The Arrival of the Magi
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him.” (2:1–2)
The events described in this passage probably occurred several months after Jesus was born. We see from 2:11 that Jesus’ family was now staying in a house rather than the stable where He was born (Luke 2:7). Jesus, therefore, would already have been circumcised, and Mary would have completed her period of purification (Luke 2:21–27). The fact that she offered “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:24) instead of the normal lamb (Lev. 12:6–8) indicates that the family was poor. Had this offering been made after the magi with their expensive gifts (Matt. 2:11) had already visited Jesus, the lamb could easily have been afforded and would have been required.
bethlehem of judea
As it still is today, Bethlehem was then a small town five or six miles south of Jerusalem, in the fertile hill country of Judea (Judah). It is cradled between two ridges and was located along the main ancient highway from Jerusalem to Egypt. It was once called Ephrath, or Ephrathah, and is referred to by that name several times in the Old Testament (Gen. 35:16; Ruth 4:11; Ps. 132:6; Mic. 5:2). The town came to be called Bethlehem after the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, its new name meaning “house of bread.”
It was at Bethlehem that Jacob buried Rachel (Gen. 35:19), the traditional site of whose tomb is still shown to tourists today. It was also here that Ruth met and married Boaz (Ruth 1:22; 2:4) and that their illustrious grandson, David, grew up and tended sheep (1 Sam. 17:12, 15). By the time of Jesus’ birth, it had long been called “the city of David” (Luke 2:4, 11). The prophet Micah specifically promised that the Messiah would come from this small village (5:2).
herod the king
This Herod, known as “the Great,” is the first of several Herods mentioned in the New Testament. Julius Caesar had appointed his father, Antipater, to be procurator, or governor, of Judea under the Roman occupation. Antipater then managed to have his son Herod appointed prefect of Galilee. In that office Herod was successful in quelling the Jewish guerilla bands who continued to fight against their foreign rulers. After fleeing to Egypt when the Parthians invaded Palestine, Herod then went to Rome and in 40 b.c. was declared by Octavian and Antony (with the concurrence of the Roman senate) to be the king of the Jews. He invaded Palestine the next year and, after several years of fighting, drove out the Parthians and established his kingdom.
Because he was not Jewish, but Idumean (Edomite), Herod married Mariamne, heiress to the Jewish Hasmonean house, in order to make himself more acceptable to the Jews he now ruled. He was a clever and capable warrior, orator, and diplomat. In times of severe economic hardship he gave back some tax money collected from the people. During the great famine of 25 b.c. he melted down various gold objects in the palace to buy food for the poor. He built theaters, race tracks, and other structures to provide entertainment for the people, and in 19 b.c. he began the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. He revived Samaria and built the beautiful port city of Caesarea in honor of his benefactor Caesar Augustus (Octavian’s title). He embellished the cities of Beirut, Damascus, Tyre, Sidon, and Rhodes, and even made contributions to rebuilding work in Athens. He built the remarkable and almost impregnable fortress of Masada, where in a.d. 73 nearly a thousand Jewish defenders committed suicide rather than be captured by the Roman general Flavius Silva.
But Herod was also cruel and merciless. He was incredibly jealous, suspicious, and afraid for his position and power. Fearing his potential threat, he had the high priest Aristobulus, who was his wife Mariamne’s brother, drowned—after which he provided a magnificent funeral where he pretended to weep. He then had Mariamne herself killed, and then her mother and two of his own sons. Five days before his death (about a year after Jesus was born) he had a third son executed. One of the greatest evidences of his bloodthirstiness and insane cruelty was having the most distinguished citizens of Jerusalem arrested and imprisoned shortly before his death. Because he knew no one would mourn his own death, he gave orders for those prisoners to be executed the moment he died—in order to guarantee that there would be mourning in Jerusalem. That barbaric act was exceeded in cruelty only by his slaughter of “all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its environs, from two years old and under” (Matt. 2:16) in hopes of killing any threat to his throne from the One the magi said had been born King of the Jews.
magi from the east
Few biblical stories are as well known, yet so clouded by myth and tradition, as that of the magi, or wise men, mentioned by Matthew. During the Middle Ages legend developed that they were kings, that they were three in number, and that their names were Casper, Balthazar, and Melchior. Because they were thought to represent the three sons of Noah, one of them is often pictured as an Ethiopian. A twelfth-century bishop of Cologne even claimed to have found their skulls.
The only legitimate facts we know about these particular magi are the few given by Matthew in the first twelve verses of chapter 2. We are not told their number, their names, their means of transportation to Palestine, or the specific country or countries from which they came. The fact that they came from the east would have been assumed by most people in New Testament times, because the magi were primarily known as the priestly-political class of the Parthians—who lived to the east of Palestine.
The magi first appear in history in the seventh century b.c. as a tribe within the Median nation in eastern Mesopotamia. Many historians consider them to have been Semites, which if so, made them—with the Jews and Arabs—descendants of Noah’s son Shem. It may also be that, like Abraham, the magi came from ancient Ur in Chaldea. The name magi soon came to be associated solely with the hereditary priesthood within that tribe. The magi became skilled in astronomy and astrology (which, in that day, were closely associated) and had a sacrificial system that somewhat resembled the one God gave to Israel through Moses. They were involved in various occult practices, including sorcery, and were especially noted for their ability to interpret dreams. It is from their name that our words magic and magician are derived.
A principle element of magian worship was fire, and on their primary altar burned a perpetual flame, which they claimed descended from heaven. The magi were monotheistic, believing in the existence of only one god. Because of their monotheism, it was easy for the magi to adapt to the teaching of the sixth-century b.c. Persian religious leader named Zoroaster, who believed in a single god, Ahura Mazda, and a cosmic struggle between good and evil. Darius the Great established Zoroastrianism as the state religion of Persia.
Because of their combined knowledge of science, agriculture, mathematics, history, and the occult, their religious and political influence continued to grow until they became the most prominent and powerful group of advisors in the Medo-Persian and subsequently the Babylonian empire. It is not strange, therefore, that they often were referred to as “wise men.” It may be that “the law of the Medes and Persians” (see Dan. 6:8, 12, 15; Esther 1:19) was founded on the teachings of these magi. Historians tell us that no Persian was ever able to become king without mastering the scientific and religious disciplines of the magi and then being approved and crowned by them, and that this group also largely controlled judicial appointments (cf. Esther 1:13). Nergal-sar-ezer the Rab-mag, chief of the Babylonian magi, was with Nebuchadnezzar when he attacked and conquered Judah (Jer. 39:3).
We learn from the book of Daniel that the magi were among the highest-ranking officials in Babylon. Because the Lord gave Daniel the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream—which none of the other court seers was able to do—Daniel was appointed as “ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon” (Dan. 2:48). Because of his great wisdom and because he had successfully pleaded for the lives of the wise men who had failed to interpret the king’s dream (Dan. 2:24), Daniel came to be highly regarded among the magi. The plot against Daniel that caused him to be thrown into the lions’ den was fomented by the jealous satraps and the other commissioners, not the magi (Dan. 6:4–9).
Because of Daniel’s high position and great respect among them, it seems certain that the magi learned much from that prophet about the one true God, the God of Israel, and about His will and plans for His people through the coming glorious King. Because many Jews remained in Babylon after the Exile and intermarried with the people of the east, it is likely that Jewish messianic influence remained strong in that region even until New Testament times.
During both the Greek and Roman empires the magi’s power and influence continued in the eastern provinces, particularly in Parthia. As mentioned above, it was the Parthians that Herod, in behalf of Rome, drove out of Palestine between 39 and 37 b.c., when his kingship of Judea began. Some magi—many of them probably outcasts or false practitioners—lived in various parts of the Roman Empire, including Palestine. Among them was Simon of Samaria (Acts 8:9), whom tradition and history have come to refer to as Simon Magus because of his “practicing magic” (Greek, mageuō, derived from the Babylonian magus, singular of magi). The Jewish false prophet Bar-Jesus was also a sorcerer, or “magician” (Greek, magos). These magicians were despised by both Romans and Jews. Philo, a first-century b.c. Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, called them vipers and scorpions.
The magi from the east (the word literally means “from the rising” of the sun, and refers to the orient) who came to see Jesus were of a completely different sort. Not only were they true magi, but they surely had been strongly influenced by Judaism, quite possibly even by some of the prophetic writings, especially that of Daniel. They appear to be among the many God-fearing Gentiles who lived at the time of Christ, a number of whom—such as Cornelius and Lydia (Acts 10:1–2; 16:14)—are mentioned in the New Testament.
