Books: The Path to the Cross — Chapter 2

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Chapter 2

When you can’t see the bottom line

Jesus’ royalty threatens Herod

Every generation has its pet phrases to express things. When I was growing up, the word “cool” described just about anything good. With the proper voice inflection and context, you can make phrases like that mean anything you want.

Teenagers regularly create such new expressions, but adults can also get in on the action. In conversations among men, and especially older businessmen, someone will, at appropriate points, mention “the bottom line”.

The bottom line gets its meaning from the world of accounting. When you get your bank statement, a little box on the page tells you the current balance; that’s the bottom line. By extension this phrase comes to mean the outcome, the summary or the end result.

Our problem is that we can’t usually know what the bottom line of our decisions is going to be. What do we do then? In fact, we must decide some of the most important issues of our lives without knowing the bottom line. In choosing a marriage partner, a career, a home, and many other things, we must make a choice without knowing the eventual outcome.

These uncertainties about personal decisions are compounded by other factors far beyond our control. Terrorism, crime, and economic crisis spread their fears into the lives of almost every American. Faraway events— tsunamis, earthquakes, political turmoil in the Arab world — can disrupt our whole culture.

In such an atmosphere I find it comforting to know that behind the scenes God rules as King over all. To know that my allegiance to Jesus Christ makes me a part of his kingdom and affords me his protective care helps to calm me in the midst of many chilling threats.

Is there any evidence of this principle at work after the birth of Jesus? Oh yes!

Haunting Similarities in Jericho

By intentionally including the names of five women in the genealogy of Jesus, Matthew hints at Old Testament stories that relate to Jesus’ birth (see Table 1 in the Appendix to chapter 1). Using these stories for comparison with the story of Jesus and his parents involves an ancient Jewish technique called midrash. Matthew used midrash throughout Matthew chapters 1 and 2 to introduce additional information.

By using the name Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute who hid the Israelite spies in Jericho (Joshua chapters 2 and 6), Matthew informs us of a relationship between her story in the Old Testament and Matthew 2:1–12. This key will help us unlock the historical background for Matthew’s story about the visiting Magi — learned Persians or Babylonians who studied signs — who worship Jesus during the frantic execution of a deadly plot by King Herod to kill him.

Table 3 — see the Appendix to this chapter —details the many similarities between the story of Rahab and Matthew’s account of the Magi. You may want to refer to this table again after learning more about Herod and the events at the end of his reign.

The parallel story of Rahab helps determine that King Herod was strongly involved with Jericho during the general time of Jesus’ birth and the arrival of the Magi. Ancient Jericho was located fourteen miles east of Jerusalem. By correlating that fact with the history written by Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, we learn that the Magi appeared during the final few months of Herod’s life and reign. Such timing fits perfectly with the findings of modern scholarship that Jesus was born just a few months before Herod’s death.[1]

Where is the king?

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem
2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
(Matthew 2:1–2)

The Greek text of Matthew 2:1 provides a bit more dramatic impact than the translation given above. I would put it like this: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, behold Magi from the east appeared in Jerusalem.” The Magi suddenly and unexpectedly burst upon the scene in Jerusalem. I believe they came secretly and quietly, similar to the way that the Israelite spies entered Jericho in the parallel account about Rahab.

The Magi asked a question filled with threat: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” Herod, who was ruling as a vassal king under the Romans, had not descended from the house of David. New Testament scholar Stanley D. Toussaint says, “Herod, of the Idumaean dynasty, was a usurper.”[2] Rome had put him in power to reward his cooperation in previous wars.

The people hated Herod because he was not a Jew and also because he had killed members of his own family who were Jewish. So the question posed by the Magi meant double trouble for Herod. It reminded the people who heard it that Herod was not a Jew and that another had been born to be king over his own people.

A King Searches for the King

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.
(Matthew 2:3)

To protect his throne, Herod had informers and agents spread throughout Judea. Herod ruled his territory much like a modern dictator, using military force and any other means — such as torture and death — he considered necessary to hold power. Herod was agitated by foreign visitors asking threatening questions about his throne.

I always understood why Herod was disturbed, but it puzzled me that all Jerusalem was alarmed as well. Everything fell into place when I studied the period through the eyes of Josephus (A.D. 37 – c. A.D. 100), the Jewish historian of that era.

