************ Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on December 26, 2004
Numbers 24:17; Micah 5:2
"The King of the Jews"
At the start of this morning's worship service we sang, "The King of glory comes, the nation rejoices ..." Yet, when we look at our Scripture reading we do not see rejoicing. Rather, we see that King Herod and all Jerusalem were disturbed (vs 3). They were upset because some travelers came out of the desert, some Magi from the East, and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?" (vs 2).
Who were these Magi? Under the influence of such passages as Psalm 72:11, Isaiah 49:7, and Isaiah 60:1-6 later Christian tradition pictured the Magi as kings; thus the song, "We Three Kings of Orient Are." There is no Biblical evidence to support this. Most likely the Magi were astrologers from Babylon who, because of the influence of Daniel, heard about a promised Christ. As well, it has generally been thought there were three Magi, one for each of the three gifts presented to Jesus. However, the Bible nowhere indicates to us that there were three Magi. And, popular opinion seems to indicate that the Magi showed up the night of the Savior's birth or shortly thereafter. In fact, some theologians say that Jesus was probably about two years old at the time of the Magi's visit.
The story of the Magi is included in Scripture for our instruction. The Gospel writer Matthew includes this story to teach us about Jesus whose birth we celebrate in this Christmas season. He tells us what our reaction should be to the birth of the Christ child. He tells us, as the bumper sticker puts it, that wise men still seek Him in order to worship Him.
Who is that baby in the manger? Or, as Jesus asked His disciples, "Who do you say I am?" (Mt 16:15). Who is He that has come and some day will come again? Matthew tells us this morning that the baby in the manger is the King of the Jews, the promised Messiah, the Christ.
When we look over the gospel of Matthew we cannot help but note that this is not the only time Jesus is described as the king of the Jews. Pilate asked Him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" (Mt 27:11). The soldiers put a scarlet robe on His back, a crown of thorns on His head, and a staff in His right hand; then they knelt in front of Him and mocked Him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" (Mt 27:29). And, remember what was above the cross?: a sign, reading, "THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS" (Mt 27:37).
I Jesus is the King of the Jews
A Matthew is a Jew writing to fellow Jews. In today's Scripture passage Matthew wants to make clear to his largely Jewish audience that the baby Jesus is the King of the Jews, the Christ, the Messiah. And, he advances two proofs for this: first, the star; second, the place of birth.
Unlike us, the people of Matthew's age would not have found bizarre the Magi's claim that a star rose to herald the birth of the King of the Jews. In Matthew's day the thesis that at least the births and deaths of great men were marked by heavenly signs was widely accepted.
Although Matthew does not quote the passage, it seems certain he had in mind the words of Numbers 24:17, the words of Balaam to Balak, king of Moab: "A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel" (Num 24:17). The Jews of Matthew's day were well acquainted with this prophecy so they would not view as improbable the claim of the Magi: "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him" (Mt 2:2).
That the star was no accident and was a sign from God is further confirmed by its reappearance as the Magi made their way to Bethlehem. More than that, the star served as a guide and stopped over the place where the Child was. In a universe controlled by God it is clear that the star's appearance was not accidental.
The second proof Matthew advances that the baby Jesus is the King of the Jews, the Christ, the Messiah, is His birth in the village of Bethlehem. When King Herod heard about the Magi, he called together all the chief priests and teachers of the law and asked them where the Christ was to be born. "In Bethlehem of Judea," they replied. To support this they quote from Micah 5:2, saying,
(Micah 5:2) "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times."
Matthew's message to his readers is so very clear: the baby in the manger is the King of the Jews, the Christ, the Messiah. The proof of this is the star and His birth in Bethlehem.
B As I already said, King Herod and all of Jerusalem were highly disturbed by the Magi's claim that the King of the Jews has been born. Herod was disturbed by this claim because in 40 B.C. the Roman Senate had conferred on him the title, "King of the Jews." The suggestion, then, that a new king of the Jews had been born was a challenge to him. And Herod did not take any challenge to his throne lightly.
Herod felt very insecure as king because his claim to the Jewish throne was very shaky; it was very shaky because he was not even a full Jew. In his insecurity he killed all potential rivals: a brother of his wife, the husband of his sister, a trusted friend, one of his ten wives, his mother-in-law, another husband of his sister, and three of his own sons (cf The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Volume Three, pages 126-138).
Herod got and held his throne through fear and bloodshed. He ruled with the sword and the shield. He used bribery, deceit, and force to achieve his own ends.
C In contrast to King Herod is the rule of the Christ, the Messiah. The chief priests and teachers of the law, quoting from 2 Samuel 5:2, say that He "will be the shepherd of my people Israel." The Messiah's rule, unlike Herod's, will not be marked with violence, bloodshed, and tyranny. According to Isaiah, the Messiah
(Is 40:11) ... tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.The Prophet Jeremiah says the Messiah "will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land" (Jer 23:5).
It is true that many of the Jews of Matthew's day did not have this shepherd conception of the Messiah. Many of them thought of the Messiah as a kind of Jewish Caesar, someone who would conquer with the sword, someone who was not all that different from King Herod.
The big surprise of the Gospel is that the Messiah, the Christ, the King of the Jews, lived as a slave and died as a criminal. The big surprise – as you all know – is that Jesus had to hang on a cross before He sat on a throne; He was the slave of all before He became the Lord of all.
