When Jesus was born, very few people were searching for the Messiah. Like today, most people were just interested in figuring out how to live from day to day. While some like Simeon and Anna were anticipating His arrival, few in Israel were. However, there were wisemen in a faraway country who were searching for him and their arrival in Jerusalem caused quite the stir.
- The shocking arrival (Matt. 2:1-2)
In the time of Herod the king, some time after Jesus’ birth, a group of wisemen from the east arrived in Jerusalem. They wanted to know where the newborn king was. They mentioned that they had seen his star in the sky. This must have been a shocking arrival to the people of Jerusalem.
a. The timing (1a)
Christmas cards usually have the wisemen at the stable. But the Bible paints a different picture. At the time of their arrival, Jesus had already been born, been moved into a house, and was referred to as a child who was almost two years old.
b. The wisemen (1b)
How many wisemen were there?
“‘Behold there came three wise men from the east to Jerusalem.’ Is that what your Bible says? You say, ‘No, you’ve inserted the number three.’ Well, isn’t that what you’ve been taught by your Christmas cards? I think a great many people know more about the Christmas story from Christmas cards than from the Bible, and therefore they have many inaccurate impressions. I doubt whether three wise men would have disturbed Herod or have excited Jerusalem. I do believe that three hundred men would have done so” (McGee 14).
Who were the wisemen?
There is some conjecture as to who they were. The most plausible explanation is that they were magi from Babylon. During the Medo-Persian empire these men were the ones who served as the king’s advisors, astrologers, and king makers. Some, like Daniel, were good people who sought the Lord.
Daniel 5:11 – “There is a man in your kingdom in whom is the Spirit of the Holy God. And in the days of your father, light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods, were found in him; and King Nebuchadnezzar your father—your father the king—made him chief of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers.”
No doubt, Daniel was a big influence on many of the magi in Babylon. So much so that, 500 years later, his influence was still felt in that area.
c. The question (2a)
They asked where the newborn king was. Notice that they did not have a perfect knowledge about the birth of Jesus. They had only a general knowledge that it had happened.
d. The star (2b)
God said the stars would be for signs.
Genesis 1:14-15 – “Then God said, ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth’; and it was so.”
Whatever it was, the magi saw the sign in the sky. “Whether it was planetary conjunctions which are known to have taken place in B.C. 7-4, or transitory phenomena which cannot be calculated, that attracted the attention of the Magi, cannot be determined” (Plummer 12). “It was miraculous, and we needn’t try to find an explanation for it” (McGee 15).
Should we still look for signs in the stars?
While God did appoint signs in the stars, they are not clear signs. The magi knew that a king had been born, but they did not know from the stars where the child was. Thankfully, God has given us a much clearer way to reveal his truth to us. The Bible is full of disclosures about his goodness, his plan, and his desire for each of us. What we believe about God should be based on what God has revealed in the Bible:
2 Timothy 2:15 – “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
God did speak to the magi through the stars but notice what happened when they arrived in Jerusalem.
2. The shrewd investigation (Matt. 2:3-8)
If you were the king of a land and were visited by foreign dignitaries that had heard about the birth of a new king, what would your response be? Herod responded with a shrewd investigation.
a. Herod’s response (3)
Herod was troubled by the large retinue.
As very important people, the magi would have traveled in a large group with plenty of soldiers to protect them. So, when they arrived in Jerusalem, they must have caused quite a commotion.
He was also troubled by the thought of another king.
“It is no surprise that King Herod … was disturbed when the magi came to Jerusalem looking for the One who had been ‘born King’ (v. 2). Herod was not the rightful king from the line of David. In fact, he was … an Edomite” (Barbieri 21-22).
He “had recently (B.C. 7) put his own sons by Mariamne, Alexander and Aristobulus, to death, believing that they were a danger to his throne; which made Augustus (under whose eye they had been educated at Rome) remark, that it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son” (Plummer 16).
b. Herod’s research (4-6)
Herod summoned the chief priests and scribes to figure out what the wisemen were talking about. They actually knew the answer to his question. But instead of looking into the sky, the religious leaders went to the Bible.
Micah 5:2 – “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.”
c. Herod’s question (7)
Herod secretly met with the wisemen and asked when the star had first appeared. Under the pretense of reverent curiosity, he was trying to figure out when the future king had been born. “This became critical later in the account (v. 16); it showed that Herod was already contemplating a plan to get rid of this young King” (Barbieri 22).
d. Herod’s request (8)
Herod sent the wisemen to Bethlehem to search for the child. He must have appeared to them as someone who was happy to find the newborn king. But he must have concealed his deceit well—especially for the magi who did not know him very well. After all we know about Herod, you will have little doubt as to his reason for finding the child.