When Christ was born during the final months of Herod’s life, the king was seventy years of age. Herod had been stricken with various physical problems — literally from head to foot — and the Jews did not expect him to live much longer. False rumors of his death regularly produced confusion.

During his final illness, Herod became even more ruthless and paranoid. Anything that threatened him increased the chance that people would suddenly be grabbed off of the street, hauled off to one of his fortresses, and tortured for information.

The birth of Jesus brought a fresh threat to Herod’s rule, but there had been others. Over the years, five of Herod’s wives and seven of his sons figured into the struggle to succeed him. Herod dealt with his own family just as ruthlessly as he did with those outside. He murdered one of his wives and three of his sons over the course of his life because he suspected plots.

So, for their own self-protection, the people living in Jerusalem kept themselves aware of anything that might disturb King Herod. Such events could initiate a new reign of terror!

Partly from Matthew’s own lead and partly from the history written by Josephus, we know that Herod spent considerable time in Jericho during the period of time in which Jesus was born and the Magi arrived in Jerusalem. By living in his winter palace at Jericho, Herod could stay about ten degrees warmer during those months than he could in Jerusalem. And he also had access to warm water baths on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea. His physicians held out hope that those baths might cure his many ailments.

As Herod lay ill in Jerusalem and Jericho, God unfolded his own movements right under the king’s nose. Herod could never lay a hand on Jesus.

Part of the story’s irony involves Herod exerting all of his energy to find and kill Jesus, while the Lord casually brought the Magi into the capital city and on to worship Jesus without Herod being able to stop it. Jesus and his parents enjoyed complete safety in the midst of danger because of the Lord’s hidden rule.

Herod’s Searching Questions

4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
(Matthew 2:4–6)

Herod summoned the Jewish religious leaders — in either Jerusalem or Jericho — and kept on pressing them for information about the birthplace of the Messiah. From the Scriptures they informed him rightly that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. Even with this accurate word, Herod could not alter the bottom line.

The material quoted by the experts from the Old Testament actually comes from two different places. The name Bethlehem comes from Micah 5:2, while the closing statement about Jesus, saying he “will shepherd my people Israel,” comes from 1 Chronicles 11:2.

In both Old Testament contexts, the immediately preceding verses have a message relevant to the passage in Matthew. Micah spoke of a walled city against which a siege is laid and in which a ruler dies (Micah 5:1) — quite reminiscent of the Jericho story (Joshua 2 and 6). As we will see, Herod, like the ancient king of Jericho, will also die in Jericho while trying to oppose God.

Similarly, 1 Chronicles 10:14 tells how the Lord put Saul the murderous king to death and turned the kingdom over to David. Just as Saul often tried to kill David and prevent him from becoming king of Israel, so Herod tried to kill the son of David, Jesus, the coming King.

Matthew is extensively using the comparative techniques of midrash to add detail from these stories.

An Audience with a King

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
(Matthew 2:7–8)

Herod next summoned the Magi secretly, either in Jerusalem or Jericho. He took tremendous pains to extract precise information from them.

Undoubtedly, Herod would have worshiped Jesus with the point of a knife if only he could. Herod hoped to turn the Magi to his own purposes through their zeal to find Jesus.

The “Star” Leads the Way

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
(Matthew 2:9–10)

The Magi could not know for sure that Bethlehem was their destination. They were relying on God’s guidance to bring them to the right place. When the supernatural light appeared to them once again, they experienced a joy verging on ecstasy.

Contrary to what you have heard, the “star” that guided the Magi was not a star in the night sky. This shining light guided them in such a specific way that it must have been a more earthbound supernatural light that guided them to their destination.[3] Matthew tells us that the light “went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was” (Matt. 2:9).

New Testament scholar Craig Keener says, “The description of God’s leading the Magi by a moving, supernatural sign may recall how God led his own people by the fire and cloud in the wilderness (Exod. 13:21–22).”[4]

Conduct a simple experiment for yourself. Go out tonight, look into the sky to pick out a star, and then ask yourself over which house that star is standing. You will quickly realize that a normal star could not guide anyone to a specific location. In my city, a normal star positioned near the horizon could be considered to stand over thousands of houses on a line toward the horizon.