When these magi, however many there were, arrived in Jerusalem, they began asking, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” The Greek construction (saying is a present participle emphasizing continual action) suggests that they went around the city questioning whomever they met. Because they, as foreigners, knew of the monumental birth, they apparently assumed that anyone in Judea, and certainly in Jerusalem, would know of this special baby’s whereabouts. They must have been more than a little shocked to discover that no one seemed to know what they were talking about.
During that time there was widespread expectation of the coming of a great king, a great deliverer. The Roman historian Suetonius, speaking of the time around the birth of Christ, wrote, “There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judea to rule the world.” Another Roman historian, Tacitus, wrote that “there was a firm persuasion that at this very time the east was to grow powerful and rulers coming from Judea were to acquire a universal empire.” The Jewish historian Josephus reports in his Jewish Wars that at about the time of Christ’s birth the Jews believed that one from their country would soon become ruler of the habitable earth.
As seen in the writings of the Roman poet Virgil (70–19 b.c), Rome was expecting its own golden age. Augustus Caesar, Herod’s benefactor, had for some time been hailed as the savior of the world. Many magi could be found in the great cities of the west, including Athens and Rome, and were frequently consulted by Roman rulers. The Romans were looking for a coming great age, wise men from the east had long influenced the west with their ideas and traditions, and—though the particulars varied considerably—there was a growing feeling that from somewhere a great and unprecedented world leader was about to arise.
We are not told how the God of revelation caused the magi to know that the King of the Jews had been born, only that He gave them the sign of His [the One called King] star in the east. Almost as much speculation has been made about the identity of that star as about the identity of the men who saw it. Some suggest that it was Jupiter, the “king of the planets.” Others claim that it was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, forming the sign of the fish—which was used as a symbol for Christianity in the early church during the Roman persecutions. Still others claim that it was a low-hanging meteor, an erratic comet, or simply an inner vision of the star of destiny in the hearts of mankind.
Since the Bible does not identify or explain the star, we cannot be dogmatic, but it may have been the glory of the Lord—the same glory that shone around the shepherds when Jesus’ birth was announced to them by the angel (Luke 2:9). Throughout the Old Testament we are told of God’s glory being manifested as light, God radiating His presence (Shekinah) in the form of ineffable light. The Lord guided the children of Israel through the wilderness by “a pillar of cloud by day … and in a pillar of fire by night” (Ex. 13:21). When Moses went up on Mount Sinai, “to the eyes of the sons of Israel the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the mountaintop” (Ex. 24:17). On a later occasion, after Moses had inscribed the Ten Commandments on stone tablets, His face still glowed with the light of God’s glory when he returned to the people (Ex. 34:30).
When Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John, “His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light” (Matt. 17:2). On the Damascus road, just before Jesus spoke to him, Saul of Tarsus was surrounded by “a light from heaven” (Acts 9:3), which he later explained was “brighter than the sun” (26:13). In John’s first vision on the Island of Patmos, he saw Christ’s face “like the sun shining in its strength” (Rev. 1:16). In his vision of the New Jerusalem, the future heavenly dwelling of all believers, he reports that “the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23).
Both the Hebrew (kôkāb) and the Greek (astēr) words for star were also used figuratively to represent any great brilliance or radiance. Very early in the Old Testament the Messiah is spoken of as a “star [that] shall come forth from Jacob” (Num. 24:17), and at the end of the New Testament He refers to Himself as “the bright morning star” (Rev. 22:16). It was surely the glory of God, blazing as if it were an extremely bright star—visible only to the eyes for whom it was intended to be seen—that appeared to the magi in the east and later guided them to Bethlehem. It was a brilliant manifestation of “the sign of the Son of Man” (see Matt. 24:29–30; Rev. 1:7). The Shekinah glory of God stood over Bethlehem just as, centuries before, it had stood over the Tabernacle in the wilderness. And just as the pillar of cloud gave light to Israel but darkness to Egypt (Ex. 14:20), only the eyes of the magi were opened to see God’s great light over Bethlehem.
That the magi were not following the star is clear from the fact that they had to inquire about where Jesus was born. They saw His star in the east, but there is no evidence that it continued to shine or that it led them to Jerusalem. It was not until they were told of the prophesied birthplace of the Messiah (2:5–6) that the star reappeared and then guided them not only to Bethlehem but to the exact place “where the Child was” (v. 9).
These travelers from the east had come to Palestine with but one purpose: to find the One born King of the Jews and worship Him. The word worship is full of meaning, expressing the idea of falling down, prostrating oneself, and kissing the feet or the hem of the garment of the one honored. That truth in itself shows that they were true seekers after God, because when He spoke to them, in whatever way it was, they heard and responded. Despite their paganism, quasi-science, and superstition they recognized God’s voice when He spoke. Though having had limited spiritual light, they immediately recognized God’s light when it shone on them. They had genuinely seeking hearts, hearts that the Lord promises will never fail to find Him (Jer. 29:13).
On a plane trip several years ago I was hoping that whoever sat next to me would take a nap and not want to talk, so that I could get some urgent work done. The Lord obviously had other plans, because as soon as the man next to me saw I was studying he asked if I were a teacher. I replied that I was not a classroom teacher but that I did teach the Bible. His next question was, “Can you tell me how to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” After I explained the way of salvation, he received Christ. He was looking for God’s light and, like the magi, when he saw it he knew it.
1 Bethlehem, the place near where Jacob buried his Rachel (Ge 35:19) and Ruth met Boaz (Ru 1:22–2:6), was preeminently the town where David was born and reared. For Christians, it has become the place where angel hosts broke the silence and announced Messiah’s birth (Lk 2). It is distinguished from the Bethlehem in Zebulun (Jos 19:15) by the words “in Judea.” Scholars have seen in these two words a preparation for v. 6—“Bethlehem, in the land of Judah” (though there the Hebrew form “Judah” is used rather than the Greek “Judea”)—or for v. 2, “king of the Jews.” But “Bethlehem in Judea” may not be much more than a stereotyped phrase (cf. Jdg 17:7, 9; 19:1–20; Ru 1:1–2; 1 Sa 17:12; Mt 2:5). Luke 2:39 makes no mention of an extended stay in Bethlehem and a trip to Egypt before the return to Nazareth; if he knew of these events, Luke found them irrelevant to his purpose.
Unlike Luke, Matthew offers no description of Jesus’ birth or the shepherds’ visit. He specifies the time of Jesus’ birth as having occurred during King Herod’s reign (so also Lk 1:5). Herod the Great, as he is now called, was born in 73 BC and was named king of Judea by the Roman senate in 40 BC. By 37 BC, he had crushed, with the help of Roman forces, all opposition to his rule. Son of the Idumean Antipater, he was wealthy, politically gifted, intensely loyal, an excellent administrator, and clever enough to remain in the good graces of successive Roman emperors. His famine relief was superb and his building projects (including the temple, begun in 20 BC) admired even by his foes. But he loved power, inflicted incredibly heavy taxes on the people, and resented the fact that many Jews considered him a usurper. In his last years, suffering an illness that compounded his paranoia, he turned to cruelty and in fits of rage and jealousy killed close associates, his wife Mariamne (of Jewish descent from the Maccabeans), and at least two of his sons (see Josephus, Ant. 14–18; S. Perowne, The Life and Times of Herod the Great [London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1956]; and esp. Abraham Schalit, König Herodes: Der Mann und sein Werk [Berlin: de Gruyter, 1969]).
Traditionally, some have argued that Herod died in 4 BC; so Jesus must have been born before that. Josephus (Ant. 17.167 [6.4]) mentions an eclipse of the moon shortly before Herod’s death, and this has normally been identified as having occurred on 12–13 March 4 BC. After Herod’s death there was a Passover celebration (Josephus, J.W. 2.10 [1.3]; Ant. 17.213 [9.3]), presumably 11 April 4 BC; so the date of his death at first glance seems secure. However, Ernest L. Martin (The Birth of Christ Recalculated! [Pasadena, Calif.: FBR, 1978], 22–49) has advanced solid reasons for thinking the eclipse occurred 10 January 1 BC, and, integrating this information with his interpretation of other relevant data, Martin proposes a birth date for Jesus in September, 2 BC. (His detailed pinpointing of 1 Sept., based on his understanding of Rev 12:1–5, is too speculative to be considered.) Several lines of evidence stand against this thesis: Josephus (Ant. 17.191 [8.1]; J.W. 1.665 [33.8]) dates the length of Herod’s reign as thirty-seven years from his accession or thirty-four from the time of his effective reign, and these favor a death date in 4 BC. Coins dated at the time of 4 BC, minted under the reign of Herod’s sons, support the traditional date.
