with the force of the empire.

The infant Jesus escapes the empire’s willingness to murder to preserve its power. The adult Jesus will not. And in giving himself over to the empire’s cross, Jesus reveals the empire’s power as the sham it is.

People in power will do everything they can to preserve their power. But the empire doesn’t show us God’s way. Jesus Christ, the child born in humble circumstance who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8), does show us God’s way.

We all must decide which way we will follow.


  • Why do you think Matthew presents Jesus’ experiences as the fulfillment of Scripture?
  • Jesus receives God’s guidance through angels in dreams. How do we receive God’s guidance?
  • How would you describe the quality of Joseph’s obedience to God? What can we learn from his example?
  • The infant Jesus is genuinely vulnerable. He needs God’s and Joseph’s protection. What does this teach us about Jesus? Why should we remember this?

Reference Shelf

Matthew describes how Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem (2:1), eventually wound up in Nazareth and shows that each move was a fulfillment of Scripture.

The three names in the quotations from the Scripture—Bethlehem, the city of David (2:6); Egypt, the land of Exodus (2:15); and Ramah, the mourning place of the exile (2:18; see Jer 40:1), evoke decisive moments in the history of the people of Israel (Brown, Birth, 217). As the first section (1:1-25) demonstrates that Jesus is the fulfillment of Jewish hopes, the second section shows Jesus recapitulating the major events in the story of Israel; but it is with some irony. Jesus, the son of David, is rejected in the land of Judah and therefore must find a refuge in Egypt, the symbol of bondage. When he returns to “the land of Israel” (2:20, 21, the only time this phrase occurs in the New Testament), he cannot stay there but must retreat to Galilee (2:22), which is later identified as the Galilee of the gentiles (4:15). Had he remained in Judea, he would have been killed. When he finally returns to Judea, he is killed. “Judea” and “the land of Israel” come to represent the place of unbelief, and refuge is to be found only beyond their borders.

A distinctive characteristic of Matthew’s infancy narrative and his Gospel is the inclusion of fulfillment quotations that freeze the action and explain its significance. There are forty-two explicit citations of the Old Testament in Matthew compared to nineteen in Mark and Luke and fourteen in John. One quarter of these citations are introduced by a formula with the passive voice of the verb “fulfill.” They particularly dominate the second part of this section (2:16, 18, 23).

Why this recurring appeal to the Scripture? First of all, “It was imperative that Matthew argue the case of Christ in terms of the scriptural authority available and compelling to him, in the Law and the Prophets” (J. A. Sanders, “Nazoraios in Matt 2:23,” JBL, 84 [1965] 172). It is the Scripture that authoritatively clarifies who Jesus is, and therefore Matthew turns to it to explain the biblical import of the events he narrates. Second, the Scripture citations create a set of resonances for the reader. J. A. Sanders warns modern readers against ascribing “their possible ignorance of Scripture, that is the Scripture of the first century church, to either the New Testament writers or their congregants,” and argues “that common to all programs of instruction upon conversion in the early churches was assiduous reading of Scripture, what we call Old Testament, as well as Jesus traditions” (“Psalm 118,” 178). The citations would have evoked for the early readers a bundle of associations connected with the context in the same way that the theme songs from TV shows or movies do for the modern reader. Third, the appeal to Scripture demonstrates that the things that Jesus did and that happened to him were predetermined components of an agelong design of God. This conviction reassures the reader of God’s ultimate control over events, then and now.

What is particularly interesting about Matthew’s use of Scripture is the way he seems to taper it to fit the context of his account. The quotation about Bethlehem (2:6) is a conflation of Micah 5:1 and 2 Samuel 5:2. Matthew has “land of Judah” instead of Ephrathah (Hebrew), which heightens the associations with the root of David and his kingship (see Rev 5:5; Gen 49:10). He also completely alters the meaning of Micah 5:1 by writing, “by no means least among the governors of Judah,” instead of “who are little to be among the clans [the LXX reads “thousands”] of Judah.” The verb form of “governors” is used of David in 2 Samuel 5:2-3 (LXX), and it may have influenced Matthew’s variation. The “for” in the next clause calls attention to the dramatic alteration of Bethlehem’s role in Israel’s history from an inconsequential hamlet to the birthplace of the long-awaited messiah, and Matthew modifies the Scripture accordingly. The conclusion of Micah 5:2, “whose origin is from old, from ancient of days,” is omitted in favor of a quotation from 2 Samuel 5:2 (1 Chron 11:2) that contains God’s promise to David, “you shall shepherd my people Israel” (see 9:36; 10:6; 15:24).

David E. Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys) 28-29.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan and Isabella. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.


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