Further, such a star could as easily have guided King Herod’s agents as it did those eastern wise men. Extensive efforts to relate this supernatural light to conjunctions of planets, comets, and other astronomical objects all amount to misguided effort. The “star” was a guiding miracle of God, given to a select group of men so that the Lord could carry out his plans in the midst of deep danger.

Jewish shepherds first bowed down to the newborn Jesus on the night of his birth. Much later — perhaps as much as 45 days — the Gentile wise men came to worship. It is amusing that while Herod is called king many times in the course of this passage, no one bows down to him! Only Jesus receives honor and worship. Matthew indirectly makes clear that Jesus is the real king, not Herod.

Just as the spies did not go back to Joshua’s army by the same route after scouting Jericho (Joshua 2:15–24), so also the Magi returned to their own country by another path. They avoided returning to Herod, and thus they completed the God-given mission undertaken with Herod’s full knowledge. Under God’s guiding hand, Herod proved powerless to stop them or to use them for his own purposes. God wrote the bottom line!

How It All Fits Together

Now we are ready to weave Matthew’s account together with secular history in an attempt to reconstruct the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. (To examine this information in table form, see Table 4 in the Appendix to this chapter.)

In December, 5 B.C.[5], Mary gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, just five miles south of Jerusalem. Angels and shepherds worshiped him. Forty days after his birth, Jesus was dedicated by his faithful parents at the temple in Jerusalem.

With disturbing suddenness, the Magi arrived in Jerusalem. They began quietly asking questions about the one who had been born king of the Jews. Herod’s many agents soon carried word to him and greatly disturbed his suspicious mind. All Jerusalem feared the consequences.

Because of his illness, Herod first summoned the religious leaders to his bedside — in Jerusalem or Jericho — to reveal to him the location where the Messiah of the Jews would be born. Next he secretly summoned the Magi to reveal all they knew (Matt. 2:7). Then he sent the Magi to find Jesus and report back to him.

The Magi, guided by the supernatural light, found Jesus at a certain “house” (Matt. 2:11) and worshiped him. Then they departed without returning to Herod because God had warned them not to.

In response to another dramatic warning from the Lord, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fled to Egypt (Matt. 2:13). This timely warning spared them from Herod’s own order that the children near Bethlehem be put to death. Herod had become enraged when he learned that the Magi had eluded him and ordered the death of Bethlehem’s youngest children (Matt. 2:16) — thought to be about twenty in number.[6]

As word spread that Herod’s illness was entering its last stages, his opponents in Jerusalem became more bold. Herod had erected a golden eagle on the temple in violation of Jewish law. Suddenly a rumor circulated that the king had died. Buoyed by this news, two men named Judas and Matthias incited a crowd to tear down the golden eagle.

But the rumor proved false, and temple troops managed to seize forty of the men and take them before the ailing king. Herod sent them to Jericho for trial and punishment.

By this time, Herod’s illness was growing worse, and the mineral baths near the Dead Sea were not helping. Herod’s son Antipater, who was in prison in the winter palace at Jericho, heard an outcry when his father attempted to kill himself with a paring knife. Antipater celebrated, and that act cost him his life because his father’s suicide attempt had been stopped!

Five days later, the ruthless, death-dealing Herod died in Jericho. Everyone rejoiced!

A Backward Glance

In the midst of an evil, corrupt kingdom, God sent a defenseless family and helpless baby to face many uncertainties and real dangers. But God protected them through it all, fulfilled the prophecies about Jesus’ birth and carried out his plan for the family’s escape without Herod being able to stop it.

That gives me tremendous hope when I run into the threats and dangers we all face in our own lives. Through faith in Jesus Christ, we also belong to God’s family, and he can write the bottom line for us too.

Applying the Truth to Life

Use the following ideas to allow the principles from this story to change your own life:

1. God’s oversight of our world is a reality often hidden from our view by the clamor and tension of current world events. Too often we fearfully focus our attention on the news media and forget God. He has the power and authority to intervene at any level, including the personal circumstances of this world’s most wicked rulers. I think these facts should lead you to take the following steps:

Pray for God’s guidance for your governing officials.

Pray that God will oppose the power of evil rulers.

Pray for the Lord’s protective care over your own household.

2. Clearly, the obedience of the Magi and Joseph to God’s command spared them from death. Those who respond to the King of heaven and earth are shielded from much of the pain and sorrow that sin brings upon our world. How about you?

