The Worship of the King (Exposition of Matthew 2:1-12)

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Have you already made your New Year’s Resolutions? Well, you’re running out of time if you haven’t. Two of the most popular New Year’s resolutions are to eat healthy and exercise more. A more spiritual resolution for Christians may be to read the Bible and pray more. I don’t know what’s on your list, or if you even have one, but I do know one priority that ought to be at the top of everyone’s list for 2007 and beyond. It is the priority of worshiping King Jesus.

In this morning’s text we read the familiar story of some people who made worshiping Jesus their #1 priority. The story of the wise men who came and worshiped baby Jesus is a familiar one, but there are a lot of unbiblical misconceptions about this story. Maybe you don’t know the story as well as you thought you did. We’ll see as I play myth-buster this morning and expose three common misconceptions about the wise men. But then we’ll consider the three presentations made by the wise men, before finally considering three practical applications that we can learn from the wise men. So open your Bible to Matthew 2:1-12. You might just learn something today after all!

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 have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: 6 ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’ ” 7 Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” 9 When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. 11 And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way. Matthew 2:1-12

I. Three Misconceptions about the Wise Men.
There are at least three common misconceptions about the Wise Men that are perpetuated each Christmas by carols, plays, and nativity scenes. They are their total, title, and timing.

Their Total
Nowhere in Scripture are we told that there were three Wise Men. The term used is plural indicating that there was more than one, but no specific number is given. The number three, of course, is based on the fact that three gifts were given: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There could have been three, but virtually any other number is almost as likely. Pick a number, any number.

Their Title
Nowhere in Scripture are they called kings. This legend was probably originally based on passages like Psa 72:10, 15, and Isaiah 49:7 which speak of kings bringing gifts to Israel’s Redeemer. Of course, no where do those texts say that these gifts will be brought to the Christ child. I think they are probably best interpreted as referring to the future age in which the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our Lord. Seven hundred years after the birth of Christ, these “three kings” are even given names: Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. In Scripture they are simply called “wise men” from which we get the term magi. It can mean one who is trained in astrology and dream interpretation or a magician/sorcerer. These were obviously astrologers because they came in response to a star which they had seen. There was only one King present when the Wise Men visited, and his name was Jesus!

Their Timing
Nativity scenes regularly depict the “three kings” kneeling with their gifts before the manger along with the shepherds, cows, donkeys, etc. This almost certainly did not happen. The visit of the Magi could have been as much as two years after the birth of Jesus. It is very possible that Jesus was already walking and talking by the time the Wise Men arrived. There are at least two reasons for this conclusion. First, verse 11 clearly states that Mary and the Child were in “the house.” No cattle are lowing, no shepherds are present, no baby in a manger. Enough time has elapsed for Joseph to secure a place for his family to live. Second, Herod asks the Wise Men when they began to see the star (v. 7) and on the basis of that knowledge had all the male children killed who were 2 years old or younger (v. 16). Evidently the Magi told him that they had begun to see the star signaling Christ’s birth 1-2 years earlier. In short, there were no oriental kings at the manger the night of Christ’s birth.

II. Three Presentations by the Wise Men.
Here is the heart of this story and the reason that it is recorded by Matthew. Matthew desires to show how the Christ child was recognized and worshiped as a King by pagan astrologers.

The word translated “worship” means to fall down at one’s feet and worship. This is emphasized by the added participle for “falling.” “Falling they fell at his feet and worshiped Him.” What a scene this must have been! A band of Oriental travelers entering a humble abode and falling flat on their faces at the feet of a toddler in an act of worship. And they brought gifts! This is either the most ridiculous scene in human history or this baby is the God-man, the heir to the throne of David, Christ the Son of the living God! And if this is the case, the Wise Men’s response is the only proper response.

The Wise Men’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were highly significant. These gifts were significant on two levels. First, from the Magi’s perspective these gifts were costly gifts worthy of a great king. They were seeking to honor this one who was born King of the Jews.

