The Adoration by the Magi
And having heard the king, they went their way; and lo, the star, which theyhad seen in the east, went on before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshiped Him; and opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their own country by another way. (2:9–12)
We are not told what, if anything, the magi told Herod. They had no way of knowing his wicked intent. They proceeded to Bethlehem, not because of Herod’s instruction, but because at last they knew where to find the One they had come to worship. The Lord gave them even more specific help, leading them directly to Jesus. The star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was. That the star was not a physical heavenly body is again evident from the fact that it was able to stand directly over the house where Jesus and His family now lived—which for obvious reasons could not be possible for an actual star (cf. Ex. 40:34–38; Ezek. 10:4).
The magi were overwhelmed that the special star reappeared to them. It seems almost as if Matthew was at a loss for words to describe their ecstasy: And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. The original text piles up superlatives to emphasize the extent of exhilaration they felt, thus indicating to us their uniquely strong interest in this great event.
Joseph and his family were no longer in the stable but had found a house in which to live until the Lord told them where to go and what to do next. It was there that the magi found the One for whom they had so diligently searched, and at last they fell down and worshiped Him. In His wonderful grace God had led them to His Son and allowed them to see Him face to face. Charles Wesley captured the experience in his beautiful Christmas hymn: “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate deity; pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel!”
Matthew is careful to say that the magi worshiped Him, that is, the Child, not His mother. They knew better than Cornelius, who attempted to worship the apostle Peter (Acts 10:25), and the crowd at Lystra who tried to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:11–13). No doubt the magi were delighted to meet both Mary and Joseph, who had been so specially favored by God to be entrusted with caring for His own Son while He grew to manhood. But they worshiped only Jesus. Only He was God, and only He was worthy of adoration.
It was also to Him that they presented their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. Their giving was not so much an addition to their worship as an element of it. The gifts were an expression of worship, given out of the overflow of adoring and grateful hearts.
Right worship is always, and must be, the only basis for right giving and right learning and right service. Giving that is generous but done apart from a loving relationship with God is empty giving. Learning that is orthodox and biblical but is learned apart from knowing and depending on the Source of truth, is empty knowledge, like that of the chief priests and scribes. Service that is demanding and sacrificial but done in the power of the flesh or for the praise of men is empty service.
Throughout history gold has been considered the most precious of metals and the universal symbol of material value and wealth. It was used extensively in the construction of the Temple (see 1 Kings 6–7, 9; 2 Chron. 2–4). It was also a symbol of nobility and royalty (see Gen. 41:4; 1 Kings 10:1–13; etc.). Matthew continually presents Christ as the King, and here we see the King of the Jews, the King of kings, appropriately being presented with royal gifts of gold.
The Savior of the world is also the true King of the world, and He will not be Savior of those who will not accept Him as sovereign Lord. As wonderful as Jesus’ saviorhood was to them, the early Christians’ first known creed was “Jesus is Lord,” acknowledging His rule.
The great British admiral Lord Nelson was known for treating vanquished opponents with courtesy and kindness. After one naval victory a defeated officer strode confidently across the quarterdeck of Nelson’s ship and offered the admiral his hand. With his own hand remaining at his side, Nelson replied, “Your sword first, sir, and then your hand.” Before we can be Christ’s friends, we must be His subjects. He must be our Lord before He can be our elder Brother.
Frankincense was a costly, beautiful-smelling incense that was used only for the most special of occasions. It was used in the grain offerings at the Tabernacle and Temple (Lev. 2:2, 15–16), in certain royal processions (Song of Sol. 3:6–7), and sometimes at weddings if it could be afforded.
Origen, the great church Father, suggested that frankincense was the incense of deity. In the Old Testament it was stored in a special chamber in front of the Temple and was sprinkled on certain offerings as a symbol of the people’s desire to please the Lord.
Myrrh was also a perfume, not quite so expensive as frankincense but nevertheless valuable. Some interpreters suggest that myrrh represents the gift for a mortal, emphasizing Jesus’ humanity. This perfume is mentioned often in Scripture, beginning in Genesis (37:25; 43:11). Mixed with wine it was also used as an anesthetic (Mark 15:23), and mixed with other spices it was used in preparation of bodies for burial, even Jesus’ body (John 19:39).
Those were the magi’s gifts to Jesus. Gold for His royalty, frankincense for His deity, and myrrh for His humanity.
We do not know what was done with the gifts, but it seems reasonable that they were used to finance the trip to Egypt and to help support the family while there (see Matt. 2:13–15).
With their mission of worship and adoration completed, the magi left Bethlehem. But having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their own country by another way. No doubt they expected to hear at a later date the details of the life and accession to the throne of the Child born in Bethlehem.