Do you know God’s revealed will, the Scriptures, so that you know how to respond to life-situations that you face?

Do you see yourself as one who generally obeys God’s principles for living?

Are you growing wiser and more responsive to God as each year fades into another?

3. What important situations are you facing right now whose outcome you can’t see?

How do you feel about the uncertainty?

What involvement do you think God could have in your circumstances?

A Final Word

I generally don’t take risks unless compelled to. So, it still baffles me that before leaving for Dallas Theological Seminary I quit a very secure job without knowing whether the Seminary would accept me. To do otherwise would have delayed my application for two more years. It felt funny to burn my bridges behind me without having a clear path ahead. The bottom line lay far beyond my control.

In such times of uncertainty, God’s hidden rule over my life helps to chase away anxiety. I know that he can totally control the bottom line. Just as he protected Jesus and his parents from Herod’s evil schemes, so he can shield me in hidden but powerful ways. That knowledge helps me to take necessary risks and to make choices.

The assurance of God’s hidden rule will comfort you, even when you can’t see the bottom line!

 Coming next week . . .

In Chapter 3 (next week) we learn that Mary, the mother of Jesus, experienced great stress and even exhibited disobedience due to the dangers directed toward her family.

 Appendix to Chapter 2

Table 3 illustrates the kind of comparison that lies at the heart of the midrash technique Matthew used to add depth to his brief account about Jesus.

Table 3

Matthew 2:1-12 Joshua 2 and 6
Magi seek facts (2:2) Spies seek facts (2:1)
King and city disturbed (2:3) King and city disturbed (2:9)
Threat to rulership (2:3) Threat to rulership (2:9–12)
Search party sent out (2:8) Search party sent out (2:7, 22)
Magi succeed (2:11) Spies succeed (2:23)
Return by another route (2:12) Return by another route (2:22)
King dies in Jericho (2:15) King dies in Jericho (6:21)
Woman and family safe (2:14) Woman and family safe (6:25)


Table 4

Events Related to the Birth of Jesus

December, 5 B.C. Jesus born in Bethlehem (Matt. 1:25)[7]
February, 4 B.C. Jesus dedicated at Temple (Luke 2:22)
Magi arrive (Matthew 2:1)
Herod summons teachers (Matthew 2:4)
Herod summons Magi (Matthew 2:7)
Magi find Jesus (Matthew 2:11)
Magi depart (Matthew 2:12)
Jesus and parents flee (Matthew 2:14)
Feb., 4 B.C. (?) Herod orders infants killed (Matthew 2:16)

c. Mar. 10, 4 B.C.

Golden eagle incident at Temple*[8]

March, 4 B.C.

Sick Herod goes to Jericho*[9]
March, 4 B.C. Herod executes his son Antipater*
March, 4 B.C. Five days pass*
March, 4 B.C. Herod dies in Jericho*

*Source: Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian.

[1] Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976) 13–27.

[2] Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold the King (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1980) 52.

[3] Agreeing is R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 69.

[4] Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1993) 49.

[5] Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, 27.

[6] R.T. France, Matthew, 85.

[7] Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, 27.

[8] Peter Richardson, Herod (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999) 15.

[9] Richardson, Herod, 18.

Copyright © 2011 Barry Applewhite. All Rights reserved worldwide.

Books: The Path to the Cross — Chapter 1









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Chapter 1

A blessing in disguise (Matt. 1:18–25)

Jesus’ birth afflicts Joseph

When Theodore Roosevelt (“TR”) was a child, his health was so bad that his father had to spend most weekends taking TR to upstate New York to relieve frequent asthma attacks. Such infirmity would have crushed the spirit of many children, but young Theodore began to embrace a life full of rigorous physical challenge and discipline.

As a result, TR became one of the most energetic figures in the world. Indeed, he once spoke for ninety minutes at a political rally after being shot in the side! Defying expectations, what seemed at first to be a health disaster had propelled his life to great heights.

The apostle Matthew used this same pattern — defeat transformed into victory — to describe Christ’s birth in the first Gospel. When Mary, the mother of Jesus, was found to be pregnant, her intended husband Joseph hit bottom. We will see how God turned Joseph’s apparent defeat into victory.

