Lessons To Learn From The MagiRelated Media
Allen Bible Church
December 26, 2021
Mathew 2:1-12 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star when it rose in the east and have come to worship Him.” 3 When Herod the king heard about it, he was deeply disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘AND YOU, BETHLEHEM, LAND OF JUDAH,
ARE BY NO MEANS LEAST AMONG THE LEADERS OF JUDAH;
FOR FROM YOU WILL COME FORTH A RULER
WHO WILL SHEPHERD MY PEOPLE ISRAEL.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.” 9 After hearing the king, they went on their way; and lo and behold, there it was – the star they had seen in the east! It went on ahead of them until it came to a stop over the place where the Child was to be found. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And after they came into the house, they saw the Child with His mother Mary; and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And after being warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.1
A few years ago, I was asked to conduct the funeral service of a man who attended our church. I learned that his parents had participated in the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. The most interesting thing I learned about this man was that he had an uncle who took an entire year to travel to Pike’s Peak in Colorado. . . BY COVERED WAGON!
I can hardly imagine such a journey. And yet the distance (about 550 miles) might be similar to that traveled by the magi, in the event described by our text in Matthew chapter two. 2 You can imagine that the journey to Bethlehem was not an easy one for the magi. After all, a camel does not have first-class seating (though it does have bucket seats)!
Besides Luke’s account of the birth of John the Baptist, and of Jesus, this story of the magi in Matthew’s gospel is the only other description of the events surrounding the birth and early years of our Lord Jesus. Unfortunately, our understanding of what happened here is more influenced by a number of Christmas pageants than it is by the actual account provided us by Matthew.
So, let’s take a careful look at this text with the purpose of seeing what it actually says, and what it does not. And, then, let us consider what we can learn from the story of the magi.
So that you will know what to expect, I will tell you in advance that this message has three parts.
- Part I: What is important, and what is not.
- Part II: The story, as Matthew tells it.
- Part III: What we should learn from the magi.
Part I: What Is Important, And What Is Not
The story revolves around its main characters:
The Main Character Is The Baby Jesus, The King Of The Jews.
A careful look at Matthew and Luke will reveal that very little is said about the actual birth of Jesus. After all, the birth itself is not miraculous. The events leading to Jesus’ birth, and those following it (such as what we are now discussing) are the things that are emphasized. We don’t know why, but there was something about this baby that made it clear to the shepherds, Simeon and Anna (Luke 2), as well as the magi, that this baby was the promised King of the Jews. It is the apocryphal gospels that describe almost magical events which take place in the early life of Jesus.
Tradition, and the apocryphal gospels written many years later, tell many absurd and fanciful things about the flight of the family and their entrance into Egypt. The flowers were said to spring up in their steps as they entered the land; the palm trees to bow down in homage, and wild animals to come near in friendly approach.3
The Magi Are, Of Course, The Central Focus Of Our Text.
I think of the magi as both astronomers and astrologers. As astronomers, these students of the heavens watched and observed what took place in the heavens. In this capacity, the magi observed the appearance of a new “star” and took note of it, watching it carefully.4
The magi were also astrologers, and as such, they believed that the stars and their movements were a source of revelation. And so it was that they sought the meaning of the appearance of this new star in the east. I don’t know how, but in this case, they discerned the “message” of this star. A baby boy was born on the day of the star’s appearance. He was to be the “King of the Jews,” and as such, they were to seek Him out and worship Him. I should add that this implied the deity of Jesus, for one only worships a person who is divine.
We find “magi” in the Book of Daniel (e.g. 2:2,10). These were the “astrologers” who, along with “magicians,” “sorcerers,” and “Chaldeans,” were unable to tell Nebuchadnezzar what his dream was, or what it meant.
While we think fondly of these magi in Matthew, they were not highly regarded in the Bible, for they were usually condemned as a false source of revelation and counsel. For example:’
“You are wearied with your many counsels; Let now the astrologers, Those who prophesy by the stars, Those who predict by the new moons, Stand up and save you from what will come upon you” (Isaiah 47:13, NAU).
Then There Is Herod, The Present “King Of The Jews.”
Herod was one bad dude. He was devious and insanely jealous, and fearful that someone might take his throne, so much so that he had a number of family members killed. From what we read in Matthew of his killing the Bethlehem baby boys, it is easy to believe the secular accounts of his cunning and violence.
