The Visit of the Magi
A sermon on Matthew 2: 1-12 by Nathan Nettleton, 6 January 1991

There is an illuminating contrast between the response of the pagan magi and the response of the biblical scholars, and between the kingship of Jesus and the kingship of Herod.


Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the land of Judea during the time of King Herod the Great. Matthew doesn't tell us why Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem in Judea but I'm sure that only two weeks after Christmas we all remember Luke's account of the required visit to Judea to register for the census. There was another Bethlehem up in Galilee just near Nazareth, and Matthew wants to make sure that we know that Jesus was born in the Judean Bethlehem. Because for Matthew's good Jewish readership that was important. They knew their Scriptures and so they knew that the Messiah was to come from the line and the city of David. That is probably why Matthew starts his story in Bethlehem. He doesn't want all those details about angels and engagements up in Nazareth to distract his readers from the fact that Jesus came from exactly where the Messiah was expected to come from. Matthew is like that. He likes to give his readers something comfortable to hang on to before he hits them with the threatening stuff. He gets them feeling all secure with their cherished Hebrew presuppositions and then when they least expect it he rips the rug right out from under them.

This time he wastes no time at all. He starts sticking the needles in straight away. To us the statement probably seems innocent enough. Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked,“Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star rise in the east and we have come to worship him.” Innocent enough? Not to a proudly righteous Jew in the first century, it's not. This would have the hackles up on the backs of their necks already.

Who came to Jerusalem? Magi? The description of people as Magi could have been a number of slightly different meanings, but none of them would endear them to a devout Jew. At its most innocent it referred to a possessor and user of supernatural knowledge and ability. The wise man, whose special knowledge comes from reading the stars or from other mystical means of divination inaccessible to ordinary people. The use of any form of divination, astrological or otherwise had long been forbidden to the Israelites, as a thing abhorrent to the Lord. This more specific meaning of the word mago" referred to a member of the Persian priestly caste, the rulers and practitioners of the distinctive religions of Babylon. They were the speakers of the sacred words at the pagan sacrifices and the interpreters of special signs associated with the pagan cult. I'm sure I don't need to tell you what the Jewish attitude was to the priests of pagan religious cults. At worst, the term referred to a magician or sorcerer, or even a deceiver. These descriptions referred specifically to a type of magic that was forced or demonic and was clearly distinguished from supernatural gifts given by God. Whichever of these meanings were understood by Matthew's readers, it would have aroused immediate suspicion in their minds. Magi were people whose activities were repeatedly condemned and prohibited throughout the scriptures and were completely anathema to the people of Israel.

But Matthew openly writes that Magi from the east came to Jerusalem. Magi from where? From the East. Probably from modern day Iraq or somewhere close by. Not exactly a popular Jewish holiday destination. They probably wouldn't have aroused quite the fear that a modern day Iraqi arriving a Jerusalem asking for directions to the local maternity hospital would, but they still wouldn't have been especially welcome in the first century.

But anyway, these Magi from the east arrive in Jerusalem asking where they can see the one who had recently been born King of the Jews, whose star they had seen rise in the east. It doesn't tell us how much the Magi knew about the expected Messiah, or how they knew whatever they knew. But it is not too difficult to imagine that they had a reasonable understanding of the hopes of Israel. A few centuries earlier they would have had thousands and thousands of Israelites living in captivity among them during the exile. The Jewish prophet Daniel had in those times had a huge influence on the eastern astrologers and wise men and it is quite possible that his influence was still active. What's more by this time there were Jews living in most parts of the Roman world including the far east. Not only had Roman unity and transport enabled such a spread but their general religious openness had encouraged a very cosmopolitan attitude to religion in most parts of the empire. People were often interested and informed about other religions and Judaism was found especially interesting because of its antiquity and its exclusiveness. There is some evidence to suggest that Babylonian astrologers had for quite some time expected the rise of a great king in the west who would bring about a reign of peace and receive homage from the whole known world.

Just what it was that the Magi had seen in the sky is impossible to say. Saturn and Jupiter were in close conjunction several times in this era and may have appeared as a new and unique star. Halleys Comet went past in 12 BC but that is probably too early. Who cares, it doesn't really matter, they saw something and they associated it with the expected arrival of the King of the Jews. And with the curiosity typical of great scientists and philosophers, they felt the burning desire to investigate, to see for themselves just what it was that had happened. To the Jewish mind, the only thing that God was likely to reveal to an astrologer was that astrology was evil, but God, as usual, refuses to be limited to our expectations of the means of revelation, and so the Magi come.