Martin answers these objections by supposing that Herod’s successors antedated their reigns to 4 BC in honor of Herod’s sons Alexander and Aristobulus, whom he had killed in that year, and by arguing that between 4 BC and 1 BC there was some form of joint rule shared by Herod and his son Antipater. In that case, Josephus’s figures relating to the length of Herod’s rule refer to his unshared reign. This is psychologically unconvincing. The man who murdered two of his sons out of paranoia and jealousy and arranged to have hundreds of Jewish leaders executed on the day of his death was not likely to share his authority, even in a merely formal way. The question remains unresolved. For a more traditional dating of Jesus’ birth in late 5 BC or early 4 BC, see Hoehner, Chronological Aspects, 11–27 (written before Martin’s work).
The “Magi” (magoi, GK 3407) are not easily identified with precision. Several centuries earlier, the term was used for a priestly caste of Medes who enjoyed special power to interpret dreams. Daniel (Da 1:20; 2:2; 4:7; 5:7) refers to magoi in the Babylonian Empire. In later centuries down to NT times, the term loosely covered a wide variety of men interested in dreams, astrology, magic, books thought to contain mysterious references to the future, and the like. Some Magi honestly inquired after truth; many were rogues and charlatans (e.g., Ac 8:9; 13:6, 8; cf. Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 167–68, 197–200; TDNT, 4:356–59). Apparently these men came to Bethlehem spurred on by astrological calculations. But they had probably built up their expectation of a kingly figure by working through assorted Jewish books (cf. W. M. Ramsey, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament [4 th ed.; London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1920], 140–49).
The tradition that the Magi were kings can be traced as far back as Tertullian (d. ca. 225). It probably developed under the influence of OT passages that say kings will come and worship Messiah (cf. Pss 68:29, 31; 72:10–11; Isa 49:7; 60:1–6). The theory that there were three “wise men” is probably a deduction from the three gifts (2:11). By the end of the sixth century, the wise men were named: Melkon (later Melchior), Balthasar, and Gasper. Matthew gives no names. His magoi come to Jerusalem (which, like Bethlehem, has strong Davidic connections [2 Sa 5:5–9]), arriving, apparently (see Notes), from the east—possibly from Babylon, where a sizable Jewish settlement wielded considerable influence, but possibly from Persia or from the Arabian desert. The more distant Babylon may be supported by the travel time apparently required (see comments at 2:16).
2 The Magi saw a star “when it rose” (NIV text note; see Notes, vv. 1–2). What they saw remains uncertain.
- The German astronomer Johannes Kepler (d. 1630) pointed out that in the Roman year AUC 747 (7 BC), there occurred a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the zodiacal constellation of Pisces, a sign sometimes connected in ancient astrology with the Hebrews. Many details can be fitted to this suggestion (cf. Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 172–73; NIDNTT, 3:735), not least that medieval Jews saw messianic significance in the same planetary conjunction. Moreover, the conjunction occurred in May, October, and November of 7 BC, and one of the latter two appearances could account for 2:9. But there is no solid evidence that the ancients referred to such conjunctions as “stars”; and even at their closest proximity, Jupiter and Saturn would have been about one degree apart—a perceived distance about twice the diameter of the moon—and therefore never fused into one image.
- Michael Molnar (The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi [Piscataway, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1999]) suggests that twice in 6 BC the moon comes in front of Jupiter, totally obscuring it (a lunar “occultation” of Jupiter), and that astrologically this indicates a royal birth. He then makes other connections to tie this to the birth to Judah. The problem is that these occultations were not visible in Babylon (the most likely provenance of the Magi) since Jupiter at that time of year was below the horizon. Molnar acknowledges the point, but thinks the Magi might nevertheless have calculated the occultation without witnessing it. Matthew, however, stipulates that the Magi “saw” the star (v. 2). Moreover, Molnar’s theory does not align well with v. 9 (see below).
- Kepler himself preferred the suggestion that this was a supernova—a faint star that violently explodes and gives off enormous amounts of light for a few weeks or months. A recent defense of this view is that of Mark Kidger (The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomer’s View [Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1999]), who argues for a nova in 5 BC, preceded by three precursors (e.g., a triple conduction of Saturn and Jupiter in Pisces in 7 BC). There is little confirming evidence, and it is difficult on this theory to account for 2:9.
- Others have suggested comets, what some older writers refer to as “variable stars.” The most likely is Halley’s Comet (cf. Lagrange), which passed overhead in 12 BC; but this seems impossibly early.
- Ernest L. Martin opts for a number of planetary conjunctions and massings in 3/2 BC. This suggestion depends on his entire reconstruction and late date for Herod’s death (see comments at v. 1), which is no more than a possibility. The theory also shares some of the difficulties of point 1.
- In the light of 2:9, many commentators insist that astronomical considerations are a waste of time: Matthew presents the “star” as strictly supernatural. This, too, is possible and obviously impossible to falsify, but v. 9 is not as determinative as is often suggested (see comments at v. 9).
- Because it is difficult to imagine a “star” of any conceivable astronomical variety guiding the Magi along the road to Bethlehem, Allison (Studies in Matthew, 17–41) suggests that the “star” is actually a guiding angel. It is easy to list many texts in which stars and angels are linked; it is more difficult to find convincing parallels in which a star simply represents an angel. Moreover, the difficulty many find with v. 9 is not nearly as great as some have thought (see comments at vv. 9–10).
The evidence is insufficient to come down firmly on one particular astronomical theory.
Matthew uses language almost certainly alluding to Numbers 24:17: “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.” This oracle, spoken by Balaam, who came “from the eastern mountains” (Nu 23:7), was widely regarded as messianic (Tg. Ps.-J.; Tg. Onq.; CD 7:19–20; 1QM 11:6; 1QSb 5:27; 4QTest 12–13; T. Jud. 24:1). Both Matthew and Numbers deal with the king of Israel (Nu 24:7), though Matthew does not resort to the uncontrolled allegorizing on “star” frequently found in early postapostolic Christian writings (cf. Jean Danielou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity [London: Darton, Longman, 1964], 214–24).
Granting Matthew’s informed devotion to the OT, he surely knew that the OT mocks astrologers (Isa 47:13–15; Da 1:20; 2:27; 4:7; 5:7) and forbids astrology (Jer 10:1–2). Nevertheless, it was widely practiced in the first century, even among Jews (cf. Albright and Mann). Matthew neither condemns nor sanctions it; instead, he contrasts the eagerness of the Magi to worship Jesus, despite their limited knowledge, with the apathy of the Jewish leaders and the hostility of Herod’s court—all of whom had the Scriptures to inform them. Formal knowledge of the Scriptures, Matthew implies, does not in itself lead to knowing who Jesus is. Just as God sovereignly worked through Caesar’s decree that a census be taken (Lk 2:1) to ensure that Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem would fulfill prophecy, so God sovereignly used the Magi’s calculations to bring about the situation this pericope describes.
The question the Magi asked does not tell how their astrology led them to seek a “king of the Jews” and what made them think this particular star was “his.” The widely held idea that the ancient world was looking for a Jewish leader of renown (based largely on Josephus, J.W. 6.312–13 [5.4]; Suetonius, Vesp. 4; Tacitus, Hist. v. 13; Virgil, Ecl. 4) cannot stand close scrutiny. The Josephus passage refers to Jewish expectations of Messiah, and the others probably borrowed from Josephus. The Magi may have linked the star to “the king of the Jews” through studying the OT and other Jewish writings—a possibility made plausible by the presence of the large Jewish community in Babylon.
We must not think that the Magi’s question meant, Where is the one born to become king of the Jews? but, Where is the one born king of the Jews? (see Notes). His kingly status was not conferred on him later on; it was his from birth. Jesus’ participation in the Davidic dynasty has already been established by the genealogy. The same title the Magi gave him found its place over the cross (27:37).