A vital clue to Matthew’s thinking

Before we get into the story of Jesus’ birth, we need to consider how Matthew tells his story. Biblical genealogies may seem boring, yet buried within the Messiah’s genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew lies a set of vital clues to the literary structure for his account of our Lord’s birth. Matthew signaled his intentions by doing something unusual: he included the names of five women in the genealogy of Christ.

To include women in the genealogy deviated from common practice. Luke mentioned only one woman, Mary, in his genealogy, and did it only to make clear that Joseph had no biological role in Jesus’ birth. Matthew oddly mentions Tamar (1:3), Rahab (1:5), Ruth (1:5), Bathsheba — mentioned as “Uriah’s wife” (1:6), the woman who had the adulterous affair with King David — and Mary (1:16).

In chapters 1–3 of this book we will see how these women’s names shine fresh light on the birth and early life of Jesus. The key to understanding what Matthew is doing lies in learning how he uses a Jewish teaching technique known as midrash — from a Hebrew word that means to study or investigate — to add meaning to his brief narrative. To understand Matthew’s story requires several detours to related stories in the Old Testament for comparison.

When you read Matthew’s first two chapters, you find that he wrote a very lean narrative. He provides few details about the momentous events he describes. But Matthew cleverly brings additional material to bear in two ways: 1) by quoting from the Old Testament and 2) by drawing attention to several Old Testament stories having intentional similarities to the story of Jesus. That second technique is midrash.

Far from being an enigma, the women’s names act as signposts toward meaning. Table 1 in the Appendix to this chapter shows how Matthew supplemented certain portions of his narrative with the stories of five women from the Old Testament.

As we consider Christ’s birth, we will follow Matthew’s intentional lead by contrasting the story of Mary and Joseph with the story of Tamar (Matt. 1:3) and her father-in-law Judah from Genesis 38. Tamar is the first woman Matthew named, and so her story adds the first supplemental material to the story of Jesus’ birth. From it we learn more about Joseph’s struggle over the pregnancy of Mary.

Broken promises and a crisis in disguise

The story of Judah and Tamar, who are in the royal line of Christ, contrasts sharply with that of Joseph and Mary because Judah and Tamar did not live as righteous people ought to live. See Table 2 in the Appendix to this chapter for a detailed comparison of their stories with Bible references included.

Judah, the son of the patriarch Jacob, was harmed by Tamar after breaking a pledge to her that she would marry one of his sons. Tamar got her revenge by disguising herself as a prostitute and taking an unannounced trip to seduce Judah, who was on a journey. Worse still, she became pregnant! To Judah’s great shame, his sin was exposed. This was Judah’s crisis, and he threatened Tamar with death.

It’s not a pretty story! The saga of Judah and Tamar reeks with struggle, intrigue, and sin. But, amazingly enough, God used this reversal in Judah’s life to shape him into a better person. In Genesis 44, Judah offered his own life to save his younger brother’s life (Gen. 44:27–34).

It is striking that Matthew intentionally refers to this story to highlight Joseph’s crisis, but he clearly does. Both stories involve men facing crises that relate to the birth of the Messiah; both Tamar and Mary are part of the biological line of Jesus. Judah was an oath-breaker and a man willing to kill. How will Judah compare with Joseph? We will unpack Matthew’s midrash — a form of comparison — and find out.  [See Appendix 1 below for details of this comparison.]

In both accounts God turns defeat into eventual victory. The individual crises of Judah and Joseph were blessings in disguise.

The unwanted child — Jesus

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
(Matthew 1:18–19)

Clearly, Joseph learned about Mary’s pregnancy before hearing the facts of the matter from her. At this point, Matthew leaves much unsaid, but we can get insight by considering Luke’s account (Luke 1:26–56). God sent an angel to inform Mary of her impending pregnancy, and she immediately departed to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth in the hill country of Judah.

Mary’s story resembles Tamar’s story in several respects. First of all, Mary’s unannounced journey led to a conflict. She returned after three months of pregnancy to await her marriage in her father’s house (like Tamar). Her pregnancy then became known, and the crisis hit Joseph with full force. Remember that Joseph had never read Matthew chapter 1!

How would you have felt if you were Joseph? He was a righteous young descendant of David who had selected a godly young woman from among his people. After a three-month journey to Judah, his wife-to-be was pregnant, and he knew the child was not his own. What would you have thought? Surely any of us would have drawn the same conclusion that Joseph did.

