Adoration of the Magi, Wise men. Matthew 2:1-12
The Officials Declare – Jesus Is King
Matthew’s purpose in this chapter is to explain how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies related to his locative origins and tell us how Jesus ended up coming from Nazareth. One criticism that was leveled against Jesus was that no prophet ever arose out of that area (John 7:52). Matthew proceeds to not only show that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies but that indeed the scriptures do speak of a prophet coming from that location.
Vs 1 – Jesus’ coming out of Nazareth happened by way of Herod’s evil choices and Herod’s evil choices occur due to the information gleaned from the coming of the wise men. Hence that is where Matthew commences with answering the question, namely, the story of how the wise men came into contact with Herod.
These things occured, Matthew says, “after Jesus was born.” We need not make the mistake that many make today and suppose that at Jesus’ birth he was serendipitously surrounded by these men for the text clearly indicates otherwise. In fact, we find in verse eleven that Jesus had already been moved out of the manger and He along with Joseph and Mary were in a “house.”
Luke gives us more detail regarding the actual birth in Bethlehem. See Luke 2:1-20. Matthew, however, seems content with the fact that that is where he was born. The Jewish mind would be more interested in the fulfilled prophecies than in narrative of the birth itself.
“Herod the king” is the man history refers to as Herod the great, a misnomer if there ever was one. Herod was placed in this position by the Romans and had reigned for 34 years. This was NOT the same Herod to whom Pilate sent Jesus for judgment (Luke 23:7-12). The Herodian line of rulers was extensive and men with this name ruled in this area well through Paul’s journey to Rome.
Who were these wise men? The text says they came from the East. Likely they came from Babylon. While many returned from the Babylonian captivity under Ezra and Nehemiah’s leadership, many also stayed behind. As a result, a large Jewish community developed in the east to the extent that by the time of Jesus’ birth, Babylon was as much a center of Jewish learning as was Jerusalem. The Babylonian Talmud still stands today as an impressive reminder of the extent of Jewish influence in that region. While we cannot speak for certainly on who these individuals were, the likelihood is that they were Jewish.
Vs. 2 – They came to Jerusalem to meet with Herod in order to locate Jesus’ precise whereabouts, hence their question. Evidently they were people of repute, for Herod seems to roll out the red carpet for them. One has to wonder, however, if he did not do such merely under pretense of seeking Jesus’ destruction.
They refer to Jesus as “King of the Jews.” Matthew, having established Jesus royal lineage, now seeks to establish the fact of Jesus Kingship. Matthew makes reference to this fact several times in his narrative (Matthew 5:35, 21:5, 25:34, 40, 27:11, 29, 37, 42). Matthew is concerned about presenting Jesus as King and preaching the gospel of the King’s kingdom (Matthew 4:23). This was very appealing to the Jewish mind.
The wise men saw Jesus star and followed it. The star was not some heavenly body, nor some mere phantasm only in the mind of the viewers, but an actual miraculous work performed by God to lead the wise men to the precise location of Jesus. Verse 9 says that it lead them precisely to Jesus location and “came to rest” over where He was. No mere heavenly body could so perform. No mere phenomenon could be so precise.
The wise men came for the purpose of worship. The word worship literally means to fall before another prostrate. It has as much reference to the position of the worshipper as to the attitude. When one worships he displays deep through his actions deep honor, homage, and respect toward his object through peculiarly devoted actions. This is precisely what the wise men did when they finally met Jesus.
Vs. 3 – Herod was troubled because of the perceived threat to his throne. He, of course, makes the same mistake that many made and make regarding Jesus, namely, that Jesus purpose was to establish an earthly kingdom and sit upon it’s earthly throne. Jesus clearly states that this never was his purpose in John 18:36: “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.” Why individuals wish to continue to make the same mistake as did Herod, I will never fathom.
All Jerusalem was troubled because Herod was troubled. Here is a man who was notorious for evil and wickedness. He had no reservations at murdering his own family to maintain control of the throne and proved it on numerous occasions. When he was upset, then bad things usually followed. Such would prove true in this case as well.
Vs. 4 – Herod wanted to know where this king would be born. Matthew says he inquired regarding “Christ” or “Messiah.” The Messiah had been expected for years among the Jews, yet none had yet proven himself to be worthy of fulfilling the prophecies. Herod wanted to know what those prophecies were, so he inquired of those who knew, the chief priests and scribes. One has to wonder whether the chief priests and scribes didn’t cooperate willingly given their eventual attitude toward Jesus. They were envious of power (Matthew 27:18). What Herod failed to accomplish at the beginning of Jesus’ life, they finished up at its end (Matthew 27:20, 41).
These knew what the scriptures said regarding the birth place of the Messiah and so they answered Herod’s question.
Vss. 5, 6 – The answer came from the prophet Micah (5:2), “But thou, Beth-lehem Ephrathah, which art little to be among the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall one come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.” This they rightly interpreted to be the birth place of the Messiah. The chief priests and scribes knew what the prophets said. But upon more than one occasion Jesus had to call this to their attention (Matthew 21:42, Matthew 22:39). Such prompted the scribes to ask regarding Jesus “How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?” (John 7:15) It is sad indeed that they would acknowledge Jesus understanding of the scriptures, yet not obey them.
Bethlehem means “house of bread.” It was an appropriate birth place for the one who was the bread of life (John 6:35,48). Jesus was indeed the governor that would rule his people. See Isaiah 9:6. See comments on 1:21 for “his people.” Today, Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Timothy 6:15) and ruling in his government from his throne on the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:30, 33).
