Matthew 2:1-12, “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. Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.”
I want to start out this morning by explaining that you’d be hard pressed to find a more mysterious group of people in all of the Bible than these Wise Men!
Who were they? Were did they come from? Why would they have cared that a King of the Jews had been born, yet alone come to worship Him? How did they know to look for a star that would indicate His birth? Why were these men almost two years late? Why did they not know to look in Bethlehem and instead stop over in Jerusalem? And what’s with these gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh?
Before we attempt to answer these questions, let’s begin with what we know…
1. “Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem…”
The Greek word for “wise men” is “magos” which can also be translated as “magi.” This was a name given in the orient and Old Testament to describe men who were “teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, soothsayers, even sorcerers.” In Genesis 41 and Exodus 7 this phrase described the counselors of Pharaoh. In Esther this phrase described the advisers of the Persian King. In Daniel we know the “wise men” were part of Nebuchadnezzar’s inner circle.
Since the passage says they were “from the East” and Egypt was south of Judea it’s likely these men were from the remnants of the Babylonian and Persian Empires.
2. Searching for the “King of the Jews…”
Though these men were pagan Gentiles, it’s obvious they had clearly been given some kind of Hebrew, religious heritage. They understood this Jewish King would be unique which is why they traveled 1000 miles through tough desert terrain to find Him. Why else would they travel a great distance into a foreign land to located a foreign King?
3. Because “they had seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”
While it was customary for another nation to send a delegation to pay homage and respect when a son was born to foreign king, the text indicates their intention seems to be much more than that... The word Matthew uses for “worship” suggests these Wise Men had come to “bow their knee as an expression of profound reverence.”
At this point two questions immediately arise… (1). Why were these wise men looking for the birth of this Jewish King? and (2). How did a star indicate the timing of His birth?
To effectively answer these questions you have to rewind the clock some 500 years to a Jewish prophet living in Babylon named Daniel. Following an elongated season of rebellion, God used the Babylonian Empire to be His vessel of judgment for the nation of Judah. Not only had Jerusalem fallen and the Temple been destroyed, but the Hebrew people had been forced into exile by being dispersed throughout the world.
Now living in Babylon Daniel was deeply concerned the Jews had permanently vacated their privilege as the chosen people of God! Because this burden was great, in order to calm his fears, God allowed Daniel to peer into the future to see that not only did He still have a plan for the people of Israel, but that the long promised Savior / King would appear exactly 483 years from the decree to “restore and build Jerusalem.” (Daniel’s 70 Weeks Prophecy.)
Note: This portion was fulfilled on April 6, 32 AD when Jesus entered Jerusalem ridding on a donkey occurring exactly 483 years or 173,880 days from King Artexerxes decree on March 14, 445 BC allowing the Jewish people to return and rebuild Jerusalem.
This is where things become interesting and relevant for our purposes… While Daniel had not only received prophetic insight concerning the future arrival of the Messiah, he had also proven to be such a valuable adviser to King Nebuchadnezzar that we’re told 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 of Babylon.”
Is it an accident that “wise men from the East” had been specifically placed under Daniel’s charge some 500 years earlier? Since Daniel knew when the Messiah would be revealed to Israel I don’t think it’s a leap to assume he established an order of the Wise Men charged with instructions to present certain gifts upon the birth of this “King of the Jews.”
Beyond explaining why Wise Men from the East were interested in a Jewish King in the first place, Daniel’s involvement would explain why the star played such a crucial role. Because one of the areas of expertise concerning the order of wise men was astrology, it’s likely Daniel (knowing when the Messiah would be presented to Israel) was able to designate the pattern of a singular star that would position itself over Judea close to the birth of the Messiah. In many ways this star acted as a countdown for the Magi.
Since stars were used in the ancient world as a navigation tool, Daniel may have left behind instructions for these Wise Men to follow this special star approximately 450 years following the coming decree allowing the Jews to rebuild Jerusalem. Don’t forget the Wise Men told King Herod they had “seen His star in the East.”
