Summary: We ought to take our cue – not from Herod, who rejected God’s gift of Jesus – but from the wise men, who received it with glad and thankful hearts.
This is the last of our series on the theme of Faces at the Manger. We started with Joseph, remember, and we continued with the angels, the shepherds, and Mary, the mother of our Lord. And now we conclude with the wise men, or the magi, as they are sometimes called. Technically, they did not appear at the manger. We often picture them there, along with the shepherds, among the sheep and oxen, but Matthew says that it was “on entering the house” – not the stable – that “they saw the child with Mary his mother” (v. 11). So, it is likely that they arrived in Bethlehem some time after that first Christmas. But, with your permission, we’re going to include the faces of these magi among those that we know were at the manger.
Even as we do, we’re not sure just how many faces there were. I mean, we don’t know how many wise men came “from the East.” We usually think there were three of them, but Matthew doesn’t tell us that. He simply says, “Wise men…came to Jerusalem.” He doesn’t give us the number. There could have been two. There could have been twenty. And, of course, there could actually have been three. I suppose we think there were three of them because Matthew mentions three gifts: gold and frankincense, and myrrh. But we really don’t know. We don’t know their names either, although they have been given names. You won’t find their names in the Bible, but, according to tradition, they were called Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. So, there’s a lot we don’t know about these mysterious figures, but one thing we do know is this: they were not Jews; they were Gentiles. They were from the nations. And that is an important detail.
One of the ways we can break down the story of the magi is to divide it into four episodes. If we do that, we might call the first episode The Search. These wise men – however many of them there were; for simplicity’s sake, let’s say there were three – these three wise men came looking for Jesus. They searched for him.
They were watchers of the night sky – astronomers, perhaps. And they had noticed a star in the heavens, a star they had never seen before. And they took it, as they should, as a sign that a king had been born. And they were compelled to follow the star and to search out the new king so that they could acknowledge him.
We can imagine how long and perhaps how arduous their journey was. We are not told of any hardships they may have faced – or any sacrifices they may have made – to keep this appointment with destiny. But we can be sure that their travels were not without difficulty.
It’s not surprising that they went to Jerusalem. It was the location of Herod’s palace, and, of course, where would you go if you wanted to find a newborn king? You would go to a palace, right? So, that’s what they did.
And that brings us to the second episode in this account: The Inquiry. Verse 2 says that they arrived, “asking” – that is, making inquiry – and the question they asked was: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”
As you might guess, this question raised suspicion in the mind of Herod. In fact, Matthew says that he “was frightened.” And what was he frightened of? He was frightened at the prospect of a royal birth. The truth is: he wasn’t himself a bona fide king – not at all. He had no noble blood running through his veins. He certainly was no descendant of David. He had gained his throne by buying it. And the only power he had was the power Rome allowed him to have, and he could be king only so long as he could convince Rome that it was to their benefit to back him.
So, you see: If a true king actually had been born, this new king might seize the throne – shove Herod right off it and take it – for himself. So, all Herod could see in this news of a newborn king was…what? the peril he was in. And with the arrival of the magi and their report of a star, he put two and two together and concluded that the newborn king might very well have been born by divine appointment, that he might be the long-awaited Messiah.
So, he asked his advisors, men who knew the Bible, and they told him that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. They cited the prophet Micah – gave it to him chapter and verse – and that gave Herod all the information he needed. As we will see, in his hubris, he plotted to manipulate history to avert the plan of God. He told the wise men that Bethlehem was the place where they would likely find the child they were looking for. In exchange for the information, they were to find the child, then return to him with word of his location, and he himself would go and worship him. Sure, he would!