One of the observations of life is that, “familiarity breeds contempt”. The Bible passage Matthew 2: 1-12 is so familiar to many of us. We read it every Christmas. We have seen plays portraying the story. Carols *depict the story too. The Christmas card picture of a bright-lit star hovering over a clean stable, where shepherds are seen clutching cute fluffy lambs in their arms, and the three Magi bearing their gifts to the smiling baby Jesus in a manger – with Joseph, Mary and the stable animals looking on – is imprinted in our minds. Unfortunately, for many of us Christmas speaks nothing more than a warm and sentimental occasion. And so, the message of what Matthew is trying to tell us in this passage can be lost in our fuzzy, pre-conceived images of Christmas.
For one, the first Christmas led to a very bloody massacre. If you glance quickly at verse 13 of Chapter 2, the angel warned Joseph to, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt…” Why so? “… for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him…” This is precisely what happened when he later gave the order to have all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under killed for fear of this baby born to be King of the Jews (verse 16). So that first Christmas was not a lovely time for Joseph, Mary and Jesus. They had to run like fugitives to Egypt for safety.
Another error we made is to think that there were three Magi. Nowhere in the Bible did it ever mention that there were only three of them. We assume from the three gifts that there were three.
Furthermore, when the Magi arrived in Bethlehem, I wonder if you notice when we were reading the passage just now that they did not see the baby Jesus. They reached a house (not the stable as the shepherds in Luke’s account) and they saw the child (not baby) Jesus with his mother Mary (v 11).
Making a theological point
So it is important for us to read this passage in its original context. Matthew is not just reciting the historical account of the birth of Jesus. He is making a theological point. We must not allow our over-familiarity with the passage to cloud its meaning. Matthew set the context of the passage right from the beginning of his gospel. Chapter 1 is like a preface, and introduction of the good news Matthew wants to proclaim. It will help our understanding of Chapter 2 better if we have this background in our minds.
One of the great themes of Matthew is “fulfillment”. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promises made in the Old Testament. Matthew is declaring to us that the long awaited time of fulfillment has come. God is making good His word and this Jesus Christ is that word. That is why Matthew gave us the family tree of Jesus. Matthew traced Jesus’ heritage to two prominent figures in God’s story; Abraham and David. This Jesus Christ, Matthew declared in the very first verse of his gospel is the son of David, and the son of Abraham. Matthew in fact repeated these two names no less than three times in the first seventeen verses of Chapter 1. What is he trying to highlight? In declaring Jesus to be the son of Abraham, Matthew is telling us that Jesus is the promised seed of Abraham – through whom God had said He would bless the whole world. And by linking Jesus to David, Matthew is making the claim that Jesus is the long awaited King God had promised to David, who would rule the nations of the earth forever.
But then the following on question will be, “How would this King rule? How would He become God’s blessing to the nations?” Matthew offered us a peek into what he would later expand in the rest of his Gospel account of Jesus. He went on to tell us in the rest of Chapter 1 that Joseph – upon discovering his fiancé is pregnant decided to call off the whole engagement. But the Lord intervened and stopped him in a dream. The angel of the Lord told Joseph the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit and he is, “to give Him the name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (1: 21). Matthew is hinting that the purpose of Jesus’ coming is to save! Save from what? Jesus is on a rescue mission to save His people from their sins. And this is how He would become a blessing to the nations – a King who rules through dying for the sins of the world.
You would have thought then that the birth of Jesus Christ would be welcomed and gladly anticipated; since He is the long awaited promised King who has come to bless, not only Israel but the nations. There would be rapturous joy all round. Not so, according to Matthew. Not all welcomed His birth and coming. And there are a few surprises along the way too!
1. The Hostility of King
The first point I want you to note is the opposition of King Herod. When he heard the reason of the wise men’s visit to Jerusalem, “..he became disturbed and all Jerusalem with him”. Now let us consider for a moment the reason of this fear. It was this fear, which later turned to hostility when Herod ordered his men to kill all boys in Bethlehem who were 2 years old or under.
