Responding to the King
Topic: English Passage: Matthew 2:1-12
Christmas has passed, but the Christmas season usually last until after the New Year and the kids go back to school. That being the case, we are still going to study the topic of Christmas this morning.
Most of you, I assume, are familiar, at least to some degree, with the biblical story of Christmas. The biblical story of Christmas, unlike stories about flying reindeer and talking snowmen, is historical. It’s not a story based on, or inspired by, actual events; it’s the story of what actually happened. This is God’s word, and it tells us the truth.
Unfortunately, as centuries have passed, elements of that story have been adjusted or added, usually as an attempt to make the story more engaging or attractive. But in the Bible, the emphasis is not on the drama or the details of what happened. The emphasis is where it should be, and that is on our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The true meaning of Christmas is not found in a young couple experiencing hardship around the time of the birth of their first child. The true meaning of Christmas isn’t even found in the tenderness of a newborn baby. The true meaning of Christmas is found in the eternal identity of the One who was born.
Christmas is a reminder about the miracle of the incarnation and about the faithfulness of God to fulfill His plan for the world.
The gospels of Mark and John don’t include any explicit details about Jesus’ birth or his life as a child. The most detailed account of the birth of Jesus comes in Luke’s gospel. There, we can read about the birth of John the Baptist, the angel Gabriel visiting Mary, Joseph’s family travelling to Bethlehem, and the shepherds who came to see the newborn Child. The entire account is intended to show us that this was not an ordinary baby being born. Luke’s gospel was designed to help us understand that Jesus is the Savior of the world.
Matthew’s gospel takes a slightly different approach. Matthew was mainly writing to Jews who had a good understanding of the Old Testament. And his gospel was designed to help his readers understand that Jesus is, in fact, the King of Israel, as was predicted in the Old Testament prophecies.
The most famous king in Israel’s history was David. David, Scripture tells us, was a man after God’s own heart. He wasn’t perfect, but for the most part, he led the nation into righteousness and prosperity. Because of that, God promised David that a son would come in his line who would rule forever. In 2 Samuel 7, God says: I will raise up your offspring after you... and I will establish his kingdom... I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever... My steadfast love will not depart from him... Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.
That was Israel’s hope. They wanted a blessed king. They wanted someone to rule over them and restore the glory of their nation. Solomon, David’s son and successor, couldn’t do it. And neither could anyone else. After Solomon, the kings grew in wickedness, and God’s judgment came in the form of enemy nations. But His promise to them remained. The prophets who called Israel to repentance kept reminding the people that they had a future hope. A king will come one day. The people needed to trust and to wait.
It’s been a little over two thousand years since Jesus was born, and that means we’ve seen numerous cultural shifts, especially in our part of the world. There are elements of the Christmas story that are not familiar to our culture today. They didn’t have cars. They didn’t have GPS or smart phones. They didn’t even have a local supermarket. By and large, first-century Israel was an agrarian society. People had fields and crops. Shepherds were hired to take care of animals.
Just like we don’t normally interact with shepherds today, another element we’ve lost our culture since that first Christmas is the understanding of what it means to live with a king.
The United States of America was founded as a rebellion against a king. The Revolutionary War was intended to make a statement that a monarch living 3,000 miles away should not have any authority over us, especially if we can’t speak into that government. And so, built into our American culture is this idea that there should not be a ruling class of people. We do not have a king.
That’s a very different outlook than the average Israelite would have had. Democracy, you should now, is never mentioned in the Bible. It just didn’t exist. Nations were ruled by kings. The monarchy had the authority. People weren’t debating whether or not to have a king; they were trying to find the right one.
Up to that point, none of David’s descendants proved to be the promised King. In fact, rather than lead the nation into eternal glory, those kings led Israel into captivity. The northern portion of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BC. The southern portion, about 150 years later, was taken into exile by the Babylonian Empire. Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 BC. Israel had lost its political freedom. Rather than glory, they had been given shame.
In 539 BC, the Babylonian Empire was taken over by the King Cyrus of the Medo-Persian Empire. He allowed for the Jews to return and rebuild Jerusalem, but that didn’t mean Jerusalem had gained back its independence. They were still subject to the Persians, at least for the next couple hundred years.
The Medo-Persian Empire ruled over the Mediterranean until Alexander the Great came. By 330 BC, the Persian Empire had fallen, and the Greeks had taken over. But that new kingdom couldn’t last forever either. Eventually, a new superpower emerged known as the Romans.
You might remember King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream from the book of Daniel. The Babylonians were represented by gold, the Medes and the Persians were silver, the Greeks were bronze, and, I believe, the Romans we represented by iron.
