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Matthew

The Magi

Matthew 2:1-12

Lesson audio

It is the stuff of Christmas; the three wise men bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. Much about this scene is the addition of legend, but in the truth we know we can see how the homage of these strangers brings honor and glory to Christ even to this day.

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw 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. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: 'AND YOU, BETHLEHEM, LAND OF JUDAH, ARE BY NO MEANS LEAST AMONG THE LEADERS OF JUDAH; FOR OUT OF YOU SHALL COME FORTH A RULER WHO WILL SHEPHERD MY PEOPLE ISRAEL.'" Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him." After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.

(Mat 2:1-12 NASB)

Circumstances

It is curious that of all circumstances surrounding the birth of the Christ child, the story of the Magi is the one most often challenged. Matthew knew Mary, of course, and we cannot doubt that he got the story from her. But to the modern, scientific mind, the ancient words seem a puzzle. We shall see what we can find in the Scriptures to enlighten the story of the Star.

The Magi

It is generally agreed that the Magi are astrologers, from somewhere to the east of Jerusalem. Which astrologers, however, is still a matter of debate. Babylonians, Chaldeans, Persians have all been suggested. But there is one thing we do know about these men from history: they have a track record of doing things like this. It is recorded in ancient records that certain Magi showed up to make sacrifices in honor of Plato at his death. Similarly, Alexander the Great was so honored at his birth as the conqueror of the east. So we know two things: This was not unique – and we have no idea how it is they knew anything about this.

But there is one thing we can learn from them: note that they did not ask if the King of the Jews was born – they asked where. You can learn a lot about someone from the questions they ask. Doubt asks if; faith asks where.

The star

Nothing in this account is as talked of as the star. A supernova, a hallucination, a comet, an astrological conjunction – all these have been suggested. We may gather some clues from the story which may help us out.

  1. Only the Magi saw the star. This implies one of three things. It may be a vision planted in their brains by God. It may be some conjunction of the planets and stars which was significant in their system of astrology. It may also be both, as we shall see.
  2. They saw it rise in the east – which sounds illogical as they then headed west to investigate. It is a fact that all stars rise in the east, as do the sun and the moon. So evidently it was a heavenly body of some sort, at least until they reached Jerusalem.
  3. Consider the sequence of events. First, the Magi see the star in the east – and head to Jerusalem. Then they don’t see the star – for they stop to ask directions. They head towards Bethlehem, this time guided by a star that moves before them, ultimately selecting out the place where the child lay, for which they rejoiced.
  4. Finally, note that Herod inquired for – and got – the exact time the star appeared. It implies that they had an exact time, told in the stars.

From this we might draw some conclusions. In the first part of their journey, they seem to have only the fact that the King of the Jews was born – which sounds like astrology. But when it was necessary to find the precise location, the star moves with them. Rather than call this conundrum, I submit it clears it up. Astrology got them close – to Jerusalem. The guidance of God brought them to the Christ.

Our world is like that. Lots of religions and methods will cause you to become a better person. Only Christ can lead you home to the Father.

Metaphors

One thing this passage does: it produces metaphor from Christian writers. Here are three of profit:

  • He is indeed the Bright and Morning Star. Do you follow where He leads, or just use the light to read the paper?
  • The kings of the earth do homage at his birth with gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold stands for the treasures of this earth; frankincense (usually, just incense) is the symbol of the prayers of the faithful; myrrh is used to embalm a body at death. Do you bring your treasures to him as offering? Are your prayers constant? Do you look to Him as your strength even in death?
  • Here’s one you may have missed: the name “Bethlehem” means “house of bread.” In that manger lay the Christ, the bread of life, the Savior.

Reaction

Herod

The first thing to note is that Herod is absolutely convinced by the Magi and the priests in this. The demons believe and tremble. Herod’s reaction is much the same; his only thought is to rid himself of this rival for the throne.

There is a sly wickedness to this man. He takes the Magi aside secretly before lying to them. You can see the purpose: he doesn’t want the court to pressure him into going to worship the child. He tells them Magi that he will come and worship too – but he asks the exact time they saw the star appear. This, we shall see in the next lesson, determines his plan to rid himself of this danger.

Is that not the way of the world? When the Prince of Peace comes, the first thought is to prevent Him from being proclaimed. It is a capital offense in most Moslem countries to be a Christian. Religious freedom is the rule in countries which are (or used to be) Christian. Who’s afraid of whom?

The Priests

First, let us recall that the priests did not see the star. They weren’t looking for it. But they quickly accepted the fact that the Magi did. The situation appeared to them that the Magi did not know where to turn next; they were asking directions.

The priests found those directions in the Scripture:

"But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too little to be among the clans of Judah, From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity."

(Mic 5:2 NASB)

To explain a present fact, they turned to prophecy. These were the right wing fundamentalists of the day. We may learn from their example:

  • Do you seek your explanations in prophecy and proverbs, or in the cynical mind the world will give you?
  • Does your faith need a miraculous sign, or are you among those who have heard and yet believe?[1]
The Magi

We may learn as well from the Magi:

  • They stopped in the obvious place, Jerusalem, to ask directions. If someone asked directions (spiritual) from you, would you know the way well enough to tell them?
  • They were obviously prepared to do honor to the King of the Jews, the Christ. You acknowledge that you owe him that honor; are you prepared to give it? The time will come when that will be very important indeed.

The Incarnation

Nothing is so striking about the incarnation of our Lord as this: it was done in complete humility. C. S. Lewis called it the “supreme miracle,” for without the incarnation there is no sacrifice – and no salvation.

But because he came without pomp and ceremony from the world, it appears that “the world knew him not.” It is a harbinger. The kingdom of Satan rests on the power of the world; it is no surprise that the Christ, then, was so often opposed to the establishment.

The opposition of Satan

Perhaps these are not so obvious as questions, but it seems worthwhile to ask them. This business of Satan’s opposition to the birth of Christ could easily have been handled in other ways. Specifically:

  • Why didn’t God command the Magi to take the child and His parents with them on their return? It would, after all, have been a high form of worship to do so. But perhaps God was not so inclined to do this, so that we might have the example of His flight to Egypt. It is a picture of the command of Christ to flee persecution.[2] It also is a portrayal of the prophetic words, “not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit.”[3]
  • Why didn’t God simply slay Herod? Can you ask? Does the Prince of Peace come by the death of any man? The one who wills that all men be saved?[4]
Lessons for us today

It is a simple and present dilemma. God is righteous; God is omnipotent. He is also Love. By His righteousness He should cleanse the planet of its sinful inhabitants; by His love he should redeem it. Omnipotent doesn’t cover contradictions.
But sacrifice does. The love and righteousness of God are reconciled at the Cross, and upon that sacrifice salvation is offered to one and all. The time of his favor is short; the time of His return is soon. Consider this well: if his birth in a stable caused kings to tremble, how much more will He cause them to tremble at His return?


[1] John 20:29

[2] Matthew 10:23

[3] Zechariah 4:6

[4] 1 Timothy 2:3-4

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