Recently, Al Mohler asked the question (in connection with the abdication of King Juan Carlos of Spain in favor of his son, Philip VI), “How in the world can you have the existence of hereditary monarchies when hereditary monarchs don’t act like the heads of the dynasties that they had inherited? This is a very interesting question,” he goes on to say, “but the more important question is this: Why is there such a hunger for a king? Why is there so much interest in the heads of royal houses of Europe, especially when there is virtually no political power now assigned to those royal houses?”
This is not a pointless question; last year a survey of British public showed that fully two-thirds of the population believes that Britain is better off as a monarchy. Only 17 per cent want a republic instead.
Mohler has the answer to his question. Basically, he says that there is an inner longing that is intrinsic to us as human beings for “the kind of grandeur and majesty that is associated with the throne.” Like the ancient Israelites, we seem to want a king to reign over us. However, it is also important to note that though modern man has a fascination with monarchies, and those who live under them – at least in Europe – seem to have no desire divesting themselves of them, yet the kind of monarchs they are content to support are also those monarchs who have no real power. They want a king, but not one who really reigns over them. Paradoxically, though people might feel a need for a king, they also are not willing to give up their self-determination to truly have one.
In the same way, I believe that everyone everywhere feels a need deep down that they need God, the true king of the universe. And yet, at the same time, because sin and selfishness and self-centeredness rule our hearts, we also are not willing to surrender ourselves to the sovereignty of God over our lives. We want God to be a kind of constitutional monarch, one who in the end has to bow to the dictates of the parliament of our desires and wishes.
Jesus Christ is the King of the universe. He is your king, whether or not you will receive him now as such. And he is not a constitutional monarch – he reigns with absolute authority over heaven and earth (Mt 28:18). Though many may not bow the knees to Jesus now, the day is coming when all will: “Therefore God has highly exalted him [Jesus] and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knew should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11).
That Jesus is king is precisely the point Matthew has been making from the very beginning of his Gospel. Jesus is the son of David (1:1), the king who will save his people from their sins, Immanuel, God with us (1:21, 23). He will inherit a throne that is to rule all nations, and through whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed. When we come to chapter 2, therefore, it should be no surprise to us that Matthew continues with the theme of the kingship of Christ. Some see in the star an implicit reference to the prophesy of Balaam [who shares similarities with the Magi of Matthew 2] in Numbers 24:17, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth.” In other words, the star was not only meant to serve as a confirmation that Christ was born, but also as a sign of who was born – a king. Moreover, in the story of the Gentile Magi, we see the reign of one “born king of the Jews” (2:2) extending over those who are non-Jew, another preview of the Great Commission (28:18-20).
But the history before us is instructive, not only because by it Matthew further develops the themes of royalty but also because it previews the way people have received the news of Christ’s lordship from his birth to the present day. In this text, we have three different groups of people with three different responses to the news of Jesus’ birth. They are King Herod (2:3), the chief priests and scribes (2:4), and, of course, the Magi (2:2). I want to look at each of these groups, and then to examine their particular response to Jesus. As we do so, it would be very profitable for each of us to see who we identify with.
We all know the story: after Jesus’ birth, wise men from the east – Magi – show up at Herod’s court in Jerusalem claiming to have seen a star which they interpreted as announcing the birth of “the king of the Jews.” Hearing this, Herod calls an impromptu counsel of the Jews in order to determine the whereabouts of this supposed king. Finding out that Bethlehem is the most likely place, he sends the Magi there under the pretense that he wants them to find Christ so that he too can bring him homage. The Magi do indeed find Jesus and give him worship and gifts. But being warned by God in a dream not to give this information to Herod, they return to their country “by another way.”
The King Herod referred to in the text is Herod the Great, who ruled, by the consent of the Roman Senate, as King of Judea from 40 B.C. to his death in 4 B.C. (If this date is correct, then it follows that Jesus was probably born around 5 B.C.) Summarizing his reign, D. A. Carson writes:
Son of the Idumean Antipater, 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 (including the temple begun in 20 B.C.) admired even by his foes. But he loved power, inflicted incredibly heavy taxes on the people, and resented the fact that many Jews considered him a usurper. 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 Mariamne (of Jewish descent from the Maccabeans), and at least two of his sons.
