(My apologies for not getting this posted earlier.)
The King has Arrived: The Very Early Life of Jesus (Part 3)
(Luke 2:36-38; Matthew 2)
Anna the Old Prophetess (Luke 2:36-38)
There was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old, and had lived with her husband for seven years from her virginity. And she had been a widow about 84 years, who did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.
And she, coming in that instant, gave thanks as well to the Lord, and spoke about Him to all who looked for redemption in Jerusalem.
We’re given a lot of interesting detail about this woman, more than we are about Simeon, even though she only appears for three verses—and never shows up again.
- She is a prophetess. She is the only person in the New Testament who is specifically called a prophetess.1 This is the only time the word (which is the feminine of prophet) 2 It seems this is what she was known for.
- She is the daughter of Phanuel. This is purely a historical detail, as this name doesn’t appear anywhere else in Scripture.
- She is of the tribe of Asher. This is a fascinating detail, as this makes her the only person in the New Testament we know for certain came from one of the ten northern tribes of Israel (frequently called the “lost ten tribes”).3
- She is very old. While some Bibles interpret or editorialize in regards to Anna’s age, the Greek is pretty straightforward: She got married, was married for seven years (after which her husband died), and then lived as a widow for 84 years.4 If she was 13 (an age some like to throw around for Israelite girls becoming brides), then she was 20 when she became a widow, and therefore was 104 years old when she saw baby Jesus.
- She never leaves the temple. Not in the temple itself, but the temple complex, as only priests were permitted inside the temple itself.
- She serves God through fasting and prayer continually. This shows dedication, piety, sincerity. She did these things “night and day.” Certainly she slept some, but this was a way of life to her. Her dedication to God was not Sabbath-only or just on Passover and Pentecost.
By the time Luke investigated all this and wrote it down, Anna had probably been dead 50 years or more. But even so, people remembered Anna, who she was, and what she did in service to God. What a profound impact she must have had on people’s lives!
Anna enters…and leaves
To put this in context (because I probably should have included it with the previous lesson), Joseph and Mary had brought baby Jesus, at 40 days old, to the temple for Mary to offer her purification sacrifices. While there, Simeon (probably an older man) takes Jesus and makes a prophecy about Him. It is at this time Anna shows up and apparently heard Simeon’s words.
The result is she praises God with thanks. Perhaps she too had been told she would not die until she saw the Lord’s Christ (because Luke says she “likewise” gave thanks). Like Simeon, she was waiting for the Messiah to come and start fulfilling all the promises God had made throughout the Old Testament.
After thanking God, Anna left. And you can imagine the scene as she finds all the people she knows who share her longing for God’s kingdom—and tells them “The King is here!.” It wasn’t just Simeon and Anna who “looked for redemption” or were “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” There were many. Simeon and Anna are just the ones we are told about.
A Chronological Conundrum
According to Luke 2:39, “when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city of Nazareth.” This is fine and dandy. The difficulty comes when we look at Matthew’s account. According to his record, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee to Egypt, and only return to Israel when they hear Herod is dead—but they avoid Judea because Herod’s son was reigning.
Some have surmised these incidents took place between Jesus’ birth and His presentation at the temple. I can’t see how such a thing is possible, given the amount of time necessary to contain the events of Matthew 2. Others have guessed the events in Matthew 2 take place sometime after the family returned to Nazareth—but that would require them to return to Bethlehem to be there when the wise men show up, with no real reason to do so.
My best guess is this: After Jesus was born, Joseph and Mary stayed in Bethlehem until the time to present Jesus at the temple. During this time (or shortly thereafter), the wise men were in Jerusalem, asking where the King of the Jews had been born. They are directed to Bethlehem where they see the star over a house (perhaps even the same day Jesus was presented at the temple). It is then that Jesus is presented with the gold, frankincense, and myrrh.5 Then they flee to Egypt, etc. This would mean Luke assumes the reader is familiar with them through Matthew’s writing, and therefore saw no reason to mention them in detail. Instead, he just records that they went back to Nazareth.6
The Wise Men and the Paranoid King (Matthew 2:1-11)
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the King, behold, there came Magi from the east to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He that is born King of the Jews? Because we have seen His star in the east, and have come to worship Him.”
