Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.
Questions for Further Thought
- Do you more readily identify with the magi or the religious?
- How does this explanation of the magi’s worship help prepare you for worship this Christmas?
- What do we learn in this text about the sovereignty of God in the worship of Jesus?
- Is your worship of Jesus characterized by “exceedingly great joy”? Why or why not?
- How can you encourage seeing the connection between Christmas and Easter—that Jesus was born as a baby in order to die on the cross and be resurrected—among your family and friends?
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told 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.”
7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And 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.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
My prayer for us this weekend is that God would grant us to see with fresh amazement this old, old story that so many of us are overly familiar with Christmas after Christmas. This is a loaded text, and I hope that God would be pleased to unload a little bit of its power on us, shed new light for us on this person of Jesus—born in Bethlehem—and reveal the good news that he loves to draw wicked people like us near to him. To help us see what’s loaded into this sweet little Christmas text, let me draw your attention to three things.
1. The Magi are Messy. (vv. 1–2, 9)
Look with me at the two places in this text where Matthew wants to make sure he has our attention. He says, “Behold,” in verse 2 and again in verse 9. When he says, “Behold,” he’s saying, “Listen up. Wake up. This is huge. Don’t miss this. It’s not what you’d expect.” Look at verses 1–2:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men [the word is “magi”—behold, magi!] from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
And verse 9, “After listening to the king, they [the magi] went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.”
So, verse 1, “Behold, magi came to Jesus!” And verse 9, “Behold, the star went before them!” First, what’s so shocking about magi coming? They come every Christmas! We might be so used to this annual Christmas story that we’re not surprised, like Matthew wants us to be, that magi came to Jesus. Why should we be surprised? Because magi is an ancient word referring to pagan astrologers. And since they dabble in the dark arts, we eventually got our English word magic from magi. “Behold,” Matthew says. “Look at this: Astrologers are coming! Pagan sorcerers are looking for Jesus! Wizards are wanting to worship! Behold! This is shocking—and spectacular!”
Now “We Three Kings” is a beautiful Christmas carol. Personally, I love the Beach Boys’ version best, if that's not too sacrilegious. So I don’t want to play the spoiler here, but these dudes aren’t kings! They are pagan astrologers, not too far from what we’d call sorcerers and wizards. Gandalf and Dumbledore coming to worship the baby Jesus. These magi are not kings but pagan specialists in the supernatural, experts in astrology, magic, and divination, blatant violators of Old Testament law—and they are coming to worship Jesus.
We really should beware of having a narrower vision of who can come to Jesus than God does. We can be so prone to write off people like this, but God doesn’t. He draws. He woos. He’s seeking worshipers from among the priestly caste of pagan religion! There will be worshipers from Hogwarts, even from Slytherin!
The Biblical View of Magic
And he is drawing them to Jesus even though the Bible clearly condemns their vocation. The magi are “the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans” that the king of wicked Babylon commanded to tell him his dreams in Daniel 2:2. And Moses had so clearly condemned the use of such magic in Deuteronomy 18:9–14:
When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. 10 There shall not be found among you anyone…who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer 11 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, 12 for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you. 13 You shall be blameless before the Lord your God, 14 for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do this.
And in denouncing the magi nation, the prophet Isaiah says to Babylon (in Isaiah 47:11–15),
[E]vil shall come upon you, which you will not know how to charm away; disaster shall fall upon you, for which you will not be able to atone; and ruin shall come upon you suddenly, of which you know nothing. 12 Stand fast in your enchantments [Isaiah is mocking the magi!] and your many sorceries, with which you have labored from your youth; perhaps you may be able to succeed; perhaps you may inspire terror. 13 You are wearied with your many counsels; let them stand forth and save you, those who divide the heavens, who gaze at the stars, who at the new moons make known what shall come upon you. 14 Behold, they are like stubble; the fire consumes them; they cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame. No coal for warming oneself is this, no fire to sit before! 15 Such to you are those with whom you have labored, who have done business with you from your youth; they wander about, each in his own direction; there is no one to save you.
And the prophet Jeremiah adds his voice in condemning astrology in Jeremiah 10:1–2, “Hear the word that the Lord speaks to you, O house of Israel. Thus says the Lord: ‘Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them.’”
