1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem
2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.
4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.
5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.
8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.
10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. Matthew 2:1-12
Last post we showed that the birth of Jesus was a bit different from the traditional story of Him being born in a stable of some unknown Inn. He was actually born in the lower room, used for animals at night; at a relative’s home after finding the large common guest room was unsuitable for a birth. The women of the home would have assisted in the birth that took place weeks, if not a few months, after Mary arrived in Bethlehem.
Now we come to the story of the Magi who travel from the East to offer gifts and homage to the baby. This is another Biblical event that we take for granted, and give little thought to in the course of a year, but like the birth of Jesus it is a bit different than portrayed in Christmas pageants.
First of all, nowhere in Scripture are we told there were three Magi or wise men. This is a number we automatically associate with them because of the three gifts, Frankincense, Myrrh, and gold.
The Magi were a group of scholars and astronomers that studied the world around them for omens that would foretell important events that were about to take place. These Magi, in our story, were probably centered somewhere around the city of Babylon as it was still a center of Jewish studies in the time of Christ. They tell King Herod that they “saw His star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (v. 2) This is an interesting way of speaking regarding the star, as it seems to be a combination of astronomy and astrology. Whether or not there was a real star is not known because stating they saw the star “when it rose,” could well be referring to astrology.
The point is, they saw something different in the sky and they took it for an omen. They then began to seek out information about this event to try and interpret it. They would have access to Jewish Scripture and one of the texts they could have referenced was Numbers 24:17. “I see him, but not now, I behold him, but not close at hand. A star will march forth out of Jacob, and a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the skulls of Moab, and the heads of all the sons of Sheth.”
Further studies and inquiries led them to Judea. As they travelled, they continued to see this unknown star in the night sky and eventually they ended up on King Herod’s doorstep. In verse 2 they tell Herod they have come to worship the King of the Jews because of the discovery of the new star and their understanding of its meaning. What is interesting about the story is that verse 3 not only states that Herod was disturbed, but so also was all of Jerusalem.
Here is the crux of the story. Why was all Jerusalem disturbed by the news? The clue to their agitation is found in verses 4 and 5. Herod gathers together the priests and teachers of the law and asks them where the “Messiah” was to be born. They answer immediately, Bethlehem, and quote to him from Micah 5:2, a prophecy about the deliverance of God’s people out of Babylonian captivity through the immergence of the Messiah.
Now, Babylonian captivity was far in the past for the people of Judah, but they still lived under foreign occupation at the hands of the Romans. The scholars, priests, and teachers of the law most certainly understood that the prophecy in Micah 5 was yet to happen. They also understood from their study of the Book of Daniel that the fulfillment of the 70 Week prophecy outlined there was just about to be fulfilled.
We can begin to understand the buzz around Jerusalem and the fear surrounding Herod when the Magi showed up and confirmed that the time was at hand for the coming Messiah. Herod, though he called himself king of the Jews, was not a Jew, but instead an Edomite who had married into the faith. His hold on power was precarious at best as he served at the will of the Romans. Any kind of uproar or talk of a Messiah that would stir up the people to rebel against Rome would have serious consequences for him who was supposed to keep the peace on their behalf.
A quick mention of the role of the Messiah will give us a further insight into Jewish expectations for the Messiah. They had come home from exile in Babylon, resettled the land, and built the Temple. But, the Shekinah glory had never returned to the Temple, and as a result, the Jews believed in a metaphorical sense they were still in captivity. Only when the Glory of God once again settled into the Temple, as He had resided in Solomon’s Temple and the Tabernacle in the wilderness, would they feel that they were free from captivity. Of course being under the thumb of the Romans only affirmed their understanding of captivity. The Jews believed the reason the Shekinah glory had not returned and they were still under captivity was because of their corporate sins. For example, it was believed that if every Jew could keep the Sabbath perfectly for one day, then the Messiah would return.
The Jews thus believed that the Messiah would return, forgive them for their sins, establish Himself within the Temple, and return it to its former glory. He would set Jerusalem up as the hub of the world and all nations would worship there. But before all that could happen he would go forward on behalf of Israel and slay their enemies and bring them freedom from the oppressing nations.
With these concepts regarding the Messiah and the prophecies of Daniel about to be fulfilled and the Magi coming from the East to worship, everything seemed perfectly coordinated for the arrival of the Messiah. These views were well known to the teachers, priests, and Herod.
Herod now calls the Magi back for a secret meeting and tells them that the Messiah is born in Bethlehem and after they go and worship him, come back and report to him. He inquires how long ago they first saw the star and calculates that the child has to be somewhere under the age of two.
Verses 9 and 10 tell us that as they search, the star stops over the place where Jesus is and they were overjoyed. Was this a star that shone in the daylight or how it pinpointed one house is not known. Matthew is giving us an insight in the supernatural events surrounding Jesus with the story of the Magi. They are led by a star, they have dreams not to return to Herod, and the mysterious star stops directly over the home of Mary and Joseph.
Verse 11 tells us that they entered into the house, saw the child, bowed down and worshipped him, then presented their gifts. This must have been an amazing event for Joseph and Mary, to have this group of Magi travel all the way from Babylon to come and worship their child as King of the Jews. I wish Matthew had said more about the visit, but the conversation between the Magi and Jesus’ parents wasn’t relevant to his story so we don’t know what was said.
The gifts of the wise men are interesting. Frankincense was the gift for a priest and gold for a king. It is Myrrh that is out of place being a commodity that was used for burial purposes. Was Matthew reminding us, through that gift, that this baby who brought such joy to the world would be born to die? One last thing about the gifts; they were expensive gifts and when Joseph and Mary fled with Jesus down to Egypt they would now have the means to sustain themselves.
Why has Matthew told us all this? Herod represents the response of an unbeliever to the coming Messiah. He wants to know about it but for all the wrong reasons. His concern is how does the birth of this baby, King of the Jews, interfere with his power and lifestyle. Herod has no desire to worship or have his sins forgiven; instead he simply wants Jesus dead.
The Magi came to discover who the King of the Jews really was. They found a young boy and worshipped him even though they were not Jews themselves. They were open to the leading of God and they followed where God led. So much must have been confusing and strange to them, but they did not let that hinder their search for the Messiah and their worship once they found him.
Finally, Matthew is laying out for us one of the premises of the entire Gospel. The religious spiritual leaders of Judah with all their history, background, studies, and theology reject Jesus while the gentiles, poor (shepherds) and broken hearted respond in worship.