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Matthew 2:1-12 – The Wise Men

During our family get together, several of us noticed some interesting things about the nativity at my parents’ home. The nativity set sits in the middle of the mantle and has a quilt background above it. The quilt is meant to represent the mountains and sky above the stable. Each of us was given a square for the quilt to decorate as a star in the sky. But the closer you look, the more you see. Hanging from the quilt are three angels praising God. In the stable there are shepherds along with Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. But there were no wise men. When I mentioned this, my mom showed me the wise men across the room coming from the east. That made me smile because many nativity sets have the wise men at the stable. But is this when they came? After reading Matthew 2, we will discover the real story of the wise men.

  1. The wisemen arrived in Jerusalem (Matt. 2:1-2).

    What does it say?

    After Jesus’ birth, a group of wisemen from the East came to Jerusalem. They asked a curious question: “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” As we will see later, this caused a ruckus in Jerusalem. But how did they know about Jesus’ birth? They said that back home they had seen a star in the sky that indicated He had been born. And they had traveled all the way to Jerusalem to worship the newborn king.

    What does it mean?

    The wise men visited after Jesus’ birth. These two verses show us the real timeline for the events that happened in this chapter. The visit of the wise men didn’t coincide with the visit of the shepherds. If the star appeared at Jesus’ birth (we really don’t know), their visit must have taken place quite some time after He was born. Travel took a lot longer back then as there were no planes, trains, or cars.

    The wise men visited during during “the days of Herod the king.” According to historians, King Herod ruled from 37 BC to 4 BC.1 He was the “Roman-appointed king of Judaea (37–4 BCE), who built many fortresses, aqueducts, theatres, and other public buildings and generally raised the prosperity of his land but who was the centre of political and family intrigues in his later years.”1 His rule was so despotic that he is known for killing his wife Mariamne and her family. The Caesar at the time said it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son. It was during this time that Jesus was born.

    The wise men came from the East. We don’t know much more than what the Bible says, However, “we know that the magi were wise men from ‘the East,’ most likely Persia, or modern-day Iran. This means the wise men traveled 800 to 900 miles to see the Christ child. Most likely, the magi knew of the writings of the prophet Daniel, who in time past had been the chief of the court seers in Persia. Daniel 9:24-27 includes a prophecy which gives a timeline for the birth of the Messiah. Also, the magi may have been aware of the prophecy of Balaam (who was from the town of Pethor on the Euphrates River near Persia) in Numbers 24:17. Balaam’s prophecy specifically mentions a ‘star coming out of Jacob.’”2

    The wise men had seen His star from the East. While most of us do not look into the night sky for signs of great historical events, these wise men did. Somehow, they saw what few others had. There was a star in the sky that indicated the birth of the King of the Jews. Don’t ask me how they knew this, but the Bible says, in Genesis 1:14-15, that God created the stars “for signs and seasons.” So there must have been some way they knew this to be true.

    The wise men came to worship Him. It is easy to focus on the details of the wise men and miss why they came to Jerusalem. They had come to worship the recently born king. We need to be careful in how we understand this word worship. In Matthew 2:2, the word means “to worship, pay homage, show reverence; to kneel down (before).”3 In other words, they had come to show honor as to the king of a country. However, keep your eyes open as we look at their response when they finally see Jesus. Perhaps there was more than just honor in their worship.

  2. King Herod investigated the birth of Jesus (Matt. 2:3-8).

    What does it say?

    As can be imagined, the arrival of the wise men caused a stir in Jerusalem. King Herod and all the people were disturbed4 by their announcement. It led the king to gather all of the priests and scribes together to find out where the Christ was to be born. The religious leaders told him Micah’s prophecy which indicated that the promised Ruler would be born in Bethlehem and that He would shepherd the people of Israel. Having received this information, Herod secretly called a meeting with the wise men. The first thing he asked was when the star had appeared. Secondly, he sent them to Bethlehem to find the child and to let him know his location. Herod told them that he also wanted to worship the child.

    What does it mean?

    King Herod was insecure. As discussed earlier, history doesn’t paint a good picture of King Herod. “Judaea prospered under his early reign, during which he increased trade and built fortresses, aqueducts, and theatres, but he could not give full rein to his desire to build and thrive because he feared the Pharisees, Judaism’s controlling faction, who viewed him as a foreigner. He lost favour through increasing cruelty, manifest in the murder of his wife, her sons, and other relatives. His grip on his kingdom weakened as he became increasingly mentally unstable and physically debilitated. He killed his eldest son, and … [later] died shortly after a bungled suicide attempt.”5 As you can see by his response to the wise men’s visit, he did not like the idea of another king showing up while he was still on the throne. And seeing as he had killed so many people already, the people in Jerusalem were also worried what an angry Herod would do at this time.

    King Herod was ignorant. Although Herod was a “practicing Jew, he was of Arab origin.”5 From his wicked lifestyle, it is obvious that Herod was not a godly man who loved God. He was probably a nominal Jew who used the religion for his own political purposes. This is probably why he had to ask the Jewish priests and scribes to tell him about the Old Testament prophecies about the promised Ruler. But when they showed him the prophecy in Micah 5:2, he was no longer ignorant. Coupled with the announcement of the wise men, this prophecy made him realize that someone else was going to replace him (at least that was how he understood it).