“Worship” (see Notes) need not imply that the Magi recognized Jesus’ divinity; it may simply mean “do homage” (Broadus). Their own statement suggests homage paid royalty rather than the worship of Deity. But Matthew, having already told of the virginal conception, doubtless expected his readers to discern something more—namely, that the Magi “worshiped” better than they knew.
1 Matthew has given us no information on where Joseph and Mary lived, or on how they came to be in Bethlehem. The natural assumption is that it was their home, to which they naturally tried to return after their asylum in Egypt (vv. 21–22); only Luke’s independent narrative indicates otherwise. Matthew’s “geographical apologetic” for a Galilean Messiah prompts him both here and in v. 5 to specify that Bethlehem is “in Judea” (and cf. the double mention of Judah in the quotation in v. 6) in contrast with Jesus’ later domicile. The proximity of Bethlehem to Jerusalem facilitates the final stage of the magi’s quest and Herod’s subsequent raid on the village. The date of Jesus’ birth “in the days of King Herod” must be long enough before Herod’s death, which is normally dated in the spring of 4 b.c., to allow for the journey of the magi and Herod’s subsequent action before that date. Luke 1:5 also dates the conception of John the Baptist (and therefore presumably also the conception of Jesus six months later, Luke 1:36) during Herod’s reign. There is no agreement on a more precise dating of Jesus’ birth (but see below on the star, v. 2).
Magos, originally the title of a Persian priestly caste who played an important role in advising the king, was applied more widely to learned men and priests who specialized in astrology and the interpretation of dreams, and in some cases magical arts.28 It is the term used sometimes in LXX and more often in Theodotion for the Babylonian court “magicians” of Dan 1:20; 2:2, 10, 27 etc. who were expected to interpret dreams. I have used Matthew’s term “magi” in the translation because magos is not necessarily as specific as our term “astrologer,” though the fact that these men were guided by a star indicates that this was at least part of their area of interest. Magi were found all over the Roman world but were specially associated with Babylonia, and that is the most likely meaning of the term “the East” when written from the point of view of Palestine. The gifts they brought are particularly associated with Arabia (see on v. 11), but even if that was their source it is not necessary to suppose that the magi themselves came from there.
Many uses of magos, especially in a Jewish or Christian context, are clearly pejorative, notably of the “false prophet” Bar-Jesus in Acts 13:6, 8. Not every mention of magi necessarily refers to what we would now call “magic,” but it was a grey area from which Jews and Christians preferred to keep their distance.34 It is therefore remarkable to find Matthew introducing magi into his story without any sign of disapproval. However widely respected the magi may have been in Mesopotamia and more widely in the Greek and Roman world, their title was not one which a careful Christian would willingly introduce without warrant into his account of the origins of his faith. The most satisfactory explanation for their presence in Matthew’s narrative is that this was an element which he had received in his tradition and (probably because the role of the star required them to be identified as such) did not feel at liberty to disguise.
Whatever the social and religious unsuitability of magi, the fact that they were not Jews fitted more congenially with Matthew’s universalist agenda. To have the “King of the Jews” recognized and honored first not by his own people but by representatives of the “many” who were later to come from east and west to take their place in the kingdom of heaven (8:11) appropriately set the scene for the ministry of the Israelite Messiah who would both be rejected by his own people (here foreshadowed by the stance of Herod and “all Jerusalem,” see on v. 3) and send out his disciples to recruit from all nations (28:19).
As foreigners Matthew’s magi naturally began their inquiries in Jerusalem, the capital, and the place where a potential “king” might be expected to be found. It was only through local information that they could discover the “correct” birthplace of the son of David.
2 Their astrological deductions from the “rising” of a star had convinced the magi of a royal birth in the “westland” (Palestine), hence the title “King of the Jews.” The idea that a special star heralded the birth of famous people (and other significant events) was widespread in the ancient world.38 The magi were presumably aware of Herod’s royal position, and perhaps assuming that a birth had taken place within his family they had come to find out more.
Both astronomers and biblical historians continue to try to identify the nature of the rising of the star and its subsequent movements on the basis of Matthew’s brief description and of astronomical data, but with little consensus. Three recurrent suggestions40 perhaps deserve a mention.
- A comet. Comets have long been held to herald the arrival of important figures on the world stage, and a comet visible in the western sky might well explain the journey of the magi, but unfortunately astronomers have not been able to identify a comet which would have been visible at about the right historical date. Halley’s comet appeared in 12–11 b.c., too early to fit the chronological data of the gospels.
- A planetary conjunction (rather than a single star, as Matthew describes it). The favorite candidate here is a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces, which would have taken place in 7 b.c., and which could have been interpreted to mean the birth of a king (Jupiter, the royal planet) in Palestine (Saturn was thought to be the planet representing the “westland”), while the constellation of Pisces represented the last days. This unusual conjunction thus indicated, “There will appear in Palestine in this year the ruler of the last days.”
- A nova (or perhaps a super-nova). This is the result of a stellar explosion and produces an extremely bright phenomenon which usually lasts for a number of months. This was the preferred theory of Johannes Kepler, even though he also noted the planetary conjunction of 7 b.c. Chinese astronomers recorded a nova which was visible for 70 days in 5/4 b.c., which would fit a date shortly before the death of Herod.
While proponents of at least the second and third of the above theories are convinced that their astronomical results sufficiently match Matthew’s description, those of us who are not astronomers may find it hard to envisage either of these phenomena first “rising,” then “leading on” the magi and eventually “coming to rest” in such a way as to indicate a specific location, even when due allowance is made for the phenomenal viewpoint of the story-teller’s language. Despite the fascination of astronomical explanations it may in the end be more appropriate to interpret Matt 2:9 as describing not a regular astronomical occurrence but the miraculous provision of what appeared to be a star which uniquely moved and then stopped (or at least which appeared to observers on the ground to do so), though of course there is no improbability in a natural astronomical phenomenon being the basis on which the magi made their initial deductions and set off on their journey.
The nature of the “homage” of the magi (the verb recurs in vv. 8 and 11) is not clearly spelled out, except for the offering of expensive gifts, such as might befit a royal birth. Their “prostration” (v. 11, literally “falling”) was a familiar act of homage in Eastern society, a recognition of social superiority. Neither term requires the attribution of divinity to the one so honored, and Matthew’s narrative does not indicate that the magi had any such notion (they came looking for a “king,” not a “god”), though he might expect his Christian readers with hindsight to read more into the “worship” of the magi.
2:1–2 / Luke recounts Joseph and Mary’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to comply with census regulations (Joseph was a descendant of David, who was a son of “Jesse of Bethlehem,” 1 Sam. 16:1); Matthew simply states that Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea (there was another Bethlehem within the territory assigned to Zebulun, Josh. 19:15). The name Bethlehem means “house of bread.” It was nestled in a fertile countryside some six miles south of Jerusalem, and its history was long and illustrious. It was there that Rachel died (Gen. 48:7) and there that Ruth lived after her marriage to Boaz (Ruth 1:22). Bethlehem was most important, however, as the city of David. Thus it was from Bethlehem that Israel expected David’s greater son, the Messiah, to come (Mic. 5:2). So, in fulfillment of prophetic anticipation, Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
The birth of Jesus took place during the reign of Herod the Great. This crafty and cruel monarch secured his position as ruler over Palestine by successfully manipulating Marcus Antonius. Although he erected many ornate buildings (the temple in Jerusalem was one) and was on occasion exceptionally generous, he steadily lost favor with the Jewish people. His mixed lineage (half Idumean and half Jewish) would make him suspect to begin with. His Edomite blood (cf. Mal. 1:4) made him unacceptable.
Toward the end of his reign (which lasted from 40 until 4 b.c.) he became increasingly cruel. Suspicious that his own family was plotting his overthrow, he murdered his favorite wife (Mari-amne), her mother, two of her sons, and his own eldest son. Augustus, the Roman emperor, who for years had retained confidence in Herod, finally acknowledged that it was safer to be Herod’s pig (hys in Greek) than his son (hyios). He was, as it were, a second Pharaoh, that symbol of unbelief and coldheartedness in the Old Testament.