By 60 BC, the Romans were in charge. Jews were granted some measure of freedom and self-rule, but they were still subject to Caesar. To help keep the peace, Rome assigned local governors. Israel eventually became a Roman province and a man named Herod was put in charge, and he was given the title “King of the Jews.”
This is where we find ourselves in our message today from Matthew chapter 2. Go ahead and turn there with me. Matthew chapter 2. Jesus has already been born. The shepherds have come and gone. And now Joseph and Mary and the Baby are staying in a home in Bethlehem. More than likely, they would have had family in the region and begun to make a life for themselves there. But there are still some visitors left.
Matthew 2, verse 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 2saying, “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.”
There are plenty of stories and traditions that seek to tell us more about the wise men. We are generally told that there were three of them and history has even given them names, but all of that is speculation. We are told about three gifts they brought, but apart from that, we don’t know what else is happening.
The Greek word used here, which is plural, is magoi, and rather than translate it, I think it’s better to leave it as it is because this was the name for a specific group of people. They were the Magi.
In Spanish, the term mago, refers to a magician, but that’s not a good translation either. These were not men who simply performed illusions for entertainment. This was a special class of people. And more than likely, they were not part of the Roman Empire.
Rome controlled most of what is now Europe, and the northern part of Africa, closest to the Mediterranean. Israel was on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire. To the east of that was what was known as the Parthian Empire, which Roma viewed as a threat.
Based on what historians have said, the Magi was a group that had roots going all the way back to the Babylonian Empire, and possibly even as far back as Abraham’s time.
If you remember from Daniel’s story, King Nebuchadnezzar had a group he relied upon for spiritual guidance. They were called the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans. When they couldn’t interpret the king’s dream, Daniel was called, and he did it. That group of astronomers and astrologers may be connected to this group called the Magi.
Even as empires came and went, there remained this group of spiritual advisers seeking truth. Some were motivated by greed and power, but some were actually seeking truth. These were experts in math and in chemistry and astronomy. There were some superstitious and religious elements to what they did, but there was also science. This class of men was highly exalted among the nobility, and they were a critical part anytime a new king came to power.
One major event in the history of the Magi would have been the promotion of Daniel. At the end of Daniel 2, we’re told that Daniel was exalted. He was made a ruler and a leader over the wise men of Babylon. Daniel 4 and Daniel 5 refer to him as “chief of the magicians.”
Well, as a righteous man, I believe Daniel would have talked to this group of men about the biblical prophecies. And certainly, that was included in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, when Daniel said a kingdom would come from God that would last forever and destroy every other kingdom that came before it.
So, this class of magi, armed with wealth and knowledge and revelation saw something out of the ordinary. They studied the sky, and they saw something shining there that shouldn’t be there.
The word star refers to something shining. As we’ll see soon, this wasn’t some kind of natural occurrence, like the merging of planets in the sky. This was something distinct. This was something new. Some theologians believe this may have been an angel since angels are sometimes referred to as stars and because angels played such a critical part in Matthew’s Christmas story. Angels guided God’s people. They brought God’s revelation.
But why would some shining thing in the sky lead them to Jerusalem? Some speculate that they may have had in mind the prophecy of Numbers 24:17 which says “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise our of Israel. It shall crush the head of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth.”
A king would come from Israel who would destroy His enemies. So, the arrival of the king in Israel would have led to the appearing of this star, and that was their signal to travel to Israel. They have come—Matthew 2:2 says—to worship the King of the Jews. And in Israel, the king is usually found in Jerusalem. So, that’s where they go. The star led them over 800 miles to Israel, but then it disappeared.
Verse 3 continues—When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
Why is Herod troubled? Well, there’s a couple reasons. First, the arrival of rich and learned foreigners could be the beginning of an invasion from the east. This could be the beginning of a war. But in Herod’s mind, more significant than Rome’s glory was his own. These men came looking for the King of the Jews. That was Herod’s title.
Herod was a ruthless and paranoid man. History tells us multiple stories of people he killed because they were a threat to his rule. And that included his own sons. Herod sees the possibility of a new king as a threat to his power. And with Herod being so volatile, it makes sense that if he gets upset, so does the rest of Jerusalem. What is going to happen? Who is this new king threatening to replace Herod? Herod wants to know.
Verse 4—and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5They 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.”
That prophecy comes from Micah 5:2, and the idea of shepherding has been added here by Herod’s scribes. The actual prophecy makes it clear that this king is coming from God, and it says, His “coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” This is no ordinary king.
Well, Herod needs to find this king before it’s too late. Verse 7—Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8And 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.”
We’re not going to talk about it today, but as the story continues, we find out why Herod wanted to know when the star appeared. He wants to know how old this Kid is. And he found out that the kid was about 2 years old, which actually means that he is in his second year. So, according to the way we count time, this Kid is between 1 and 2 years old. That’s how much time has past since the Child was born.
