January 5-6 sermon resource

Magi Visit

  • Main Text: Matthew 2:1-23
  • Accompanying text: Psalm 96:10-13

What is our response to Jesus Christ as Lord? This is the question that underlies much of the main text this week. The response of the wise men from the East is contrasted with the response of Herod. While the wise men came to worship the newly born King, Herod’s response was to seek to maintain his own authority and kingship at any cost.

We know little about the wise men (magi from the Latin and Greek). Traditionally it has been assumed that there were three, as three gifts are mentioned in 2:11. Sometimes they have also been referred to as kings, assuming they were fulfilling prophecies such as Isa 60:3 or Psa 72:11, although Matthew does not refer to them as such. What we do know is that they studied the skies and came from the East, with many scholars assuming that they were perhaps astrologer priests from Persia.

Astrology was common at the time, and there has been much speculation about what the celestial event might have been that led the wise men to find Jesus. Interestingly “Tacitus tells us that in the 60s of the first century ‘there was a firm persuasion that at this very time the East was to grow powerful and rulers coming from Judea were to acquire universal empire’. The same conviction is written up by the Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian Suetonius” [1].

Modern scholars suggest that it could have been ‘the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the area of the sky known as Pisces… Pisces was reckoned by astronomers to mark the end of the sun’s old course and the beginning of the new. Jupiter was the royal planet, and Saturn had long been the symbol of Israel’ [2].

The inclusion of the Gentiles

Yet, the amazing part of the Magi visit is their inclusion at all, that it was not the Jewish religious leaders of the day who came to worship the infant Jesus, but Gentile priests who travelled from afar to worship the new King. Matthew in his gospel so far has been keen to stress the inclusion of the Gentiles in the gospel of Jesus Christ – and here is the most explicit example yet. Through celestial alignment God had revealed to foreigners what had been hidden to the Jews: the arrival of the long-promised messiah. Even the gifts the wise men bring speak to Jesus’ purpose: ‘Gold is the gift fit for a king—and the king in baby clothes was there. Frankincense was in constant use by the priests in the temple, and the ultimate priest, the one who was to make final reconciliation between God and humankind, lay before them. Myrrh was used to embalm the dead. The man born to be king was the man born to die. In those three gifts we see who he is, what he came to do, and what it cost him’ [3] (see also Isa 60:3-5).

Matthew is also keen to stress the continuity with the Old Testament and Israel in his gospel account. In 2:13-23 we see that Jesus’s early life mirrors the early history of Israel. Herod’s slaughter of the male children echoes Pharaoh’s similar decree in Ex 1:22. Jesus’ time in Egypt recalls both Israel’s own time in Egypt as well as the Babylonian exile (as signified by Matthew’s quote from Jer 31:15).

Different responses to the coming King

There is a sharp contrast between the wise men, who, having journeyed for miles to find the new King, finally find Jesus and bow down in spontaneous worship, giving gifts in their joy (2:10-11), and Herod, who seeks Jesus destruction even to the extent of murdering innocent children (2:16).

Herod ruled Judea and Galilee on behalf of Rome, and in 40 B.C. he had sought and been granted the title of King by the Roman Senate. He was known for both his brutality (which included having his wife and three of his children executed) and his building projects (including a significant upgrade to the Temple). He would have been the person most people would have thought of at the time when hearing the phrase ‘King of the Jews’ (2:2).

Being half Jew and half Idumean, and a proxy ruler for Rome, he was never fully accepted by the Jewish populace and would have viewed the birth of the ‘King of the Jews’ in Bethlehem (where Micah has prophesized the new Davidic king would come from) as a major threat to his right to rule (he may also have been inspired by Satan in his course of action – see Rev 12:6). Despite Herod’s interest in finding this child, the Jewish religious leaders who were consulted (2:4), seemingly did not believe the wise men or had no desire to try and find this promised messiah.

The providence of God

Joseph is warned in a dream and escapes with Mary and Jesus to Egypt, only returning once he has been told it was safe to do so, and even then returning to Nazareth [4] in Galilee instead of Bethlehem As we see in this text, Jesus’ coming is greeted by some with rejoicing but with others there is open hostility and opposition. Yet, this text speaks of the providence of God. That those who oppose God and Jesus Christ, those who seek their own will above all else, cannot thwart the gospel and the salvation that we have in Jesus Christ.

Scripture Resources

  • Revelation 12:1-6
  • Exodus 1:15-22
  • Psalm 72:11

GCI resources

Footnotes and References:

  1. Michael Green, The Bible Speaks Today: the Message of Matthew, 2000. Digital Edition.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. There is no clear reference in the Old Testament to the messiah being a ‘Nazarene’, yet this expectation might have arisen from the similarity between ‘Nazarene’ and other Hebrew words – e.g. branch.
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