Matthew 2:1-11, “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 have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.’ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
So they said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’
Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.’ When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.
When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
Before we get into this interesting story, I want to go ahead and establish a general context and timeframe for the events of this second chapter… Matthew begins by giving us a rather broad transition. He simply writes, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem.”
While Matthew doesn’t provide any specifics, his description of Jesus being a “young Child” living in a “house” that was located in the city of Bethlehem when the Wise Men come indicates that somewhere between 12 to 18 months have passed since His birth.
Though we have no idea how long Mary and Joseph hunkered down in a stable, according to Luke 2, we do know they remained close because they took Jesus to the Temple to be circumcised eight days following His birth and they set aside enough time for Mary to fulfill the requirements of her purification as specified in Leviticus 12. Since all of this would have taken 40 days, remaining in Bethlehem, which was a suburb of Jerusalem, makes sense.
In Luke 2:39, we’re told, “So when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth.” Admittedly, there are two ways to view the larger timeline… Option 1 is that after a month or so Mary and Joseph go back to Nazareth but find the situation so difficult they decide to return and live in Bethlehem.
Option 2 is that Mary and Joseph make the decision to remain in Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus only to make their return to Nazareth several years later. Frankly, either of these two options is not only plausible but consistent with the Biblical narrative.
Diving into this second chapter, I should begin by explaining that you’d be hard-pressed to find a more mysterious group in the Scriptures than these Wise Men! In fact, a lot of what we think we know about them is factually wrong. For example… Though we assume there were three Wise Men because of the three gifts, Matthew never tells us how many there were. Some speculate there may have been a very large entourage.
Once more, while every Christmas nativity includes three Wise Men gathered around the manger scene, Matthew is also clear these men arrived many months after the shepherds. A young Child living in a home is a much different scene than a babe lying in a manger!
As you transition from the birth of Christ to this account, questions abound! Who were these Wise Men? Where did they come from? Why would foreigners care that a King of the Jews had been born yet alone want to worship Him? How did they know to look for a star? How was it that this particular star indicated such an important birth had occurred?
Aside from this… Why were these Wise Men so late to the party? Why did they not know to look in the town of Bethlehem and instead end up having this layover in Jerusalem to gain further direction? While we can understand how a gift of gold would have been appropriate for a king, why give a baby frankincense (one of the primary spices used in Temple sacrifices) and myrrh (which was the main spice used in the embalming process)?
As we work to answer these questions, let’s begin by discussing what we do know from the text… First, Matthew writes in verse 1, “Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.” In the Greek, the word used for “wise men” is magos which can be translated as magi.
What’s interesting is Matthew’s account is not the first time we encounter magi in the Bible. Historically, magi was an official title given in the orient. Within the Scriptures, the word was used to describe men who held all kinds of roles and positions in pagan societies. A magi could be a teacher, priest, physician, astrologer, seer, soothsayer, even a sorcerer.
To this point, in Genesis 41 and then again in Exodus 7, magi described the counselors of the Egyptian Pharaoh. In the story of Queen Esther, magi once again denoted the advisers of the Persian King. In the book of Daniel, you’ll even come to discover the “wise men” or magi were actually a part of King Nebuchadnezzar’s inner circle of confidants.
Contextually, since our passage affirms they were “from the East” and Egypt was south of Judea, it’s likely these men came from the remnants of the Babylonian and Persian Empires.
The next thing we know about these Wise Men from the text is that they came searching for a newborn “King of the Jews!” Though it’s improbable they were Jews and likely Gentiles, it’s obvious they possessed some kind of Hebrew, religious heritage.
Because of the very nature of their quest, the Wise Men had somehow come to the understanding that this particular Jewish King would be significant to the entire world. It’s the only way to explain why they traveled 1000 miles through desert terrain to find Him.
Lastly, Matthew tells us these men came because “they had seen His star in the East” and wanted “to worship Him.” While it would have been completely customary for another nation to send a delegation to pay homage and respect when a son was born to a foreign king, the text suggests the intention of these men was much much deeper.
The word Matthew uses for “worship” indicates these Wise Men hadn’t come to pay homage… They came intending to bow their knee as an expression of profound reverence! In what would have been odd, the Wise Men came to bend their knee to this Jewish King.