Daniel’s involvement some 500 years earlier would also explain why the Wise Men were late. Are you aware the traditional “Nativity” has it all wrong? Our text is clear the Wise Men were not present when Jesus was born and never crossed paths with the shepherds.
Notice how Matthew begins his account… “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea... Wise Men came to Jerusalem.” Most Biblical scholars believe the arrival of the Wise Men occurred approximately 18 months after Jesus’ birth.
Matthew also tells us “when they had come into the house.” Note: It would seem Joseph found it best to move into a home instead of living in a stable.
We’re also told that when the Wise Men do arrive “they saw the young Child” as opposed to Luke’s description of Jesus as a “babe wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a manger.”
Though Daniel knew with pinpoint accuracy when Jesus would present Himself to Israel as their King, he didn’t know how old Jesus would be when He arrived. Daniel was only left to speculate as to the birth of Christ (30 or so years subtracted from 483).
Finally, Daniel’s involvement would explain why these Wise Men brought such unique gifts. These gifts of “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” had significant meaning and purpose. Gold was the gift of royalty. Frankincense was used almost exclusively by the priests in the worship of God. And myrrh was nothing more than a common burial spice.
If left to themselves, the Wise Men would not have brought these particular gifts; however, as one of the most “Christ-centric” prophets Daniel had a broader understanding.
He knew the Messiah would be a King (gold). He knew this King was also God incarnate (frankincense). And according to this same 70 Weeks Prophecy, Daniel was also keenly aware this divine King would die for the sins of His people (myrrh).
Aside from providing a detailed explanation of the Wise Men I want to point out another significant detail within this story most people overlook… Matthew begins by pointing out that this star led these men roughly 1000 miles “from the East” into Judea only for then something interesting and in some ways bizarre to occur.
Look what happens after the Wise Men have their encounter with Herod in Jerusalem… Matthew says that “when they heard the king… 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 from the text that as the Wise Men are getting close to their final destination (which we know to be Bethlehem) the star suddenly vanishes! This may explain why after loosing their only source of navigation, the Wise Men are forced to do the only logical thing… Head to Jerusalem to consult with King Herod. As far as they knew Herod, as the current king, would have been in the know concerning a new “born King.” Surprisingly, he wasn’t!
Which leads us to another component of this story… King Herod. Herod the Great was an Arab by birth (Edomite) who had been granted the title, “King of Judea” by the Roman Senate and later confirmed by Caesar Augustus himself. What makes Herod such an interesting character is that aside from his sadistic tendencies, he was weirdly religious.
Approximately 50 years before Herod’s birth a Jewish man by the name of John Maccabaeus conquered Edom. And in one of his first acts he required all of the Edomites either leave the area or convert to Judaism. This meant anyone who stayed (including Herod’s family) had to be circumcised and adhere to all the Jewish law and customs.
Beyond developing and maintaining a good report with the Jews living under his dominion, as an Edomite proselyte we understand that Herod deeply desired religious acceptance by the Jewish people. Not only does Josephus mention this in his histories, but it may explain why Herod spent so much time and treasure renovating the Temple in Jerusalem.
Understand, Herod cherished his position as king. He relished the power it provided so much he notoriously killed off anyone who even remotely proved to be a threat (this included his second wife and three of his sons). You can only imagine how troubled he must have been by the request of these foreign dignitaries searching for the new “born King of the Jews.”
You see a “born King” was the ultimate threat to Herod’s power and control. A “born King” would have the rightful claim to the throne he’d taken by force and worked so hard to hold onto. A “born King” would immediately undermine his standing with the Jewish community he look to for acceptance and place his entire position in peril.
What’s interesting about this story is that Matthew tells us that Herod didn’t brush off their request and instead took their inquiry very seriously. We’re told he “gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, and inquired of them where the Christ was to be born....” This detail seems to reveal the reality that Herod understood the Messianic prophecies of the Scriptures. He recognized a “born King” at this point in Jewish history would have to be none other than “the Christ” - the promised Messiah.
Notice Herod “inquired of them where the Christ was to be born…” He literally “demanded” from them an explanation. And after consulting the prophecies of Micah, the “chief priest and scribes” returned with the answer… “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.’”