So, the Old Testament calls out and clearly condemns the practices of the magi in Daniel, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Jeremiah—and even the New Testament joins the refrain. In Acts 8, Peter condemns a man named Simon who dabbled in magic and offered money to obtain the apostles’ power to heal, and in Acts 13:6–12, Paul condemns a magician name Elymas who was opposing the advance of the gospel.
So the whole Bible, Old Testament and New, plainly condemns the kind of astrology, stargazing, and dabbling in the dark arts typical of the magi. In biblical terms, the magi are plainly marked as “sinners.” And Matthew says, “Behold, magi come! Astrologer-magician-sorcerer-pagan-sinners come to Jesus.” Don’t miss the shock of these Jewishly uncouth men coming to Jesus! This is messy—gloriously messy. And it gets messier.
The Moving Star
The second “behold” is in verse 9, “Behold, the star moved!” Pay attention, take notice; the star is guiding them to Jesus. God is not welcoming the magi on the provision that they first abandon their life of astrology and magic. No, he comes to them where they are. He goes as far as “to use the magi’s pagan superstitions to draw them to Jesus” (HCSB). Not only is God drawing these sinners to Jesus, but he’s doing so even through the very channels of their sin. He captures their attention with a supernatural star and leads them to his Son.
In the last few hundred years, some have speculated here and there that maybe this “star” was a comet or a supernova or some kind of planetary conjunction. I don’t think the effort to explain this in scientific terms is worth giving much time to. “Behold,” Matthew says, “this star moves!” This seems to be a supernatural occurrence that God is using, specially tailored to draw the magi astrologers—a “star” the likes of which we have not seen, and have no experience of, and have no capacity to describe in scientific terms.
God comes to these stargazers where they are—in their sin, where their attention is focused on the stars for guidance (rather than the Scriptures)—and woos them to his Son. Maybe that’s not all that different than your story this weekend. Perhaps even your being here is a kind of magi’s journey. It’s a bit mysterious. You felt an odd sense of being drawn. You’re not sure why you accepted the invitation from a friend or family member to be here. There’s some strange intrigue to know more about this Jesus.
So, first of all, the magi are messy. It’s messy that they are such blatant sinners, and it’s messy that God is stooping so far, exploiting their sinful practices as it were, to bring them to Jesus. But second….
2. The Astrologers Worship Jesus, While the Educated Religious Don’t. (vv. 3–11)
Jump ahead to verses 10–11, and let’s see the magi worship. Verse 10, “When they saw the star [resting over the place where the child was], they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him."
Don’t miss the joy. Matthew piles up the joy language so that we get the point, “They rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” These pagan astrologers are thrilled to see this child. Maybe we would have thought of the shepherds in Luke 2 as the crazy emotional types, while these pagan astrologers remain much more calm and collected. But the joy language here in Matthew 2 is even stronger than Luke 2 when the angels announced “good news of a great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10) and the shepherds “returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20). But here our wicked wizards, Matthew says, “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”
The Magi’s Worship
This joy is not disconnected from their worship in verse 11. Exceedingly great joy is the stuff of true worship, not mere duty. The essence of worship is not physical actions and mere motions of homage. And it’s not just mental calculations and brainwaves. At its heart, worship is “spirit and truth” (as Jesus says in John 4)—true things about Jesus and a spirit of great joy about him—spiritually looking to Jesus and rejoicing exceedingly with great joy!
But what does it mean here that the astrologers “worshiped” Jesus? Did they know he was God in the flesh? Were they worshiping him as the God-man? They may merely be paying homage to one whom they anticipate will be a great earthly king. Maybe. Perhaps the magi heard from Jewish exiles in Babylon about the Balaam prophecy in Numbers 24:17, “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.”
But I wonder if more might be going on here. Look at verse 11 again. If by “worship” Matthew merely means that they paid him homage, as subjects pay homage to their earthly king, then it’s redundant to include the phrase “they fell down.” Falling down is the physical posture and perhaps “worship” is what Matthew says is going on in their hearts as they see this newborn king, who they suspect will not only reign over Israel but over the whole world, thus making them his subjects even though they aren’t Israelites. This is a king unlike any other who has ever lived—or ever will live.
