Chapter 2 of Matthew sets the timeline for the events that follow.
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.”
Some wise men from the east came to visit after Jesus’ birth. Not at the time of… after. Unfortunately, our nativities need some adjustment because it would have taken some time for these wise men to travel from their area to Bethlehem. And despite what “We Three Kings” and “The First Noel” say, they didn’t see a star in the east, they came from the east. So they had to travel west and therefore the star must have shown in the west. And there’s really no factual evidence that there were only three men. We generally assume so because it is simply stated that there were three gifts. However, they would likely have traveled with a large group given their position. But that’s not to say they were actual kings. Scripture does not name them as authoritative rulers that we define as kings. Wise men, or magi, in the east were very prominent people in society, but they were more likely studious individuals in astrology and distinguished in the realms of religion and politics. They must have had at least some Jewish influence in their lives because they knew the significance of the star as an announcement of a King’s birth and traveled with the motivation to worshipping Him.
Twice in the Old Testament, the star that signified Jesus’ birth was prophesied. In Numbers, Israel was on their way to the promised land. Their trek made the king of Moab nervous and so he called a seer to curse the people, but what he said was quite different.
“…A star will come from Jacob, and a scepter will arise from Israel.” -Numbers 24:16-17
So we see a man in the east prophesying a star and a King. Then in Matthew, we see the star leading the wise men from the east to the King. Also, in Isaiah:
“…the Lord will shine over you, and His glory will appear over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your radiance…” -Isaiah 60:1-6
Isaiah said that the nations would come to Jesus’ light. In Matthew, men from another nation were drawn to the star’s light. Don’t miss this. Some of the first people to worship Jesus were men from another nation.
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.’”
Herod, as the king at that time, was none to happy to hear that a child was born that people were calling a king. He gathered the religious leaders and asked about it. They quoted Micah 5:2.
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” -Micah 5:2
Did you catch that? The religious leaders knew the prophecy. These worship leaders and keepers of the Law knew exactly who Jesus was. They knew the Scriptures foretelling of His birth and who He was supposed to be. And yet in the end, they would deny Him as King and the Son of God. This is a sobering reminder that mere knowledge of Scripture is not enough. To know the Word but fail to respond is dangerous.
Micah’s prophecy confirms the King would come from Bethlehem in the land of Judah. David was a shepherd and Jesus would rule as a shepherd. (See also Ezekiel 34:11-24 and John 10:1-18.) Herod had a plan, so he called the wise men to him and told them when they found the child to let him know. The pretense was that he wanted to worship Jesus too, but really, he intended to kill Him.
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.” 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.
By this time Jesus’ family had moved into a house and He was less than 2 years old, probably months old to just over a year (accounting for how long the wise men would have traveled west). The wise men followed the star once more. But this time things are a little different. The star moved in front of them, guiding them to exactly the house Jesus was in and came to rest there. Their immediate reaction to seeing the baby was worship and offering. These high class, powerful men fell on their knees before a baby! Should that not be our reaction as well?
The gifts they presented could very well have significance in God’s design and there is some debate among religious scholars about that today. Studies by John Macarthur and William Hendricksen provide good, simple commentary about the gifts. Gold has, throughout history, been associated with royalty. The gift of gold acknowledges Jesus’ kingship. Frankincense was used throughout Old Testament history in ceremonies of worship and offerings. The gift of frankincense acknowledges Jesus’ deity. Myrrh was used both as a perfume and spice used in burials. The gift of myrrh acknowledges Jesus’ humanity and foreshadows his death.
The birth of Jesus is surrounded by worship. It is for His praise that God orchestrated the events of history that led to the birth of Jesus. He directed nature and He drew nations to the event. Matthew makes the message clear. In the beginning, the message is to come and worship the King. In the end, the message is go and spread the Kingdom. We have this responsibility and this privilege. Our Savior’s birth causes us to desire nothing less.
Scripture quoted from the English Standard Version. Commentary from “Christ-Centered Exposition, Exalting Jesus in Matthew” by B&H Publishing Group.