Read Matthew 2: 1-15 to start
Let’s talk for a minute about the news. And I’m talking about real news, not the fake news which has become so often discussed in recent years, and ranges from satire, to intentional slander, to any news that someone in authority doesn’t like, regardless of how real it might be. In the reporting of actual news, a journalist will almost always attempt to answer five basic questions. You’ve no doubt heard these before, they all happen to start with the letter W – Who, What, When, Where, and Why, and generally in that order.
I don’t really watch the news all that often, I might listen to it on the radio or read local news online, but in general when I encounter news I do find those questions are typically answered. And that’s what I’m going to do this morning, at least as an introduction, we’re going to apply those five Ws to the passage we read.
This passage is likely familiar for one and all this morning. The account of the wise men is one of the main stories that we have in scripture surrounding the Lord’s birth.
The what of this account is the fact that visitors came from the east. Visitors no doubt came to Jerusalem all the time, it was a major city, located at the intersection of east and west, where Africa and Asia meet, where many great empires had crossed paths and much history had been made. The Jewish Diaspora, those who had Jewish heritage, Jewish blood, may have lived in dozens of different Roman provinces, or even outside the boundaries of the empire, but given the opportunity would make the trek to Jerusalem for Passover. Visitors were nothing new. But visitors seeking one born King of the Jews? These visitors were different.
Who were these men, these visitors from the east? You may have heard them called the Magi, which is the plural form of the Greek word Magos used in verse one. This refers specifically to an astrologer from the Orient, and implies people who have special mystical knowledge. Priests of the Zoroastrian religion of Persia are called Magi, for example, although we don’t know these men were specifically Persian or priests. We don’t know precisely their origin, other than the east.
They were not kings, the passage does not call them such. And there was no defined number, because it’s only three gifts mentioned, not men. I would think that getting gold is a bit like a getting cash in a birthday card, no one ever feels bad that someone else gave the same thing when it’s cash or gold. But regardless of how many there were, we know that they came on a specific mission, they sought for one who was born King of the Jews. They had seen His star, these men studied the heavens and they had seen something of note. How they knew that this celestial phenomenon signified the birth of the King of the Jews is not explained. We can only speculate about that. But they came to see for themselves.
It’s interesting to note that what we read here did not take place at the time of His birth, but was many months afterwards. It would have taken them considerable time to travel the hundreds of miles, likely upwards of a thousand miles or more, from their home in the east to Jerusalem. Based on Herod’s reaction at the end of the passage, when the wise men did not return to Jerusalem, it may have been the better part of two years from the time they saw the star to the time they arrived.
However long it took, though, they came in honour of His birth. That was the reason behind it all, behind their journey, behind the discomfort they provoked in Herod, behind the gifts, behind the worship. The fact that one was born King of the Jews is the why of this account.
The fact that one was born King of the Jews is far more significant than simply the reason behind some foreign visitors twenty centuries ago. That fact is the why behind our meeting here this morning, and the one that, Lord willing, will take place this evening, and next Sunday, and last Sunday, and the one before that, and before that, and behind every gathering of those who profess the name of Christ. He is far more important than any mere wise men.
My introduction this morning was to talk about the wise men and to take a news story approach to describe them and their visit. But tiding of visitors from the east was hardly the biggest news of that day. There was another arrival, not a foreign visitor, but one who would live and dwell as a member of the nation of Israel. Let us consider now these same five basic questions in relation to He who was born King of the Jews.
We see several of the answers contained right in the passage which we read, and I’ll start with those. This is going to mix up the usual order of things, because it’s typically Who, What, When, Where, Why, not some other arrangement. Sometimes the order of things is very important, and other times it’s not, but simply what we expect. No one is familiar with the story of the Little Three Pigs and the Bad Big Wolf, that’s almost painful to say, because I’ve gone and messed up the usual order of things. So if my order here is a little jarring, I apologize, because I’m going to start with When.
The chapter sets up the timeframe from the very beginning, now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King. That lets the reader know at once when this took place. Herod ruled for three decades, his reign was well documented by historians both Jewish and Roman. While he was unquestionably a ruthless and downright evil ruler who killed many, many people, his ambition and his extensive building projects ensured that he would be remembered long after his time, and for more than his cruelty. The days of Herod the king sets the scene for this arrival, because it was a time of transition for the Jewish state. Herod straddled the line between acknowledging Jewish tradition while still growing his relationship with Rome, and in many ways his reign set the stage for the rebellions to follow in the next centuries, including the destruction of the temple he had built.
The days of Herod the king were days of unease, because Herod was aggressively paranoid and feared for his safety and feared for his throne. He trusted no one, and the list of those he had killed because he feared they posed a threat to him includes his brother in law, his favourite wife (of the ten he had in total), her mother and grandfather, and three of his sons, and basically anyone else who got in his way. The notion of someone else born King of the Jews would definitely be a provocation for Herod. No wonder he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
This is the time when Christ was born. A time of uncertainty, a time when the powerful ruled harshly and the weak suffered. It was a time when anyone who knew the scriptures should have rejoiced to hear news that the Messiah had come. Because that was the tidings that the wise men brought. There was one born King of the Jesus, please help us find him.
