DMin Course - PW 813

New Testament Exegesis and Sermon Design

Exegesis Notes - Matthew 2.1-18



Most translations use the term "magi," but Phillips, et al, use the word "astrologer." The text is written with several participial phrases (e.g., in the verse 1, "having been born" in Bethlehem is a genitive absolute, which stands alone from the rest of the sentence). Matthew's style of writing is hypotaxic. He suspends his sentences, building to a key issue with the use of participles. It is a linguistic tool used to tell his story. Another example of this language is found in verse 4, "he (Herod) inquired from them where the Christ was going to be born." The phrase, "was going to be born," is a tendential present. The present tense can be used to indicate action that may not only be in the present, but may be a possible act, or a assumed act, etc. The auxiliary verbs such as "attempt," "try," "go," or "begin" may be used with tendential present tenses. "Was going to be born" reveals a sense of expectancy that even the likes of Herod knew about or had heard of. These linguistic tools set the stage for the way Matthew talks about God's epiphanic activity.

Another key element of this passage can be found in the asking of questions. Who were the magi, or astrologers? How did they know where to come? Why did they want to worship the infant born in Bethlehem? Was there really a star that led them to Bethlehem? Much has been speculated about these foreign visitors. We usually assume there were three of them, but the text does not say that. Historically, magians represented a caste group from Persia, sometimes referred to as Zoroastrians. Many have crafted elaborate lists of the symbolism of the gifts (gold, frankincense, myrrh). It is known by historians that stars played prominent roles in much of the lore of that day pertaining to the advent of great leaders, or messiahs. Traces of astrology was even found on the veil of the temple. For many people, the advent of Messiah was always accompanied by a star. But what did it mean to these astrologers? Why did they come and worship this one born in an obscure setting? Why did they equate this infant with that of a king?

One way to at least attempt to answer these questions is found in an further attempt to understand the actions of the astrologers. Their wares of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were regarded as tools of their trade. They would hold court with people in many settings, often with kings. Some reduce them to charlatans. But the intriguing question remains. Why did they leave these gifts? To leave the gifts would not be a way of worshiping the Christ, but a sign of them abandoning their practice.

Set against the backdrop of an air hope and expectancy, one that even the likes of Herod know of, these foreign visitors participate in the manifestation of God's presence and gift to the world. The way we interpret the reasoning of this visitation - both by the astrologers and by God - becomes the crucial link with the present. This, I think, also gives us clues into the way we might preach this text not merely to decipher what Matthew was trying to get across to us, but as equally important, what does it mean for us today.