The Wise Men, Herod, and the Messiah
Time passes after the birth of Jesus but we don't know how much – possible as much as two years (see v.16).
The Christmas story has been covered over by various traditional interpretations which have little or no basis in the Bible. Jesus is no longer in a stable but when the wise men visit He is now in a house v.11.
The only reason for saying that the wise men numbered three is the fact that three gifts were offered.
Luke in his gospel has already told us that the good news was to be for "all people" and this event shows us that right from the beginning the good news spread way beyond the Jewish people.
The Wise Men
Notice that God has no difficulty in drawing men to Christ even from the most unlikely places:
In this particular case He uses a combination of different factors to bring the wise men to the Saviour and of protecting them and Him.
1. Star – something so unusual happened in the sky that these men made a long trip. They came because they wanted to worship the new born king.
Stop for a minute and consider how odd this was. Israel was a small occupied province at the extremities of the Roman Empire. Why should anyone be interested in the birth of a new king in such an insignificant part of the world? Let alone why should foreigners desire to come to worship him?
2. Scripture – now we have no idea why the wise men went to Jerusalem rather than straight to Bethlehem. Did the star lead them first there? Did the star stop shining for a time? Did the wise men simply assume that Jerusalem as the capital city would be the place to find a new king? After all Bethlehem was not far from Jerusalem – some 6 miles away.
But once in Jerusalem the wise men immediately try to find out just where the new-born king is. It's hardly surprising that the existing king, Herod, should rapidly become aware of the enquiries!
Herod knows where to go to get the information necessary – he sends for the religious experts and asks them. These men are in no doubt and readily supply what is needed: ie. the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem – and they quote some verses from the prophet Micah as proof.
3. Star again – once more the star guides them and off go the wise men after to find the new king. As the star indicates the very place where the baby is to be found their reaction is one of profound joy! No skepticism for them, no questions about whether or not stars can do this kind of thing – no, they see it and it becomes a subject for rejoicing as they're nearing the end of their search.
When they find Him they do just what they had intended to do – they worship Him! Having done this they then present their offerings to Him – gold, frankincense and myrrh.
4. Dream – in order to protect both the new-born baby king and quite probably the wise men themselves a dream is given whereby the wise men realize that they must not go back to Herod and so they head off home by a different route. And that's the last we hear of the wise men.
What we can learn from them:
· They acted upon the little information they had and God revealed more and more to them.
· They were not content to be objective observers – they were committed worshippers.
· They were obedient, respectful and generous.
This man presents us with an altogether much less agreeable picture!
Who was Herod?
Well he was a violent man who had taken the throne by force with the collusion of the Romans – once established in his reign he was loyal ally of Rome for 30 or so years. He was Jewish by religion but was not a pure Jew having a mixed ancestry. He never endeared himself to the people. While he spent huge sums of money on the Temple project in Jerusalem at the same time he was quite happy to promote pagan temples elsewhere!
How does he react to the news of a new-born king?
Very badly! After all when you've come to power as he did he could only see in any other "king" a threat and a rival?
Matthew tells us he was "troubled" and not only Herod but "all Jerusalem with him".
Why was this so? Why wasn't the news that was interpreted to concern the promised Messiah joyfully received?
Herod knew of messianic prophecies but only thought of the messiah as a threat. But the rest of the people? Well a handful were eagerly waiting for the Messiah to come but the majority it would appear could only see such a coming as being the harbinger of political instability and its disastrous consequences.
They had vested interests – the status quo had its own definite advantages.
It wasn't that all religious knowledge was absent; it was simply that such knowledge was no longer valued. They might possess a certain understanding but totally lacked an appreciation of the worth of the person to whom the Scriptures pointed and so they had no desire for Him!
Herod reacts with his usual wheeling and dealing: notice the progression in evil!
a. Secret meeting with the wise men
b. Deceit and lying – Herod has not the slightest desire to worship as the wise men
c. Fury leading to mass murder – it was fine for Herod to lie to the wise men but when he doesn't get his way it's because of trickery on the part of the wise men! And Herod is furious. How easy it is to condemn in others what we are ready to tolerate and condone in ourselves. And because of Herod's perceived self-interests the massacre of the innocents takes place.
What is said of the Messiah in this passage?
Well what we have to consider was common knowledge to the religious classes in Jerusalem and we can assume that much of this knowledge was not restricted to these classes but had passed on to the ordinary occupants of the city.
Matthew quotes part of a prophecy that is found in the Book of Micah ch.5 The quote is added to indicate just where the Messiah was to be born but the passage actually tells us far more than just that.
In fact Matthew is not just quoting Micah 5:2 but summarizing the verses 2-5a. Can we assert that Matthew assumes his readers will know the context of the verse he cites?
In these verses we see the following points:
1) The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem
2) The Messiah is no ordinary person for his "origin is from of old, from ancient days" ie. "from eternity" He also comes in the Majesty of the name of the LORD – surely this is testified to in Luke's account when the angels herald the birth of such a Saviour!
3) The Messiah will indeed be a ruler but His rule will be comparable to that of a shepherd. A shepherd "rules" over his flock for the benefit of his sheep. He leads them out to find pastures where they can feed; he brings them back into safety; he protects them from wild animals and all other dangers.
This type of word-picture is used of kings in the OT history of the people of God:
As a military leader: 1Sam.18:13 "So Saul removed him from his presence and made him a commander of a thousand. And he went out and came in before the people."
2Sam.5:1-2 "Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said, “Behold, we are your bone and flesh. In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was you who led out and brought in Israel. And the LORD said to you, ‘You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel.”’
That Jesus reign would not be comparable to a normal human kingdom is clear from Jesus own words to Pilate in Jn.18:36 "Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”
This enables us to see just how Jesus could rule as a good shepherd – see Jn.10 esp. v.9 "I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture." and vv.11; 14 "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,"
The idea is also used later on in the NT. Eg. Rev.7:17 "For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
4) The Messiah accomplishes His work with no ordinary strength but in the strength of the LORD – who then can possibly withstand His ministry. How ludicrous then of Herod to think that he might so easily do away with God's Messiah!
5) The Messiah will be great and He will bring peace – being Himself the peace of His people.
Cf. similar words in Is.9:6 " For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."
Jn.14:27 "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid."
And peace becomes the standard greeting amongst Christians in the NT.
May we too know this peace that comes from Jesus the Messiah!
The active hostility of Herod, the passive indifference of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, was totally unproductive. The Messiah was close at hand but they didn't know how to profit from Him. May we rather follow the example of the wise men and worship.