After all of Herod’s questions and help from the religious leaders, you would think that the wisemen would be closer to finding the child. But all they had learned was that the child was born in Bethlehem and that he would be a ruler over Israel. How were they to find the child?
3. The joyful meeting (9-12)
After their long journey to Jerusalem, the wisemen were looking for a conclusion to their journey. They wanted to see the newly born king and were willing to work with Herod if that meant them finding the child.
a. They listened to the king (9a).
The wisemen from some other country listened politely as the king made his request for them to search for the newborn king. He and his people had given them some insight into the location. So, they probably felt obligated to go along with his request.
b. They followed the star (9b).
As they left Herod’s palace, they must have been wondering what to do. But then God miraculously caused the original star to move and to eventually stop over where the child was. This made the wisemen rejoice and probably revealed to them that God was guiding them to the child.
How could a star lead them to the child?
“There is evidence to suggest that the star of Bethlehem was not a natural stellar phenomenon, but something unexplained by science. … Celestial bodies normally move from east to west due to the earth’s rotation, yet the star of Bethlehem led the magi from Jerusalem south to Bethlehem. Not only that, but it led them directly to the place where Joseph and Mary were staying, stopping overhead. There is no natural stellar phenomenon that can do that” (GotQuestions).
This was a supernatural star which God used to guide the magi. Perhaps it was similar to the cloud by day and fire by night that led the Israelites through the wilderness. In any event, the star moved and hovered over the place where the child was living.
What about the stable?
“Modern portrayals of the Christmas nativity scene usually show the wise men visiting Jesus on the night of His birth. That is likely not what truly occurred. King Herod discovered from the magi the ‘exact time’ the star of Bethlehem had first appeared to them (Matthew 2:7), and he later ordered all male children two years old and under in Bethlehem to be killed (verse 16). Herod obviously thought the star of Bethlehem had first appeared when Christ was born; if he was right, then Jesus could have been up to two years old when the star of Bethlehem later guided the magi through the streets of Bethlehem. The Greek word translated ‘young child’ in Matthew 2:9 can mean anything from a newborn infant to a toddler” (GotQuestions).
c. They worshiped the child.
In those days, the proper way to show honor to a ruler was to fall to the ground and worship. This is what the wisemen did when they saw the little child. It was a sign of great respect. And it also makes me wonder if they knew more about Who Jesus was when they did this.
As a side note: “If ever there was a time when Mary should have been worshiped, this was it. But they didn’t worship her—they were wise men! They worshiped Him…” (McGee 16). We are to worship the Lord Jesus and not His mother.
The other part of their worship was their gifts. The gifts given to young Jesus “were gifts worthy of a king” (Barbieri 22). We are not told that the gifts had any religious significance only that they were given. But they were valuable and would come in handy later when Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt with the child.
d. They were warned by God (12).
The Magi were warned by God not to return to Herod. God knew that Herod’s intentions were not good. So, they did not report back to Herod and instead took a different route home.
You may have several questions after studying this passage.
Were the magi believers?
The Bible doesn’t tell us definitively. But the actions of the magi give ample evidence that they may have been. They desired to worship him (2). They rejoiced greatly when the star led them (10). They worshiped Jesus (11). They were obedient to God’s warning (12). We can’t say for sure, but doesn’t this sound like someone who truly believes?
What should we think about this today?
1. Maybe we should take this Christmas time to worship the Lord.
It is very easy to get lost in the holiday gatherings, travel arrangements, giving and receiving presents, and watching Charlie Brown Christmas. While those things can be good, let’s not forget who the celebration is all about.
2. Maybe we should look for those who are seeking the Lord.
If the wisemen were seeking Jesus back then, is it possible that some are seeking Him still today? While nobody seeks the Lord on his own, God does work in hearts before they are saved. The only way to find these people is to interact with people and share the gospel with them. Perhaps the Lord will lead us to them this week.
Barbieri Jr., Louis A., “Matthew” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary New Testament, USA: SP Publications, 1983, pp. 20-22.
McGee, J. Vernon, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, Vol. IV, Matthew through Romans, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983, pp. 1134-16.
Plummer, Alfred, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to S. Matthew, Minneapolis: James Family, reprint n.d., pp. 11-15.
“What was the star of Bethlehem?” as viewed at https://www.gotquestions.org/star-of-Bethlehem.html on 12/18/2022.