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Matthew 2:1-12

Wise men come to see the newborn king – and still do today!

Tom Faletti

February 13, 2024

Matthew 2:1-12 The wise men seek the newborn king, and unintentionally alert King Herod


The “wise men,” or “magi” in the Greek, were, according to The New Oxford Annotated Bible, “a class of Parthian (Persian) priests, renowned as astrologers” (fn. to Matthew 2:1-12, p. 1749).  That may suggest more certainty than we have; other scholars do not think it is so certain.  We mustn’t think of “astrologers” as being like modern-day fortune-tellers.  They were scientists, trying to make sense of physical phenomena and how those phenomena might affect humans.  There were whole bodies of “knowledge” that had been developed, connecting different nations to different “stars” (actually, planets).


Why did the wise men from the East come looking for a baby in Jerusalem?


In Matthew’s mind, what is the significance of the fact that these were wise men from the East rather than people from Judea?


Note: The star could have been a comet, but it was more likely a juxtaposition of planets (“stars”) that had auspicious meaning according to the wisest understandings of the natural world at that time.  There is a reference to a star in the Old Testament: In Numbers 24, Balaam prophesied that “a star shall come out of Jacob, / and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (24:17, NRSV) and “Edom will become a possession” (24:18, NRSV) – i.e., Edom will be taken over and lose its independence.  Herod, with an ancestry reaching back to Edom, would have been especially troubled by this.


Why do you think these men want to pay homage to a Jewish baby king?


Note: Herod the Great was “king” from 37-4 B.C.E., most of that time as a vassal (a client state) to the Roman Emperor.  He was known for his great building projects, including his marvelous renovation and beautification of the Temple in Jerusalem, but he was also known for his ruthless treatment of any rivals; he even had his own wife and several members of his family executed.  He was not from Judea.  He was from Idumea, south of Israel, part of a non-Jewish Edomite family, and although his people several generations earlier had been forced to become Jews, he was always suspect among strict Jews, both because of his ethnic heritage and because of his profligate lifestyle.


Why do you think Herod was frightened or troubled by the news these wise men brought?


We sometimes sanitize the Bible of its politics.  This is a story with a huge element of politics.  Why might “all of Jerusalem,” perhaps including the chief priests, have been frightened or troubled by the news from the wise men?

The people of Jerusalem knew that Herod often killed whole groups of people when he thought someone was trying to challenge him.  When a tyrant is upset, everyone around him is on edge.  Incidentally, Bethlehem was 5 miles south of Jerusalem, so if Jerusalem was stirred up, it also would have stirred up people in Bethlehem.


Matthew tells us that Herod immediately thinks this might have something to do with the Messiah.  What does this tell you about Herod?

Herod is tuned in to Jewish thinking and is very sensitive to any claims that might be made against him.


The idea that Jesus might be a king will remain a dangerous concept all the way to the end of Jesus’s life.  We see him accused of that in his trial, and it is ultimately what he is charged with when he is executed (see Matt. 27:11,29,37).


Note that Herod might have been suspicious of the magi from the beginning if they were Parthians.  Before Herod was king, he took the side of Hyrcanus II when Hyrcanus’s nephew Antigonus took the throne from Hyrcanus.  The Parthians were on the opposite from Herod in that fight.  Herod went to Rome to seek help to gain the restoration of Hyrcanus, but the Roman Senate unexpectedly appointed Herod king, if he could gain control of Judea, which he did.


The chief priests and scribes were able to name an Old Testament prophecy that they thought told where the Messiah would be born.  What does this tell you about them?


The prophecy in verse 6 is taken from Micah 5:1-5a (the verse numbering might be off by one in your Bible, as the Hebrew versions of our Old Testament counted 5:1 as 4:14).


What does that prophecy say about Jesus?


Bethlehem was David’s hometown and the place where David was anointed as king (1 Sam. 16:1-13).  It was also the hometown of Ruth’s mother-in-law and father-in-law and of Boaz, who she ultimately married (he was David’s great-grandfather).  In 2 Sam. 5:2, when King Saul died in battle, all the tribes of Israel came to David and said, “The LORD said to you: it is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel” (NRSV).  Remember that Matthew set up in chapter 1 the importance of Jesus being the son of David.  Matthew is making the connections for us here.


Herod also professes to want to pay homage to the child (verse 8).  That, we learn, is a lie.  However, it raises questions for us.  Why should we give homage to this child?


What does it mean to “give homage” to Jesus?  How can we do it genuinely and well?


How does the faith of these Gentile wise men contrast with Herod’s attitude toward Jesus?


How does the faith of the wise men prefigure the response to Jesus among Gentiles in Jesus’s own time and in the early church?