You see, King Herod was half Jew, more of an Edomite – a foreigner. He was given the title “King of the Jews” by the occupying Roman forces. King Herod was a king by appointment. We would call him a “puppet king”. He did not inherit his kingship but was made a king.
Jesus on the other hand was different. He had a rightful claim to the throne. He was born a King. Matthew established this for us in the family tree of Jesus. By tracing Jesus’ genealogy back to Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel, Matthew is telling us that Jesus is a pure Jew by birth. Similarly, by establishing that Jesus is a direct descendant of King David, he is telling us that Jesus is not only a Jew – but He is of royal blood. He is from the royal line. In short, the title that the Magi used for Jesus is the correct one; He is “King of the Jews”. That was why Herod was afraid of Jesus. Now here is someone, unlike him who has every right and claim to the throne.
Being the tyrant that he was recorded to be, there was no way he was going to give up his rule or step aside for this new-born King. For example, he had one of his wives and two of his own sons killed because he suspected them of plotting to overthrow him. A historian of the time said that it was safer to be a pig in Herod’s palace than his son! So Jesus must die, or one day he, Herod, will lose his crown. As a Chinese idiom goes, “No mountain can contain two tigers”.
Herod in fact misunderstood the true nature of the Kingship of Jesus. Like the Jews of his day, they believed that the Messiah, this anointed King of God would come to establish a literal, physical kingdom after throwing out the occupying Roman forces. Yet Jesus did not come to establish a physical kingdom or rebel against the Roman Empire. He came to establish a different kind of Kingdom; a spiritual Kingdom. In fact, the phrase “the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God” is a favourite of Matthew. Matthew uses it to mean a Kingdom where God rules over His people in their hearts and over their lives. You see, Jesus has come to claim the throne of the heart of His people.
When the late Princess Diana was interviewed soon after her separation from Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne – she was asked whether she is now sad that she would never be the Queen of England? She replied, “No! I can still be the ‘Queen of their hearts!’” That is to say, that she believed she would still have the people’s affections and love. Jesus came precisely to do just that. He came to die for you and me, for your sins and mine, in order to give us a new heart where He rules as its King. He wants our love and affections. He wants to draw us away from the empty love of this world and the suffocating love of self, to the liberating love of God. To submit to His Kingship means that we let Him rule in every area of our lives and to put Him in the driving seat. It is to own Him as our Lord, our Master and our King.
Unfortunately by nature, we are very much like Herod. We do not like Jesus’ challenge to take over the controls of our lives. Instead, we want to be king of our own lives. We like to do our own things, live our lives the way we like it. Who is Jesus to tell me what to do? We want to be our own boss, and not have Jesus to tell us what we can do, and what we cannot do. We despise authority. We like to be free – or rather to break free from God’s rules and regulations. We see them as hindrances; something that binds us. The truth is, at the core of our being, we are all self-centred, doing everything with “Me” as the only reference point. But Jesus came to deliver us from all this. He desires us to submit to His kingship and know the true freedom that He alone can bring. His rule is not like Herod the tyrant who instilled fear. Jesus is described as the Shepherd King of His people (v 6). His rule is marked by gentleness and care. In church, we can sing “Jesus, we enthrone You” yet we do not want to submit to Him as King and Lord over the details our lives. We see Him as an interferer.
On the other hand, many of us want the benefits that Jesus brings but we do not want the requirements that He asked of us. We want Him as Saviour to give us a ticket to heaven. But we say no to Him meddling in our lives as Master. But this will not do. Either we have Him as Saviour and Lord or else we cannot have Him. The Bible never separates Christ in this way. To do so is to totally misunderstand the Gospel. God does not save you for heaven per se. God saves you for Himself. Let me put it in another way. How would you describe heaven? God’s home, right? A place where God is and where He is King? Do you think you would enjoy heaven if you do not enjoy God in your life now?
