We Three Kings of Orient Aren’t
The word behold appears more than one thousand times in our English translation. When God says, “behold,” he’s saying, “Listen up. Wake up. This is huge. Don’t miss this. It’s not what you’d expect.” We’re so prone to miss important things, “behold” helps get our attention.
A lot of huge things are happening at Christmas, and so we see many “beholds” in the Christmas stories. The angel says, “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10). The angel had already said to Mary in Luke 1:31: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” And Luke 1:36: “Behold, your relative Elisabeth in her old age also conceived a son.”
So also in Matthew 2:1–12, we have two beholds. Those will be our cues in looking at three surprises here in this otherwise familiar story about the magi coming to worship Jesus.
1. Behold, magi! (verses 1–2)
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men [the word is magi—behold, magi!] 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.”
So, verse 1: “behold, magi come to Jesus!” What’s so shocking about magi coming? They come every Christmas! We might be so used to this annual Christmas story that we’re not surprised, like Matthew wants us to be, that magi came to Jesus.
Why should we be surprised? Because magi is an ancient word referring to pagan astrologers. And since they dabble in the dark arts, we eventually got our English word magic from magi. “Behold,” Matthew says. “Look at this: Astrologers are coming! Pagan sorcerers are looking for Jesus! Wizards are wanting to worship! Behold! This is shocking—and spectacular!”
Now “We Three Kings” is a beautiful Christmas carol. Personally, I love the Beach Boys’ version best. So I don’t want to play the spoiler here, but these dudes aren’t kings! They are pagan astrologers, not too far from what we’d call sorcerers and wizards. Gandalf and Dumbledore coming to worship the baby Jesus. These magi are not kings, but pagan specialists in the supernatural, experts in astrology, magic, and divination, blatant violators of Old Testament law—and they are coming to worship Jesus.
And he is drawing them to Jesus even though the Bible clearly condemns their vocation. Moses had so clearly condemned the use of such magic in Deuteronomy 18:10–12: “There shall not be found among you anyone . . . who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer 11 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, 12 for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord.”
And the prophet Isaiah denounces “those who divide the heavens, those who gaze at the stars” (Isaiah 47:13).
And the prophet Jeremiah adds his voice in condemning astrology (in Jeremiah 10:2): “Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens.”
And in the New Testament, in Acts 8, Peter condemns a man named Simon who dabbled in magic and offered money to obtain the apostles’ power to heal, and in Acts 13:6–12, Paul condemns a magician name Elymas who was opposing the advance of the gospel.
So the whole Bible, Old Testament and New, plainly condemns the kind of astrology, stargazing, and dabbling in the dark arts typical of the magi. In biblical terms, the magi are plainly marked as “sinners.” And Matthew says, “behold, magi come! Astrologer-magician-sorcerer-pagan-sinners come to Jesus.” Jesus came not to call the righteous, he says, but sinners.
Lesson for the kids, and us all: We really should beware having a narrower vision of who can come to Jesus than God does. We can be so prone to write off people like this, but God doesn’t. He draws. He woos. He’s seeking worshipers from among the priestly caste of pagan religion! There will be worshipers from Hogwarts, even from Slytherin!
2. Behold, the star! (verse 9)
After listening to the king, they [the magi] 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.
The second “behold” is in verse 9: “Behold, the star moved!” Pay attention, take notice, the star is guiding them to Jesus. God is not welcoming the magi on the provision that they first abandon their life of astrology and magic. No. He comes to them where they are. He goes as far as “to use the magi’s pagan superstitions to draw them to Jesus” (HCSB). Not only is God drawing these sinners to Jesus, but he’s doing so even through the very channels of their sin. He captures attention with a supernatural star and leads them to Jesus.
In the last few hundred years, some have speculated here and there that maybe this “star” was a comet or a supernova or some kind of planetary conjunction. I don’t think the effort to explain this in scientific terms is worth giving much time to. Behold, Matthew says, this star moves, and come to rest over the place where Jesus was! This seems to be a supernatural occurrence that God is using, specially tailored to draw the magi astrologers—a “star” the likes of which we have not seen, and have no experience of, and have no capacity to describe in scientific terms.
Lesson for the kids, and us all: Don’t get distracted by the marginal. And don’t try to explain everything with science.
God comes to these stargazers where they are, in their sin, where their attention is focused on the stars for guidance (rather than the Scriptures), and woos them to his Son. Maybe that’s not all that different than your story this weekend. Perhaps even your being here is a kind of magi’s journey. It’s a bit mysterious. You felt an odd sense of being drawn. You’re not sure why you accepted the invitation from a friend or family member to be here. There’s some strange intrigue to know more about this Jesus.
