Sermon — Matthew 2:1-12 — “The Wise Men of Worship”

10 Oct

There are really three main responses people have to Jesus: apathy, opposition or worship. In our world we see all three of these responses regularly and in fact probably all of these responses are present in this service this morning. Only one response is right and the wise men show us the way. Turn with me to Matthew chapter 2 . . . 

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, 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.”

As we come to verse 1 we find that time has passed since the account we looked at last week from Matthew 1:18-25. Jesus has now been born. Matthew doesn’t give us the details of His birth, we have to go to Luke to find that story. Matthew focuses instead on the circumstances around Jesus’ birth, the people and places important to the story. We see Bethlehem of Judea highlighted. Bethlehem, the name means “house of bread,” the hometown of King David, prophesied in Micah as the birthplace of the Messiah and in fact the place where Jesus, the bread of life, was born. We see Herod the King highlighted. It was in his day that Jesus was born. Herod reigned 33 years in Judea. He was a descendant of Esau, an Edomite, thus he was looked upon by many Jews as a less than desirable king, since he was not from the family line of Jacob, of the people of Israel. Herod was a wicked king. He was deeply paranoid, putting one of his wives and at least two of his sons to death. He also accomplished much, building great works in Jerusalem and re-building the temple into a glorious structure, a project he began but would not live to its completion. Herod died within a year or two of Jesus’ birth.

And then we find these wise men from the east. Matthew tells us to behold them. He is clueing us in to their significance by telling us to sit up and pay attention. These wise men were from the east and that is about all we know for sure about them. The Greek word behind the English words “wise men” is the word magi and this word has a broad range of meanings. The best way to understand the magi is to say they were seeking wisdom and using the methods of their culture (seeking signs in the heavens) to do so. They were not fortune telling astrologers but they were not exactly scientific astronomers either. They were from the east. This means they could have been from anywhere east of Judea. Most likely they were from Babylon. The reason I say this is that they seem to have some knowledge of the Old Testament, in that they come to Jerusalem seeking wisdom about this sign in the heavens they had seen. They are connecting this star with the Messiah when they say, “Where is the one born king of the Jews. We saw His star when it rose and we have come to worship Him.”   The people of Judah had, about 500 years earlier, been taken captive to Babylon. It is there that the story of Daniel takes place. And it is there that the Scriptures Israel had received from God were preserved by a people in exile. We find something very interesting in Daniel 2:48. It says, Then the king gave Daniel high honors and many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon. Daniel had been chief over the wise men centuries before. The Hebrew Scriptures had been in Babylon during that time. Could it be that these wise men from the east were men from Babylon who’d seen the wisdom of the Scriptures and connected the appearance of this star to what they knew of the God of Israel and His promise of a Messiah, a great King? Because of the importance the exiled Jews placed on the law of God, the wise men would have been especially exposed to the law, the first five books of the Old Testament. And in those books there is the prophecy of Balaam, found in Numbers 24:17, where we read, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;” And so these Gentile wise men from Babylon come in response to the Word of God and the sign they have seen, to Jerusalem. God’s heart for the nations shines through from the very beginning in the gospel of Matthew and here it is again. God goes to special lengths to show the nations the glory of His Son’s coming. These verses show us what a great and sovereign God we serve. God used the worst of circumstances, the exile of Judah to Babylon, to prepare the way for the star to be seen centuries later. God used Daniel and the other Jews in the exile in ways they couldn’t have imagined to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. In Judah’s darkest hour, God was bringing together His saving plan. Maybe He’s doing the same here at West Hickory or in your life right now. Praise our sovereign God, who rules in and through all things!

The wise men see the star, and they come to worship the Messiah. But when Herod hears this news, there is a very different response.

 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him;

This verse seems to indicate that Herod came to the knowledge of the wise men second hand, they did not come directly to him but that he heard of it because the city had been stirred up by the arrival of the wise men. And when Herod heard it, he was troubled. What a different response than that of the wise men. The reason on one level is obvious. Herod is the king of the Jews. This one born the king of the Jews was a threat to his throne.  Herod was feeling threatened, threatened enough to lash out to eliminate this rival to the throne, as we will see next week. But Herod also feared this one born king because he understood that the wise men were not pointing merely to a king, but to the Messiah. Herod doesn’t seem to know much about the Messiah but the one thing he did know was that the Messiah would be a world changer. For the person in control change is a great threat. Everyone in Judea knew that Messiah would bring change and most people wanted that change, except Herod. The people wanted to be out from under Roman domination and out from under the thumb of the wicked Herod, so they were stirred up just as Herod was but not for the same reason.