At least in some sense they are worshiping better than they know, and Matthew wants us to see that. In chapter one, he has already told us of the virgin conception and that this baby is called “Immanuel, God with us,” and that he will save his people from their sins. And in this Gospel, Matthew will unfold the surprising story of how this child-born king would walk an excruciating path to his cosmic reign—a path literally excruciating in dying odiously on a Roman cross en route to glory.
The Religious’ Rejection
So the pagan astrologers bow their knee, but the Jerusalem religious bow their back. Now let’s pick up verses 3–8:
When Herod the king heard this [that magi have come to worship a child born king], he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told 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.” 7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And 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.”
Herod’s wickedness is apparent. Insecure, disturbed, deceitful, murderous, he of course does not really intend to honor the child but to kill him. But don’t miss the role of the religious leaders. Verse 4 says that Herod assembled “all the chief priests [Sadducees] and scribes [Pharisees] of the people, [and] he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.” Here we have the trained theologians of the day. They know all the biblical jargon. They’ve read and re-read and re-re-read the Scriptures—and memorized them. And it’s a piece-of-cake answer for them. “Bethlehem. Check Micah.”
But here’s the crazy and tragic thing: They know the answer, but none of them acts on it. None of the trained theologians go to Bethlehem. Dirty shepherds leave their flocks and go to the manger. Pagan astrologers traverse far, hundreds of miles and months on the road. Meanwhile, the religious leaders, full of insider jargon and Bible knowledge and pat answers, don’t bother to make the relatively short 5-mile journey to actually see this baby that all their theological classes should have prepared them for.
One commentator (Turner) calls it “the strange indifference” of these Bible-answer-guys who have amassed loads of scriptural knowledge but don’t act on it. Their heads are filled with verses, doctrines, and religious facts, but their hearts reject the very Messiah their training should have pointed them to.
The Danger of the Way of the Religious
Is the warning here not obvious for those of us who have taken class after class and read Christian book after Christian book? Many of us are all too familiar with the church jargon. We can do hyphenated-religious adjectives. We know how to sound very churchy in our repeated use of words (precious words!) like “treasure” and “passion” and “spread” and “sovereignty” and “mission” and “glory.” But biblical training does not guarantee that our hearts are inclined toward worshiping the true king. Religious language and learning can cloak the kingdom of self.
Note the contrast between the pagan astrologers and the religious establishment. The magi don’t know much, but they rejoice exceedingly with great joy at the true revelation from God they have received, while the religious leaders with all the answers and books about books about books are disturbed along with Herod and refuse to bow the knee in their hearts.
“The religious leaders,” writes David Turner, “replete with scriptural knowledge, react with apathy here and with antipathy later [when they crucify Jesus]. The magi, whose knowledge is quite limited, nevertheless offer genuine worship to the born-king of the Jews.” And note this from the African Bible Commentary (page 1111):
The successors of these [religious] experts would be at odds with the adult Jesus, and in the end they would conspire to put him to death. The most knowledgeable church people often include those who take Jesus for granted. It is a dangerous situation to be in. It is no less a sin than the outright hatred of Herod, for in the end it leads to the same destiny (where Herod failed to kill the baby Jesus, the chief priests succeeded). Our pride in our knowledge of Christ, the Bible, and the church may turn out to be a snare in the end.
A word to the chief priests and scribes among us, the religious establishment, the well churched: Bible knowledge from all the classes and all the books can be precious fuel for worshiping the true Jesus or a scary excuse for keeping Jesus at arm’s length. Increased knowledge doesn’t necessarily translate into increased worship.
And for those more like the magi: You may not have any Christian background (or you did and rejected it, maybe because of the chief priests and scribes). You may not know the Christian jargon or at least the Bethlehem jargon. You don’t fit nicely into the church-goer box, and yet you’re being drawn to Jesus. And this whole church scene may feel really foreign, but we want you to be here. We want the magi. We don’t want to scare them away from Jesus. Let the astrologers come to Jesus, and do not forbid them, for such is the kingdom of heaven. Magi among us, please don’t be sent away from worshiping Jesus by the scribes and chief priests among us.
