Read Matthew 2:1-12
I want us to do a little detective work. In the story of Jesus’ birth that we heard before we heard about some people who came looking for the baby.
Who were they?
There were the shepherds and there were the kings.
I want us to focus on the story of the kings. So that we can look for clues I have put the words on the screen again.
What does the Bible call the kings?
We generally call them “kings”. The Bible actually calls them “magi” or wise men. They were probably the astronomers or the philosophers or the scholars of their day.
Where did they come from?
We are told that they came from the east – perhaps from somewhere like Persia or Babylon.
It is clear that they weren’t Jews. They came from a long way away.
But why did they come? Why did they bother travelling a long distance in difficult circumstances? Why make such an effort?
When they arrived in Jerusalem, they asked around, “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.”
This gives us some clues.
As we have said, they themselves were not Jews. Otherwise they would not have had to ask about this king. If they had been Jewish wise men they would have known the prophecies etc.
Secondly, we discover that they had been alerted by a star. There must have been something very special about this star. Something made them believe a new king had been born, or was about to be born. What is more, something told them that this was a Jewish king.
I don’t know how they knew that. Maybe they had ancient traditions about such an event happening some time. Maybe they believed any new star – or especially a star that had some special appearance – represented the birth of some new leader. Maybe the star was in a part of the sky that suggested Israel. I don’t know. Maybe God spoke to them and they just had a profound sense that this star meant the birth of a Jewish king.
Whatever it was, they were very sure. They were sure enough to embark on the journey. They were sure enough to bring expensive gifts. They were sure enough to state it quite openly when they arrived in Jerusalem.
I wonder what people in Jerusalem thought. “What new king? What are you talking about? We have a king – Herod.”
I wonder if some thought “Really? A new king?” Maybe they too had seen the star. I wonder if some began wondering if the Messiah had come.
Anyway, clearly the magi believed that a Jewish king had been born.”
Do we have any clues about what the people in Jerusalem thought?
King Herod got wind of this. King Herod was a very evil man and when he heard this talk about a new king he became disturbed. Actually, we are told that all Jerusalem was also disturbed. It must have caused quite a stir in Jerusalem.
Who did Herod think they were talking about?
It is clear that Herod understood them to be talking about the Messiah. These signs; this fulfilling of prophecy were understood to point to the Messiah – the Messiah whom God had been promising for hundreds of years.
We know this because Herod called together the chief priests and the teachers of the law and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. When the magi talked of a star and a king of the Jews, the people of Jerusalem immediately thought “Messiah”.
Actually, I suspect that was what the magi were thinking of too. They didn’t seem surprised by this talk of the king being the Messiah. I wonder if, being scholars, they knew of the ancient Jewish prophecies. They knew that God had promised a greater ruler and deliverer. Maybe they were among the first to put two and two together and to realise that the time had arrived.
If that is true, then maybe the answer to the question “Why did they come?” is that they were seeking the Jewish Messiah and they had come to worship Him. That is what they said, ‘We saw his star when it rose and we have come to worship him.”
Of course, the Jewish teachers also knew the ancient prophecies so when they were asked where the Messiah was to be born, they answered “Bethlehem, in Judea.”
They probably had to say, “in Judea” because Bethlehem was only a small town and Herod might not have known where it was otherwise!
How did they know it would be Bethlehem?
They said “Bethlehem” because that is what the prophecy said. 700 years before Jesus’ birth the prophet Micah had said, “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah and by no means the least among the rulers of Judah; out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”
Herod was evil and wanted to them to tell him where they found the baby because he wanted to kill Jesus but God took care of that and we won’t worry about that part of the story.
The magi followed the star and lo and behold it stopped right over the place where Jesus was. The star led them to Bethlehem and to the very house that Jesus was in.
v.10 – when they saw the star they were overjoyed!
I wonder why. Why did it mean so much to them?
Do you think it was exciting that God was confirming all these signs? It must have been amazing that everything was fitting together. Clearly something very big was happening. A God-thing was happening.
Maybe they were excited too that they were going to meet the Messiah. Again, this was a God-thing and they were going to meet this God-sent ruler; this Messiah who had been promised for so long.
They went into the house and saw Jesus with His mother, Mary, and what did they do?
They bowed down and worshipped Him. It is one of the most fundamental principles of the Bible that no one and nothing is to be worshipped except God Himself. “You shall have no other gods before me.” It would not please God if these men worshipped someone else and yet this is obviously recorded with approval. This was the right response.
So what does that tell us? Jesus was worthy of worship. Jesus was God. This was not only a God-sent ruler. This was God Himself.
The magi not only worshipped but they gave gifts to this child – gold, frankincense and myrrh.
This is not in the story but people have since said that those gifts have significance. Does anyone know what significance?
Gold is the gift for a king. Frankincense was a sweet-smelling resin – like a gum from a tree – that was used in the Old Testament sacrifices and is associated with priests. Myrrh was a spice used in burials.
The gifts of the magi are therefore seen to say that Jesus was a king and a priest but also to speak of His death. Maybe the magi didn’t realise that at the time but maybe God did and we can see now how God organised appropriate gifts.
So, what does that story tell us about why the magi embarked on their journey?
I suspect they did have knowledge of the Jewish prophecies of a Messiah. The Messiah was God’s promised deliverer. People then, like people now, live with all sorts of needs. Things go wrong. Life turns nasty. Or it seems meaningless. We hunger for love. We need to be forgiven.
The Messiah was the one who would establish a new rule. He would be King over a new Kingdom. He would rule with love and justice and mercy. All that was evil and painful would be swept away. He would reign forever.
Many in Israel probably simply forgot the prophecies. Centuries had passed and the Messiah hadn’t come. They simply got on with life even though life continued to be hard and painful. But some didn’t forget. Some were longing for the coming of the Messiah.
I suspect the magi, even though they weren’t Jews, were amongst those who knew about these prophecies and who were keeping a lookout. I suspect it must have been incredibly exciting – well worth the long journey and the expensive gifts – to see it coming to pass – to see God’s promise becoming a reality after so many centuries.
I suspect that God spoke to these men and gave them some understanding of what was happening and a desire to witness it and be part of it. And they weren’t Jews! God spoke to Gentiles because Jesus’ coming was not just for Jews but for all of us.
It is sometimes said that wise men seek Him still.
Herod actively rejected the coming of the Messiah. Others possibly didn’t believe it. The same is true today but wise people seek Jesus still, because Jesus is the Saviour of the world. He is the One who meets our every need. Whether we feel that life is empty and meaningless or life is actually painful or we hunger for love or we need forgiveness, the wise turn to Jesus.
Christmas is a reminder that God Saviour has come.