Each of the four men who recorded the life and ministry of Jesus Christ had his own perspective and background which in turn influenced his writing. These men were contemporaries and witnessed the same events but because of the audience they were writing for their accounts emphasized different (not contradicting) details.
For example, Matthew's gospel describes Jesus as a royal figure, the king of the Jews or the king of heaven. Mark, on the other hand, describes Jesus as the powerful Son of God. He focuses a lot of attention on Jesus' miracles. Luke, the historian, is interested in showing Jesus as fully human. He demonstrates that even though Jesus was the Divine Son of God, He was no less human and experienced a very human life. John's gospel is the most philosophical of the four accounts. He uses imagery (Jesus is light) to convey the concept that Jesus was the embodiment of God's truth.
The purpose of this book will be to follow Matthew's gospel in tracing out Jesus' life, death and resurrection as the King of heaven and earth. We understand that Jesus is at once all of these things (King, Son of God, Son of Man, Truth, etc.), however we will study one of these strands in order to have a greater understanding of the whole.
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.
- Matthew 2:1-12
Although what is discussed here is the birth of Jesus, Matthew provides very little information about the actual birth itself. In chapter one he traces out Jesus' genealogy from Abraham to David down to Joseph his earthly father. He does this to show that Jesus is a direct and true descendant of Abraham; thus, establishing His claim to be the Messiah, since no one who was not a descendant of Abraham specifically through David could claim to be the Messiah according to Scripture.
This being done he moves on to briefly describe Mary's conception by the power of the Holy Spirit, the prophecy of His role as Savior, Joseph's taking her as wife, and a simple declaration of Jesus' subsequent birth. This is all introduced in the first chapter. Matthew saves the details for the characters surrounding Jesus' birth and it is from these that we learn more of His royal nature.
The Wise Men from the East
There are many fables and traditions that have developed about these people. Some say that there were three of them because three gifts were mentioned. We don't actually know the exact number because the Bible doesn't say, however it would be safe to assume there were several since they probably travelled in a caravan in order to cover the great distance through dangerous territory.
What we do know is recorded in the pages of the New Testament. They were from Babylon because this was the only nation that had a serious study of the stars in either astronomy (their position, size, etc.) and astrology (their effect on human affairs). They were Gentiles who knew, somehow, about the hope and promise to the Jews concerning a savior (Messiah). This should not be so surprising since Daniel lived and prophesied concerning the Jewish Messiah while he lived among the Babylonians some 600 years before.
Then the king promoted Daniel and gave him many great gifts, and he made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon.
- Daniel 2:48
There may have been prophesies given by Daniel but not recorded, yet somehow available to these people for just this occasion.
Matthew describes a "star" that they saw while in their country and then again when they arrived in Judea, which ultimately led them to the baby Jesus. The Bible doesn't tell us how they made the connection between the unusual star they observed in their country and the birth of the Jewish Messiah. The Bible simply states that the star signaled that the Jewish Messiah (promised by the prophets) was born, and based on this they made their way to Jerusalem.
Of course a caravan of high officials (they usually served as advisors to their king or governors) from the east asking questions about the birth of a Jewish king (another title conferred on the Jewish Messiah) was bound to create a stir, and it did. The star they saw was a signal of the birth. They travelled to the most logical place to find a "king" and that was the city of the King and God's temple: Jerusalem.
Their questions draw the interest of the present "king" of the Jewish nation, Herod (we'll have more information on him later) who consults with the priests and teachers about the exact location given by Scripture of the birthplace of the Messiah. The teachers quote the Old Testament prophet Micah:
"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."
- Micah 5:2
This prophecy indicated the future birthplace of the Messiah. The way it was quoted suggests that even though Bethlehem was a small place within the land of Judah, it would produce a leader who would not only lead the city or tribe but the entire nation as well. In other words, from Bethlehem would come a king!
The present king, Herod, questions them as to the exact date that they saw the star so as to determine the time frame of the birth. He does this in secret so as to not arouse suspicion and curiosity among the people. Herod pretends to be eager to find this king and sends them away with instructions to report back to him the exact location of the child so he too can worship.
Of course his plan is to get rid of this threat to his power but he can't let them know this. Since he cannot kill them for fear of retaliation by their foreign ruler as well as arousing questions from his own people, he sends them along.
Matthew explains that once they are pointed in the direction of Bethlehem (about two hours south of Jerusalem) they again see the star that guides them to exactly where in the city the child was located. There has been much speculation that this star was really a comet, a shooting or exploding star in order to give a non-miraculous explanation to what these men saw. However, the Bible clearly states that the star was special in a way to distinguish it from the others, and to signal the birth of Christ at that particular moment in history. The Bible also says that the very same star appeared once again (after their arrival) to lead them to the house where Jesus was.
