The Magi And The Messiah


The Magi And The Messiah


The Magi And The Messiah

Matthew 2:1-12

Main Idea: Like the magi, we ought to respond to Jesus with extravagant praise, for all nations will come to this King.

  1. The Magicians
    1. What we don't know
    2. What we do know
  2. The Constellations
    1. Numbers: A star
    2. Isaiah: The light
  3. The Opposition
    1. A world leader intimidated by Jesus
    2. Religious leaders indifferent to Jesus
  4. The Quotation
    1. The place a king was born
    2. An insignificant village
    3. The King is a shepherd.
  5. The Deception
    1. Herod pretended kindness.
    2. Herod intended killing.
  6. The Introduction
    1. Exceeding gladness!
    2. Extravagant gifts
      1. Gold, emphasizing Jesus' royalty
      2. Frankincense, emphasizing Jesus' deity
      3. Myrrh, emphasizing Jesus' humanity
  7. The Conclusion

Matthew 2:1-12 is another reminder that our traditional picture of the Christmas story is in need of some tweaking. Two well-known Christmas carols have already been debunked in Matthew 1: the night of Jesus' birth was not a silent one, and with all due respect to those who sing "Away in a Manger," it is highly unlikely that a baby would not cry while cattle are lowing. In Matthew 2:1-12 we're going to debunk30 another favorite Christmas carol as we consider the magi who came from the east to visit Jesus (vv. 1-2). If you've ever sung "We Three Kings," this passage may cause you to rethink these familiar lyrics.

The point of highlighting some of our mistaken Christmas notions is not to take the joy out of this holiday; rather, we need our false notions of these events and our watered-down versions of their significance to be obliterated by the Word of God. When we understand what Scripture says, singing is indeed a fitting reaction to the birth of Jesus. In fact, worship, praise, surrender, and the sacrificial offering of our lives are the only proper responses to the coming of our Savior. We get a glimpse of this kind of worship-filled response as we consider the magi in the first part of Matthew 2. In these verses we learn about the global purpose of God in all of history and the ultimate purpose of God for our lives.

The Magicians

Matthew 2:1

In verse 1 we are introduced to the magi (magoi), translated as "wise men." There's a bit of mystery surrounding these guys. They weren't just wise men in general; they were known to be astrologers—students of the stars. So don't think of David Copperfield-like magicians when you think of these magi, though their name is where we get our words "magic" and "magician." There are some things we do know and some things we don't know from Scripture about these mysterious men.

First, we'll look at what we don't know. Though most believers traditionally picture three wise men at the manger scene, Scripture doesn't tell us their number. The idea of three wise men probably comes from the fact that these men bring three gifts later in the passage (v. 11). There could be 10 or 30 of them—we simply don't know. So the idea behind "We Three Kings," though well-intentioned, is conjecture. In fact, we're not even told that they were kings. Another thing we don't know about these magi is their names. Tradition tells us that their names were Melkon (later Melchior), Balthasar, and Gasper (Carson, Matthew, 85). According to some reports, one was Ethiopian, one was Indian, and one was Greek. It has also been claimed that they were all baptized by Thomas, and a bishop in the twelfth century even claimed to have found their skulls. You can believe what you wish, but none of this is mentioned in Scripture.31

What is most important about these magi is what we do know. First, we know their setting: the east. Obviously that's a pretty general geographic area, and there are a variety of possibilities as to their specific origin (Babylon, Persia, Egypt, and the Arabian desert have all been mentioned). The only thing we know for sure is that they were from the east, which helps us debunk one last Christmas carol—"The First Noel." We may sing, "They looked up and saw a star, shining in the east, beyond them far," but Matthew 2 says that these wise men were from the east (v. 1), not that the star was shining in the east.5 The wise men actually needed to go west in order to find Jesus.

Another thing we know about the wise men is their prominence: high-ranking officials with power and influence. When we picture these men, we shouldn't think of them as an isolated star-gazing club. These men were well-respected, with roles in both religion and politics in their own land (Blomberg, Matthew, 62). They almost certainly had a high position, wherever they came from. Their position is evident in the wealth they brought with them, and they probably didn't travel alone. We learn about men like this in the book of Daniel, and it's likely that these men were influenced by Jewish teachings. Now, through their study of the stars, they were drawn by a star on a journey to worship the One born King of the Jews.

