Matthew 2 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Growing Up in a Small Town

Whereas modern Western readers generally expect a series of neat, concise theological statements, God chose to reveal himself in more concrete historical forms. Matthew does not just provide abstract statements about Jesus; he explains the character of his Lord by the history that was sanctified by his presence.

Jesus Is Granted a Respite from Trouble (2:19-20)

Although Jesus would face more persecution in his adult years, Herod's death granted him a time of relative respite until his public ministry. Although Matthew mentions Herod's murder of the children, he notes Herod's own death three times-indicating that God alone holds the ultimate power of life and death (Patte 1987:36). Every unjust empire in history has ultimately fallen, but God's church continues to endure (Rev 18:1-3; 19:1-3). To oppressed Christians, whether persecuted for their faith (Mt 10:22; 1 Pet 4:13-14) or repressed for other unjust reasons (Mt 5:39-41; Jas 5:1-7), this reminder of the oppressors' mortality is a reminder that all trials are temporary and our loving Father remains in control (Mt 10:28-31; see also 1 Pet 5:10).

The angelic orders to return to the land of Israel because those seeking the child's life were dead (2:19-21) explicitly recall Exodus 4:19-20. Jewish readers would have immediately recognized the allusion: like Moses, Jesus had outlived his persecutor and would lead his people to salvation (Mt 1:21; Acts 7:35).

Wisdom Protects the Family from a Potential Danger (2:21-22)

God again protects his purpose in history from human oppressors. Joseph was wise to avoid Judea and Archelaus (compare Prov 22:3; 27:12), as a dream confirmed. Archelaus shared all his father's negative qualities and quickly provoked the opposition of many of the people (Suet. Tiberius 8; Jos. Ant. 17.311-17). Although he maintained his position as ethnarch for some time, the opposition of A.D. 6 led to his banishment to Vienna in Gaul (Strabo 16.2.46; Jos. Ant. 17.342-44).

By God's Plan, They Settle in an Obscure Place (2:23) Jewish leaders who opposed Matthew's community undoubtedly reviled Jesus by wondering how a great Messiah could come from politically insignificant Nazareth (compare Jn 1:46). Nazareth was, like many Galilean towns, "a tiny agricultural village." Earlier estimates suggested that it contained as many as sixteen hundred to two thousand inhabitants (Meyers and Strange 1981:27, 56), but more recent estimates have suggested five hundred (Stanton 1993:112). It was the sort of community where everyone would know everyone else's business, but it was a religiously orthodox town (see Meyers and Strange 1981:27; Finegan 1969:29). Though Nazareth existed in the shadow of the large, Hellenized Jewish city of Sepphoris, Galilean villages and towns were not very dependent economically on the two Hellenized cities (Goodman 1983:27, 60).

But while Nazareth was humanly insignificant, Matthew emphasizes that it was divinely significant. Jewish leaders may have been inclined to question, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" (Jn 1:46 NASB), but Matthew turns their objection around by showing divine significance in the choice of Nazareth as Jesus' hometown. Matthew accomplishes this exercise by a wordplay, a standard and accepted form of argumentation in both Jewish and Greco-Roman rhetoric (Keener 1992b:54 n. 101). Although we would not use an argument based on wordplay today (in English wordplays usually constitute bad puns rather than arguments), Matthew's argument demonstrates that we, like Matthew, should be prepared to answer our culture's objections and questions regarding our Lord Jesus in culturally relevant ways. His case for Nazareth also reminds us that God often uses the despised things of the world to accomplish his purposes (1 Cor 1:27).

That Matthew is making a play on the name Nazareth is easier to recognize than the specific word with which he is playing, and scholars divide in their opinions here. Two views are most common. Those who believe that Matthew would not use a wordplay that worked only in Hebrew usually hold that Matthew intended "Nazirite" (Patte 1987:39-40; Meier 1980:16). Scholars who argue this position typically assume that Matthew drew a typological application from Samson in Judges 13:5 (part of the former prophets), which he attributed for some reason to the Messiah.

But whereas Matthew's less skillful readers would have to have satisfied themselves that the text was in their Bible somewhere, those skillful enough to recognize that no single text said this would also recognize Matthew's method; many might also know Hebrew. Thus other scholars appeal to the prophets' messianic title "the branch" (Is 4:2; Jer 23:5; 33:15; Zech 3:8; 6:12); Isaiah 11:1 uses the same term, which is more clearly messianic than "Nazirite."

Previous commentary:
The Persecuted Child

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.

Bible Gateway Recommendations