The timing, the two appearances and its position in the sky (low enough or bright enough to point out a particular house) tell us that this was no comet, no shooting star, but a body of light especially provided by God to lead these men to Christ. If God can send angels to direct the shepherds to Christ, He can as easily provide a star to do the same thing for these Gentiles to find the king they came to see.
They find the child in a house with His mother. Joseph is not mentioned since Mary is the one holding Jesus. Jesus was born in a manger but it seems that at some later time Joseph was able to secure a more permanent place to stay.
The wise men immediately worship the child. They prostrated themselves before Him as was the manner of worship or humbling oneself before God or a ruler. They do not see a child, they correctly (we don't know how) see who and what this child is and is destined to become according to Scripture. What they understood about Him is seen in the gifts they bring:
- Gold – Gold was not found in Babylon and thus extremely expensive. It was the property of kings, for only they had the resources to obtain it. To offer Him gold was the give Him a gift in keeping with His position. A royal gift for a royal person.
- Frankincense – This substance was a type of sweet incense, very refined, from India. Its main usage was for worship purposes. It was burned as an offering to the gods in religious services. As a child, Jesus had no use for this. It was given to Him as a way of recognizing His divine nature.
- Myrrh – Myrrh was an aromatic gum from which perfume was drawn. It was used in preparing corpses for burial (among other things). Again, Jesus as a child had no use for this. It was given in anticipation of the purpose for His coming and that was to die as an atonement for sin.
The gifts were given to reflect who the child really was in a witness of faith (He was king, He was God, He was sacrifice).
After this time with Jesus, Matthew informs us that the wise men are warned by God in a dream to avoid Herod, and so they make their way home by a different route.
Herod – The Earthly King
Throughout this narrative we see the hand of Herod trying to manipulate the wise men in order to gain information for his own murderous ends. Herod was not beyond killing his own family members in order to secure his throne. He had received his position from the Romans, and in receiving the title "King of the Jews" had violated God's word in displacing David's heirs from ruling God's people. He was not fully Jewish and was not of David's royal lineage, yet he ruled in the name of a pagan emperor. Herod understood this enough to know that there had been a Messiah promised by God and that He was sent to rule the people.
And so this evil king took the wise men's search seriously, to the point that he was going to try to find and destroy the child they sought. We read in the rest of the chapter that in an effort to do so, he has every male child two years and under killed in Bethlehem just in case. What is so strange about his behavior is that if the prophecy concerning the Messiah was being fulfilled by the birth of this child, how did he ever think he could stop God's hand?
Matthew opens his gospel with a very brief description of Jesus' physical birth and earthly background. He also demonstrates that from the very beginning Jesus was recognized and honored by the Magi as:
- The Messiah – They searched for Him according to the prophecies concerning the divine Messiah and Savior.
- The King – They recognized that as the Messiah He also carried the title of King.
- The Sacrifice – Their gift of myrrh pointed to the ultimate task of the Messiah, which was to die for His people.
This episode sets the tone for the rest of Matthew's gospel where he continues to describe Jesus with the imagery of king and ruler. Although this is not a parable or a teaching section, there are certain practical lessons we can draw from this encounter between the wise men and the royal child.
God uses many ways to reach people
He used a method that these men could relate to (a star in the heavens) in order to lead them to Christ. Sometimes He uses a tract left on a bus, an ad in a newspaper, an invitation by a friend, an illness, a service, a TV show, a website, a missionary, a letter, or whatever. God has a million ways to reach out to someone who needs Christ.
Our job is not to decide ahead of time what will work and what won't; our job is to keep trying until it works or until Jesus comes.
Salvation is by faith
Even though they saw an amazing star, they had to pack their bags and head out – that required faith. Even though the Jewish teachers said that the Messiah was supposed to be in Bethlehem and not Jerusalem (which made more sense to them) they had to leave sense behind and try to find Him in Bethlehem – that required faith. Even though everything pointed to this baby Jesus as the King, the poor house and the poor parents didn't lend much credibility to this fact. For them to bow down and worship the child of these poorest of people required faith.
Today we can't see a star and we can't touch the babe, but God calls us through His word to come to Jesus in repentance and baptism – that step forward always requires faith.
The word is the only guide to Jesus
Although the special star played a role in finding the babe – the word is what truly led them to Him. Daniel's words long before had captured their hearts and set them looking for God's Messiah. Micah's words confirmed the birthplace of the true Messiah. God's word through the angel kept them and the baby safe from Herod.
We need to be careful not to let feelings, coincidences, opinions or signs lead our spiritual lives. We live by every word that comes from the mouth of God – not signs, traditions or feelings. We must test everything against God's word; it is the standard for truth, for what is right and pleasing to God.
We believe Jesus is King because the word of God tells us this. This belief then is sure and will never be changed.