With all of this in mind, two logical questions arise… First, what would motivate a group of pagan, Wise Men from the East to set upon a difficult journey in order to find this newborn Jewish King? Secondly, how would a star indicate the timing of His birth?
Though the text is mum as to these questions, I do think in describing them as “Wise Men from the East” Matthew was providing his Jewish audience a logical clue. You see in order to effectively answer these two questions you have to rewind the clock some 500 years to a Jewish prophet living in Babylon named Daniel. Let me set a little context…
Following an elongated season of rebellion by the Jewish people, God decided to use the Babylonian Empire to judge the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Not only was Jerusalem sacked and the Temple destroyed, but the Hebrew people were forced from the land into exile with a group of their brightest young men being taken captive back to Babylon.
One of these young men, the prophet Daniel, grew deeply concerned that the Jews may have vacated their privilege as the chosen people of God on account of the years of sin! Because the implications were indeed great, to calm his fears, God allows Daniel to peer into the future in order to see that not only did He still have a plan for the people of Israel, but the long-promised Savior (the “King of the Jews”) would present Himself exactly 483 years from a future decree allowing them to “restore and build Jerusalem.”
What makes this prophecy relevant to Matthew 2 is that just a few years later, on March 14, 445 BC, the Persian King Artaxerxes issued this very decree allowing the Jewish people to return and rebuild Jerusalem. What this meant is that any astute student of Scripture could have known the very day Messiah the King was going to reveal Himself to His people.
Now, this is where things become particularly interesting… While Daniel would receive from God prophetic insights concerning the future arrival of the Messiah, he also proved to be such a valuable and trusted adviser to King Nebuchadnezzar we read, in Daniel 2:48, “The king promoted Daniel and gave him many great gifts; and he made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon, and chief administrator over all the wise men (magi) of Babylon.”
Think about it… Since prophetically Daniel knew when Jesus the Christ was going to reveal Himself to Israel, is it a leap to believe such a brilliant man could have also reverse-engineered the timeline to roughly approximate the time of the Messiah’s birth?
Additionally, because one of the areas of expertise concerning the order of magi was astrology, is it beyond reason that Daniel could have also been able to designate the movements of a particular star that would not only position itself in such a way to indicate a King had been born but to serve as a navigation tool to locate the place of His birth? Don’t forget the Wise Men tell King Herod they had “seen His star in the East.”
Considering that Daniel had also been placed in charge of the Magi by the Babylonian king, is it farfetched to believe he may have established an order of Wise Men charging them with very specific instructions that when this one star reached a certain place in the night sky they were to go and present to this newborn King very particular gifts?
Not only am I convinced that apart from Daniel’s involvement the Wise Men’s appearance makes zero sense, this particular scenario also explains why they arrive late and why they presented “gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” While Daniel knew with pinpoint accuracy when Jesus would present Himself to Israel as their King, he didn’t know how old He would be. As a result, Daniel was only left to speculate as to the date of Christ’s birth.
Aside from this, if left to themselves, the Wise Men would not have brought these gifts. As I noted earlier, with the exception of gold, the other two are strange gifts to give a baby. And yet, as one of the most Christ-centric prophets, Daniel had a much broader understanding.
You see Daniel knew the Messiah would be a King, which explains the gift of gold. He also knew this King would be God, explaining the gift of frankincense. And, according to this same 70-Weeks Prophecy recorded in Daniel 9, the prophet was keenly aware the divine King would end up dying for the sins of His people, which explains the gift of myrrh.
Though Daniel’s involvement answers a lot of questions about this story, one question remains. Notice that while Matthew begins by telling us this “star” led the Wise Men “from the East” into Judea, as they get closer to their destination something bizarre occurs.
Look again at verse 9… After the Wise Men leave King Herod, Matthew says, “Behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was…” It would appear as the Wise Men inched closer to their destination (which we know was Bethlehem) the star suddenly vanishes!
Then without their only source of navigation, the Wise Men are forced to do the logical thing… They head to Jerusalem to consult with King Herod. As far as they knew Herod would have been “in the know” concerning a new “born King.” Once the religious leaders were subsequently consulted and the Wise Men leave Jerusalem, the star reappears!