The warning by God suggests that He was directly communicating with these men, and that their role in the whole event was by divine design. In fact, it may have been the same method, a dream, by which He originally brought them to Jerusalem in search of the King. The use of dreams as a means of divine communication is seen in Genesis 28:12; 31:11; Numbers 12:6; 1 Kings 3:5; and Job 33:14–16. Even the birth of Christ was accompanied by other special revelatory dreams (Matt. 1:20–23; 2:13, 19–20, 22).
So the magi avoided Herod and traveled a homeward route that would allow them to escape his notice—a feat that was not simple, due to the nature and size of their entourage.
Scripture records nothing else about these unusual visitors from the east, but blessed and grateful as they were, they surely must have witnessed of the Messiah in their own country. Because they were among the kingmakers of Parthia, it is likely that the news of Jesus became as well known in the courts of the east as it one day would become in the palace of Caesar (Phil. 1:13; cf. 4:22).
Wise Men Come to Jesus
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, 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 in the east and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
“ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’ ”…
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.
In the first of his letters to the Christians at Corinth, the apostle Paul wrote that “not many … wise [men] by human standards, not many [who] were influential, not many … of noble birth” have been chosen by God to know Christ (1 Cor. 1:26). That is a true observation.
Yet the Christmas story tells us that from the beginning of the Christian era, there have been some who were wise, some who were of noble birth, some who were influential who came to worship Jesus. We call them the wise men, or Magi. They came from the distant East, probably Persia, and they were so distinguished even by the worldly standards of that day that their arrival in Jerusalem caused a stir. “King Herod was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him” (v. 3). They came to Jerusalem asking, “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” (v. 2).
Persians Bearing Gifts
The Bible does not tell us very much about these ancient visitors to Jerusalem, and scholars have been puzzled about them and their journey ever since they made it. Millions of Christmas cards show three kings presenting gifts to a tiny child in a manger. People sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” But we do not know for sure that three wise men brought gifts. There may have been many more than three. And we are not told that they were kings or even when they arrived in Bethlehem. It is likely, in view of their long journey and of Herod’s command that all children under two years of age be killed, that they arrived after Jesus had already become a young child. The story contains a faint suggestion of this: When the Magi arrived in Bethlehem, Mary and her child were already settled in a house, no longer in the stable.
What about the star that seems to have guided them to that home? Many have attempted to explain it as an astronomical phenomenon. The earliest theorists viewed it as a comet. Such was the view of the great church father Origen of Alexandria. Later, Johannes Kepler, the father of modern astronomy, explained it as the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces in the year 7 b.c. This view has been elaborated in various ways and is probably the favorite explanation of astronomers today.
More than likely, however, the “star” was a miraculous phenomenon, possibly an appearance of the Shekinah glory that had accompanied the people of Israel in their desert wanderings, signifying God’s presence with them. Only something like the Shekinah could have led the wise men over the desert to Jerusalem, reappeared after their meeting with King Herod, guided them to Bethlehem, and then “stopped over the place where the child was” (v. 9), which is what the most straightforward reading of the story seems to indicate.
The Bible shows little interest in these details. The fact that so little information of this kind is given shows that Matthew was not interested in how many wise men there were, the length of their journey, or the star. Rather, he was interested in the fact that from the very beginning of this story, Gentiles came to worship the Jewish Messiah. He was also interested in the significance of the gifts they bore.
Gold: The Metal of Kings
It is easy to see why gold was an appropriate gift for Jesus Christ. Gold is the metal of kings. When gold was presented to Jesus by the men of Persia, it was an acknowledgment of his right to rule.
In his commentary on Matthew, William Barclay notes that according to Seneca, the distinguished Roman orator and writer, it was the custom in Persia that no one could approach a king without a gift and that “gold, the king of metals,” was the proper gift for “a king of men.” This is obvious from the discoveries of archaeologists. When a tomb is opened and is found to be filled with gold, it is usually proof that the deceased was a great person, most likely royalty. I have seen some of these gold relics. In Greece, in the ruins of the ancient city of Mycenae, dating from the time of the Trojan War, there is a cemetery in which the kings of the town were buried, and in the archeological museum at Athens, one can see the elaborate “death mask of Agamemnon,” done in pure gold, which was discovered there. It is one of the greatest treasures of the ancient world. Similarly, in Cairo, the state museum contains the incredibly beautiful and literally priceless coffins and other tomb objects of King Tutankhamen, discovered in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes in 1922 by Howard Carter.
Some theologians have pointed out that when the wise men brought gold to the infant Jesus, they were being used by God to provide the funds necessary for Joseph to take the young child and his mother to Egypt to escape Herod’s attempt on Jesus’ life. This is probably true, but it is not as important as the significance of the gift itself. Jesus was a king, as the wise men knew and acknowledged (v. 2). He was the King of Kings. The wise men confessed his kingship when they presented their gift of gold.