When Jesus was born, and therefore when the Magi appeared, it would have been at the very end of his reign, and thus at the very time when Herod was earning the reputation of a madman and a murderer. It is no wonder, then, that Matthew records the response of Herod: “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” For Herod, here was the greatest possible threat to his throne. On the other hand, the inhabitants of Jerusalem must have cringed at this information, for they knew that such news was likely to send Herod into a rage. They, too, were “troubled.”
We know from 2:16-18 that Herod in fact meant to remove this threat to his throne by killing what he perceived to be a clear rival. Thinking that he could use the Magi to find this child for him, he used deceit, making them think he wanted to worship Christ, when he really wanted to put him to death.
His was a response of out-and-out rejection of Jesus. He wanted him out of his way so he could get on ruling his kingdom. In one sense, this extreme form of rejection is played out by those who persecute his people. Hatred of Jesus results in many places in the world in the imprisonment, banishment, and punishment of his followers. “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. . . . If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (Jn. 15:18, 20). “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).
However, you don’t have to be a persecutor of Christians to mimic Herod. Herod’s response is played out every time a person rejects Christ’s claim on their life in the interests of their own desires and plans. If you don’t want Jesus telling you what to do, if you want exclusive rights to your heart and life, if you are not willing to surrender everything to Jesus, then like Herod, you reject Christ as King over your life.
And you can’t have Jesus any other way. He is not willing to negotiate terms with you. He demands unconditional surrender to his absolute authority over your life, and nothing less. Jesus himself put it this way: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:15-26). He then tells us to count the cost:
“For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:28-33)
Some people will claim that it is legalistic to present Jesus in this way. However, Jesus is not saying that a person earns their salvation by taking up the cross. He is saying that those who are saved take up the cross. Grace comes to us from a Cross not our own but leads us to a cross of our own. We don’t win the forgiveness of our sins, but forgiven people are people who are radically changed by the grace that brings forgiveness and healing and love. Paul put it this way: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:8-10).
Am I like Herod? Have I renounced the claim to the throne of my heart, and have I surrendered all to Jesus Christ?
The Chief Priests and Scribes
These represented the Jewish religious leaders of the day. The “chief priests” are a reference to the current high priest and all who previously occupied that position (Herod – contrary to the law – went through high priests like my children go through shoes). They were Sadducees and held the positions of power in the Jewish religion. The “scribes” consisted mainly of Pharisees. Their job was not so much copying the law as it was teaching it, and so they were also “lawyers” or experts in the Law of Moses. Whereas the Sadducees tended to get along with the Romans, the Pharisees did not, and they both barely tolerated each other (though Herod was on bad terms with each). It’s possible, as Carson suggests, that Herod consulted both these groups to insure he wasn’t getting bad information. “If the Pharisees and Sadducees barely spoke to one another, there was less likelihood of collusion.”
Of the three groups we are considering, this group is both the most puzzling and the most troubling. These were Biblical experts whom Herod consulted to find out the place of Christ’s birth. They answer without qualification: it is Bethlehem (2:3-6). Matthew, in reporting what they said to Herod, gives a free quotation of Micah 5:2 with 2 Samuel 5:2 tacked on the end. They understood that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem and that he was the Son of David.
But that is the last you hear of these experts. You would think that, hearing the story of the Magi announcing the birth of the Christ, they would rush with them to worship the new-born king. Instead, they do nothing. These men who spent their entire lives studying the Scripture are content to remain in Jerusalem apparently unmoved while these enigmatic Gentile soothsayers are sent to search out the king of the Jews. These men, whose jobs orbited around the worship of the true God, did not care to accompany the Magi to worship his Christ. J. C. Ryle was right when he wrote, “How often the very people who live nearest to the means of grace are those who neglect them most!”
