v.1 Jesus, therefore was born before the death of King Herod in 4 B.C. It was not until the year 533 that Dionysius Exiguus (much more impressive in the Latin than in its English translation: Dennis the Short) proposed to reckon years from the birth of Christ instead of from the founding of Rome. By that time it was easy to mistake the year of the Lord’s birth and this, in fact, was what happened.
There is an interesting parallel to this occurrence, reported in the Roman histories of Dio Cassius and Suetonius, when eastern magi came to visit Nero in A.D. 66. “Magi” was originally the term for members of the Persian priestly caste, but came later to refer generally to astrologers and magicians, important court officials in almost all countries of Western Asia at that time. They were what we would today call “advisors.” Instead of Candoleeza Rice they had Belshazzar, Melchior and Caspar. Since the Babylonian exile, there were many Jews in those eastern lands and it would not be at all unlikely that such magi would know about Jewish belief and the expectation of a Messiah.
v.2 You may be aware that several astronomical possibilities have been suggested as an explanation of this star, for example, the convergence of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces in 7-6 B.C. or even Halley’s Comet in 12-11 B.C. No explanation carries conviction, however, and obviously Matthew understands the movement of this star to be a supernatural occurrence. The magi, understandably, probably thought that the king was to be born in the capital city and went there first.
v.3 Herod was a man who would always have been troubled by any report of a possible pretender to his throne; he was a Roman appointee, not a Jew, and was always vulnerable to the claims of a king of the true Davidic dynasty [France, 82]. But by the end of his life he was genuinely paranoid. He had already had two of his own sons executed for fear that they planned a coup. [Bruce, NT History, 23] The Herod of Matthew 2 is the Herod of history.
The fear of “all Jerusalem” may have been a fear of what Herod would do. When in a rage he was careless of life.
v.5 The priests and the scribes, the doctors of the Jewish Scriptures, would be the natural ones to consult and the answer was simple, any Jewish schoolboy or girl could have given it. The fact that Jesus was from Nazareth but was nevertheless born in Bethlehem makes that fact an even more significant demonstration of his messianic credentials. It is important to observe here that the revelation of nature, the star, could not take the magi all the way to Christ. Holy Scripture was necessary for that.
v.6 Once again, as we said, Matthew is bent on demonstrating that the circumstances of the birth and origin of the Lord Jesus were prophesied in the ancient Scripture. He is the fulfillment of the promise of God to send a King to deliver his people.
v.8 As subsequent events demonstrate Herod had no intention of worshipping the child. He wanted to kill him and remove the threat to his regime. Rather than send soldiers, whose presence might tip his hand, he had no reason to doubt that these foreigners would do as he said. From the magi’s point of view, here was the old king seemingly as desirous to worship the new king as they were.
v.10 The presence and movement of the star delighted them because it proved that they were still being led on this mission by supernatural means and would certainly find the king they had traveled so far to see.
v.11 Those were gifts for a king! The tradition that there were three wise men or magi comes, as you may know, from the fact that there were three gifts given. The fact that Joseph and Mary were now in a house only means that some time had passed since the birth.
v.12 Interpreting dreams was part of the magical world in which these men lived and worked. That God used this means does not imply that he approved of their practices of divination or that they were ordinarily reliable as a means of discerning God’s will. He is simply meeting them where they are. [France, 84-85]
Many things are suggested in this brief narrative. Obviously Matthew is interested in the declaration of these important men that Jesus is “the King of the Jews.” That it should come from the mouth of prominent Gentiles makes that declaration even more weighty and authoritative. Also, he wants us to notice that these great men bowed before the infant Jesus and worshipped him. He is a personage deserving of worship. In these ways and others the narrative of the visit of the magi continues Matthew’s introduction of Jesus and demonstration that he is, indeed, the Messiah and the long-promised King of Kings.
But there is something more here. Matthew is introducing another of his great themes, another of those subjects that will loom large in his account of the life and ministry of the Lord. Matthew, more than any of the other Gospel writers, is interested to show us the response of the Jews to Jesus, or, rather, the rejection of Jesus by his own people and particularly by their leadership. In none of the other Gospels will Christ’s encounters with the Jewish religious leadership loom so large or will Jewish unbelief and intransigence in the face of the appearance of the Messiah receive such attention. Remember, this Gospel seems to have been written for a Jewish Christian readership. And Matthew is concerned to remind them how their own people, by and large, rejected Christ. And, no doubt, part of the reason for that emphasis in Matthew is to prepare his readers for the fact that the Gospel is now to go to the Gentile world and the Jews, so long God’s favored nation, are to become a tiny minority among the people of God. The Gospel begins with Gentiles coming to worship the Christ and it ends with Christ’s command to take the gospel to the Gentile world.
