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1. The Search FOR the Savior: The Search Of The Wise Men (Matthew 2:1-12)

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“The Search Of The Wise Men”

Following an exhilarating performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall, celebrated classical cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, went home, slept, and awoke the next day, exhausted and rushed. He called for a cab to take him to a hotel on the other side of Manhattan and placed his cello (handcrafted in Vienna in 1733 and valued at $2.5 million) in the trunk of the taxi. When he reached his destination, he paid the driver but forgot to take his cello out of the trunk. After the cab had disappeared, Yo-Yo Ma realized what he had done and began a desperate search for the missing instrument. Fortunately, he had kept the receipt with the cabby’s ID number. Before the day ended the taxi was located in a garage in Queens with the priceless cello still in the trunk. Mr. Ma’s smile could not be contained as he spoke to reporters. But of far more importance than the search for a musical instrument is the search for a matchless Saviour (“The Search for a Priceless Possession” the Chicago Tribune, 10-17-99, cited by Greg Assimakoupoulos).

Many people searched for Jesus Christ from the time of his birth to the time of his death. Some searched for him to serve him, others for what they could get out of him. Some searched for him out of genuine interest, others out of idle curiosity. Some who searched for him were rich, others poor. Some were Jews, others Gentiles. Some were religious, others heathen. Some searched for him because they cared for him, others because they hated him.

The title of this message is: “The Search for the Saviour,” specifically, “The Search of the Wise Men” (Matt. 2:1-12). In this text, the overall message is that wise people search for Jesus until they find him and worship him.

First, notice that …

I. Wise People Ask Pointed Questions About Jesus (2:1-2)

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, 2 saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?’” (1-2a). The text doesn’t tell us anything about these “wise men”, who they were or where they came from (except that they came from the east). So, let’s try to answer some of those questions.

1. Who Were These Wise Men (Magi)?

The term magi is used both negatively and positively. Negatively, it describes one who works magic, spiritism, divination. Positively, it describes one who seeks and possesses supernatural knowledge or ability. Simon Magus was one who used magic (Acts 8:9, 11). But Daniel was one who possessed supernatural knowledge and was made the “chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon” (Dan. 2:48) after he successfully interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.

So, what sort of magi were these men in our passage? Could it be that men associated with spiritism or even the occult would have been among the first to seek, find, and worship the Messiah? Hardly! No, these men were probably political and religious advisers to the king, or philosophers and scientists, who undoubtedly made a study of the skies - through astronomy, that is, not astrology. These were “wise men” in the same sense that Moses was “learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22). They were men of learning and obviously deeply religious. So, we have a bit of an understanding of who these men were but ...

2. Where Did They Come From?

Wise men “from the east” (2:1) came to Jerusalem. Some scholars think that they were Median priests from Persia, who conducted sacrificial rituals and had magical abilities to interpret dreams and special signs. Some think that they were astrologers from Mesopotamia. Others think that they were three kings from Persia, Sabha, and Sheba. But, there’s strong evidence that they were, in fact, from Arabia (this research adapted from “Were the Magi from Persia or Arabia?” Bib-Sac. 156, Oct-Dec., 1999, 423:442).

First, there’s the evidence from geography. The term “the east” refers to the Arabian desert, east of the Jordan and the Dead Sea. And it was “in the east” where the men saw the star - i.e. in their land to the east of Jerusalem.

Second, there’s the strong evidence of close Arab-Jewish relations at that time. Jews from either the captivity in Babylon or from Israel were settlers in Arabia. There were many Jews in Arabia before the rise of Islam. On several occasions the Arab tribes of the Nabateans assisted Antipas, father of Herod the Great, in military conflicts. In fact, Herod the Great’s mother was of Nabatean descent. Thus, by the time of Jesus’ birth, Arab-Jewish relations were very close culturally, socially, and religiously. This, of course, gave the Arabians access to the Jewish Scriptures and, as a result, the messianic hope was common among them.

Thirdly, there is evidence that the gifts of the magi were natural products of Arabia. Arabia was known for its supremacy in the spice trade, especially for frankincense and myrrh. A South Arabian tribe (Sabaeans) dominated the incense trade for centuries. Heroditus records that “the whole of Arabia exhales a most delicious fragrance.” According to Josephus, the incense used in the temple was from the Arabian desert. Also, the gold of Arabia was much sought after for its purity and abundance and is recorded in many biblical references (E.g. 1 Kings 10:10; Ps. 72:15; Isa. 60:6; Ezek. 27:22; 38:13).

This is compelling evidence that the wise men came from Saudi Arabia. But of more importance than that ...

