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The Magi And The Messiah

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.

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.

Matthew 2:7-9

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

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.

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.

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).

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