Herod was troubled by the threat of a new king, even the Messiah, on the horizon. The people of Jerusalem were threatened probably by what Herod might do to any movement that arose in support of this Messiah King. So Herod was troubled by the news of the Messiah and the people were troubled by Herod’s possible response to this news. The next passage we will look at shows us that the people had good reason to be worried. But don’t miss the contrast here: the Gentile magi travel over land 800 miles to worship the Messiah King while Herod and the people of Jerusalem are upset at the thought of such a King.  He came to His own and His own received Him not, even from the beginning. Herod shows us more of his worst qualities in verse 4 . . .

and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.

Herod does what any politician in the same boat would do, he calls together a committee of experts to get more information. He gets together the chief priests and the scribes, who were not just copyists of the Scriptures but were also experts in the contents of the Scriptures. And Herod asked them where the Christ was to be born. Notice that Herod asks about the Christ, so it is clear that he thinks the wise men, in talking about the one born king of the Jews are not just talking about a rival to the throne but are talking about the promised Messiah. Herod knew Messiah had been promised, but he knew none of the details. A prophecy that had been given 400 years earlier and was widely accepted by Jews to prophesy the birthplace of the Messiah, was totally unknown to the king of the Jews, Herod. So not only was Herod paranoid and power-hungry, he was spiritually ignorant. He had to call the religious leaders together for a basic fact about the Messiah. The wise men too had a degree of spiritual ignorance, for they seem unaware of this prophecy. But the difference is that the wise men were seeking to know the Messiah while Herod had no interest in the Messiah until He became a threat. Ignorance is not a problem as long as you are seeking to know the truth. Those who seek the Lord will find Him. Jeremiah and James and numerous other places tell us this: seek and you will find.

Herod wants to find so that he can destroy, so he listens to the answer in verses 5-6 . . .

 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet“ ‘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.’ ”

The scribes and chief priests knew the answer right away. The Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. The prophet Micah foretold it. A ruler to shepherd the people would come from Bethlehem. You might think that doesn’t sound like the Messiah but just like an ordinary king. But Micah goes on to say in chapter 5, “His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity… And He will arise and shepherd His flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD His God. And they will remain, because at that time He will be great to the ends of the earth.” That definitely sounds like the Messiah. It even sounds like John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word.” And notice, “He will be great to the ends of the earth.” And what do we see here? We see wise men from the ends of the earth coming to worship Him. It really is the reverse of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, whether in Exodus or in Daniel or in other places, faithful Jews like Moses or Daniel overcome foreign magicians and wise men by the power of God. But here in Matthew 2 the roles are reversed, it is the foreign wise men who prove superior to the Jewish religious leaders and their king.

Herod is focused on the whereabouts of the Messiah, the wise men are focused on worshiping the Messiah. I think this has a great deal to teach us. We ask all kinds of questions in our lives. And that is good. We need to understand what is going on and questions are a good way to do that. We even ask questions of God. What? Why? How? Where? When? These are all real questions we ask of God and people in the Bible ask them at times. But the most important question we can ask God is Who? Who are you? If we know the Who of life so many other questions get answered. Don’t expend all your energies on why’s and how’s. Ask a lot of who questions and then seek out their answers in the Scriptures and prepare for your life to be transformed as you come to know God better and better each day.

We see in verse 7 that Herod is still asking the wrong questions . . .

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared.

This time Herod wants to know when and his religious leaders can’t give him that answer, he has to get it from the wise men, who received the sign of the star. Only they can give him the info he wants. So he calls them secretly. The secret meeting was all part of his plan. Like a good politician, Herod is planning several steps ahead. He will call the wise men secretly and find out when they had received this sign. Then he can determine how old the child was. He does all this secretly so that he is not seen giving an audience to these wise men which might be seen as an endorsement of what they are saying. The secret meeting allows Herod to distance himself from the wise men’s claims of the Messiah while also allowing Herod to get key information to deal with the child born in Bethlehem.

 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.”