But the gifts of the Magi were significant on another level as well. Gold was the metal of kings. Frankincense was a sweet-smelling gum imported from Arabia that was used by priests in temple worship (Lev 2:1, 2, 15-16). Myrrh was a fragrant gum which was used as medicine and as a perfume, as well as to embalm the bodies of the dead. Thus, unbeknownst to the Wise Men each of their gifts meant more than they could have probably understood. These facts moved Bible commentator William Barclay to write:

Gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, myrrh for one that was to die – these were the gifts of the wise men, and, even at the cradle of Christ, they foretold that he was to be the true King, the perfect High Priest, and in the end the supreme Savior of men.

But what an indictment it is upon the religious elite of the day, that the birth of the Jewish Messiah was noted by Gentile foreigners! Where are the scribes? Where are the chief priests? They’re in Herod’s palace seeking favor with the political power from a man who within a few short years will be dead. While at the same moment the King of the entire universe has invaded planet earth. Talk about misplaced priorities!

Excursus: Herod the Great was a crafty and cruel ruler whose paranoia cost many of his own family members their lives. He murdered his favorite wife, her mother, two of her sons, and his own eldest son. The Roman emperor Augustus said it was better to be Herod’s pig hys than his son hyios.

III. Three Applications from the Wise Men.
In conclusion this morning I would like to draw three points of application.

The Necessity of Special Revelation
General revelation could only take the Magi so far. They needed special revelation to actually find the child-king. General revelation is what is revealed to all men everywhere through creation and conscience. Special revelation is the more detailed revelation that is revealed at specific times to specific people. If creation is the primary type of general revelation, then Scripture is the primary type of special revelation. The Wise Men saw something in the stars which led them to search for the Christ, but they only found Him after hearing the words of the prophet Micah that He was to be born in Bethlehem. Similarly all attempts to find God apart from His revealed Word will end in disappointment. But all responses to what is revealed in General Revelation will be rewarded with Special Revelation.

The Folly of Knowledge without Action
We’re so used to this story that the most startling thing about it has lost its edge. Pagans are worshiping the long promised Messiah, instead of the Chief Priests and Scribes who knew of His coming. The religious leaders of the day knew the prophecies of the coming Messiah. They were even able to tell the Wise Men exactly where He was to be born. But there is no indication in Scripture that any of these religious leaders took the 5-6 mile journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to worship the newborn King. It’s important to know the Bible, but failure to act on that knowledge will result in condemnation. There are many who could explain the gospel story, but who have never personally placed their faith in Christ Jesus the Lord. What a tragedy!

The Priority of Worship
But the main application of this text is the priority of worship. Matthew shows us that the child whose birth was recorded in chapter 1 is worthy of worship as the King of the Cosmos. This must be our priority as we prepare to embark upon a new year. How should we then worship? Follow the model of the Magi by worshiping Christ as the ultimate King to whom every knee shall bow, the Great High Priest who has offered one sacrifice for sin forever, and the buried and risen Savior. He is worthy of our worship in 2007 and throughout all eternity! The scene of the wise men is a foreshadow of another scene that the apostle John was privileged to see and he recorded it in Revelation 5:11-14,

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain To receive power and riches and wisdom, And strength and honor and glory and blessing!” 13 And every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, I heard saying: “Blessing and honor and glory and power be to Him who sits on the throne, And to the Lamb, forever and ever!” 14 Then the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the twenty-four elders fell down and worshiped Him who lives forever and ever.

2 comments

  1. Thanks for this Steve. I’ve heard so many misapplications of this text that I really appreciate the three you draw out. In particular, not reading too much into the types of gifts seems sensible, since the text doesn’t explain their significance.

    Happy New Year

  2. Colin,

    Happy New Year and thanks for the comment! I’m excited about the “official” launch of your website today. I’m looking forward to your postings.

    Steve

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