Look again at the progression of our text…
So we should ask… Why the deliberate detour to Jerusalem? I think it’s safe to say the Wise Men’s 4G LTE access to the star hadn’t entered a dead zone. It’s not as though they dropped the signal. The only plausible conclusion you can reach is that God wanted the star to lead them to Jerusalem before leading them on to Bethlehem.
In God’s sovereignty, we can conclude He intentionally led the Wise Men to Jerusalem for two reasons... (1) The religious leaders needed to know the Messiah had been born so they would be without excuse, and (2) Herod needed to know he wasn’t the rightful king!
“The supporting cast of Christmas - Each equipped with the same good news - In Bethlehem - A Christ had come - A Savior for the world…”
In a very real sense King Herod and the Wise Men had the same amount of revelation. Everyone knew about the star… They knew a King had been born… They even knew this King would be born in Bethlehem… And yet, while their knowledge of such things was the same, their reactions to God’s revelation were markedly different!
“The wise men from the East had seen - A star that marked His birth - From far they came - With exceeding joy - To worship the King of Kings…”
Matthew tells us that not only had the Wise Men acted upon whatever revelation they had concerning the star, but now equipped with a specific location from the revelation of Scripture that the King was born in Bethlehem they “came into the house… Saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him… Presenting gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
Q: What was it that made these men “from the East” wise men?
A: While they had only been given limited revelation by a prophet who lived 500 years before them, they still acted in faith upon what they knew! If faith is the spiritual muscle that enables a person to act upon what they know to be true, you have to recognize their incredible faith. Their little knowledge produced a big act of obedience making them Wise Men!
Without really knowing where they were going or what to expect upon their arrival, these men made the decision to travel 1000 miles through rough terrain for one reason and one reason alone… A King had been born worthy of their worship!
“Although the wicked Herod knew - The Son of God been born - He declined to come - Proved bitter still - And refused to cede control…”
Matthew tells us Herod requests that these Wise Men bring back a report of what they discover under the false presence he was also interested in worshipping the infant King; however according to Matthew 2:16 “when Herod saw that he was deceived by the wise men, he was exceedingly angry; and sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.”
Q: What was it that made Herod a fool?
A: Though like the Wise Men he also conceded the reality the rightful King had been born in Bethlehem, he resisted this revelation because he understood the implications… He could no longer be king! Herod refused to bow his knee to Jesus even going so far as to launching this failed attempt on His life for one reason and one reason alone… He was unwilling to vacate the throne and saw Jesus as a threat to his control!
“The supporting cast of Christmas - The good news for us the same - When faced with Christ - the Wise Man bows - or plays the foolish king…”
In Matthew 7:24-27 Jesus defines the wise man and a fool this way… “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: And the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: And the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall.”
Please understand… What this story teaches us is that what you know isn’t nearly as important as what you do with what you know. As Russian playwright Anton Chekhov eloquently stated, “Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.”
While this message has an application for us all, I do want to take a moment and close by addressing men. It is an inescapable reality that because men naturally rally around the strongest, only a fool willingly cedes control to a weaker man! But… It’s also a truth that a wise man has no problems taking orders from and going into battle for a man who’s proven his strength and been deemed worthy of the position.
Are you The Wise Man? Are you willing to receive the revelation God provides, act upon what you know to be true, humble yourself and bow your knee to Jesus… A man of strength who by His very actions has proven worthy of your allegiance?
Or are you The Foolish King? Are you a man who, while knowing the truth (that Jesus is a greater, more able man than you), still pridefully resists the rightful Heir to the throne because you’re unwilling to cede the power and control you enjoy?
“The supporting cast of Christmas each equipped with the same good news. In Bethlehem a Christ had come a Savior for the world… The wise men from the East had seen a star that marked His birth. From far they came with exceeding joy to worship the King of Kings… Although the wicked Herod knew the Son of God been born. He declined to come, proved bitter still and refused to cede control… The supporting cast of Christmas the good news for us the same. When faced with Christ the Wise Man bows or plays the foolish king.”