The Wise Men’s Worship


Week of January 6, 2019

The Point: Jesus is Lord and He deserves our worship.

The Visit of the Magi: Matthew 2:1-12.

[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. [ESV]

Wise Men Still Seek Him [2:1-12]. The Quest of the Magi. In spite of the Christmas carol, We Three Kings, the Magi were not kings, and Matthew never says they were a trio. No one knows how many there were. The Magi brought three gifts but there were probably dozens of leaders, soldiers, and servants in an entourage that traveled up to a thousand miles over alien terrain. The group was large enough that the report of their arrival reached King Herod himself. The Magi were wise men – not kings, but counselors to kings. As with any profession, there were good and bad Magi. In the Old Testament, Daniel and his friends were Magi: educated men, seeking the truth, trained to counsel and advise their king, much like the cabinet of a president or prime minister. Other Magi were charlatans or scoundrels [Acts 8:9-24]. Our Magi seem to be learned, noble, and wealthy. When the magi arrived in Jerusalem, they explained their journey, saying, Where is he who has been born king of the Jews [2:2]. The Magi studied the heavens in a day when the boundary between astronomy and astrology was vague. The Bible forbids astrology. Yet God reverses field and chooses to speak to stargazers through a star. Stars had significance for these men. God descended to the Magi’s level to communicate with them. Stars got their attention, so God used a star. To this day, God speaks in language that gets the attention of people. The Magi were pagans serving a pagan king. Yet God spoke to them, for that is what He does. Christianity is not a religion for “good people,” it is for sinners who listen when God calls. The advantage of Christians is not that we are better than others but that God has let us address our failures. We confess our sins, ask God to forgive, and receive His mercy. After that, we make amends as best we can. But we still fail, still seek mercy from God and neighbor. The Magi remind us that God seeks sinners. God called the Magi, and they traveled great distances, following that star for long months. As wise men, they probably had some scriptures, the words of prophets such as Daniel, to guide them. If they knew of Daniel, they knew he had predicted, with some specificity, the birth of a royal deliverer in Israel. Then they saw a mysterious star pointing toward Jerusalem and followed it there. They arrived with an entourage large enough to be noticed. It quickly came to the attention of King Herod, especially considering their question concerning one born to be king of the Jews. Had the king of the Jews been born? How was it then that no one in Jerusalem, the capital, knew of this royal birth? What could the report mean? Four Responses to the Divine Message to the Magi. Response #1: The Anger of Herod. Herod heard that wise men were seeking the one who has been born king of the Jews. But he knew no children had been born into his house recently. He read the report as a threat. That is nothing new. Herod tended to see everything as a threat. Naturally then, when Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Herod had been king about thirty years by this time. He was old and would die not long after Jesus’ birth. Herod was an immensely gifted man, skilled in hand-to-hand combat, in rhetoric, and in politics. He excelled at famine relief and building projects, but he became cruel and paranoid later in life and bent all his efforts to retaining power. Perpetually fearing plots on his life, he executed his wife Mariamne and three of his sons, to mention just a few of his cruel decrees. Suffice it to say that his order to kill all the young males of Bethlehem [2:16], in the hope of killing Jesus, is wholly consistent with history’s portrait of Herod, a talented but violent and immoral ruler. Response #2: The Anxiety of the People of Jerusalem. Matthew says that when Herod became troubled, all Jerusalem became troubled with him. Think of Herod as a prototype of every tyrant through the centuries: talented, fearless, vain, cruel, and violent. In Jerusalem if Herod was disturbed, everyone was disturbed. Matthew is foreshadowing the future of Jesus, who arouses hostility and resentment, upheaval and suffering. So we understand the lack of enthusiasm among the people. Anxiety and fear paralyzed them. Yet some were awaiting a deliverer. They should not be indifferent to the Magi’s report. After all, their arrival seemed to fit the prophecies. Jeremiah said the Messiah would be a king, and the Magi were seeking one born king of the Jews [Jer. 23:5-6]. Isaiah said, nations shall come to your light [Isa. 60:3]. Numbers prophesied, a star shall come out of Jacob; and a scepter shall rise out of Israel [Num. 24:17]. So there is reason for the learned and even for attentive commoners to give full attention to the Magi. Response #3: The Apathy of Priests and Teachers of Law. Herod called in two groups of experts to question them about the Magi’s report, the chief priests and the scribes. These two groups stood at the opposite ends of Jewish social leadership. The scribes were conservative teachers of Scripture, bent on preserving traditional Jewish culture. The chief priests (as opposed to ordinary priests) were Sadducees; the Sadducees were willing to accommodate Roman power and Greek culture to retain their wealth and power. Herod called these rivals