II Jesus Acknowledged as King by Gentiles
A If that baby in the manger really is the promised Messiah, the Christ, the King of the Jews, then the New Testament should describe how the governors of the world bow before Him and how all people lay their treasures at His feet. At least that is the picture of the Messiah's birth presented by the Old Testament Scriptures:
(Ps 72:10-11) The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him; the kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts. (11) All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him.As the song puts it, "The King of glory comes, the nation rejoices."
(Is 49:7) This is what the LORD says-- the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel-- to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation, to the servant of rulers: "Kings will see you and rise up, princes will see and bow down, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you."
(Is 60:5-6) ... the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. (6) ... And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.
I remember that when Prince William was born to Prince Charles and Princess Diana there were stories and pictures in almost every newspaper and considerable excitement in England and her former colonies. An heir to the British throne was born, so of course there was excitement.
B We can imagine the Magi hurrying along on their camels, eager to participate in the celebration and excitement in Jerusalem and Israel.
When they arrived in Jerusalem they must have been sorely disappointed for they found that everything was business as usual – no dancing in the streets, no ticker tape parades, no national holiday. People didn't even know about the birth of the king. And, when the Magi announced that the King of the Jews was born, the people, together with Herod, were disturbed. Herod was disturbed because here was a rival to his throne. Herod met secretly with the Magi because he already was planning to kill the baby boys of Jerusalem. The ordinary people were disturbed because they knew what happened when Herod felt threatened by rival claimants to the throne – he murdered and killed and pillaged. The priests and leaders were disturbed because the Messiah's birth threatened their political alliances and public positions. Again, everyone was disturbed rather than rejoicing.
I want you to note that the Magi did something that would not be politically correct today. In searching for Jesus, they went to the local government authorities – to Herod and to the chief priests – assuming they would know about Jesus and would share in their joy. That was not the case. Herod wanted to kill Jesus. The religious leaders felt threatened by Jesus.
Some things never change. Because, as you know, the Christian Christmas today is increasingly under attack. School administrators sanitize Christmas plays by removing all mention of Jesus. Public displays of nativity scenes are under attack like they have never been before – either taken to court or defaced. This past week I learned that some companies and authorities have even banned their employees from using the greeting of "Merry Christmas" because it uses the title "Christ." Just like the first Christmas, the governing authorities largely oppose the celebration of Jesus' birth.
C The Magi, in spite of Jerusalem's response to their news, continued their search for the Messiah, the King of the Jews. They went on their way to Bethlehem. Why?
The Magi were not first century autograph seekers who wanted the thrill of being one of the first to greet the new King. They were not glory-hounds or publicity-seekers. Already in Jerusalem they announced their intention "to worship him." So on coming to the house where Jesus was "they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him" (vs 11).
Imagine this: these Gentiles, proud and independent, bowing before Christ, acknowledging Him as Ruler of their lives, and accepting Him as their Lord and Master.
That's not all: "Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh" (vs 11). These Magi gave to Jesus their best.
D Matthew's Gospel, as I said. was written by a Jew and for Jews. In this story of Jesus and the Magi, Matthew is giving a very strong message to his fellow Jews: namely, that Gentiles recognize Jesus as the Messiah, the King of the Jews, whereas Jews do not; Gentiles worship Jesus and give Him gifts whereas His own people become disturbed at the news of His birth.
The Jews have the Scriptures. They can read about the promised Messiah in its pages. They even properly understand what the Scriptures say about His birth. Theirs is a history of God's gracious covenant dealings with them. Yet, they refuse to believe! The Magi, on the other hand, have only a star. They have to go to the Jews for more information about the Messiah before they can find Him. Yet, they are the ones who worship Jesus.
Isn't this the way it often is?: that those with the treasures of salvation become indifferent to what is theirs? So many times new Christians are far more excited and enthusiastic about the faith than we who have grown up in it. Ours too is a history of God's covenant dealings with us. And, like the Jews, we too are so often blind to the treasures of salvation. We have to be careful, congregation, that the Gospel treasure never loses its brilliance and luster in our eyes.
There is always this two-fold reaction to Jesus: some believe and worship; others reject or neglect the message and curse the name of the Lord. This happened at Jesus' birth, this happened at His death, this happened at His resurrection, and this still happens today. Some believe and others do not.
The story of the Magi, congregation, is a call to us all to "Come and worship, Worship Christ, the new-born King." The story of the Magi is a call for us all to say, "O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!" The story of the Magi is a call to us all to bow down and worship and adore Jesus, to give Him the best of our love and service – because He is the Messiah, the Christ, the King of the Jews.
It is hard for us today to imagine the god-like power of an ancient king. You see, there are few kings and queens today; and most of them that exist in today's world are mere figureheads without any real power or authority. But those who lived under the shadow of ancient thrones knew better: before the king all mortals either bow or perish.
At the beginning of the Gospel lies the news that Jesus is King, the Messiah, the Christ. And, it is with Christ as it is with ancient kings: either we bow down or we perish.
I urge you, congregation, to learn from the Magi. Don't be like Israel. Instead, "Come and worship, Come and worship, Worship Christ, the new-born King."
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