120. God’s Instructions (chrēmatizein) Regarding His Son (Matthew 2:12,26; Luke 2:26)

When God decided to send Jesus as Messiah, he communicated in various ways with different human subjects. Sometimes he employed dreams or at other times heavenly messengers, and occasionally the Holy Spirit directly gets involved. Whatever means God used, his instructions were conveyed clearly. One of the verbs that New Testament writers used to describe this instructional process, chrēmatizein, occurs particularly in relationship to the events of Jesus’ birth recorded by Matthew and Luke. We find it used as well in the book Acts, Romans and Hebrews. The cognate noun chrēmatismos occurs once in Romans 11:4.

This verb and noun both are related most probably to the noun chrēma “affair, business” (in financial contexts it can mean “money, wealth”). The corresponding verb has the sense “to handle a matter, to give instructions so as to deal with a matter.” In its later development it seems to become linked with the noun chrēsmos, ‘oracle’ and the verb takes on an additional meaning of “give an oracle.” At what point this occurs is uncertain. Let’s look first at the usage in the Gospel birth narratives.

The verb occurs in the birth narratives of Matthew 2:12,22 and Luke 2:26. After the birth of Jesus significant threats arise against him and his parents, primarily because of Herod the Great’s animosity. Once the wise men have completed their worship of the young child (Matthew 2:11), they receive instructions through a dream (chrēmatisthentes) to return to their country (2:12) directly and not reveal the location of the child to Herod. And then a few verses later (2:22) in the context of Egypt Joseph discovers that Herod has died he receives instructions through a dream (chrēmatistheis) to return to Galilee and settle in Nazareth. Although the New International Version renders this verb as “warned,” this nuance comes from the context, rather then being central to the meaning of the verb.

I think you will find this sense verified when we examine its use in Luke 2:26. Simeon, a pious inhabitant of Jerusalem, had been instructed by the Holy Spirit that “he would not see death until before he should see the Messiah of the Lord” (my translation). Luke used an unusual verbal structure to express this, namely an imperfect form of the verb “to be” plus the perfect passive participle kechrēmatismenon. This construction is a periphrastic formation and usually expresses some idea of duration or continuance of the action implied by the verb. The combination of these two verb forms suggests the sense “it had been instructed.” The instruction was completed in the past and the perfect verb form suggests it still had warrant (perhaps this use of the perfect participle in relation to divine revelation is similar to the common use of gegraptai (perfect passive indicative) to introduce Old Testament quotations in the New Testament with the sense “it stands written). According to Luke the agent responsible for this instruction is the Holy Spirit. In this context there is no sense of warning, but rather advance notice given in the form of instruction. In each of these the divine origin of the instruction is indicated by reference to the Holy Spirit or through the use of the medium of a dream.

Luke used this same verb in the account of Cornelius’ conversion (Acts 10). The messengers sent by Cornelius to Peter tell Peter that Cornelius “has been instructed (echrēmatisthē) by a holy messenger (aggelos)” to send for Peter in order that he might hear “matters from you.” The New International Version rendered the verb here as “told.” The author of Hebrews employed this verb similarly. He references Yahweh’s communication to Moses about the construction of the tabernacle. “According as Moses was instructed (kechrēmatistai)” introduces a quote from Exodus 25:40 where God tells Moses “to make everything according to the pattern shown to you on the mountain” (Hebrews 8:5). I am not sure why the New International Version construes this as a warning, rather than a serious, firm instruction. I think we have the same situation in Hebrews 11:7 where “by faith Noah having been instructed (chrēmatistheis) about things not yet seen” (i.e. the flood, the ark, the re-creation of humankind), built an ark. The similarity with Moses situation is interesting, namely that in both cases we have Yahweh revealing instructions for the construction of some edifice (tabernacle and ark), among other things. There is a third instance in Hebrews and this occurs in 12:25. As often is the case the writer is warning his Christian audience not to repeat the mistakes of Israel and apostasize. He accuses Israel of “refusing him who was instructing (chrēmatizonta) them on earth”  and then turns around and urges his Christian audience not “to turn away from the one who [was instructing us] from heaven.” Presumably the situation at Sinai is being compared with the new revelation from God received through the Messiah (cf. Hebrews 1:1-3).

Lastly, Paul used the cognate noun chrēmatismos Romans 11:4, describing God’s response as ho chrēmatismos, i.e. “the [official] response” which dealt with Elijah’s complaint. This noun is used in a papyrus from Oxyrhynchus (dated 253-60 AD) to describe a magistrate’s decision.[1] Often the word is associated with responses received from deities or from royal figures or their representatives. This association lends these reports a certain authority.

Two other occurrences of this verb form need consideration, because they reflect a very different sense.  This verb form can mean “how someone or something is officially described” and be used to describe a name taken or assigned to someone. For example, in Acts 11:26 Luke tells us that “the disciples first in Antioch bore the designation (chrēmatisai) ‘Christians’.” A similar usage occurs in Romans 7:3 where Paul, in the midst of his analogy of marriage, adultery and widowhood, concluded that “if the husband is living, she [i.e. his wife] bears the designation (chrēmatisei) ‘adulteress,’ if she should belong to another husband” (my translation). We find several examples of this verb used in this manner in Philo’s writing. Perhaps the most explicit is in Legatio 346 where he recounts how the emperor Gaius sought to erect his statue in the Jerusalem temple. The temple would then “bear the name (chrēmatizēi) of Gaius, ‘the new Zeus made manifest’.”

