The Return of the King - Part 1

Matthew 2:1-12

Tom Pennington  •  December 14, 2008
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It's our custom to refer to the time when Jesus came, as we celebrate this time of year, as the first coming of Jesus Christ, or the first advent of Jesus Christ. And of course, in a very real sense that's true, but in another sense, it would be accurate to say that it was His return, it was the return of "The King." Because Jesus Christ had often been in the world before that night. He was there at creation. The Gospel John tells us that Everything that was made was made by Him. He walked in the garden of Eden in the cool of the day with Adam and with Eve.

He appeared to the patriarchs: to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob. He appeared to Moses in a burning bush, and later He appeared there on Mount Sinai as the nation gathered around, in the book of Exodus. He walked before Israel through the wilderness as a cloud by day and fire by night. Throughout Old Testament history, Jesus Christ appears as a shadowy, mysterious figure called "the Angel of the Lord. It was His glory that overshadowed the Holy of Holies. It was His glory that Isaiah saw in the temple, according to John 12. It was the Second Person of the Trinity who appeared to the prophets. You see Jesus Christ was, and is, and will always be, the mediator between God and man.

So, when we come to Matthew's Gospel, where I want us to turn this morning, and we come to the end of the first chapter and it says that Mary gave birth to a son, and they called his name Jesus, this is His return. What's different this time from all of those other times is that He has become one of us for the very first time. He has become fully human. In fact, when we meet Him in chapter 2, as we will this morning, He is a small child, less than two years old. And He's come, as earth's King.

This week and next, I want us to examine a really remarkable account that happened shortly after Jesus' birth. It's familiar to everyone here, and yet like so many things that we are familiar with, most of us here this morning don't really understand this story. We don't really understand its far reaching implications. It's the story of the wise men. Let me read the story for you, and let me say that I discovered something this week that I had really never known before. My entire life I've heard them called the magi. Well if you look at any dictionary, anywhere you want to look, I looked at a number of them, the actually correct pronunciation of that in English is maygi. I will do my best to be consistent with that this morning, but I may slip into my old habits. So, you'll understand one way or the other who I'm talking about. Matthew 2, let me begin reading in verse 1:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, "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." When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, "in Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: 'AND YOU, BETHLEHEM, LAND OF JUDAH, ARE BY NO MEANS LEAST AMONG THE LEADERS OF JUDAH; FOR OUT OF YOU WILL COME FORTH A RULER WHO WILL SHEPHERD MY PEOPLE ISRAEL.'"

Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search carefully for the child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him." 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 … where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. And opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.

Now this account is obviously very important to Matthew. You see, between chapter 1 and 3, there is a gap of some thirty years. From the birth of Christ until His ministry begins, 30 years transpire. And Matthew only records two incidents from Jesus' life in those 30 years, both of them related: one the flight into Egypt, related to this first account, and the other the appearance of the wise men. It would have been easy to have skipped this incident all together, in fact, none of the other Gospels record it. Matthew is the sole Gospel writer who records this incident. Matthew included it here because it's very important to his purpose for writing his Gospel.

Over the next couple weeks as we study this passage, it's theme will become apparent, and clear to you I think. The theme of these twelve verses is simply this: Jesus is the only rightful King. Jesus is the only rightful King: He is the King of the Jews, He is the King of the Gentiles, He is the King of all the earth, He is the King of every man and woman. Matthew develops that theme as he unfolds this story that has captivated the hearts and imaginations of Christians for 2000 years. I want us to look at it together.

The story begins very simply with, the unlikely announcement of the King, the unlikely announcement of the King. It comes in just the first two verses, and this is as far as we'll get today because there's so much background that we need to understand. Next week, Lord willing, we'll complete our study of this passage. But let's look at this unlikely announcement of the King in verses 1 and 2. Notice verse 1 again:

"Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 'where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and we have come to worship Him.'"

Now Matthew's Gospel was written to the Jews, and it presents Jesus as their King. In Matthew 1, he gives Jesus' genealogy to show that Jesus is in the line of the kings, that He has the right to be King, that He is royalty, that He is a legal descendant of David through His human father Joseph. Matthew 2 shows the acknowledgement after His birth that He is in fact the king, and that affirmation comes from a most unlikely source. It is announced by a most unlikely group of men. An unusual, enigmatic group called "magi," or as it is in some translations "wise men."