The entire New Testament bears its witness to the fact that this change in the status of the Jews in the kingdom of God was terrifically difficult for Jews to adjust to, even devoutly Christian Jews. Matthew is reminding them what lay behind that change. Throughout the Gospel there are going to be intimations of the fact that the future of the church will be Gentile not Jewish and that God’s rejection of his ancient people was in direct response to their rejection of his Son.
So we read, for example, in Matt. 8:11-12:
“I say to you that many will come from the east and the west,
and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and
Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom
Will be thrown outside, into the darkness…”
The “subjects of the kingdom” in that remark, are, of course, the Jews.
And, later in Matt. 21:40 we read:
“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away
from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”
That was very hard for Jews to hear. Their special place in the economy of salvation was the most important part of their self-understanding. But, lest you think that Matthew is anti-Semitic, let me remind you that these words were spoken by a Jew, written by a Jew, and read with belief and conviction and agreement by a church of Jews. What is more, they are nothing more than what you can read time and time again in the Old Testament prophets: the promise that God will reject the generation of his people that is unfaithful to him.
And, lest anyone think still that Christianity has some jaundiced view toward Judaism – a charge commonly made nowadays – remember that the very same thing has happened in Christendom itself – generations of supposedly Christian people rejecting the Gospel and being rejected by God as a consequence. This would not be the last time that the church rejected her Messiah and refused to submit to her King! There is nothing that happened to the Jews who rejected the Messiah that has not happened time and again since in Gentile Christendom. Even Cardinal Ratzinger, the chief doctrinal officer of the Roman Catholic church, has admitted that when in the 16th century Martin Luther encountered the church of his day, he encountered it as an enemy of the gospel of Christ.
So what we have here in Matthew 2 is not simply an account of very different responses to Jesus but timeless responses, the two responses that we can observe being made to Jesus still today.
- There is first the response of hostile unbelief.
As soon as King Herod learned of the birth of the “king of the Jews” he began laying plans to murder him. Jesus Christ, he felt, posed a direct threat to him and he intended to remove that threat. And so, by deceit and treachery, he enlisted the magi, all unaware, in his plan to kill the baby boy. Lest there be any uncertainty, Herod asked them at what time the star had first appeared so that he would know for sure what babies must be murdered in order to be sure that the right one was destroyed.
As one old writer put it, Herod was more interested in saving his throne than his soul. And the world is full of people like this. They may, in fact, be all politeness and decorum, but their visceral distaste for, and fear of, and unwillingness to submit to the Lord Christ will express itself with whatever force the circumstances call for.
Thomas Carlyle, the 19th century Scottish man of letters, once wrote, “If Jesus Christ were to come today, people would not even crucify him; they would ask him to dinner and hear what he had to say and make fun of it.” But that is wrong. Thomas Carlyle was a man who really didn’t grasp, as so many of his Scottish Presbyterian countrymen did, the true enormity of human sin and rebellion against God. Many people fail to grasp that fact today. They do not reckon with the visceral repugnance of the natural human heart toward the living God and Jesus Christ his son.
The Jews were alarmed also, we read in v. 3, which at least indicates that they knew the report that the king of the Jews had been born. But there is no evidence that they acted on that report, that they took care to confirm it. They were, apparently, more concerned about what Herod would do than what God might be doing among them. The fact of the matter is that, years later, the Jews to whom Jesus came, at first were curious about Jesus as they heard of his powerful teaching and amazing wonders. Some, for a time, became excited and wildly supportive. But, as soon as they came to understand what he was really saying, what he was saying about them and about the way of salvation, what he was summoning them to do and to be, that he had the temerity to say that their thinking and their living was wrong and that to be right with God they had to follow him, they had to depend upon what he alone could do for them, they had to forsake themselves and no longer indulge the illusion that they were, somehow, the captains of their own fate, I say, when they came to understand that he was not going to save them on their terms, that he had not come to deliver them from Roman oppression, when they finally understand what Jesus was actually saying, they not only lost interest in him, they not only stopped following him, they became overtly hostile. And that hostility increased until, in a paroxysm of fury, they crucified the Lord of Glory.