The Constellations

Matthew 2:2

In verse 2 the wise men ask, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him." This reference to a "star" has an Old Testament background in the story of Balak and Balaam in Numbers 22. The book of Numbers recounts the journey of God's people from Mount Sinai to the edge of the promised land, and as they journeyed they grew in power and might. This scared Balak, the king of Moab, so he called for Balaam, a magician—a seer. Balaam had been summoned from the eastern mountains to curse the house of Jacob and the people of Israel (Num 22:6), but as the story continues, God makes clear to Balaam that he is not to curse32 the Israelites but to bless them (Num 22:22-35). Balaam obeyed God and blessed Israel three times. Balaam's final oracle begins in Numbers 24:16-17:

The oracle of one who hears the sayings of God

and has knowledge from the Most High,

who sees a vision from the Almighty,

who falls into a trance with his eyes uncovered:

I see him, but not now;

I perceive him, but not near.

A star will come from Jacob,

and a scepter will arise from Israel.

The last two lines tell of a scepter that will arise from God's people, referring to one who rules, and a star that will come. This prophesied King associated with a star is one who will, as the passage continues, deliver the people of God from their enemies (24:17-19). See, then, the Old Testament promise in Numbers: A man from the east prophesying a star and a King among the Jews. Balaam's prophecy was widely regarded as a Messianic prophecy, a picture of the coming Anointed One (Carson, Matthew, 86). It's no coincidence, therefore, that we read of the following fulfillment in Matthew: Magi from the east following a star to the King of the Jews. That which God had foretold is now coming to pass in the birth of Jesus Christ.

The prophecy of a star—a light—to whom the nations would respond is not only found in Numbers. Toward the end of the book of Isaiah, the prophet tells of coming glory for God's people:33

Arise, shine, for your light has come,

and the glory of the Lord shines over you.

For look, darkness covers the earth,

and total darkness the peoples;

but the Lord will shine over you,

and His glory will appear over you.

Nations will come to your light,

and kings to the brightness of your radiance.

Raise your eyes and look around:

they all gather and come to you;

your sons will come from far away,

and your daughters will be carried on the hip.

Then you will see and be radiant,

and your heart will tremble and rejoice,

because the riches of the sea will become yours

and the wealth of the nations will come to you.

Caravans of camels will cover your land—

young camels of Midian and Ephah—

all of them will come from Sheba.

They will carry gold and frankincense

and proclaim the praises of the Lord. (Isa 60:1-6)

Once again, we have the promise in Isaiah: Nations will come to the light of God's people. These nations would bring riches and gifts for worship. Then we read the following in Matthew: Nations are drawn to the light over God's Son. Consider how striking it is that in Matthew's Gospel, a book aimed specifically at a Jewish audience, the first people we see worshiping Jesus are magi from the nations! This is clearly a picture of God drawing those nations to the Jewish Messiah. This promised Messiah is not merely the King of the Jews; He is King of all peoples.

The wise men journeyed from the east to the west, estimated by some scholars as a journey of hundreds or even a thousand miles, in order to find the star. Their natural stopping place was Jerusalem, the capital city of the Jewish people. They were certain that this was where the child would be, but as they began asking around about this One born King of the Jews, all they got were blank stares. No one knew whom these men were talking about, which set the stage for their encounter with King Herod.

The Opposition

Matthew 2:3-4

When King Herod was notified of the arrival of the wise men and their reason for coming, the opposition to Jesus officially began. Verse 3 says, "When King Herod heard this, he was deeply disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him." We have in King Herod a world leader intimidated by Jesus. Some background on Herod will help us understand his concern even better. Herod had been given control of Judea by the Romans in approximately 40 BC, and he was considered the "king of the Jews." He was a vicious, bloodthirsty tyrant. Whenever he suspected anyone of34 plotting to take over his rule, he would have them killed. He even went so far as to murder wives and sons at various times when he didn't trust them! So when Herod hears that officials with power and influence have journeyed to Jerusalem to find a baby born "King of the Jews," Matthew says that he is "disturbed," which is really quite an understatement. The word for "disturbed" literally means "in turmoil" or even "terrified" (Blomberg, Matthew, 63). Herod is threatened by the announcement of One who would supposedly usurp his reign. Many other people in Jerusalem, including religious leaders, are troubled as well (v. 3).

