Scripture: 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.” Matthew 2:1-2 ESV
Observation: With Matthew’s brief introduction of the birth of Christ, he quickly turns to a unique event found only in his Gospel: the visit of the magi (2:1-12). Matthew tells us these wise men first seek an audience with the aging King Herod in Jerusalem. Given the Jewish historian Josephus mentions a lunar eclipse occurring shortly before Herod’s death in 4 BCE, most biblical scholars conclude that Jesus’ birth happened in the same year. This dating should not concern us regarding the reliability of the Bible because our Gregorian calendar’s estimate of the year of Christ’s birth has no scriptural basis. Even his birthday (December 25) has nothing to do with biblical evidence. The early church fathers selected the date to override a pagan winter festival.
Returning to the birth narrative, Matthew tells us these wise men first stopped in Jerusalem to inquire further directions to find “he who has been born king of the Jews”—uncharacteristic of us modern men—lol! When paranoid Herod (who executed his wife and two sons) hears the news, he seeks the counsel of his chief priests and scribes. Appealing to Micah’s prophecy six centuries earlier (see Micah 5:2), they inform him that the child must be in Bethlehem. Thus, the wily king summons the magi to determine when the star appeared and sends them on their way with instructions to return with the child’s exact location so that he, too, may worship him (vv.1-8).
The story concludes with the magi’s arrival at the house where Jesus and his parents reside. Falling prostrate, they worship the Christ-child, presenting him their royal gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then, being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they return home another way (vv.9-13).
Of note, church tradition holds that the gifts symbolize royalty (gold), divinity (incense), and burial (Myrrh). But theologian D.A. Carson contends that their offerings were commonplace for a king during that era. More to the point, the value of these gifts would cover the costs of fleeing Bethlehem and settling in Egypt for a season (tomorrow’s Daily Focus).
Takeaway: Given the later date of the wise men’s arrival in Bethlehem, the Christian church celebrates the first Gentiles (non-Jews) to behold the Christ-child on January 6 to signify the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of Epiphany (from the original Greek epi (on) + phaino (appearing). Interestingly, the word “epiphany” has developed a secondary meaning of personal revelation: “a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). In our biblical narrative, these wise men experienced a personal revelation when they gazed upon the Christ-child and were overwhelmed.
Still, for Matthew, the magi were merely the supporting cast. They served only to introduce us to the King of the Jews—a title bestowed on Jesus both at the beginning (Matthew 2:2) and end (Matthew 27:37) of His life. For God’s people, it was also a symbol of hope—of salvation from the enemy (Zechariah 9:9-13). Indeed, the wise men revealed three aspects of this Gospel of grace for us:
- The Good News is for all humanity. No one is beyond the reach of God’s salvation. Our Father graciously unveiled the King of the Jews to pagan astrologers who were as far from His favor as you and I were before our regeneration.
- The Gospel teaches us how to discern and obey the will of God. The magi no longer needed a star to guide them. They would hear directly from God through a dream that they were to avoid Herod and find a new way home.
- The Gospel calls us to action. God did not simply lead a band of intellectual stargazers to a coronation. He inspired the magi to go and seek the Christ-child, to bow down and worship him joyfully, to give him the best from their treasures, and then to go home and share their revelation.
In sum, our Epiphany passage is about keeping up appearances, about revealing the Son of God in us so that wise men and women might find him!
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son, whom wise people seek. And we thank you that when we seek him, we discover his grace, discern how to follow him, and reveal him to others. So would you please help us keep up appearances and show Christ to the least, the last, and the lost? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling