RPM, Volume 17, Number 5, January 25 to January 31, 2015

The Magi's Sign

Matthew 2:1-12

By D. Marion Clark


"Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are." At least that is what everyone's concern about the star of Bethlehem. Of all the elements of the Christmas story, the visit of the magi who followed a star is the most controversial. The theories about what the star actually was seem to be as numerous as the stars in the sky! Some to believe the story clearly to be fiction because of the common practice in the ancient world of attributing celestial signs to momentous events, such as the birth of kings.

Devout Christians have their own set of issues. Many still cannot accept that the visit took place maybe up to two years after Jesus' birth, and surely it says three kings somewhere in the text. Are we really to dispute what our hymns say? Have you ever seen a nativity with four kings? Are they ever kneeling before a toddler?

We will consider these matters, but most of our time we will explore what Matthew wants us to learn from his story. Remember this principle. To get the most out of what Scripture records, we've got to understand why the author wrote what he did. See if you can figure it out before I get to the "what we learn from this text" portion of my sermon.


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."

Who are these wise men? We don't the number. Three is as good a guess as any, but we really don't know. We also don't know any names. Some good stories have been told about them, but they are fictional names and stories. Where they came from we also don't know. It seems reasonable to depict them as coming from Persia, the land of Babylon. We can get a general impression, however, of their profession.

The Greek term for them is "magi." In the Greek and Persian societies, magi were persons endowed with special knowledge. Many specialized in astrology, which was the astronomy of their day. Some were known for their ability to interpret dreams and signs. Some practiced magic. Rulers consulted with them for counsel and to predict the success of ventures they were about to take. If we still practiced the same beliefs, our president would consult with them about going to war. They might examine the liver of a sacrificed animal or observe signs in the sky.

These magi speak of a star. The translation, by the way, could be "star in the east" or "rising star." Some phenomenon in the night sky has moved them to travel to a foreign land in search of a king. What did they see and how did they know what king? That they identified him as "king of the Jews" is further evidence they came from Persia. Do you know who else lived in the old land of Babylon? Jews, a sizable community. That is where they lived in exile when Babylon conquered them. One of the greatest magi in Babylon had been a Jew — Daniel. The great interpreter of dreams surely left his mark and would have been known even centuries later. It is quite likely that these magi knew of him and were well acquainted with the Jewish community of their day. Perhaps they were even like the Roman centurion and the Ethiopian eunuch who were attracted to the Jewish religion. Even so, the Jews anticipated the coming of the Messiah just as we today anticipate his return. Anyone familiar with the Jews would not of their expectations of the Messiah's appearance.

Did they see a star, a planet, a supernova, a special alignment of planets, a comet? Or was it a supernatural phenomenon like the cloud of pillar that led the Israelites through the wilderness? You, unfortunately, have a pastor, whose eyes glaze over as he listens to astronomical explanations and thus cannot give an intelligent opinion. The one thing I would note is that we do not have to develop a theory of a moving star. They do not follow a star to Jerusalem. It is not until they have left Jerusalem and head to Bethlehem. Even then, it is unclear when they see the star again, which may have been when they were in sight of the house itself. Is it a star on the low horizon that gives the appearance of hanging right over the house? Is there a special glow? We don't know, but a number of explanations could fit the scene described.

They come to Herod, which makes sense. They probably had letters of reference from their ruler, and it was a matter of courtesy and prudence to go first to the local ruler. They expect help, if not from Herod himself, at least from his magi. And they get it.

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.'"

We will discuss next Sunday the reasons for Herod and Jerusalem being troubled. Our interest this morning is the information given to the wise men. Herod's counselors turn to their holy and wise writings for an answer, which they find in the book of Micah 5:2. This would not have required much research, if any. John records a conversation that indicates how many of the Jews already knew of this reference.

When they heard these words, some of the people said, "This really is the Prophet." 41 Others said, "This is the Christ." But some said, "Is the Christ to come from Galilee? 42 Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?" (John 7:40-42).

The quote from Micah is a paraphrase. I don't know if the counselors were paraphrasing or Matthew. Either way, it indicates that this verse was regarded as a prophecy of the Messiah.

Herod then passes on the news to the magi:

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."

Herod truly is one of the great scoundrels of history, but you will have to patient until next week to hear about him. Our attention is with the wise men.

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.

They are at the end of their long journey and about to see the great king. Surely it is a joyful moment for them. 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.

And thus they prove how wise they are. There is no palace, only a poor man's house. There are no attendants, only the peasant mother. And they fall down and worship him. What did they know? How did they know? Then they give their riches. These are not poor men! They give the gifts fit for a king.

Our story of the wise men ends with a warning and departure. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.


Have you figured out yet what Matthew wants us to learn? Why this story of the wise men?

First, note again the reference to prophecy being fulfilled. We talked about this last Sunday. Matthew is demonstrating that Jesus is not some new imagination, but the one who fulfills the Old Testament Scriptures. Here Matthew shows that Jesus' birthplace fulfilled prophecy about the Messiah. That verse in Micah that he quotes is located in the middle of scripture that speaks of the "latter days" when the nations will come to Israel to learn of God. Do you see, then, the connection with the wise men who come from another nation or nations?

The Messiah was not to be merely a local ruler of Israel. His kingdom would be one that encompasses all the nations. He was to be a messiah of both Jew and gentile. And here we see in his early life, representatives of the gentiles coming to him. In Christ, Jew and gentile are one.

This concept is certainly at odds with the world. The present day world-view is that, yes, we are all one, but we are one in spite of Christ. We are distinguished by our national and ethnic origins, which are inextricably tied with our religions. What unites us together is that we are all children of God, whatever "God" ultimately is, and whatever being children really means. We need to get above our religions to some kind of spirituality that links us together.

Scripture teaches that Christ is the highest truth. There is no getting beyond him, and it is he who unites people. It is Christ who has created one new person (cf. Ephesians 2:11-16). As Paul says in Galatians 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

This is the beauty of the gospel, that the hope of Christ, that his redemption is given to all who would believe in him. It is the beauty of the gospel that people of all races, of all heritages, of all nations and languages, and whatever it might be that distinguishes us from one another; it is the beauty of the gospel that all kinds of people have experienced the love and grace of God through Jesus. We who have experienced the forgiveness of our sins, we know the bond that holds us together, so that wherever we might travel, we can enter a church and know that we are at home in Christ's family. Jesus is for us all.

What else does the story of the wise men have to teach us? Who do they say they are looking for? The king of the Jews. They are looking for a king. If we were to remain in Matthew's gospel, we should this intent of the writer to present Jesus as the king God's kingdom. Actually, we would see that in all the gospels. It certainly was the understanding of the Jews, and perhaps is the main reason why they missed perceiving that Jesus was the Messiah.

It is a wonder that the magi were not disillusioned. They found a poor child in an insignificant town with no special attention given him. Herod was oblivious to him, though certainly would give due attention soon enough. And yet they paid him the homage fitting for a king.

The world today does not pay him homage, not because Jesus does meet our expectations for a king, but because we simply do not want a king. It is nice to have a baby from God who passes on God's love and peace, but when this gift from God starts to make demands for our allegiance — that is when we pull back. His followers must have made up that part. Jesus didn't want a kingdom; he just wanted everybody to be free, right? I wish we had the wisdom of the magi, who knew the joy of following a king greater than they.

I know that it is better to live in a democracy, but I miss the innate feeling that people of olden times possessed that there is such a thing as royalty; there are people, by virtue of who they are, elicit from us a desire to give honor. We aspire to the feeling sometimes when we hold award ceremonies. We taste the good feelings that rise when we give earnest, sincere praise to others. It was a joy to the magi to kneel before the child Jesus as before a great king.

That leads to the final lesson. Note what they do: they worship the child. This is the primary lesson Matthew conveys. Three times he mentions worship: verse 2, where the magi state their purpose is to worship the king; verse 8, where Herod lies about his desire to worship; and verse 11, where they accomplish their goal to worship the child.

What does Matthew mean by worship? Does he suppose that the wise men worshipped Jesus as God or as a god? Did they think him divine? The word may be used for the respect given to another person of higher rank, such as an earthly king. I think Matthew's response would be, "What do you mean by worship?"

Like we noted with Mark, Matthew begs the question, "Who do you think this Jesus is?" Here is the prophecy. Here is the story of his birth. Here are the wise men who come to worship him. What, then, do you make of him and what kind of worship will you offer?

Will it be the worship of paying respect to an extraordinary man, but, nevertheless, no more than a man? Will you be content passing off these stories as legend and fairy tales that may be interesting for people who like those kinds of things? Will you take the popular stance today that you admire Jesus, but too bad that his followers had to make up all that extra stuff of being a king and even a god?

Is Matthew making up the story? Or does he believe it is true? Does he really think this peasant child is the Son of God, a king sent to deliver his people from their sins and establish a new kingdom? And as king, we should offer our allegiance, our worship, and all that we have to give him?

Christmas is about the great gift God has sent us. It is also about the gifts we are to offer in return, not because we want to earn his favor, but like the magi it is worth a life's journey to follow whatever destinations may be given us to worship and to give our treasures to our Savior and our King.

You who believe, you know the joy of worship. You know the delight in worshiping and serving someone greater than you, someone who is worthy of your full devotion. You who have yet to believe, may you know that same joy. May this Christmas season, you follow the lead of the wise men and bow down before this savior and king.

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