They had come to Jerusalem, but the Christ child was not there. He was not in the capital, he was not at the seat of power. Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea. Bethlehem, which means the House of Bread, which is in itself worthy of note. The Lord said that He was the bread of heaven, which certainly confused and troubled many of His followers. That is detailed in John chapter 6, and I could easily spend a whole sermon on that chapter, or more than one. Bread is nourishment, bread is sustenance, bread is an answer to hunger. It is a basic staple of civilization, of life itself. When the Lord taught His disciples to pray, He included that they ask the Father to give them their daily bread. And of course, at the last supper, He took bread, and broke it, and said to the disciples to take, eat, for this was symbolic of His body, which was that very night to be broken for them, broken for all. It is no coincidence that He came to this world in the house of bread.
Furthermore, Bethlehem was of course the ancestral home of King David, who was a direct ancestor of the Lord. In Luke’s gospel we would see that the whole reason Mary and Joseph were even in that town was because of their heritage as descendents of David. And as Matthew recounts here, this location was a direct fulfillment of prophecy. We could read it from Micah chapter 5, verse 2, which is essentially what the chief priests and scribes did when Herod demanded of them where the Messiah was to be born. They knew the prophecies, and it doesn’t sound like they needed to go and do extensive consultation and research on the matter. They knew, but it sure seems that they didn’t much care. Sad, because He who was born King of the Jews was only a few miles away, and they couldn’t be bothered going to see for themselves. They knew where He was to be born, and they surely knew that everything was ready for His birth, that there had never been a time when Israel was more ready for Messiah to arrive, but they were in no rush to do anything about it. They were more concerned with their own affairs, and so they let this opportunity pass them by.
It’s interesting to note that while those who were local did nothing to acknowledge the birth of Christ, the wise men upended their lives to come and see the Saviour. What did He matter to them? They were not Jewish, so the fact that one was born King of the Jews would not have been nearly as significant to them, or so you would think. After all, if the Sultan of Oman had a grandson born, it’s not like anyone around here is going to care, much less go for a visit. In Oman, if the Sultan had a grandson, that would likely be a pretty big deal. That’s the way it is with your own royalty, we hear on the news when Prince William or Prince Harry have a child, because even though we’re pretty far removed from royalty in our day-to-day lives, it’s still noteworthy when there is a new addition to the royal family. They are, after all, our royal family, as citizens of a constitutional monarchy as most of us here are.
What did He matter to the wise men? What was this King of the Jews to them? Obviously, He was someone of note. The wise men knew that this new birth was of great importance, or they would not have bothered, would not have taken note of a star signifying His birth. And they knew He was someone of value, or they would not have invested the time and the money, they would not have travelled so far in order to deliver some unconventional baby shower gifts. But they did, and they came bearing gifts. But most importantly, they knew He was someone worthy of worship. That is what they said upon arrival in Jerusalem, where is the new born King? We have come to worship Him.
The wise men recognized Christ for what He was. He was born King of the Jews, yes, but He was clearly more than that. They came to worship Him, and only Him, not some other random foreign king. Yes, a star proclaimed His birth, and yes, He was the fulfillment of prophecy, not only one prophecy, but many. Over the course of His birth, life, death, and resurrection, Christ fulfilled somewhere around 300 OT prophecies. That in and of itself, while astounding, is not necessarily deserving of worship. But if we looked back at the previous chapter, we would see something that is worth it, and is worth paying attention to. In chapter 1, we read at verse 22 Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, 23 Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
That is what Christ is, and what His humble birth in a small town so long ago represents. It is the presence of God in human form, God with us. Not near us, not adjacent to us, not in contact or communication with us, but God with us. There is a closeness, an intimacy, in the word with.
I arrived here this morning with my wife and children. They live in the same house with me, and there is a nearness between us that does not exist between me and anyone else here today, nor anyone else anywhere else, for that matter. I am with them, they are with me.
In the garden, in Eden, so very long ago, God was with Man in a very real sense. It says that God walked with Adam in the garden in the cool of the day, that God spoke to Adam in a manner not so different from how you and I might speak. That was broken when Adam and Eve sinned, when they disobeyed. God was no longer with them, and it was a rare and remarkable thing when God spoke with anyone else. We have a handful of accounts in the OT of people having a conversation with God, Moses, Abraham, Samuel, Elijah. Not many, and not often. God was no longer with man, and for four thousand years it remained that way.
Man wanted to get to God, to get back what was lost. Why else would they have built a tower on the plains of Shinar with plans to reach Heaven? Why else would people in cultures around the world build altars and seek to worship something beyond themselves, unless deep down they knew there was something to worship?