Incense: The Worship of God
It is also easy to see why incense was a significant and symbolic gift. Incense was used in the temple worship. It was mixed with the oil used to anoint the priests of Israel, and it was blended into the meal offerings that were presented to the priests by the people to be offered as thanksgiving and praise gifts to God. Incense gave an offering its pleasant odor, and Paul was probably thinking of incense when he compared the gifts of the Philippians to such a sacrifice, calling them “a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God” (Phil. 4:18). In presenting incense, the wise men, either intentionally or unintentionally, pointed to Christ as our great High Priest, the one whose entire life was pleasing to his Father.
It is interesting to note that incense was never mixed with sin offerings, which were meat and wine offerings. Only the meal offerings, which were not for sin, contained incense. When we remember that, we think naturally of Jesus, to whom the incense was given. He was without sin. When his enemies came to him on one occasion, he challenged them with the question, “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?” (John 8:46). They were speechless. Earlier he had said of his Father, “I always do what pleases him” (John 8:29). None of us can say that. Since only the Lord Jesus Christ was sinless, it is fitting that incense was offered to him.
“We see from the symbolism of these gifts,” wrote Donald Grey Barnhouse,
that the eternal royalty and holiness of Christ were announced from his earliest years. He had come forth from heaven to perform the work of redemption, and he was prepared in every way to do the Father’s will so that he might fulfill every demand and obligation of the law. Thus only would he become eligible to die on the cross; and by that cross alone redeem the world. That life could show that he was the fit candidate for the cross, and we cling with surety to the work that was accomplished there at Calvary, since we know that our sin-bearer was himself without sin.
Myrrh: The Gift of Death
That observation leads naturally to the last and most significant of these gifts. Just as gold spoke of Christ’s kingship and incense spoke of the perfection of his life, myrrh spoke of his death.
Myrrh was used in embalming. Because the trappings of death (although different) were as important then as today, myrrh was an important item of commerce in the ancient world. For instance, for Jesus’ burial Nicodemus used one hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare the body. If one hundred pounds of that combination were used for just one body, a tremendous amount of myrrh must have been constantly bought and sold for funeral arrangements. Moreover, in Revelation 2 we read of a city of Asia Minor called Smyrna. The name is actually the Greek word for myrrh. The city was called Smyrna because its chief industry was the manufacture of myrrh.
By any human measure it would be odd, if not offensive, to present a spice used for embalming at the birth of a child. But it was not offensive in this case, nor was it odd. It was a gift of faith. Of course, we do not know exactly what the wise men may have surmised about Christ’s future ministry or have intended by this gift, but we know from the Old Testament that Jesus’ ministry was pictured again and again as one involving suffering. Psalm 22 describes Jesus’ death by crucifixion; it was a verse from this psalm that Jesus quoted when he cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1; see Matt. 27:46). Isaiah 53:4–5 says, “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Jesus came to suffer for our sin, and his suffering was symbolized by the Magi’s gift of myrrh.
There was another use of myrrh in the ancient world that is important here; it was a use the Lord Jesus Christ refused. When he was about to be crucified and the soldiers offered him “wine mixed with myrrh,” Jesus refused the offer (Mark 15:23). Myrrh was a crude anesthetic sometimes used to deaden pain, and Jesus wished to endure the full extent of suffering in his death for us. He was willing to bear all that the suffering and death entailed.
William Barclay says rightly, “Gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, myrrh for one that was to die—these were the gifts of the wise men, and, even at the cradle of Christ, they foretold that he was to be the true King, the perfect High Priest, and in the end the supreme Savior of men.”
Wise, Wise Men
But enough about the wise men’s gifts. Let’s think about the Magi themselves. It is true that we do not know very much about these men, as I acknowledged earlier. We do not even know if they can properly be called wise men, since the word Matthew actually uses is magoi, rightly rendered “Magi” by the New International Version. Magoi actually means “great (or powerful) ones,” and it indicates high position or influence. True enough! Nevertheless, these men were truly wise, and we would be wise to remember them and learn from them.
How were these men wise?
- They were wise enough to seek Jesus. God had informed them of the birth of the new Jewish king, though we do not know exactly how. Realizing they were far from him, they did the wise thing. They prepared a traveling caravan and made their way to the capital city of the Jews. Moreover, when they got there and discovered that his birth was not a common topic of conversation, they asked people where he was. I notice that the story does not say the wise men asked their question of Herod first. In fact, they do not meet him until halfway through the story. They must have been asking everyone about Jesus and only came to Herod when their quest reached the monarch’s ears.
