The Magi in Redemptive-History

(Post by Ben Thocher)

It has been alluded to already that the Magi are in some way a function of Matthew’s fulfillment theology. Their presence before the Christ child carries a measured significance that extends beyond the pages of Matthew’s Gospel and reaches into the prophetic hope and vision of Israel for the end of days. In their presentation, Matthew has provocatively indicated that their visit involves much more than Christmas pageantry; their arrival represents the in-breaking of eschatological reality.

One of the foundation texts for placing the Magi’s visit within the flow of redemptive-history is the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon in 1 Kings 10. She comes to Solomon “bearing spices and very much gold and precious stones” while commending Solomon for executing “justice and righteousness.” This narrative highlights the immense power and wisdom wielded by the Solomonic dynasty. The Queen of Sheba represents the humble submission of nations to Israel’s great king. Provan notes that it is “the worldwide fame of Solomon” that attracts foreign dignitaries to his presence.[1] Brueggemann likewise suggests that “The visit of the Queen of Sheba is emblematic and representative of the pivotal place Solomon had come to occupy, if not in the actual world of royal competition and commercial success, then at least in the imagination of Israel.”[2] Put differently, Solomon is the Israelite king par-excellence. To him belongs the submission of nations.

While Solomon’s glorious kingdom shortly thereafter hurtles headlong into chaos and destruction, his positive portrayal becomes a foundation upon which the messianic hope of Israel is built. Psalm 72 is seemingly modeled after Solomon’s experience with the Queen of Sheba in its prayer for the royal son of God. As the Queen of Sheba lauded Solomon for his “justice and righteousness,” so too the prayer of Psalm 72 is strikingly marked by the frequent and overt use of this same language:

Give the king your justice, O God,

and your righteousness to the royal son!

May he judge your people with righteousness,

and your poor with justice! (Ps 72:1; emphasis mine)

Not only that, but the psalm’s vision for the royal son involves the bringing of gifts and tribute from all nations – including Sheba!

May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands

render him tribute;

may the kings of Sheba and Seba

bring gifts!

May all kings fall down before him,

all nations serve him! (Ps 72:10-11; emphasis mine)

That the psalm itself is “of Solomon” intimates a close relationship to Solomon either as author or as subject.[3] It is likely that the prayer offers a prophetic outlook for another king who would arise like Solomon. Given this, Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:42 that “something greater than Solomon is here” takes on a deeper and more significant meaning.

The arrival of the Magi in Matthew’s Gospel is understood then within this wider theological context. Jesus is Solomon’s greatest son, the one to whom worldwide tribute is rendered. Isaiah 60:1-4 likewise presents a picture of Israel’s eschatological hopes. The prophet speaks words of hope to Israel, that “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isa 60:3). The passage will later discuss the “wealth of nations” coming to Israel along with camels from Sheba bringing “gold and frankincense” (Isa 60:5-6). It is conceivable – and even likely! – that this passage forms the backdrop for Matthew’s presentation of the Magi’s star rising and resting over the place where Messiah was to be found.[4]

It becomes obvious that the worship of the Magi emerges as the Matthew’s primary focus in this passage.[5] Having seen his star they “come to worship him” (proskunh/sai), while Herod likewise desires to locate and “worship” (proskunh,sw) him.[6] So too, upon their arrival at the house, they “fell down and worshiped (proseku,nhsan) him.”[7] While Matthew may be playing off the ambiguity of the pagan’s worship, their response to finding Jesus – they “rejoiced with an exceedingly great joy”[8] – seems to indicate something beyond mere reverence or political maneuvering.

What is presented to the reader, then, is an understanding of the Magi’s visit which envisions the end of days inauguration of the worship of nations at Zion. The Magi come to Jesus bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh and bowing down before him in worship.[9] They do not come (ultimately) to physical Jerusalem or its Temple, but to Jesus the Messiah. What is at work here, even in Matthew’s second chapter, is a conception of Jesus as the one true place of worship over-against the Jerusalem Temple and its sacrificial system. Indeed, “something greater than the Temple” has arrived (Matt. 12:6).


[1] Iain Provan, 1 and 2 Kings (NIBC; Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008), 86.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings (Macon: Smyth and Helwys, 2000), 137.

[3] The function of the lamed preposition here, as with elsewhere in the Psalter, does not necessarily indicate authorship. While the English rendering “of Solomon” is often understood as an ascription of authorship, it is perhaps more helpfully understood as “about Solomon,” “concerning Solomon,” or “to Solomon.”