Here’s my point and it will explain why Matthew includes this story… Though Daniel made the necessary arrangements for the Wise Men to go directly to Jesus, God intervened by temporarily hiding the star so that they’d first make a detour in Jerusalem. Clearly, we have to consider why God would do this and include King Herod in the larger narrative!
Herod the Great as he’s known in history was an Edomite by birth who had been granted the title King of Judea by the Roman Senate — a title that was later confirmed by Caesar Augustus. What makes Herod such a fascinating character is that aside from his sadistic tendencies and incredibly small stature, he was weirdly religious for a brutal tyrant.
Approximately 50 years before his birth, a Jewish man by the name of John Maccabaeus conquered the area of Edom requiring all of the Edomites to either leave the region or convert to Judaism. This meant anyone who stayed (which included Herod’s family) had to be circumcised and adhere to all the Jewish laws and customs.
Beyond developing and maintaining a good report with the Jews living under his dominion, because he was a proselyte Herod the Great had a deep longing to be accepted by the religious establishment and therefore the Jewish people. Not only does the first-century historian Josephus mention this in his histories of the time, but it explains why Herod spent so much energy and treasure renovating the Temple in Jerusalem.
As you can imagine Herod cherished his position as king. He relished the power it provided so much he notoriously killed off anyone he even remotely perceived to be a threat including his second wife and three of his sons. With that in mind, consider how concerned he must have been when foreign dignitaries arrive looking for the “newborn King of the Jews!”
Understand, because Herod the Great was an Edomite, a “born King” of the Jewish people would have been the ultimate threat to his reign. A “born King” would have possessed the rightful claim to a throne he’d taken by force and the power he’d amassed. A “born King” would instantly undermine his standing within the Jewish community.
One of the things I find fascinating about this story is that Matthew tells us Herod didn’t brush off the inquiry of these Wise Men. Instead, he took it very seriously! In addition to all of Jerusalem being on edge, Matthew says he “gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, and inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.”
In a strange twist, the very question he asks indicates the fact Herod the Great understood the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. He recognized a “born King” at this point in history may very well prove to be “the Christ” — the long-promised Messiah. Notice, Herod “inquired of them” or literally demanded from them “where the Christ was to be born.”
Well, after taking time to consult the prophecies of Micah, the “chief priest and scribes” returned to Herod with the answer… “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”
Look again at the progression of our text… The star indicating the birth of the King of the Jews leads the Wise Men to Judea before disappearing. Not sure what to do, the Wise Men go to Jerusalem, which happened to be the wrong location, in order to consult with Herod. Concerned that this crew of foreign dignitaries has come looking for a “newborn king,” Herod turns to the religious leaders of the day seeking some kind of answer.
After consulting with Scripture, the “chief priests” with a cohort of “scribes” tell Herod that according to Micah the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Upon sharing this detail with the Wise Men and sending them on their way, incredibly the star reappears leading these men not only to the city of Bethlehem but to the very house Jesus was living in.
In order to unpack the larger point behind this story, you need to first understand what the Wise Men, Herod, and the religious leaders all had in common… None of them were present for Jesus’ birth and none of them received an angelic pronouncement. Instead, all three received a measure of revelation that the King had been born — after the fact.
The Wise Men knew a King had been born because of a star that initiated their journey. King Herod knew something was up because of the alarming presence of these Wise Men who were lost. The religious leaders were brought into the loop because of the inquiry of Herod. In the end, everyone involved knew where to look to confirm whether or not the King had been born because of the revelation provided in God’s Word.
So let’s get back to the larger question as to why God orchestrated this detour to Jerusalem? From my perspective, the only plausible conclusion you can reach as to why the star disappeared is that God, in His sovereignty, intentionally led the Wise Men to Jerusalem so that the religious leaders, in addition to King Herod, would also know the Messiah had been born and was in Bethlehem! Incredibly, this means God was also inviting them to come and worship the newborn King — to encounter Jesus for themselves.
Before we close by centering back onto the Wise Men and their experience, Herod’s reaction to the news of Jesus’ birth should come as no surprise. Matthew tells us Herod instructed the Wise Men to “bring back word” to him under the false presence he wanted to go “worship him also.” As we’ll see next Sunday, Herod’s intentions were totally evil!
