This is an edited manuscript of a sermon I preached at Calvary Baptist Church, West Campus, on December 11th, 2011.
In Matthew 2:1-12 we don’t only find the well-known characters of Herod and the religious leaders who appear throughout the gospels, but we also briefly meet a band of travelers who have mystified and fascinated Bible students for centuries – the wise men.
The story of the wise men is so familiar in American culture. Perhaps when you read this text you think of the carol written by the 19th century hymn writer John Hopkins Jr., “we three kings of Orient are”. Or you imagine the scene as it is depicted on the Christmas cards with infant Jesus, Mary, the Shepherds, Angels, and three Kings surrounding a trough. Much like the nativity set that sits on the mantel at your grandmother’s house. We are familiar with this story, or so we think we are. There are certain things about this story that we assume are true, but are not. Now, the point is not to encourage you to go home and rearrange your nativity set, mail back Christmas cards that falsely depict this story, nor to ban your children from singing “we three kings.” That’s not the point.
The purpose is for us to see the deeper meaning of this text. There is much more in this passage than our Christmas traditions present to us. At its very heart this passage is about God’s work in salvation and the call of response to man. So the driving question for this passage is simple – How Do You Respond To King Jesus? C. S. Lewis the Oxford historian composed the famous logic in his book Mere Christianity that has become known as Lewis’s “trilemma”. He said that people often say:
“I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.”
Lewis was arguing that either Jesus was Lord, Liar, or Lunatic. Now, if you take him for a lunatic you can refuse him, if you take him for a liar you can ignore him, but if you take him as Lord you will fall at his feet and worship. I am asking us a similar question today. This is a very straightforward and simple message. How do you respond to Jesus? – not only when it comes to conversion, but also in your day to day life?
- Do you refuse him?
- Do you ignore him?
- Or do you worship him above all else?
I believe we see all 3 three different responses in this passage – Herod refuses Jesus, the religious leaders ignore Jesus, and the wise men worship Jesus.
The Refusal of King Herod (3, 7-8)
1 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, 2 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.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him;
and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
From the very outset, we see that Jesus birth creates a political crisis. He was born during the reign of Herod. You cannot mention Herod’s name without moral scandal being attached to it. There are many names in human history like this. Herod basically came into power by crushing all those who were in opposition to his rule with the help of Roman forces. All Rome wanted from Herod, was for Herod to keep Judea quiet. In exchange for his duties he got to live like a king. But this rule, this power, this lifestyle – was something easily threatened, so it was something he guarded at all costs.
In fact historians tell us that in his last years his paranoia “of losing power” compounded, and in order to protect his throne he brutally murdered his closest associates, his wife, and at least two of his sons. What made this even worse was the fact that Rome did not love him, Rome needed him, and the Jewish people he ruled over despised him. So when we look at the text and we see, “Behold” – look, be surprised. This is an attention getting word. This is important. Here Matthew is telling us that somehow Herod gets wind of wise men going around, in his kingdom, inquiring about one who has been “born king of the Jews.” Born king of the Jews? If there is one who is born king they would have a greater claim to the throne than Herod. This is riot material. This is enough to make the throne of Herod shake.
It becomes obvious that “Jesus is born into an occupied land, a small outpost, on the edge of a mighty empire.” And Herod could not tolerate the thought of homage being paid to another king. This is why the text tells us that he was troubled – literally, in turmoil, deeply disturbed. The text also tells us that all of Jerusalem is troubled with him. Quite simply, when the king is not happy, no one is happy. Jerusalem was afraid of Herod’s reaction, of violet retaliations which such a threat might be expected to evoke. Fear of this baby reveals the depth of Herod’s fragility. So what does Herod do in his fear? What does Herod do to protect his throne?
7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 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.”
Wanting no undue publicity, Herod calls the wise men secretly and to inquire with high concern the exact date of the stars first appearance as to figure out when this child was born, and as we see later on, he uses this information to issue a decree of death to all male babies born around that time. While his secrecy was designed to hide his treachery, “it is difficult to believe that the magi had not heard of Herod’s reputation or that they were unable to estimate his character as to see the hypocritical humility behind his words – “come and worship him.”  It becomes clear that Herod has no intention of worshiping Jesus; he has refused King Jesus and wanted to eliminate his rule.
