We’re continuing on today looking at the stories of Jesus’ birth and childhood in Matthew 1-2 as our Advent and Christmas focus. Let’s jump right into –
The story of the Gentile magi who honor Jesus as king
– found in Matthew 2:1-12. And we start off with some background.
v. 1 – “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king . . .”
In terms of geography Bethlehem is front and center. It’s about 6 miles south of Jerusalem. In terms of chronology, it says, “in the days of Herod the king.” This is Herod the Great and the date of his death is known – 4 BC. And since Jesus was born before his death, it’s estimated that Jesus was actually born somewhere between 6 and 4 BC.
Now this is a bit ironic, since Jesus is born several years “Before Christ” which is what BC means! This is all because a 6th century monk named Dennis the Short made a mistake when he set up a new calendar system – the AD system, which we still use. So you can blame Dennis.
Also, just briefly, December 25th is a possible date for when Jesus was born. There has been a lot of discussion about whether it was actually in the Spring and so forth. But Winter does work as well. In the Eastern Orthodox church, Jesus’ birth is celebrated on January 7th. I don’t think we will never know for sure.
This brings us to the wise men.
v. 1-2 – “. . . 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.’”
The first question is, who are these wise men, or more literally magi?? There has been a great deal of elaboration on the few details we have from Matthew. They have been called kings; people say there were three of them, since there are three gifts; and they have been given names. In the West they were called Melchior, Gaspar (or Caspar) and Balthazar. But none of this is in Matthew 2 or anywhere else in Scripture.
The magi were most likely from a priestly caste in Persia or Babylon. They were known for their learning, including studying the stars and predicting the future based on this. So they knew astronomy and practiced astrology.
The idea of a star or some other astronomical phenomenon heralding a new king or a great person was common in the ancient world. And there are a number of stories of people following these to find the person to honor them.
As for the star itself there are a number of speculations – perhaps a conjunction of Jupiter (the star of a king) and Saturn (the star of the Jews) in 7 BC; or a supernova in 5/4 BC. However, given the activity of this star in v. 9, resting right above the house that Jesus was in, this might be an angel – for angels were connected with stars in the ancient world and in the Bible, and angels shine forth light.
v. 3 – “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him”
The news of a star and important people looking for the new “king of the Jews” was a real threat to Herod. Because if there’s a new king of the Jews, then his time is up. He’s out of a job! But not only him, those who had privilege and wealth due to Herod felt threatened.
A prophetic Scripture connected to Jesus.
vs. 4-6 – “ . . . and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: ‘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.'”
The scripture here is Micah 5:2 and also 2 Samuel 5:2 (2 Chronicles 11:2) right at the end. (It’s a composite quote blending the two together.) (Changes in the text from MT and LXX: “Ephrathah” becomes “land of Judah”; “thousands” becomes “princes” – a different vowel pointing; ‘Bethlehem is little’ becomes ‘by no means the least’ – a variant working with the consonants in Hebrew, or connected to the fact that now the Messiah has been born there – so it is no longer the least)
Given what’s said here, and also in John 7:42 which mentions this, the idea of the Messiah being born in Bethlehem was fairly common.
Now unlike others we will see, this prophecy’s application is rather straight forward Jesus is the promised ruler born in Bethlehem; the Messiah. It’s just as simple as that.
vs. 7-9 – “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.’ After listening to the king, they went on their way.”
We’ll talk more about Herod next week, but let me say a few things. He was not a noble person. In fact he could be quite ruthless in order to hold on to power, even killing several of his family members. So his scheme here is not good natured. He’s trying to discover where the child is so he can kill him.
Also, you need to know that much of his paranoia was fueled by the fact that he was not a legitimate king. The Romans named him king, not the people. And he was only half Jewish. (He was an Idumean, or Edomite (Malachi 1:4) from a region just south of Judea.)
There are several indications in this story that a measure of time has passed since Jesus’ birth. First of all, he’s not called an infant, but a child here, indicating an older age – v. 8, 9, 11. And also the family seems to have moved into a house by this time, as we’ll see in v. 11.
Given what is said in 2:16 – that based on the information about when the star first came – the male children two years old and under were to be killed – Jesus may have been anywhere from several months to a year & half old when the wise men came.
Arrival in Bethlehem.
vs. 9-11 – “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. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 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 phrase, “They fell down and worshipped him” stands out. It was common to bow down or kneel before a king. Here, however, they fall on their faces. This is serious worship. The wise men present a picture of the proper response to Jesus, much like we find at the end of Matthew where the disciples “worshipped him” – 28:17.
And they give him very expensive gifts, fit for king – gold, frankincense and myrrh. We all know what gold is. We don’t know as much about the other two. Frankincense is the fragrant gum resin from a tree used in incense and perfume. And myrrh is also a fragrant gum resin from a tree, used in incense perfume, medicine, embalming.
There’s some Old Testament background to this giving of gifts to Jesus.
- Isaiah 60:1-6 speaks of a light coming and the nations coming to Israel with wealth with gold and frankincense to give.
- And Psalm 72 – speaks of the nations coming to bow before and give gifts to the king of Israel.
Both of these were seen to speak about what would happen at the end of time when the Gentiles come to know God. And so the wise men represent the first fruits of this coming Gentile worship.
A dream from God.
v. 12 – “And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.”
Each of our stories has a prophetic scripture and a dream, although in this case the dream comes to the wise men, not Joseph. They return home a different way to avoid helping Herod.
[There are interesting parallels between this story and the story of Balaam in Numbers 22-24:
As I said last week, each of these stories gives a –
A picture of Jesus’ future
In this story it has to do with the contrast between Herod as king of the Jews and Jesus as king of the Jews. Herod proves himself not worthy. He doesn’t know even where the Messiah is to be born. And once he finds out he lies to get information in a scheme to kill him. Herod is an imposter, not a true king of the Jews.
Jesus, however, is seen to be the real thing. This is shown in that – at his birth he signals the beginning of the coming of the Gentiles to worship and honor the true God. Jesus is the faithful and true king of the Jews.
This story points forward to the amazing response of Gentiles to the gospel message of the true king of Israel. And indeed the vast majority of Christians have come from the realm of the nations – offering up praise and honor to the Lord Jesus – as the Scriptures predicted.