[4] While it is clear that the Magi are not themselves kings, they are almost always associated with kings. The tribute rendered to Jesus is unilateral. They give, but do not receive. Their worship is not reciprocal: they are servants, Jesus is Lord. The Magi stand in the place of kings, but are not actual royalty. The intertextual effect is one of representation, not identification. Readers are inclined to understand the Magi as kings due to the overt intertextual backdrop onto which Matthew’s story is cast. Powell notes that “…we must affirm, however, that Matthew’s narrative develops in ways that allow readers to connect the magi with kings and still make sense of the story” (“The Magi as Kings: An Adventure in Reader-Response Criticism,” CBQ 62 [2000]: 462.) The conception of kings rendering tribute to the Christ child is therefore not without warrant and may, in fact, more accurately portray the underlying theological point that Matthew is intending to make: In an act of eschatological subordination, the kings of the earth have brought gifts/tribute to Israel’s Messiah.

[5] Indeed, the particle ivdou. (“Behold!”) in 2:1 functions as a discourse marker meant “to focus attention on the introduction of a major participant into the episode…It alerts the audience to pay attention to a particular participant as the plot unfolds” (Richard Young, Intermediate New Testament Greek: A Linguistic and Exegetical Approach [Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994], 198). The focus throughout is thus on the arrival and activity of the Magi.

[6] Herod’s motives are dubious at best and likely driven by his desire to locate and destroy the threat to his throne. Powell highlights the irony of Herod’s response, “Matthew’s readers are expected to know that the kings in Scripture honor God’s chosen one, but now, when that one arrives, the kings of the earth do not respond. The gifts and the worship that kings would offer, according to Scripture, are brought by magi instead. To use a medieval analogy, it is as though the time for the king to appear had come, and a court jester showed up in his place. ‘Magi?’ Matthew’s readers are expected to ask. ‘Where are the kings?’ The point of  the story, then, is that when Jesus came into the world he was worshiped not by kings but by servants. Part of the irony, of course, is that there is a king in the story, and he even speaks of worshiping Jesus, but he has no intention of doing so” (“Magi as Kings,” 472-73).

[7] The use of the term proskune,w here is seemingly ambiguous. Nolland notes that “[i]n Mark the term means only to show deferential respect to (5:6; 15:19); in Luke it always denotes worship (4:7, 8) and is used with Jesus as its object only after the resurrection (24:52); in Matthew it can mean reverence (4:9, 10), at times seems clearly to involve (religious) worship directed towards Jesus (14:33; 28:9, 17), and is used repeatedly of Jesus from infancy onwards in a manner which seems designed to blur, in the case of response to Jesus, the distinction between deferential respect and religious worship” (Gospel of Matthew, 111). Powell counters this observation by suggesting that, in Matthew, worship always takes as its cue the proper response to Jesus as the true son of God. He notes that “Although Matthew’s Gospel never offers a definition of worship, the accounts of worship that are narrated in this book appear to assume that worship is fundamentally a matter of attitude rather than form or mood” (“A Typology of Worship in the Gospel of Matthew,” JSOT 57 [1995]: 16).

[8] Young suggests rendering evca,rhsan cara.n mega,lhn sfo,dra as “They were thrilled with ecstatic joy” (18), while Keener advocates “they rejoiced with an exceedingly great joy” or, “they were thrilled to bits” (104).

[9] The nature of the Magi’s offerings has elicited much debate and discussion. Is there an underlying significance in their choice of gifts? France helpfully summarizes the possibilities and suggests an appropriate reading focusing on the kingly dimension of the gifts. “Their gifts are those of the affluent: gold, then as now the symbol of ultimate value and exotic spices, which would not normally come within the budget of an ordinary Jewish family. Frankincense…an expensive perfume…was burned not only in worship but at important social occasions…Despite the symbolism traditionally discerned in the gifts of the magi since the time of Irenaeus (gold for royalty, frankincense for divinity, and myrrh for death and burial—the latter based on John 19:39), myrrh, too, was primarily used as a luxurious cosmetic fragrance…These are luxury gifts, fit for a king” (Gospel of Matthew, 75-76).


Women in the Line of Christ: May It Never be?

(Post by Ben Thocher)

Looking closely at Matthew’s genealogy we observe another interesting feature: women! If you read just about any genealogy from the Old Testament it will be comprised exclusively of men. Why? The world of the Old Testament was a patriarchal society – that is, it was concerned almost exclusively with men. Procreation was primarily seen as the action and achievement of men. To not have a child (specifically a son) – even if the woman was barren – was a mark of dishonor for the husband. It was shameful. So the appearance of women in the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah is strange. It happens four times (five including Mary), as Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba are all included in Matthew’s family overview.

