“Wise People Still Seek Him”

Matthew 2:1-23

We began reading the book of Matthew last week. Matthew was a tax collector, a businessman who, after encountering Jesus, put two and two together, quit his job and followed Jesus. For once in his life, he calculated correctly. As a bit of background, the tax collectors in Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth were Jewish men who worked for the Romans. The Romans didn’t pay them a salary for their work. They were expected to take extra money and keep it for themselves. The Romans did not regulate the amounts taken, as long as they received what they demanded. Most of the tax collectors were dishonest and abused the system. The Jewish people saw tax collectors as traitors. They resented having to pay taxes to the Romans in the first place and they definitely resented a Jew taking advantage financially of other Jews. Basically tax collectors were hated by the Jews. 

Knowing the type of person Matthew was gives insight as to how his gospel of Jesus Christ was written.  Matthew focused on details, such as listing the genealogy of Jesus in the first chapter. Today, in chapter two, Matthew jumps ahead to tell about the next group of visitors to see the baby Jesus, the magi. 

Matthew’s details on the actual birth of Jesus were minimal. We have to go to the gospel of Luke to get those. Instead, Matthew focused on something in chapter two that happened after Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem. Jesus had not even turned two years of age and he was visited by a group of wise men from far away that called Him the “King of the Jews.” 

Matthew puts a time on this event by claiming the magi came during the time “Herod the Great” was king of Jerusalem. Herod earned that title honestly. 

He was great at ruling, building, administrating, politics and cruelty. Herod the Great was a clever man who used his resources to stay in the good graces of the Roman emperors who had ultimate rule over Jerusalem. He was clearly narcissistic and therefore loved his power and used it to inflict incredibly high taxes on the people and he resented the fact that the Jews called him names. At the end of his life he suffered an illness that added to his paranoia and perpetuated his fits of rage and cruelty to anyone close to him. 

The travelers who came were wise men. The ancient word, magoi, which actually means “skilled magicians, astrologers,” has been translated as “kings” since 225AD. 

At that time, church leaders understood Matthew to be referring back to Old Testament passages from Psalms [68:29, 31; 72:10-11;] and Isaiah [49:7; 60:1-6], where it is written that kings will bring gifts. 

Matthew did not write how many wise men were in attendance. Over the passage of time we have sung about there being three wise men, probably to match the three gifts given. In fact, early church leaders gave these three wise men names, Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar. If you visit the great cathedral at Cologne, Germany you can even see their supposed skulls. 

But in reality there was probably a great company of astrologers traveling together. And contrary to Christmas pageant demonstrations, they didn’t arrive at the same time as the shepherds either. Their arrival was probably months later, as they were in the East at the time Jesus was born, and had to travel by foot to get to Jerusalem. 

Another misinterpretation of these wise men was they were of Eastern descent. When they were more likely to have been displaced Jews. 

There were many Jews who were exiled from Judah and Israel centuries before, to the East. These philosophers, astrologers, or whatever else they may have been, set out on their journey, back to their homeland. Like other believing Jews, they knew the promises of the Messiah and had been waiting for a sign for the consolation of Israel. 

Before you think this story is unique to Jesus, historical accounts have been found of Magi coming to visit Nero in 66 AD. These sort of things seemed to happen back in the day. These magi arrive at Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, in search of the king of the Jews, most likely expecting they weren’t the only ones who had figured out the birth of the Messiah. They probably expected those living in Israel were more interested in the fact than they were. 

The magi make it to Herod’s courts and ask where they can locate the one born the king of the Jews? They had been directed by His star and had come to worship this king. 

There is a bit of irony to be seen in this story. First, why would anyone travel a great distance to honor a king of the Jews? At that time, the Jewish people were at the bottom of society. They were seen as troublesome and a conquered race who were despised and dishonored because of their unique customs and beliefs. Secondly, the magi traveled to see an infant of the Jews. Generally, babies were not born king. Usually they were princes, for a long time, before becoming king. Yet, for Jesus, He was labeled King at His birth. 

Matthew then explained how the travelers managed to get to Jerusalem. They had seen His star. 

You can imagine that many have looked into the natural origin of this remarkable star. Nothing definitive has been determined. Some say it was either Jupiter or Saturn, others think a supernova, or comet. Whatever it was, notice how God uses the very thing these men were into to bring them to Jesus. He guided the astrologers with a star. This also meets a Messianic prediction found in Numbers 24:17, 

“A star will come out of Jacob;

    a scepter will rise out of Israel.”

Matthew called it “His star.” Christ had a star that led people to Him. So that they may worship Him. 

Aren’t we called to be like that star? Christ, living in me, should be like a sign-post pointing the way, but unlike the chief priests with Herod, we too should be following. 

Did you notice the chief priests could tell these seekers where Christ was born, but they never went themselves to worship Him. They were content to stay comfortable and taken care of in Herod’s courts. 

Herod heard the question and was troubled. Herod’s being troubled makes sense. He was a troubled character anyway. He was constantly on guard against threats to his rule. History records that as soon as he was on the throne he managed to annihilate the Sanhedrin, slaughter three hundred court officers and murder his wife Marianne, mother Alexandra, eldest son Antipater, along with two other sons, Alexander and Arisobulus, all of whom he suspected of disloyalty.  

It turned out all of Jerusalem was also troubled. 

This could have been because any time Herod was troubled, life became precarious or maybe the number of magi hanging out in the city meant something big was happening. All this points to the fact that even as a young child, Jesus’ impact was being felt. He can barely walk and kings feel threatened, cities are concerned, and those from away bring him expensive gifts. 