In the very beginning when Adam and Eve sinned against God it was an act of defiance – proclaiming to God that he would not have dominion over them. They would be their own rulers, their own kings. We inherit this deadly desire from our first parents. Not only are their people who out rightly reject and refuse the rule of Christ in their lives completely. There are also those of us who have the mistaken idea that we can refuse the rule of Christ on this or that in our lives. There is a part of each of us that wants to exercise dominion over certain areas of our lives, especially when it comes to something that we find pleasure, comfort, or power in. So like Herod we do anything we can to protect the sinful desire, action, or life pattern. When that thing becomes confronted, the throne of our hearts shakes. Our occupied hearts become troubled, deeply disturbed. How many of you are bowing down, sacrificing and pledging your allegiance to something in your life that has you completely mastered? That is your king. You, like Herod are refusing Jesus for something that will never satisfy you and in the end will destroy you. There is another rejection, another response to Jesus.
The Indifference of the Religious Leaders (4-6)
4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They 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.
Question; Why does it take pagan wise men from the far east to ask the question “where is he who is born king of the Jews?” This is a question that every Jewish citizen should be embarrassed was asked by a foreigner. Why would this not be a primary concern of the Jewish people? When Herod catches wind of what’s going on and calls in the chief priests and scribes of the Jews and consults with them. These are the experts who we would expect Herod to consult. Interesting – from the mouths of his theological consultants – the religious leaders affirm what he Scriptures teach, for they knew the Old Testament intimately. And they got it exactly right! When Herod asked them “where is this Christ to be born”? They pull their answer from Old Testament passages and name Bethlehem. Jewish readers would understand that Bethlehem is where David was born, brought up, and anointed as King of Israel. Were not the Jewish people waiting for a Messiah who would come from the line of David? It makes sense even more if you notice the description of the Messiah in the passages that the religious leaders quote:
- He will be a caring shepherd which is picked up from 2 Samuel 5:2.
- He will be the true king, the ruler which is found in Micah 5:2.
Here is the point, the religious leaders own scriptural confirmation that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem does not lead them to seek out or even worship Jesus. The religious leaders of all people were “unspiritual men…they had so little interest in the birth of the Messiah that they did not even accompany the Magi to Bethlehem to investigate his arrival for themselves.” In fact, as Matthews gospel account progresses we find that it is the religious leaders and Herod that plot together against Jesus. The people who have should have known these things most clearly went on with things as usual, affirming the words of the Apostle John who said of Jesus: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” This king Jesus is none other than the one who fulfills the promise to David, but he is also the king who will bring the promised hope of blessing to all the nations. But the religious leaders were indifferent.
This my friends, indifference, is the biggest danger in American Christianity – especially in the South, right here in the buckle of the Bible belt. For many people in our churches the conclusion based on numerous research studies holds true.
“In short, the spirituality of American is Christian in name only…We embrace preferences rather than truth. We seek comfort rather than growth…We have enthroned ourselves as the final arbiters of righteousness, the ultimate rulers of our own experience and destiny.”
In other words, we are the religious leaders of the new millennium. We skip across the surface of churches with the veneer of Christian faith. There are many in our church who can, like the religious leaders, affirm what the scriptures teach. They have the outer appearance of Christianity – they have walked down the aisles, prayed a prayer, regularly attend church. But in reality, deep down in their hearts – they feel indifferent towards Jesus. Like the religious who should have known these things most clearly and went on with things as usual at the arrival of Christ, they treat holy things as common place. See rejection can take the form of outright refusal, or cold indifference – either way, the response shows no joy in the messiah, their lives reflect no fruit in response to the grace of God shown in the gospel, their actions and attitudes reflect opposition to the Spirit of God. The dangerous thing is that many in these situations refuse to acknowledge it and are indifferent to the signs. Yet how do the wise men respond to Jesus?
The Worship of the Wise Men (1-2, 9-12)
1 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, 2 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 Greek “having been born” indicates that the birth had already occurred when the magi arrived in Jerusalem. In fact, based on a few indicators we can estimate Jesus’ birth.
- In the OT the holiness codes set certain expectations said that after childbirth (blood and tissues) a mother was confined for 40 days, away from their homes and their families.
- When Herod calls the wise men and asked about the timing of the appearance of the star, we can safely assume by Herod’s response in verse 16 that we are looking at some time in a 2 year period.
