by Lee Anderson Jr. —
Last time, we considered some of the traditional beliefs that have sprung up concerning the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem to worship Jesus Christ, the newborn Savior. Today, we will look further at the account of their visit in Matthew’s Gospel.
The Trek of the Magi
After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.Matthew 2:9–10*
This is the only clear description of the mysterious star in the text, and it seems to imply the star was seen by the Magi whilst they were in the East and then had disappeared for a time, and had not been actively leading them to Israel. Now it reappeared, and the Magi rejoiced, as if an old friend had rejoined them. The fact that the star was not a celestial phenomenon is clear in this passage. If the star had been a body, or conjunction of bodies, in outer space, it could not have pointed the way to a residence in Bethlehem discernable to someone who was departing Jerusalem. Jerusalem and Bethlehem are only some six miles apart—and, as we all know, the sky barely looks different to one moving such a short distance. Moreover, the fact the star “went on before them” suggests distinct movement. All the stars in the sky move in harmony with each other relative to a viewer on earth; this “star” was different. It led the Magi to Bethlehem and may have even shone upon the house where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were staying. (Though finding the Christ-child would not have been difficult even if the star was not quite so accommodating. As Luke 2:17–18 observes, the shepherds had not kept to themselves what they had seen and heard. As such, the traveling Magi would easily have been able to locate the promised child by means of asking door-to-door.)
The Worship of the Magi
After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.Matthew 2:11
This verse is the climax of the account. We notice that the Magi came not to a stable, but to a house, indicating that their arrival was sometime well after the birth of Christ, and did not coincide with the shepherds’ visit. Upon locating Jesus Christ, the Magi bowed down before Him in great reverence. The expensive gifts they brought—in keeping with proper custom in the ancient Near East—indicate that the Magi recognized Jesus, though still a little child, as one greatly superior to them. The gifts were precious commodities and represented a good deal more wealth than Mary and Joseph would ever have possessed.
Matthew 2:11 alludes to Psalm 72:10–11, which speaks of people from distant lands coming to offer gifts to the rightful King of Israel, and then kneeling before Him in reverence, and serving Him. It likewise alludes to the language of Isaiah 60: “‘Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. . . . All those from Sheba will come; they will bring gold and frankincense, and will bear good news of the praises of the Lord.’” In this, we see the striking contrast: Foreigners, Gentiles—those to whom the Messiah had not been directly promised—came to welcome Him, traveling a great distance to bring Him gifts and bow before Him in worship. By contrast, the Jewish leaders, a mere six miles away in Jerusalem, didn’t even make the trip to welcome their promised Savior.
The Significance of the Magi
The original question we posed was this: what is the significance of the Magi from the East coming to worship the young Christ-child? Why, of all people, is it notable that they came to honor a baby in an obscure town in Judea? The answer to that question rests with the very identity of the Magi. Magi are not mentioned often in Scripture, but where they are mentioned (in the book of Daniel), we find an interesting picture presented for us. The Magi, we know, were highly educated men of the religious caste in ancient Media. Despite Media being absorbed into the Babylonian Empire, which was then conquered and assimilated into the Persian Empire, and afterward taken over and incorporated into the Roman Empire, the Magi, as a distinct caste, lived on, transcending the rise and fall of nations.
In Daniel (see 1:20; 2:2; 4:7; 5:7), the Magi are presented as advisors to the emperor, dignitaries tasked with aiding the reigning monarch to rule prudently. Their unique position as advisors to the ruler naturally put them in a position of considerable influence. It likewise is presumed that they had a special ceremonial role in the appointment and coronation of new rulers. In any case, though, their unique status as advisors to royalty meant that for them to come to Jerusalem looking for a newborn king was truly meaningful. These were not “random Joes” searching out the Christ-child; rather, these were persons extraordinarily qualified to affirm the kingly right of the child recently born in the quiet little town of Bethlehem.
The Messiah as God’s appointed king is a theme which runs throughout the Old Testament. In Genesis 12:3, God promised the Patriarch Abraham that in him all the nations of the earth would be blessed; and in Genesis 17:6, Abraham is likewise promised that kings would come forth from him. With time, we see these prophesies come together. It would be through the Messiah—the culmination of that line of kings coming from Abraham’s family—that blessing would come to all people of the world.
In Genesis 49:10, in a prophecy made regarding Abraham’s great-grandson, it was declared that “the scepter will not depart from Judah,” so indicating that God’s promised king would come through the Israelite tribe of Judah. In 2 Samuel 7:16, once the Judean monarchy had been established in the time of David, God made a promise to him, saying, “Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever.” In saying that his throne would be established forever, the Lord was declaring there would be a ruler coming one day whose reign would never end. This is confirmed in Psalm 89:3–4, in which God announces, “I have made a covenant with My chosen; I have sworn to David My servant, I will establish your seed forever and build up your throne to all generations.” This coming king would be like no other before, for He would rule eternally with the authority of God Himself.
In Psalm 110, David prophesied concerning his “lord,” the great king who was to be David’s descendant, and yet who would be greater even than David: “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.’ The Lord will stretch forth Your strong scepter from Zion, saying, ‘Rule in the midst of Your enemies.’”
However, the promised messianic King was coming not just to rule; He was coming to bring salvation. In Zechariah 9:9, the Lord speaks concerning the Promised One: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation . . . .” The messianic King long promised would deliver His people, showing them the life and salvation of the Lord God.
This brings us to the New Testament, where we see the actual coming of the King. Matthew 1 presents the lineage of Jesus Christ—demonstrating that He is the rightful heir to the throne of David. The presence of the Magi in Matthew 2 serves to reinforce the reality: Those most qualified to recognize the coming of the promised King had indeed arrived. How shocking their words to Herod must have been. Not, “Where is He who will one day be King of the Jews?” But, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” They affirmed that—even as a helpless baby—the newborn Christ-child was the rightful king. And their response to Him was fitting then, just as it is for us today: They bowed before Jesus Christ in reverent worship.
*All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, is from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.