Understanding the Gospel of Matthew and Why it Matters - Part 4
The Visit of the Wise Men
1 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,
2 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."
3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him;
4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
6 "'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.'"
7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared.
8 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."
9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And 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.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.
11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.
12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
Debunking False Myths
Before looking at what the Scriptures say about the wise men, notice a couple of things it does not say. First, nowhere does the Bible say that these men were kings. Every year millions of people sing the Christmas carol "We Three Kings" about the Wise Men, yet the song is almost certainly mistaken. The title "magi", which we translate as "wise men", probably refers to a group of Persian political advisors who were thoroughly skilled in science, agriculture, mathematics, history, and other disciplines. These men were the intellectually elite, and were somewhat like those in our society who have PhDs from Ivy League schools.
Second, notice that the passage never speaks of their being three Wise Men. In fact, most scholars agree that there was likely many more than three. The great distance traveled and the stir that they made in Jerusalem seems to indicate that these men made up quite an impressive caravan.
Third, notice that the passage does not say that these Wise Men worshiped Jesus in the stable outside the Bethlehem inn. Rather, it says that they came to a house in the city. Notwithstanding the many nativity scenes that place the wise men kneeling by the manger, these men actually arrived several days after Jesus' birth and found Him in the home of a family member. Both Mary and Joseph would probably have had relatives that lived in the city.
Why Did The Wise Men Come? (v.1-2)
How is it that a group of men from several hundred miles away would see a star in the sky and surmise that a new king of the Jews had been born? Certainly there were countless others who had noticed the strange star, yet they did not understand the star's meaning. How did the Wise Men know of its special meaning?
The answer shows the remarkable providence of God in ordering events and circumstances according to His sovereign will. Many centuries before, Israel had been taken into captivity by Media-Persia. During this time of captivity, the sacred Scriptures of the Jews - the Old Testament - had come into the hands of some of the Persian leaders. Now, hundreds of years later, these wise men had a passage of Scripture from which they understood the meaning of the star: "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down the all the souls of Sheth. Edom shall be dispossessed; Seir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed."
The prophecy was simple. A star would come out of Jacob (a.k.a. Israel, see Genesis 32:28), and a scepter (the symbol of a king) would arise. This king would be powerful, and would rule over many nations.
This is a prophecy of two Joshuas. When the prophet Balaam originally spoke this oracle, it referred to Joshua son of Nun, who would lead God's people into the Promised Land after Moses' death. However, God also chose to use this prophecy to point to the birth of His Son, Jesus. The Wise Men probably believed that this new king of the Jews would one day be powerful enough to overtake their own kingdom, and thus sought to make peace as early as possible. It is extremely doubtful that these men actually understood that Jesus was the King of Kings, but their understanding of the prophecy was enough to bring them searching for the newborn baby.
Why would God place this Scripture in their hands and bring these pagan Gentiles to worship Jesus? He did this to show from the beginning that it would be the Jews who by and large would reject their Messiah and the Gentiles who would accept and worship Him. Remember what John said about Jesus at the beginning of his gospel: "He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him." On one occasion, a Roman centurion showed remarkable faith in Jesus. Jesus' response to this Gentile shamed every Jew that was present: "Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness."
Is it not remarkable that those men and women who had grown up with the Old Testament Scriptures, being taught in the synagogues, singing songs of the long-awaited Messiah - none of them came with the Gentile Wise Men to see the new King? Even the Scribes and the Priests, the religious leaders of the day, chose not to accompany the Wise Men.
In a similar way, there are many men and women today who grew up in homes where they learned the Scriptures, heard the Word of God preached on Sunday mornings, and sung the hymns of the faith - yet when they reached an age where they could truly come to know the Messiah, they chose not to. It is a tragedy. And you may be one of those people. If so, let me plead with you: Come to Christ! Don't be a fool and reject the greatest gift ever given to you! You have heard the glories of Jesus proclaimed in your childhood, don't forfeit them in your adulthood!
Evil King Herod (v.3-4)
The Herod referred to in this passage is commonly known as Herod the Great, not to be confused with the Herod that will be in power during most of Jesus' ministry 30 years later - Herod Antipas, Herod the Great's son. Herod the Great was not a Jew, but an Idumean - a Gentile. He was a sly politician, and had managed to convince the Emperor of the Roman Empire to declare him King of the Jews. Though the people of Israel despised him, he kept them in submission through violent force.
