Gentile magi honor Jesus as king. Matthew 2:1-12

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.

Herod’s scheming.

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.

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.