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- Matthew 2:1 - 12
The wise men
This morning we will be looking at the story of the magi, often called the wise men. There is allot we don’t know about the wise men and a bit we do know about the wise men. A few things we don’t know is how many wise men there were. Maybe there were 3. Maybe there were 13. All we know is that there were more than one. Another thing we don’t know is what exactly what they were. It is unlikely that they were kings and more likely that they were astrologers of sorts, who combined the study of the stars with predictions of future events. And this led them to the city of Jerusalem that we will get to in a few minutes.
What we know
A few things we know for sure is that these were not Jewish men. They were from the East. And the most important thing we know about the wise men is that they wanted to see Jesus. And that is the quality that shines out in this story. Hebrews 11:6 will unfold right before our eyes. “…..For whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him.” God will prove to do that here in this story.
Born in Bethlehem
So let’s walk through it together. Jesus had been born in Bethlehem of Judea (the city of royalty) in the days of King Herod. And behold wise men from the east came to Jerusalem. They said, “where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.” Matthew is cuing us in some details that are not given to us in chapter 1. First of all, Jesus had been born in Bethlehem, the city of David, King David’s birthplace.
Second of all, the king at that time was Herod, the Great. He was a prolific builder who began and finished very large projects like the building of the temple in Jerusalem. He was not a Jew but he somewhat adopted the Jewish faith and had been appointed by the Romans to be the king of Israel. He was not born king. He was appointed king. He was feared but not loved by the people. He was one of many kings who saw the throne as the means for power and control.
Herod is troubled
When the magi came into the city of Jerusalem, people most likely noticed and King Herod got word that they had come. And the thing that troubled him the most was the way these magi described the baby. He was the One Who had been “born” king, not appointed king, not elected as king, not king because of his military victories. At birth, this boy was king. Herod was not Jewish scholar or probably even decently aware of Old Testament prophecy but he knew enough to know that technically a baby could be born in the line of kings and ascend to the throne. So he calls for the most spiritual people in the land and asks them where the Christ was to be born.
Without hesitation, the chief priests and scribes of the people answered 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.” So notice the contrast. The magi come with very limited knowledge and vibrant faith. The most religious people in the land have thorough knowledge of the prophecies and no faith. This is a classic example of facts without faith or facts without feelings, knowledge without any affection. These people are spiritually dull, spiritually disinterested and spiritually unaware. They are flat line in their emotions.
And we will see a massive contrast with that reaction and the reaction of Mary and the magi and the little baby John the Baptist when they hear of Jesus’ birth. Mary breaks out in song and her whole soul (her whole being) rejoices. The magi will rejoice with exceeding joy. And the baby John in the womb of Elizabeth will leap for joy, before he ever takes his first breath. Unborn John probably did not have a very thorough knowledge of what was taking place. Mary would have allot to learn about the life, death and resurrection of her Son. The magi may never have had an enormous knowledge of the Messiah. However they knew enough to believe in Christ, receive the Christ and be happy that Christ had come.
The prophecy that the religious people quoted was from Micah 5:2. There was a ruler coming from Bethlehem Who would shepherd God’s people. The prophecy goes on to say that, “He shall stand and shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God. And they shall dwell secure, for now He shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.” This is why the birth of Jesus is meant to compel or even create within people exceeding and great joy. God was sending a Shepherd.
A Shepherd does not build a throne in the fields and call the sheep to Him and tell them what to do. A shepherd lives among the sheep. He protects the sheep. He feeds the sheep. He never leaves the sheep because sheep are not self-sufficient, autonomous, self-made creatures. They are dependent on a shepherd or the sheep will not survive the harsh realities of life.
Allot of babies but one King
This newborn King born in Bethlehem is the fulfillment of the prophecies of Micah given about 700 years previously. Allot of babies had been born in the line of David (and they are listed in chapter 1). Joseph was not the newborn king. Joseph’s father Jacob was not the newborn king. Jacob’s father Matthan was not the newborn King. Jesus was the born King and these magi are pronouncing to all of Israel, perhaps unknowingly, that the Shepherd King is here.
Herod makes a plan
When Herod heard the prophecies, he summoned the wise men to find out when they first saw the star. Herod could feel the gravity of the situation and he had more to do and build and conquer, so the birth of an actual King was frightening to him. So he needs to get some plans in place to stop His coming. When you look broadly at the story of Herod you will see a very frustrated person who is always 2 or 3 steps behind (at least). He represents the impossibility of human plans changing God’s plans or thwarting God’s purposes. Herod did not know or choose to believe Psalm 115:3 “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.”
Herod is not the only powerful person who is undone by the power of almighty God. Pharaoh in Egypt felt threatened by all the babies being born in Goshen so he declared genocide on male babies. That didn’t work. The women simply had the babies more quickly (a miracle). And one of those babies would be Moses, the leader of God’s people who would be used by God to thwart Pharaoh’s plans and disintegrate his power. Herod will experience something similar to Pharaoh and he will go on to order genocide on the male babies and this will not work for him either. Why? Because God is the heavens and He does all that He pleases. And God has done amazing things within corrupt governments and God-less culture. God’s good plans cannot be stopped by evil people.