Joseph’s dreams of the life he would live with this woman he deeply loved were instantly shattered. His life hit rock bottom, and he himself was probably subjected to ridicule due to Mary’s condition. Feel with Joseph the pain of that terrible moment. Just as Judah mistook Tamar for a common prostitute, Joseph also misjudged Mary as sexually unfaithful. The comparison of the two related stories confirms this conclusion about Joseph even though Matthew does not say it outright. That’s how midrash works.

Joseph demonstrated a compassion for Mary that his counterpart Judah didn’t show for Tamar; Joseph tried to prevent any harm from coming to Mary. The Jews regarded infidelity during engagement as seriously as they did after marriage. As an apparent adulteress, Mary could have received the death penalty, but Joseph took steps to quietly break the engagement.

On the surface Joseph’s story is filled with wrongdoing, tragedy, and defeat, but behind it all stands God, who transforms defeat into victory. He was using Mary and Joseph to accomplish a profound act in bringing salvation to Israel and the world. But the world continually misunderstands what God is doing.

A blessing in disguise

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
(Matthew 1:20–23)

In the midst of disaster, God intervened decisively with Joseph and Mary. The angel urged Joseph to take Mary home as his wife and not to fear the consequences. That action amounted to a legal, public claim that Mary was his wife, in spite of the fact that she was three months pregnant!

The surrounding community doubtless misunder­stood this action. Even though Joseph and Mary would have wanted to maintain a discreet silence, pregnancy cannot be hidden after a certain point. Stories about them were probably already circulating within Nazareth. The angel quieted Joseph’s baseless fears by revealing that Mary’s child had been conceived by the miraculous, creative act of the Holy Spirit.

After predicting the birth of a son, the angel commanded Joseph to name the boy Jesus — a name filled with profound meaning. It is derived from the Hebrew name Yeshua, which means “the Lord saves.” This name reveals the first part of what Jesus came to do; he came to deliver his people from their sins.

Then Matthew explains another name Jesus was given, that reveals another part of his mission: “‘they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’)” (Matt. 1:23).

When we think of Jesus delivering us from our sins, we usually visualize it as happening someday. Certainly Jesus will save us from divine judgment on that day, but we fall short of understanding if we don’t realize that he also came to deliver us from our sins right now!

Immanuel, which means “God with us,” brings out this present aspect. Jesus continually transforms the defeats, struggles, and hardships of our lives into ultimate victory. Jesus is not the God-whom-we-will-see-someday or the God-way-off-there-somewhere; he is God-with-us-right-now!

We may see ourselves as more like Judah than like Joseph, but that doesn’t mean that Jesus will abandon us. His very name tells us he won’t do that. Jesus Christ came into our world not only to resolve our sin problem, but also to transform our current defeats into ultimate victory.

A response of faith

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
(Matthew 1:24–25)

Joseph placed himself squarely within the camp of those who willingly respond to the Lord’s revelation. He showed a readiness to take whatever risks would be involved in receiving Mary and her child into his home. Joseph’s decision cleared Mary from suspicion.

By naming the boy, Joseph legally claimed Jesus as his own — not biologically, but legally. His action both cleared Mary of any wrongdoing and put the responsibility for Mary’s pregnancy squarely on his own shoulders. Demonstrating his righteousness, Joseph followed the Lord’s directives to the letter, trusting him to turn defeat into something good.

A backward glance

In thinking back over the two contrasting stories, we find two very different couples. God had to teach Judah and Tamar the fundamentals of right and wrong. Their story betrays little concern about what God wanted in their lives; their own self-concern was paramount. They belonged in spiritual kindergarten learning basic lessons about life. Still, God used them as part of the lineage of his divine Son.

In the other case, Joseph and Mary most certainly struggled, but their goal was to please God. Both were trying to serve him in baffling circumstances. Through Joseph and Mary, the Father brought about the culmination of his salvation plan.

God’s transforming power permeates both episodes and the lives of all involved. In both cases, defeat turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Lessons for our generation

Perhaps this has been a year of struggle in your life, as it has in mine. Two unexpected operations and a trip to the emergency room have provided more excitement than I wanted. There is no doubt that such experiences are unpleasant. But when we become adopted members of God’s family through faith in Jesus Christ, defeat takes on a promising new element.