Based on these few indicators we can assume that Jesus was at least 1 month old, and up to 2 years old when they arrived. He was no longer an infant when the wise men visited his home. But more importantly, who were these magi? Unlike the Christmas carol proclaims the magi were not kings, but they were men who served kings. Magi were astrologers, “men who gained special insight into world affairs from their observation of planets and stars”. Here is another reason why Matthew jars the attention of the reader in verse 1 by proclaiming “Behold, wise men arrived.”
In the Old Testament it is clearly, unmistakably proclaimed that wise men, astrologers, were witches – evil doers. To get the image here, imagine your nativity set with witches in the place of wise men. This is how the Jewish people would have seen these magi. Pagan astrologers were unlikely witnesses to God’s redemption. This is a shocking reality. So here we have Gentile witches, considered alien to God’s people, traveling into the Jewish land, into Herod’s territory, with eager receptivity to worship the one born king of the Jews. Matthew is telling us something significant here. To have the king of the Jews recognized first by Gentiles, and not by Israel, sets the scene for the ministry of the Israelite Messiah, who would be, again as the apostle John says,
“He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
It points to the inclusive nature of the gospel, because Matthews account begins with gentiles coming to pay homage to the king and ends with the disciples worshiping Jesus on the mountain and being sent to all gentile nations. Jesus is a global messiah; he is the king of all peoples. The star leads these Gentiles in ways they did not know into Jerusalem in order to make the announcement of the Messiah’s birth! After Jerusalem, God puts the star back in the sky so that the wise men find Bethlehem – even the spot where the child would be found. The ancient world, innocent of streetlights, never forgot the night sky – and had a more realized belief that everything in the world was interconnected, so “when something important was happening on earth you could expect to see it reflected in the heavens.”
9 After 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. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 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. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
Matthew’s words indicate that the star moved ahead of the magi and stopped, or more literally “having took its stand”, in a position that indicated the location of the child. The point of the star is simple, that it is by divine guidance that they are able to complete their quest to find the child. God leads them to Jesus. This is God beginning the work of drawing all men to Himself. And how do the gentile witches respond? The magi fall down and worship Jesus. In other words, they “pay homage to him” as one would a superior. See, bringing gift’s was particularly important in the ancient East when approaching a superior. The magi opened their treasure boxes and gave Jesus gifts fit for a king.
- Gold – A precious metal. Gold has always been extremely valuable. You would not give a king a precious metal less than Gold.
- Frankincense – A perfume. In the ancient world something with an attractive aroma, perfume like odor, would have been of great value. It was a very rare commodity.
- Myrrh – anointing substance, a spiced gum. It is a substance used in the embalming of a corpse. It was not uncommon to bring such things because they are of great value.
These are luxury gifts, fit for a king. This account is much like the account of Israel’s King Solomon receiving “gold and a great quantity of spices” from the Queen of Sheba found in 1st Kings. Consider, Isaiah 60 where we read that a great light will shine in Israel and nations will come to this light and the wealth of the nations will come bringing gold and frankincense. This is an event that all of Israel should have seen coming. You wonder why not all of Judah had come to worship? – It was only gentile wise men, witches. It is clear that the magi represent the “first fruits of the salvation of the all nations and their submission to the one true God.” Our one true King and caring shepherd. Note that after they encounter Jesus “the wise men return home, becoming an outpost, a witness, to the joy they have experienced.” It’s funny how God uses an unusual cast of characters, sorcerers from the east, to accomplish his purposes. It’s funny that in this narrative – it is the pagan, gentile, witches that recognize Jesus as king.
What we need to remember about Matthew’s gospel account is that “Matthew records history so as to bring out its theological significance and its relation to [the rest of] Scripture.” We have, and the Jewish reader would have, seen the obvious Old Testament parallels to this story. What is Matthew saying here?
- The story of Herod’s fear for his throne and his ruthless political massacre reminds us of the Pharaoh at the time of Moses birth whose infanticide threatened to destroy Israel’s future deliverer, Moses. Just like Moses, Jesus escapes the wrath of the tyrant king while a child. See, Moses delivered Israel out of slavery in Egypt, delivered them from the tyranny of Pharaoh, but Jesus is a greater deliverer. It is Jesus who delivers all nations from slavery to sin. It is Jesus who delivers all nations from the tyranny of death.
- We may also recall how God had led his own people after the exodus by fire and cloud through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Just like God led Israel to the Promised Land, and led the Gentile wise men to Jesus, the promised one.