When Herod the king had heard this, he was troubled—and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, because it is written by the prophet, ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the princes of Judah: because out of you shall come a governor who shall rule my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called the Magi, and diligently enquired of them when the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, “Go search diligently for the young child. And when you have found him, bring me word again, so I might come and worship him too.”
After listening to the king, they left, and behold! The star, which they saw in the east, went before them until it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
And when they had come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshipped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented to Him gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Turning Jerusalem upside-down
Magi came from the east. Most likely this is near where Babylon once was, and where Persia once held sway (modern-day Iraq and Iran). Daniel was one of the wise men of Babylon, and later of Persia as well. It is possible (maybe even likely) that the Magi who came to see Jesus could trace their lineage of teaching back to the time of Daniel, who prophesied of a Kingdom to be established by God during the days of the Roman Empire. If this is the case (and I think it highly probable), these wise men would have been waiting for the fulfillment of this prophecy just like Simeon and Anna were.7
They came to Jerusalem, the capitol city, where they would assume the King of the Jews would be born. But not knowing exactly where to look, they started asking around. I can imagine the looks on some faces. What? What king? I haven’t heard about a new king being born. And others might have responded with excitement, wanting details about the star they saw, and wondering if maybe, just maybe, God was inaugurating His Kingdom plan.
Tradition has three men traveling from a great distance to worship the newborn King. Yet the Bible gives us no definite number of Magi/wise men. Matthew indicates (at least to me) a lot more than three people came to town. Jerusalem was not a small town. There were easily tens of thousands of people living there (if not closer to 100,000). So three men asking questions wouldn’t have been enough to stir up the city and get Herod worried. But if it was a massive caravan of Magi? Along with their servants and bodyguards? On camels? That makes more sense to me.
Herod and all Jerusalem are troubled, but for very different reasons. Herod (as we will see) is a power-hungry monster who is paranoid that he might lose the power and prestige he has gained in Judea if this “King of the Jews” story proves to be true. The people who heard about the wise men are troubled because of uncertainty, and possibly because they have seen/heard what Rome does to those who challenge its authority—and perhaps they are troubled because they know what Herod is like…
The king asks about the birthplace of the King
Herod is concerned. So he convenes a very hasty impromptu council of all the Jewish leaders. I’m not sure how exactly this took place, but he probably sent out some messengers quickly, demanding that all the chief priests and scribes come to his palace immediately—or else (and they would have known what the “or else” meant).
Herod is not a Jew. This is important to recognize. Herod was an Idumean—that is, he was an Edomite, a descendant of Esau. Around 130 years before these events took place, a man named John Hyrcanus made himself king over Judah8 (though everyone apparently knew he was not the Messiah—not being in the line of David).9 One thing John did was to subjugate the Idumeans and force them to convert to Judaism or die. Herod was a descendant of people who were forced to convert against their wills. While Herod did a lot for the Jews (building projects), he was not a Jew, and had no real respect for Judaism or the Jewish people (when he ascended to power, he killed all but two members of the Sandhedrin, and had a high-priest drowned).10 All he cared about was power and prestige. So when he called the chief priests and scribes together, they came quick.
He demanded to know where Christ would be born. Thankfully (for the priests and scribes) the Scripture said exactly where it would take place. They quoted Micah 5:2, which named Bethlehem as the place. But they didn’t quote the whole verse. I kinda wonder why. Here’s what Micah 5:2 says in its entirety:
But you, Bethlehem Ephratah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to me the one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose goings forth have been from of old—from everlasting.
Did you catch the last part of that verse? The one who would be born in Bethlehem is the one “whose goings forth” (i.e., His actions/works) are “from of old—from everlasting.” It seems crazy that these religious leaders could see the Messiah’s birthplace identified in advance here, but completely miss that the Messiah was also eternal—“from everlasting.” That is, the very verse they quote says the Messiah would also be God.
The Magi migrate to Bethlehem
After getting the answer, he secretly called the Magi to him and sincerely asked them when they saw the star appear. Sincere in that he really wanted to know—just not for moral motives. Today if people said they saw a certain star that told them a king was born, we’d probably think they were crazy. But Herod lived in a time when things like this were taken seriously, and were even part of the official story of some royal leaders. And though he wasn’t a Jew, he was familiar with a lot of Jewish history—he knew there was a prophesied king.