together to discover where the Christ was to be born [2:4]. If these two groups should agree on the answer, it had to be true. They did answer together and, citing Micah 5:2, correctly replied in Bethlehem of Judea [2:5]. Their quotation formula is also apt, for so it is written by the prophet. They understand that the words were written by the prophet, but that prophets wrote as God moved them. Both groups passed the Bible quiz. They knew where the prophecy was found and they knew the prophecy came from God. The prophecy continues, And you, O Bethlehem … are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel [2:6, citing Micah 5:2]. Yet after the scribes and priests give their answer, we hear no more of them. They expect their deliverer and here are reports that fit the prophecy. Yet, Matthew implies, they do nothing. They do not rejoice; they do not join the Magi. They do not go to Bethlehem to worship this shepherd and ruler or even to investigate the report. They answer the king and go home. The apathy of the teachers and priests is pathetic but all too typical. “Religious” people were often the last to receive Jesus. If the pagans had seen Jesus’ signs, if they had heard His preaching, Jesus says they would have repented [11:20-24; 12:41-42]. But the religious people saw no need of repentance. It was true then and remains all too true today. Sometimes those who most know the faith in the mind know it least in the heart. They should have joined the Magi and traveled to Bethlehem. Response #4: The Adoration of the Magi. Confident that he had deceived the Magi, Herod sent them off without an escort. The star reappeared and led to the house where the little family had settled. (The reference to the house, together with Herod’s murder of all boys aged two and under, implies that the Magi had traveled for months – and thus do not belong in our manger scenes.) The Magi arrive and bow in reverence. This does not mean they know everything of Jesus’ identity, that He is the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity. But they do render Him honor and homage. After they bow, they open treasure boxes and bring out gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Some theologians explore the symbolic meaning of each gift, linking them to obscure texts in the Old Testament to declare the deity of Christ and to foretell His passion. But we should let the Magi be what they are, wise men from the east. They did not choose their gifts with prophecies in mind; they brought them with their understanding of court life in mind. They knew that when a man meets a king, he brings gifts. Their three gifts were costly and grand. The Magi simply brought Jesus the best gifts they could find. The Response to Christ in Four Parts. The characters in Matthew’s account represent the main types of response to Jesus to this day. The varied people who encounter Jesus in the pages of the Gospel resemble people in all places, at all times. Herod is a foe of God, an agent of Satan, an antichrist, in the strictest sense of the word. When he tries to kill Jesus, he does satanic work. Herod is a false king, trying to kill the true, murdering whoever gets in his way. But God protects His child, as He sleeps in the home of a humble artisan. Not many of us personally know people who, like Herod, hate God and would destroy Christ and His church, if possible. Indifference and scoffing are far more common. But let us not forget that there are philosophers and agitators who would eradicate the faith if they could. The Bible never tells us to fight them, but we should expect them and stand firm in the faith, for we know the Lord will defeat them [Rev. 13:7-10]. Sadly, the hatred of Herod is only the first failed response. The people of Jerusalem were troubled by the word of Jesus’ birth. Their question is “Could this somehow lead to my harm?” It is a sensible question. Herod was likely to kill at random, as too many dictators have been. Still, we cannot live by fear. Even in the face of threats, the Bible says, Have no fear of them, nor be troubled [1 Peter 3:14]. Fear must not govern our decisions. It is all too easy to let fear of disapproval or financial loss or relational strife govern our decisions, but we must let the truth guide us. This is what the people missed. They asked, “What can go wrong?” They failed to ask, “What is right?” The chief priests and scribes also failed. They had expert knowledge which they presented to others, yet they did not use that knowledge to direct themselves. They served Herod, quoting Scripture beautifully, but did not rise to serve the Lord. They were satisfied to quote Scripture and go home. They should have joined the Magi and run to Bethlehem. If we know the truth, we must act upon it. People with knowledge and education are always tempted to rest content in knowledge. But it is never enough to know the truth. If we truly know, we act. If we know who Jesus is, we worship Him. This is where the Magi show the way. They knew one thing: the king of the Jews had been born. The scribes had more and better information than the Magi did, but the Magi acted on what they knew. They traveled to see the baby king. They brought the most expensive gifts they could find. When they arrived, they worshiped, then gave gifts. They knew little, but acted on what little they knew. Their action is an example for us. It should be our goal to give what is best of ourselves to the Lord, as the Magi did.” [Doriani, pp. 26-36].