Now, this morning, what we need to do is learn about these men, and try to separate some of the myth that has grown around them from the fact. So, let's examine them together. There are several questions we need to answer. The first question is, when did they come? When did they come? Well notice generally, verse 1 tells us, "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea." Matthew records Jesus' birth in only one verse, with the simplicity of authenticity. Notice at the end of the first chapter he simply says, "She gave birth to a son, and called His name Jesus." There is Matthew's account of the birth of Jesus Christ, and here in chapter 2:1, we discover where that happened, in Bethlehem of Judea.

Now that's important for two reasons. One, because there are two Bethlehems in Israel: one up in the north in Galilee, near Nazareth, the other in Judea, down in the south near Jerusalem. The other reason it's important is because there's a prophecy about one of those Bethlehems, and so it was important for him to delineate that it was that Bethlehem in which Jesus was born. This particular Bethlehem, the one in Judea, is located some six miles south of the city of Jerusalem. Its name "Bethlehem" simply means "house of bread," or as we would say in the vernacular "bread town." That's what it was called because of its rich agriculture, and that's true by the way, even to this day. It was a small insignificant town in the time of Christ. It had only one claim to fame, and that was it was the birthplace of David, and because of that it became the city which produced the Davidic Dynasty which had ruled over the nation for some four hundred plus years. That's where these things happened.

Verse 1 adds, the events of chapter 2 happened "in the days of Herod." So, it was after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in the days of Herod the king. This is a man named Herod the Great. We'll learn more about him next week, Lord willing. But Herod reigned from 37 B.C., until his death, and we know from secular history that he died in the spring of 4 B.C. Now, if you're thinking with me, you know right away that throws our timing of A.D. and B.C. on its head. The man who came up with that calendar some five hundred years after Christ was off by a few years. We know today that Herod died in 4 B.C. That means that Jesus was born somewhere between 4 and 6 B.C. So, it was in the days of Herod.

We also know that this incident occurred more than 40 days after Jesus' birth. I hate to rain on all of those lovely nativity sets, and you can still put them up, and still celebrate, as long as you understand biblically they came probably at least 40 days after Jesus birth. How do we know that? Several different ways. First of all, we know that the magi were not there on the night of His birth because the shepherds found Jesus where? In a stable: actually, in a cave. I've had the opportunity to visit what was almost certainly that site, as have many in our church.

In this incident however, in Matthew 2, we find Jesus living where? Verse 11 says, "in a house." Also, if you look at the time line from the other Gospels, the magi have to come after 40 days because 40 days after Jesus' birth, as the law required, Jesus was presented at the temple in Jerusalem. So, on that day 40 days after His birth, Joseph and Mary traveled the six miles or so from Bethlehem, north up to Jerusalem; and what happens that day is recorded in Luke 2:22-38. The next verse, Luke 2:39, says that "After those forty days, they returned up to Nazareth." Apparently, just to gather their belongings, and move back down to Bethlehem because the next time we find them they're in a house in Bethlehem.

There's another way that we know at least forty days had passed since Jesus' birth, and that is the time it would have taken the magi to travel from the east. The main trade route from Babylon to Israel was about 800 miles. If they'd traveled the average of that day, which was about 20 miles a day, it would have taken them roughly 40 days to come. And that's if they left the very day they saw the star. So, taking all of that evidence together, it's very clear that the events of Matthew 2 occur at least 40 days after Jesus has been born.

There's one other time factor that helps us sort of narrow the time when these men arrived, and that is, it could not have happened more than two years after Jesus' birth. It was less than two years after the day of Jesus' birth. How do we know that? Well verse 7 of this passage I've just read to you, Herod investigated the exact time the star appeared from the wise men, and then in verse 16, when he wants to snuff out the life of this "competitor," as he sees it, he kills all of the children two and under. From everything that we know about Herod, and what you will learn next week, we know that Herod was the kind of man who would have left himself a margin of error. He would not have allowed the child to escape, and so we know then that Jesus was somewhere between 40 days old and two years old when these enigmatic characters arrive.

And notice verse 1 says they arrived in Jerusalem. The star had appeared to coincide with the time of Jesus' birth, but there's no indication, in the text, that the star led them all the way to Jerusalem. It didn't need to because they already knew that the child would be the King of the Jews. They come anticipating a King of the Jews. So, they came then to where whey would expect the King of the Jews to have been. Where would the King of the Jews have been born? Well obviously, in the capital city, the city of Jerusalem, where its current king reigned. And so that's when they come, and they come somewhere between 40 days and two years to Jerusalem.

The next important question for us to ask about these men is, who were they? Who were they? Verse 1 simply describes them as magi from the east. This simple, Gospel record has grown into a legend that is much larger than life. And much of what you've heard about these men is frankly, absolute fiction. Let me give you a few of the things we don't know, that are described as if we do.