The wise men were “overwhelmed with joy” (verse 10) when the star stopped and they knew they were near to finding the child they had been looking for.  When have you been “overwhelmed with joy” at experiencing Jesus?  What can you do to foster that joy?


What can we learn from these wise men?

They are open to other cultures; they are seekers of truth; they recognize that a future king could be poor – i.e., that poverty is not a defining limitation of a person.


Note: In 2:11, Matthew tells us that: “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother” (NRSV).  “The house” indicates that when this takes place, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are not in a cave or stable.  However, they could have been in the lower quarters of a house where the animals were kept (with “bedrooms”or sleeping quarters for the normal residents upstairs).


There is no evidence about how many wise men there were, but since Matthew lists three gifts, the tradition developed that there were three of them.


What is the significance of the gifts of “gold, frankincense, and myrrh”?


Gold is obviously costly, but so were frankincense and myrrh.  How might these gifts have been, perhaps unwittingly, symbolically appropriate for Jesus?


  • Gold symbolizes royalty.  Jesus is our king.

  • Frankincense symbolizes priesthood, in that priests offer incense as a sacrifice to God.  When offered to Jesus, is suggests that Jesus is the Son of God.  Also, Jesus is our great high priest, offering himself as a sacrifice for our sins.

  • Myrrh was used for burial.  Jesus’s death saved us.  The myrrh symbolizes his humanity and his sacrifice for us.  But also, myrrh was used in the tent tabernacle in the desert (before there was a Temple) to anoint the holy things (the tent, the ark of the covenant containing the tablets of the Law – God’s Word given to the Israelites, the sacrifice table, the utensils used in the sacrifices, etc.) and to anoint the priests (Exodus 30:22-33).  Jesus is the tabernacle (the holy place that God resides) and he is the ark of the covenant (the Word of God in human flesh), anointed by God to bring us into a close relationship with God (and ultimate to take up residence in us through the Holy Spirit) and to deliver the fullness of God’s Word to us.


Note: Some scholars think Matthew is adding details that go beyond the story, perhaps drawing from Psalm 72:10-11 (where the psalmist prays: may the kings of other lands bring gifts to the great future king of Israel) and Isaiah 60:6 (which says that people from Sheba will bring gold and frankincense); however, if Matthew was doing that, he would have called attention to those passages as additional “fulfillment prophecies”, and he does not do that.  So it is unlikely that Matthew is making up details here to fit Old Testament passages.


In 2:12, the wise men do not return to Herod but go a different way.  In order to follow God faithfully, we too are sometimes called to avoid things we might have been involved with previously and “go a different way.”  What is something in your life that you might need to avoid in order to follow God, and how will you “go a different way”?



Take a step back and consider this:


Christians delight in the story of the wise men.  We honor their passion to find the new king of a far-off land.  But Christians sometimes have attitudes that directly conflict with this praise for the wise men.


The wise men studied the signs and evidence in nature that could expand their understanding of God’s activity in the world.  Yet Some Christians disparage the work of people in our day who think hard and study carefully all of the evidence they can find in the natural world, in their search for truth (in our day, we call them “scientists”).


The Scriptures don’t attack the wise men for following the evidence in the natural world wherever it leads, and neither should we attack those who follow the evidence in the natural world today.  We can object when they go beyond the evidence to make claims not supported by evidence, but we need to honestly evaluate the evidence they find before rejecting it.


Throughout history, Christians have suggested that God speaks to us in two “books”: the book of the Scriptures and the book of Nature.  When you learn from Scripture, you are learning about God.  When you learn from science, you are learning about God’s work in the world.  We need to be open to the truths that arise from our careful study of nature, because nature is authored by God.  Psalm 19:1-4 affirms that God speaks to us through the natural world: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; / and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. / Day to day pours forth speech, / and night to night declares knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2, NRSV).  In other words, the natural world tells us about the work of God.


When Christians belittle the importance of using our minds to expand scientific understanding – whether it is about diseases or vaccines or changing climate patterns or how stars are developed or how species change over time – they are acting exactly the opposite of how the wise men in today’s Scripture passage acted when they studied the heavens so carefully.  If we close our minds to people who seek truth in the natural world that God created, we may miss important truths about God’s creation that would allow us to serve God better and take better care of his creation and his people.


How can you be more open to the truths discovered by scientists?



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Copyright © 2024, Tom Faletti (Faith Explored, This material may be reproduced in whole or in part without alteration, for nonprofit use, provided such reproductions are not sold and include this copyright notice or a similar acknowledgement that includes a reference to Faith Explored and See for more materials like this.

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