Matthew 2:1-12

As we learned in the introductory sermons, Matthew is the Gospel of the King.  It has a distinctly Jewish coloring.  All the more remarkable, therefore, is this narrative before us today, which would seem to be more appropriate in the Gospel of Luke, who emphasizes the universality of Christ’s work.

But the gathering in of the Gentiles to the light of Israel was an essential part of true Judaism, and could not but be represented in this Gospel which sets forth the glories of the King.

We won’t spend much time with issues such as the date of Jesus’ birth, since the historian Luke covers that in much more detail.  Simply to say that Matthew places the incarnation before the death of Herod, which occurred in 4 BC on the Roman calendar.  We’ll have more to say about him next Lord’s Day.

But there is something extremely striking and stimulating to the imagination in the vagueness of the description of these eastern visitors.  “Magi came into Jerusalem from places in the East.”  Where they came from how long they had been travelling, how many they were, what was their station in life, and where they went – everything is left unsaid.  They glide into history at the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, present their silent homage, and just as silently go away.

In fact, this episode in the Gospel has been so intriguing that mythology has sprung up all around it.  And we’re so familiar with the mythology that we don’t separate it from the truth of Scripture.  And therefore we exchange the truth for a lie.

In the first place, nowhere in the Bible is it stated how many of them there were.  Of course, in many places of O.T. prophecy it is clearly stated that the Gentiles will worship God’s Anointed One on His Holy Mountain; and there’s even one place that names three nations whose kings will come and worship the Lord.  But those three nations are south and west of Israel.  That’s a totally different context.

But could you imagine that, in a time when hordes of barbarians and robbers and murderers were roaming the wildernesses, that three men with valuable treasures would be able to travel hundreds of miles unmolested?  It’s been suggested that there were numbers of these men, and that they had entourages of servants and bodyguards with them.  A rather large band in caravan is probably more likely.

And, secondly, they were not kings.  Nowhere does it say they were kings.  And yet every Christmas the pageants include the songs and exploits of the royal heads of three nations.  “We three kings of orient are.”  This IS Roman Catholic mythology.  And the folly has gone so far as to name these three men.  And, for the price of a ticket, you can even get in to a cathedral courtyard in Europe where the bones of the three kings are buried.

What saith the Scriptures?  “Lo, magi came into Jerusalem from places in the East….”  Your version has, simply, “from the east.”  But the Greek has the word “East” as a plural.  Places in the East.  Apparently from more than one city.  Or province.  And they were not kings, but magi.

Magi is the common and well-known word given by the Babylonians to men who make a living by practicing witchcraft.  They pronounced curses and incantations, engaged in magic (the word that comes from mage) they were sorcerers who called on evil spirits and spirits of the dead.  And the services of those who were good were highly prized by heads of nations and wealthy people who paid large sums for successful astrological predictions.  And curses pronounced on enemies.

Some of you may remember the sermon from second Peter which recounted the Scriptures in Numbers chapter twenty-four.  Thirteen or fourteen hundred years before Christ, as the nation of Israel was ready, after forty years in the desert, to occupy the Promised Land, Israel encamped on the Steppes of Moab.  Balak the king was afraid of the numbers of people and was afraid also of Israel’s God.   And he called for the most celebrated sorcerer of his time.  Balaam.

Balaam was to be paid a huge sum, and receive honor and glory, for successfully cursing the nation of Israel in order that they would be easily defeated upon attack.  Balaam came a long distance from Babylon to Moab.  And all three times he stood to curse Israel, all that would come out was the most glorious and beautiful prophetic language – blessing Israel and all its endeavors.  The words of the Numbers text makes it clear that he was a worshipper of Yahveh – Israel’s God.  And it’s clear that he had great fear and trepidation about confronting Yahveh with sorcery.  But he tried.  And later advised the Moabites to subvert Israel internally by sending in Moabitess prostitutes, because once they were morally compromised, Israel could easily be defeated.  As you know, God later ordered Balaam slain with the sword along with the Moabites.

But one of Balaam’s prophecies, recorded by Moses in his fourth book, includes this verse: “There shall be a star out of Jacob, a Scepter shall rise out of Israel.”  That’s a very important prophecy from Balaam the sorcerer, the Babylonian magus (singular of magi).