Theology in Application. Divine Providence at Work. This theme was essential to both parts of chapter 1 as well, but it must be mentioned here because it is the dominating theme. The prophetic fulfillment demonstrates that God prepared for this event in the distant past and that this is indeed the central moment in human history. God indeed superintends His creation and uses the nations to fulfill His will. Moreover, the dreams in chapters 1-2 mean that God will not allow His purpose to be thwarted. Worship of the Christ-King. Worship permeates this story. These exalted personages represent the rest of the world, come to bow at the feet of the infant Jesus. Their great efforts to find the baby show their resolve. This is a real fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise that the Jewish people would be a source of blessing to the world [Gen. 12:3; 15:5; 18:18]. Jesus as King of the Whole World, Not Just of the Jews. As in 1:1-17 the theme of universal mission is stressed. God has seen to it that the Gentiles come to worship the Christ child. In fact, here no representative of the Jewish people comes. While Jewish mission dominates the body of Matthew (the lost sheep of the house of Israel [Matt. 10:5-6; 15:24]), that is framed in Matthew with Gentile mission [2:1-12; 28:19], and throughout Jesus keeps demonstrating for His disciples what the Gentile mission will be like [8:5-13,28-34; 15:21-28]. It is clear that Matthew wants his Jewish readers to understand God’s plan for the mission to the world and their part in it. Conflict and Presages of God’s Victory over Evil. This conflict between Herod and Jesus, the Messiah-King, is at the heart of chapter 2 and typifies good vs evil; Herod is the anti-king trying to preserve his usurped throne by taking the life of the true King. Herod’s cunning, evil intentions, and lies are in keeping with the wicked world, and so he typifies the way the world opposes and plots against God [as in Ps. 2:1: Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?]. But the reaction of God here is the same as in Psalm 2:4, He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. God, not Herod or the evil powers, is in control of His world, and all who rise against God are doomed. This is as important a message today as it was in Matthew’s time. Obedience for Those Seeking Christ. The Magi typify the “seekers” in our time, and it is important to realize that they obeyed everything that God sent them – first the star, then the prophecy, and finally the dream-vision. The heart of it is decision, and without the decision to follow God’s leading, they would never have found the messianic King. Moreover, that led to worship of the Christ-King, not to further seeking! It is critical to realize that seekers, so long as they remain only seekers, continue to reject the Savior every service they attend. The task of the church is not just to be “seeker-sensitive” but far more to be “seeker-challenging,” for until they obey and worship the Lord, they stand with Herod rather than the Magi. Of course, it is not too often that seekers are given stars and dream-visions to guide their way, but God is at work in their lives to the same extent He was the Magi’s, and the Magi had to respond and accept what God told them. That is the same today.” [Osborne, loc. 2183-2473].

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?

4. What lessons do we learn from this passage concerning God’s providence, worship, Jesus as king of the whole world not just Jews, how Jesus brings conflict, and the need for obedience?


The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1, James Boice, Baker.

Matthew, Daniel Doriani, REC, P & R Publishing.

The Gospel According to Matthew, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

Matthew, Grant Osborne, Zondervan (ebook).

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