God’s plans are determined from before the world began. I Peter 1:20, “He (Jesus) was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you…” It was God’s plan to send Jesus. And Acts 2:23, “This Jesus was delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” It was God’s plan for Jesus to be crucified. And Ephesians 1:4, “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love, he predestined us for adoption…..” It was God’s plan to save people through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
No wiggle room
When God makes plans, there is no wiggle room for changes, no alterations or possibility of being sabotaged. Hebrews 4:13 says that “his works were finished from the foundation of the world.” This means that what God says He will do, He will do and when He says it, it’s as good as done.
Herod strikes a deal
Herod had no idea what or Who he was up against. But he was willing to try to change the eternal plan of God. So he strikes a deal with the wise men. He told them where the Child was to be born. And they were to come back once they found him. “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.”
Interestingly Herod could have sent one of his servants with the magi. He doesn’t do that. He is refusing to take this as serious as he ought to because he is quite comfortable being the phony king of Israel. He is a bit uncomfortable but not as uncomfortable as he should be and will soon become.
The magi set out
The wise men take this at face value. They have no reason to suspect the King of having ulterior motives for sending them. So they set out for the 6-mile journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. On the way, the star reappears in the sky. It was the star that got them as far as Jerusalem and then faded out of view and has now returned. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.
Joy toppling over
Notice the child like faith and emotional response to the star. They experience a kind of joy that topples over onto itself. It is joy upon joy. It is joy-filled joy like a chocolate filled chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, chocolate sprinkles and chocolate shavings on top of the chocolate syrup. This joy is supernatural joy jam packed into one experience. They saw the star and joy was created and formed. When we believe in and receive the coming of Jesus it ushers joy into the heart. Here, the joy of heaven is spilling over onto earth and the wise men are experiencing it.
Where the joy comes from
It is of course not the star that produces the joy. It is the presence of God that produces the joy. And this is important to remember on Christmas Eve and every other day of the year. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit that grows in a heart indwelled by holy and joy-filled God. It is only possible through God’s presence. The star does not give joy. It points to the joy Giver.
And we got a whole bunch of things in our life that point to the joy-Giver. We got people, experiences, comforts and opportunities that we enjoy. But the joy itself is simply funneled through these things from the joy Giver. The star will dissipate and/or disappear. So will many things in our life. It is the abiding presence of Christ that will endure. And His presence will be our constant joy.
So the magi do not stop and stare at the star and say, “that’s it. Let’s go not further. We saw the star. We have arrived.” Instead, “going into the house, they saw the child with Mary and His mother, and they fell down and worshipped Him.” As Leon Morris notes, Matthew consistently places Jesus (the child) first and Mary second. He does not say, Mary and the child. He says, “the Child and Mary.” He will say the same thing in verses 13, 14, 20 and 21.
The Christmas story is radically Christ-centered. It is about Jesus first and us second. If we get that wrong and put ourselves first and Christ second, we will be frustrated and (like Herod) many steps behind in our pursuit to be ahead. We were born to be second. Christ was born to be first, the firstborn of many. Christ must lead and we must (like the Magi) be led.
The magi offer their gifts to the Child Jesus and being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
A few take-aways
So why is this story here? It doesn’t have to be. The birth story could stand-alone without the magi being included. But here it is for us to read and enjoy. Why? Well here are a few take-aways.
Longing for the Christ
Our longings are only satisfied when we encounter the Lord Jesus Christ and worship Him. The magi were not just on a cool exploration or expedition or adventure to have a neat experience. They were pursuing a Person. And so are we whether we know it or not. We were born to know, love and worship God. That is why the Christmas wrappers on the floor can make things feel a bit hollow. We were made to enjoy the gift of forever fellowship with eternal God through the Son, born King. So let longings push you to the Lord.
A gift and muscle
Take-away number 2. Faith is both a gift and a muscle. It is given by God and exercised by us. Sometimes faith is thought of as transactional. We have faith in God and the work of Jesus and we are saved. And so faith secures salvation. That is absolutely true but not complete. Because faith is also transformational. It changes us as well.
Believe and respond
The magi could have seen the star and stayed home and believed. But that would not have been the full sequence of faith. Faith believes and responds and then grows as it is exercised. If you are perhaps not breaking forth in exceedingly great joy this Christmas season, this may be an opportunity to exercise your faith in God. Sorrow may last for the night but joy comes in the morning.
God does amazing things
And take-away number 3. God does amazing things in ways that we would never expect. This is not meant to be too nebulous or subjective. This is another way of stating what Paul said in Ephesians 3:20, “God is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us…” So don’t get too curmudgeon around Christmas time or any other time. Believe in miracles (I say that in the most biblically rooted way). Believe in power not of yourself but of God.
The coming of Jesus is a miraculous event in every way and it is the basis of all that followed in Jesus’ life and ministry. Our faith is founded on a historical, actual and supernatural miracle. This should keep us in awe and wonder of how miraculous and loving God really is.
He who did not spare his own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him, graciously give us all things. In God, there is always more good things to come. Let’s respond to His goodness with our heartfelt worship. Let’s pray.