Because in the fifth century before Christ, the entire nation of Israel was carried into captivity into Babylon, as we heard in the introductory sermons.  And Daniel the prophet during that captivity, was placed in charge of all the astrologers and sorcerers of the Babylonian empire.  And there’s no doubt in my mind that Daniel – great man of God that he was – taught the eastern mystic sorcerers as much as he could from the Scriptures.

And, no doubt, they learned and remembered the star prediction of Balaam their fellow astrologer – “there shall be a star out of Jacob, a scepter shall rise out of Israel.”  The greatest wise man in the Babylonian Empire Daniel was looking toward a great king in Israel, and that his king’s ascendency would be presaged by a star.  What wonderful things for astrologers and sorcerers to look for.  Two of the greatest men in the history of Babylonian astrology, Balaam and Daniel, had both looked eagerly toward the rising of this king.  And the history of the predictions of His coming were almost a thousand years old, and an integral part of Babylonian antiquity.

And when the sorcerers, magicians, and astrologers of Babylon finally saw a brand-new star hovering in the west, they became full of joy, because their own history was being fulfilled.  The greatest sorcerer in the history of Babylon, Balaam, had prophesied it.  And Daniel the prophet, the leader of all the wise men of Babylon during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, and Cyrus and Darius the Mede, also prophesied this King.

Babylonian wise men.  Babylon’s history.  The reputation of sorcery, or astrology.  The excitement of fulfilled prophecy.  A new King of unlimited power.

This is the same thing Simon the sorcerer wanted from Peter and the disciples.  The power of the Holy Spirit.  And by the way, his name was Simon Magus, Simon the magician.  A Chaldean Jew who made his living practicing the mantic arts.

“Lo, magi came into Jerusalem from places in the East saying, ‘Where is the one born king of the Jews?  For we saw his star in the East and we came to pay homage to him.’”

Now, this star certainly was no ordinary star.  In the first place, there are no new stars in the heavens.  The magi knew the heavens well, because they made their living making predictions based on their locations.  When they saw this star, it was something new.  And it was exciting enough to make them remember the prophecies, and to make them travel, maybe as long as a year, to the new, mighty king for Whom it was shining.

No, this was no natural star.  It was completely out of the ordinary, and it preceded them on their journey to Jerusalem; and, as verse nine says, it led them from Jerusalem the short distance south to Bethlehem.  The prophecy of Balaam was true prophecy.  And even if the “star” designation belongs only to Jesus Christ Himself, God still used the star that the Babylonian astrologers were looking for to draw them to the place where His Son was born.

And the words used in the second verse, indicated by the word “worship” in your versions, don’t indicate true Christian worship at all.  To pay homage to him.  We have come to pay homage to him.  The new king that our astrologers prophesied.  The one who will be mighty and who was announced in such a majestic way.  And we will give gifts to Him who will one day rule the world from Jerusalem.  He must truly be a god, since the heavens themselves announce his coming. 

Well, having heard that magi from the east were in town hunting for the new king of the Jews, Herod was terrified, verse three, as all pagans are terrified, and enraged, when their own ambitions come in close confrontation with Christ’s demands.  All Jerusalem on his side were also terrified.

 So, verse four, he assembled the priests and scribes together to find out what the Old Testament prophecy said.  And they told him – in Bethlehem.  And they quoted the prophecy to him from Micah five, two.  And the way the prophecy is quoted by them combines the king aspects of the prophecy of Micah with the Messiah aspects of the prophecy of Daniel.  So that the King of the Jews is also clearly seen as God’s Messiah.

Now, Herod had given assent to God, and he had allowed the worship and sacrifice to continue.  But once the Christ actually came, Herod’s rage against him began to be exhibited.  And the basis of this hatred must have been the fact that Herod now knew that he was reigning in opposition to God.  Here is the prophecy right out of the prophetic Scriptures, that the Messiah/King will be born in Bethlehem of Judea, and the confirmation from the magi that they had seen his star all the way from Babylon.  And Herod didn’t repent – but he began to devise a plan to kill the Son of God.

And that’s the way it is with men.  You show them the plain words from God, and, rather than submitting to them, they immediately begin to calculate ways to circumvent, or short-circuit, that which God has plainly said.  The Word of God activates them, or motivates them, to do things in direct defiance of what they know to be true.

So Herod summons the magi, verse seven, and inquired form them the precise time of the star’s appearing.  And then he sent them on to Bethlehem with specific instructions for them to report back to him when they found the king.