    King Herod was devious. What was the jealous king to do? He had a visiting group of wise men waiting for his answer. If it had been only three wise men, he could have made them disappear. But it was probably a large group accompanied by soldiers. Herod decided to be mischievous by asking when the star appeared. Knowing when it appeared would give him an idea of how old the child was. But he also asked the wise men to find the child and let him know. His motive for knowing the child’s location was not, as he said, to worship the child. He wanted the child dead so that he could continue reigning without any opposition.

  3. The wise men found the child (Matt. 2:9-12).

    What does is say?

    The wise men listened to King Herod and then left to continue their search for the child. As they left, the star appeared again and led them to where Jesus was. The star’s appearance caused them to be very joyful. When the star stopped over the house, the wise men entered and saw both Jesus and his mother Mary. Their immediate response was to fall down on the ground and worship Him. After this, they opened their treasure boxes and gave Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Later, they were warned in a dream to not go back to Herod, so they took a different route home.

    What does it mean?

    The wise men were led by God. Can you imagine how the wise men felt when they arrived in Jerusalem and found out that nobody knew what they were talking about? Even if Herod told them the prophecy from Micah 5:2, they had only narrowed the search to the town of Bethlehem. How would they find the right person in a whole town? But God was involved in their search and caused the star to appear again. And it led them to the exact place where the Child was. God had used miraculous means to show them the way. It is no wonder that they rejoiced when they saw the star.

    The wise men worshiped the Child. The response of the wise men is quite interesting. When they saw the Child, the fell down and worshiped Him. I realize that worship can also refer to honor given to a ruler. However, this seems different. After seeing the star in the sky, traveling some 800-900 miles, hearing the prophecy in Micah, and then being led by the miraculous moving of the star, they weren’t just honoring a future king, were they? There must have come a moment when they realized that this was no ordinary child. And so they worshiped Him and gave Him gifts befitting a king. These gifts would later come in handy when the family had to flee to Egypt to escape murderous Herod.

    The wise men were warned by God. After their visit, the wise men stopped somewhere to sleep. Being that Bethlehem is only six miles away from Jerusalem, you would think that they would have returned that day. But their visit may have taken more time than expected. Thankfully, they did not return to Herod that night. As they slept, they were warned in a dream to not return to Herod. God knew Herod too well. If they had returned to Herod and given him the Child’s address, he would have sent soldiers immediately to eliminate him. And this would have foiled God’s plan. So the wise men “like Joseph”6 did as they were told and returned a different way to their own land.

Conclusion

What do we learn from this true story of the wise men and their search for Jesus?

A person’s location doesn’t determine his relationship to God. In this chapter, we saw a number of people who were oblivious to what was happening and yet they were the closest to it. King Herod, the priests, and scribes were six miles away from Bethlehem but were oblivious to the fact that Jesus had been born. They had the Scriptures, were Jewish people, and knew about the promised Messiah, but they were not interested in seeking Him. However, the wisemen who lived 900 miles away were aware, were seeking Him, and wanted to worship Him.

There are many nominal Christians who know about Jesus but are happy to live their lives without knowing Him or living for Him. They have a head knowledge about Jesus but have never received Him or put their faith in Him. They know that Jesus died for their sins and rose again, but it is only a head knowledge. Attending a church, learning Bible verses, listening to sermons, and doing religious activities doesn’t make you right with God. These things are good but without faith in Jesus, they only make you an active, educated unbeliever who isn’t right with God. Like Herod and the religious leaders of his day, those who have not believed have not been changed by God.

But there are others. Like the wise men, there are some people in whose hearts God has worked. Although they may have come from a different place, a different background, or a different culture, when they heard the truth about Jesus, they turned from their sins and put their faith in Jesus. And at that point, their lives were changed by God. They found forgiveness for their sins. They found peace with God. They found joy from God. And it all came as a result of faith in Jesus.

Although I am a preacher, I can’t see into your heart today. I don’t know if you are like Herod and the religious leaders or if you are like the wise men who worshiped Jesus. But I would imagine that you do know. Are you like Herod and the religious leaders who know the story but haven’t applied it to your own life? Or are you like the wise men who knew the truth and believed and obeyed God? My hope is that God has or is currently working in your heart to bring you to faith in Jesus. Then you can have a right relationship to God and the joy that comes from it.

Footnotes

1 “Herod king of Judaea”
2 “What does the Bible say about the three wise men (Magi)?”
3 “προσκυνέω” as viewed at https://www.billmounce.com/greek-dictionary/proskyneo on 12/30/2023.
4 Rienecker 3.
5 “Herod summary”
6 Blomberg 65.

Bibliography

Barbieri Jr., Louis A., “Matthew” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary New Testament, USA: SP Publications, 1983.

Blomberg, Craig, Matthew, in The New American Commentary, Nashville: Broadman, 1992.

Broadas, John A., Matthew, Valley Forge: The Judson Press, 1886.

“Does the Bible describe Jesus being worshiped?” as viewed at https://www.gotquestions.org/Jesus-worshipped.html on 12/30/2023.

“Herod king of Judaea,” as viewed at https://www.britannica.com/biography/Herod-king-of-Judaea on 12/30/2023.

“Herod summary,” as viewed at https://www.britannica.com/summary/Herod-king-of-Judaea on 12/30/2023.

McGee, J. Vernon, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, Vol. IV, Matthew through Romans, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983.

Plummer, Alfred, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to S. Matthew, Minneapolis: James Family, reprint, n.d.

Rienecker, Fritz, and Cleon Rogers, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980.

“What does the Bible say about the three wise men (Magi)?” as viewed at https://www.gotquestions.org/three-wise-men.html on 12/30/2023.