The People Of Jerusalem.
It is easy to believe that Herod was greatly troubled by the news of Jesus’ birth. What we might not expect is that this term, “greatly distressed” was used to describe not only Herod’s reaction, but also that of the people of Jerusalem. And to make it clear that he was not speaking of a small segment of the people, Matthew writes that “all Jerusalem” was greatly distressed by the news brought to them by the magi.
And Finally, There Was “The Star.”
To say that the appearance of the star was mysterious would be a great understatement. But the fact is that most of the time when the term “star” or “stars” appeared in the Bible it meant simply that – a star. I would say we are forced to leave it at that.
So How Do We Know What Is Important And What Is Not?
In the simplest of terms, what is important is what we are clearly told, and what is not important is what we are not told. God set this principle down in the Book of Deuteronomy:
“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29, NAU).
The problem is that we are tempted to focus our attention of what we do not know, more than on what we are told. We are curious, and we don’t like unsolved mysteries. That was true of the prophet Daniel, and here is God’s response:
8 As for me, I heard but could not understand; so I said, “My lord, what will be the outcome of these events?” 9 He said, “Go your way, Daniel, for these words are concealed and sealed up until the end time. 10 “Many will be purged, purified and refined, but the wicked will act wickedly; and none of the wicked will understand, but those who have insight will understand. 11 “From the time that the regular sacrifice is abolished and the abomination of desolation is set up, there will be 1,290 days. 12 “How blessed is he who keeps waiting and attains to the 1,335 days! 13 “But as for you, go your way to the end; then you will enter into rest and rise again for your allotted portion at the end of the age” (Daniel 12:8-13; see also Luke 10:23-24; 1 Peter 1:10-12).
So what is it we are not told? We are not told the exact day of our Lord’s birth, as hard as some try to do so. Ironically, Herod knew Jesus’ birthday, because the magi told him when the star appeared. We are told very little of about these magi, where they came from, or how they came to the conclusions the did about the “King of the Jews.” How we would love to know how the appearance of a star could reveal all that they had come to believe.
How, then, do we know what is truly important? First of all, we pay attention to what we are told. We are told that the events of our text happen after the birth of Jesus (verse 1). We are told that the magi found Jesus “in the house,” not in a manger (verse 11).
There is a very important clue to what is important in our text, and it is the use of the term “behold.” Matthew uses this term twice in our text, once in verse 1, and again in verse 9. Amazing as it is, the latest version of the New American Standard Bible (2020) omits any use of the word “behold.”5 So, too, the NIV, the NIRV, and the NLT omit it as well. The NET weakly renders it “once again.”
In the city of Richardson, where Jeannette and I live, there are some stop signs that folks sometimes overlook (perhaps looking at their cell phones). And so, the city has encircled these signs with a string of flashing lights, so as to call attention to the sign.
Matthew does this with the term behold, and to neglect, ignore, or mistranslate it does the reader no service. I believe that “behold” is a key term in our text. Let me illustrate why.
Years ago we were talking to Don and Maggie, who lived in the apartments we managed. They told us a story about what happened to them, some time before. Don did not appreciate being interrupted when he was in the middle of a project. And so one day he instructed Maggie that when she found him working on a project, she was to quietly wait for him, until he was finished. They he would nod to her, indicating that the time had come.
One day Maggie came outside and found Don busily at work. Dutifully Maggie waited – for some time – until Don had finished, and gave her the nod of permission to interrupt. She quietly said, “The house is on fire.”
No, she needed our word, “behold.” She should have bolted out the door, grabbed Don by the sleeve, and hollered in his ear, “Behold, the house is on fire!”
I believe that the translations that have omitted the word “behold” have treated the text as Maggie did the report that the house was on fire. The word behold is linked to the magi (verse 1) and to the star (verse 9). These are the two most important elements of Matthew’s account, and so we must pay careful attention to what we are told about them (not what we are not told about them).
Part II: The Story, As Matthew Told It6
The magi, as astronomers, carefully watched the heavens, looking for patterns, or for significant changes (like the appearance of a new star). They would then seek, as astrologers, to discern the meaning of these movements. One day, a new star appeared in the east, and the magi perceived this to be of great significance. They concluded (I know not how) that this signified the birth of a child who was the “King of the Jews.” They also reasoned that He was divine, and thus they should find Him and worship Him.
