How to respond to Jesus’ birth: The wise men. Matthew 2:1-11

As we celebrate advent this year we are looking at right and wrong responses to the birth of Jesus.

Wrong responses have to do with how we can get off track and distracted by other things, like getting caught up in consumerism – buying things, just to buy things. Because of the commercialization of Christmas, we now buy and give gifts that others don’t need and receive the same from them.

We can also be distracted by  cultural Christmas – various events, time with family and friends, giving gifts, meals. Or by being so stressed out from the busyness of the season   that we never quite get to celebrating the birth of Jesus. These are or can be wrong responses to the birth of Jesus.

Last time we looked at some right responses from the example of the shepherds in Luke 2. And today we look at some right responses from the example of the wise men.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 2:1-11. Please listen as I read this familiar story which takes place after the birth of Jesus.

2:1Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2saying, “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.” 3When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.

5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 6‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'” 7Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8And 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.”

9After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

By way of introduction let me share –

A few notes on this story

 It’s an interesting story, and it raises some questions. 1. Who are these “wise men”? They were most likely from Babylon or Persia. They would have been court figures, perhaps from a priestly class, who practiced a mixture of astronomy and astrology. They were considered to be very learned.

There was a certain mystique in the Roman world about wise men from the east. And there were various stories of them coming to speak of a new king.

 2. What’s with the star? In v. 2 the wise men said, “we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” This seems straight forward enough, we have astrologers/ astronomers and then there’s a star. And there have been attempts to identify this star with various astronomical phenomena of the time.

But notice v. 9 – “the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.” This was no ordinary star. It actually led them just five miles south to Bethlehem and then it stayed right over one specific house.

The answer, I think, comes from an understanding that stars and angels are sometimes connected in Scripture. So it is best to say that the star was an angel leading the wise men.

 This star is scripturally connected to Numbers 24:17 which was seen as a Messianic prediction among many Jews. It says, “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel”

  • Balaam who predicted this was a Gentile prophet from the time of Moses (although he is seen as a false prophet in other places, here it says, “The Spirit of God came upon him.”)
  • The wise men, then, are his successors. Gentile magi acknowledging the fulfillment of this prophecy.

 3. What’s with the gifts? They gave of their treasures gold, frankincense and myrrh. The last two are both fragrant spices, or perfumes made from different kinds of resin. These are gifts appropriate for royalty; in this case the king of Israel.

Along these lines no one knows how many wise men there were. Just because three gifts are mentioned doesn’t mean there were three of them. Scripture is silent on this.  

4. When did the wise men actually come? The answer is a year or two after Jesus’ birth. This comes out in v. 7 – “Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared.” And then v. 16 – “Herod massacred the children – who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.”

To get more specific Jesus was born “in the days of Herod” (Matthew 2:1) and Herod died in 4 BC. So Jesus had to be born before 4 BC. So yes, our current calendars are wrong, that say Jesus was born in AD 1. And the whole BC AD system is off by several years.

Given the wise men came up to two years later, and Herod was still alive, this pushes the date back two years. Jesus was most likely born in 6 BC. So the wise men came between 5-4 BC, after Joseph and Mary had a house and were staying in it.

Now let’s look at –

The response of the wise men

 1. They sought Jesus out. v 1-2 – “Wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?’”

In the same way we need to seek out Jesus this advent season. In the midst of many distractions: busyness, cultural Christmas, the stress of making sure the Christmas dinner is just right, and everyone has just the right gift – we need to ask, “where is he?”

The message this morning is this – make sure you seek Jesus out this advent. The wise men went to great effort and it might take some effort on our part as well. Focus on Jesus; give him your attention. It is, after all his birthday.

2. They rejoiced. v. 10 – “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

As we think of Jesus’ birth this year we should rejoice exceedingly with great joy. I’m not talking about the joy we have when we see our family or experience familiar Christmas traditions.This is cultural Christmas. Now, this is all fine, but whether you have this or not the point of Christmas is not this.

The point of Christmas is to rejoice in the coming of Jesus, the fulfillment of God’s promises for our salvation and peace. Rejoice in him this Christmas season.

3. They honored Jesus. v. 2 – “we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” v. 11 – “And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.”

 The word “worship” here can mean worship of God, or the honor one gives to a king or another important person. And it was customary to bow or kneel before a king. Here they are honoring Jesus as the king of Israel.

But for us, who know the fullness of Jesus’ identity we should honor Jesus with the worship due to the Son of God. We give to Jesus ourselves and all that we have. These are our gifts and we are to lay them before him.

We do this as we gather on Sunday mornings, in our own personal prayer times, and by how we live our lives, honoring him as our Lord and King – the promised Messiah.

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