Arise, shine, Jerusalem, our psalm read, for your light has come; and over you the glory of the Lord has dawned. But by the time the Magi arrived at the end of their long journey, Jerusalem had certainly not risen. Perhaps the Magi expected that when they arrived in Israel everybody would know about the great king that had been born. Everybody would be talking about him and certainly everybody would know where he was. They had been quite sure when they saw the star that it was to Israel that they were to go, and they didn't arrive asking whether a King had been born, they arrived asking where he was. They were quite certain that he had been born but they seemed to be on their own. No-one seemed to know what they were talking about. So naturally, they went to Jerusalem. After all if you are looking for the heir apparent, you go to the capital city, so they went. Still nobody could help them, but still they kept asking, Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star rise in the east and we have come to worship him.

Well of course the sight of a group of foreign priests in town searching for a new born king to worship created quite a deal of interest and it wasn't long before King Herod heard about it. King Herod, in true royal fashion, was not amused. I love the imagery of the word Matthew uses here to describe Herod's reaction. The word comes from a word that meant to stir up water. Have you ever left open the lid of your washing machine and watched until the water is full, and then there is a moment after the water stops running and all is quiet and still, and then suddenly the agitator starts. That is the image here, everything is still and normal until Herod hears that someone is supposed to have been born King of the Jews, and then wamm, sudden explosive agitation and tumultuous disturbance within his mind. Because in 40 BC Herod had himself been appointed “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate and he had now been in control for over three decades. He certainly didn't want any rival King of the Jews appearing on the scene. He immediately checked around and made sure that none of his wives had given birth without him noticing or anything like that but sure enough everything was normal, no new royal babies had arrived, so he was greatly disturbed by the news. And when Herod got greatly disturbed, everyone in Jerusalem got greatly disturbed. They were probably not afraid of the prospect of the new baby, but they had dealt with Herod before and the prospect of a fresh display of his anger was enough to disturb anybody. Like many rulers of his day Herod was a ruthless and bloodthirsty tyrant who dealt swiftly and brutally with any threat to his power. During his reign the people of Jerusalem had already seen him murder his wife, three of his sons, his mother-in-law, his brother-in-law, an uncle and many many other people. He was certainly not a good man to be related to, let alone to upset, and so when Herod got greatly agitated a wave of fear went right through Jerusalem; who was going to cop the brunt of his anger this time?

But brutal as he was, Herod was still a cunning operator. He didn't issue an immediate rebuttal of the rumours that were sweeping the capital, and he didn't have the magi arrested and silenced or deported from the city. No, he knew that if these people had made the effort to come all the way from Iraq, they would probably continue their detective work until they tracked down this newborn king, and that would save him the trouble of locating the appropriate baby for the appropriate liquidation. So he had the magi summoned and he put on a display of kindly interest in their news. And he wined and dined them in the palace dining hall and promised them all the assistance his royal resources could provide. He called together the the Jewish authorities, the entire Sanhedrin, the chief priests and all the teachers of the law to seek their assistance in the matter. “What do the scriptures say concerning the long awaited Messiah?” he inquired, “Where is he to be born?”

Easy question. The prophet Micah, and a number of later Jewish writers had clearly named Bethlehem in Judea as the birth place of the great ruler and shepherd of God's people. It was strange really, because as Micah acknowledged, Bethlehem was just a two-bit little town with very few people and not a lot going for it. Hardly the sort of place you'd expect a king to come from, even though King David had come from there all those centuries earlier. But then David had only been a sheep drover when he'd come from there. Matthew is interesting in the way he quotes the Micah passage, because he is rather loose in his interpretation of it. Micah had only said that the king would come from Bethlehem. The reference to the role of the king as the shepherd of God's people is Matthews editorialising. It was hardly a description of Herod's style of monarchical rule. It was much more in line with the description of the King that we had in our psalm earlier. Certainly no-one would have been using those words of Herod. The King will rescue the needy who appeal for help, the distressed who have no protector. He will have pity on the poor and needy, and deliver the needy from death; he will redeem them from oppression and violence and their blood will be precious in his eyes. Herod would have thought that was for wimps. All very namby-pamby. The only blood that was precious in Herod's eyes was his own. Any upstart kid from Bethlehem who thought he was going to be be some eternal king of peace and righteousness, shepherding God's people, could have his precious blood spilled all over the ground so far as Herod was concerned. Absolute power, a tight reign and an iron fist, that was how to rule, and if anybody didn't like it you stomped on them fast. Shepherding the people, ppthth!

So, anyway, the Sanhedrin have no trouble nominating Bethlehem as the expected birthplace of the Messiah. And that's fascinating, isn't it. Because they showed that they knew all about the expected arrival of the anointed one. They knew all the prophesies, they understood the scriptures, they had access to the revelations that God had given over the years. And yet they were completely unaware of the actual arrival. Who had God chosen to inform of the actual moment of arrival. The Magi. Not only foreigners, but despised pagans! I mean O.K. Paul reckons that through the gospel the Gentiles are joint heirs with the Jews, part of the same body, sharers together in the promise made in Christ Jesus. But no Jew was going to be very happy with this situation where the pagan gentiles got the first viewing of the long awaited glory of Israel. And they hadn't needed all the law and the prophets and the traditions to show them the way. The possessors of those failed to see what was occurring right under their noses while the Magi were drawn from the east by nothing more than the gleam of a star.

