As Americans, we are not used to the concept of having a king. However, through the most unlikely characters, we are taught what it means to respond rightly to the birth of our King, the Lord Jesus Christ. Those unlikely men are the Magi. The Magi were members of a Persian priestly caste and were recognized as teachers and experts in science and religion. In science, they taught mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and philosophy. Concerning religion, their primary efforts were steeped in Zoroastrianism, a religion dominated by pagan idolatry. They were involved in astrology and divination, both of which the Old Testament clearly forbids. The Magi were also powerful leaders. In fact, our word “magistrate” comes from Magi. Moreover, they were king makers, which meant that one of their chief tasks in their own country was to appoint the next king who would sit upon the throne.
You might be asking, “How did these pagan idolaters become part of the Christmas story?” It is truly a remarkable story of divine providence. Six hundred years prior, devout Jews had lived among the people of Babylon since the time of their captivity (586 B.C). During this time the Jews often told the people of Babylon about their God and about the coming Messiah. Chief among them, of course, was Daniel. He was appointed to preside over all of the wise men of Babylon (Dan. 2:48–49), and He undoubtedly taught them about the true God and the Messiah who was to come.
At the time of Christ’s birth, God had miraculously informed the Magi that the Messiah had been born. And so, these pagan idolaters traveled to Jerusalem and began asking: “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him” (Matt. 2:2). Of course, no answer was immediately ready. So, Herod, after seeking council from the scholars of his day (Matt. 2:4), told the Magi that the Old Testament Scriptures prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Matthew writes, “After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was” (Matt. 2:9–10). As the Magi headed six miles south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, the star—most likely the shekinah glory cloud that led Israel through the wilderness (Exod. 13:21)—led them to come to the house where Jesus was. Matthew 2:11 records that the Magi came to a house, not a stable as on the night of His birth, where Jesus was with His mother. By the way, the Magi were not there the night of Jesus’ birth. If you correctly put together the chronology of gospels, then this scene took place between the forty days after His birth and less than two years when they arrived.
God uses these unusual characters to show us all how we ought to respond to the birth of our King. In other words, their reactions should be our reactions. So, how did they respond? First, they responded with joy. Matthew writes, “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matt. 2:10). The Greek text literally reads this way: They rejoiced a mega joy extremely. The Magi were overwhelmed with joy! This was not because they saw the star, which would have been captivating in and of itself. Rather, they had joy because the star was directing them to the divine Messiah—the King. The one that Daniel wrote of who would make an end of sin (Dan. 9:24). As we contemplate the birth of our King this Christmas season, it should fill our hearts with joy.
Second, the Magi responded with submission: “After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him” (Matt. 2:11). Matthew records that the Magi fell to the ground and worshipped Jesus. It is worth noting that every time Matthew uses this word “worship” in reference to Jesus, it describes true biblical worship. So, this was not merely normal respect for an earthly monarch. As we have already pointed out, the Magi said that this Child was the divine Messiah, the rightful King of Israel. So their response is a response of genuine faith with full and complete submission to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Third, the Magi showed Him honor. They demonstrated their respect and honor for Jesus by bringing Him gifts. Matthew 2:11 says, “Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” It was common to bring gifts to a king whenever you entered into his presence—it was a special way to honor him. Historically, these three gifts had significant and very specific meanings. Why? Because of the use of these words in the Old Testament.
For example, gold was rarely used by individuals in the ancient world and it was rarely owned by common people. It was reserved for the rich and wealthy, and was the choice metal of kings. Therefore, it was always associated with royalty.
The Magi also brought frankincense. This particular word comes from the Old English “frank incense,” which means “pure or sincere, incense.” Frankincense is an aromatic resin that comes from trees in Arabia and India. When this word occurs in the Old Testament, it’s used almost exclusively in reference to the worship of God. In fact, it was incense that was burned in the temple as an expression of worship to God.
Finally, the Magi also brought myrrh. Myrrh is a reddish-brown resin from the dried sap of a tree that is also found in Arabia. It was so valuable in the first century that it was worth more than its weight in gold. It was primarily used for three purposes: as a perfume, as a pain killer, and as an embalming fragrance. Interestingly, the irony of myrrh is that it was used in all three ways during the life of our Lord. At His birth, it was used as a perfume. At His death on the cross, He was offered myrrh as a way to numb the pain (which He refused). And in His death, it was used to embalm His body.
All three gifts were perfectly appropriate. Gold, because He is the King of kings and Lord of lords. Frankincense, because he is God with us in the flesh. And myrrh, because the reason He came was to die for the sins of everyone who would ever believe in Him. All three of these gifts were extremely rare and incredibly valuable. They were expressions of their honor and adoration of Jesus Christ. The Magi modeled for us the only right response to the birth of our King and that is unrestrained worship. In other words, you must find your chief joy in Him. You must submit your life to Him as your rightful king and you must honor Him with the most valuable gift you have: your very life.
God sent these men to find their rightful King and He did so in order to accomplish their spiritual rescue. This is an amazing reality because prior to Jesus’ birth an angel tells Joseph: “[Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Then, in the very next paragraph, we meet some of the most unlikely candidates for that spiritual rescue: the Magi. God sovereignly reached down into the paganism of the former Babylonian empire, and He rescued these men for Himself.
The question is: how have you responded to him? Have you responded in manner like that of the Magi? Is Jesus Christ your chief joy in life? Have you submitted to His rule and reign? Have you responded by honoring Him by giving Him your entire life? As you celebrate Christmas this year, I hope you remember that this is the essence of what we celebrate: your rightful King has come and He demands complete worship and submission to Him.