1. The Lord wants to use our pain and misfortune to bring about strength, growth, and blessing. To accomplish that purpose, he will get personally involved in our lives. To confirm this in the Bible, see Genesis 50:20; Romans 5:3–5; 8:28; and 1 Peter 2:10–20. Use the following questions to evaluate your own life.

Am I so absorbed with my adversity that I have lost sight of God’s intention to bring blessing?

What has the Lord taught me, or what does he want me to learn from my struggles?

In what ways has God used misfortune in my life to bring change and shape my outlook about myself and others?

Judah couldn’t learn very much about his immoral ways until he suffered a real crisis in his life. He wouldn’t face up to his Canaanite associations, casual fornication, covenant-breaking, and vengeful anger until God brought him up short.

Long ago I felt a certain contempt for people who had personal problems. Inwardly, I put the blame on them. But when I found out that what happened to them could also happen to me, it changed me profoundly. Such an experience allowed me to bring to others the comfort that God brought me in my crisis (see 2 Corinthians chapter 1).

2. In spite of all their sin, the Lord used Judah and Tamar to help accomplish salvation for a lost world. Don’t you feel a bit surprised that the Lord would use people like them as part of the royal line of Jesus Christ?

But that fact is tremendous! It shows us that God can, and will, use believers of all maturity levels to bring about his purposes. The frailty and weakness of man does not hinder the power of God in cutting through obstacles to fulfill his promises. You may consider yourself a spiritual failure. You may be a person like Judah who has been running on the wrong side of the tracks for quite a while, but repentance and confession can change that. The Lord can still use you!

In light of that, can you personally affirm the following statement? God will use me with all my flaws to help carry out his purpose for those around me.

Consider the other side of things for a moment. In the story of Joseph and Mary, God clearly demonstrates his intention to bring even greater blessings into the lives of men and women seeking to live a godly life.

Are you willing to make it your goal to move even closer to the Lord in the days to come?

A final word

My unexpected trip to the emergency room was no picnic, but it led to the “accidental” discovery of a separate medical problem. As a result, my first surgical operation for the year removed a defect that could have threatened my life!

My trip to the ER has proved to be a blessing in disguise. God used it to bring about an important change that might never have happened without the crisis. This experience has taught me that Jesus really lives up to the name Immanuel, “God with us.” Where he is involved, even a crisis bears the promise of grace. Even adversity can be a blessing in disguise.

Coming next week . . .

In Chapter 2 we will see how the Father protected the newborn Jesus from the murderous Herod,  guided the Magi to worship Jesus, and then got the family to safety in Egypt.

Appendix to Chapter 1

Table 1 shows the women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy and the corresponding material in the Old Testament that contains their stories.

Table 1

The Literary Structure of Matthew 1–2


Related Old Testament Story


Tamar (Genesis 38)


Rahab (Joshua 2–6)


Ruth (Book of Ruth)


Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11)


Mary = Miriam (Numbers 12–14)


Table 2 illustrates the kind of comparison that lies at the heart of the midrash technique Matthew used to add background to his brief account about Jesus.

Table 2

Judah and Tamar Compared to Joseph and Mary

Genesis 38 Matthew 1:18–25

A pledge to marry (11)

A pledge to marry (18)

A journey leads to conflict (12-26)

A journey leads to conflict (18)

Tamar seen as prostitute (15)

Mary seen to be unfaithful (18)

Unmarried Tamar pregnant (18)

Unmarried Mary pregnant (18)

Pregnancy revealed (24)

Pregnancy revealed (18)

Judah calls for death (24)

Joseph avoids death penalty (19)

Judah’s plans reversed (25)

Joseph’s plans reversed (20)

Judah affirms Tamar righteous (26)

Joseph affirms Mary righteous

No further sexual contact (26)

No further sexual contact (25)

Copyright © 2011 Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

Midrash in Matthews Gospel

Midrash is not a term familiar to most Christians, though Jewish people who have trusted in Jesus as their Messiah might recognize the term. My latest book, The Path to the Cross, uses midrash to explain Matthew 1-2. The purpose of this post is to define midrash so that you will understand what is said about it in the upcoming series on The Path to the Cross.

