When the Roman Empire was conquering and spreading throughout the known world, they sought to spread what they called the “Pax Romana” or the Peace of Rome. Everywhere they were victorious they brought their own culture and ideas of peace to the region with the aim that Rome would extend throughout the whole world. I think it’s ironic that while Rome sought to bring the known world underneath it’s so called peace that the Prince of Peace was not just born into the world, but born in their empire! Even though the Roman Empire was one of the largest Empires in history, ask a question: which Kingdom still exists? The Roman Empire or the Kingdom of God and His Christ? Rome can’t even begin to compare to the eternal impact Jesus brought with Him in His incarnation. His Kingdom, is where true peace reigns in all who embrace Him by faith. This is in part what we’re celebrate in this season, and it’s really what we celebrate every time we meet here to worship and every day of our lives.

This idea of Rome vs. the Kingdom of God, of these competing kingdoms, and which ones brings true peace, is squarely in view today as we come to the passage that gave rise to the Christmas hymn We Three Kings. Except the kings in view in this text aren’t the magi who came to give their gifts, but king Herod the great and the King of the Jews, the Lord Jesus.

2:1-12 easily can be split up into three sections, I’ll walk through one at a time.

The Wise Men (2:1-2)

“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, 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.”

As we enter into chapter 2, we must remember the events of chapter 1 are now over. Jesus has been born, the family is no longer among the cattle or the manger, no, they’re in a home now, and the shepherds that came to worship are long gone by this time. So what we’re now reading likely occurrs one to two years after the events of chapter 1.[1] v1 sets it all up by way of summary letting us know that Jesus was born in the days of Herod the king. Then we hear Matthew telling us of the famous wise men, or “magi” in the original Greek. All we know here from this is that a group of wise men came from the East.[2] The largest city in the East that would’ve been prosperous enough to have the luxury of a career in which one could make a living from being wise and learned in all things was probably Babylon. Were they from Babylon? Maybe. Persia, Egypt, and Arabia have also been put forth as options of where they came from. Next, many believe they were astrologers because v2 mentions them watching the stars. Is that true? Maybe. Many say they were astrologers, but many have also said they were high ranking officials in their city like politicians, or priests, or figures of renown having a regal status in the city they came from. Maybe they were all of the above. What about their number, we’re there three of them? Maybe. Most have said there are three because three gifts are brought. But there could just as well been only two of them, or 30 of them, some have even said there could’ve been 300 magi! What are their names? History has suggested the names of the three are Melkon, Balthasar, and Gasper, but we don’t know their names for sure. Matthew doesn’t give us any of these background details. 

Perhaps I should now ask this question: what do we know about them? Well, we know they’re wise men, there’s more than one of them, and that from watching the sky and stars, they knew the true King had come. As fascinating as some of these other details might be, we just don’t know. So, let’s be content with what we have here, and keep moving forward.

Why did the wise men come? v2 tells us they came with a question, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” But, why did they ask this question? v2 continues with their reason, “For we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.” Note the reason, “…we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.” Many voices throughout history have said this star was something other than a miraculous work of God. Some have said it was comet or a comet’s tail, others have said it was a rare conjunction of two large planets forming a great light in the sky, and still others said it was a bright spot in a known constellation. It could be these things, but it could also be a literal star like Matthew says here. It could have also been a special and rare work of God, shining His glory brightly in the heavens like a great bright star, to guide the magi to the right place.[3] But this begs another question doesn’t it? How would they have known it was His star? Well, being the wise and learned men that they were, not only would they have been familiar with the stars, but they would’ve been familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. Which means they very likely knew the prophecy written down almost 1600 years earlier found in Numbers 24:17 where the false prophet Balaam speaks the truth when he says, “I see Him, but not now. I behold Him, but not near. A star shall come out of Jacob, a scepter shall come out of Israel.”[4] You see it? A star will rise? The magi saw the star. A scepter shall come out of Israel? The magi came asking about the King. It seems they concluded that this King who had been long anticipated, this King who was worthy of their worship had finally come, so off they went.

That pagan foreigners come to see the newborn King holds many gospel realities within it. Long ago, the prophets of old spoke of the time when “all peoples” and “all the nations” would come streaming in to Mount Zion to behold the King on His throne and worship Him. Both Isaiah and Micah say, “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come, and they will all say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob…”[5] All of this reminds us that the one true God has now at last sent the Christ. And the mere announcement of His birth in the heavens is already bringing in the peoples and nations of the earth to worship Him! This means the King has come. This means all that was once promised is now coming to pass. This means the darkness is about to fade. Light is breaking through. Dawn is here!

The Wise Men with Herod (v3-8)

“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. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “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.” Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 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.”

Well, it appears that not everyone is as happy about the birth of the King as the wise men were. Herod the King, known also as Herod I or Herod the Great, was the appointed King of the Jews under the authority of Rome. History teaches us that he was ruthless. He mercilessly killed many: his wife, many of his sons, and many family members during his reign.[6] Herod is largely remembered for being an unstable and violent man, and the rest of chapter 2 will show this to be a fact.

Upon hearing the news from the wise men that the Christ had been born, it says in v3 that Herod was troubled, and the whole city along with him. If Herod truly desired to worship this new born King as v8 says, he would’ve joined in with these magi, but rather we read of him and all Jerusalem being troubled. Why such troubling? Because only a great King could call such men of renown out of the east all the way to dusty Jerusalem. This prompted Herod to inquire of his own priests and scribes, “Where is the Christ to be born?” The priests answered him honestly and said, “In Bethlehem…” quoting from the prophet Micah about the Ruler who was to come from the small insignificant city. But notice in the quote, this One who would be born in Bethlehem would be both King to rule and Shepherd to care for God’s people. King and Shepherd, exactly what God’s people had lacked for ages, has now come in this Child!