Herod doesn’t have a clue how to answer this question, but he definitely had some resources in order to get answers. He gathers all the chief priests and scribes and asks them. The chief priests were the Jewish leaders in charge, including the High Priest, whom Herod made a point of changing on a regular basis. The scribes were those who not only copied the Old Testament but also taught the Old Testament. These Jewish leaders didn’t hesitate in answering the question. They quote Micah 5:2. 

They understood that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem of Judea and that He would be a ruler who shepherded the people of Israel. 

Matthew doesn’t record this, but it seems to me, this would have been the first time the Jewish leaders hear of Jesus. They have a group of travelers inquiring about the details of the Messiah, but not one of them cares to investigate. 

Herod was not so lackadaisical. He had a secret meeting with the wise men and concocts a plan in order to determine just how old this king would have been and exactly where he is located. He claims the reason he requested these things was so that he too could go and worship the king. Yeah, right! The priests were clueless but Herod didn’t miss a beat. You can almost hear the sneer in the statement.  

We don’t read of any response from the wise men as to whether they will follow Herod’s request. Their silence may have been a form of security. Too many yellow flags may have caused them to take the details and get out of there. 

The star re-appears and gives direction to where Jesus was living. The literal translation is the star, stood over the head of the child.”  This is where the idea of the halo in ancient and medieval art started. 

The star stopped. They had reached the end of their search. They discovered the young Child and His mother. No clue where Joseph was, perhaps at work, but by his not being present, the magi do not mistake him to be the father. 

As was the custom of their day, they did not come to a king empty handed. They brought gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. All useful and yet, lavish. Notice the gifts were given to the child, not to Mary, not to Joseph. But Jesus did not use or spend these gifts. His parents used them when needed. 

The gifts we give to Jesus today are giving in the same way. We don’t give to Jesus directly but by giving in His name, to those God puts on our hearts, we do so on His behalf and hopefully they are beneficial. 

More than the gifts given, we read that the magi fell down and worshiped Him. Imagine what Mary pondered at this point. The past couple of years have been one amazing thing after another. 

Matthew’s account of the young child provides three different responses of those who encounter Him. 

1 – Open hatred – displayed by Herod

2 – Indifference – displayed by the chief priest and the scribes, all the while retaining their religious respectability

3 – Worship – the wise men did so at great cost

Wise people still seek Jesus – 

Wise people are not satisfied with looking at the star and admiring it, they do something about the star, they set out and follow it. 

Wise people persevere when following the star. 

When they get lost, they ask for directions. 

They are not discouraged when the clergy and doubtful religious leaders don’t join them. 

They rejoice at the star, and when they arrive at their destination where the star led them, they enter in.

Once in, they worship, immediately, then, not later. 

They don’t worship with empty hands, they give.

The wise men offer a wonderful pattern: 

Those who look for Jesus – will see Him.

Those who truly see Him – will worship Him.

Those who worship Him – will give to Him. 

The wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they returned back to their own country another way. 

Following their visit, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream telling him to take the young child and His mother to Egypt because Herod was out to get the young Child. Now fleeing to Egypt may not have been in their immediate plans, but it wouldn’t have been completely strange. There happened to be a large Jewish community in Egypt, of about a million people. It was also a well-ordered Roman province outside of Herod’s jurisdiction. Joseph would have also understood the idea that Herod would want to destroy Jesus. But this doesn’t speak well of the character of humanity. Here we read how God comes to humanity in the most non-threatening manner possible, yet one section of humanity immediately tries to murder Him. Joseph didn’t waste any time. He wakes up from the dream and off they go. 

What an adventure? Not sure either Mary or Joseph had any of this in mind when they thought of getting married. 

This order of events provides fulfillment of another messianic prophecy, Hosea 11:1, 

“When Israel was a child, I loved him,

    and out of Egypt I called my son.”

Herod discovered he had been deceived. In his anger he puts to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts under the age of two. Another Messianic prophecy fulfilled, Jeremiah 31:15. This account follows what was known of Herod at this time. The death of a dozen or so children meant nothing to him and would not have been significant enough to others to even report. 

Herod died and Joseph received another angelic dream. 

This time he was to bring the child and His mother back to Israel. They could have been in Egypt a few months or a few years, no one is sure. But again, Joseph did not waste any time doing what he was told. They did not return to Bethlehem, because the son of Herod was in charge, Joseph was warned to go to the region of Galilee. Instead, they resided in the city of Nazareth. A small, insignificant place with a bad reputation. Which turned out to be Mary’s and presumably Joseph’s hometown. Which meant, everyone knew of Mary and Joseph’s strange circumstances surrounding the birth of their son. What was also strange was Matthew’s reference to this being a fulfillment of that which was spoken by the prophets, for there is no direct Old Testament verse which states this. There are a lot of scholars with ideas. However, they all agree that Nazareth was where the Messiah grew up and He would be known as “Jesus of Nazareth” and His followers as “Nazarenes.” 

Again God presents us with irony. The King of Kings, Lord of Lords, grew up in a town that had the reputation of being the butt of every joke and the object of scorn. People who lived in Nazareth were thought to be low, uncultured, and not-very-smart. When Jesus introduced Himself, he would not have intimidated anyone, as anyone would have had the tendency to think themselves better than someone from Nazareth. 

What was God thinking? We will begin to discover as we continue reading the gospel according to Matthew. 

For this week, let us remember the story of the wise men that were not deterred and were wise enough to follow the star. May we follow their pattern of: 

Those who look for Jesus – will see Him.

Those who truly see Him – will worship Him.

Those who worship Him – will give to Him. 

Let’s pray.