Four Kings and a Joker: Jesus, Herod & the Magi (Matthew 2)

Despite criticism of their alleged involvement, virtually everyone on both sides of the Atlantic, including the US President, Joe Biden and the British Monarch King Charles, have been celebrating the visit of an Iranian delegation to Palestine. In the Epiphany story, we remember how a group of Iranians visited Palestine carrying funding for an opposition figure the authorities wanted dead. Then the Iranians evaded the authorities, ignoring the correct exit procedures and fled the country. Of course, King Charles, the Prime Minister and US President have not been celebrating contemporary Iranian involvement, but the historic visit of a past Iranian delegation – the Magi (the ‘Wise Men’ or ‘Kings’) who came to Bethlehem bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for Jesus. It is ironic that without Iran and Iranian involvement, we would not have exchanged gifts on Christmas Day! 

The passage before us today is a study in contrasts. The contrast between religious hypocrisy and spiritual integrity. Between the religious hypocrisy of Herod and the Priests, and the spiritual integrity of the Magi. How can we distinguish one from the other? By their response to God’s revelation in nature, but above all His self revelation in the Scriptures. For the scriptures demand a response, not passive acquiescence nor mere lip service, but submission. In this passage we are going to consider the Kings Hypocrisy, the Scripture’s Testimony, and the Magi’s Integrity.

1. The King’s Hypocrisy Exposed

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem And asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” (Matthew 2:1-2, 7) 

Herod was king of most of Israel and Palestine as we know it today. His Grandfather was Jewish which gave him a rather tenuous link to the throne. He had been appointed King by the Roman Senate in 40BC and gained control of the country in 37BC. Unpopular with nationalists, Herod was a puppet of the Romans. Hypocritically he tried to please the Jews by rebuilding the Temple, while ruthlessly crushing resistance to Roman law. 

“Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”(Matthew 2:7)

Herod was not about to hand over his throne to some usurper.

Just because Jesus had the impeccable credential of being born in Bethlehem, the ancient seat of the Davidic line, Herod was not going to let a few prophecies stand in his way. Such was the political background to the climactic event of all history. 

Unbelief and hypocrisy were endemic. It is estimated that there were about 1,000 people living in 1st Century Bethlehem and around 20 baby boys under the age of two. By comparison the Israeli military have murdered over 8,000 children in Gaza in the last two months alone. Herod’s depraved scheme, however evil, is therefore nothing compared to the genocide we are witnessing today. I wonder if in years to come the name Netanyahu will be vilified in the same way Herod still is. I hope so.

Jesus birth divided people, as it always has. Here at the very start of his life we see two kingdoms in conflict. One full of praise and welcome; the other full of hatred and opposition. Herod and the Magi stand out in strong contrast, a contrast that runs like a fault line right through the life of Christ all the way to the cross and beyond. The Kings Hypocrisy and Unbelief. This was exposed because, 

2. The Scripture’s Testimony Unheeded

“When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'” (Matthew 2:4-6) 

The theme of fulfilment is very strong right through Matthew’s Gospel. He of all four gospels quotes the Old Testament the most. The Scriptures promised long ago that the king who was to sit on David’s throne for ever, would be born in Bethlehem.

Matthew shows how God’s word was fulfilled in the smallest detail. God keeps His promises. However, it’s not enough just to know these promises. It is possible to be theologically sound and yet remain outside the kingdom of God. The chief priests and teachers of the law knew perfectly well where the Messiah would be born. When asked by Herod they gave the correct answer. 

But it appears these facts were neither common knowledge nor acted upon, otherwise why did Herod have to even ask such a basic question about the central figure in Jewish eschatology? They had not taught these important facts of the Jewish faith to Herod. Nor did they seem to show any interest themselves at the news that the Messiah may have already been born. Did they go to greet him? Did they lift a sandal? Not at all. The King’s Hypocrisy Exposed, the Scripture’s Testimony Unheeded, But,

3. The Magi’s Integrity Rewarded

“After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. 

Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” (Matthew 2:8-12)

A tremendous amount of legend has accrued over the years around the Magi. There is no reason to suppose there were three of them, or that they were kings, or that we know their names. For centuries the magi had been a tribe of priests in Persia, but the name had also come to be applied to magicians and astrologers. In the ancient world most people believed in astrology. The steady courses of the heavenly bodies represented the settled order of the universe. When a new astronomical event took place, it was assumed that God was breaking into his ordered world with significant news. When Julius Caesar died in 44BC, one of the most astonishing flukes in all history took place. 

A nova appeared in the sky above his funeral pyre. Everyone assumed that he had gone to join the pantheon of Gods. From then on, stars and great men were definitely in fashion. Indeed, a star formed part of Jewish Messianic expectation. 

In Numbers 24:17 we read of the prophecy of Balaam. 

“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a sceptre will rise out of Israel.” 

This promise was dear to Jewish hearts. So, both Jews and Gentiles were predisposed towards seeing in the stars an indication of God’s purposes. Whatever it was the Magi’s saw, whatever their religious background, is it not incredible that people with so little to go on, should venture so far, enduring such hardships in travel, and face such uncertainties, to find the one a star would lead them to?  On seeing the Christ-child, it says, the Magi bowed down and worshipped him. Today, if you want to visit the place associated with the birth of Christ and the Magi one must bow down also. The entrance to the Church of the Nativity is a very low doorway.

Everyone, except a child, has to bow their head in order to enter the birthplace of Jesus. It is a very profound moment in any pilgrimage to Bethlehem. It reminds us of the promise Jesus made,

“I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  4Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.” (Matthew 18:3-5)

The Magi even recognised the baby Jesus as “King of the Jews,” a title which stands out in striking contrast with Herod’s position. It is a title that Matthew chooses not to use again until the crucifixion, when Pilate declares the same in three languages. Herod held jealously to his kingship by force and cruel repression just as Netanyahu and his extremist government does today.

In contrast, Jesus showed his true kingship by self-sacrifice. At Calvary he demonstrated that the weakness of God is more powerful than human strength. The Magi even seem to have had some indication of Christ’s death in their choice of gifts.

I find the Magi’s faith, their insight, their wholehearted search and adoring worship utterly amazing, yet totally convincing. It is one of the many surprises in the Gospels. But then God is the God of surprises isn’t he? Do not underestimate what the Spirit of God can do in a thirsty soul, a searching mind, an unsatisfied heart. For the pagans, God used the stars to confirm what the Jewish scriptures already foretold – for those willing to seek the truth. The King’s religious hypocrisy drove him to murder, the Magi’s spiritual integrity drove them to worship.

What does your faith drive you to do? 

The coming of Christ by way of a Bethlehem manger, heralded by prophecies and guiding stars may seem a little strange. But when we take Jesus out of the manger and invite Him into our hearts then the strangeness vanishes and the meaning is revealed. The Christmas story teaches us that Jesus’ first disciples were not Peter, James and John…. Some 30 years before then, the good news was being shared by Palestinian shepherds and Persian Magi. Overjoyed in knowing Him, overflowing in sharing Him.

A message inspired in part by the writings of Max Lucado and Rick Warren.