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Matthew 2:1-12: Christmas Meditation: Wiser than the Wise Men? Print E-mail
Christmas Season
Sunday, 27 December 2015

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Many traditions have developed around the story of the Wise Men, particularly focusing on the star that led them to Bethlehem. Colin Nicholl tells about some of them in his new book called “The Great Christ Comet” (which I have thanks to Doc and Chery). We have Christmas traditions like putting a star on top of our tree or having one over the stable in our nativity sets. Many cities make the star a central part of its holiday celebrations (see Nicholl p. 23-24). People enjoy thinking about and celebrating the Star of Bethlehem.

Yet, is the actual story in Matthew 2 true? Did Magi from the East really visit baby Jesus and bring Him gifts, guided there by an astronomical event? Many view such a story as nothing more than a fable, something made up by Matthew to enhance the story of Jesus’ birth. But as believers in the truthfulness of Scripture, the visit of the Magi is much more than a fable, much more than a fictional story about a magical star. It is part of the true story of our Savior’s birth. So what does Matthew tell us happened?

The Story

The story begins with Magi coming from the East in search of the King of the Jews. Look at verses 1-2. We need to ask and answer a few questions about these verses. First, who are these Magi, or Wise Men, from the East? Although we can only speculate, most believe that they were probably astrologers from Babylon. Due to their following of a star, it seems safe to conclude that they were astrologers (a possible meaning of the term that Matthew uses to describe them). They were probably from Babylon since astrology was important there and since there was a population of Jews there who would have helped these Gentiles be familiar with the Jewish God and His promise of a Messiah. They came to Jerusalem in search of the Messiah, whom they knew was born because they saw His star (possibly following Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:17, which speaks of a star rising from Judea). They wanted to find this king and worship Him.

Second, who was Herod? Herod was a Roman appointed ruler over Judea who was half Jewish. History tells us that when the Magi arrived, he was half crazy trying to eliminate all who tried to thwart his rule (he had already executed two sons and would later kill another before he died in 4 BC). He was paranoid about threats to his authority, which we see in verses 3-8. Look at those verses with me.

Herod was troubled by what the Magi said, which is probably what lead to the troubling of the rest of Jerusalem (‘when Herod was mad, nobody in Jerusalem was happy’). He assembled the religious leaders of the city, who will play a prominent role in Matthew’s Gospel, to ask them where the Messiah was supposed to be born. Their answer? Micah 5:2 (the verse we read as our call to worship). Micah, who lived during the days of Isaiah, had foreseen that the future Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the city of David. Not all prophecy is so plain, but this one is hard to miss. These men knew the Scriptures well enough to give Herod a firm answer about where the Messiah would be born.

From there, Herod devises a plan to get rid of this King of the Jews. Now what is amazing about this is the fact that Herod had found out where the Messiah would be born from the Word of God. In lying to the Magi and sending them to Bethlehem in search of the baby so that he could kill it, Herod is actually fighting against God and His Word. Not a smart plan. Yet, he is not the first or last person to rebel against the God of the Bible. His immediate plan fails, so he resorts to simply slaughtering all the male infants in Bethlehem under 2 in a further attempt to defy God. But the Lord wins in both of his attempts on Jesus’ life. He warns Joseph in a dream to flee Bethlehem after warning the Magi to not tell Herod the location of the baby.

But what about the Magi? How do they find Jesus in Bethlehem and what do they do when they get there? Look at verses 9-12. The star that had led them to travel West, now identifies the place where the baby was with Mary. Many different interpretations have been offered for how this occurred (from denying it altogether to attributing it to a miraculous mystery). Nicholl in his book argues that the star was actually a comet which did in fact identify the specific home in which Mary and baby Jesus were at (I’ll have to let you know if I agree with him, but so far he has made a good argument). When they arrive, Matthew tells us that the Magi did two things.

First, they fell down and worshipped Jesus. Some think that they were merely paying homage to a king, which is a possibility, while others see this as genuine worship of Jesus as the Son of God. It is hard to know for certain. But either way, they responded with worship. Second, they gave Him gifts fit for royalty. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh, were not cheap items. In fact, it could have been the value of these gifts that funded Mary and Joseph’s flight to Egypt. The Magi gave Jesus their best, appropriate gifts for the King of the Jews. And after God warned them in a dream, they returned to their homes and avoided Herod along the way.

The characters and their response to Jesus

What is Matthew teaching us in this passage? He is obviously giving us a historical account of what happened at Jesus’ birth and the wonder surrounding His origin. But he is also subtly, or not so subtly, teaching us the appropriate response to Jesus. We can see this by considering the response of the different characters of the story.

Herod responds to Jesus with fear and anger. He was the king of the Jews, according to the Romans. He did not take kindly to threats to his reign. So instead of marveling at the announcement of Jesus’ birth, he tried to thwart God’s plan and end the life of the child. Perhaps Herod did not believe the claim. Maybe he only saw it as another Messianic hoax (there had been more than a few). But he wasn’t taking any chances, as evidenced by his willingness to slaughter the children of Bethlehem. He was paranoid and angry. He was determined to remain in charge. Little did he know that his efforts were futile. Any man who fights against God will lose in the end. We can respond to King Jesus and His authority over our lives with fear and anger, but we best bow the knee while we can. After all, unlike Herod, the Kingdom of Jesus will last forever.

The religious leaders respond with indifference and unbelief. Why did they not make the short trip to Bethlehem to see this possible Messiah? Why did they not rejoice with the Magi and long to worship this newborn King? They obviously knew the Scriptures and the prophecies about the coming Christ. So why did they not believe in Jesus? Of course, it is hard to answer and it does seem that some of them would eventually come to faith in Christ, but these particular chief priests and scribes were not quite ready to believe that baby Jesus was indeed the Promised King. So they waited.

Many today have the same response to Jesus. They may not outright deny that He is the Savior, but they are not quite ready to take up their cross and follow Him. They might get around to it later, but today is not the day. They are content with the ‘wait and see’ approach at this point. Unfortunately they do not realize that they are not promised another day and that every moment apart from Christ is a missed opportunity for joy!

The Magi respond to Jesus with worship and sacrifice. The very ones in the story who we least likely expect to respond correctly are the only ones who get it right. Granted, their worship may not be true repentance and faith, but the fact that Gentile astrologers travel miles and miles to worship baby Jesus and give Him gifts fit for a King should give the whole world hope and give us hope for the whole world. Jesus will tell His disciples to take the good news to Jews and Gentiles alike, for both are welcome in His Kingdom, just as the Magi were welcome to offer their praise at His birth. Even here, we see the glorious good news for all: Jesus, the King born in the manger and worshipped by Shepherds and Gentile Magi, will give His life and be raised from the dead so that any who turn from their sins and believe in Him will be saved. Such a Savior is worthy of all the gifts we can bring, even our very lives.

So then, how will you respond to King Jesus? Will you hide in fear and anger at the threat to your supposed control of your life? Will you pretend to be neutral, remaining indifferent and unmoved by His love and sacrifice? Or will you, like the Wise Men of old, bow your knee to the King of Kings and Lord and Lords, who gave His life to pay for your sins? Do not try to be wiser than the Wise Men! Rather, join them at the feet of Jesus. Amen.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Monday, 11 January 2016 )

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