Next we read in verse 4 that Herod called together the chief priests and scribes, the second group that opposed Jesus. Matthew writes, "So he [Herod] assembled all the chief priests and scribes of the people and asked them where the Messiah would be born." In this case we see religious leaders indifferent to Jesus. Interestingly, Matthew references these chief priests and scribes more than anyone else in the New Testament, so we will see them again as the narrative unfolds. Here is a quick breakdown of these religious leaders and what they represent:

  • Chief priests: Representing Jewish worship. Despite God's purposes in appointing priests, these religious leaders had essentially become a group of corrupt, religiously oriented politicians at the time of Jesus birth.
  • Scribes: Representing Jewish law. The scribes were basically lawyers who knew, taught, and interpreted the Jewish law (both Old Testament law and the traditions that had developed around this law), which is frightening given the way we see them opposed to Jesus throughout His ministry.

The spiritual state of the priests and the scribes is a sobering reminder that mere knowledge of the Scriptures is not enough. You can know the text well yet still miss the point. May God keep us from this kind of deceptive rebellion in our own lives and in our own churches.

When Herod inquired of these Jewish religious leaders as to where the Messiah was to be born, they quoted from the Old Testament, revealing that He would be born in Bethlehem. What is startling is that these men who knew of the Messiah's birthplace did absolutely nothing about it. Again, it is a dangerous thing to know the Word and fail to respond. These religious leaders were indifferent to Jesus, and this indifference and apathy soon developed into outright opposition.35 Eventually, this outright opposition would lead them to have Jesus killed. The next time the "the King of the Jews" label is ascribed to Jesus in Matthew's Gospel is when He is beaten and mocked before his crucifixion (27:11, 29, 37; see also 27:42 where Jesus is derisively called the "King of Israel").

The Quotation

Matthew 2:6

The prophecy cited by the religious leaders was a quotation from the Old Testament prophet Micah. Matthew basically paraphrases this quotation, adding a couple of things for interpretive reasons. He wanted to emphasize certain aspects of Micah's prophecy that help us understand the significance of what was happening with the coming of Jesus in Matthew 2. Compare the citations below:

Micah 5:2:

Bethlehem Ephrathah,

you are small among the clans of Judah;

One will come from you

to be ruler over Israel for Me.

His origin is from antiquity,

from eternity.

Matthew 2:6:

And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

are by no means least among the leaders of Judah:

because out of you will come a leader

who will shepherd My people Israel.

Instead of saying "Bethlehem Ephrathah," Matthew says, "Bethlehem, in the land of Judah." You may recall from chapter 1 how intentional Matthew has been, not just about telling a story, but more specifically about weaving through this story the theme of Jesus' lineage in the line of Judah (1:2) and the line of David (1:1, 6). By mentioning Judah in his citation of Micah, Matthew is referencing Jesus' kingly line. He's reminding readers that the place where King David was born becomes the point where King Jesus is born. Bethlehem, a town in the land of Judea (another name for Judah), was known as the place where King David was born and raised. And since Matthew is constantly tying Jesus to David, it becomes clearer why he mentions Judea three times in chapter 2 (vv. 1, 5, 6). Only a member of the tribe of Judah could qualify for the throne of David.

A second change Matthew makes to the quotation of Micah 5:2 occurs in verse 6. Speaking of Bethlehem, Matthew says that it is "by no36 means least among the leaders of Judah." Christ's birth means that a relatively insignificant village becomes an extremely important city in God's plan. Bethlehem, a small village five or six miles south of Jerusalem, is hugely important in the context of redemptive history. Matthew says a "leader" will come from Bethlehem—another clear paraphrase of Micah 5:2—before adding, "who will shepherd my people Israel" (v. 6). This language of shepherding is important, and it too stems from the Old Testament.

In 2 Samuel 5:2 the Lord had said to David, "You will shepherd My people Israel and be ruler over Israel." This picture of King David and the Davidic line as a shepherding line would continue throughout the Old Testament (Ezek 34:11-24; see also Isa 40:11 and Jer 31:10).There of course were kings who failed over and over again in shepherding Israel, including David himself. However, all of this was pointing to the fact that one day a good shepherd, the perfect shepherd, would come, and He would, as King, lead God's people back to their God. This is precisely what we see in the person of Jesus (Matt 9:36; John 10:1-18). Matthew shows us that the One who reigns as the King will rule as a shepherd.

The Deception

Matthew 2:7-9

In verses 7-8, it becomes apparent that Herod is scheming:

Then Herod secretly summoned the wise men and asked them the exact time the star appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search carefully for the child. When you find Him, report back to me so that I too can go and worship Him."

As we'll find out later, this is a bold-faced lie. King Herod had no intention of worshiping anyone else as "king of the Jews." He wanted Jesus dead, no matter what it took.