First of all, there is no solid basis for believing that we know their names. Tradition says their names were Gaspar, Balthazar, and Melchior. There is no basis whatsoever for embracing that, and in fact, it comes hundreds of years after Jesus' birth; and in fact, there probably were not only three of them. Nowhere in the text does it say that there were three of them. That idea comes from the fact that there were three gifts. And so, the sort of common assumption is that there were only three, but if you read that carefully, as we will next week, these three gifts came from all of them to Christ. So, we don't know the number.

They were not kings. We sing, "We three kings of orient are," but there's no record that they were kings. In fact, as we will see this morning, they were more likely "king makers." They weren't descendants of the sons of Noah as some have taught: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. There's no Biblical record of that. One of them was probably not an Ethiopian. It is also highly unlikely that the three skulls that were found in the 1300s by the Bishop of Cologne, and are now on exhibition in the cathedral there, are authentic, don't bother going. Those are all the stuff of legends, and none of it is in the inspired text.

But the truth about these men, in some ways, is even stranger than those fictions. Let's look at them more carefully. Who were these men? Well there is much that we can know about them both from Biblical history as well as secular history. According to Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, the magi were originally members of a Persian priestly caste. They were recognized as the teachers of science, and religion. In the scientific field they studied astronomy, and medicine, mathematics, and philosophy. They were the legal authorities of their world. In fact, our word "magistrate" comes from the word "magi." In ancient Persia they were men of extreme power and influence.

In fact, history tells us that the caste of the magi were involved in appointing and selecting a new king. They were "king makers." It was this caste of magi that are credited with establishing the foundation of a planetary system in the heavens (of understanding the reality of that), the computation and tracking of time, the establishment of the calendar. These were brilliant men. That's why they were called "wise men." Over time, the name of that priestly caste, "magi," or "wise men," came to be used of anyone, in any nation, that practiced the same kind of arts.

We especially meet such men when we come to the empire of Babylon. If you read Daniel's book, over and over again you meet the "wise men." Those who were responsible to instruct and teach both science and religion. In fact, in Jeremiah 39:3, we're even given the name of the head of the magi in Babylon in Nebuchadnezzar's time; probably not a name that you'll want to name one of your children. His name was Nergal-shar-ezer. And he's given a title in Jeremiah 39:3. This is his title: the "Rab-mag." The "Rab-mag" is a title that translated means "the chief of the magi."

The religious experience of these men, however, was not something that should be copied or emulated. Their religious expertise was in astrology and divination, and incantation. In fact, our English word "magic" comes from the word "magi," and what these ancient men did. Beginning in about the sixth century B.C., Persia was influenced heavily by the ancient version of Zoroastrianism. There were similarities between Judaism and the religious beliefs of the magi, and that ancient form of Zoroastrianism. They were monotheists for example; they offered sacrifices in much the same way. But their religion was a satanic counterfeit of the faith in the true God.

The magi were involved in a number of practices that were explicitly forbidden in the Old Testament: things like astrology and divination of dreams. But you have to understand that in the world at that time, there wasn't a hair's breath of difference between science and superstition. Some things never change. And remarkably, as we will see next week, God cut through all of that to bring these men to an amazing knowledge of the truth. And I believe, to a true knowledge of Himself.

These men were important men. They were highly influential and respected men. They were important enough that they would have not have come merely by themselves. They would have come with a large contingent, possibly even a small army because they were entering another empire. The Roman Empire did not extend to where they lived, They were not under Rome's control. And so, they come to another empire, another kingdom. They probably didn't come on camels, but as the Persians typically traveled either on Persian or Arabian horses. The magi wore impressive clothes. History tells us that they would have worn long, cone shaped hats. Very similar to what we still associate with wizards. They didn't sneak into town. When they arrived at the gates of Jerusalem, they made an entrance. That's who the magi were.

But why did they come? Notice how they explained the reason they'd come in verse 2: "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." There is no doubt in their minds that "this one" will be a very unique king, and that He has already been born. Their question is not "when?" but, "where?" Now how could they be so certain of this? Well notice the explanation they give, "We saw His star in the east." What was this star that indicated to them when this king they had anticipated would be born? Well as you might imagine there's been a great deal of debate about this, and I've read many, many different explanations for it. Let me summarize them for you.

