I would recommend Bauer’s article on the kingship of Jesus in the Matthean infancy narrative as a good preparation for preaching in general in the year of Matthew. I will try to share some of his insights here and reflect on that material. He notes that as of the composition of his article in the mid-nineties, the kingship of Jesus in this narrative had not been examined much as a Christological theme. I think that’s changed somewhat since he wrote his article, but his work is still valuable and stimulating.
In the Matthean infancy narrative, Bauer argues, the kingship of Jesus is set in double contrast to that of Herod and to the status of the Magi. The contrast between Jesus as the “born” king and Herod as the pretender is fairly obvious. Bauer notes that another contrast is between those who worship Jesus as king and those who seek to kill him. “Matthew presents this double contrast,” Bauer suggests, “in order to delineate the character and significance of Jesus’ kingship as well as the responses to it” (page 308).
If the Matthean account is a manual for disciples (and I think it is), then it’s worth wondering what the infancy narrative adds to that manual. Why are the first two (or three or four) chapters of Matthew set as they are and where they are in such a manual? If Bauer’s argument is correct, then we can see the role of these verses. They are the story of Jesus, the Messiah, the King of the Jews. This is the one who we follow as disciples.
Parenthetically, I would suggest, as a result, that this prologue to the Matthean discipleship manual runs through the end of the account of Jesus’ baptism and on through the temptation account. The whole of the prologue is then intended to arrive at that goal. Jesus is the son of Abraham, the son of David, and the son of God. He is both the king and personification of Israel, in the Matthean view. If that is the case, then of course we should follow him.
Bauer notes that the Matthean account refers to Herod several times as “king.” I would note that this is the case only until the utterance of the prophecy in Matthew 2:6. After that identification, Herod is no longer referred to as “king.” Once the real king of the Jews has been anchored in scripture (and in Bethlehem), it would seem that the pretender is stripped of his title. This isn’t part of Bauer’s analysis, but I do think that it complements the work in his study.
Herod’s rule is marked by fear, paranoia, and violence. Yet, as Bauer notes, those tools are useless in deterring God’s plans and purposes. Instead, Herod’s malicious responses are subverted for God’s purposes: “God transforms them into the means whereby the divine agenda are advanced, and the will of God for the Messiah is fulfilled” (page 308). Herod is duped by the Magi and is subject to ridicule as a result.
Jesus is portrayed as a Davidic king, based on both prophecy and geography. As a Davidic king he is to be “shepherd” for God’s people and to save them, not only from danger, but from their own sins. Jesus assumes this royal mantle in humility. Yet, he is the born, legitimate, divinely appointed king of the Jews. The grammar of Matthew 2:2 makes this abundantly clear. The unusual word order puts the emphasis on the one who is born king as opposed to the one who is appointed by the Romans.
Jesus, Bauer notes, is the royal Son of God. As I noted earlier, I think this is where the first four chapters are headed. And this is why they are best understood when read together. The passage that follows our current one will make this even clearer with the quote from Hosea. That prophecy will equate Jesus with Israel as God’s chosen Son who is called “out of Egypt.” That call will then be ratified in the baptismal account in chapter 3 and tested in the Temptation in chapter four.
As a result, “the kingship of Jesus challenges the rule of Herod” (page 314). We know that this will serve as the paradigm in the Matthean account for the ongoing collision between Jesus’ rule and that of the rulers of this world. On the one hand, Jesus does not intend to set up a regime to “compete” with that of Herod (or Caesar). However, Herod demonstrates an awareness that in Jesus, someone else is claiming God’s people. That claim, even if it is Divine, cannot be tolerated by a secular ruler.
“Herod’s hostility toward the kingship of Jesus, therefore, represents a dialectic between misunderstanding and understanding,” Bauer writes. “Herod misunderstands in that he construes the kingdom of Jesus in political terms. But he understands all to well,” Bauer continues, “that the kingship of Jesus represents the rule of God which challenges the kind of rule Herod enjoys” (page 315). Herod’s rule is deadly in intent but cannot prevail since in Jesus the power of death itself will be defeated.
“This presentation of Herod’s opposition to Jesus evidently prepares for, and illumines, the theme of secular political antagonism to Jesus and the church which the reader encounters throughout the remainder of the Gospel,” Bauer argues (page 315). This is an interesting text for reflection in a time when justifiably intense conversations about Christian nationalism are happening in political arenas around the world. The relationship between secular power and the Jesus agenda is more alive at this moment than it has been at any other point in my life.
The text, Bauer reminds us, also connects the responses of Herod as a secular political leader and that of the religious establishment in Jerusalem. Again, the pursuit of power often brings together institutional interests that might otherwise be at odds with one another. Later, as Bauer notes, the Pharisees and the “Herodians” will ally with one another to seek to entrap Jesus in his words (see Matthew 22:16). We get a preview of that unholy alliance in Matthew 2.
Herod responds to the royal announcement with fear. The Magi respond with faith. “It is remarkable,” Bauer writes, “that these Gentile magoi are the first persons in the Gospel to utter a Christological confession, even as the Gentile centurion (and those with him) are the last (27:54) and that these Gentiles actually proclaim the birth of the king of the Jews to Israel” (page 319). Even though the Matthean account is clearly oriented toward Jewish Christians throughout, it is more often the Gentiles in the story who recognize Jesus for who he is. (Here, also, is further evidence of the chiastic structure of the overall gospel account).
The Magi are obedient to God. They offer worship to the infant King of the Jews as they bend the knee to the Child. They bring gifts fit for royalty and present them. They rejoice in the encounter. And they reject Herod’s competing claims on them as they return home “by another way.” They will not be traveling the way of Herod the pretender to the throne. “Indeed, both the narrator and Herod,” Bauer argues, “construe the refusal of the magoi to return to Herod as an act of ridicule…” (page 322).
Bauer suggests that this contrast in responses prepares us to read the remainder of the Matthean account. It prepares us to identify and assess those who will oppose the kingship of Jesus, respond violently to him, and persecute his followers. And it prepares us to identify and embrace those who will respond to Jesus with obedient worship. On the one hand, those who reject Jesus will participate in his death. On the other hand, those who worship him will obey and follow. They will go “another way.” We will see this play out again and again in the Matthean account.
I quote Bauer’s final sentences here. “The entire presentation of 1:18-2:23 prepares especially for the passion and resurrection narratives, for all other references to Jesus’ earthly kingship are found there, and it is there that the responses to Jesus’ kingship on the part of the secular authorities, the religious leaders, the people, Gentiles who experience God’s revelation, and the disciples reach their climax. The kingship of Jesus is introduced in the infancy narrative,” Bauer concludes, “but it is most perfectly expressed in the cross” (page 323).
In fact, I think this is another piece of the argument for understanding the Matthean account in total as a chiasm. One of the functions of the Matthew infancy narrative is to serve as an intertext for the Matthean passion account. I think it’s both necessary and instructive to read the birth and death stories alongside one another. The cross casts its shadow over the manger. The manger declares the birth of new life beyond the powers of the grave. For Jesus followers, both things are true at the same time.
Lest we miss the shadow of the cross in Herod’s machinations, we will get the clear picture in the next section of the Gospel account. Herod responds to his humiliation with a genocidal rage. And the toddlers in Bethlehem pay the price.
References and Resources
BAUER, DAVID R. “The Kingship of Jesus in the Matthean Infancy Narrative: A Literary Analysis.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 57, no. 2 (1995): 306–23. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43722341.