Herod and the Wise Men
Up to this point in this chapter, we have been considering only people of Jewish heritage. From Mary and Joseph, to the shepherds, and Simeon and Anna, all were, in a sense, predisposed to look at Jesus through their cultural background. This included, of course, the numerous references to a coming Messiah or Savior found in the Jewish prophetic writings. Also, their contact with the parents and the baby were either in Bethlehem or Jerusalem. They were surrounded by all the elements of Jewish life and tradition. Not so with our next witnesses to Jesus’ birth.
The unexpected change in those who would verify Jesus’ birth to the world comes to us from Matthew’s gospel, chapter 2: 1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
There is not much in the text to tell us where this group of “Magi” came from. That they were not Jewish is certain. But to say they came from Southern Arabia, or Persia or some other country is just speculation. We don’t know. And neither do we know if they had contact with Jews and/or the writings of the Old Testament. We know that there were Jews scattered about during both the Babylonian and Assyrian empires. Anything was possible.
While there is much we don’t know about this group, the two verses above are sufficient to tell us that for whatever reason, they were on the right trail to find Jesus. Because of their own words, it is apparent they had been “stargazing.” It’s possible they were astrologers or as we would call them today, astronomers. Beyond that, we don’t have much information.
Yet from the two verses and what we will read shortly, it appears this group had been traveling towards Jerusalem for some time—perhaps as long as two years. This lets us know they were not poor pilgrims heading to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They were rich and could afford to travel a long distance with plenty of supplies and protection. This kind of long trip in this region generally required armed escorts of some kind.
When they got to Jerusalem, they thought they had reached their destination. It was, after all, the main city of the land. When the group asked their question about where the “new” king was, they got the ear of Herod the Great. Matthew 2: 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,”they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: 6 ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
As you notice, King Herod had great interest in the question the Magi asked. While the chief priests and teachers of the law provided an accurate answer to their question, it was the king who wanted the Magi to return with any news about the child in Bethlehem.
On the surface of this interchange, it appears that only one person of note in Jerusalem was interested about this king—King Herod. Very specifically, the quotation was from Micah 5, and as you go back to verses 3 and 4, it depicts a glorious and victorious reign. Yes, it’s understandable that King Herod would not want any competition. But why would not the religious leaders of that time be interested in finding about this king who had been predicted? They didn’t even request a return visit by the Magi. So let’s continue reading their story.
Matthew 2: 9 After they (the Magi) had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
The Magi clearly thought they had reached their destination at Jerusalem. This had to be the place. But it wasn’t. It was the place of pomp and power. The royal robes, the attentive retinue surrounding the leaders, both religious and political, the beautiful palaces and temple—surely they had reached their destination. But the externals were not what the sign they had seen was all about. It was about light and love and sacrifice, items that were in short supply in Jerusalem at that time.
The religious leaders didn’t even show what would be called curiosity at the information from the Magi. They had come to see a “child” so they could “worship” him. The leaders’ only idea of a Messiah was as a conquering champion who would suddenly appear and return political power into their hands. King Herod, of course, understood adoration, as that is what he craved. He would not tolerate a rival “king” receiving worship and perhaps usurping his power and authority. He had already shown his disdain for any competition, killing members of his immediate family who crossed him, as well as a number of non-yielding Rabbi’s.
But was there another possible reason why the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were not interested in any “new” king? They were doing quite well with Herod. He was putting up a lot of buildings around the city and other places. But in particular, he was sparing no cost on rebuilding the Temple (called Herod’s Temple) in Jerusalem. It would be their new center of worship. As even the disciples of Jesus would later comment, it was a magnificent building!
So the Magi left and turned off the main road leading into Jerusalem and headed down a dusty, rutted passage to Bethlehem. It was a small town with no imposing buildings anyone would brag about. By this time, perhaps two years after Jesus’ birth, Joseph had probably found better accommodations than the barn. You may recall, he was a carpenter and could be earning a modest amount working at his profession.
The visit from the Magi had been a double blessing to Joseph and Mary. Here were Gentiles confirming what they had already heard from other people and angels over a period of two years. The Magi were outsiders in every regards, so their story on how God led them to their home brought them further confidence in following God. And along with their testimony, these Magi brought expensive gifts that would carry Joseph and Mary through the next part of their journey.
So the Magi left that region, returning home without stopping again in Jerusalem or contacting King Herod. The king’s enraged response at being “outwitted” resulted in another example of God’s activity in their lives. We pick up the story again in Matthew 2:
13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Several years in Egypt were followed by years of growth and maturing in Nazareth. It would be some 25 years before there was any further indication that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the Lamb of God sent to take away the sin of the world. Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptizer, would announce the coming of the promised one, sent from God. As John testified about him, “16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”
That One and Only Son was the Child of Bethlehem.
Next: The Scene