We don’t know how much time passed between the appearance of this new star, and the magi setting out to find the One of whom it spoke. Neither do we know exactly how many magi there were. A caravan of sorts was probably arranged, and security may well have been in mind as well. Traveling with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, all valuable items, could pose some dangers.
When they set out for the Holy Land, the star moved in such a way as to guide them (we saw this at the exodus of Israel as well – Exodus 13:21) along the way.
It was when they were approaching Jerusalem that something significant happened: the star went out; it simply disappeared. Someone turned of their GPS! What to do now? It surely seemed logical to assume that since they were approaching Jerusalem the folks who lived there would also know about the birth of a king.
Here Is Where So Many Get It Wrong, Based Upon Christmas Pageants Or Sunday School Stories.
We are taught that the magi went straight to Herod, and asked him where they might find and worship the new king. There are several reasons why this would not have been the case.
First, the wording of the text should make it clear that the magi went about Jerusalem, seeking directions to the birthplace of Jesus.
Second, the likelihood of mysterious foreigners getting a face-to-face interview with a king was highly unlikely. Think of Esther, risking her life to have entrance to the king (Esther 4:11).
Third, if these men knew anything about Herod, they would never consider talking to him directly. Just imagine the scene: The magi go to Herod’s door and knock. Herod comes to the door, and he hears these words: “Pardon me, king, but would happen to know where we could find the new king, the “King of the Jews,” who must be your replacement?” I don’t think so.
Consequently, I read Matthew’s account differently. The magi respond to the disappearance of the star by going into the city, going down its streets, and asking those they encounter for directions to the birthplace of the new king. We know that this created great distress for the people of Jerusalem, and so it is not surprising that word of these strangers would reach the ears of Herod.
Herod hears this news, and like the others in Jerusalem, is greatly distressed.7 I believe that Herod has not yet talked face-to-face with the magi, and that he privately assembled the religious experts to give their response.8 If there was to be born a “King of the Jews” where would that be? The answer seems to be on the tip of their tongues, based on the prophecy of Micah 5:2.
Having learned that the birthplace of the new king was Bethlehem, Herod privately met with the magi. Herod knew the birthplace of Messiah, but not the time of His birth. And so, the first item on his agenda was to learn from the magi the exact time the star appeared. (All of this was so that he knew the ages of those infants he had resolved to kill.)
Having learned this, all Herod needed to know was where to find the Messiah. He told the magi that they would find the “King of the Jews” in Bethlehem, and no doubt told them the direction they should take to make the 6-mile journey. He also instructed them to report the child’s location to him on their journey home, so that he could “worship” Him.
With this knowledge, the magi set out on the final leg of their journey. Finding Bethlehem would not be difficult. Finding the baby would present more of a challenge. But as they made their way, behold the star mysteriously re-appeared, guiding them not only to Bethlehem, but to the very house where Jesus was to be found, along with His mother.9 Matthew tells us that the magi responded to the return of the star’s guidance with great joy. They were definitely on the right track.
Having found the Messiah, the magi worshipped HIM (not them, and not her), presenting their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
This seems to have happened in the night, and thus the magi would not begin their journey home until daylight. During the night, an angel of the Lord warned the magi in a dream that Herod had planned to use them to locate the child and to kill him. They were instructed to return home by another route.
This reaches beyond our text, but I would imagine that Herod anxiously awaited the return of the magi, so that he could carry out his wicked scheme. He waited, and waited, and all the while Joseph, Mary, and the Child were hurriedly making their way toward Egypt. By the time Herod figured out that he had been outwitted he was furious, and he took out his anger on the baby boys of Bethlehem.
Part III: What Are We To Learn From This Story?
Many are the lessons to be learned from this story, but let us focus on a few of them as we conclude.
First, This Story Sets The Stage For What We Should Expect To See In The Rest Of This Gospel.
We should expect trouble, not only from this Herod (who will die fairly soon) and other Roman rulers, but also from Jerusalem and the Jewish religious leaders. Jerusalem will become a dangerous place for Jesus to visit.