Matthew doesn’t give us the reply of the wise men to Herod, but we assume that they told him something about when they had seen the star. So he sends them to Bethlehem on a careful search and tells them to let him know what they had found so that he too may worship this child. Of course, Herod had no intention of worshiping Jesus, he wanted Him dead. The wise men may or may not have known Herod’s true intentions, but his actions point toward evil from the beginning. He is interested in information about Jesus for his own purposes. He is not interested in worshiping Jesus. After all, if the Messiah has been born, why doesn’t Herod go check it out himself, or at least send a party to search on his behalf? And the religious leaders, the priests and scribes, why aren’t they involved? We have here the ultimate contrast. The Gentile wise men, with little knowledge but a great heart, search to the end for the Messiah with the goal of worshiping Him. The Jewish religious leaders, with great knowledge but a dead heart, don’t search at all for the one reported to be their Messiah. They have no desire to worship the one the very Scriptures predicted would be their Savior. In thinking about this I was reminded of Jesus’ later words to the religious leaders in John chapter 5, “You search the Scriptures because you think you have in them eternal life but you refuse to come to me to have life.” May we not be a people like the religious leaders, filled with knowledge but ultimately apathetic, with no desire to worship Jesus. The other contrast is King Herod, who had little knowledge and a dark heart, plotting to eliminate the Messiah when he found Him. So for us, let us not be like Herod, hostile to Jesus, seeking to shut Him out of our lives. These are the ways people respond to Jesus: apathy, hostility or worship. Which of these characterizes your life today? Any of these three responses is possible, but only one is good. The wise men show us the way . . .

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.

After hearing Herod the wise men go straight to Bethlehem and Matthew tells us to behold, check it out, the star they had seen moves to rest over the place where the child was. This movement shows us that lots of the popular explanations for what the wise men saw, the conjunction of planets or a supernova or a comet are probably wrong. Like God led the Israelites through the pillar of cloud and fire in Exodus so here He leads the wise men through the star. God’s guidance supernaturally goes before them in the star. Again, I can’t answer all the how questions but I can answer the who question: Jesus is there. And these Gentiles are going to worship Him. And the reason they are going to worship Him is God’s sovereign grace. They were pagans. They looked to the earth for signs and searched for wisdom anywhere they could find it. But when God was pleased to reveal Himself to them they followed. And what knowledge they had they believed and literally walked in. God chose them and they followed and so they provide a great model for us of what it is to live as a godly man or woman. And the religious leaders provide us such a horrible model. Don’t worry about how much you know about God, just seek to live what you already know, and God will reveal more to you day by day. The lengths God goes to bring us to Himself are amazing. He moved the heavens so that these men could know Jesus. He moves in powerful ways to reveal Himself to us still.

And when He reveals Himself, our response is the same as what we see in verse 10 . . .

10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.

Those who should have rejoiced at the coming of the Messiah shrugged their shoulders while the unexpected ones, the wise men from afar, rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. You can’t pile up your joyful words much more than that, can you? I want to recapture that joy, don’t you? I want that this year. This is our year verse, Psalm 51:12 “Restore to me the joy of your salvation. And sustain me with a willing spirit.” The wise men have both. Joy in Jesus and a desire to follow Him. Real worship is nothing less than true joy in God. We see Christ as so great and so worthy and so good and so lovely that we are overwhelmed with desire to praise Him. Our hearts overflow with His praise. If that’s going to happen we have to have a laser-like focus on Jesus. Fix your eyes on Him. If you’re focused on all that’s wrong with your life or all the ways you fall short you’ll never have that joy. But if you’ll focus on His sufficiency and His power, joy will overflow in your life and you really won’t be able to keep it in. And you won’t be able to help going one step further. Look at verse 11 . . .

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.

Now many people think this verse means that the wise men came to Jesus not when he was a baby but when he was a young child. It is probably true that he was more than six weeks old because he was dedicated in the temple at that time and Joseph and Mary offered turtledoves for Him. If the wise men had arrived earlier they would have probably used some of the gold they received from the wise men to pay for a lamb to sacrifice as an offering of dedication. The world translated “child” here in Greek can be used of a child up to two years old and is not normally used of a newborn. The fact that Herod would later kill all the boys in Bethlehem two years old and under doesn’t tell us much because Herod would have likely gone overboard killed a wider range than he had to just to be safe. And the fact that they are in a house doesn’t tell us much either, since it is very likely that Jesus was born in a house in Bethlehem as ancient houses often housed the family and the animals much as our houses might have a house and a garage. Jesus was probably born in the attached stable of a local family, likely a relative. So I think Jesus at this point is probably somewhere between 40 days and one year old.

