There are quite a few characters in the account of the visit of the Wise Men. There are the wise men themselves. There is King Herod. There are the chief priests and scribes of the people. Finally, there is the Holy Child and His mother Mary. As we once again hear about the visit of the wise men, we shall see that God invited unlikely visitors to worship the Christ while others, who should have known better, ignored the new-born king altogether.
The record of this event begins with the introduction of the wise men. Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1-2) The Gospel account informs us that wise men … these mysterious strangers … arrived from the east. The original Greek word indicates that they were not kings, but were more likely teachers or advisers to the ruling class.
As far as how many wise men came to worship, our traditions talk of three because there were three gifts, but the Bible does not say. There were at least two, but there is no reason there could not have been seven or any other number.
The bible does not give us precise details of their origin. The East is a big place. They could have come from the desert just east of Jerusalem. They may have come from Arabia or Persia. It would be interesting if they were descendants of the wise men who served in Babylon with Daniel during the Babylonian and Persian empires. There are other possibilities as well.
We can assume that they were financially well off. The gifts that they gave to Jesus weren’t cheap. People who could give away gold, frankincense and myrrh, were probably people of means.
These wise men made an impression on the people of Jerusalem when they came. They probably traveled with servants and body guards. So, it is likely that the entire group was fairly large. Then, when they also began asking about the King of the Jews, they were bound to attract attention. At any rate, they made enough of an impression in Jerusalem so that they attracted the attention of King Herod.
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. (Matthew 2:3) Now King Herod was a real piece of work. He was not Jewish. He was a puppet king of the Roman empire, so the Jews hated him. Given the hatred that the Jews had for Herod, paranoia was actually a very healthy state of mind for Herod. Herod was a savvy and ruthless politician who managed to stay on the good side of several Roman Emperors. He was a cruel, but able ruler in his prime, but dementia set in toward the end of his life. The combination of paranoia and dementia was bad. Back that paranoid dementia up with the military might of the Roman Empire and you have a very dangerous man. You have a man who even killed beloved members of his own family because he thought they were after his throne.
Assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, [Herod] inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. (Matthew 2:4) They didn’t have Wikipedia back then, so Herod had to have other resources when he questions about the local culture. That is where the chief priests and scribes of the people fit into the picture. Since there were no photocopy machines, the scribes spent their days making copies of the Scriptures. You can imagine that they knew the Scriptures very well after writing them down by hand over and over again. The priests were men who carried out the ceremonies commanded by those same Scriptures. They had knowledge of the Scriptures because they had to follow the Scriptures in their calling as priests. It made sense for Herod to rely on these men when he had religious questions about Jewish culture.
So, the basic story is this: a caravan of fairly well-to-do strangers and their servants pulled into Jerusalem. They immediately began asking about the true heir to the throne in Jerusalem. The insane puppet king of the Roman Empire who was not the rightful ruler heard about them and decided that their questions were a danger to his rule. He needed to nip this sort of thing in the bud. This threat to his reign needed to die.
Herod began to scheme: “I’ve got to play along with these strangers so I can find out where to send the assassination squad.” That is when Herod gave his Biblical scholars a really odd request. He assembled all the chief priests and scribes of the people and inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. Note that he did NOT ask about the King of the Jews, but the Christ.
This is where I wonder if this question was actually demonic. The person who asked this question was ready to rely on the prophecy as though it were true. But at the same time, he wanted to use the information in the prophecy to stop it from happening. Was Herod insane enough to think that he could defeat a genuine prophecy? Maybe he didn’t believe the prophecy, but he thought a conspiracy could use this prophecy to gain support and raise an army and take his throne. Either way, this question from Herod was very strange.
The people who really puzzle me, though, are the chief priests and scribes of the people. Herod is crazy. You don’t expect him to make sense. On the other hand, the chief priests and scribes of the people supposedly believed the words that they gave to Herod. They knew the prophecy and they got it right. You, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel. (Matthew 2:6) They would have known about the wise men’s question. How much trouble would it be to send a few people with the wise men? If this really was the Messiah, wouldn’t it be worth it to know. It would only take a few days to find out one way or the other. There was little to lose and everything to gain. Never the less, there is no mention that any of them left Jerusalem.
Here we see God work through a star to draw the least likely people … strangers from an entirely different country … to draw them to their savior. At the same time the chief priests and scribes of the people … people who practically had God’s promises memorized … people who should have known better … these are the ones who ignore the questions of the wise men and miss out on meeting with the savior.
There is a warning for us here in Matthew’s Gospel account. Our own sinful nature often tempts us by saying, “I’ve read and heard from the Bible my entire life. I pretty much know all the stories. I pretty much know all the teachings that I need to know.” Such words tempt us to become like the chief priests and scribes of the people who missed out on precious time in the presence of their savior. God invites us into His presence to give His gifts to us … to bless us with forgiveness and eternal life. He desires to pour His grace out on us. Yet the temptation remains for us to say, “Been there. Done that.” The temptation remains to resist the call of the Holy Spirit who desires to pour the gifts of God out on us.
The account of the magi following the star reveals three different attitudes toward Jesus and His Word. There was Herod who was afraid of Jesus and wanted to kill Him. There were chief priests and scribes who didn’t really care about Jesus. Then, there were the magi who followed God’s revelation in the star and looked upon the human face of God their savior.
These attitudes are still with us today. There is still that small remnant of those who … like the magi … attend to God’s revelation by the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith. There are those who … like the chief priests and scribes … just don’t care. And there are those who … like Herod … actively hate Jesus and seek to destroy His church.
Those who are like the chief priests and scribes still hate Jesus. It is just that they have been so deceived that they don’t know it. They may have been around God’s Word, but they just don’t take it seriously. Today’s Gospel told us that the chief priests and scribes had the Word of God that told them everything they needed. Never the less, not one of them left Jerusalem to travel with the magi to look into the human face of God. So it is today. The Word of God is readily available in any book store. Faithful pastors beg their members to cling firmly to the Word … to stick to it … to adhere to it. As Martin Luther explained in his explanation of the Third Commandment: to gladly hear and learn it. Never the less, these people don’t care about God’s Word.
Those who are like the magi no longer have the star to follow. That was a unique revelation in all of history. Today, the revelation of God to us is not a star in the sky, but His Word in a book. We follow the example of the magi when we read and study God’s Word. It is in God’s Word that we find God the Savior.
As we hear God’s Word, we learn that the only safe way for God’s Kingdom to come to us is through this child that the magi worshipped. It is He who lived a perfect life in our place. It is He who took our sins to the cross. It is He who rose from the dead and opened up the way to eternal life. This child that the magi worshipped is the one and only way for God to come to us without burning us forever for our sins. This child is the one who has purchased forgiveness, life, and salvation and then gives these things to us as a gift.
The gifts of this child are for all people. In fact, Epiphany is sometimes called the Gentile Christmas for that very reason. For it is on this day that God led the Gentile magi to the Christ-child. This account tells us the Christ is for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Thus Jesus is the savior of all people … Jew and Gentile alike.
Sadly, the chief priests and scribes of the people did not know Him. Even though they had the very words of the prophets at their fingertips, they chose to ignore them. Even when the magi announced the birth of the Christ in the court of the king, there was only hatred and apathy.
How blest are those whom God leads by His Word. The Holy Spirit has opened the Scriptures to them and in those Scriptures they see the child whom the magi worshipped. By the power of the Holy Spirit, they see that this child is the savior of all. By the gift of faith they receive the eternal blessings of this child’s salvation. God leads them by the star of His holy Word to His Son, Jesus Christ, and preserves them forever in His salvation. Amen
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