The magi are Gentiles, and we have seen the efforts to which God has gone to bring them the good news of salvation through Jesus. That being the case, we should expect to see more Gentiles coming to faith in Matthew. He began by naming Gentile women in the genealogy (chapter 1). In chapter 8 Matthew will write of the Gentile Centurion and his faith, which surpassed that of the Jews:
5 And when Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, imploring Him, 6 and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, fearfully tormented.” 7 Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 8 But the centurion said, “Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.” 10 Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled and said to those who were following, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. 11 I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; 12 but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:5-12, NAU).
In chapter 15, we are told of the Gentile (Canaanite, no less!) woman who appealed to Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter. In spite of being put off for a bit, her request was granted because of her faith.
And let us not forget how this book ends, with the Great Commission:
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
Second, The Story Of The Magi Assures Us Of The Providence Of God.
Let us be sure we are all on the same page regarding the providence of God. In our contemporary society and thinking, providence would rather quickly be brushed aside as “good luck.” But in biblical terms, providence is divine providence, God’s intervention in earthly affairs. We see a great deal of divine intervention in Matthew related to the birth of Jesus.
- It was divine intervention (a tax, no less) that resulted in the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, rather than Nazareth.
- God arranged for the birth of Jesus to be proclaimed in Jerusalem (including Herod), (by Gentiles, no less).
- I believe it was the Providence of God that kept the exact day of our Lord’s birth a secret (known only to the magi and to Herod). Had our Lord’s birth date been recorded we would be tempted to celebrate our Lord’s incarnation only one day in the year. But when our Lord established communion (the Lord’s Table) He purposed that the incarnation would be frequently celebrated, as often as the Lord’s Table was celebrated.
- By arranging for the escape of Jesus and his family, at a later time than His birth,10 so that mother and child could make the (approximately 10-day) trip to Egypt. And providing for their material needs with the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.11
- The providence of God is also evident in the ways in which God fulfilled prophecies related to Messiah.12
Let me suggest two things to reflect upon, related to divine providence as we see it in our passage, in the Bible, and as we experience it in our lives.
We see here that divine providence is seldom, if ever, recognized as such at the time we first experience it. In our story, Rome’s tax and registration was not immediately recognized as God’s means of getting Mary to Bethlehem, so that the birth of Jesus could fulfill the prophecy of Micah 5:2. Likewise, Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers, resulting in his sojourn in Egypt was not understood as divine providence until much later (see Genesis 45:5-7; 50:20).
Likewise, divine providence often comes to us in the form of adversity, suffering, or difficulties. Divine providence may well come to us in the form of our suffering. When Jacob was told that he must release his beloved son, Benjamin, to go to Egypt with his brothers, he saw this as anything but divine providence:
Their father Jacob said to them, “You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and you would take Benjamin; all these things are against me” (Genesis 42:36).
The Roman requirement to register in the place of one’s origin required a difficult journey to Bethlehem, but in the end, we see the hand of God in it. Divine providence helps us to embrace Paul’s words in Romans chapter 8:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).
Most important of all, can we not recognize that the rejection of our Lord, and His suffering and death on the cross of Calvary was divine providence? Notice the change in the outlook of the followers of Jesus as this reality dawned upon them. So, too, God often brings suffering and adversity into the lives of sinners, who need His salvation, to draw them to Himself.
11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when Jesus heard this, He said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. 13 “But go and learn what this means: ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:11-13).
And large crowds came to Him, bringing with them those who were lame, crippled, blind, mute, and many others, and they laid them down at His feet; and He healed them (Matthew 15:30; see also Matthew 5:1-6).
Before I was afflicted I went astray,
But now I keep Your word (Psalm 119:67).
It is good for me that I was afflicted,
That I may learn Your statutes (Psalm 119:71).
I know, O LORD, that Your judgments are righteous,
And that in faithfulness You have afflicted me (Psalm 119:75; see also Psalm 73).
Is it possible that you are presently experiencing adversity, and that this might be the providential hand of God, drawing you to Him?
Which raises a very practical and relevant question for all believers: “Is it possible that the present Covid Crisis is really a part of God’s providential intervention in the affairs of men, and, if so, what should Christians do in response to this?”
Third, Christmas Is About Jesus.
One would hardly think this was necessary to point out, but look around in this Christmas season. How many nativity scenes do you see in front yards, compared to Santa’s, reindeer, and snowmen? And in the plethora of Christmas movies, how many feature Jesus, even mention Him?
