As I noted yesterday in the reflection on Matthew 1, Matthew’s gospel is written specifically to explain to the Jews that Jesus is the Messiah. What makes Matthew 2 interesting, then, is its international focus.
First, Matthew tells us of “wise men from the east” (2:1) who had followed the great star all the way to Jerusalem in order to find the child whose birth the star announced. When they found Jesus, they worshiped him and gave him lavish gifts fit for a king.
But Israel’s king? Herod is unaware of the significance of the star, and has to consult the chief priests and scribes to determine where this child might be. Then, he sends the wise men on to find Jesus for him so that he could snuff out this new threat to his own power.
God preserves Jesus, though, by warning the wise men not to return to Herod, and then by telling Joseph to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. This journey is the second international reference in Matthew 2. Just as God had brought Israel safely out from Egypt under Moses, so now God was bringing his Son Jesus safely out from Egypt now. During this time, Herod went on a rampage, murdering every little boy under two years old in an attempt to destroy Jesus.
This is where we find the third international reference, arising in a prophecy quoted from Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matt. 2:18)
Originally, the prophet Jeremiah had spoken these words when Judah had been conquered by the Empire of Babylon in the 6th century BC. During the worst parts of this terrible time in Jewish history, the Babylonians burned down Jerusalem (including the temple), slaughtering men, women, and children, and carrying off some of the remaining survivors to exile in Babylon.
In Matthew 2, we see that Jesus is the hope of all nations, so that wise men from the east come to bring him gifts and to worship him. Then, we see that the nation of Egypt served as a place of refuge for Jesus to escape the wrath of Israel’s evil king, just as Joseph had gone to Egypt to escape his violent brothers. Finally, we see a memory of the wrath and destruction of Babylon, the sworn enemy of the people of God.
It is into this situation, with Babylon’s shadow still too close for safety, that Jesus enters the world. Jesus has come not primarily to be served with gifts and royal treatment, but to defeat Babylon forever on behalf of God’s people.