[K:NWTS 1/3 (Dec 1986) 35-41]

An Unsuspected and Hidden Glory

Matthew 2:1-12

Charles G. Dennison

The eye deceived betrays the heart. The heart, wrapped with the world, treasures satisfaction in the obvious. An unsuspected glory moves God's elect and, when Jesus comes, rivets their gaze on heaven. On earth, such glory hides in humility, in weakness and in that which, because of proximity to the God the world rejects, generates hostility.

An Unsuspected and Hidden Glory and Matthew

Matthew masters this theme in his gospel. He trains our vision. Writing to the persecuted church, he presents Jesus as the Christ, as the Son of God–but, above all, as Immanuel, "God with us," the one whose glory was hidden and whose glory is presently hidden in us.

Therefore we are not surprised to hear Jesus declare to God's hungering and thirsting, his humiliated and mourning poor an overlay of blessing concealed in suffering (Mt. 5:3-6). Glory appears in obscurity, persecution, even death as the church’s life matches that of her Lord (Mt. 5:10-12). Immanuel reveals his glory to us and in us and, because of his presence, we perceive the substance of the transcendent kingdom superimposed upon our temporary distress.

Needless to say, when it is not ignored by the world, this glory confounds because it persists in an uncommon display of grace. Toward opposition for Christ's sake, it responds in mercy; it maintains purity of heart and pursues peace (Mt. 5:7-9). No other exposition of the "salt of the earth," the "light of the world," the "city set on a hill" will do (Mt. 5:l3ff.). Immanuel grounds his own in himself. His response to rejection and suffering determines theirs. "Letting your light shine" does not contradict the hidden glory; it enhances it since the kingdom appears where the world neither looks for it nor expects it (Mt. 5:16). "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you," Jesus says (Mt. 5:44).

Our Lord's imperatives here cannot be understood solely as bare command. How laced they are with comfort! The Savior consoles us with his presence in all our striving, not just in our manner of life, but also in our mission. Truly, the abused, frightened, straining church to which Matthew wrote does not easily discern heaven's glory in her fragile, unspectacular mission enterprise. Yet, Immanuel disciplines her eye to see the remarkable splendor with which he dresses her efforts in his concluding words: "Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (28:20).

An unsuspected and hidden glory, then, as much for the "God" of "God with us" as for the "us"–the former defining the latter. Matthew preaches exaltation in humiliation, not just after humiliation, because the pattern of the heavenly kingdom has been traced out in the rejected Jesus and is presently disclosed in his suffering people. Even the early stories from Matthew prepare us for such a conclusion.

An Unsuspected and Hidden Glory and the Magi

Matthew 2 presents the account of the magi's visit to Judea (vv. 1-12). When they arrive in Jerusalem, Herod is king. Matthew's description of Herod is quite deliberate; he portrays him as the vilest of men. You can be sure, however, that Herod never saw himself this way. After all, he was civilized, welcomed in Roman and Jewish society, adept at making the best of apparently impossible situations. Otherwise, how could this Idumean, this Edomite, maintain his grip on a Jewish nation in a Roman world?

Herod is a king of this world; he reigns over the obvious for the sake of advantages and gains that are obvious. His power and influence span nearly a half century. Hardly an irreligious man, he is busy building the great temple of which the Jews boast. And, despite his pedigree, he keeps amazingly close to the scribes and even the priests. (He is building their temple, isn't he?) In fact, Herod and the Jews are so tightly tied that, from Matthew's telling, we would never guess Herod was not himself a Jew.

But why would the gospel want to leave us with that impression? Because, you see, in a real sense Herod is king of the Jews. He and Israel are to be seen together. At a mundane level, both pursue a common order. Religious and political motives intermingle in an agenda that prizes the obvious. Admired are those who move ably to secure what they want in this life. How amiably all scratch each other's back, revere excellence in liturgical and exegetical arts, bow and scrape before legislative protocol and gush over expansionist fantasies. Despite disinterest in reports of the Messiah's birth, the chief priests and scribes rush to Herod and with condescending, yet flattered, tone revel in the king's need of them. Of course, he knows they need him. Both are blind to the unsuspected and hidden glory of God's heavenly kingdom. Indeed, the magi have left no Babylon; they have arrived there.

Israel, however, is comprised at a yet more sublime level. She believes herself the beginning and the end of the divine purpose, nothing less than that nation to which has been given a piece of real estate from which to rule the world. Her reading of the Old Testament, by and large, reinforces such a notion, justifying her vision of a this-worldly heritage. That even the best within her, in their integrity, have concluded this simply accents an inherent weakness of the older administration.