The first to visit the newborn child were astrologers from the East. The av calls them “wise men” (niv Magi, translating magoi) indicating that they were thought to possess secret wisdom concerning the movement of the stars and the influence that this would have on the course of human history. Beare notes that although astrology was a dominant influence at that time (“the real religion of many of the most elevated and clearminded spirits”), it was a pseudoscience, for it depended upon the theory that the earth is the center of the universe and that the planets are living powers (p. 74). The astrologers probably came from Babylonia, where they would have had contact with the Jewish exiles and the opportunity to develop an interest in the coming Messiah (cf. TDNT, vol. 4, pp. 356–59). The same word (magos, sg.) occurs in Acts 13:6, 8, of the magician Elymas (Bar-Jesus), but in the negative sense of one who practices magical arts (Paul calls him a “child of the devil … full of all kinds of deceit and trickery,” Acts 13:10). The wise men who came to worship the Christ were not crafty magicians but highly respected members of the community (note, however, that Ignatius of Antioch took them in the bad sense, Ign. Eph. 19).
Tradition has expanded on the visitors from the East. Because they brought three kinds of gifts (v. 11), it is commonly held that they were three in number. The idea that they were kings was probably derived from such passages as Psalms 72:10, 15, and Isaiah 49:7 Some seven hundred years later they were given the names Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. There is no basis in the text for these conjectures.
The journey from the East was prompted by a remarkable phenomenon that they had seen in the heavens. It may have been the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in the spring of 7 b.c. We know that ancient astronomers were able to calculate the orbits of planets years in advance. Stauffer holds that the Magi noted only the beginning of the conjunction (the appearance of Jupiter in the east; v. 2) and set out for Palestine. Upon arriving, they witnessed the extremely rare (once every 794 years) conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the Sign of the Fishes. Note that when they left Jerusalem for Bethlehem they saw “the star they had seen in the east” (v. 9) and were filled with joy. Stauffer goes on to say that since Jupiter was regarded as the star of the universe, Saturn the planet of Palestine, and the constellation of the Fishes the sign of the last days, this rare conjunction “could only mean that the ruler of the last days would appear in Palestine” (Jesus and His Story, p. 33).
2:1 born in Bethlehem. Bethlehem is located about six miles east of Jerusalem. The reason for Mary and Joseph’s presence in Bethlehem is not explained by Matthew, with the likely implication that Matthew’s reader has some knowledge of birth traditions about Jesus (see Luke 2). What Matthew does emphasize through the geography of chapter 2 is the fulfillment of prophecy through Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and the relocation of his family first to Egypt and then to Nazareth in Galilee.
during the time of King Herod. Herod the Great, born around 73 BC, ruled Judea, Samaria, Perea, and Galilee from 37 BC until his death in 4 BC. An Idumean (or Edomite) by birth, he was appointed by Rome in 40 BC to rule Judea because of his alliance with Rome. He gained control of Galilee and then Jerusalem from Antigones, a Hasmonean allied with the Parthians, in 37 BC. He ruled the Jewish people until his death in 4 BC, at which time his reign was divided among three of his sons, Archelaus (over Idumea, Judea, and Samaria [see 2:22]), Philip (over the northeastern sector of his father’s territories), and Herod Antipas (over Galilee and Perea) (see the map of first-century Palestine).
Magi from the east. The identity of the magi (Gk. magoi) is a matter of debate. Although church history as well as contemporary Christmas scenes and plays depict three opulent wise men of kingly stature, Matthew nowhere indicates the number of magi. Additionally, it is likely that these Gentile star-watchers were servants rather than kings. As Mark Powell indicates, Matthew’s reader would have likely identified the magi as royal servants (e.g., Dan. 2:1–12, with magos used in the LXX at 2:2, 10). If so, the magi in Matthew 2 would have provided a contrast to King Herod. While kings should be expected to pay homage to the Messiah (see Ps. 72:10–11), Matthew instead portrays royal servants (and Gentiles, at that) doing so. These Gentile worshipers provide a stark contrast to Herod, who claims an intention to worship Jesus but plots his demise instead.
2:2 king of the Jews. When the magi ask for information about “the one who has been born king of the Jews,” Matthew portrays Herod’s response as one of agitation over this potential rival to his throne. The repeated emphasis on Herod as king (2:1, 3, 9) and his power to suppress any rivals (2:16) indicates that Matthew 2 is about political as well as religious authority and claims. For Matthew, Jesus is the Messiah or “king of the Jews.” As such, he threatens Herod’s claim to be king of the Jewish people, the very position granted to him by Roman authority. Herod understands Jesus to be a threat and responds by killing every boy in Bethlehem who might be the one whom the magi came to find (2:16), necessitating that Joseph and Mary take Jesus and flee to Egypt. Even when they return to Israel after Herod dies, they avoid coming under the rule of Herod’s son Archelaus by settling in the north, in Galilee.
The Birthplace of the King
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judaea, in the days of Herod the king, behold there came to Jerusalem wise men from the east. ‘Where’, they said, ‘is the newly born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in its rising and we have come to worship him.’
It was in Bethlehem that Jesus was born. Bethlehem was a small town six miles to the south of Jerusalem. In the past, it had been called Ephrath or Ephratah. The name Bethlehem means the House of Bread, and Bethlehem stood in fertile countryside, which made its name a ﬁtting name. It stood high up on a grey limestone ridge more than 2,500 feet in height. The ridge had a summit at each end, and a hollow like a saddle between them. So, from its position, Bethlehem looked like a town set in an amphitheatre of hills.
Bethlehem had a long history. It was there that Jacob had buried Rachel and had set up a pillar of memory beside her grave (Genesis 48:7, 35:20). It was there that Ruth had lived when she married Boaz (Ruth 1:22), and from Bethlehem Ruth could see the land of Moab, her native land, across the Jordan valley. But above all, Bethlehem was the home and the city of David (1 Samuel 16:1, 17:12, 20:6); and it was for the water of the well of Bethlehem that David longed when he was a hunted fugitive upon the hills (2 Samuel 23:14–15).
In later days, we read that Rehoboam fortiﬁed the town of Bethlehem (2 Chronicles 11:6). But in the history of Israel, and to the minds of the people, Bethlehem was uniquely the city of David. It was from the line of David that God was to send the great deliverer of his people. As the prophet Micah had it: ‘But you, O Bethlehem of Ephratah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days’ (Micah 5:2).
It was in Bethlehem, David’s city, that the Jews expected great David’s greater son to be born; it was there that they expected God’s Anointed One to come into the world. And it was so.
The picture of the stable and the manger as the birthplace of Jesus is a picture indelibly etched in our minds; but it may well be that that picture is not altogether correct. Justin Martyr, one of the greatest of the early fathers, who lived about ad 150, and who came from the district near Bethlehem, tells us that Jesus was born in a cave near the village of Bethlehem (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 78, 304); and it may well be that Justin’s information is correct. The houses in Bethlehem are built on the slope of the limestone ridge; and it is very common for them to have a cave-like stable hollowed out in the limestone rock below the house itself; and very likely it was in such a cave-stable that Jesus was born.
To this day, such a cave is shown in Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus, and above it the Church of the Nativity has been built. For a very long time, that cave has been shown as the birthplace of Jesus. It was so in the days of the Roman emperor, Hadrian, who, in a deliberate attempt to desecrate the place, erected a shrine to the heathen god Adonis above it. When the Roman Empire became Christian, early in the fourth century, the ﬁrst Christian emperor, Constantine, built a great church there, and that church, much altered and often restored, still stands.
The travel writer H. V. Morton tells how he visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. He came to a great wall, and in the wall there was a door so low that he had to stoop to enter it; and through the door, and on the other side of the wall, there was the church. Beneath the high altar of the church is the cave, and when pilgrims descend into it they ﬁnd a little cavern about fourteen yards long and four yards wide, lit by silver lamps. In the ﬂoor there is a star, and round it a Latin inscription: ‘Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.’
When the Lord of Glory came to this earth, he was born in a cave where animals were sheltered. The cave in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem may be that same cave, or it may not be. That we will never know for certain. But there is something beautiful in the symbolism that the church where the cave is has a door so low that all must stoop to enter. It is supremely ﬁtting that people should approach the infant Jesus upon their knees.
The Homage of the East
Matthew 2:1–2 (contd)
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there came to do him homage wise men from the east. The name given to these men is Magi, and that is a word which is difﬁcult to translate. The Greek historian Herodotus (1:101, 132) has certain information about the Magi. He says that they were originally a Median tribe. The Medes were part of the empire of the Persians. They tried to overthrow the Persians and substitute the power of the Medes. The attempt failed. From that time, the Magi ceased to have any ambitions for power or prestige, and became a tribe of priests. They became in Persia almost exactly what the Levites were in Israel. They became the teachers and instructors of the Persian king. In Persia, no sacriﬁce could be offered unless one of the Magi was present. They became men of holiness and wisdom.