Are you wise enough to seek Jesus? His birth has been announced well and widely. There is no mystery about it. Have you found him? If you have not yet found him, are you still seeking? A common contemporary saying asserts, “Wise men still seek him.”
- They were wise enough to seek information. There is another way in which the wise men were truly wise. They were wise enough to learn from others, even though there was little information to be had either from the people or their leaders. They were Magi, and in their own country, they were the ones from whom others sought information. They were the intellectuals of their culture. Some in their position would have been hindered by pride, but not these wise men. In this story they seek information, standing meekly as genuine disciples when the chief priests and teachers of the law opened the Scriptures and read to them from 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” (see Matt. 2:6).
What they learned when the Scriptures were opened to them was important. They learned that Christ was to be born in Bethlehem, a nearby town, and because they were wise, they must have understood that this was as significant for what it did not say as for what it did. We must suppose that the Magi were expecting to find the Lord Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, for that was the capital city and Jesus was the Jews’ king. They probably expected to find Jesus in Herod’s palace. But he was not there. In fact, the reigning king did not even know about his birth.
Not in the palace? Well, then, perhaps in the temple. Perhaps the new spiritual leader would be there. But Jesus was not to be found in the temple either. He had not emerged from the company of the priests or scribes. On the contrary, his birthplace was the little town of Bethlehem to the south of Jerusalem, an apparently insignificant spot, where the Scriptures had long ago indicated he would be born.
The wise men must have noticed that these teachers of the law were unspiritual and unworthy men, for they had so little interest in the birth of Israel’s Messiah that they did not even accompany the Magi to Bethlehem to investigate his arrival for themselves. That did not bother the wise men. God was calling them to Christ, and his call would in time surely lead them to him. Their quest was so serious, their questions so earnest, that they were able to learn even from those who did not know where he was as well as from those, like the chief priests and teachers of the law, who knew but did not care. Above all, they were able to learn where Jesus was from the Bible.
Are you wise enough to find Jesus in the Bible? The wise men had to travel a long distance to find him, but no one has to travel a long distance today. The Bible says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down) or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? ‘The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,’ that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming” (Rom. 10:6–8). Jesus is present in the gospel, and whoever calls on him will be saved.
- They were wise enough to worship him when they found him. This point is very important, because some people seek even though they do not want to find the truth and embrace it. Paul spoke of these people when he warned Timothy of those who are “always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7). Some people love unbelief, and they use their accumulating knowledge as justification for it. The wise men were not like this. They wanted to know about Jesus, but they were not interested in this knowledge for its own sake. They knew when they found him that they would worship him and give him their gifts.
Our Worship and Our Gifts
Have you found Jesus? The point of the story, after all, is not that we might be entertained by the story of Jesus’ birth but that we might find Christ, as the wise men did, and that we might worship him and offer him our gifts too.
What can you do to find Jesus? First, determine in advance that as soon as you find him you will worship him and give yourself to him, holding nothing back. The starting place is to pray: “Lord Jesus Christ, I do not yet know where you are or how I may find you. I have followed many false leads, some of which are in my own heart. I need help if I am to find you. God the Father must lead me to you. I admit that I do not even know what finding you may mean. But I do promise that if you reveal yourself to me, so that I discover you as my own personal God and Savior, I will be yours forever, and I will follow you wherever you lead me.” If you are not yet a Christian, I urge you to follow after Jesus on those terms. If you seek him, you will find him.
What if you have already found him? What if you have already become a Christian? If that is the case, offer him your gifts, as the wise men did. Offer him your gold, your incense, and your myrrh.
Begin with your myrrh. Myrrh is not only a symbol of Christ’s death, it is also a symbol of the spiritual death that should come to you for your sin. Lay it at Christ’s feet, saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, I know that I am a sinner. I know that I should receive the consequence of my sin, which is to be barred from your holy presence forever. But I know that you took my sin, dying in my place. I believe that. I rejoice in that. Now I ask you to take me as your child forever. As a symbol, I now die to myself so I might live for you.”
Next, come to Jesus with your incense. Incense symbolizes worship, and you need to worship him as your Savior and Lord. It also symbolizes the offering up of your life. When Jesus comes to live in you, he will do a good work in you so that the deeds produced in your life will become in turn “a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.”
Finally, bring your gold. When you offer your gold, you acknowledge the right of Christ to rule in your life. Say, “I am your servant. Direct my life and make me strong to serve you and others for your sake.”
If you do these things, I think you will experience something we find at the very end of the story about the wise men. We are told that having been warned not to go back to Herod’s palace because of his murderous intentions, “they returned to their country by another route” (v. 12). And so will you! Your life will follow a different path from the time you surrender it to Christ, and your path will be a good one.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Vol. 1, pp. 34–37). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (pp. 29–35). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.