1After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him."
3When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5"In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written: 6"`But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'"
7Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find Him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship Him."
9After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
13When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and His mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill Him."
14So he got up, took the child and His mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son."
16When Herod realised that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 18"A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."
19After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child's life are dead."
21So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene."
Here we have the familiar episode of the visit of the Magi to Jesus. However, despite its familiarity, most of us have many misconceptions about the Magi and their visit to Jesus. These misconceptions have crept in through traditions that have evolved over the years concerning the celebration of Christmas. These misconceptions include: the Magi were kings (in fact, they were not kings), there were three of them (in fact, we do not know how many there were), they visited Jesus while He was in the manger (in fact, they visited Jesus some time later, after the Holy family had taken residence in a house, see vs. 11). The reason I bring this up is not to disillusion you concerning our Christmas traditions, but to use this as an example of what can happen when we stray from consulting the Bible for the truth concerning biblical matters. As we can see from the story of the Magi, man has a way of embellishing the truth so that, in the end, he has embellished it so much that it no longer resembles the truth. While the details concerning the visit of the Magi are not theologically significant, there are many theologically significant truths that have been embellished by man and the traditions of various faiths, such that they also no longer resemble God's truth. And so, we must be careful to seek God's truth in God's Word, not in the traditions of men. On questions concerning the tenets of Christianity, we should turn to the Bible as the final authority. We should only turn to men for such answers insofar as they can help lead us to the truth in God's Word.
So now, let's look at what really happened: "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, `Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him'" (vss. 1-2). Note first, this all happened "after Jesus was born". The Magi, as stated, did not visit Jesus when He was still in the manger. At this time, Herod was ruling Israel under the authority of Rome. He was given by the Senate in Rome the title "King of the Jews", even though he himself was not a Jew (he was Idumean). Thus, as we shall see, he felt threatened when the Magi asked: "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?"
The Magi were "from the east", probably Persia (formerly Babylon). It is quite possible that this group of Magi were descended from the astrologers and magicians that Daniel ruled over in Nebuchadnezzar's court (see Dan. 1:20; 2:2; 4:7; 5:7). If so, they quite possibly had access to the writings and prophecies of Daniel. This would explain their knowledge of the coming of the Messiah to Israel, especially since Daniel 9:25 is very explicit as to when the Messiah would come. Possibly because of these prophecies, contemporary historians (Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius) tell us that there was a widespread feeling that a world ruler would come out of Israel. God Himself must also have spoken to the Magi in some way so that they related the "star in the east" to the coming King of the Jews, for the Magi called the star "His star".
There has been much speculation concerning what exactly this "star" was. Many astronomers have exerted much effort to try and find a "natural" explanation for the star. They have looked at the paths of comets to see which ones may have been near the earth at the time of Christ's birth; they have determined what conjunctions of planets and stars may have occured at the time that might account for an abnormally large looking star; they have speculated that a supernova may have occurred, that would generate a large looking star. In my opinion, none of these explanations is adequate, especially given that the star later "went ahead of [the Magi] until it stopped over the place where the child was" (see vs. 9). The best explanation for the star is a miraculous one, not a natural one. The "star", given its un-starlike behavior, must certainly have been a special creation of God to lead the Magi (and others) to the Lord of the universe. Certainly, there were many other miracles surrounding the birth of our Savior: the virgin conception, the annunciation by angels, the special guidance by God of Joseph and Mary through dreams and visions, and for that matter, the knowledge of the Magi from Persia that a Jewish king was coming, could all be considered miracles of God. Why not also a miraculous star?
We may ask, why did God go to so much trouble in guiding the Magi to Jesus? We could give many reasons. First, though Jesus was specifically a Messiah for the Jews,--"King of the Jews", as the Magi called Him--He was also sent so that "all peoples on earth would be blessed" through Him (see Gen. 12:3). Therefore, it makes sense that His birth was an event that God would not leave unheralded among the Gentiles. Though they were not Jews, the Magi sought the King of the Jews, somehow knowing His kingship would apply also to them.