3. Behold, the priests and scribes! (verses 3–8)
The pagan astrologers bow their knee (in verses 10–11). Amazing, but that’s not the big surprise. Go back to verses 3–8:
When Herod the king heard this [that magi have come to worship a child born king], 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.’ ” 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.
Herod’s wickedness is apparent. Insecure, disturbed, deceitful, murderous, he of course does not really intend to honor the child but to kill him. We probably shouldn’t be all that surprised. But don’t miss the role of the religious leaders. Verse 4 says that Herod assembled “all the chief priests [Sadducees] and scribes [Pharisees] of the people, [and] he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.” Here we have the trained theologians of the day. They’ve read and re-read and re-re-read the Scriptures—and memorized them. And it’s a piece-of-cake answer for them. “Bethlehem. Check Micah.”
But here’s the biggest surprise of all: They know the answer, but none of them acts on it. None of the trained theologians go to Bethlehem. Dirty shepherds leave their flocks and go. Pagan astrologers traverse far, hundreds of miles and months on the road. Meanwhile the religious leaders, full of Bible knowledge and pat answers, don’t bother to make the relatively short 5-mile journey to actually see this baby that all their theological learning should have prepared them for.
What do we make of “the strange indifference” (as one commentator calls it) of these Bible-answer-guys who have amassed loads of scriptural knowledge but don’t act on it? Their heads are filled with verses, doctrines, and religious facts, but their hearts reject the very Messiah their training should have pointed them to. Note this from the African Bible Commentary (page 1111):
The successors of these [religious] experts would be at odds with the adult Jesus, and in the end they would conspire to put him to death. The most knowledgeable church people often include those who take Jesus for granted. It is a dangerous situation to be in. It is no less a sin than the outright hatred of Herod, for in the end it leads to the same destiny (where Herod failed to kill the baby Jesus, the chief priests succeeded).
Is the warning here not obvious for those of us who have grown up in the church, listened to these sermons, studied for Community Group, read articles online, and learned to talk the Christian talk?
Lesson for the kids, and us all: Don’t take Jesus for granted. Don’t think knowledge about him necessarily translates into a heart of worship for him.
The magi don’t know much but they “rejoice exceedingly with great joy” at the true revelation from God they have received, while the religious leaders with all the answers and books about books about books are disturbed along with Herod and refuse to bow the knee in their hearts.
A word to the chief priests and scribes among us, the religious establishment, the well churched: Bible knowledge from all the classes and all the books can be precious fuel for worshiping the true Jesus, or a scary excuse for keeping Jesus at arm’s length. Increased knowledge doesn’t necessarily translate into increased worship.
And for those more like the magi: You may not have any Christian background (or you did and rejected it). You may not know the Christian jargon. You don’t fit nicely into the church-goer box, and yet you’re being drawn to Jesus. And this whole church scene may feel really foreign, but we want you to be here. We want the magi. We don’t want to scare them away from Jesus. Let the astrologers come to Jesus, and do not forbid them, for such is the kingdom of heaven. Magi among us, please don’t be sent away from worshiping Jesus by the scribes and chief priests among us.
So, “we three kings of orient” aren’t kings, but they are worshipers of Jesus, the true king, the king of all the kings, while the religious stand idly by with a strange indifference.
Pointing to Kings
But even though these magi-wizards aren’t technically kings, there is a way in which they point to kings. Look at verse 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.
This echoes the prophecy of Isaiah 60, where Isaiah prophecies about all the nations coming to Israel’s king. Isaiah 60:1–6:
nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. . . . the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense . . . .
This Christ is not only king of Israel, but he is the king of all nations, the king of kings. Kings are coming to him worship him, and they bring with them their best cultural products and practices and resources — gold, frankincense, and myrrh being just the beginning.
When the magi came to Jerusalem asking, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” little did they know that they were asking for the very title that will be written above his head as he hung on the cross dying for sins not his own: “the king of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37).
This true king of the Jews is not the usurping king, like Herod, abusing power, acting impulsively, employing deceit to bolster his crushing grip on the throats of his subjects. Rather, this king of the Jews is the one true king, the one who “came not be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28), the one who doesn’t merely demand our homage but wins it in his shocking self-giving on our behalf—all the way to death, even death on a cross. He is the king who demonstrates his love for his people in that while they are still sinners—while we are still stargazing in our astrology and wizardry—he dies for us (Romans 5:8).
We call this “the gospel” — the baby in the manger was born to die to save sinners like us. It may seem odd at first to sing at Christmas, “Nails, spear will pierce him through, the cross be borne for me, for you,” but it is beautifully fitting. He came to save us, black and white, Jews and Gentiles, women and men, kings and shepherds and astrologers.