3. Why Did They Come?

The text says they came asking the question, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” (12:2a). Why would Gentiles want to find “the King of the Jews?” Because they had come “to worship Him” (12:2b). We could understand it if they were searching for a Persian or Arabian king, but to worship the King of the Jews?

The answer to this question may be another reason why these men probably came from Arabia. God historically used the wealth and strength of Arabia (the East) and Egypt (the West) for the protection and development of his servants. Notice these patterns in Scripture. Where did Abraham dismiss the sons of his concubines? To the East, to Arabia in order to protect his seed (Gen. 25:5-6). Who bought Joseph from his brothers when they threatened his life? Arabian traders. Where did they take him? To Egypt. When Moses’ life was threatened the first time as a baby (Ex. 1), where was he protected for 40 years? In Egypt. When Moses’ life was threatened the second time (Ex. 2), where was he protected for 40 years? In the Arabian desert. Where did Mary, Joseph, and Jesus flee for protection from Herod’s wrath? To Egypt (Matt. 2:13-15). Where did the apostle Paul go to learn the truth of God when he was converted? To the Arabian desert (Gal. 1:17).

And now, these magi from Arabia were called from the East to Israel “to worship Him”, the long-awaited Seed, the Messiah. And they brought with them the wealth of Arabia - gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Frankincense was a sacred oil, incense for religious rituals and for medicinal purposes. Myrrh was also sacred oil, incense for religious rituals, and it was also used for medicinal purposes and embalming. These costly substances would probably have provided the means for Joseph’s poor family to travel where? To Egypt, for protection from Herod’s wrath against the new-born King.

So they came to worship him but…

4. How Did They Know?

This is perhaps the biggest question of all. “For we saw his star when it rose (in the east) and have come to worship him” (12:2b). Was this a temporary star? Was it a coincidental confluence of planets or a meteor? No! This was a special star for a special purpose. This was “his star”.

How did they know it was “his star”? Not by astronomy or any natural learning. They probably knew Balaam’s prophecy: “A star shall come out of Jacob” (Num. 24:17). But how would they link that to this star? Most likely, they knew by direct revelation from God, the same way they knew not to return to Herod.

So wise people ask pointed questions about Jesus. And…

II. Wise People Follow The Signs That Lead To Jesus (2:3-10)

A search is much easier if there are signposts…

1. Their Signpost Was The “Star”

It doesn’t seem that the star lit their entire journey. If it had, then why did they rejoice greatly when they saw it again after leaving Jerusalem? So, it must have disappeared during their stay in Jerusalem. But even though it seems that it didn’t light their entire journey, it certainly induced them to come in the first place and it gave them a fix on the general direction to travel. Evidently, they had learned how to navigate by the stars.

Incidentally, since the Middle Ages, camel caravans have navigated north from the fabled city of Timbuktu, in Mali, West Africa, to Taudenni in search of salt - the gold of the Sahara desert. Still today, the Tuareg nomads of Niger trek in huge camel trains through the Sahara carrying loads of salt from the salt mines of Taudenni. Salt is still made into blocks for transportation, reminiscent of the fate of Lot’s wife. My wife and I have seen a documentary of these camel trains. They walk for days and days through the wasteland of the Sahara, guided by the stars, until they reach small villages on the edge of Niger or Burkina Faso (where I have been privileged to teach pastors over the last 10 or so years), where they sell a huge block of salt for $5 if they can find a buyer.

And so, these wise men, navigating by the stars, headed for Jerusalem. After all, where else would the Messiah be born than in the capital city of the Jews? Their journey to Jerusalem probably took four months or more. It wasn’t a matter of getting in a car for a few hours. Travel was hard, long, dangerous, tiring, and expensive. So, as they approached the city, you can imagine their excitement as …

2. The Star Led Their Search To Jerusalem

All the way there they must have talked about what they expected. I think they expected to find festivities. Perhaps streets closed for parades, people lining the streets, flags flying, shops and schools closed for a national holiday, roads jammed with crowds wanting to enter the city, special editions of the Jerusalem Post on every corner, hot air balloon rides and free popsicles and popcorn for the kids. I think they expected special services in the synagogue with special cantatas from the choir. But instead they arrived in Jerusalem to find just an ordinary day The women were probably buying their groceries in the street markets. The kids were in school, the banks were open, the mail was being delivered – everything was going on as usual.