Second, the response of the Magi to the birth of the King--that they embarked on a long journey to "come to worship Him"--in contrast to the response of the chief priests and of Herod, is valuable for us to study. It is significant that the Magi, Gentiles from a faraway land, were the first men to announce the birth of the Messiah. Where were the chief priests and teachers of the law? As for them, they did not seem at all interested. After the Magi had inquired of Herod concerning the birth of the "king of the Jews", Herod inquired of the "chief priests and teachers of the law" concerning where the Messiah was to be born (vs. 4). They were well acquainted with the prophecies that foretold where the Messiah was to be born, and cited one of them to Herod: "But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel" (vs. 6; cf. Micah 5:2). Sadly, though they knew the Bible, they had no desire to know the King. One would have thought that they would have been interested in what the Magi had to say, that they would have marveled that a star guided the Magi to Israel, that they would have pleaded to accompany the Magi to see if, indeed, the King had been born. Certainly John's words are borne out in the behavior of the chief priests and the teachers of the law: "He came to that which was His own, but His own did not receive Him" (John 1:11). It is a sad truth that it is not always the "religious" leaders who serve God best. Perhaps the chief priests and teachers of the law had grown too accustom to the teachings of the Bible: the Word of God no longer stirred their hearts. We must be careful that apathy concerning things spiritual does not set in in our lives and service. "The scribes should be a warning to all religious teachers, in the pulpit, the Sunday-school, the family; they told others where to find the Saviour, but did not go to Him themselves."
Herod's response to the inquiries of the Magi was not apathy, but opposition: "When King Herod heard this he was disturbed" (vs. 3). Herod, considering himself to be the one and only king of the Jews, felt threatened by "the one who has been born king of the Jews" (vs. 2). Note that Jesus was "born king of the Jews", He did not have to wait to become the king. Herod, on the other hand, had to petition the Senate at Rome to be given the title "king of the Jews". So Herod was, in a sense, a usurper. Herod demanded the worship of the Jews; the Jews should have been worshipping the true king of the Jews, Jesus Christ. Even given all this, though, it is surprising that Herod could have felt so threatened by an infant. Herod, being aged, must surely have realized that he would be dead and gone well before this infant king could become any sort of threat to him. Herod had the paranoia that power and riches can bring. Power and riches can oftentimes be dangerous to the soul. Given that this new "king of the Jews" was prophesied in the Word of God to be born, did not Herod realize that in opposing the child he was opposing God? It is a very stupid thing to fight against God. One can never win such a battle. It is especially stupid to fight a loving God, such as we have. Why would one fight a loving, forgiving, gracious God?
Herod put on a show to the Magi, pretending that he desired also to worship this new king: "Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, `Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find Him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship Him'" (vs. 7-8). Herod's reply notwithstanding, the Magi must have thought it strange that there was not more interest in Israel to worship this new king. They had travelled hundreds of miles to worship, yet the people whose king the child was, including the religious leaders, did not seem to care. This behavior of the locals is evocative of those who live in so-called "Christian" nations, and yet, have no desire to learn about the Christian faith, to learn about their Savior Jesus Christ. It seems that it is much easier to get a total stranger to the faith interested in the Gospel message than those who have been exposed to it in some form or another all their lives.
A third reason that (I believe) God sent the Magi was to show us that He can and does speak to those of other lands who are not exposed to the truths of God through more conventional means of revelation. Clearly, the Magi were given some special revelation by God. Not only did they have the star to guide them to where Jesus was born, but they were given the knowledge to relate the star to the birth of the king of the Jews. They said: "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw His star in the east" (vs. 1). It also seems that they were given some sort of revelation from God concerning the gifts that they should give Jesus: "On coming to the house, they saw the child with His mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh" (vs. 11). The gifts can be seen to be prophetic to the offices of Jesus Christ. The gold speaks of His royalty; the incense (which was commonly used in sacrificial offerings) speaks of His deity; the myrrh (which was used in the embalming of deceased bodies, see John 19:39) points to His death and thus speaks of His priesthood. And so, it seems that somehow God inspired these gifts given by the Magi. Most importantly, the Magi were inspired to "worship" Jesus. Their actions disclose the fact that their worship was true. They travelled many miles, went to great trouble to seek Him out, were overjoyed when the guiding star reappeared, and then, when they found Him, "bowed down and worshipped Him" (vs. 11). All this suggests that the Magi had a saving knowledge of Jesus. They must have understood who He is, and that salvation comes through Him. In addition to the Magi, there are others in the Bible who have come to a knowledge of God without the benefit of His normal means of revelation: witness Melchizedek, Jethro and Job. Let's not underestimate God. Many people ask, "What about the guy in a far-off country who has not heard of Christ? Can he be saved?" The knowledge of God as demonstrated by the Magi implies that, yes, God can reveal Himself to them.