Some think that the star was a unique alignment of the planets. A unique alignment of the planets when there was a special brightness. Some for example point to seven B.C. when there was an alignment of Jupiter and Saturn. That was too early for the biblical chronology. Others think it was a comet, like Hayley's Comet, and there was a comet that appeared between 11 and 12 B.C., but again that's too early for the birth of Christ. Still others believe that it was the brief appearance of a supernova. The explosion of a star that faded away eventually.

But you know, it's very unlikely that it was a natural phenomenon at all, very unlikely that it was any of those things. Why do I say that? Look at verse 9. It says, "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." Somehow, whatever this scene they saw, whatever this star was, it moved in front of them the six miles south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and even somehow indicated the very place, perhaps even the house itself, where Jesus was. So clearly, this was some kind of supernatural phenomenon especially prepared for this occasion that in some way resembled a star to them.

We can't be certain because we aren't told, but I think the most likely explanation is that this is a New Testament appearance of what is called in the Old Testament the Shekina, the Glory Cloud, that cloud by day and pillar of fire by night that led the children of Israel through the wilderness, that blazing manifestation of God's presence, that blazing display of the presence of God that took up residence in the Old Testament temple. Something like this had already appeared to the shepherds on the night of Jesus' birth, if you look over at Luke 2, Luke 2:9 says that "… an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the Glory of the Lord shone around them…." There was this visible display of the Glory of God. It may very well be that that's what these wise men saw.

But whatever this star was, and we can't be sure, whatever it was, it indicated to them that the time had come for the unique King of the Jews to be born. This is just God's grace isn't it? Think about God manifesting themselves to astronomers and pagan astrologers in the form of a star. As William Hendrickson writes: The wisdom and kindness of God is evident from the fact that He spoke to these students of the stars in a language which they could understand, namely that, a star." So, they came to see the King. They came to worship the King of the Jews.

But the question that enters my mind, and should enter yours as well is, how did they know? How did they know? Obviously, the star provided them with the timing of this event. But how did they know about this special King that would be born in Israel? Well I think it helps if you remember where they're from. They came from the east: probably Babylon, perhaps Persia. Almost 600 years before, 600 years before these events, the southern half of the land of Israel, made up primarily of two tribes, the tribe of Judah and Benjamin, had been carried off captive you remember into Babylon.

Three times Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, had come to Israel and taken away captives. The first time in 605 B.C., he came and took away only the best and the brightest, among them Daniel and his three friends. He returned in 597 B.C., and took other leaders, and he came back a third time in 586 B.C., and devastated the city; took all but the oldest and the poorest, and the most sickly and ill back to Babylon where they were there in captivity because of their sin against their God.

Fifty years after that devastating blow in the city of Jerusalem, 50 years later, God raised up the Medes and the Persians, another empire; and at the head of that empire was a man named Cyrus. And Cyrus, led and directed by God, issued a decree that allowed the Jews to return to their homeland, and some of them returned. But most, listen carefully, most of the Jews that had been taken captive into Babylon never returned to Israel. Over the years that followed, they continued to live throughout that area where these men came from. And in fact, history records that many of them rose to high positions, became wealthy and influential people in the land of Babylon and the lands of Persia. For nearly six-hundred years, devout Jews had shared their Scriptures, and the promise of a coming Messiah with the people among whom they lived. That's certainly one way they knew.

But there's an even more surprising way that they could have known all of these things. You remember the story of Daniel, and specifically you remember the story of Daniel 2? Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, has a dream. And he's deeply troubled about this dream, and so he sends for all the magi, all the wise men of Babylon, to tell him what the dream was, and to explain its significance to him. And of course, they are unable to do so, and so he commands that all of them be killed. And as they come to kill Daniel and his friends, Daniel asks for time, saying that he knows the true God in heaven who will reveal this dream and its meaning. He's given that time, and the Lord in fact does reveal to him both the dream and its meaning. And you remember what happens? Nebuchadnezzar does something very surprising. Look back at Daniel 2. Daniel 2:48. It says, "The king promoted Daniel and gave him many great gifts, and he made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon."

You can know, that in years that followed, Daniel used the influence the king had given him to direct those who were under his authority to the true God. Think for a moment about what Daniel could have shared with those under his charge. The Old Testament: all of the writings of Moses, through the history of Israel, up to the time of Jeremiah and Ezekiel who wrote around the time of the exile. But think more about what was revealed to Daniel, and specifically, what was revealed to Daniel while he was in Babylon, while he was over the magi, about the Messiah who would come.