This is the beauty of the good news. God draws men to himself, delivers them from slavery to sin and the tyranny of death – through his son Jesus Christ. How, through his perfect sacrifice for our sin on the cross. Something that Matthew hints at here in the narrative of the wise men.
- Consider again that the wise men gave child Jesus the gift of Myrrh. Why would they bring an embalming substance as a gift to a child? As was custom, we read in the gospels that Nicodemus would later use a mixture of Myrrh to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.
- Back in verse 2, the wise men name Jesus as “king of the Jews.” The only other occurrence of the title “king of the Jews” in Matthew is found in chapter 27 in the passion narrative, in the shadow of the cross where it is used in mockery while Jesus is beaten. In the end these Gentile soldiers gave him a crown made of thorns and his throne a cross.
Here is a great reversal we find in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Just like we see in Herod and the religious leaders – symbols of power and prominence, who reject Jesus and are rebuked – it is the outsiders, the witches are lifted up and exalted. See, in the end, this narrative presents us with two kings.
- Herod the illegitimate king who takes innocent lives to protect his throne and save himself.
- Jesus the true king by birth who offers his own innocent life to establish his throne and save others.
Beyond the implicit contrast between Jesus and Herod, we are also presented with different responses. This, simply put, is a story of acceptance and rejection. Matthew contrasts the eagerness of the magi to worship Jesus with the apathy of the Jewish leaders and the outright hostility of Herod. “For us, we must recognize the internal contrast between that part of the inner self which willingly and joyfully accepts the Lordship of Christ and that darker side of the self which firmly and persistently rejects his right to rule. Scoff not at Herod [or the religious leaders] until you have acknowledged the Herod [religious leader] in yourself.”
Are you wise enough to seek Jesus? Are you wise enough to lay down the things that to you, are as valuable as gold? Are you wise to offer worship, like frankincense, like a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice to King Jesus? Are you willing to place all of your faith and hope in the one who from his very birth was marked by myrrh to die and rise again as King of the Jews and Gentiles?
As the popular slogan says, “wise men still seek Him”.
-  C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 55.
-  Albert Mohler, Powerline Bible Study, Matthew 2:1-12.
-  D.A. Carson, Matthew, EBC, 84.
-  Albert Mohler, Powerline Bible Study, Matthew 2:1-12.
-  Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, BTCB, 37.
-  Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, BTCB, 38.
-  Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 40.
-  D.A. Carson, Matthew, EBC, 88.
-  Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, WBC, 30.
-  Albert Mohler, Powerline Bible Study, Matthew 2:1-12.
-  While Bethlehem may be geographically insignificant, it is of great theological significance. Because the Messiah has come into the world at Bethlehem he has brought the city greatness and glory.
-  1 Samuel 16:4.
-  Davies and Allison, Matthew, 20.
-  James Montgomery Boyce, Matthew, 34.
-  16:21; 26:57; 27:41.
-  Psalm 68:28-35; Isaiah 18:1-3, 7, 45:14, 60:6; Zephaniah 3:10.
-  Michael Horton, Christless Christianity, 31.
-  Albert Mohler, Powerline Bible Study, Matthew 2:1-12.
-  Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 37.
-  Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, WBC, 26.
-  5th or 6th century.
-  Craig L. Blomberg, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson, 5.
-  R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, 62.
-  Matthew 28.
-  N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, 10.
-  This star invites reflection on Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:17-19 of the rise of a “star out of Jacob and a scepter out of Israel”, understood to point forward to the conquests of King David, and which thus foreshadows the victory of the son of David.
-  See David L. Turner, The Gospel of Matthew, CBC, 47.
-  R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, 69.
-  Genesis 43:11; 1 Samuel 9:7-8; 1 Kings 10:2.
-  See also 6:21.
-  See R.T. France, 75-76.
-  1 Kings 10:10.
-  Davies and Allison, Matthew, 27.
-  Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, BTCB, 40.
-  D.A. Carson, Matthew, EBC, 83.
-  R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, 63.
-  Exodus 13:21-22.
-  Craig S. Keener, The Bible Background Commentary on the New Testament, 49.
-  John 19:39.
-  Matthew 27:11, 29, 37.
-  N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, 12.
-  Davies and Allison, Matthew, 23.
-  David L. Turner, The Gospel of Matthew, CBC, 48.
-  Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, WBC, 23.
-  See D.A. Carson, Matthew, EBC, 86.
-  John MacArthur, God With Us, 114.
-  Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation, 15.
-  Philippians 4:18.