And I can just imagine what they might have done. One of them might have asked one of the women on the street: “Can you tell me where the King of the Jews has been born?” only to receive a cold stare in return. Another might have gone up to one of the city policemen: “We heard that the Messiah has been born. Can you tell me where He is?” only to receive the rude reply: “You’re strangers around here aren’t you? If I were you, with your accent, I would keep quiet about that kind of thing.” I can see them going in frustration perhaps to the mayor of Jerusalem, who knows nothing. Finally…

3. Their Search In Jerusalem Led To Herod’s Palace (2:3-10)

When they arrive at the steps of the palace of King Herod, I think the butler wasn’t very friendly, but they talk him into letting them see Herod. After all they are important, high ranking officials visiting from a far country. Surely Herod would know where the king of the Jews was born. But instead we see that Herod is troubled. When Herod the king heard this (i.e. what they were searching for), he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (2:3). I can understand Herod being troubled, because if what they were inquiring about was true, this might mean an end to his dynasty. If this wase true, he might lose the loyalty of the Judean people

But why was “all Jerusalem troubled with him? Wasn’t this what they had been looking for all these years? Jerusalem wasn’t troubled because of any sympathy for Herod or because they didn’t want the Messiah to come. Probably Jerusalem was troubled because when Herod wasn’t happy, nobody was happy; because they knew that inquiries like the magi’s would result in more cruelty as this murderous king hung on to power.

So, Herod consults his own wise men. “…assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born” (2:4). He didn’t know the answer to the magi’s question, but surely “the chief priests and scribes” of Jerusalem would know. And indeed they did know that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem according to the prophecy of Micah 5:2 (2:5-6). But they didn’t know when it would happen and they didn’t know who the Messiah would be.

As a result, Herod devises a shrewd plan to uncover the perceived threat to his kingdom. It is a two-pronged plan – we’ll call them plan “A” and “B”.

Plan “A” was designed to determine the age of the child.Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared” (2:7). This was a clever trick to determine the time when the child was born. Because if he could find out when the star appeared, then Herod would know how old the child was. And once he knew how old the child was, Herod could get rid of him through mass murder by killing all the children born around the time the star appeared.

But there was also another plan. Plan “B” was designed to determine the location of the child. 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’” (2:8). This is the second part of Herod’s devious plan. Plan “A” would uncover the age of the child, but how much better if he could find out the exact location of the child.

But unwittingly, Herod was an instrument of God. His own wise men gave the magi the clue from the Word of God as to where the Messiah should be born. What more could they ask for? So they respond to it in belief. Thus, their search in Jerusalem led to Herod’s palace and…

4. Their Search At Herod’s Palace Led To Bethlehem (2:9-10)

“After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them…” (2:9a). It’s as though God said: “I’ll give you my sign again - the star.” “And the star they had seen… went before them until it came and stood over the place where the young child was” (2:9b). Now they had double confirmation - the sure Word of God (Mal. 5:2) and the sure sign of God.

This was no ordinary star, you see. Its first appearance gave them general directions to Jerusalem and now its second appearance led them to the exact place where Jesus was. No wonder that When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (2:10). The star was like an old trusted friend that they hadn’t seen for a while but now appeared again. Their search was successful. Any doubt they may have had in Jerusalem was banished. Revelation has resulted in discovery. God had revealed the truth of the Messiah’s birth to them in their own country and their months of search have now come to fruition. Everyone likes to be successful in what they set out to do - the wise men were no different.

First, wise people ask pointed questions about Jesus. Second, wise people follow the signs that lead to Jesus. And…

III. Wise People Search For Jesus Until They Find Him (2:11-12)

I don’t know what they expected to see when they arrived in Bethlehem. Would he be a young prince arrayed in costly robes? Would royalty be lying in a gold lined bassinette? Would the King of the Jews be waited on by royal nurses? Would there be a line of people waiting to pay their respects? How would they prove who they were so that they would they be allowed in? But look …

1. What They Found (2:11a)

“And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother” (2:11a). Was it a shock to them when they entered the house? Did it take them by surprise to discover his lowly birth, his isolation, his ordinary parents, just the child and his mother? Did they wonder if this was all a hoax when they saw no royal surroundings?

Something tells me that it was no shock. It seems to me that they were prepared for what they found. They already knew the indifference and ignorance in Jerusalem. If Herod hadn’t come to pay his respects, why would anyone else? If the news was so unknown, the circumstances must indeed be strange. I think they were prepared for what they found and their preparation is shown in…

2. How They Responded (2:11b-12)

They entered the house and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh (2:11b-c). Adoration follows discovery. True worship involves these two components – discovery and adoration. This is why they had come.

True worship is to “fall down” before him. It is to recognize his superior position by taking an inferior position, to prostrate ourselves in humility before him.