If you look at Daniel 2, you remember that this dream the king had is about a series of world empires, and those series of world empires culminate in the reign of a kingdom established by God Himself. You'll notice verse 44 of Daniel 2, "In the days of those kings the God of Heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all those kingdoms, and it will itself endure forever." So Daniel knew there was a coming world kingdom that would crush all others. A kingdom God would establish. If you turn over to Daniel 7, it was revealed to Daniel that the one who would rule over that kingdom was none less than a Divine Messiah. Chapter 7:13, he says:

 "I kept looking in the night visions,

  And behold, with the clouds of heaven 

  One like a son of man was coming, 

  And He came up to the Ancient of Days 

  And was presented before Him.

  And to Him was given dominion, 

  Glory and a kingdom, 

  That all the peoples, nations and men of every language 

  Might serve Him. 

  His dominion is an everlasting dominion 

  Which will not pass away;  

  And His kingdom is one 

 Which will not be destroyed."  

So, Daniel not only knew, and was able to teach others that there was a coming kingdom that would dominate the world for ever, but that that kingdom would be presided over by a divine Messiah.

He also knew that that Messiah would come into human history at a point in time. Look at Daniel 9, Daniel 9:25. He's talking about that seventy-week prophecy, about the nation of Israel, and he says in verse 25, "… You are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem [what was to happen in Daniel's lifetime, from that time] until the Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress." So, he understood that that divine Messiah who would have this everlasting kingdom would invade human history at a point in time. In verse 26 he even understood that this divine Messiah would die. Verse 26 says, "Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing…."

Daniel knew so much about this Messiah who would come, this special King of the Jews, who would come; and undoubtedly, he used his influence, his writing, as well as his words and life, to affect those around him. The wise men of Babylon had learned much from Daniel and the rest of the Hebrews during Israel's time there, and that continued to influence their thinking, apparently right up to the time of Christ. There were still wise men and magi in Babylon at the time of Christ, who understood and knew these things. And so, when the divine indication that it was time came, when the star appeared, it makes perfect sense that they would come to Jerusalem to find the Messiah the Prince, to find the King of the Jews. Here at the birth of Christ we find magi still familiar with the prophecies, and still looking for the one who would come, who had been promised. Pulled, as we will see next week, from their pagan idolatry to understand the truth of the Son of God.

When God chooses to announce the arrival of His Son, the arrival of the King, He chooses to do so through some humble Jewish shepherds, probably from Bethlehem; and here in Matthew's Gospel, He does it through some powerful and influential Gentiles from what is modern day Iraq and Iran. The lesson is clear: regardless of your external circumstances, you must acknowledge this Child as King. The only proper response to Jesus Christ is to fall at His feet and worship, even as these men do, because He is the promised One. He is the Divine Messiah. He is the only rightful King; the only rightful King of the Jews; the only rightful King of the Gentiles, as we see here; the only rightful King of all the earth; the only rightful King of every person. He is your King, whether you knowledge it or not, whether you live with that reality in your mind or not. He is King. The real question is, have you ever acknowledged His right to rule in your life? Have you ever acknowledged His right to rule, and have you bowed your will to His will? You see the real issue of Christmas is that Jesus has come, the King has returned. And the question is, whose response in this story best reflects your own? He is King. Have you acknowledged His right to rule you?

Let's Pray together.

Our Father, we thank you for this amazing story. We thank you for these men who You snatched from paganism just as you snatched Abraham out of the Ur of the Chaldees. These men whom, by Your grace, You revealed Your Son. Father we thank you, for your work in their lives. We thank you that through the influence of Godly Jews who lived in that area for so many years, through the influence of a Godly prophet like Daniel, through the power of Your Word, these men had come to understand that that baby was their King, Messiah, The Anointed One. The one sent to make an end to sin.

Father, I pray that you would help us to come to those same conclusions. Father, I pray for those here this morning who know and love Jesus Christ: may they continually give up their right to self rule.

Father, may all of us gladly and freely acknowledge that Jesus is King, He is our King, and He has the right to rule. He has the right to tell us everything: about how we live, how we conduct our marriages, how we conduct our business, what we do with our free time, how we respond to those around us. Father, I pray that you would remind us constantly that He is the rightful King. And may we at this season find our selves at His feet, even as these wise men did.

Father, I pray as well for those here this morning who have not yet acknowledged Jesus' right to rule in their lives: who still are autonomous, who still practice complete self-rule, who still make all the decisions, set all the priorities, determine what they will do and how they will do it. Oh God, help them to see that they are living in active rebellion against their rightful King, and may this season of the year be when they fall down at His feet, as it were, and acknowledge His right to rule in their lives.

We pray it in Jesus name, and for His sake, Amen.