Can you understand the position of Herod? He is King in Jerusalem and to his knowledge he has just learned that a great King who has been long expected has now come. In Herod’s eyes this Christ, this Messiah, this Savior, is a threat to his own authority and must be stopped. And that is exactly what Herod intends to do. At this point, Herod secretly had the wise men brought to him and from them he learns when the star had appeared and then afterward Herod sent the wise men to Bethlehem saying in v8, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you’ve found Him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him.” Sadly, we have here in v8 a clear display of something wicked. The all too often, incorrect, and corrupt use of religion to serve the purpose of political power. It’s plain that Herod will not worship this Child-King, but will try with all his might to end the boy’s life to secure his own power and position in the city.

The Wise Men with Christ (v9-12)

“After listening to the King, they went on their way. 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. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed another way.”

The same star the wise men saw rise, they now see moving south and coming to rest. So they went south following it and where the star stopped they saw a house. And going into the house, (what a moment!) they saw Him, and upon seeing Him they fell down and worshipped! In English v10 says they “…rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” We get the gist there, but in the Greek it gets more to the point. It literally says their joy rejoiced great and exceeding! Their joy rejoiced, their joy joy’d! They did then what everyone will one day do before Jesus, they bowed down in recognition and reverence of the true King. But they did more. It says they worshipped. And in their worship and true recognition of the boy King, they bring out gifts. Taken all together these gifts are meant to show a immense and costly offering of extravagance. But in general each of the gifts on their own carry some special significance.[7] They bring gold, because it is the currency of royalty. They bring the incense Frankincense, because it is often used in settings of worship, symbolizing prayers rising to heaven into the direct presence of absolute divinity. And they bring the resin Myrrh, which is strange because it was common to use myrrh in burial as the dead body is tended to. That they brought this, I think, symbolize the death and burial this child King will one day face on the cross. In other words, these magi seem to know that Jesus was born to die. But did they know that? Maybe. One thing is for sure, we know it, and we ought to marvel at it.

v12 then ends the passage with a warning. God warns the wise men in a dream to not return to Herod, but to return home on a different road. So off they went, rejoicing to have beheld the Christ the King.

Conclusion:

There is a lot we could say after such a passage. In general I think this is a surprising passage in two ways.[8]

First, I’m surprised at the unbelief of Herod, the priests, and the scribes. After meeting the wise men and hearing their question about the location of Him who had been born King of the Jews, in v4-5 Herod calls together “…all the chief priests and scribes of the people…” asking them to tell him where exactly the Christ, the Messiah, is to be born. Herod had a religious question, so what does he do? He calls the religious people. Of all the people around the city, he knew they were ones who would know, so he asked them. And of course, they told him the right answer in v6, that the Christ who would be both King and Shepherd would be born in Bethlehem. What then? After hearing this question from Herod, perhaps even seeing the wise men themselves, what did these religious people do? Nothing! They knew where Christ was born, the Messiah God had promised ages before, but they didn’t get up and leave to go see Him. Not even on the slightest rumor of the Messiah’s birth did they leave to go check if those rumors were true. No, they remained behind, content in their position, displaying to all that though they had heads full of doctrine their hearts were full of darkness.

Do you? Do you know all about the Christmas story, about the birth of Christ, and yet remain unchanged in life? Do you say to yourself, ‘I know the Messiah God promised long ago was born, and I know He is the King, the true King over all other kings. But I don’t really have time to think about these things, I’m really busy.’ Or, ‘I know the Christmas story, the King has come. But I like my life the way it is and I don’t want religion to interfere with it.’ Let us beware, right doctrine in the head with no devotion in the heart is an evil thing. The challenge in this for us is this: if you don’t want to be with Jesus now in life, what makes you think you’ll be with Him after this life? Wicked unbelief can look very religious. Be warned from this group who knew the truth but didn’t act on it.

Second, I’m surprised at the belief of the wise men. They were foreigners, they were strangers, they were pagan! Yet they came seeking out this child? How like the Kingdom of God?! That the religious people who you think would go see and worship the Messiah don’t while those you’d never expect to, do. Such were these wise men. They saw His star and came. However much it cost them to make the journey, however long it took them to travel, they came! And when they entered the house and saw Him, Jesus didn’t teach them or say something profound, Jesus didn’t do any miracles or prove His deity, Jesus was just a 1-2 year old boy, and yet they believed in Him and worshipped Him!

Their faith is surprising and yet so refreshing to see. But, as inspiring as their faith is, do not miss that it’s the object of their faith that moved them to come and worship. Christ, to them, was worth a journey across the desert. Christ, to them, was more precious and valuable than the costliest of gifts. Lesson? Christ must be the same to us. He is worth all. All the cost, all the pain of this journey, all the extravagant gifts we can muster.

Christ was worth all of this to the wise men, may Christ be as compelling and beautiful to us.


[1] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (Holman Reference, 1992), 63.

[2] David Platt, Exalting Jesus in Matthew – Christ Centered Exposition (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman, 2013), 30.

[3] R. C. Sproul, Matthew – Saint Andrew’s Expositional Commentary (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2013), 29.

[4] Blomberg, Matthew, 66.

[5] Isaiah 2 and Micah 4.

[6] Blomberg, Matthew, 62.

[7] Platt, Exalting Jesus in Matthew – Christ Centered Exposition, 37–38.

[8] J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Matthew (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, 2015) 8-10.

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