These Magi were men who were skilled in philosophy, medicine and natural science. They were soothsayers and interpreters of dreams. In later times, the word Magus developed a much lower meaning, and came to mean little more than a fortune-teller, a sorcerer, a magician and a charlatan. Such was Elymas, the sorcerer (Acts 13:6, 8), and Simon who is commonly called Simon Magus (Acts 8:9, 11). But at their best the Magi were good and holy men, who sought for truth.
In those ancient days, everyone believed in astrology. People believed that they could foretell the future from the stars, and they believed that a person’s destiny was settled by the star under which he or she was born. It is not difﬁcult to see how that belief arose. The stars pursue their unvarying courses; they represent the order of the universe. If then there suddenly appeared some brilliant star, if the unvarying order of the heavens was broken by some special phenomenon, it did look as if God was breaking into his old order and announcing some special thing.
We do not know what brilliant star those ancient Magi saw. Many suggestions have been made. About 11 bc, Halley’s comet was visible shooting brilliantly across the skies. About 7 bc, there was a brilliant conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. In the years 5–2 bc, there was an unusual astronomical phenomenon. In those years, on the ﬁrst day of the Egyptian month Mesori, Sirius, the dog star, rose heliacally, that is at sunrise, and shone with extraordinary brilliance. Now the name Mesori means the birth of a prince, and to those ancient astrologers such a star would undoubtedly mean the birth of some great king. We cannot tell what star the Magi saw; but it was their profession to watch the heavens, and some heavenly brilliance spoke to them of the entry of a king into the world.
It may seem to us extraordinary that those men should set out from the east to ﬁnd a king; but the strange thing is that, just about the time Jesus was born, there was in the world a strange feeling of expectation of the coming of a king. Even the Roman historians knew about this. Not so very much later than this, Suetonius could write: ‘There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judaea to rule the world’ (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian, 4:5). Tacitus tells of the same belief that ‘there was a ﬁrm persuasion … that at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers coming from Judaea were to acquire universal empire’ (Tacitus, Histories, 5:13). The Jews had the belief that ‘about that time one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth’ (Josephus, The Jewish Wars, 6:5, 4). At a slightly later time, we ﬁnd Tiridates, King of Armenia, visiting Nero at Rome with his Magi along with him (Suetonius, Life of Nero, 13:1). We ﬁnd the Magi in Athens sacriﬁcing to the memory of Plato (Seneca, Epistles, 58:31). Almost at the same time as Jesus was born, we ﬁnd Augustus, the Roman emperor, being hailed as the Saviour of the world, and Virgil, the Roman poet, writing his Fourth Eclogue, which is known as the Messianic Eclogue, about the golden days to come.
There is not the slightest need to think that the story of the coming of the Magi to the cradle of Christ is only a lovely legend. It is exactly the kind of thing that could easily have happened in that ancient world. When Jesus Christ came, the world was in an eagerness of expectation. Men and women were waiting for God, and the desire for God was in their hearts. They had discovered that they could not build the golden age without God. It was to a waiting world that Jesus came; and, when he came, the ends of the earth were gathered at his cradle. It was the ﬁrst sign and symbol of the world conquest of Christ.
2:1. Bethlehem was about six miles southwest of Jerusalem. Herod the king was the ruthless and paranoid puppet ruler under Rome. His atrocities included killing three sons, a wife, and her mother to protect his regime. There is no secular record of what happened in Bethlehem, but it is perfectly in keeping with his paranoia to slaughter these children. The magi remain enigmatic figures, but were probably wise men specializing in astronomy and astrology. In the Greco-Roman world they purportedly predicted the ascendancy of great leaders (Astyages of Media in the sixth century BC; Alexander the Great, and Augustus). From the east could be Egypt, but was more likely Babylonia, where a large and influential group of Jews still lived in exile. It is remotely possible that these magi were familiar with the prophecies of Daniel and that these, in association with the star, would have caused them to come to the Holy Land.
2:2. A star could signal the birth of powerful men. In Jewish tradition a new star appeared following the birth of Abraham, and the Messiah is associated with a star (Nm 24:17; Rv 22:16). What was this star? Jupiter and Saturn were aligned in Pisces in 7 BC, but such planetary alignments were never called “stars.” Halley’s Comet was visible in 12 BC but this is certainly too early. That this star appeared (2:7) suggests it had not been documented previously, and 2:9 implies that this star moved around, supporting a supernatural origin, and may parallel the pillar of fire that led the Hebrews in the wilderness.
Ver. 1. Wise men from the East.—They were wise, not so much for their learning, but because they sought God diligently. Wisdom does not make unbelievers, but folly. (Wilmot Buxton.)
Philosophy and the Babe:—
- The wise men seeking Christ. 1. They are presented to us here as seekers. 2. They were earnest seekers. 3. They sought Christ reverently. 4. God assisted them in the search.
- The wise men finding Christ. 1. They were seeking a person. 2. That person must be a king. 3. They sought a king and found a child. 4. Having found the child their seeking came to an end. 5. They worshipped Him. (J. C. Jones.) Jesus was the beginner of a new era, the founder of a new kingdom, hailed as a King alike at His birth and on His cross.
- The seekers. Magi, not magicians; astronomers, not astrologers; scientists, not wizards. The coming of these wise men prophetic of the time when all the trophies of science should be laid at the Saviour’s feet.
- The sign. “His star.” Various conjectures. God never lacks the means to guide earnest inquirers.
III. The search. Earnest. Gave up friends and home, and took a wearisome journey. Every follower of Christ must have the same spirit. No earthly joy is entirely satisfactory. Men will not earnestly seek Christ till firmly convinced of the unsatisfactory nature of other things. Persevering: many discouragements.
- The success. Not where they expected it, in the capital; not even in the best place in Bethlehem, yet where their soul-hunger was satisfied—the “house of bread.” They came not empty-handed, but presented first themselves, then their gifts. The typical nature of these gifts. Around the manger was gathered a prophetic group. (Richard Roberts.)
The Sages, the Star, and the Saviour:—
- Their inquiry, “Where is He?” &c. 1. Interest awakened. 2. Belief avowed. 3. Ignorance admitted. 4. Information entreated. 5. A motive declared.
- Their encouragement. 1. To see His star was a great favour. 2. It was a great responsibility. 3. They did not regard it as a matter to be rested in. 4. They did not find satisfaction in what they had themselves done to reach the child.
III. Their example. 1. They saw the young child. 2. They worshipped Him. 3. They presented gifts. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The Eastern Sages led to Jerusalem:—
- The wise men here referred to. The gospel sometimes triumphs over the world where it is most influential, and reduces the wise, rich, and great into a willing subjection to Christ.
- The country from which they came.
III. The means by which they were conducted to Bethlehem. How great are our advantages compared with theirs; they had a star, we a sun.
- The light which is thrown by this passage on some of the perfections of God. 1. On His wisdom, particularly in adapting means to an end. 2. On His power as seen in the star. 3. On His faithfulness as seen in the prophecy now fulfilled. 4. On His knowledge as displayed in revealing the true intention of Herod. 5. A remarkable illustration of God’s superintending providence. The hearts of kings are in His rule; God provides for the safety of His servants. (D. Rees.)
The illustrious seekers:—1. Their title was illustrious. 2. Their pursuit was illustrious. 3. Their wealth was illustrious. 4. Their character was illustrious. (D. C. Hughes, M.A.)
- A model of sound wisdom for all true Christians. Examine the character of their faith. 1. In its commencement: promptitude to follow the call of heaven. 2. In its progress: in their well-supported constancy when the star disappeared. 3. In the perfection of their faith.
- A portrait of the blind wisdom of worldly men, as seen in Herod’s persecution of Jesus Christ. 1. This false wisdom is at enmity with God. 2. God is at enmity with this reprobate wisdom. What did the new-born Saviour to Herod:—1. He troubled him. 2. Made him odious. 3. Confounded his counsel. 4. Made him, in defiance of himself, subservient to the designs of providence. (Bourdalone.)
Intellect and Christ:—1. That men of intellectual culture have inquired earnestly for Christ. 2. Men of intellectual culture have encountered difficulties in finding Christ. (1) A long journey; (2) A difficult journey; (3) A dangerous journey. 3. Men of intellectual culture have been led to Christ by the strangest agencies. 4. Men of intellectual culture have rendered the most devout homage to Christ: (1) Intelligently, (2) devoutly, (3) practically. (J. Woodhouse.)
