Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”
And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. (Matthew 2:1-2; 7-8; 11 ESV)
Not to get overly technical (or to ruin anyone’s Christmas!), but it is important to recognize an important principle of translation: that is, that there is not necessarily a strict one-to-one corre-spondence between a word in one language and a single word in another language. That is certainly the case when the Greek Testament is translated into English: scholars talk about a “field of meaning” that a particular Greek word often carries, with different shades of meaning when used in different contexts, hence allowing for (if not necessitating) different translations of that word in different passages.
That seems to be the case in Matthew 2 with the translation of the Greek word proskuneo, which in the ESV above is translated “worship,” as it is in the King James and many other (though not all; see below) translations.
The literal root meaning of proskuneo is “to kiss toward,” and from there the term developed the sense “to fall down or prostrate oneself” (as in kissing the ground), and hence ultimately “to worship, adore.” According to David Peterson (Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship, 85), the various uses of the term in the New Testament within its field of meaning include:
1. prostration in homage to royalty (this is where he puts the use in Matthew 2)
“ ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.’ ” (Matthew 2:2)
also Matthew 2:8,11; 15:19 (mocking)
2. prostration in homage and entreaty
“And a leper came to Him and bowed down before Him, and said, ‘Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.’ ” (Matthew 8:2)
also Matthew 8:2; 9:18; 15:25; 18:26; 20:20; Mark 5:6
3. institutional worship
“Now there were some Greeks among those who were going up to worship at the feast.” (John 12:20)
also John 4:20,22; Acts 8:27; 24:11; Revelation 11:1
4. false worship (of man, angels, Satan)
“Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; and he said to Him, ‘All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.’ ” (Matthew 4:8-9)
also Luke 4:7; Acts 7:43; 10:25; Revelation 9:20; 13:4,8,12,15; 14:9,11; 16:2; 19:10,20; 20:4; 22:8
5. true worship (inward reverence, with or without outward prostration)
“And behold, Jesus met them and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him.” (Matt. 28:9)
“But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.” (John 4:23)
also Matthew 4:10; 14:33; 28:9,17; Luke 4:8; 24:52; John 4:21,23,24; John 9:38; 1 Corinthians 14:25; Hebrews 1:6; 11:21; Revelation 4:10; 5:14; 7:11; 11:16; 14:7; 15:4; 19:4,10; 22:9
There is no indication that the Magi (or Herod) recognized Jesus’ deity; rather it is clearly stated that they were coming to pay honor to a “King.” While Matthew certainly has the perspective of Christ’s deity, it seems to be reading back to consider worship being in view in this context. “Pay homage” is in fact the rendering in the Phillips translation, the New Revised Standard Version, and the New English Bible.
Don Carson makes the same observation:
“Worship” need not imply that the Magi recognized Jesus’ divinity; it may simply mean “do homage.” Their own statement suggests homage paid royalty rather than the worship of Deity. But Matthew, having already told of the virginal conception, doubtless expected his readers to discern something more—viz., that the Magi worshiped better than they knew. (Commentary on Matthew, 86; see also 89)
Thus Carson suggests that Matthew, in relating his account in the Greek language to readers with a fuller picture of Christ and His divine nature, knowingly uses a term that in its field of meaning communicates a richer truth than even the original speakers realized. The Magi may have consciously only intended “homage”; but Matthew recognizes and implies that the One who received the homage is indeed deserving of “worship.”
David Peterson agrees:
Although some English versions view this action as ‘worship’ (AV, RSV, NIV), the statement of the Magi in verse 2 suggests that the meaning is homage paid to royalty rather than the worship of deity (so Phillips, NEB; cf. 1 Sam 25:23; 2 Kings 4:36). Of course, Matthew’s opening chapter has pointed to Jesus’ divine sonship, and the evangelist no doubt intended his readers to discern that this homage had a greater significance than the visitors from the East could have imagined. Their attitude to Jesus anticipated the submission of the nations to the risen Lord, which is the essence of discipleship according to Matthew 28:16-20. The immediate context in Matthew 2, however, does not demand that worship of Jesus as Son of God is yet in view. (Engaging with God, 84-85)
Another effect of reserving the translation of “worship” for a clearer contextual warrant would be to highlight the profoundly significant fact that the first use of proskuneo in the New Testament with the clear meaning of worship is in Matthew 4:9-10. There the Second Adam’s declaration, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve,” reverses the first Adam’s refusal to “glorify God as God” [Rom 1:21; cf. 1:22-25]), giving a new trajectory to human history.
In summary: Jesus is worthy of it all! Let us pay homage to Him as King, bow before Him as Lord, worship Him as God!
NEXT MONTH: We return to the series on Worship in the Old Testament. Happy New Year!