Verse 9 continues the story—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. 10When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.
This is why it’s best not to understand what they saw as a literal star. It was a shining object in the sky, and it led them right to the house where the Child was. If a literal star came to rest over a house, there wouldn’t be a house anymore. In fact, there wouldn’t even be a planet. This is something God has sent to give the magi certainty about where to go. They want to see the king, and this star has told them exactly where to go.
That’s why, as Matthew tells us, once they see the star again their response is absolute joy, excitement. All their hopes, all their anticipation were coming true. Even in the English translation, you can see how emphatic their joy is. They “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” The Greek word there for “exceedingly” is connected to the word “violently” which we might use to describe a visible rage or a visible sadness. In this case, it’s a visible, tangible joy. They are celebrating that they have finally come to the end of their journey, which, like I said, was over 800 miles. There, inside that house, is what they have been waiting for. The King of the Jews has come.
Verse 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. 12And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
Up to that point, most people in Israel had no idea what had happened. But these Gentile noblemen travelled almost 1,000 miles so they could worship the King. What a contrast to the way Israel rejected her Messiah! As John puts it, “[The true light] came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”
But the Gentile kingmakers of ancient history, guided by God’s revelation, knew that the King had come. The worship of the Magi fulfilled foreshadows a future time when every ruler of the world will worship the King of Israel—the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.
The gifts they brought to Him would have been acceptable gifts for a king. They were costly and precious, and probably helped support the family in the time to come.
But for these gifts, many have also pointed out the theological significance, which the Magi may not have had in mind. Gold was symbolic of a King.
Frankincense was a very fragrant incense. Besides its common use by people who could afford it, it was used by the priests in the Tabernacle. Leviticus 2 mentions it in connection to the grain offering. So, in that sense, it’s symbolic of divine worship.
And myrrh was another kind of expensive perfume. It was used in all types of fancy celebrations, but it was also used in connection with death. The Romans allowed those who were crucified to drink wine with myrrh, and that would help numb them to what was happening. You might remember that Jesus refused that drink.
Myrrh was also connected to burial. They didn’t have embalming like we do today, so after death, bodies would decompose and begin to smell. Part of the way they dealt with that was to wrap the body in multiple layers of cloth mixed with spices and perfumes.
In fact, John’s gospel tells us that after the death of Christ, after Joseph of Arimathea took the body, Nicodemus brought about a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes. So, myrrh was symbolic of death.
I don’t think these Magi had this kind of significance in mind, but we see it today. Gold was for a king. Frankincense was for God. And myrrh was for someone who died.
Who was this little Child? He was the King of Israel. He was God in human flesh. And He was the Lamb of God who would give His life as a sacrifice for many.
This conquering King will return one day, and as the prophecies state, He will rule every king and every nation. That’s the Second Coming. But the first coming was not about visible glory, it was about humbling Himself on behalf of His people. He was the supreme, once-for-all sacrifice for the sins of the world. This is the King and the Shepherd who would give His life for His people.
As we close our time today, I just want to address one specific application of what we’ve heard today. Like I said, Matthew’s gospel is aimed at helping us see that Jesus is the King. And this story certainly highlights that.
And in understanding what happened, I want you to think about the two main responses we saw. We saw how Herod responded to the King, and we saw how the wise men responded.
Herod didn’t know much about the prophesies. He had to depend on his scribes. But the Magi were given revelation from God. They knew what they were after.
Herod’s response to the arrival of the king was rage and false worship. He lied to the Magi about his intentions. The Magi, on the other hand, responded with joy and true worship.
What a difference. Herod is marked by ignorance and deception and anger. The Magi are marked by knowledge and sincerity and joy. One is false worship; the other is true worship.
All of us have to face this kind of decision every day. Do we recognize that Jesus is the true King? The King of Israel? The King of kings? The King of your life?
When you find yourself angry with others or lying to others, you’re acting like you’re the king of your life. You’re acting like you are in charge. But you’re not. You can rage against the true king or you can bow before Him. Who is going to determine your behavior, your speech, your thoughts? Is it you? Is it someone else? Or is it Jesus?
The heart of true worship is obedience. It is submission to Christ as Lord and King. And today, God is calling you to submit to Jesus Christ. Whether you’ve done it already or not, this is a daily decision. Call out to Jesus for mercy. Surrender your life to Him. And on the basis of His grace and His death and Resurrection, He will forgive you. He will cleanse you, and He will transform you.
Herod the Great, as history calls him, died not long after this, probably no more than a couple years later. He had his chance to surrender to the King, but he refused. Let’s not make the same mistake. Let’s surrender to Christ while there is still an opportunity.