Fourth, Christmas Is About Giving, Not Getting.
From Black Friday to pre-Christmas sales, the emphasis is on receiving gifts, big gifts. Children sit on Santa’s lap, so they can give him their list of wanted items. The emphasis of Scripture is on giving, rather than receiving (Acts 20:35; Ephesians 4:28), on serving, rather than on being served (Matthew 20:25-28; Mark 10:45). And let us note the fact that the giving of the magi was to God, not to men. I believe that the generosity of our giving is directly proportional to our grasp of the greatness and goodness of our God.
Fifth, It Isn’t Just What We Know, But What We Do With What We Know.
I don’t understand how, but it amazes me that in the end the magi knew the very same things the people of Jerusalem knew from Micah 5:2. Strangely (and inexplicably), the magi received this revelation from a very different source than Scripture.
- A Messiah was coming – indeed, had come.
- He was divine and human (you worship God, not men).
- He was the “King of the Jews.”
- He was born in Bethlehem.13
How these two groups responded to the revelation they received is very different. Herod responded like Judas, seeking to kill Jesus. The people of Jerusalem could not find it in themselves to walk the meager 6 miles to Bethlehem to check out the report of the magi, even though Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem was foretold in prophecy.
In stark contrast, the magi were Gentiles, not Jews, but they came such a great distance to find and to worship a Jewish King. They travelled many miles, over many days, to find Messiah. And they presented gifts that were most expensive.
In this Christmas season, we would do well to reflect on those texts (whether prophecy or fulfillment) that tell or foretell our Lord’s first coming. And we would likewise do well to consider how (by time and money) we are responding to our Lord’s incarnation.
I should perhaps remind you that neither our Lord, or the apostles, not the Scriptures instituted Christmas. But in the regular celebration of communion, the bread we partake is a symbol of our Lord’s incarnation, fully God and fully human, a Lamb without blemish, so that His death could pay the penalty for our sins.
1 I found no translation which was consistently precise, I borrowed from several versions at a few places, in order to provide the most accurate picture of this incident. In perhaps one instance I went beyond the translation I chose in that place (“low and behold” in verse 9). I found this necessary because several of the most faithful translations (NAU, CSB, NIV, NET) have omitted the word “behold” in verse 1, even though the word ἰδού (Matt. 2:1 BYZ, BGT) is there in the original (Greek) texts.
2 The distance from Baghdad to Bethlehem is nearly the same. But let’s remember that we don’t know exactly where the journey of the magi began.
3 J. W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels, p. 41. Everett Harrison, in his book, Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964, p. 118), summarizes the Apocryphal Gospel of Thomas.
4 Just this month astronomers discovered a new planet. You can Google this for more information.
5 It is found in earlier versions of the NASB.
6 It is possible, even likely, that I am about the “read between the lines” a bit, but I think that the words of this text point us in the direction I have headed. But let the reader discern!
7 I confess. I don’t really like the word “troubled” (NASB). Acid indigestion can “trouble” a person. I don’t like “disturbed” (NIV), either. The only other place that this word is used in Matthew is found in 14:26. Here, the disciples had just seen Jesus, walking on the water, and they were “terrified” (NAU, CSB, ESV, NIV, NET). Herod was greatly distressed to hear that a new king of Israel had been announced.
8 What king, especially one like Herod, wants to leave the impression that important things related to his reign as king are not known to him. I believe he calls for a private meeting with these scholars so that he can convey their answer as something he knew, without consulting others. Kings must maintain their “image” of being in control.
9 It is difficult to see how a very distant star could indicate the specific house where Jesus was. It seems as though this star hovered low, just about the one house. Once again, we are not told how this came about. This was not important to Matthew, or to God.
10 Can you imagine the physical dangers for Mary and Jesus, if they had to escape to Egypt the night of His birth?
11 We had a neighbor who escaped from Russia during the Second World War.
12 Most evident here, is the unexpected way that God fulfilled the (as yet unrecognized) prophecy of Hosea 11:1 by the return of Jesus from Egypt (Matthew 2:15).
13 This they learned after they had begun their journey, both from Herod (who was informed by Scripture and the scholars), and from the guidance of the star, after leaving Jerusalem.
Related Topics: Christmas