But now the magi enter Jerusalem as servants of a higher and an eternal order signified in a star. Looking above, these ignorant sons of the east become prophets of the unsuspected and hidden glory and a promise of that glory's constraining power to the ends of the earth. The star is "his star"; that is, it finds its significance in the one to whom it points. The obscure star reflects the obscure child, the true king of the Jews, who appears not in Jerusalem, but in Bethlehem; not under the eye of Herod and the Jewish leaders, but beneath the eye of heaven.

How unlike their Old Testament counterparts these magi are. When Hezekiah, king of the Jews, was delivered from a fatal illness, Merodach-baladan of Babylon sent emissaries with gifts. We could safely judge them less than honorable. Didn't they really come for political reasons? for a treaty perhaps designed to harass the Assyrians? Was there an element of intrigue? Did they wish to "spy out the land?" Hezekiah, victim of messianic delusion, parades before them the wealth of his house, just the stuff to attract the Babylonian eye. One hundred years later, according to the Lord's judgment, the Babylonians returned to cart off the treasures of David's house (cf. Isa. 39).

The latter-day, gift-bearing ambassadors, however, do not delay with the obvious. They save their worship for the child hidden by divine plan. In him, there is no temptation for a greedy eye, no promise of an earthly empire waiting to be seized. Indeed, what Babylonian worth his salt long dallies with the dismal insignificance of the child of Bethlehem?

An Unsuspected and Hidden Glory and Christ

Neither do the magi bring word back to the new Babylon and its king. Warned in the shadow of their dreams, they bypass Herod for home. Their journey past Jerusalem previews the gospel's reach to the nations. But the child, in the maturity of his years, cannot bypass the city. It is his destiny. There he concludes what began in Matthew 2. The true but hidden king asserts himself; his title is written above his head (Mt. 27:37), while his unsuspected and hidden glory continues to confound.

His appearance caps the incomprehension of Israel's leaders. Lost to them was the meaning of the Mican prophecy they had quoted to Herod (Mic. 5:2; Mt. 2:5,6). Out of obscurity, namely Bethlehem, David's true and greater son, the king of glory rises. The foundation of the Davidic dynasty had been misunderstood, and thus there developed the misconceptions about the intent of the Davidic line. Glory to these Jews precludes obscurity.

Even more, the leaders were unprepared to grasp the context of Micah's prophecy. Admittedly, Micah 4:9ff. is one of the most difficult of any of the prophetic passages, but the problems remain insoluble when the prophet's deliberate "invitation" to suffering is ignored. In fact, according to Micah, suffering matches obscurity since he says immediately before his comments about Bethlehem, "With the rod they will smite the judge of Israel on the cheek" (5:1).

Jerusalem, however, is blatantly obtuse. She and her leaders live far from such realities. They fail to recognize the glory hidden in the suffering king in their midst and, in the end, mock his claims. The leaders cannot embrace suffering in a properly biblical fashion and are, therefore, incapable of charting a course for the people through humiliation and loss. Truly, the "cross" offends them; it is a perpetual stumbling block. Their vision of glory precludes it.

As a result, the cross is not just that unsuspected focal point of God's service to sinful man by which he forgives iniquities. Without question, on the cross we see "the Son of Man who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mt. 20:28). But we also see the focal point of man's sin against God. Joined, therefore, to Jerusalem's incomprehension is her hostility. In no small way, provocation for this hostility lies in her preference for the obvious, for the rewards of this world.

As the shadow of the humble, stricken king falls over her long history, Jerusalem is indicted:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling.

–Mt. 23:37

Jerusalem will be devastated, her judgment a warning to all with common pursuits (cf. Mt. 23:38).

Neither should the church think herself immune to such devastation. In fact, one can only wonder how far removed the church is from Jerusalem and Babylon when she, in her life and mission, is preoccupied with saving her life, not losing it; when her vocabulary is filled with the language of profits and power, not that of servanthood in conformity to Christ in his sufferings; when her goals are measured in terms of year-end reports, next year's budget, five-year plans and an agenda for the transformation of society, not in terms of the essential pilgrim character of her existence. How tragic when the church compromises and trivializes herself, when she becomes a servant of the obvious and as much a stranger to the unsuspected, hidden glory of Christ and his kingdom as Jerusalem was before her.

May Matthew's gospel, his story of the magi and the Christ of whom he wrote preserve us (Mt. 10:22; 24:13) until that day when the King will come in the clouds with power and great glory (24:30), and the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father (13:43).

Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Sewickley, Pennsylvania