In our culture, nowadays, as Christian faith and ethics become more and more alien to the mind of people, we are hearing more and more overt hostility to our faith. Listen to Richard Dawkins of Oxford, or Richard Rorty, one of America’s most influential philosophers, two men who speak and write very publicly about Christianity on the op-ed pages of the world’s most influential newspapers, and you will hear pure, unadulterated venom when they speak about orthodox Christianity, its doctrine of salvation in Christ alone, its ethics of sexual purity and the like. These are intelligent and learned people, like the Jewish scribes, but they hate Christ and they hate Christianity and for much the same reasons: it overturns their own theology and demands submission to Jesus Christ. To them believing Christians are as bad as the Muslim terrorists of 9/11, which they did not hesitate to say, and really worse, because, living in the West, we should know better than to hold views as outdated as these. And the only difference between them and all other unbelievers today is that they have thought about what Christ is really claiming and are bold enough to declare their true opinions. There are many others who would speak similarly, if ever their true opinion was summoned from within them.
You see, the Lord looks upon the heart. He sees that pure revulsion within human beings, he is not put off by the fact that someone makes no overt criticism of Christianity or does not actively oppose Christians because he knows what they would say and do if ever pressed, directly confronted by the claims of Jesus Christ as the Lord’s countrymen were when he came among them.
So whether it is Herod, who finds himself in a position to destroy the Lord and immediately acts to do so, or the Jews as a people whose later enthusiasm for the Lord was so quickly turned into ravenous vengeance once they fully understand what he is saying about them and about himself, we are given here a window on the world of men and woman who come face to face with Jesus Christ and reject him outright.
Look the Jews knew the Bible. The scribes knew the Scripture exhaustively. They could tell you the middle word of every book. Many of them would have had substantial portions if not the majority of the Old Testament committed to memory. Ignorance was not their problem. They knew what the Bible said about the Messiah, not only where he was born but what he would do and how he would do it when he came. Their problem was not a lack of scriptural knowledge. Their problem was that they were not regenerate, born again by the Spirit of God, they did not have new hearts that were receptive to the truth, they did not welcome the truth as Christ revealed it and embodied it. They, as John would put it, preferred the darkness to the light. And John says, and Matthew says all through his gospel, that is the condition of every human being until and unless God, by his grace and mighty power, transforms the heart, illuminates the mind, bends the will. Until then man lives in bondage to sin and to error.
It has always been so and always will. It was not true of the Jews of Jesus day only, but of countless people since who would have called themselves Christians but whose tolerance for the Christian faith extended only to their own definition of it. To Christianity as Jesus and his apostles taught it they had nothing but contempt.
John Newton, in one of his letters, tells of a conversation he had with a learned English clergyman:
“Dr. Taylor of Norwich told me one day that he had critically examined every original word in the Old Testament seventeen times; and yet he did not see those glorious things in the Scriptures which a plain enlightened Christian sees in them. The doctor had not the plain man’s eyes. … A man may be able to call a broom by twenty names, in Latin, Spanish, Dutch, Greek, etc. but my maid, who knows the way to use it, but knows it by only one name, is not far behind him.”
Well, so it was with the scribes and priests of Israel and so it was, really, with Herod himself, who certainly knew enough to know what it meant that the king of the Jews had been born. But he had no desire to see or know the king that God had promised to send. He had the knowledge, but not the use of it. And, most people don’t today. There is no denying that fact, for fact it is. And it is an all-important fact, for it explains the persistent and defiant character of unbelief in the world. And that unbelief is the explanation of our world. What Matthew is giving us here is nothing less than a philosophy of history.
- But there is another response to Jesus reported in this narrative, the response of eager and joyful faith.
Here is a community of people who, supposedly, had centuries of longing for the Messiah in their blood and bones. But when he came among them they greeted him with dismissive contempt and with violence. But the most unlikely people were ready to acknowledge him as the Prince of Life.
Not only such pious Jews as Zechariah and Elisabeth, Joseph and Mary, Anna and Simeon, representatives of that small population of devout and faithful Jews who had preserved, amid the general spiritual and theological declension of the time, the ancient faith of Israel. Not only such lowly Jews as the shepherds near Bethlehem who received the news of the Messiah’s birth with great gladness. Even in the worst times of doctrinal and spiritual declension in the church the Lord does not leave himself without a witness. There is always a remnant of true faith and there was such a remnant when Jesus came into the world.
