I have missed a few weeks due to travel again. I was fortunate enough that the weekend wasn’t too windy or cold or rainy, so I got out to see a Victorian Festival in Otley UK. The very first thing I saw was a brass band – I love brass bands, I used to play a brass instrument – so I whipped out my camera. Just as they began to take a break. And I said, “But I came all the way from Texas!” And the leader says, ok, 1 more, just for you, do you have a request?
I thought about this upcoming lesson on the gifts of the magi, and said, “How about, ‘We Three Kings?’” They mumbled to themselves and said, “I think it’s #90.” And I said, “Yes, #90.” As if I knew what page number it was on.
So they gave me this special gift of song that I’d like to share with you:
There. Wait, there’s more to today’s lesson.
Christmas is approaching, and with it, another chance to reflect on the incredible gift God has given us. During our studies in this class, we’ve considered the desires of God for man, how man has fallen, how God must punish all sin including the sin that is in our very nature, and how in God’s infinite love, He has given us a free gift to accept His sacrifice for our sins.
Open your bibles to Matthew 2 this morning; last week we read about the birth of Jesus, and today we’ll study the wise men who came to worship Him. Let’s step through our verses one at a time today and get the full richness of God’s gift.
II. Matthew 2:1
Matthew 2:1 –
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem
Did you know there are actually two towns named Bethlehem? There is a Bethlehem in the tribe of Zabulon that is mentioned in Joshua 19:15, and it’s not the same as the town of Bethlehem in Judea which is located about 6 miles from Jerusalem.
When I visited Israel 5 years ago, I didn’t go into Bethlehem, but I did get a chance to photograph it from a distance. It’s primarily a Palestine town now, and I understand that over the centuries the original site was destroyed and rebuilt several times. Today, the church doesn’t resemble the humble beginnings of our Lord. What I find most interesting about the land of Bethlehem is that this land was used for raising sheep. During Passover, Jews would select the best lambs to offer as a sacrifice at the Temple of Jerusalem.
This was during the time of King Herod – this is Herod the Great or Herod the Ascalonite, the son of Antipater. It’s interesting to me that he wasn’t completely Jewish, his ancestors were Edomites whose ancestors had converted to Judaism, and Herod was raised as a Jew. Last week Chris talked about the importance of lineage of Jesus, and how observant Jews study certain rabbis whip can trace their lineage to the tribe of Levi so they can say they came from “good stock.”. Herod did not have such good lineage.
He was born around 74 B.C. and through a series of political manipulations with the Romans was appointed King of the Jews around 40 B.C. His dedication to the Jewish faith was always questioned, so he married a Jewish woman named Mariamne, but Herod already had a wife named Doris and a young son Antipater who were banished after his second marriage. Herod’s lifestyle was condemned by the observant Jews, but Herod had a habit of executing those who opposed him, including several members of his own family, including his second wife Mariamne. He ruled Jerusalem with the support of Rome for 37 years, and Jesus was born in the 35th year of Herod’s reign.
After Jesus was born, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem. There is no evidence there were only three wise men, that’s just part of the song. The term “magi” was used for several occupations, not all of them considered wise. They were wizards, enchanters, magicians, sorcerers. The most likely origination of these wise men were probably from Persia, first appointed by Cyrus, to sing hymns to the gods and to sacrifice to them. They likely arrived, not a Jesus’ birth, but to account for the long journey from Persia, most scholars agree that they arrived in Jerusalem about 2 years after Jesus’ birth.
III. Matthew 2:2
Matthew 2:1 –
[The Magi] asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
Some translations, like the King James, say “for we have seen his star in the east.” That’s not phrased very well, because it wasn’t the star that was in the east, it was the magi who were from the east.
What was this star? Some sources say it might have been an angel, but that’s not likely or the scripture would have said it was an angel. Some are of the opinion it was the light or glory of God which shone about the shepherds, or perhaps a comet which tradition had appeared at the birth or death of some illustrious person. But I think a star still makes the most sense, a new and unusual miracle from God the Father to mark the birth of His Son. It fulfils prophecy, such as in Numbers 24:17 which says
there shall come a star out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel.