Moulton and Howard, Grammar of New Testament Greek. Vol. II. Accidence and Word Formation (265) state that in fact we have two different verbs formed from distinct words and these last two usages in Acts and Romans reflect a different verb which is a Greek homonym. Not all agree with this explanation.

In the Old Greek version of the Old Testament the verb occurs primarily in Jeremiah. However, it does occur as well in 3 Reigns (1 Kings) 18:27 where the Greek translator apparently has rendered two Hebrew clauses by one expression. Elijah is mocking the prophets of Baal and urging them to increase the volume of their appeal. The Hebrew text suggests that Baal “has wandered away or he is on a journey” (NRSV), or as the New International Version renders it “busy or traveling.” The Greek translator rendered these verbs by the single verb  chrēmatizei. The New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS)  translated this Greek text as “perhaps he is giving an oracle,” but it more likely means “he is engaging in business,” another sense of this verb not found in the New Testament, but otherwise quite common. This latter meaning would cover the sense of the Hebrew verbs more adequately perhaps.

Given the courtroom language and setting of Job 40:8 in the Old Greek translation perhaps the use of the perfect active infinitive kechrēmatikenai means “to issue judicial/official instructions/response to petitions.” This is the meaning of the verb in a number of Egyptian papyri and inscriptions, particularly in relationship to judicial decisions or government responses to petitions from citizens. Job’s interaction with Yahweh is certainly cast in the form of a petition seeking redress. Yahweh’s position, expressed in this verse to Job is “do you think that I have officially responded (kechrēmatikenai) to you in any other way than that you might appear to be right?”(my translation)[2]

As I said earlier, the majority of uses of this verb in the Old Greek Version occur in Jeremiah (8x), all in chapters 32-43 (Greek text chapter numbering). In every case the context describes Yahweh’s communication of a message to Jeremiah which he in turn is expected to convey to the appropriate audience. Other verbs such as ‘prophesy,’ ‘instruct’ and ‘write’ occur in these contexts. NETS rendered each of these occurrences as “give an oracle.” The corresponding Hebrew verb in most instances is simply dbr, speak, or in two instances shag, roar (Jeremiah 23:30, Hebrew text numbering). The contexts certainly indicate that Yahweh is communicating a message through Jeremiah, i.e. an oracle. Yet the verb in these contexts has the sense of an official response, albeit from God himself. Frequently the noun logos is the object of this verb (Jeremiah 32:30; 36:23; 37:2,4; cf. 33:2).

The Hellenistic Jewish historian Josephus also used this verb. In his Antiquities 11.37 he describes Darius, the Medean king, “taking his seat in the place where he was accustomed to give judgment (chrēmatizein).” Similarly in Antiquities 12.84 he explains that when Ptolemy ordered the construction of lavish gifts for the high priest and temple in Jerusalem in exchange for the privilege of making a translation of the Pentateuch, the king was so enamored of the craftsmanship that he “gave up attending to public affairs (chrēmatizein).” Earlier in Antiquities 8.297 he paraphrases the prophecy of Azariah (2 Chronicles 15:1) that there would “not be any priest to give righteous judgement (ta dikaia chrēmatizōn).” Josephus also used this verb in the sense of “bearing the designation.” In the Jewish War 2.488 he claimed that Alexander the Great gave Jews in Alexandrian the right “to take the title of (chrēmatizein) Macedonians.” In a scene that closely resembles Matthew’s usage of this verb, Josephus tells how the Jewish high priest, Jaddus, sought direction from God in order to know how to respond to the military advances of Alexander the Great. Josephus says that “when [Jaddus] had gone to sleep after the sacrifice, God spoke oracularly (echrēmatisen) to him in his sleep, telling him to take courage….Thereupon, he rose from his sleep rejoicing greatly in himself and announced to all the revelation (to chrēmatisthen) that had been made to him…”(Antiquties 11.327-28). Josephus’ usage certainly reflects the range of meanings we find in the New Testament documents.

When used in the context of the birth of Jesus, as God gives instructions to certain people, this verb describes how involved God is in the coming of Jesus. Just as God gave instructions to Israel in the Old Testament through the prophet Jeremiah, or Moses, so now God continues his revelatory and directive ways, using the wise men, Joseph, and Simeon. Through this action God preserved the life of Jesus and also gave witness to his significance as Messiah.


i. That God would intervene at such crucial times to give detail instructions to people so that his purposes are accomplished encourages us to believe that God similarly today is interested in our lives. How God chooses to communicate his message and guide our lives in the 21st century may be a matter of debate. That he does so is the encouragement of the biblical witness;

ii. In Matthew’s gospel these divine directives serve to thwart Satan’s designs to kill the Messiah Jesus. Later in the same gospel God allows Satan to orchestrate the execution of the Messiah. God’s purposes and God’s timing predominate, even though Satan seeks to accomplish his own agenda.





[1] G.H.R. Horsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, 1 (Macquarie University, 1981), 77.

[2] NETS translates as “do you think I have dealt with you in any other way than that you might appear to be right?”


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