Vs. 7 – He privately calls the wise men to him so as to maintain secrecy regarding the information. Were it to get out and be known that the Messiah was born in Bethlehem, Herod would have political turmoil on his hands. The Maccabean revolts were fresh history and the Jewish people strongly resented being under Roman rule. Any news of a Messiah would be quite welcome and might be the catalyst to more bloodshed. Herod would just as soon avoid such a situation if he can help it.
He wanted to know when the star appeared so he would have the information that he needed in order to locate Jesus himself, but not for honorable purposes.
Vs. 8 – Herod sent these wise men on their way with instructions to tell Herod where Jesus was located. He had no intention of worshipping him himself, but he told this lie to the wise men to explain why he wanted such information. The wise men must have believed him, for it was their intention to so return, but they were warned not to by God. Herein is a great lesson for us. The pure most frequently accept the word of the wicked because they assume that all men’s intentions are good. This is not a character fault of the good, but something worthy of praise. Paul wrote to Titus (1:15), “To the pure all things are pure: but to them that are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but both their mind and their conscience are defiled.”
Why didn’t Herod go with these wise men if he so desired to worship Jesus? Likely he was concerned at offending these foreign dignitaries when they learned his true purposes. While Herod was a wicked manipulator and malevolent dictator, he was no political fool. If he had offended these men from the east word would likely get back to Rome. He, like Pilate, knew that Rome best not be bothered by such trifles, so he bides his time. His inaction gives Joseph and Mary opportunity to flee thus proving that the best laid plans of men are often and handily foiled by God.
Again, it is interesting to note that Herod calls Jesus a “young child” at this time. The wise men didn’ show up at his birth, but a few years after.
Vs. 9 – For comments on the star, see verse two. The star reappears to guide them to the appropriate location. This Greek text is somewhat ambiguous here and so are some English translations. Upon casual glance it may appear that the star is now in the east. That’s not the case. It is now almost due south of the wise men. Neither is it the case that they saw the star initially in the east or when it rose as some translations and commentators suggest. Rather, it is the case that they, while being in the east themselves, saw the star. Hence, it is the same star that they saw while they were in the east.
Why did it not guide them there to begin with? First, it was necessary for the wise men to make their presence known in Jerusalem. The arrival of dignitaries in Jerusalem would have been a significant local event and a matter of public record. It is an event that many would remember. This is corroboratory evidence that Jesus was born in Bethlehem according to the prophecies. The Jews who read Matthew’s account would either remember this event themselves or would know someone to ask who would remember it, thus confirming Matthew’s story. Second, Herod’s pause for the sake of the wise men allowed Joseph and Mary enough time to depart Bethlehem for Egypt when they heard of Herod’s plans. Had Herod heard that the wise men went directly to Bethlehem, he may have captured Jesus and his family. No doubt God could have prevented this in some other way, but that may have cancelled the wise men’s visit. Third, this was done to fulfill the prophecy regarding Jesus coming out of Egypt. Again, had Herod known in some other way, he might have prevented them from going to Egypt. God’s wisdom in the entire affair is greatly shown.
Vs. 10 – Matthew describes their joy as exceedingly great upon reacquisition of the star. They were delighted that they would soon be able to see this Child-King of prophecy. The coming of the Messiah was no mean event; for centuries the Jewish people had longed to see this day. Even of Abraham Jesus said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day; and he saw it, and was glad” (John 8:56). It was appropriate for them to so rejoice, for so also did God’s angels when they heard of His birth (Luke 2:13,14). They were glad too that they did not have to spend a great deal of time conducting a search per Herod’s instructions. They were thus able to conduct their business quickly and with expedience. This further foiled Herod’s plan.
Vs. 11 – Jesus was no longer in a manger, but a “house.” He is again described as a “young child” indicating that he was no longer an infant. Here they “fall down” to do so. This posture is implied in the Greek word for worship itself. For comments on worship see verse 2. We need not necessarily think that gold, frankincense, and myrrh, were the only gifts that were offered. Perhaps these were the most costly and thus the most notable. The text, however, says that they opened their “treasures” and offered “gifts.”
Most also assume from this passage that because three gifts are mentioned that there were only three wise men, however, the Bible never says such a thing. We have no record as to the number of wise men that came.
One need not explain the value of gold for it is still prized today. It was used to adorn and decorate God’s temple and its vessels (Exodus 25:39). Frankincense was a resin with a fragrant smell. When ground up to powder it could be burned as incense. It was also used in divine service. Compare Isaiah 60:6. Myrrh was a holy ingredient used in anointing oil (Exodus 30:23), yet another item of divine service. It was also fragrant and was used as perfume. Each of these three gifts were somehow related to the worship of God under the Old Economy and were thus appropriate for the occasion. Today, under the New Covenant, we don’t concern ourselves with such things as our worship is directed to be in “spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
Vs. 12 – God knew Herod’s plan and so they were warned not to go back to him. They obeyed and left by another road. See comments on verse nine. We don’t know how long the wise men stayed with Jesus; to read the text it doesn’t appear as if they were there for long, perhaps an evening or two. No doubt they would have wanted to hear Mary’s memoirs regarding the conception and birth and rejoice in that knowledge, but we have no direct information regarding their conversation. It is sad that evil men so often interrupt the good fellowship of the saints with their diabolical schemes, as was the case here. But there is coming a day when that fellowship will be disrupted no more (Revelation 22:2).