You can sense the plan formulating in his mind already.  Here it was the time for Passover, so thousands and thousands were in Jerusalem for that.  And a decree from Caesar had been issued for a census to be taken, and the Jews had to go back to their original homelands to be counted.  So more thousands were in Jerusalem and Bethlehem for that.  The entire royal descendancy of king David had to go to Bethlehem to register and be taxed. 

And a caravan of magi arrives from Babylon proclaiming they had seen the star out of Jacob, indicating that the Messiah/King had been born.  So in the festival atmosphere and the crush of people, Herod would let the magi search out the child and report back to him, and he would deal with it then.  So he feigned interest in paying homage to the new king himself, and sent the magi on their way. 

Verse eight.  “And having heard from the king, they went away.”  Now, this is truly an instance demonstrating the deadness of Israel at the time Christ was born.  The magi had made an entrance into the city of God – the place of central worship for the entire nation – announcing that they had seen the star of their king, king of the Jews, and asking where he was.  And nobody knew.  And nobody was even offering to lead them to Bethlehem.

Herod called the Sanhedrin together – they just quoted the prophecy and apparently went home.  As verse three indicates, everyone in Herod’s party was terrified; and apparently the rest of the Jews thought twice about risking Herod’s anger, so no one even attempted to help the travelers find the little town of Bethlehem.  Nobody moves a step. 

And the magi must have thought this very strange, since it was the Jewish prophets and the Jewish Scriptures that had prophesied the Jewish king – one whose majesty was so great that the heavens themselves changed to proclaim his birth – and yet there was no response from them.  They were dead!

But the zeal of these magi went unabated.  They set out for Bethlehem, and immediately the star was again apparent to them, and they joyfully followed it all the way to where Jesus was.  The text indicates that there was a burst of joy when they again saw the star.  Verse ten.  So it appears that the confusing signals of fear and apathy that they were receiving from the Jews toward their own New King were immediately forgotten when they saw the star. 

But the star led them directly to the place where Jesus was.  Verse eleven.  And they fell down and paid homage to Him.  Not to worship him as the Son of God – the Second Person of the Trinity – but with misinterpreted knowledge of the mighty king prophesied in the Scriptures they came to salute him according to Persian custom.  Or to participate in the magical wonders of their own astrological interpretations of events.  This new king was said to be the one who would have world-wide dominion, and all nations would bow down to him.  And the heavens themselves had declared to them that the prophecy was true.

They then opened their treasuries and presented the new king with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Now, people from every generation have since tried to place allegorical interpretations upon each one of these gifts, as if each had special symbolic meaning.  But I don’t see any.  I think they were just gifts of value given in tribute to one who would become the ruler of the world.   They gave what they had to give.

And then they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and they went back another way to avoid him.

Now.  I want to quickly draw some contrasts for you.  Our Lord Jesus Christ was born King of the Jews – and King of the Nations.  Yet He emptied Himself and was born in squalor – in a place where travelers kept their animals.  His own Jewish blood didn’t even attend him at His birth, Gentiles did.  The high priests and theologians of the people wouldn’t bother to pay Him homage, practitioners of witchcraft and sorcery did.

The Words of God written were ignored by the people to whom they were given, but astrologers followed an astronomical phenomenon to find him.  The rulers of his Own nation ignored Him, but representatives of provinces a thousand miles away were there.  The city of Jerusalem, supposed to be the center of true worship for the world, rejected its own Messiah.  But Babylon sent its representatives.  The majesty of God’s Anointed One shined is foreign countries, but it was unacknowledged in Judea.  He received the ornaments of wealth from the Gentiles, but He was stripped of all earthly splendor in His Own land.

And one thing is for certain.  Matthew’s inclusion of this narrative at the beginning of his Gospel is a fulfillment of prophecy in and of itself.  For the Scriptures say that those who were no people shall become my people.  And the people who lived in the wildernesses of the nations have seen a great light.

God’s rejection of His covenant people, due to their disobedience, is the reason for this passage.  And it’s also evident that God has turned His attention to those in foreign lands who have lived in darkness – sorcerers and astrologers, prostitutes, adulterers, thieves, demon-possessed dogs of society – depraved humanity – we Gentiles.   The King was born in order to have dominion over us and to save us.  By His great love for us He has included us in His promises.

And it’s very appropriate that, as we discuss these things, we also receive the signs of His body and blood, because that’s what it cost Him to include us.  This table is called the sign and seal of the Covenant.  And we have the evidence right before us that He has included us in His promises.