They told him when they saw the star (and we’ll look at that when we cover verse 16), and so he told them to go to Bethlehem. But there was a catch: You’ve got to come back and tell me where he is so I can go worship him too. Of course, Herod was lying through his teeth, but certainly put on a pious act so the Magi would be none the wiser.
The Magi (caravan?) went to Bethlehem and saw the same star they had seen in the east. This greatly excited them, because it “came and stood over where the young child was.” I don’t know exactly what this looked like. It reads like the star was moving and they followed it until it stopped exactly over little child Jesus. How high in the sky that was, and how they knew it was directly over Jesus? I’m not sure.
What does matter is what they did when they got there. They went into the house (whenever this was, it certainly wasn’t the night Jesus was born), saw the young child (no longer called a baby) and Mary, and fell down and worshipped Him (they didn’t worship Mary). Falling down (on their hands and knees, with faces to the ground) to worship Him shows humility, honor, and submission. When you bow down like this, you leave yourself completely exposed to harm with no means of protection. Does our worship express these things?
As part of their worship, they presented Him gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I find these gifts interesting.
- Gold covered every item in the temple—the dwelling-place of God.
- Frankincense was an ingredient in a sacred mixture to be used only in tabernacle/temple worship.11 It was also used in every meal offering, and on the showbread in the temple.12
- Myrrh was used in the sacred oil to anoint high priests of Israel.13
These items were not cheap, and may have come in very handy when Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had to flee to Egypt.
Though the Magi were Gentiles, they were the first Matthew records as worshipping Jesus.
The Slaughter of the Innocents (Matthew 2:12-18)
Being warned by God in a dream that they shouldn’t return to Herod, they went to their own country a different way. And after they left, behold, the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph In a dream, saying, “Arise and take the young child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word—because Herod will seek to destroy the young child.”
When he awoke, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt have I called My Son.”
Then when Herod saw that he was mocked by the wise men, he was extremely angry, and sent and killed all the male children that were in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding areas, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, “In Rama there was a voice heard, lamentation and weeping and a great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be comforted, because they are not.”
Two dreams, two departures
The Magi were warned by God in a dream (did they all have the same dream? That would be convincing) to not go back to Herod, and to go back home a different way. They were not to be party at all to Herod’s plot, and they needed to get away without him noticing. It almost reads like this all happened the same evening they found Jesus.14
After they left, Joseph gets a dream as well, with an angel (it wouldn’t surprise me if it was the same angel as from his previous dream) telling him to get up and take the family on a vacation to Egypt—as in vacate the premises and go to Egypt! Unlike the Magi, Joseph is given a reason—Herod wants to kill Jesus!
So Joseph does what he did the last time he had an angel-dream—he gets up and obeys. He takes the little family by night and heads toward Egypt. This appears to be the same night the wise men left.
Then Matthew says the Egyptian part of the story was to fulfill Hosea 11:1. If Matthew hadn’t said this, I don’t think anyone would have connected the two incidents. Hosea 11:1 speaks of God calling Israel out of Egypt (speaking of the Exodus), and calls them “my son.” By referencing this, Matthew shows that sometimes prophecies aren’t always just words spoken or written, but can also include events which point to something greater.15
Enough time had passed that Herod knew the Magi weren’t coming back. Somehow, he thought, they figured it out. And he was livid. The KJV says he was “exceeding wroth.” So, since he didn’t know exactly which child was the one, he decided to kill them all. He sent men (Roman soldiers, most likely) to find and kill all the male children two years old and under.16
This act was pure evil, and was direct from Satan. Throughout history, Satan has tried to destroy the promised seed (Genesis 3:15), and though he comes close, he is never successful.17 God was ahead of him and protected the seed.
But Herod didn’t realize he failed in his goal. .
Matthew says this event was foretold by Jeremiah 31:15. This originally referred to the scattering of Judah, and is immediately followed by the words, “Thus saith the LORD, ‘Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, because your work shall be rewarded,’ saith the LORD, ‘and they shall come again from the land of the enemy.’” If Jeremiah 31:15 was a verse of lamentation for destruction, and verse 16 a verse of hope and restoration, then what are we to make of Matthew’s use of it?