God with us means that the vast distance between God and Man is narrowed, not merely to within speaking range, but almost erased. God with us means that we no longer have any reason to put our meagre efforts into vain attempts to reach the creator, attempts that were always doomed to fail. Instead, He has reached out to us. He has come down to be with us, to walk among us, to suffer as we suffer, to hunger and thirst as we do, to live, and indeed, to die, as we do. That is what God with us means.
Is that what this One born King of the Jews meant to the wise men? I don’t know that they knew the specific prophecy from Isaiah chapter 9, but they knew He was something far beyond a normal baby. They knew He was divine, and they knew this was their opportunity, perhaps their only opportunity, to worship Him. How much else they understood we can only speculate.
As much as they had an idea of what He was, I don’t think they had much idea of who He was. And while both who and what may be used when describing someone, there is a significant difference in what those mean. What has to do with occupation, with position, with role. King of the Jews, that falls under what, and that is indeed what the wise men sought. That is one of the key aspects of the Lord Jesus Christ, of His time on Earth. And knowing Him as One born King of the Jews is accurate, but it is impersonal, and incomplete.
Unlike what, who implies a personal connection. Who implies and includes relationship. What am I? I a husband and a father. Who am I? I am Laura’s husband. I am Sean, Emma-Lyn, Nate, and Levi’s father. See the difference? It might be subtle, but it’s definitely there. Who and what both define an individual, but in different ways. Both are important, and knowledge of both is required in order to have any level of understanding about someone, but only one is personal. You can’t have much of a relationship with anyone if you don’t know who they are.
Who is Jesus Christ? That’s not a simple question to answer, but there is a good answer to that which we will find if we turn over a few chapters, to Matthew 16. We’ll read at verse 13 When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? 14 And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. 15 He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? 16 And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. 17 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
Before we get to Peter’s response, it’s interesting to note the array of answers the disciples offered as to who people described Jesus as. Men said he was John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or any one of a number of great prophets returned to life. That aligns closely with what many people say about Him today, that He was a prophet, a great teacher, a revolutionary thinker, someone that challenged the authority of the day and provoked any who listened to rethink how they were to live and behave. And while there is some truth in some of those ideas, none of them comes close to knowing who Jesus Christ is. So many people today, like so many people then, and so many people in the centuries between, have ideas about Christ, they might have thoughts as to what He said or what He did, what He represents, but they have little or no idea as to who He is.
Peter’s answer comes much closer to an accurate picture: thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God. There is more to it than that, of course, it’s impossible to encapsulate anyone’s identity in a single statement, much less the Son of God, the Redeemer, the Messiah, the Saviour. Peter’s answer shows that while his understanding may not be complete, for indeed, Peter and all the disciples still had much to learn, but they had something that most everyone else of their day did not – they had a personal relationship with Jesus of Nazareth. They knew Him, not merely as someone who taught those who would learn and did miracles for those who needed help, but as a friend, as a companion, as someone who cared about them, someone who put their needs, and the needs of others even less fortunate, far ahead of his own. They had spent time with Him, and they, or at the very least Peter, had a measure of divine revelation from the Father, as we see at verse 17. The disciples knew better than almost anyone, at least to that point in time, who the Lord Jesus Christ was.
But one thing that they did not know, and that the wise men did not know, was the answer to the fifth and final question, why. Why had there been a baby born King of the Jews with a sign in the heavens? Why had Messiah come? Why did the Son of the living God walk among men? Why was He here?
Nothing we read in the account in Matthew 2 suggests that the wise men had any knowledge of this. And likewise, the disciples may have thought they had some good ideas as to His purpose, they likely assumed He had come to tear down existing governments and set up His kingdom on earth in the immediate future, and that they would serve key roles at His side. In the gospels their actions and their words indicate that was in the minds not only of the disciples, but of many who heard the Lord and followed Him in eager anticipation, or heard the Lord and feared what He might do.
But that wasn’t the reason why he came, not then. I read from Matthew chapter 1 earlier, at verse 22, but now it’s time to look a couple of verses earlier. When Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant, when he considered what to do, well, let’s look at verse 20 But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. 21 And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.
His role was not to set up a kingdom that would overthrow the Roman authorities or the corrupt Jewish priests and scribes. He came instead to overthrow a greater empire, that of the ruler of this present world, the devil. He came to disrupt a deeper corruption, the infection of sin which plagues mankind and separates us from God. He came to be God with us so that we might not perish in our sins, but that we might have life everlasting.
At this time of year, when people search for the meaning of Christmas, or when they remind you, perhaps in a rather casual manner, that Jesus is the reason for the season, remember that while He was born a baby in Bethlehem, He did not remain there. He came with a reason, with a purpose. That purpose was to save us from our sins, and save us He will. We need only allow Him, for if we confess our sins, if we repent and accept the salvation that He offers, He is faithful and just to save us and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.