Sifting the Heart: Some Observations on the Second Chapter of Matthew

To believe that wherever the true Gospel is proclaimed with power, men will open their hearts without further difficulty, is a mistaken optimism. Rather, a living proclamation of the Gospel often sifts the hearts of men, and the more powerful the message the more violent is the hostility of the powers of darkness. Hence it is precisely those Christians who have the deepest Christian experience, who have the greatest personal experience of the reality of the power of Darkness. — Emil Brunner1

Brunner’s assertion that “a living proclamation of the Gospel often sifts the hearts of men” is illustrated in the second chapter of Matthew. Here is a story that focuses on the contrasting responses to Jesus’s birth: the response of Herod the king is contrasted to that of the wise men from the east. This topic of differing reactions to the appearance of Christ occurs very early in Matthew’s gospel, immediately after the genealogy and description of the circumstances of the birth. That these opposite reactions hold a prime position at the beginning of this book suggests their matter is of foremost relevance when considering Jesus’s purpose in coming into the world: his appearing acts as a catalyst that precipitates reaction or movement in man at the most profound level, the level at which his life is orchestrated and determined.

As did the characters in this story, each of us must answer the question posed by Christ’s coming into the world: Is this new being worthy of worship, or is he to be rejected and destroyed? Confronted with this dilemma, each from his inmost heart will declare his fealty: whether to God, or to Satan; whether to Truth or to deceit; whether to good or to evil; to life or to death; to Being or to nothingness. The power of God has come into our midst, and we can no longer entertain a clouded, indeterminate awareness; Christ the light reveals what darkness has hidden.

Verses 1 and 2 introduce the main characters – Herod and the wise men – and the contrasts between them are immediately evident. Herod is king of Judaea where the birth occurs, and the wise men have come from the distant east. Coming from another land, they have news that Herod, who sits as king in control of his provincial domain, does not have; for knowledge of Christ does not arise from the narrow localized self; it comes from another place. Interpreted, knowledge of Christ does not arise from earthly man; it is given from heaven, which is far from the earthly, and “a better country”(Heb. 11:16).

Whereas the wise men, recognize the new-born king as worthy of their journeying and their worship, Herod (and all his domain with him) are troubled by the news of the birth of the “King of the Jews”(3). In fear of being displaced by the new king, Herod marshalls his resources, calling together his priests and scribes, who correctly identify Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah.2

Herod relies on a different source for his information than do the wise men: he turns to prophetic writings to learn where the birth is to take place (Mc. 5:2). By contrast, the wise men rely on the heavenly portent – the star – to locate the place of birth. That is to say, the earthly one looks to the written record of the past, while the wise ones look to the light of heaven. The earthly have a preserved, static record to inform them, while the wise turn to the active and present light for guidance.

Though Herod can place the location of the birth, he cannot know the time, for time is a medium of change, and Herod only has access to the inert words of history. Therefore he asks the wise ones, “what time the star appeared”(7). This cooperative exchange of information of the birth’s location and time suggests the two parties share a common intent, and Herod exploits that false assumption by requesting the wise ones reveal the child’s whereabouts once he’s been found, “that I may come and worship him also”(8). Herod’s intent is not to worship (6) but to destroy (16), and with this act of deceit, Herod declares his fealty to death and the devil.  In pursuing the death of the Christ through ordaining the death of the innocents (16), it is inevitable and just that it is Herod himself who dies in this story (19). So dies the soul of any who act in deceit.

The wise ones, having departed from Herod, follow the light of heaven to the new birth. We are told, the star “stood over where the young child was”(9), which is to say the light is a reliable guide that leads its followers to a place where it rests over and upon the new birth. It is a place of rest, discovered within, where we, too, may “rejoice[d] with exceeding great joy”(10). As Herod’s act of deceit declared his dark conspiracy with evil, the wise ones’ actions – in contrast – demonstrate their fealty to the new King. They have traveled to a new place; they have sought and found; they have rejoiced, worshipped, and offered their gifts. Unlike Herod, they continue to live throughout the remainder of the story, having wisely “departed into their own country another way”(12), a way unknown to the Herods of the world.

In departing to “their own country” (their true home), the wise are given heavenly direction, this time coming from a dream. As there were four Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in this story, there are likewise four dreams that offer direction, again showing a continuity and balance between old and the new: between what has been given by God formerly and what is presently given now. Each dream directs a change of location: the wise men are to return to their country by a different way; Joseph is to take his family to Egypt; and once Herod is dead, he’s directed by the same angel to bring them back to Israel (20). Once in Israel, Joseph dreams of God’s warning and turns aside to settle in Nazareth. Thus the story ends with a fulfilled prophecy: “He shall be called a Nazarene” (Judg. 13:5).

This early chapter in Matthew sets the stage for more particular explorations of the themes it’s introduced. Foremost is the message that the arrival of Christ upon earth will sift the heart of each person, resulting in either one’s salvation or one’s condemnation. Respectively, the heart will know life and joy; or it will remain captivated by fear, rage, and death: one or the other will result; there are no exemptions nor obfuscations to be had. Secondly, that although past prophecy has validity, its efficacy and influence is now superseded by the present, active light of heaven, which is Christ. Finally, this chapter’s end note and destination tells us the true Light/Word is now become flesh, and is, in fact, “a Nazarene”(23). Previewed in this chapter are the consequences that result from the momentous event of the new birth, the coming of the Lord. We are prepared to read on.

Emil Brunner. The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974), 145.

2As to the birthplace, the two sources (prophetic writings [5] and the star [9]) agree: both indicate Bethlehem. Thus – the narrator is telling us – the Jewish Scriptures confirm Jesus as the Messiah. Of the four canonical gospels, the book of Matthew is considered to be the most Jewish, emphasizing the validity of the Law and the prophets and asserting Christ Jesus’s rightful position within the tradition. In addition to the prophecy naming Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah (the ruler of the people Israel [6]), this chapter contains three additional references to Old Testament prophecies and their fulfillment in Jesus: these are found in verses 15, 18, and 23. Written between 70 and 80 A.D., the book of Matthew exemplifies a Jewish-Christian perspective.  

Adoration of the Magi, c.a.1320 Giotto
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2 Responses to Sifting the Heart: Some Observations on the Second Chapter of Matthew

  1. “Foremost is the message that the arrival of Christ upon earth will sift the heart of each person, resulting in either one’s salvation or one’s condemnation. Respectively, the heart will know life and joy; or it will remain captivated by fear, rage, and death: one or the other will result; there are no exemptions nor obfuscations to be had.” I had no idea that all that was in the second chapter of Matthew! And yet, once shown it, I can’t stop seeing it. This is such a brilliant piece of exegesis! Thank you for giving it to the world!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Heartening words, John! Thank you!

    Like

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