A fourth reason that (I believe) God sent the Magi was that their visit set off a chain of events that led the Holy family first to Egypt, and then finally to Nazareth, where God wanted them. This course of events began when the Magi visited Herod. News of the birth of the true "king of the Jews" disturbed Herod. After finding out from the chief priests and teachers of the law where the Messiah was prophesied to be born (vss. 4-5), Herod "called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared" (vs. 7). We learn later that Herod wanted this information in order to determine how old the child would be (see vs. 16). Herod also told the Magi: "As soon as you find Him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship Him" (vs. 8). Herod of course had no desire to worship the king, but was already planning to kill Him.
God foiled Herod's plan, though, and warned the Magi in a dream to not return to Herod. God also sent an angel to warn Joseph: "Get up...take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill Him" (vs. 13). Joseph, as we have always seen him do, obeyed God to the word: "So he got up, took the child and His mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod" (vs. 14-15). Matthew uses this event to teach us about Old Testament typology. He states: "And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: `Out of Egypt I called my son'" (vs. 15). This passage is taken from Hosea 11:1, and if one turns there and reads the context, he will find that the Lord is speaking through Hosea concerning the disobedience of Israel. The passage upon plain reading does not at all seem prophetic of Christ. So, why would Matthew cite it then? Didn't he know that the context of the passage concerned the history of disobedient Israel? What has this to do with Christ? Of course Matthew knew the context of what he was citing, yet he was inspired by the Holy Spirit to cite the passage anyway. This passage was cited not to confirm an obvious prophecy, but to teach us concerning a not-so-obvious prophecy. If we delve into the question, "How does this prophecy relate to Christ?", we can learn something about prophecy and typology in the Old Testament. Since the passage in Hosea obviously concerns the history of Israel, Matthew must be telling us that the history of Israel is typical in some way of the life of Christ. A cursory inspection of the history of Israel and the life of Christ reveals some similarities: as Matthew tells us, they both were exiled to Egypt; they both faced trials in the desert (Israel for forty years, Jesus for forty days); Christ is God's son, Israel was also called God's son (see Ex. 4:22-23; Jer. 31:9). We also find passages of prophecy in the Old Testament where prophecies concerning Israel and prophecies concerning Christ are intertwined (most notably, see Isa. 42 through 53). There, of course, is a noteworthy difference between the history of Israel and the life of Christ: Israel was disobedient, Christ was obedient. Jesus is what Israel should have been. Israel should have been God's son, a light leading the Gentiles to God, teaching the surrounding nations about God's law, an exemplary nation in obedience to God. But Israel failed in this, and so Christ needed to come to earth to be what Israel failed to be. Isaiah 5 speaks of Israel as a vine in God's vineyard, given special care by God. But the vine yielded only bad fruit. Jesus, in John 15, states: "I am the true vine" (John 15:1). So again we see, Jesus is what Israel should have been.
These are some of the truths we learn by digging into Matthew's citation: "Out of Egypt I called my son." Some would have turned to Hosea, read the context, and concluded (without digging into it) that Matthew did not know what he was talking about. Many do this. They read a portion of the Bible and, because they do not immediately understand it, they conclude that it is a mistake. Then they throw up their hands and say, "See! The Bible is full of mistakes and contradictions!" This statement reflects their ignorance, laziness and arrogance. They show their ignorance by not understanding what the Bible is saying, their laziness by not seeking a true understanding of what the Bible is saying, their arrogance by jumping to the conclusion that the Bible is flawed just because they do not understand what it is saying. The Bible is God's Word. Our minds do not immediately understand many things in it. But I have found, God rewards greatly those who dig in to difficult passages, with the desire to learn the truth about what the passages are saying.