Herod pretended kindness, and it seems that the wise men, at least at this point, believed this to be his true intention. In reality, Herod intended killing. He was plotting to murder Jesus, so he sent the wise men away on a five- to six-mile journey to Bethlehem. Matthew tells us what happened next in verse 9: "After hearing the king, they went on their way. And there it was—the star they had seen in the east! It led them until it came and stopped above the place where the child was."37 This is actually the first time that we see the star move, and it literally—supernaturally—led the wise men to Bethlehem.

The Introduction

Matthew 2:10-12

Like the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night that led the people of God through the wilderness in the Old Testament (Exod 13:21), the star led the wise men to the place where Jesus was. They must have been ecstatic, for Matthew says in verse 10, "When they saw the star, they were overjoyed beyond measure." Seeing the child Jesus was the culmination of their journey. This encounter likely took place long after the night of Jesus' birth. Verse 11 tells us that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had settled into a house by this time. Soon after this Herod would calculate that this child had to be somewhat less than two years old (v. 16), based on what he had heard from the wise men (v. 7). So Jesus was certainly months old, if not over a year old, by the time the wise men arrived. It looks as if our nativity sets that have the wise men bowing with the shepherds at the manger need some adjusting! Those shepherds were long gone, and months, maybe many months, had passed before the wise men ever showed up.

Regardless of when the wise men showed up, we know they were filled with exceeding gladness. Overjoyed, they responded in the only appropriate way: "Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary His mother, and falling to their knees, they worshiped Him" (v. 11a). These eminent men from the east, nobles of nations, are bowing down and worshiping a baby! You only bow down when you are in the presence of one far superior to you, as if to say, "I am low, and you are high." That's exactly what the wise men were saying. It's no wonder they obeyed the angel's warning not to return to Herod with Jesus' location (v. 12).

Next, these wise men offered extravagant gifts. Verse 11b says, "Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh." It was customary, particularly in the ancient East, to bring gifts when approaching a superior. Some commentators say that these gifts don't represent any particular type of symbolism, but rather they are collectively a picture of an extravagant, costly offering before this baby born King of the Jews. At the same time, when you look in history, and even in Scripture, there are ideas associated with these gifts. While it's not universally agreed on as to what is symbolized38 by each of these gifts, it's definitely possible that in the design of God they had special significance. These are possible connections (see John MacArthur, Matthew 1-7; and William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew):

Gold, emphasizing Jesus' royalty: Throughout Scripture, whether these wise men realized it or not, gold is associated with royalty—kings, queens, and princes. For example, when we see Solomon's wealth described in 1 Kings 10, gold is mentioned no less than ten times in seven verses. This association of gold with royalty is found elsewhere in the Old Testament (Pss 45:9, 13; 72:15; 2 Kgs 5:5), and it fits one of the main thrusts of Matthew's Gospel, namely, to show Jesus' kingship. Matthew made clear that Jesus deserves royal honor in chapter 1, and now Jesus is receiving it in chapter 2.

Frankincense, emphasizing Jesus' deity: Frankincense was used in the Old Testament not only for royal processions, but also in various offerings to God. It was stored in the chamber of the sanctuary (Neh 13:5). When it is used in the Old Testament, frankincense usually refers to something related to the worship or service of God (Exod 30:34; Lev 2:1).

Myrrh, emphasizing Jesus' humanity: Myrrh was basically a perfume with many different purposes.6 Whereas frankincense would be associated with the worship of God, myrrh is more associated with the anointing of man. This is quite fascinating, particularly in light of other appearances of myrrh in the Gospels. Jesus was presented myrrh as a King in a cradle. However, in Mark 15:23 when Jesus was being hoisted onto the cross, Mark tells us that they offered Him "wine mixed with myrrh." So not only was Jesus presented with myrrh as a King in a cradle, He would be offered myrrh as a King on a cross. John 19:38-42 tells us that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea used myrrh to prepare Jesus' body for burial in the tomb.

In this gift of myrrh, given soon after Jesus' birth, we have a foretaste of His impending death. He came for one reason—Jesus was born to die. He came to take the payment and penalty for our sins on Himself. And this shouldn't be a surprise, for Matthew has already told us through the angel's announcement that Jesus came to "save His people from39 their sins" (1:21). See, then, in Jesus' birth the significance of His death on your behalf. God loved the world so much that He sent His Son to live a life of perfect obedience, a life we couldn't live, and then to die the death we deserved to die. Jesus then rose from the grave in victory over sin and death, so that whoever believes in Him will never perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16). Bethlehem is a key part of this gospel message. Like the wise men, let us put aside our pretense and our pride, and let's worship this King.