No friends, a sinner when he truly sees the love of the Saviour and all that Christ achieved on the cross for him; he will also strive to serve this same Saviour as Lord, and honour Him as King. A genuine Christian will not be perfect but he will be different. A life that pleases and honours the Saviour is a life lived out under His rule – in school, in the workplace and marketplace, in our homes and community. It will affect how I study as a student; it will affect how much tax I pay; it will affect how I treat my loved ones; it will affect how I do my business – and the list goes on.
So, is Jesus more than a Saviour to you? Is He also your Lord? Do you obey Him as Lord and honour Him as King? Or are you like king Herod still jealously guarding your kingdom against Him; remaining hostile still to His call to surrender your rebellion and independence of Him?
Not only do we see the opposition of King Herod, we read also secondly, the “tidak apa” attitude of the religious leaders!
2. The Indifference of
the Religious Leaders
Another response Matthew wants us to take note of is the indifference of the chief priests and the teachers of the law. When asked by the wise men regarding where they could find the King of the Jews – whose star they had seen from the east, King Herod knew that this was no ordinary King. So he consulted the chief priests and the teachers of the law. The answer they gave him was a direct quotation from Micah, an Old Testament book. “In Bethlehem!” they said and then silence. Dead silence. We do not read of them rejoicing at the news of the birth of Jesus. They did not get all excited and request to join the Magi in their journey to Bethlehem in search of Him. Nothing! None of them did anything! Their lack of action and the silence of Scripture in this respect paint a very sad picture for us. It shows up what they really thought of Jesus. They certainly recognized who this Baby was if they pinpointed Bethlehem as his birthplace. They called Jesus (v 6) the ruler (or the word can equally be translated as King) who would shepherd God’s people Israel. “King” and “Shepherd”: Who do you think of when these two words are mentioned? Who was a shepherd who later became a king? David! Matthew tells us that they saw the significance of this baby; a descendant of David whom God promised from of old would come to establish a worldwide Kingdom. Yet they remained unaffected and did nothing.
Matthew here is making the same point as John who writes in his gospel that He (meaning Jesus), came to which was His own but His own … did not receive Him.
I want you to let this sink in a bit. These people are equivalent to our modern day Bishop or presidents and MTS lecturers. These are the people who studied Scriptures and were familiar with its teachings and prophecies. In fact, they were so familiar with God’s word that they had no problem in locating the prophecy in Micah to back up their answer to Herod.
There is a warning here for us. This I feel is one of the dangers facing our churches. We may boast of a long history of Christian witness in the land but we cannot deny the fact that nominal Christianity is thriving in our pews. Second and third generation Christians are seldom challenged that the God of the Bible does not have grandchildren. We cannot assume our Christian heritage. Each one of us must come to God through Christ by faith.
You see, the truth is that you and I can go to church, we can read and study our Bibles, sing our praises to God and listen to the sermons but all these do not necessarily imply that we are genuine Christians. We may be busy doing Church but Christ is missing in all our activities. The danger this incident portrays is that God can be missing in our lives and yet we do not seem to miss Him at all. This is the problem of the chief priests and the teachers of the law as shown by their response. They had the right information and went about doing the right activities. Yet there was no right living in their lives. Do not make the same mistakes as the Jews in Jesus’ time. They thought that just because they were children of Abraham, circumcised and worshipping God in the Temple, obeying all the sacrificial laws of Moses to the dot, then God must be pleased with them. Yet God still rebuked them through the prophet Isaiah – admonishing them that they drew near to Him with their lips yet their hearts were far from Him. Note again God’s emphasis of a “heart” religion. Similarly Paul in Romans 2 warned the Jews of his days that in God’s eyes, a man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly – just because he had been circumcised. A man is a true Jew if he is circumcised inwardly, that is having a new heart.