I think this is an admission that what happened with Herod murdering the small children is horrible and cause for lamentation and weeping—but (though Matthew doesn’t mention it specifically) that there will be a time where restoration will take place, where those children can be reunited with their parents if the parents are faithful to God. If this is the case, then it would also prove that babies are not born in sin—babies are innocent and safe. There is no such thing as original sin.
Going Home to Nazareth (Matthew 2:19-23; Luke 2:39)
But when Herod was dead, behold an angel of the Lord appears in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Arise and take the young child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel, for those who sought the young child’s life are dead.”
And he arose and took the young child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus reigned in Judea in the place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee.
And He came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, so that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.
(Luke 2:39) And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.
Joseph gets a lot of dream-messages from God—and they all seem to have an angel (the same one?). Last time it was bad news: Herod wants to kill Jesus; get out of Bethlehem! This time, it is good news: Herod is dead (and apparently his cronies are dead too);18 it is safe to go back.
So Joseph did what he always does: wakes up and obeys. They travel to Israel (not a short trip), but soon after they entered, he discovered Herod’s son Archelaus was reigning, and Joseph was scared to go through Judea.19 So God sent another dream, telling him to go to Galilee.
If one were to only read Matthew, it would seem that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are newcomers to Nazareth. But Luke informs us Joseph and Mary were both natives of that small town.
Even though Matthew continues to use the pronoun “he” to refer to Joseph (verses 21-22), when he uses it in verse 23, Jesus is the one under consideration. We know this because Matthew says it was fulfillment of another prophecy, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” And this is where we run into another difficulty. This prophecy doesn’t exist.
This isn’t a direct quote from any verse of the Old Testament, and believe it or not, we shouldn’t expect to find a direct quote. Matthew says, “which was spoken by the prophets” (plural). It seems, then that this is more of a theme from prophecy instead of an exact quote. The Hebew word neser (quite possibly where the word “Nazareth” and “Nazarene” originate) is the word translated “Branch” in Isaiah 11:1, referring to Christ. Ted Clarke says it this way:
Nazareth was not a city that commanded much respect. It was a small village in Galilee. The area was mostly a Gentile area, although there was a synagogue there, thus some Jews there. The Jews of the south did not view the Jews of the north very well. It’s not likely that “he shall be called a Nazarene” means anything other than that he would be from a lowly, humble place (Isaiah 53:1-3). Jesus was not like Saul. Jesus was not one who would be great-looking, nor would he come from great area. There is nothing outstanding about him, physically speaking. His father was a carpenter, which would not exactly attract people to him.
Neser refers to a root or sprout or branch (Nazarene). This means something that is less significant. Humility, humble beginnings, lowliness. Jesus did not have an easy life. When people saw him, it took miracles for them to see it was Christ. Jesus did not stand out in a crowd.20
What Does This Mean for Us Today?
Do you look for reasons to not worship? The wise men didn’t just decide to make a day-trip to Jerusalem to see if they could find the newborn King. This trip took planning (organizing a caravan, gathering the gold, frankincense, and myrrh). And after the planning, it took days to get there. After all, this was somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 miles. If we figure an average of 30 miles a day, that’s 20 days of travel! And remind me again what was so difficult that you couldn’t make it to worship God Sunday?
Get up and obey! Joseph is a great example of someone who heard the word of the Lord and wasted no time in obeying it. How often do we look for loopholes in commands, or find reasons why it is okay for us to not do what it says? How many people reject or minimize the command to be baptized instead of just doing what Christ commanded? How are you doing that in your own life?
Do you share the good news? Anna, at minimum 104 years old, is last seen going around Jerusalem, telling people about Jesus. When are we going to quit making excuses and just serve God with all our heart like she did? If a 104-year old woman can share the good news, what excuse do we have not to?
God wins. Satan has plans—evil, vicious plans—to destroy the followers of God. But in the end, God always wins. Through 4,000 years of history, God kept the promised seed safe so He could grow up and die as the sacrifice for our sins. Satan tried so many times to stop it from happening, but God always wins. Things haven’t changed. Satan wants to tear us down, to get us to sin and leave God behind, “but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above that which you are able to bear; but will with the temptation also make a way of escape so that you might be able to hear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
1 There are other women who prophesied (Philip’s four virgin daughters in Acts 21:8-9), but Anna appears to be the only one who was known by the title of a prophetess.