But so far as we know, none of the members of the Sanhedrin even offered to go and find the baby with them. These learned scholars certainly couldn't claim ignorance or uncertainty for their lack of faith or lack of interest. They knew exactly where the Messiah was to be born but it was the pagan astrologers who sought him out and worshipped him first. Herod, jealous of his position, seems to be the only one of the Jerusalem hierarchy who really takes the Magi's search seriously. He takes a close personal interest in their quest and ascertains from them the exact time of the appearance of the star before directing them on their way to Bethlehem. Using this information he was later to dispatch death squads to slaughter every boy less than two years old in Bethlehem. But for now he encourages the Magi in their quest and invites them to return to him after they have found the baby so that he too could go and worship him. The only worship Herod was likely to do was a blood sacrifice, but he had it all worked out. What better investigators and informants could he have than the Magi.

And so off go the magi down the road to Jerusalem. They saw the star again directly ahead of them over the Bethlehem road and they were overjoyed at the sight of it because its position seemed to be a confirmation in the skies that they were now on the right road. They must have been quite a sight coming into Bethlehem. We don't even know how many of them there were. Matthew never tells us. Legend has the number at either three or twelve, but we've really got no idea. But Bethlehem was only a tiny little place and probably they would have stood out like a battleship in a bathtub.

So they started asking their question in Bethlehem, Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star rise in the east and we have come to worship him. Now they began to get some information. Nobody seemed to be too sure but there were only a limited number of babies in town and a few people could remember some strange events a few weeks earlier surrounding one of them. Apparently he'd been born when the town was crowded at census time, in the stables behind a pub or something, and a rowdy bunch of drunken shearers had gone singing through the streets saying he was the saviour of the world or something like that. Anyway a few people could remember which pub it was, and it didn't take too long for the magi to track him down. It seemed that Mary and Joseph and the baby had moved out of the stable into the main house now, no doubt when the census was over and all the visitors went home. And so that is where the magi find them.

They come into the house and see the child in his mother's arms and they throw themselves down in a gesture of worship and deference. Finally their searching is over. At the sight of this small baby they know that their long journey has reached its fulfilment and has all been worthwhile. And they fall down before him in worship. Matthew's choice of word for worship here is interesting because it is a word that Matthew seems to use very carefully throughout his gospel. It is a bit of a favourite for him. It is a word that relates to a certain physical act of reverence, falling to your knees, or at least to one knee, to acknowledge your reverence for and dependence on another. It didn't necessarily mean a recognition of divinity but it tended towards that end of the spectrum. Matthew adds it to a number of stories where Mark hadn't used it so that a number of people who come to Jesus seeking his supernatural help cast themselves at his feet in this way in Matthews account. He also removes the word when it has any disrespectful note, such as the soldiers casting themselves at Jesus' feet in mock worship. The word is too special for Matthew to use in such a context. But it is certainly the way he describes the behaviour of the magi here. These learned men from the east, these foreign dignitaries, astrologers and pagan priests, come and cast themselves at the feet of a recently born baby in Bethlehem, and declare him to be the King of the Jews, the great ruler who comes with the glory and justice of God and to whom is due reverence from all nations and all kings. Then they open their treasures and present him with the sort of gifts that were usually presented to kings. Expensive gold and luxury fragrant resins used in worship, perfume, medicine and embalming. As our reading from Isaiah had said, riches and the wealth of nations will be lavished upon you, droves of camels coming from Sheba laden with gold and frankincense, heralds of the Lord's praise.

Then, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they returned to their own country by another route, and as mysteriously as they appeared they slip back off the stage and out of our story.

Ignatius, in the first century, plagued by gnostic wisdom and magical mystery cults saw in their story the defeat of all pagan wisdom and magic and superstition as the magicians laid down their incenses at the feet of the Christ child, and there have been many who have read various symbolic meanings into the different gifts offered. Perhaps all of these views have some validity but for Matthew's readers perhaps the words of the psalm we read earlier would have come more obviously to mind. He will rule from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth. The desert tribes will bow before him. The Kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him; the Kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts. All Kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him. It would however have been a rude shock that the unenlightened pagan foreigners were the only ones who recognised the arrival of the Jewish Messiah. But such said Paul to the Ephesians is the revelation of God's secret purpose in Christ. Such is the message that we carry into the world outside. A message that breaks the bounds of our expectations, that respects no special privileges. A message that grows up under our noses almost imperceptibly and then turns our world on its head. A message that Paul says sees us, the church, making clear the wisdom of God to the rulers and authorities even in the heavenly realms. A message of mystery and wisdom and yet a message as simple as a baby in his mother's arms and more powerful than a jealous monarch terrorising his people. The message of the King of the Jews.