And true worship is to bring to him our very best - to surrender to him our very costliest possessions. The wise men brought the very best gifts they could, gifts fit for a King – gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

By the way, the myrrh and frankincense were probably of greater monetary value than gold at that time. Though they probably didn’t realize the symbolism of their gifts, for us, however, “gold” represents the wealth and splendour of royalty; “frankincense” (the incense used by the priests in temple worship) symbolizes divine worship; and “myrrh” (that fragrant gum used to embalm the dead) foreshadowed Jesus’ death and burial.

They had done what they came to do – find the One who was born King of the Jews and to worship him. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way” (2:12).Herod might be able to deceive the people of Jerusalem, but not these wise men for they were instructed by God himself.

Final Remarks

This, then, is “The Search for the Saviour”, specifically, “The Search of the Wise Men.” This search by the wise men is a search of contrasts…

1. The Search For The Saviour Is A Contrast Of People

a) There is the contrast of the kings: Herod the Great vs. Jesus, the King of the Jews. Both were kings over a kingdom – but what a difference! Herod, a powerful murderer, ruled his kingdom through fear but he died and disappeared from the face of the earth. Jesus came to be our King, not through power and fear, but love and kindness, lowliness and gentleness. He died a sacrificial death on the cross and rose again. And He’s coming back, the all-powerful King, to rule the world.

b) There is the contrast of the people: Jews of Jerusalem vs. Gentiles of Arabia. The wise Gentiles from the east were eager to find new hope and salvation in the Messiah. They rejoiced at his birth and worshipped him. The foolish Jews were careless and apathetic, unconcerned that the very hope of all the ages had come and they ignored him. As J.C. Ryle puts it, “It isn’t always those who have most religious privileges who give Christ most honour.” As Jesus said, “the first shall be last and the last first” (Matt. 20:16).

c) The contrast of the wise men: Herod’s wise men vs. the magi. Herod’s wise men were the chief priests and scribes in Jerusalem. They were in the right place, had the right answers, knew the Scriptures since birth, but rejected their power and truth. The magi were men from the wrong country, far away from the centre of God’s dealings. Though their upbringing would not have included training in the Holy Scriptures, they recognized and bowed to their authority and message. Again, J. C. Ryle says: “There may be knowledge of the Scripture in the head, but no grace in the heart.” So, don’t put your confidence in your head knowledge.

d) There is the contrast of circumstances: Jesus’ poverty vs. the wise men’s riches. Jesus was born in a stable with nothing, only swaddling clothes. His parents were ordinary people with no wealth or fame. The wise men came with the richest resources of their land - gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Here is a forerunner of the scene at the cross. At the cradle, the wise men found Jesus as a helpless baby - they witnessed no miracles, heard no teaching; they saw no evidence of outward deity, power, or riches, and yet they said: “We have come to worship him.” At the cross, the thief saw Jesus dying - he witnessed no miracles, heard no teaching; he saw no outward evidence of deity, power, or riches, and yet he said: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk. 23:42).

The search for the Saviour is a contrast of people. And…

2. The Search For The Saviour Is A Contrast Of Motives

A king asks questions about him but fears what may transpire. Religious people can answer questions about him but they have no interest in a relationship with him. Disloyal followers betray him with a kiss, but loyal followers weep over his grave.

Wise men, you see, still worship him. At the cradle, there were wise men from the east with its mystery. They searched for him, found him, and worshipped him. Just before the cross, there were wise men from the west with its culture and progress, Greeks who said: “We wish to see Jesus” (Jn. 12:21), but we don’t read of any interest in worshipping him.

The search for the Saviour is a contrast of people, a contrast of motives, and …

3. The Search For The Saviour Is A Contrast Of Responses

Some people search for God when they are in trouble but they don’t want God in their lives. As Proverbs 1:27-30 says: “When distress and anguish come ... then they will call on me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently, but they will not find me because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord. They would have none of my counsel and despised my every rebuke.”

Some people search for God because they hate their sin and need a Saviour. And surely the message of our text is that wise people search for the Saviour until they find and worship him. The word of God says: “You will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13). “I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently will find me” (Prov. 8:17). “Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon” (Isa. 55:6-7).

Well, I don’t know why you are here today or where you are in your spiritual search. Perhaps you’re curious but with no genuine interest in finding the Saviour. Perhaps you’re here because it’s the thing to do at Christmas. Or, perhaps you’re a genuine seeker for the Saviour. Perhaps in a certain sense, you have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him. If so, the promise and exhortation is that wise people search for Jesus until they find and worship him.

Related Topics: Christmas

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