The star guiding the wise men to the Babe in Bethlehem:—1. Christ is owned by some in the higher orders of life. 2. They who are desirous of finding Christ will not miss Him for want of direction. 3. We should deem no difficulties too great to encounter, no sacrifices too great to make, in seeking after Christ. 4. We are to be concerned to honour Him as well as to be saved by Him. (W. Jay.)
The magi are commended:—1. For their prerogative of a deeper wisdom. 2. For their fervid searching. 3. For their constant asking of the place. 4. For the sweetness of their spiritual joy. 5. For their devotion of humble adoration. 6. For the value of their gifts. 7. For the prudent caution of their return. (J. M. Ashley.)
The fulness of the faith is gained:—1. By asking light from God. 2. By wisely seeking knowledge. 3. By pressing forward in holiness. (Ibid.)
The visit of the wise men of the East to Christ:—
- The description afforded of these visitants at Bethlehem. 1. The power of God over the human mind. 2. A fulfilment of prophecy.
- The star which conducted these wise men to Christ. 1. The condescension of God—He often meets man in man’s own paths. 2. The greatness of God—He often puts much honour on Christ by the means which He makes use of to lead sinners to Him. 3. The compassion and care of God—He adapts His guidance to our needs.
III. The conduct of these men. 1. Their faith. 2. The moral greatness they exhibited. 3. Their devotedness to Christ. (C. Bradley, M.A.)
The nativity of Christ:—These wise men were assisted in their hopes by an inward inspiration. The solicitation of grace worked within them. (G. Bateman, M.A.)
Wise men from the East:—1. That despisers of Jesus are doubtless to be viewed as despisers of Him whom His Heavenly Father delighteth to honour. The song of the angels. 2. That Jesus is to Gentiles as well as to Jews a Prince and a Saviour. 3. That the Christian faith is not to be viewed as exclusively embraced by the poor and illiterate. 4. As to the enjoyment of external advantages we are more highly favoured than these men. (A. Telfer.)
The Epiphany goodness:—1. In the largeness of the plan of His salvation, Christ not only breaks over all the narrow notions of national, family, and social prejudice, but He permits every heart to come to Him, in spite of its imperfections and errors, by the best light and the best feeling it has. 2. At every step forward in the Christian life, each disciple’s amount of privilege or blessing is generally in proportion to the growth of his faith up to that time. 3. After all, wherever the starting-point, whoever the travellers, whatever the gentleness that forbears to quench our feeble life, and however merciful the long-suffering that waits for us, there is an end of the whole way, at the feet of the Lord. (Bishop Huntingdon.)
- The persons. 1. Their country. 2. Their condition.
- Their journey. They saw, understood, and set out. III. 1. Let us evermore give thanks to our Lord God for the revelation of that great mystery of mercy, the restoration of the Gentiles to that Church, from which they had been for so many ages excluded, or rather, we should say, they had excluded themselves. 2. Diligence is generally rewarded with the discovery of that which it seeks after—sometimes of that which is much more valuable. 3. Let us learn to be watchful and observant of those lights, which at sundry times, and in divers manners, are vouchsafed to us. (Bishop Horne.)
- How the magi sought and found the Lord. 1. Who they were. 2. They sought with the utmost assiduity. 3. They were ultimately directed to Him by the written Word. 4. From first to last they were divinely guided.
- The feelings with which the magi contemplated Him. 1. With exceeding great joy. 2. With devout adoration. 3. They presented most costly offerings. Lessons: (1) Except we thus seek and find the Saviour we perish. (2) Do you know and feel that you have not sought Him? (3) Are you greatly discouraged in seeking Him? (F. Close, M.A.) This visit of the wise men shows us:—
- How variously God speaks to us,—how many are the voices whereby He calls us, if we will, out of darkness, whether of mind or of heart, into His marvellous light. He uses a language to each, which each can understand. The Universal Father sooner or later has a word, a star, for all of us.
- How truth, if it is to be grasped in its fulness, must be earnestly sought for. These wise men had a little stock of truth to start with, but they made the most of that which had been given them. Some word, some example, some passing, inward inspiration, may be the star in the East, bidding the soul hope and persevere.
III. This history teaches what is the real object of religious inquiry. Worship is the joint result of thought, affection, and will, rising upward towards God, and then shrinking into the very dust before Him. It is much more than mere religious thought, it is the soul seeking the true centre of the spiritual universe with all its powers. (Canon Liddon.) His birthplace, as in everything else belonging to Him, is a living parable.
- It was a foreign country. In Judæa, not in Galilee. To teach us that this world is an alien land to us, although we may have grown old in it. Jesus Christ was only a stranger and a sojourner in it; and we in like manner are sojourners.
- It was a small village. The King of kings is born in an obscure place, and the Lord of might, of lowly parentage. God reverses the judgment of this world concerning many things.
III. It was in Bethlehem. In Bethlehem, “the house of bread,” was born the Living Bread. Before Christ was born, the world was full of starving men, hungering after pleasures, riches, and honours. He Himself satisfies all men’s hunger.
- It was a village by the way. Showing that our present life is the way to death. May we follow Jesus Christ from Bethlehem to Zion. (William of Auvergne.)
Good men found outside the pale of privilege; or Christian knowledge in unlikely places.—Well, the last year I passed that old church, I noticed something which was very interesting. The tower is standing pretty entire, and the spire of it is standing pretty entire also. It is a little shaken and riven with the weather and the strokes of time; but there it stands. And what do you think is climbing up the side of the spire? Why, a little tree that has got its roots in a little crevice of the spire, and it is covering the bare stones with beautiful green. Now, that tree to me is like the wise men of the East. You see, God in Judæa had a garden, and all the trees there were planted by prophets and people that were sent to do the work. But now, how did He plant these trees in Chaldea—how did He plant that tree in the spire of the church? “Whence came the seed there?” you say. It was not a man that went up and planted it there; it was not planted as you plant a tree in the garden. But then, God says sometimes to the little birds, “Take a seed and plant it up in the rock, and let it clothe the rock.” Or, He says to the winds, “Waft the seed up to that little crack in the spire of the old church, and let it become a living tree.” (J. Edmond.)
In search of a great man.—In the annals of the Celestial Empire, there is historical evidence of Ambassadors or “wise men” having been sent towards the West in search of the “Great Saint who was to appear.” The following from the Annals narrates the circumstance:—“In the 24th year of the Tchao-Wang, of the dynasty of the Tcheou, on the 8th day of the 4th moon, a light appeared in the south-west which illuminated the king’s palace. The monarch, struck by its splendour, interrogated the sages, who were skilled in foretelling future events. They then showed him books in which it was written that this prodigy signified the appearance of a great Saint in the West, whose religion was to be introduced into this country. The king consulted the ancient books, and having found the passages corresponding with the time of Tchao-Wang, was filled with joy. Then he sent the officers Tsa-yu and Thsin-King, the learned Wang-Tsun, and fifteen other men to the West to obtain information.” So sensible were these “wise men” of the time and place of the Saviour’s birth, that they set forth to hail the expected Redeemer. The envoy encountered in their way the missionaries of Buddhism coming from India announcing an incarnate God; these the Chinese took for the disciples of the true Christ, embraced their teaching, and introduced them to their fellow-countrymen as the teachers of the true religion. Thus was Buddhism introduced into China in place of Christianity.
A curious Russian tradition.—The Russian peasantry have a curious tradition. It is that an old woman, the Baboushka, was at work in her house when the wise men from the East passed on their way to find the Christ-child. “Come with us,” they said: “we have seen His star in the East and go to worship Him.” “I will come, but not now,” she answered; “I have my house to set in order; when this is done I will follow and find Him.” But when her work was done the three kings had passed on their way across the desert, and the star shone no more in the darkened heavens. She never saw the Christ-child, but she is living and searching for Him still. For His sake she takes care of all His children. It is she who in Russian and Italian houses is believed to fill the stockings and dress the tree on Christmas morn. The children are awakened by the cry of “Behold the Baboushka!” and spring up hoping to see her before she vanishes out of the window. She fancies, the tradition goes, that in each poor little one whom she warms and feeds she may find the Christ-child, whom she neglected ages ago, but is doomed to eternal disappointment.