To continue, Joseph (as stated) was obedient to God, and fled to Egypt. There were many Jews in Egypt at the time (so we learn from contemporary historians), so this journey was not all that unusual. Herod went on to "kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi" (vs. 16). When he says, "in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi", Matthew is referring back to verse 7, when Herod "found out from [the Magi] the exact time the star had appeared." Thus, we can infer that the star appeared to the Magi about two years earlier. Herod interpreted this to mean that the child they were seeking was born at that time, and so he decided to "kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under." This, of course, was a very cruel act. This cruel act, though, is consistent with what we know from history about King Herod. Herod's paranoia and cruelty led him to kill three of his own sons, and one of his wives. Also, in order that the whole nation would mourn his death, Herod ordered that upon his death one member of every family in Israel be put to death (this order was not carried out). So here we see more of Herod's cruelty in killing the boys in Bethlehem.
Matthew here cites a passage from Jeremiah as being fulfilled: "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more" (vs. 18, citing Jer. 31:1). "Rachel" is seen as the mother of Israel. Certainly, Rachel would have mourned for her children in Bethlehem being murdered by Herod. The context of the passage in Jeremiah from which this verse is taken speaks of the suffering of Israel (specifically during the exile), and the future blessings upon Israel by God through their Redeemer. So again, we have a passage where prophecies concerning the history of Israel and the life of Christ are intertwined. I encourage you to turn to Jeremiah 31 and read the whole context of this passage.
After Herod's death, Joseph was told in a dream to return to Israel (vs. 20), and again Joseph was completely obedient (vs. 21). Joseph feared to return to Judea, though, since Archelaus (Herod's son) was reigning there (vs. 22). Instead, "having been warned in a dream, [Joseph] withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth" (vss. 22-23). So, as stated, the visit of the Magi to Herod set off this whole chain of events that eventually brought Joseph and his family to reside in Nazareth, where God wanted Jesus to reside during His youth. Matthew says: "So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: `He will be called a Nazarene'" (vs. 23). Here, Matthew is not quoting a specific prophecy (you cannot find these exact words in the Old Testament), but rather he is referring to an impression gleaned from a number of prophecies concerning the Messiah. This is why he says, "...what was said through the prophets..." Matthew uses the plural "prophets" because, again, he is not referring to a specific prophecy.
So, what does the statement, "He will be called a Nazarene", mean. Nazareth was an obscure and unimportant town, known for its depravity. In fact, when Christ's disciple Philip told Nathaniel about "Jesus of Nazareth", Nathaniel said: "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" And so, the statement, "He will be called a Nazarene", is really synonymous with, "He will be despised, He will be looked down upon, He will be known as one who comes from an obscure and unimportant place." This fulfills a number of prophecies, among them: "He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground" (Isa. 53:2); "He was despised and rejected by men" (Isa. 53:3); "But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people" (Ps. 22:6). It is significant (and I think Matthew here is implicitly pointing out the fact) that Jesus was known as "Jesus of Nazareth", not "Jesus of Bethlehem" (though He had every right to be known as "Jesus of Bethlehem"). Bethlehem was the City of David, and so the appellation "Jesus of Bethlehem" would have suggested royalty. God chose the humble road for His Son. He directed Joseph to Nazareth, so that Christ would be known as "Jesus of Nazareth". Jesus grew up in a humble family, in a rough neighborhood. No one would be able to say: "Oh. Jesus was sinless because He had it easy." And so, no matter what our lot in life, we have no right to complain. We cannot say: "God. I'm a sinner because of what you made me, where you put me. Look at this neighborhood I live in! Look, I am poor!" Don't complain. You are walking in the footsteps of your Savior. Jesus, the Creator of the universe, allowed Himself to be known as "Jesus of Nazareth".
Lord, we praise You for allowing Your Son to take the humble road, so that He may be an example to us, whatever our lot in life. May we see the value in our life in the service we do for You, not in the material possessions we have. And may we seek You as the Magi did; may we desire to worship Your Son as they did. We thank You for the depth of Your Word, that we may learn from it again and again, even as we read familiar passages. We pray these things in the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, Amen.