So, “we three kings of orient” aren’t kings, but they are worshipers of Jesus, the true king, the king of all the kings, while the religious stand idly by with a strange indifference. But even though these magi-wizards aren’t technically kings, there is a way in which they point to kings. Which leads to our third and last point.
3. These Worshiping Pagan Astrologers Represent Sinners from all the Nations Coming to Jesus. (v. 11)
Look at verse 11 one more time, “And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.”
In worship, they gave from their treasures, from the things they held most dear. Some have speculated whether gold represents Jesus being a king, frankincense him being a priest, and myrrh him being a sacrifice for us. Perhaps. (Gold is regal, incense was used by the Old Testament priests, and myrrh shows up in John 19:39 at Jesus’ burial.) But it seems that the main connection Matthew wants us to make is to Isaiah 60, where Isaiah prophesies about all the nations coming to Israel’s king. Isaiah 60:1–6:
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 2 For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. 3 And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. 4 Lift up your eyes all around, and see; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from afar [bearing gifts we traverse far!], and your daughters shall be carried on the hip. 5 Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and exult, because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 6 A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord. 7 All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you; the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you; they shall come up with acceptance on my altar, and I will beautify my beautiful house.
This Christ is not only king of Israel, but he is the king of all nations, the king of kings. Kings are coming to him worship him, and they bring with them their best cultural products and practices and resources—gold, frankincense, and myrrh being just the beginning.
And Revelation 21 picks up on Isaiah 60 and re-casts this prophetic vision of the future with Jesus at the center. The apostle John writes,
And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25 and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations (Revelation 21:22–26).
The nations bring their gifts. And the world’s kings gladly bow to the king of kings—rejoicing exceedingly with great joy. And not only will the glory of God light the whole kingdom, but the single lamp will be the Lamb—the Lamb who was slain for us.
When the magi came to Jerusalem asking, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?”, little did they know that they were asking for the very title that will be written above his head as he hung on the cross dying for sins not his own: “the king of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37). This true king of the Jews is not the usurping king, like Herod, abusing power, acting impulsively, employing deceit to bolster his crushing grip on the throats of his subjects. Rather, this king of the Jews is the one true king, the one who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28), the one who doesn’t merely demand our homage but wins it in his shocking self-giving on our behalf—all the way to death, even death on a cross. He is the king who demonstrates his love for his people in that while they are still sinners—while we are still stargazing in our astrology and wizardry—he dies for us (Romans 5:8).
This gospel—that the baby in the manger was born to die to save sinners like us—is not just icing on the cake for our worship; it is the very substance of the cake. That Jesus died for sinners, that this Lamb was slain for us, heightens, deepens, increases, and accentuates our worship, and is at the center of God’s revealing to us who he is and who is this Jesus that we worship.
This side of the cross we know more than the magi knew. Not only would this God graciously draw them and amazingly permit them to come near to his Son, but he would provide eternal salvation for astrologer-sinners like them, and like us, through the willing death of that very baby they came to honor, the one who will be the focus of our worship forever, as we rejoice exceedingly with great joy.
 Herod is not all that unlike an insecure company president who says, “Search the organization for an alert, aggressive, gifted young man who could someday step into my shoes. And when you find him, fire him!” (Dave Kraft, Leaders Who Last).
 Verse 3: Why was all Jerusalem troubled with Herod? “All Jerusalem” probably refers to the established leadership, and Herod’s regime is not eager to see their positions of power displaced by the rise of another ruler.
 “The vast majority of the scribes were Pharisees; the priests were Sadducees” (Carson, 87).
 Matthew “contrasts the eagerness of the Magi to worship Jesus, despite their limited knowledge, with the apathy of the Jewish leaders and the hostility of Herod’s court—all of whom had the Scriptures to inform them. Formal knowledge of the Scriptures, Matthew implies, does not in itself lead to knowing who Jesus is” (Carson, 86). “[T]he desires of the Gentile Magi to worship the Messiah stand out against the apathy of the leaders who did not, apparently, take the trouble to go to Bethlehem…. [T]hough Jesus was the Messiah, born in David’s line and certain to be Shepherd and Ruler of Israel, it was the Gentiles who came to worship him” (Carson, 88).
 Also Psalm 72:10–11: “May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!”