Indeed, Herod the Great was a very violent man. On one occasion, fearing that he might be a potential threat, Herod had his brother in law drowned. He then held an extravagant funeral where he sobbed and wailed dramatically. Later he had his wife, his mother in law, and two of his sons killed. Towards the end of Herod's life, his third son began talking about his plans for when he succeeded his father as king. Herod found this annoying, and had him killed as well. Days before his death, Herod began to despair that no one in Jerusalem was going to weep over his death. Seeking to amend the problem, he ordered that all of the most prominent citizens of Jerusalem be arrested and taken to the arena. He then ordered that at the moment of his death, all of these prominent men were to be executed as well, so that he could ensure that there would be mourning in Jerusalem. Fortunately, the order was not carried out.
This is the king that these wise men came to and asked, "Where is the new king being born?" You can see why Jesus was in danger. Moreover, you can see why all of Jerusalem was troubled at what they heard. When the Wise Men brought word of a new king, the Jewish people began fearing what their maniac king might do.
The Prophecy Fulfilled (v. 5-6)
Matthew is consistently reminding us how Jesus' life fell directly in line with the prophecies concerning the Messiah. Biblical scholars tell us that Jesus fulfilled at least 330 of the Old Testament prophecies. In this chapter alone, Matthew points out four of these fulfilled prophecies. In this particular passage, the prophecy is a prediction of where the Messiah was to be born.
Micah 5:2 had long been regarded by almost all of the Jews as being a Messianic prophecy. Everyone was expecting the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem. But notice: Joseph and Mary would not have been in Bethlehem had Caesar Augustus - hundreds of miles away in Rome - not decreed a census. God used Caesar to bring about the fulfillment of His Word. One cannot help but think of what Nebuchadnezzar said in the book of Daniel: "His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and He does according to His will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay His hand or say to Him, 'What have you done?'"
The Wise Men Worship (v.7-12)
How do Wise Men worship? First, notice that their search for the newborn King was characterized by joy. When the star reappeared in the sky they "rejoiced exceedingly with great joy." They did not just rejoice - they rejoiced exceedingly. They did not just rejoice exceedingly, but they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. Matthew uses this unique phrase to emphasize that these men were ecstatic. Once the star reappeared and the Wise Men realized that they were very close to their destination, they were filled with excitement and anticipation. They had come such a long way, and now they were finally going to behold this King.
In the same way, we ought also to seek out Jesus in joy. Some days we feel Christ's presence with us, and we walk with Him and talk with Him and bask in His friendship. Other days it seems as though Christ is far away, and we wonder if He even hears our prayers. On these occasions, we ought to pursue Jesus joyfully as the Wise Men did, rejoicing as we draw nearer and nearer to Him in our devotional life.
Notice also that the Wise Men worshiped Jesus with humility. We are told that they "fell down and worshiped Him." Obviously this does not mean that they tripped and fell down to the ground. This was a voluntary kneeling before the King as a sign of honor and reverence. Falling before the baby was a sign that these men were choosing to place themselves in submission to Him. They were at His service.
Similarly, I can think of no greater act of worship to God than to submit ourselves to His will. Jesus once said, "Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me." The greatest test of the authenticity of our love for Jesus is whether or not we are willing to submit our lives to His commands. Submission truly is the highest form of worship.
Finally, notice that the Wise Men expressed their submission and service to the new King not only by falling before Him, but by offering gifts to him. Giving is a vital part of worship. We cannot give our lives to Christ without also giving Him every material possession that we own. We must choose to dedicate all that we have to Him. My house is His house. My car is His car. My checking account is His checking account. Whatever use these things might be for His kingdom, I must be willing to do with them as He leads.
Ask yourself this question: Am I truly living in submission to God? Are my words of praise and love to Jesus backed up with authentic actions of service to Him? Can I honestly say that everything I am and everything I own is His, and at His disposal? A true disciple of Jesus holds nothing back from His Master. I challenge you to take a few moments in prayer to offer anew yourself and all that you own as an offering to God. Worship Him right now by submitting your will to His.
Justin Nale is the pastor of Mount Hermon Missionary Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist Church in Rocky Mount, NC - http://www.mhmbc.org
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