But the magi represent something else. Here is the Gentile world, in the form of eastern men of influence and wealth coming to worship the King of Kings. How unlikely that they, of all people, should come to Bethlehem. That they should know to come, care to come, be willing to come such a great distance, all to see and pay homage to the king of the Jews. But come they did. These Gentiles found the Savior with one verse, when Herod and the Jews had the entire Scripture but would not receive the truth into their hearts.
As surely as Matthew is reminding his readers of the intransigent unbelief of their fellow Jews, so he is reminding them of receptivity to Christ on the part of others. And that message embodied in this history is also timeless. For as many as have rejected the Son of God, as many whose hostility to him has taken outward and virulent form, so as many have recognized Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world, bowed at his feet, and given him the gift of their hearts. Matthew will tell us of those, the tax collectors, of whom he was one himself, and the sinners who came to Christ in faith and found eternal life.
And this has been the story of the gospel of Christ ever since. When a hitherto comfortably atheistic Oxford professor of English becomes an outspoken Christian; when the Japanese fighter pilot who led the attack on Pearl Harbor becomes an earnest Christian; when a German woman, a theology professor, the first ever to reach that rank in the German university, famous for her books of skepticism about the New Testament, repudiates all that to worship and serve Jesus Christ, when a member of the infamous Manson crime family becomes a follower of Christ, when Richard Nixon’s hardboiled and profane hatchet man’s life is transformed by turning to Christ, when a National Organization of Women worker, a lesbian and abortion activist and outspoken hater of all things Christian, forsakes all of that to follow Christ, we know that the magi are still coming from the east and still bowing down to the King of the Jews and still giving offerings to him.
This too is the story of the world, the main story of the history of mankind, the story of the multitudes who confess and love Jesus Christ in a world full of those who hate him. Let me conclude by telling you of another unexpected visit to a royal palace by a nobleman with a message about the King of the Jews.
Louise Bernadotte, a Swedish princess, was born in 1851. She later married Frederick VIII, the crown prince of Denmark, and was herself Queen of Denmark from 1906 to her death in 1926. Her spiritual world was very like that of Judaism in the days of the birth of Christ. There was a great show of religion, but it was far from the teaching of the Bible and the true devotion of the heart to Jesus Christ that is the character of living faith. There was no sacrificial devotion to the Lord Christ such as the magi represent. The world of royalty has never been one in which is likely to be found much true faith and piety.
Louise herself was neither raised to be a Christian in any real sense nor concerned to be one until her 28th year. It was in that year that she met the remarkable Englishman Lord Radstock who had devoted his life to reaching Europe’s royalty with the gospel. He too was a traveler from the east. In fact, when he visited Denmark in 1879 he was returning to England after five years of gospel work among the nobility of Russia. He preached to the Danish nobility and Louise came to hear him. She believed his message about Jesus and for the rest of her life she was a devout and earnest Christian. She had one believing uncle who was a great encouragement to her faith and it is possible, though uncertain, that she may have been instrumental in leading her mother-in-law, the Queen of Denmark, to saving faith in Christ. Later she wrote to Lord Radstock:
“It is 30 years since you first visited Copenhagen and the Lord
used you as his means to benefit me with…peace in our Lord Jesus Christ… Due to his everlasting love and faithfulness he has…altogether…been my keeper as he has promised…
No wonder my thoughts often return…to that time My poor sinful being leapt with joy seeing and believing all has been accomplished on the cross and that we, through the blood of Jesus, are God’s dear children and therefore enjoy the peace that passeth all understanding… How terrible it would be if we had to do something in order to be saved. Knowing that it is a gift… what a difference and what happiness…” [Cited from an article in Evangelical Times (August 2000) 11]
What we have in Matthew 2 is what we have today and what we will always have while the world endures. There continue to be Herods and hostile churchmen and churchgoers, but there also continue to be Louises and always shall.
This is a text that Matthew intends to confront us. Where do we find ourselves. We would like perhaps to believe that there is a third group, somewhere in the middle. Not so bad as Herod or the Jews who crucified the Lord, but perhaps not so committed, not so serious, not so devout, not so sacrificially interested in Jesus Christ. But Matthew tells us here and throughout his gospel, as does the entire Bible, that there are but two groups and every human being belongs in one or the other: one is either for me or against me, Jesus said on one memorable occasion.
It is the wise man or woman who understands that one must choose to be either a Herod or one of the magi. There is no other alternative. The fact that at this moment in our world there are more Herods than magi proves nothing. It has always been so. But it is the magi who carry the future with them!