What is really significant here though is what the wise men do with this child: they worship Him. They see Him and they fall down and worship. There is a place for rejoicing with exceeding great joy and there is a place for falling on your face in reverent awe. Notice this awe is reserved for the child. They see the child with Mary his mother, but they worship the child. They don’t worship Mary. They worship Him by falling before Him and they worship Him by opening their treasures and presenting them gifts. Gifts worthy of a king: gold, frankincense and myrrh. The fact that there are three gifts leads many people to assume there were three wise men, but the Bible never says there were three. There were at least two, but that’s all we know for sure. And contrary to the song, “We Three Kings,” the magi almost certainly were not kings.  

The magi had followed hundreds of miles the guidance of God they had received. And now they come to their destination. And their destination is not a place but a person. They are a great model for us of perseverance, of faith, of obedience. They are like the queen of Sheba in 1 Kings 10:1-13 who came with her entourage to visit King Solomon. A foreign dignitary visited the son of David, king of the Jews, offering homage and gifts. Now these foreign dignitaries, these wise men, have visited the son of David, the true and better King of the Jews. And Matthew will quote Jesus later in 12:42 in speaking of Himself, saying, “Something greater than Solomon is here.”

Isn’t it an amazing thing that here at the beginning of Matthew the nations come to the child Jesus but in the end of Matthew the risen Jesus sends His children out to the nations with the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations! I love that.

Lots of significance has been given to the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Some people say that God sovereignly provided these gifts so that Joseph, Mary and Jesus could be supported financially when they had to escape to Egypt. That is certainly possible. Others say that each gift has a symbolic meaning: the gold stands for Jesus as king and the frankincense for Jesus as God since incense was used for worship in the temple and that the myrrh pointed to Jesus’ death as myrrh was used for embalming bodies. It’s possible that this is the meaning of the gifts but Matthew doesn’t tell us anything about their significance, except that they were the treasures of the wise men. The focus for Matthew is that these were gifts worthy of a King and that the wise men, on seeing Jesus, recognized Him as the Messiah-King and gave freely and joyfully to Him.

So for Matthew, the wise men are a model of discipleship: God reveals Himself and draws us, we follow and believe, we rejoice and bow down, we offer ourselves freely and joyfully to our Lord and Savior. And the final aspect of this discipleship is seen in verse 12 . . .

12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

Those who follow God as His disciples can count on God’s continuing guidance and protection. Like Joseph before them, the magi receive a dream warning them not to return to Herod. This was no small thing in that day, to disobey a king. The consequences could be deadly. But having been warned by God the magi chose not to go back to Herod. They returned instead to their own country. The great truth we see here is one we also see in Acts and at several other points in the Bible: we must obey God rather than men. It is clear that the magi were more awed by God than by Herod.

 

So as we close this morning, have you found yourself in this story? Are you like Herod, threatened by Jesus and hostile toward Him? Are you apathetic like the religious leaders, having the Word and the good news and refusing to respond? Or are you like the wise men, ready and willing to follow the light the Spirit gives, ready to worship Jesus with joy, ready to give all your life to God as He leads you, confident that He will protect you and see you through? There’s really only one good alternative, isn’t there? Those who are hostile toward Jesus end up enraged and scheme to take Jesus down but they always fail. Even when they nail Him to a cross He rises again. And in our day attempts to shut up or shut out Jesus will fail. Hostility only leads to heartache and alienation from God. Those who are apathetic put all their hopes in this life only to eventually be disappointed when circumstances go bad, as they always will. Apathy leads only to aimlessness and depression and alienation from God. But there is a good alternative. Believe in the King. Trust in the Savior. Rejoice in God’s goodness. Bow in worship. Give your life to the King. Our destination is not a place but a person, not a growing church but a glorious Savior, not a career but Christ, not family but faith in Jesus. Turn to Him today. If we all turn to Him today and keep our focus on Him, He will bring renewal to our church and we will see conversions and we will see discipleship happening because He will lead us. If in 2015 you want to be a wholehearted worshiper of Jesus, come to the front as we begin to sing. Take your stand for Him today. Come as we sing, pray for yourself and others, if you don’t want to be apathetic or hostile to Jesus, if you want your heart to sing His praise all through this new year, come as we sing.

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