Respond to God’s Gift

 

Week of December 18, 2011

 

Bible Verses:  Matthew 2:1-12, 16.

 

Lesson Focus:  This lesson is about the varied responses to the birth of Jesus by the wise men and by Herod.

 

Seeking the Gift:  Matthew 2:1-6.

 

[1]  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, [2]  saying, "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." [3]  When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; [4]  and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. [5]  They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: [6]  "'And 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.'"

 

[1-2]  Bethlehem, the place near which Jacob buried his Rachel [Gen. 35:19] and Ruth met Boaz [Ruth 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 the Messiah’s birth [Luke 2]. Unlike Luke, Matthew offers no description of Jesus’ birth or the shepherd’s visit. He specifies the time of Jesus’ birth as having occurred during King Herod’s reign. Herod the Great, as he is now called, was born in 73 B.C. and was named king of Judea by the Roman Senate in 40 B.C. 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 admired even by his foes. But he loved power, inflicted incredibly heavy taxes on the people, and resented the fact that many Jews did not consider him their king. 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 and at least two of his sons. The Magi are not easily identified with precision. Several centuries earlier the term was used for priests of Medes who enjoyed special power to interpret dreams. In later centuries down to New Testament 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. 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. They came from the east, possibly from Babylon, where a sizable Jewish settlement wielded considerable influence. The theory that there were three wise men is probably a deduction from the three gifts [2:11], but Matthew does not indicate their number. The Magi see a star in the east and come to worship. Matthew surely knew that the Old Testament mocks astrologers and forbids astrology. Nevertheless it was widely practiced in the first century, even among Jews. 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 despite having 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 to ensure Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem to fulfill prophecy, so God sovereignly used the Magi’s calculations to bring about the situation this passage 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 Magi may have linked the star to the king of the Jews through studying the Old Testament and other Jewish writings, a possibility made plausible by the presence of the large Jewish community in Babylon. The same title the Magi gave Him (king of the Jews) found its place over the cross [27:37]. Worship need not imply that the Magi recognized Jesus’ divinity; it may simply mean to pay homage to royalty. But the worship of Christ was important for Matthew and he mentions it ten times in his gospel [2:2,8,11; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20; 28:9,17].

 

[3-6]  In contrast with the Magi’s desire to worship the King of the Jews, Herod is deeply troubled. In this all Jerusalem joins him, not because most of the people would have been sorry to see Herod replaced or because they were reluctant to see the coming of King Messiah, but because they well knew that any question like the Magi’s would result in more cruelty from the ailing Herod, whose paranoia had led him to murder his favorite wife and two sons. The chief priests refers to the hierarchy, made up of the current high priest and any who had formerly occupied this post and a substantial number of other leading priests. The scribes or “teachers of the law” were experts in the Old Testament and in its oral tradition. Because much civil law was based on the Old Testament and the interpretations of the Old Testament fostered by the leaders, the scribes were also lawyers. The vast majority of the scribes were Pharisees, while the priests were Sadducees. The Jewish leaders answered Herod’s question by referring to what stands written. While expectation that the Messiah must come from Bethlehem occurs elsewhere, here it rests on Micah 5:2 to which are appended some words from 2 Samuel 5:2. Matthew adds the shepherd language of 2 Samuel 5:2, making it plain that the ruler in Micah 5:2 is none other than the one who fulfills the promises to David. Matthew sees a pair of contrasts between the false shepherds of Israel who have provided sound answers but no leadership and Jesus who is the true Shepherd of His people Israel and between a ruler like Herod and the one born to rule.

 

Rejecting the Gift:  Matthew 2:7-8, 16.

 

[7]  Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. [8]  And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him." [16]  Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.  [ESV]

 

[7-8]  By the time Herod secretly summons the Magi, he has already concocted his scheme to murder Jesus. He needs to ascertain from them the time when the star that marked the birth of Jesus first appeared. The Magi unwittingly give Herod the information he needs. Herod also deceptively asks them to search carefully for the child and report his whereabouts so that Herod can also go and worship him. Then he sends them off to Bethlehem, only about five miles to the south. It is perhaps surprising that Herod did not send someone with the Magi. But soldiers would have been inappropriate, and he may have felt that anyone linked to him would raise problems for the search. As the unknowing wise men eagerly press on in the last leg of their long journey, Herod knows when the helpless baby was born and where he evidently is living. If the Magi report back to him as he has requested, he will know exactly who the child is, and his plot will be absurdly easy to accomplish. From a literary standpoint, this is a remarkable situation. Matthew the narrator knows all about Herod’s duplicity, but the wise men as characters in the story have not yet even a clue of it.

 

[16]  Since Bethlehem is only about five miles from Jerusalem, Herod would soon realize that the Magi are not coming back. Perhaps only two or three days have passed since the wise men left Jerusalem for Bethlehem. Although Herod believes that the Magi have tricked him, their lack of complicity in his plot was due to divine intervention. Herod’s rage is not in reality directed against the Magi; it is against God, who directed the wise men not to return to Herod. Thus his fury is pathetic and futile, like that of the kings whom God warned in Psalm 2. The specification of two years old or under corresponds to the time he had ascertained from the Magi, the time of the appearance of the star. Matthew repeats the verb (ascertained) he used in verse 7 for accurate inquiry . Clearly Matthew wants his readers to be in no doubt that Herod had accurate knowledge of the time the star appeared. He was determined that no child within the area and the time frame indicated by the Magi would remain alive. Since Bethlehem was a small village, the loss of life was relatively low, but the innocence of the victims underscores the outrageous nature of this heinous act. This atrocity fits well into what is known from extrabiblical sources about the ruthless nature of Herod’s rule, especially toward the end of his life.