So the implication is this. Do not depend on the fact that just because you and I have been baptized and confirmed as a member of the church, you are then automatically a Christian. Do not think that just because you know your Bible that you are a Christian. What is important is how you have responded to Jesus. Who is this Jesus Christ to you? Does He captivate and govern your heart? Who has your affections? Who do you want to live for?
I think I need to clarify myself should there be any misunderstanding. I am not saying that doing the above things are not important. What I am saying is rather that doing these things, going through the mechanisms of worship is meaningless if you leave Jesus Christ out of the picture. Let us beware of a Christ-less and a heart-less religion.
3. The Worship of the
The response of the Magi recorded here stands in great contrast to that of the chief priests and the scribes. They sought after this new born King. The journey from their homeland to Jerusalem would have taken them months (there were no planes or cars in those days) and no doubt they would have had to endure great hardships and inconveniences along the way.
Furthermore, this is all the more amazing since they did not have the Scriptures to guide them. Matthew tells us that they had only seen “His star in the east” and came in search of Jesus. We do not know what star this was and what convinced them that it was a special star. Yet they came to Jerusalem in search of this “new-born” King.
I wish there were many more of such seekers in our midst today. People who, like the wise men, seek and pursue God. We now have the Bible made more certain and sure to us. We now see from this side of the cross and the resurrection, the fulfilment of the prophecies contained in it. And the promises of God’s word tell us God rewards those who seek Him. That is His promise; He will be found by those who seek after Him. “Seek and you shall find”. Lay hold of this promise. We shall find Christ, if we seek after Him.
When the Magi saw the boy child Jesus, verse 11 tells us that they bowed down and worshipped; opening up their treasures, they offered up gifts to Jesus.
We do not read of them bowing down to King Herod, again showing they understood clearly that they are in the presence of Someone special. It is truly amazing to think that the Magi bowed and worshipped this child – Jesus. They saw no miracles of Jesus to convince them. They did not hear Jesus’ teachings to persuade them. They saw nothing of His glory to awe them and yet, they bowed down and worshipped. The question is have we bowed down before this King Jesus?
Also the Magi presented gifts to Jesus. All true acts of worship will end in presenting gifts to Jesus. Presenting offerings and gifts to Jesus is a way of telling Him that He is our treasure and not these things. What better gift to give to Jesus than to present ourselves to Him. This is true worship – the offering up of ourselves to God for His use and at His disposal. So, friends, have you given your life to Jesus? Have you given the controls of your life to Him and surrendered your kingship to His Kingship in more and more areas of your life? Remember, He came to set up His Kingdom and rule as the only rightful King. Do we acknowledge it and delight in it more and more? For how we respond indicates the state of our hearts. These are solemn questions to answer for ourselves.
It is a heart religion
Through this account of the visit of Magi to Bethlehem, Matthew confronts us with an important question. He’s asking us, how would you and I respond in our encounter with Jesus the King? How we respond will show up in our attitudes, and our lives.
A true encounter with Jesus means we acknowledge Him not only as our Saviour. It also implies that we accept Him as our King, our Lord and Master. He has the supreme say over all areas of our lives. Either He is Lord of all praise – or else He is not Lord at all. Friends, if we want to continue to hold unto our lives, Jesus said elsewhere that we would lose it in the end. But if we lose it now for His sake, we would gain life, abundant life.
A true encounter with Jesus also demands that we repent of our half-hearted attitude to Him. Jesus said He prefers us – hot or cold, not lukewarm. So let us not be satisfied with knowing information about Jesus in the Bible but allow Him to use this information to transform us. It is a heart religion that counts before God.
Let us rather be like the Magi, bowing down in humble worship. Let us give our hearts and ourselves fully to the God who loves us to the extent of giving Himself totally in the Person of His Son. This is the only right response to the Christmas story of His birth. In fact, this is how we are to respond every time we encounter God as He speaks to us in His word. Amen.
Wesley Methodist Church, Sibu