2 There are instances of the English word prophetess to be found in the Old Testament, but here I am only referencing the New Testament.
3 There are theories regarding some of the apostles being from different tribes (some go so far as to say each of the apostles was from a different tribe—an impossibility, since there were at least two sets of brothers among them). But outside of the apostle Paul (who said clearly he was from the tribe of Benjamin), we do not know the tribal ancestry of any of them.
4 So reads the KJV, English Revised Version (1881), NET (also see their note on this passage), MLV, HCSB/CSB, Campbell’s Living Oracles, and the Message.
5 Had Jesus been presented with these gifts before He was presented at the temple, Joseph and Mary would have been able to afford the lamb for Mary’s purification offering. Since they were unable to, it means they hadn’t received the gold yet.
6 I contemplated the possibility that the wise men showed up prior to Jesus’ presentation in the temple, but the information in the previous footnote convinced me this could not be correct.
7 Daniel also foretold the fall of Babylon and rise of the Medo-Persian Empire. He foretold of their fall and the rise of Greece. Because those things had come true (with really interesting details corroborated through Daniel’s prophecies), the Magi would have had faith in the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy of 2:44. Additionally, Zoroastrianism, which began in the Persian Empire during or shortly after Daniel’s lifetime, contains some similarities to Judaism and the looking forward to a King from God. It is possible (I think it probable) that Zoroastrianism is a corruption of principles and prophecies of Judaism given by Daniel, and carried forward by the Magi to the people.
8 McClintock & Strong’s Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, “Herod.”
9 His grandson was made high priest, implying this family was of the tribe of Levi.
10 Ibid. “Immediately on ascending the throne Herod put to death all the members of the Sanhedrim, excepting Pollio and Sameas (the famous Hillel and Shammai of the Rabbinical writers), who had predicted this result, and also all the adherents of Antigonus who could be found. Having confiscated their property, he … then gave the office of high-priest… to an obscure priest from Babylon named Ananel. At this insult Alexandra, the mother of Mariamne and Aristobulus, to whom the office of high-priest belonged by hereditary succession, appealed to Cleopatra to use her powerful influence with Antony, and Herod was thus compelled to depose Ananel, and to elevate Aristobulus to the high-priesthood. The increasing popularity of Aristobulus, added to the further intrigues of Alexandra, so excited the jealousy of Herod that he caused him to be drowned while bathing, and expressed great sorrow at the accident.”
11 Exodus 30:34-38.
12 Leviticus 2:1-2, 15-16; 24:5-7.
13 Exodus 30:23-33.
14 The fact of a star above Jesus indicates it was night when they found Him.
15 Paul and Peter both follow the same event-prophecy principle when describing the Red Sea crossing (1 Corinthians 10:1-3) and the flood of Noah’s day (1 Peter 3:20-21) as pointing forward to baptism.
16 It is a point of contention with some who dispute the Bible that this slaughter of the innocents is not mentioned in any secular histories of the time. But it must be remembered that Bethlehem was an extremely small town, with maybe a few hundred residents. The amount of male children two years old and under may have been under twenty. Don’t get me wrong, this is a massive tragedy. But it probably wasn’t anything that would have shown up on Josephus’ radar (because it didn’t affect the history of Israel), and Roman historians wouldn’t have cared about the death of twenty Jewish kids.
17 Satan got Abel killed, only to find the seed promise would go through Seth. He got the entire population of earth killed in the flood except for eight people—from an odds perspective, he must have thought he won—but it was through two of those eight (Shem and his wife) that the promise was continued. Tracing the seed promise through Scriptures and the lengths to which Satan went to stop it from happening is a very fascinating and rewarding study.
18 Matthew says “they who sought the young child’s life are dead.”
19 This fact seems to be conclusive proof (especially with the gifts of the Magi being taken into consideration) that the events of Matthew 2 did not take place prior to the events of Luke 2:25-38.
20 Cobb, Bradley S. (ed.), Preaching School Notes: Bible Institute of Missouri, 2008-2010. E-Sword edition.