The Conclusion

Matthew 2 gives us a powerful and, in many senses, prophetic picture of joyful, reverent worship. This text has the potential to change everything about how you think about your life, your job, your family, and the entire world around you. These twelve verses teach us that the global purpose of God is the glad praise of Christ among the peoples of the world. Consider how God accomplishes His purpose in this particular text. In order to lead the wise men, He directs nature. Speaking of the star shining in the sky, John Piper says that God "wields the universe to make his Son known and worshiped" (Piper, "We Have Come to Worship Him"). How amazing to think that God arranges the sky to announce His Son! He exercises His authority as the Sovereign over the universe to make clear that the King has been born, and that He is worthy of our worship. God uses the stars to shout the supremacy of Jesus Christ.

God not only directs nature to announce the glory of His Son, but also He draws nations for this purpose. Matthew's aim is to show us that Jesus is born King of the Jews, but he goes beyond that as well. Jesus has come, right in line with the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3, to bless God's people for the sake of all peoples. So don't be like the Jewish lawyers who had their noses in the Scriptures but who missed the main point of the text. Instead, see what the astrologers saw—the promised King. God was and is drawing the nations to Himself. But how is God doing all of this? How is He directing nature and drawing nations to Himself?

First, He sends the Christ. That's what we've seen so far in Matthew 1-2, and it's what we celebrate at Christmas. The invitation at the beginning of Matthew is clear: Come and see the King! God invites the magi and He invites you to see His Son and to joyfully offer your life as a worshiper. The people of God should, regardless of their personality, smile40 and sing and lift their hands. They should get excited, for the King has come! Worship involves joyful, affectionate, uninhibited praise. Like these powerful, influential men in Matthew 2, we should be overwhelmed, bowing down in homage and humble worship. We give to Christ the extravagant offering of our lives, everything we have and everything we are. We lay it down before Jesus, and we do it joyfully. He is the King, and as we see His royalty, His deity, and His humanity, we're compelled to shout and sing about His great worth.

After God sends the Christ, then, He sends the church. Much of what Matthew is setting up in these opening chapters will find resolution toward the end of the Gospel. At the beginning of Matthew the message to the nations is clearly to come and see the King. And at the end of Matthew, Jesus tells His disciples to go and spread the kingdom to the nations! More specifically, "Go... and make disciples of all nations" (28:19). Joyfully offer your life as a worshiper, and then passionately spend your life as a witness.

The God who two thousand years ago sovereignly arranged the stars in the sky, the God who sovereignly directed these magi to the Messiah, is the God who has sovereignly arranged your life and every detail in it—your family, your job, your school, your background, and your relationships. This God wants to use your life to make the glad praise of Christ known among people everywhere. Whether you're leading coworkers to joyfully worship Christ or you're a student leading other students on your campus to be glad in Him, God wants to use you. Every believer has the responsibility and the privilege of spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth.

Live for this purpose. Die for this purpose. Give your life and your possessions and your plans and your dreams for the cosmic, global purpose of God—the glad praise of Christ among all the peoples of the world. Let the nations be glad and sing for joy (Ps 67:4).

Reflect and Discuss

  1. How does accurate knowledge of the details of the nativity scene help you to worship?
  2. What's the difference between magi and modern day magicians?
  3. How should our response to Jesus look like the magi's response?
  4. What was the significance of the "scepter" (Num 24:17) and the "light" (Isa 60:1-3) in the prophecies about the Messiah?41
  5. Describe the reaction of the religious leaders to Jesus' birth. How does this reaction serve as a warning?
  6. Why was Bethlehem a significant location for Jesus' birth?
  7. Why would Matthew specifically refer to Judah in his quotation of Micah 5:2?
  8. How does Matthew point to Jesus' kingship in this passage?
  9. How is it clear that the star was not merely a natural phenomenon?
  10. How does this passage speak to God's desire to reach the nations with the message of Jesus?

The phrase "we saw His star in the east" is likely not the best translation in verse 2. The translation "we saw His star when it rose" is probably more accurate (ESV; NIV). Carson, Matthew, 89.


In addition to being used as a perfume, myrrh could also be used in combination with wine as an anesthetic, or as a spice used to prepare bodies for burial.