Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him." When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: "'And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'" Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him." After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:1-12)
Jesus is likely between the ages of 6 months and 2 years. We know this for several reasons. First, we read that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem.” Jesus has already been born. Matthew does not record the actual birth but rather tells us what happened after Jesus’ birth. These wise men would have traveled about 900 miles, which according to Ezra 7:9 was a journey of about 5 months. We also read that Mary and Joseph are no longer in a stable, but in a house (v.11), and then we are told that Herod orders every child, aged 2 and under, to be killed (v.16). Herod believed Jesus could be near two years old.
But who are these “wise men”? We know the wise men from the east were astrologers/scientists from the region of Babylon who at the time were well known for their scientific advancements in being able to read the stars, interpret dreams, and practice sorcery. For this reason, “Magi” (NASB, NIV) would be the better term and not “wise men” since the underlying Greek word is magos. The phrase “wise men” comes from older translations like the King James Version because in the year 1611 scholars were not sure what or who magi were. We also don’t know how many Magi there were. Traditionally, the scene is always depicted with three, but that is because three gifts were offered. The story never mentions how many magi traveled to Jerusalem.
Why then were these pagan sorcerers following this star and why were they looking for the king of the Jews? During the Babylonian captivity large numbers of Jews were exported to Babylon some 500 years before the birth of Christ. After the Babylonian captivity, when the Jews were allowed to return to the land of Israel, many of them stayed in Babylon. These well-read Magi would have been familiar with the many stories that circulated throughout the entire region and the biblical prophecies about a Jewish Messiah who would come from the line of David, from the tribe of Judah, and was to be born king of the Jews. The prophecies they almost certainly are referring to are Numbers 24:17 and 2 Samuel 7:12-16.
But why travel so far to worship this king if they aren’t devout Jewish believers? Why travel to Jerusalem? In biblical times it was not uncommon for Magi, nobility, and aristocrats to travel great distances to pay homage to the birth of a king in an effort to get in the king’s good graces should he grow up to be a powerful ruler. And in their minds, it would have made sense that a ruler would be born in Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel.
Hence, the Magi come before Jesus and kneel before him and worship him. They are paying homage to the one they believe will be the next political ruler of Israel, the descendant of David, the king of the Jews. This is apparent from the gifts they bring. All very costly gifts. Gold, of course, makes sense, a gift befitting a king. Frankincense was an expensive incense used in religious worship but was also used by the wealthy to fragrance their homes. Myrrh was an expensive liquid perfume used to fragrance one’s clothing or furniture, or to the dip burial cloths in to diminish the stench of decaying bodies. But what is interesting about this scene is that the Gentiles are the first to recognize what the Jews failed to see—Jesus is the king of the Jews prophesied about in the Old Testament, and as such is deserving of worship. The Magi worship Jesus, the newborn king, and offer him royal gifts.
Today is not a day primarily about getting, but about giving--about giving Christ the worship, praise, honor, and obedience he deserves. Today is about celebrating and exalting the birth of the King of kings and Lord of lords, about celebrating the day light dawned, the day salvation stepped into our world, the day God’s righteous arm of deliverance reached out to humanity. Christmas is about Christ.
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