And yet, it’s the reaction of the religious leaders to these things that’s truly shocking! You have this large group of Wise Men who’ve traveled 1,000 miles from the East showing up on your doorstep in search of the King they claim had recently been born. You ask how they knew what they knew only to get a tale of a star appearing and then disappearing.
Prompted by King Herod, who clearly sees the entire situation as being true enough to be alarmed, you turn to the Scriptures to identify where the Christ was to be born. You determine the location to be Bethlehem which was located just a few miles outside of Jerusalem. You pass this information along to Herod, who then passes it on to the Wise Men, who then promptly depart towards the south via your instructions…
Seriously, it’s beyond the pale that not one of these religious men is even remotely curious enough by what’s happened to tag along with the Wise Men in order to see if the King had really been born! Their actions defy reason and are simply unexplainable!
Keep in mind, Matthew’s entire point in writing was to prove that Jesus, who these religious leaders had rejected, was the King who’d been promised to their forefathers and prophesied about in the Scriptures. In fact, as a Levite and member of the priestly class, Matthew is letting the world know that God had gone out of His way to make sure the birth of Christ had been revealed to these men. Their inaction was inexcusable, even scandalous.
Imagine being a Hebrew reading Matthew’s Gospel… This is the first time you’ve ever heard this story! According to Matthew, the religious leaders you’ve trusted your entire life literally did nothing with the obvious revelation they’d been given that the Christ had been born!
How can that be!? No investigation at all! No curiosity! Nothing! In fact, it’s a shock to your system that, in contrast to your religious leaders, it ends up being this crew of foreign, pagan, Gentile, Magi from the East who took your Scriptures seriously enough to come, honor, and worship the King of the Jews! Yes, these religious men had rejected Jesus, but you now have to wonder if they were ever interested in getting to the truth! BINGO!
Before we wrap things up this morning, I want to leave you with three truths you can chew on for the next week… First, this story illustrates how no one is beyond God’s reach! Whether it be a group of Eastern Astrologers left with vague instructions by a prophet named Daniel or these corrupt religious leaders, everyone is invited to come and experience a life-changing encounter with Jesus. Yes, including a wicked king named Herod!
Secondly, as we see with these religious men, it’s entirely possible to know the written Word without ever coming to know the Living Word. What’s interesting is reading and studying the Bible can facilitate both aims. If you don’t know Jesus, time in the Scriptures will deepen your knowledge of Him. That said if you know Jesus, time in the Scriptures will end up facilitating an experience you have with Him. Obviously, the difference between the knowledge of Jesus and growing to know Jesus is a personal relationship.
Lastly, it’s been correctly stated that “knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.” You see what this story illustrates is what you know (knowledge) is not nearly as important as what you do with what you know (which is the definition of wisdom).
Brought 1000 miles west to a foreign land by the appearing of a star associated with a legend that it would coincide with the birth of an important King, which necessitated the presentation of three very specific gifts — a legend that was started by a Hebrew prophet 500 years early only to be passed down through successive generations of Wise Men…
Then equipped, following a detour, with a general location revealed by Scripture that was more specifically honed in by the stars reappearing, what do these Wise Men do? Matthew tells us they “came into the house, saw the young Child with Mary His mother, fell down and worshiped, presenting gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
Friend, the only possible explanation to explain the actions of these Wise Men was that they genuinely believed a King had been born worthy of their worship! You see their little knowledge yielded a big act of faith which resulted in a life-altering encounter with Jesus! Charles Spurgeon once said, “Those who look for Jesus will see him: those who truly see him will worship him: those who worship him will consecrate their substance to him.”
When I consider the contrast between the Wise Men and the religious leaders, I come back to James 1:22 when we’re warned to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” You see what differentiates a wise man from a fool is not the amount of revelation one receives but what a person does with the revelation they’ve been given!
The religious leaders knew the Scriptures and they had the testimony of these foreigners, yet they failed to do anything, missed their moment, and in the end, were considered fools. And yet, in contrast, this entourage from the East incredibly acted by faith on what little they knew, in turn, encountered King Jesus, and in the end, are considered to be Wise Men.
Friend, the simple question… What are you going to do with what you do know about Jesus? Will you act on it or do nothing at all? I promise if you’ll act on whatever you know it will lead to the discovery of the only person who can change your life forever — King Jesus!
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