Bowing Before the Savior

| Matthew 2:1-12

Biblical Truth: Jesus is God’s anointed Savior, and He deserves our worship and willing service.

Scripture Declares Jesus’ Superiority:  Matthew 2:1-6.

[1]  Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, [2]  "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." [3]  When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. [4]  Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. [5]  They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: [6]  ‘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.’"      [NASU]

[1]  Bethlehem, the place near which Jacob buried his Rachel [Gen. 35:19] and Ruth met Boaz [Ruth 1:22-2:6], was preeminently the town where David was born and reared. For Christians it has become the place where angel hosts broke the silence and announced Messiah’s birth [Luke 2]. Unlike Luke, Matthew offers no description of Jesus’ birth or the shepherd’s visit. He specifies the time of Jesus’ birth as having occurred during King Herod’s reign. Herod the Great, as he is now called, was born in 73 B.C. and was named king of Judea by the Roman Senate in 40 B.C. He was wealthy, politically gifted, intensely loyal, an excellent administrator, and clever enough to remain in the good graces of successive Roman emperors. His famine relief was superb and his building projects admired even by his foes. But he loved power, inflicted incredibly heavy taxes on the people, and resented the fact that many Jews did not consider him their king. In his last years, suffering an illness that compounded his paranoia, he turned to cruelty and in fits of rage and jealousy killed close associates, his wife and at least two of his sons.

The Magi are not easily identified with precision. Several centuries earlier the term was used for priests of Medes who enjoyed special power to interpret dreams. In later centuries down to New Testament times, the term loosely covered a wide variety of men interested in dreams, astrology, magic, books thought to contain mysterious references to the future and the like. Apparently these men came to Bethlehem spurred on by astrological calculations. But they had probably built up their expectation of a kingly figure by working through assorted Jewish books. They came from the east, possibly from Babylon, where a sizable Jewish settlement wielded considerable influence. The theory that there were three wise men is probably a deduction from the three gifts [2:11], but Matthew does not indicate their number.

[2]  What is clear is that the Magi reported some astronomical phenomenon that they had some way of linking with a particular king, the king of the Jews. But they do not say what the link was. They say that they have come to worship him, where the verb may indicate an act of reverence toward a great man or an act of worship of God. The Magi probably intended an act of homage, but Matthew may well be giving the expression its fullest meaning. The attitude of the Magi in the presence of the Baby was the attitude proper in the presence of God. The worship of Christ was important to Matthew, and he refers to this worship ten times [2:2,8,11; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20; 28:9,17]. Matthew contrasts the eagerness of the Magi to worship Jesus, despite their limited knowledge, with the apathy of the Jewish leaders and the hostility of Herod’s court despite having the Scriptures to inform them.

[3]  Matthew does not say how Herod heard about the Magi, only that he did hear. But with such visitors no doubt reports were flying through Jerusalem, and it would be strange if some of Herod’s people did not pick up the news. Herod was troubled because he was an Edomite, not a Jew, and he had been made king by the Romans. The news that the Magi were bringing sounded suspiciously like the emergence of a genuine descendant of the royal line of David as a claimant to the throne. And if Herod was troubled, the whole city was troubled with him.

[4]  The king proceeded to gather his experts. Matthew has more references to high priests (25) and to scribes (22) than has anyone else in the New Testament. There is a problem about the exact force of the term “high priest” because in a number of places, as here, we have the plural, whereas there was only one high priest, for the office was held for life. But the rulers sometimes deposed the legitimate high priest, and the title was then applied both to the man who had formerly exercised the office and the one who currently filled the post. The term was used also to cover a number of officials such as the captain of the temple, the leader of the weekly group of priests, those who had charge of financial affairs, and so on. It thus covered a group of important people. Scribe might refer to a secretary or clerk but could also denote a scholar who had made a study of the law, and thus the meaning might be much like our lawyer. Many of the scribes were Pharisees, which is natural enough, for both groups were zealous for the law, but not all Pharisees were scribes. The Sadducean high-priestly party needed legal experts, and it is these who are in mind in this passage. The inquiry concerned the place where the Messiah would be born.