Ver. 2. Seen his star.—
The guiding star:—It was revealed to the shepherds and then to the wise men. 1. The Jews had the priority of time, so also they had a superiority in the manner of the declaration. To one a living angel; to the other an inanimate star. 2. To the shepherds it was done much more feelingly than to the magi, it was loving, joyous, confidential, minute. “Fear not,” &c. 3. To the Gentile the intimation was distinct, sufficient, but it was a silent finger. But to the shepherds there were voices, “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God,” &c. We all have a great amount of truth floating in our minds; what we want is, to have it made definite, and brought to a focus. That the “star” did for them. Probably it so drew them, that they could scarcely resist its attraction. We cannot be too thankful to God for it, that truth as such is fascinating. Every one who has once lost and then recovered a Christian hope will understand the joy of the magi when they saw the star again. As they went, where did they look? Not at the road, nor at their feet, but at the star high up above them. How many go doubtingly, slowly, heavily, wearily, wrongly, because they look at their feet and not at the star. (J. Vaughan, M.A.)
The Saviour’s star:—1. Shine like that star. 2. Speak like that star. 3. Lead like that star. (G. T. Coster.)
The star of grace:—Seen—1. In its creation; 2. In its position; 3. In its motion; 4. In its brightness. Let us follow the guidings of this star. (1) Diligently; (2) Lovingly; (3) Hopefully. (J. M. Ashley.)
The star and the wise men:—1. Science helps religion. 2. Nature needs revelation. 3. Knowledge requires action. (T. R. Stevenson.)
Faith a heaven-born insight.—There was not much in the appearance of that single star, but it spoke volumes to those men. You know what it is to be walking by the side of some man, and suddenly he leaps aside from you with an exclamation of pleasure, and dives down into some little obscure corner or hedge, and brings up some choice botanical specimen: you know what the feeling is; you have a kind of deep sense of inferiority; your own nature tells you that he possesses some secret knowledge and power that you do not. It is the insight of natural science. Well, the insight is analogous here. Men go through the world, and they see nothing of God, nothing of Christ; or what they do see is merely the building in which Christ dwells—a great deal about His Church, a great deal about His Word, but very little about Himself. The insight is in the Christ-born, the Christ-taught men who perceive Christ in everything. They take Him at every turn, they find Him lurking in every spot, because He is ever in their hearts. These men saw the star. There were thousands about them who looked upon the same star, and saw no meaning in it. It led them through the long desert to kneel before the Satisfier of their hopes. A picture that I once saw will illustrate what I mean. It represented the sea-shore, and standing beside it the great discoverer of the far-off continent of America; in his hand an image, rough-hewn and coarsely coloured; dawning through his eyes a keenness of observation, thought, and reflection—a dawning of some noble purpose. Behind him was the sea, broken by a brisk wind into little, fleecy waves. Beside him was his wife, half indifferent, half curious, looking on almost perplexed at the interest that he manifested. It showed that out of that strange little rough-hewn god there was born the thought of a far-off world to which he would go. But it told more than that. It told of a purpose that was graven in upon his spirit; and though the danger was great, though the sacrifice was the leaving of the wife who leant upon him, yet still, because of the deep thought which had been struck into his soul, he must perforce go, borne by the spirit of enterprise, till he had put his feet upon the far-off land. It is this insight of enterprise which God gives to His children. The star shot the thought of Christ into the hearts of the wise men, as the rough-hewn image shot into the heart of Columbus the story of the undiscovered continent beyond the seas. So is it with Christ’s children in this world. They see by an insight of faith what other men do not see. Christ’s religion vindicates itself by the spiritual insight. (W. B. Carpenter. M.A.)
Silent speech.—Or, if you were at sea, and saw a lighthouse, you know it would say, “Keep away from the rocks.” Its light through the dark night would speak that to you; or if you lived on a dangerous part of our coast, and heard the signal-gun fired by the coastguard men, you would know that that said, “A ship is coming on the rocks. Come and help, men of the life-boat, come and help!” Or if you saw flags flying from the church tower and many houses, you know that would speak of glad news, perhaps the birthday of the Queen, or the marriage of one of her children, or the coming of some great man to the town. So the star spoke to the wise men, and it told happy news. (G. T. Coster.)
The joy of a guiding light.—I was many years ago travelling among the Pyrenees. Our carriage had to go over a mountain, by a road which ran for a great part of the way along the edge of a frightful precipice. The rocks descended to a vast depth, and the river roared below out of sight. There was no wall or hedge on the side of the road. At the post-house at the bottom of the pass we were given horses and a postman to drive them, and we started. Night fell before we reached our destination, black with heavy clouds, obscuring the stars. The horses were wild, unbroken-in colts, and they plunged from side to side. Whether the driver had been drinking or had lost his head in the excitement I cannot say, but he was perfectly unable to control the horses. They dashed from side to side of the road, and the carriage rocked, and the wheels grazed the edge. Every moment we expected one of the horses or the carriage to roll over the edge, when we should all have been dashed to pieces. I was then a little boy, and I sat on my mother’s lap. My father, not knowing the danger, had walked on from the post-house by a short cut over the mountains, to the inn at the top of the pass, where we were to spend the night. My mother prepared for her end. The horses were plunging and racing about, so that it was impossible to descend from the carriage. She kissed me, and bade me say my prayers, and her lips moved in prayer also; I felt a shudder run through her at each sway of the carriage towards the edge. All at once, above us, shone out a bright light. The postman shouted, the horses seemed to become less restive. A strong hand was laid on their reins, the carriage was stopped, and my father’s voice was heard. He had arrived at the top of the pass long before us, and, uneasy at the delay, had walked down to meet us. The light we saw was in a window of the post-house, set as a guide to travellers. I cannot describe to you the relief, the joy, that rose in our hearts when we saw that guiding light, and when we heard the voice. We knew then that we were safe, following the ray of light we should reach our place of rest, guided by the firm hand on the bits of the untamed horses, we should be safe from being flung down the abyss. Our course through life is like that mountain journey. These wild undisciplined horses, ready to bring us to destruction, are our passions, the driver is conscience, the light is revealed truth, and He who meets us on our way and guides us is our Heavenly Father. (Baring-Gould.)
A boy who followed the star of right.—When Whitefield (the great preacher) went to America (he went five times), he stood on the steps of the Court-house in Philadelphia, and preached to the people; and there was amongst the crowd a little boy. The little boy saw that Mr. George Whitefield could not see to read his Bible very well, so he got his lantern, and lit it, and held the lantern for Mr. Whitefield to see to read by. Mr. Whitefield was very much obliged to him. The little boy listened—with all his might and main—to Mr. Whitefield’s preaching. He listened so much, that he let the lantern tumble down, and it was broken all to pieces. Many years afterwards Mr. Whitefield came back again to America, on his fifth journey. He stopped at the house of a minister, who said to him one day: “Do you remember, sir, preaching once in Philadelphia, and a little boy, who was holding the lantern, dropped it, and broke it?” “That I do,” said Mr. Whitefield, “and I would give anything in the world to know what has become of that little boy.” The minister said, “I was the little boy, sir. I held the lantern. I listened to you. I let it drop. Your preaching made me what I am, a Christian minister.” He “followed the star.” (J. Vaughan.)
False lights.—Of olden times on the coast of Cornwall there were wreckers. These men tied a lantern on the head of an ass, and drove the animal along the heights that fringe the shore. Ships at sea saw this light, and thinking them to be guides where open water was, ran towards them, fell on rocks, and were dashed to pieces. Then the wreckers came down to the shore, and took from the wrecked ship all that could be saved. There are a host of these false signals about in the religious world, leading men to destruction. What, then, are we to do? Look to the lighthouse of the Church, built by the hands of Jesus Christ. In it He has set the clear, steady light of revealed truth. (Baring-Gould.)
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Vol. 1, pp. 25–30). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 109–112). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 France, R. T. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew (pp. 65–69). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co.
 Mounce, R. H. (2011). Matthew (pp. 12–13). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Brown, J. K. (2015). Matthew. (M. L. Strauss & J. H. Walton, Eds.) (pp. 22–23). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., pp. 27–32). Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press.
 Vanlaningham, M. G. (2014). Matthew. In M. A. Rydelnik & M. Vanlaningham (Eds.), The moody bible commentary (p. 1457). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 Exell, J. S. (1952). The Biblical Illustrator: Matthew (pp. 5–9). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.