The magi would have been very familiar with this prophecy, and journeyed 2 years to arrive at the birth of the new King of the Jews.
Can you imagine the wicked Herod’s reaction when wise men from Persia, following this star, shows up at his palace and asks to see the new king? Herod must have been furious. In the next verse, Matthew 2:3, it says –
IV. Matthew 2:3
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.
Herod knew he had no legitimate right to be the king of the Jews, and fiercely defended his power, and a threat to Herod’s power also brought fear to Jerusalem for the power struggle that would ensue. The birth of Christ partially fulfilled the prophecy in Genesis 49:10,
The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.
Herod was not of the tribe of Judah, so the scepter of the king did not belong to him.
V. Matthew 2:4-6
When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
This prophecy is from Micah 5:2, and they’re explaining to Herod that this prophecy has already come true, and that magi are here to pay homage to Him. Herod likely gathered the priests and rabbis of the Sanhedrin, and in the NIV Herod sounds very nice, he asked them politely where Christ the Messiah would be born. I think it’s more of a demand; Herod is the chief of the Sanhedrin and Herod wants to know if there’s any validity to this threat.
VI. Matthew 2:7-8
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
I don’t think Herod’s being honest here, just sayin’. Herod meets with the magi privately and interrogates them for intel. No doubt he did this away from the Sanhedrin, for the Sanhedrin would understand exactly why Herod wants to know the time and place of the birth of Christ. He would understand that Jesus may be as old as two years old now, given the length of the journey from Persia.
Did I mention earlier that Bethlehem is only about 6 miles away? Don’t you think it’s odd that Herod know the fulfillment of prophecy is just a short distance, yet he sends nobody with the magi. Herod certainly didn’t want the Jews to know what the magi already did, that the king of the Jews was born. The Jews in Herod’s palace were likely to set up the newborn king as the new king of the Jews with the intention of overthrowing Herod.
VII. Matthew 2:9-10
When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
To me, it’s interesting that the Jews, though they knew prophecy, did not accompany the magi. Did the Jews even know the magi had been born? This passage seems to indicate that the star had reappeared – that “lo” in verse 9 is an expression of surprise and joy. The magi were gentiles from east of Israel, and no doubt overjoyed to have this star lead them to the child. The birth of the child is the first noel; the star itself is the first GPS navigation system.
Herod was not overjoyed; we read later in this chapter that the magi didn’t return to Herod has he had commanded, and Herod, furious that the magi didn’t identify the specific child he was looking for, ordered every child in Bethlehem under the age of two to be slaughtered. The evil of men and the horrors they commit to maintain their so-called grasp of power for a few more years is appalling, but rather than focus on Herod anymore, I want to study the magi as the met and worshipped the king of the Jews for the first time.
VIII. Matthew 2:11-12, Gifts of the Magi
And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
That last line is meaningful to me. We all meet Jesus, and once we meet Him, we go another way.
The magi provided their gifts to the young baby, wealth of abundance. When we see Christmas scenes of The Three Wise Men, they’re often shown holding a small decorative container with a gift. It’s likely, though, that the magi brought substantially more – they certainly wouldn’t travel over a thousand miles just to provide samples. No, they brought gifts for the King of Kings. Scholars note that later, when Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt, this wealth surely sustained them during their exile.
Let’s look at these gifts –
- Gold certainly makes sense as a gift. Gold is a gift fit for a king, and the magi recognized Christ the newborn as the rightful King of Israel. Jesus traced His lineage to David and Abraham, just as scripture prophesied. And Christ certainly was the rightful king of the Jews, but the book of Matthew illustrates these magi as giving the gold to the baby, something the other gospels don’t mention. It’s as if Matthew wants to make sure we understand, as the magi did, that Jesus was born a king.
- Frankincense is an aromatic balm used to make incense, used by priests during sacrifice. In other words, a gift for a god. Jesus is not just our king, the Lord of Lords, but he fulfills a unique role in our salvation that only He can fill – He is our High Priest. Hebrews 2:17 says that Jesus is our merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, that He might make atonement for the sins of the people. The magi worshipped Jesus as divine while at the same time Herod was trying to destroy Him. This contrast characterizes much about the life of Jesus. Some, like the magi, worship Jesus as Lord. Others, like Herod, seek His destruction. Which brings us to the third gift.
