The wise men visit Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12)

Summary

Jesus was born in Bethlehem when Herod was king of Judea. Some men who studied the stars came from the east to Jerusalem and asked “Where is the Baby born to be the king of the Jews?” They had seen his star in the east and come to worship him.

Herod was upset and called the chief priests and teachers of the law and asked them “Where will the Messiah be born?” They told him Bethlehem had been predicted in prophecy. Herod asked the visitors to let him know exactly where the child was, so he too could worship him. They followed the star until it stopped over the place where the child lay. They worshipped him and brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They returned home by another road as God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.

Background

Bethlehem was a small town six miles from Jerusalem. It was the hometown of King David. It is therefore significant that Jesus was born there as the Jews were expecting the Messiah, as prophesied in the Old Testament, to come from David’s birth place. Matthew always likes to remind his readers whenever these prophecies have been fulfilled.

King Herod was partly of Jewish descent. The Romans allowed him to rule for them as Judea’s king instead of a Roman governor. For many people, Herod was not an acceptable ruler because he did exactly as the Romans told him - he was a ‘puppet king’, with Rome pulling the strings.

Herod was therefore not in a secure position and was paranoid about having his power stolen. He killed anyone suspected of plotting against him, including his favourite wife and three of his sons. The Roman Emperor Augustus said it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son.

Understanding the text

Matthew calls the visitors “Magi” (wise men) and they may well have been astrologers, following the sign of a special star in the sky. They probably came from Persia. The Magi could have come to visit weeks or even months after the shepherds visited, when Mary and Joseph had found accommodation in a house (verse 11).

Some traditions refer to the Magi as kings. The Old Testament describes kings who bring their gifts to a great ruler (Psalm 72:10-11) and that kings would come to give honour to God’s light in Jerusalem (Isaiah 60:3). The idea of kings probably comes from these verses. People often assume there were three visitors because of there were three gifts, but Matthew does not say how many there were.

The Magi arrived at Herod’s palace in Jerusalem asking, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?”. Herod immediately feared a threat to his rule and was keen to locate the baby. He did this by asking the chief priests and teachers of the law. They consulted the Old Testament prophecies and informed Herod that the prophet Micah had written about Bethlehem, “Out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.” The conclusion therefore was that the new king would be born in Bethlehem. This is another example of Matthew referring to the Old Testament and showing how Jesus has fulfilled it.

The Magi have a symbolic role to play in this birth narrative. Coming from the east, they represent the Gentile (non-Jewish) world coming to worship this new king. Also, compared to the humble shepherds, they represent people with a different status in society worshipping Jesus.

The Magi’s gifts are also highly symbolic of Jesus’ future life, as they represent king, God and man:

  • Gold – this is a precious metal and represents royalty. It emphasises Jesus’ role as ruler over the kingdom of God. Gold represents the kingship of Jesus.
  • Frankincense – this is resin from a tree, burned for its smell during temple worship (and still used in some churches today). Frankincense represents Jesus being worshipped as God.
  • Myrrh – this was an oil used to anoint the dead before burial. Myrrh represents Jesus’ humanity and death.

The Magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, as he intends to harm the child. Dreams and angels play an important role in the birth stories. They are the means by which God communicates with people and guides events.