 

Worshiping the Gift:  Matthew 2:9-12.

 

[9]  After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. [10]  When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. [11]  And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. [12]  And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.  [ESV]

 

[9-12] After learning from the king that they should go to Bethlehem and becoming unwitting accomplices in his plot to murder Jesus, the Magi set out on the short journey. As they go, the star they originally saw unexpectedly reappears and miraculously leads them to the vicinity of Jesus, perhaps to His exact location. This celestial guarantee of God’s guidance exhilarates the Magi. It is ironic that the birth of Jesus produces only anxious fear in the leaders of Israel [2:3] whereas it is the occasion of overwhelming joy in the mysterious Gentile Magi. The devotion of the wise men is in stark contrast to Herod’s treachery and the seeming apathy of the chief priests and legal experts. Led by the miraculous star, the Magi arrive at the house where Jesus resides. Matthew’s house is not a contradiction to the manger of Luke 2:7, since perhaps as much as two years have passed since Jesus was born. The focus of the Magi is on the child Jesus, not his mother, Mary, who is mentioned, or his adoptive father, Joseph, who is not. They fall before Jesus and worship Him. After worshiping Jesus, they open their treasures and give Jesus gifts appropriate for a king: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Bringing gifts was particularly important in the ancient East when approaching a superior. Frankincense is a glittering, odorous gum obtained by making incisions in the bark of several trees; myrrh exudes from a tree found in Arabia and a few other places and was a much-valued spice and perfume used in embalming. The three gifts were expensive and may have helped finance the trip to Egypt. Before they unwittingly participate in Herod’s monstrous scheme, the Magi are warned by God in a dream not to go back to Herod. The Magi return by another route, evidently bypassing Jerusalem entirely and following trade routes through the wilderness of Judah to the east. They could have traveled either north or south of the Dead Sea, but it seems that the southern route would have promised more secrecy. How the Magi originally understood that an astral phenomenon signaled prophetic fulfillment and the birth of the Messiah is shrouded in mystery. Numbers 24:17 was evidently understood messianically by the Jews, but how the Magi might have come to associate a particular star with that prophecy is unclear. Dispersed Jews in the east may have influenced the Magi, but in the final analysis the worship of the Magi is nothing less than a miracle of divine grace. This incident well illustrates the truth that has become something of a cliché: God works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform. The religious leaders, replete with scriptural knowledge, react with apathy here and with antipathy later. The Magi, whose knowledge is quite limited, nevertheless offer genuine worship to the King of the Jews.

 

The Response to Jesus.

The characters in Matthew’s account represent the main types of response to Jesus to this day. The varied people who encounter Jesus in the pages of the Gospel resemble people in all places, at all times. Herod is a foe of God, an agent of Satan. When he tries to kill Jesus, he does satanic work. Herod is a false king, trying to kill the true, murdering whoever gets in his way. But God protects His Child. Sadly, the hatred of Herod is only the first failed response. The people of Jerusalem were troubled by the word of Jesus’ birth. Their question is “Could this somehow lead to my harm?” It is a sensible question. Herod was likely to kill at random, as too many dictators have been. Still, we cannot live by fear. Fear must not govern our decisions. It is all too easy to let fear of disapproval or financial loss or relational strife govern our decisions, but we must let the truth guide us. This is what the people missed. They asked, “What can go wrong?” They failed to ask, “What is right?” The chief priests and scribes also failed. They had expert knowledge which they presented to others, yet they did not use that knowledge to direct themselves. They served Herod, quoting Scripture beautifully, but did not rise to serve the Lord. They were satisfied to quote Scripture and go home. They should have joined the Magi and run to Bethlehem. If we know the truth, we must act upon it. People with knowledge and education are always tempted to rest content in knowledge. But it is never enough to know the truth. If we truly know, we act. If we know who Jesus is, we worship Him. This is where the Magi show the way. They knew one thing: the king of the Jews had been born. The scribes had more and better information than the Magi did, but the Magi acted on what they knew. They traveled to see the baby king. They left work, home, and family to follow a star for many months over a long distance. They brought the most expensive gifts they could find. When they arrived, they worshiped, then gave gifts. They knew little, but acted on what little they knew. Their action is an example for us. We should pray that we will be able to see what gift we can offer to the Lord. It should be our goal to give what is best of ourselves to the Lord, as the Magi did.

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.         Describe the meeting between the Magi and Herod and the Jewish leaders. List the unusual events that occur when Gentiles come seeking the king of the Jews while the Jews themselves show no interest. What does Matthew expect his readers to learn from this incident?

 

2.         How do the Magi react when they find the Child? Do their actions provide any example for us concerning our worship of our King? Explain.

 

3.         Note once again God’s sovereign control over all these events in order to accomplish His will. Here we see God directing the Magi to His Son and then warning them in a dream to avoid Herod on their return to their land. Why do you think God sent the Magi to worship the Child?

 

References:

The Gospel According to Matthew, Leon Morris, Pillar, Eerdmans.

Matthew, David Turner, ECNT, Baker.

Matthew, D. A. Carson, EBC, Zondervan.

Matthew, Daniel Doriani, REC, P&R Publishing.