Now, if you’ve read through the Old Testament, and you’re looking for some exemplary women to hold up, you’d probably first consider Rachel, Leah, or Sarah – the matriarchs of Israel. These were women of strong faith and good reputation. The women included in Matthew’s genealogy are in many ways the opposite of this ideal. They were women of scandal, women of disrepute. So what’s the point? Why include these women in the lineage of Jesus the Messiah?

Four possible options:

First, Matthew has included these women to draw attention to their non-Jewish background. None of these women are Jews! This is going to be an important theme for Matthew. The primary issue in the New Testament church that we see addressed again and again is the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. Gentiles, as non-Jews, were strangers to the promises of Israel. Suddenly, Jesus comes on the scene and Gentiles are put on equal ground with Jews. There is no discrimination in Christ! Matthew is then preparing his readers for this reality by carefully selecting these women and including them here.

Second, Matthew has intentionally chosen women of scandal and disrepute to prepare his audience for the virgin birth of Jesus. If God can use these women, these shameful women, to accomplish his purposes then it should come as no surprise when Mary arrives on the scene pregnant by the Holy Spirit. This would then seem to be an apologetic on Matthew’s behalf. He is explaining to his audience why the virgin birth is not something to be ashamed of, but rather something to be praised!

Third, these women, as Gentiles, do have stories of tremendous faith. Their stories of faith come at crucial points in Israel’s history. Their “pagan” faith is superior to that of Israel’s men. Tamar’s faith helps further the line of Judah (Patriarchal period), Rahab’s faith helps the conquest get underway (Conquest generation), Ruth’s faith and actions lead directly to the birth of David the King (time of the Judges) and Bathsheba’s actions bring about Solomon, the great son of David (time of the Monarchy).

Fourth, these women are included because they are, in fact, women. The point being made is that the time of Patriarchal genealogies is over. Men and women are equal and co-heirs in Christ. This is a profound point, and one that Paul is careful to make in Gal 3:27-29 and Eph 2:11-22. The gospel re-orients and re-focuses the way we look at gender roles.

Thoughts?


The Theological Focus of Joseph in the Bible

The following article has been written by a seminary student Benjamin Thocher from Westminster Theological Seminary. There Ben is working on his Masters of Arts in Religion, majoring in Biblical Studies.
Perhaps the most important theological aspect of Genesis 37-50 is the interpretive lens with which Joseph understands his life and circumstances. His brothers come before him following the death of their father Jacob. Having sold their brother into slavery they now stand at his feet, expecting his judgment to be poured out. Joseph instead responds to his brothers concerns by stating “as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Genesis 50:20). This statement is vital to understand the character of God and the reality of evil. To be sure, the antecedent to “it” in Genesis 50:20 is “evil” – to put it differently “God meant that evil for good”. Piper explains that “the ultimate reason that suffering exists in the universe is so that Christ might display the greatness of the glory of the grace of God by suffering in himself to overcome our suffering. The suffering of the utterly innocent and infinitely holy Son of God in the place of utterly undeserving sinners to bring us to everlasting joy is the greatest display of the glory of God’s grace that ever was, or ever could be”. This is to say then, that suffering had to exist in order that Christ might come and suffer on the cross. Piper goes on to say that “everything leading to the cross and everything flowing from it is explained by it, including all the suffering in the world”. Joseph too holds the key to understanding the role of pain, suffering, and evil in the world. Whereas his brothers intended to do Joseph harm, God was superintending the event to bring about his good purposes – namely, the salvation of the sons of Israel. In this same way the suffering the Israelites faced at the hands of the Egyptians was so that God could create for Himself a set apart people, and to display His glory throughout all the earth. Paul Helm comments that in “Joseph’s understanding God brought certain events to pass, events which had a beneficial end, and which were in accordance with his covenant promise to Abraham, using the evil intentions and actions of human beings. He does this, according to Joseph, without himself being implicated in the evil, and without diminishing in any way the evil of what was done to Joseph and the responsibility for that evil”.
The libertarian free will advocate will surely ask how this can possibly be so? How can God govern the choices of human beings without violating the freedom of those choices? It is this exact question that is answered in Joseph’s evaluation of the story – it cannot be understood. Mark Talbot rightfully states that “attempts on our part to understand it involve our trying to understand the unique relationship between the Creator and his creatures in terms of our understanding of some creature-to-creature relationship”. It is this misunderstanding that Talbot calls a category mistake. The creature cannot understand from its own perspective what it is to be creator. The story of Joseph then testifies in its entirety to the total sovereignty of God in and through the actions of sinful man.