That’s the puzzling part. But the troubling part is that we are so much like them. Here in the West, where we are so blessed to have the Bible in our own language, and probably several copies on our shelves (how many collecting dust?), we are also so often cursed to do so little with the knowledge that we have. We may have a lot of knowledge about the Bible, but the real question is: what are we doing with it?
Though I never want to give the impression that Bible knowledge is bad, it is simply not enough to have a great knowledge of the Bible. In any case, knowledge by itself is not faith. Faith takes the knowledge of God’s word and does something with it. As Paul would put it to the Galatians, faith works by love (Gal. 5:6). True faith takes the vision of God and of Christ in the Bible and turns it to worship. And that is what these religious leaders were lacking. What about you?
Whereas Herod openly rejected the Christ, these men quietly ignored him. But in the end, whether openly or discreetly, rejection is rejection. “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (Jn. 1:10-12).
There are a host of questions surrounding these mysterious individuals and the events surrounding their arrival in Judea. Who were they? The term “magi” had previously referred to a Persian priestly caste, but by the time of Christ it widely referred to those in the east who practiced astrology and magic (it is used to describe Paul’s nemesis Bar-Jesus in Acts 13:6 – there it is translated “magician” in the ESV). It is thought by the authorities that their most likely origin was Babylon (where there was also a sizable Jewish community). Other than that, there is little we can say about them, except that they were almost certainly Gentiles, since they refer to the “king of the Jews” (instead of “our king”).
Another problem is that of the star. What did they see? There have been at least three explanations in terms of ordinary astronomical phenomena. (1) Some have said that what they saw was the conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C. (2) Some have said that what they saw was a comet – Halley’s Comet appeared in 12/11 B.C. (3) Some have said that what they saw was a supernova, which Chinese astronomers saw for 70 days in 5/4 B.C. Although (2) can be fairly ruled out (as least as far as Halley’s Comet is concerned) because it was too early, the other two can also be ruled out because such explanations fail to account for the movement of the star in verse 9: “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.” It seems to me that Matthew wants us to see this event as miraculous: this was a very particular sign to these men that Christ had been born and then later where he was born.
In contrast with Herod and the religious leaders, their response was the response of worship: “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with joy. 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” (2:10-11). Whereas Herod was troubled, and the religious teachers were indifferent, these guys rejoiced exceedingly with joy.
Worship is the heart’s response of faith in Christ. And these men had faith. Think about it: “They believed in Christ when they had never seen Him--but that was not all. They believed in Him when the Scribes and Pharisees were unbelieving--but that again was not all. They believed in Him when they saw Him a little infant on Mary's knee, and worshiped Him as a king. This was the crowning point of their faith. They saw no miracles to convince them. They heard no teaching to persuade them. They beheld no signs of divinity and greatness to overawe them. They saw nothing but a new-born infant, helpless and weak, and needing a mother's care like any one of ourselves. And yet when they saw that infant, they believed that they saw the divine Savior of the world.”
Do you have faith in Christ? That is the only appropriate response to his claims over your life. If you say that you do have faith, test it further with this question: have you sought him out? Do you seek him? Or do you yawn your way through the Bible and through sermons and through the exhortations of friends and family? God got the attention of these guys with a star, but once he had their attention, their faith led them to diligently seek Christ out. They traveled a great distance in a time when travel was much more perilous than it is today in order to find this king. Will you seek him? If you truly do, you will find him!
My friend, Christ is your king. But this is not bad news. It is the best news in the world. It is our self-centeredness – our wanting to be king – that is at the root of all our problem and sin and evil. There are 7 billion human beings who would be king on our planet, and this is the reason there is so much grief. If men were to surrender their rights to Christ and bow their knees to him as Lord, unspeakable peace would follow.
The amazing thing is that this king accepts the unlikeliest of people. The Magi certainly fit into that category. Perhaps you think that he would never receive you. But he says, “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (Jn. 6:37). So come to him; “let earth receive her king!”
 D. A. Carson, Matthew 1-12 (EBC: 1995), p. 84.
 p. 87
 J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Matthew.
 R. T. France, Matthew (TNTC: 1985), p. 81.
 Ryle, Expository Thoughts.