[5-6]  Herod’s experts came up with a speedy reply. It was quite clear to them that Bethlehem was the place, and they were able to quote Scripture to make their point. They thus showed that their failure to believe was not due to ignorance. Israel knew precisely where the King of the Jews would be born, but it was the Gentiles who worshiped him first. The reference is to Micah 5:2 with the last line from 2 Samuel 5:2. It is interesting that, although they could say immediately where the Messiah would be born, they apparently did nothing about the report that the Magi brought. Matthew sees a pair of contrasts between the false shepherds of Israel who have provided sound answers but no leadership and Jesus who is the true Shepherd of His people Israel and between a ruler like Herod and the one born to rule.

Some Oppose Jesus’ Superiority:  Matthew 2:7-8.

[7]  Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. [8]  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."   [NASU]

[7]  Armed with this information, Herod summoned the Eastern sages. He wanted no undue publicity, so he called them secretly and found out from them exactly when the star made its appearance. He does not say why he wanted this information, but to know the time when the star appeared would obviously give an indication of the age of this new King of the Jews.

[8]  Herod apparently shared with the Magi the information he had acquired about the birthplace of the Messiah, then dispatched them to Bethlehem. He instructed them to search diligently for the baby, and when they had found him to let him know where the child was so that he could go along too and worship him. It is perhaps surprising that Herod did not send someone with the Magi. But soldiers would have been inappropriate, and he may have felt that anyone linked to him would raise problems for the search. He had no reason for thinking that the Magi would not report back. He could scarcely have been expected to foresee God’s intervention [12].

Worshipers Bow to Jesus’ Superiority:  Matthew 2:9-12.

[9]  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. [10]  When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. [11]  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. [12]  And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.     [NASU]

 [9]  As the Magi went on their way they saw the star again. It may be that they had given up looking for the star when they got to Jerusalem, feeling that their journey was over. But now they realized that they had still some distance to go, and once again they saw the star. It is not easy to understand how the star went before them nor how it stood over any one place here on earth. But Matthew is apparently saying that in some way the star kept going ahead of them until it came to the place where the baby was and that it then stood still.

[10]  When the Magi saw the star, they rejoiced with great joy. It had been the star that had brought them to the land of Judea, and now that they were not sure of their destination within that land they were reassured by the evidence that the star was still leading them.

[11]  Some time had elapsed since Jesus’ birth, and the family was now settled in a house. When the Magi reached the house and went in, they saw the little child and his mother. In each place in this passage where the two are mentioned the child comes first [13,14,20,21]. Matthew’s main interest is in Jesus. Interestingly Joseph is not mentioned, though in these opening chapters he takes a more prominent place than anywhere else in the New Testament. But it would be natural to mention the mother with the baby and perhaps not as natural to include the father. The Magi prostrated themselves before the baby in lowly worship. They proceeded to open their treasure chests and offer gifts. Matthew specifies three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Clearly all three were valuable, and together they formed a very generous gift, suitable for offering to a king. Christians have often seen symbolical meanings in them, gold for royalty, frankincense for deity, and myrrh pointing to suffering and death, but Matthew says nothing about this.

[12]  Warned is a verb used often to indicate a divine utterance, a revelation. Here this divine command is given in a dream, as on a number of occasions in Matthew. This time there is no mention of an angel. They were instructed not to go back to Herod. No reason is given, but more may well have been said to the Magi than Matthew records. At any rate we are informed that they were obedient and went back home by another way.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Describe the meeting between the Magi and Herod and the Jewish leaders. List the unusual events that occur when Gentiles come seeking the king of the Jews while the Jews themselves show no interest. What does Matthew expect his readers to learn from this incident?

2.         How do the Magi react when they find the Child? Do their actions provide any example for us concerning our worship of our King? Explain.

3.         Note once again God’s sovereign control over all these events in order to accomplish His will. Here we see God directing the Magi to His Son and then warning them in a dream to avoid Herod on their return to their land. Why do you think God sent the Magi to worship the Child?


Matthew, D.A. Carson, EBC, Zondervan.

Gospel According to Matthew, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.