Midrash is an ancient exegetical technique where exegetical relates to the critical interpretation of a text and it was used by the ancient rabbis. Midrash is based on certain assumptions about the biblical text. According to Charles T. Davis, the ancient Jewish interpreters believed: The ultimate goal of midrash is to search out [from Hebrew darash inquire about, examine, seek] the fullness of what was spoken by the Divine Voice.[1] Davis adds: Since Scripture is the Word of God, no word is superfluous. Every repetition, every apparent mistake, every peculiar feature of arrangement or order has meaning. I make extensive use of this last idea in explaining the presence of five womens names (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary) in Matthews genealogy of Jesus (The Path to the Cross, chapters 1-3).

Because they believed every word expressed by the Divine Voice had purpose and meaning, the ancient rabbis would earnestly seek connections between various texts of the Old Testament. They did this by comparing texts that seemed to share common themes or similar patterns of events. By their assumptions, such similarity would have meaning intended by God.

James Kugel explains some of the principles of early Jewish biblical interpretation by using the following ideas[2]:

  • The biblical text is basically cryptic. It has subtle nuances.
  • The biblical story contains a lesson for today.
  • The Bible is not only internally consistent, but it also allows for confirmation of the interpreters beliefs and practices.
  • Questions about the Scriptures may be resolved via a scrupulous examination of the precise wording of the biblical text sometimes using a verse, a phrase, or even a single word.

Of course, the bulk of Matthews Gospel is narrative, and his genealogy of Jesus gets it started. Two Jewish experts on midrash say, In the narrative portions of the Bible, on the other hand, there was always a curiosity about what was left out of the story.[3] This encouraged informed speculation about the missing facts. They further explain: There is more to the Bible than initially meets the eye. In each sentence, word, and letter, there was either a direct message from God or an opportunity for the Rabbi to elucidate what God wanted from the Jewish people. Therefore, the text couldnt just be read; it had to be studied. It could not be perused; it had to be deciphered.[4] In my opinion, Matthew was encouraging such decipherment by inserting the names of the five women.

Further insight into Matthews methods may be gained by considering the methods used by ancient synagogue teachers. Katz and Schwartz describe this teaching by saying that the speaker would display his skill by using a distant verse of Scripture and employing a germ of an idea to connect that verse with the Bible passage scheduled for congregational reading on that day. The audience would be held in suspense to see how the speaker intended to connect the two by some form of midrashic comparison.[5] The germ of an idea Matthew uses to suggest this distant connection is the five womans names that he inserts into the genealogy of Jesus. In The Path to the Cross (chapters 1-3), I explain how the distant connections illuminate and supplement the birth narrative of Jesus in Matthews Gospel.

As useful as midrash was in illuminating the meaning of the Old Testament writings, a danger always presented itself. Charles Davis describes this danger by saying, The great weakness of this method is that it always threatens to replace the [biblical] text with an outpouring of personal reflection.[6] Careful use of midrash can lead to profound discoveries in the biblical text, but careless use of midrash is simply the fanciful product of a human mind. At best, midrash is the skillful comparison of Scripture with Scripture; at worst it is invention.

In what may seem like a shift of topics — but is not! — midrash is roughly like the technique employed by some translators involved in publishing English Bibles that are based on the method called dynamic equivalence. The NIV 2011, for example, is very good, but it has a potential flaw. The Committee on Bible Translation says, The NIV tries to bring its readers as close as possible to the experience of the original audience[.][7] Clearly, the key word is experience. The big problem is that we have no way of knowing exactly how the original audience experienced the Word; we have to guess. On a good day, that will make certain parts of NIV 2011 like the positive form of midrash illuminating and helpful. In less favorable situations, NIV 2011 may be more like the speculative form of midrash. How much guessing is too much?

Copyright 2011 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide.


[1] Charles T. Davis, Midrash, based on Rabbi Burton Virotskys Reading the Bible. 10 September 2011 <>.

[2] James L. Kugel, Early Jewish Biblical Interpretation, The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism, Eds. John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Co., 2010) 131137.

[3] Michael Katz and Gershon Schwartz, Searching for Meaning in Midrash (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2002) 9.

[4] Katz and Schwartz, Searching for Meaning, 11.

[5] Katz and Schwartz, Searching for Meaning, 22.

[6] Davis, Midrash. 10 September 2011 <>.

[7] Notes from the Committee on Bible Translation, page 1.