- Myrrh is an odd gift for a baby. Like frankincense, myrrh is an aromatic resin that is used to prepare bodies for burial. From the very beginning, for Christ to give up His life was His purpose. Mathew 20:28 says that His purpose was “to give His life as a ransom for many.” And in John 12:27, just before Jesus went to the cross, Jesus prayed, “Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour.” Jesus lived His life with an awareness of His purpose – He was born to die. The story of the magi is a central part of the story of Christ’s birth, but the magi presented Jesus with a gift that honored his death. We celebrate Christ’s birth because of His death. Were it not for His sacrifice, His birth would have little meaning.
The Christmas tradition of exchanging gifts probably is influenced by the story of the magi, but the real story of Christmas is not about the gifts of the magi or the gifts we give to one another, but the gift of God’s only son. When God gave us Jesus, He gave us everything Heaven had to give. Ephesians 1:3 says that God has blessed us with *every* spiritual blessing in Christ, like a special Christmas package that contains every blessing of God.
There’s a story of a very wealthy man who came from generations of money. His great-grandfather had made a fortune in trading spices. His grandfather made money in real estate. His father made money in smart investing. And this man continued on the family tradition, and invested in art. He had art from Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Picasso, Monet, and more. He had an amazing art collection and kept it all in a gallery on his mansion’s estate.
He met a beautiful woman; they fell in love and were married. Not long after, the woman got pregnant with their first child, but tragically, she died giving birth to a son.
The father and his son were inseparable. They spent their days together, playing ball and traveling the world and enjoying every moment.
The son grew up, and before taking over the family business, he thought he’d get some life experience. He joined the military and was soon shipped off to war. But he wrote to his father often. And as each letter arrived, the butler would hand carry it to the father, knowing how eagerly he was waiting to hear from his son.
One day the butler came into the father’s study, holding one of the familiar envelopes. The father took the letter but instantly noticed something was different. It was not his son’s familiar handwriting. The father began to tremble as he read the words, “Dear Sir, we regret to inform you that your son has been killed in the line of duty…” The father fell on his knees sobbing.
For weeks he was overcome with grief. To celebrate his son, the father commissioned a local artist to paint a portrait of the son. He hung that portrait right in the middle of the Picassos and the Monets. It was entitled, “The Son.” Out of all the priceless works of art, “The Son” was his favorite, and every time he looked at it, he would smile and remember his son.
The years went by. The father grew old and passed on. There were no living heirs, so the estate was to be auctioned. The day of the auction arrived. Wealthy investors and art collectors from around the world arrived to bid on the art.
The auctioneer opened by announcing that they would begin with the piece entitled, “The Son.” The name of the artist was unknown, and the restless buyers stirred impatiently as the auctioneer started. “We will start the bidding at $1,000. Can I get $1,000?” There were no bids. “Can I get $1000?” At the back of the crowd, one hand went into the air. It was the butler. He was not a wealthy man and could never afford the Picassos or the Rembrandts, but it was this portrait of his master’s son that he wanted. He had seen the son grow from a little boy into a man and had come to love him as his own. “I’ll give $1000,” he said.
The auctioneer continued, “Can I get $1,500?” No hands went up. “Can I get $1,200? $1,100?” By now the wealthy buyers were grumbling. They were waiting for the prized art and wasting time with this worthless portrait. “Going once, going twice…sold!” The gavel came down. The butler went forward to claim his purchase.
Then the auctioneer announced, “And with that purchase this auction comes to a conclusion. Thank you all for coming out today.” The art collectors began to shout, “Wait a minute! What about the paintings, the cars, the house, the property? What about the rest of the estate?” The auctioneer explained, “I’m sorry, but there was a very specific instruction in the father’s will regarding the sale of his possessions. He said that in the auction, we should start by offering “The Son,” and whoever takes The Son – gets everything.”
Romans 8:32 says,
“He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?”
Christ is the ultimate gift. In Him, God has given everything else as well. That baby two thousand years ago, was the treasure of Heaven and God’s gift to mankind. “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given…”
That is the true gift of Christmas.
To God be the glory.