The Magi | Matthew 2:1-12
Brian Hedges | December 17, 2023
Let me invite you to turn in your Bibles to Matthew 2, the Gospel According to Matthew, the second chapter. Today we’re going to be reading Matthew 2:1-12. We’re continuing our series called “The Advent of the King,” where we’re looking at the opening chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. We’re looking at the birth and infancy narratives as we’re leading up to Christmas, and today we’re going to be focusing on Matthew 2:1-12, which gives us the story of the wise men, or the magi, and their visit to the Christ-child in Bethlehem.
The way I want to organize this this morning is by using the Five Solas of the Reformation. Many of you will know that language; if you don’t, it’s these five Latin phrases that are kind of a shorthand for the theology of the Protestant and Reformed churches, in distinction from the Roman Catholic church. They are:
Sola Gratia, by grace alone
Sola Fide, by faith alone
Sola Scriptura, by the Scriptures alone
Solus Christus, in Christ alone
Soli Deo Gloria, to God alone be the glory.
These are really slogans or shorthand for the theology of the Protestant Reformation, but they’re also I think a very helpful shorthand for just understanding the basic biblical doctrine of salvation. I think most of them time when we think about this language—by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone—we’re thinking especially about those more propositional parts of Scripture. We’re thinking of the book of Romans or the letter to the Ephesians or something like that. But what I want you to see is that these truths are actually illustrated for us in very vivid ways throughout the Gospel narratives, and not least of all in this story today, the story of the wise men. They really are a wonderful example of how God brings people to himself, and I think if we just use these categories to work through the passage that will become clear to you this morning.
So we’re going to read Matthew 2:1-12 as we begin, and then we will work through the passage together using these five statements. Matthew 2, beginning in verse 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, 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.’ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
‘“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.’”
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 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.’ 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. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great 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. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.”
This is God’s word.
So, I want to suggest today that this story of the wise men or the magi who came to visit the Christ-child in Bethlehem is a surprising but helpful illustration of these five Solas. I want us to look at each one in turn.
1. Sola Gratia: By Grace Alone
Look at Matthew 2:1-2. Even though the word “grace” is not there, the concept of grace is there. “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men [or magi] from the east came to Jerusalem, 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.’”
We see grace in the fact that it’s these particular people who are the first to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Who were they? They were magi. They were magicians or sorcerers. That’s the meaning of that word “magi.” It’s used in the Old Testament to describe those who were involved in the arts of astronomy and astrology, and in the New Testament it’s used negatively except for in this passage. It’s used in the book of Acts to describe Simon the sorcerer or Elymas, who was also a sorcerer or magician. These were mystics; they were not believers. They were not from Judaism. They were not people who had come to know God previously, and yet here they are, as Gentiles and as outsiders, and they are drawn to the Savior, they are drawn to Jesus Christ. How was it that they were drawn? They see this star, the star in its rising.
We don’t know exactly what this star was. Some have suggested that this may have been a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. There was a conjunction of them in the year 7 B.C. Others have suggested it was a comet or a supernova. Still others have said this was something more like the shekinah glory of God in the Old Testament, like the pillar of cloud and fire that led the Israelites through the wilderness.
Whatever the astronomical and scientific explanation of it is, it was clearly a sign through the hand of God that was leading these men, these magi, to the point of seeking the Savior.
We don’t know how many of them there were. Traditionally people have said there were three magi, probably because of the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; but the text never describes or defines how many there were. Whatever the number, here were people who were outsiders of Israel—they’re Gentiles; don’t miss that they are Gentiles, outsiders of Israel—and yet they are the first to recognize that Jesus, this child who has been born in Bethlehem, is the King and is the Messiah.
I would suggest that it is a wonderful example of grace that saves the outsider, grace that saves the most unlikely of candidates and brings them into a saving relationship with God.
I couldn’t help but remember this week in preparing this is the story—to me this is one of the most stunning conversion stories in recent years—the story of a woman named Doreen Virtue. Doreen Virtue was the best-selling author of New Age books. You can look her up on Amazon, and these are books about praying to angels and cleansing your chakra and astrology and all kinds of things. There are over five hundred resources for sale on Amazon from Doreen Virtue. She produced all these cards, her books have been translated into multiple languages.
But in 2017 she was driving in her car, turned on the radio, and she heard a Scottish preacher named Alistair Begg, down at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio. She heard Alistair Begg preaching; it grabbed her attention and convicted her conscience. She went home and told her husband, “We need to go to a real church.” They went to church, she started reading the Bible, and within just a short amount of time she was convicted of her occult practices, that they were wicked. She turned her back on all of those, came to saving faith in Jesus Christ, and now has renounced all of her former writings and has written a new book called Deceived No More: How Jesus Led Me Out of the New Age and into His Word.
Here she was—she was like a contemporary person involved in the occult, very similar to these men in the Gospel narratives, and by God’s grace—I mean, what was it that made her turn on the radio? Why did she happen to hear that message that day? What is it that opened her heart? It was the grace of God working in her life.
Brothers and sisters, this morning if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you have the same reason for believing. It is God’s grace that has worked effectually in your heart. Those who are from more of a Reformed Augustinian tradition talk about God’s irresistible grace, his effectual grace that effectually draws us to himself. But even those who are from a more Arminian or Wesleyan tradition talk about God’s prevenient grace, the grace that goes before and opens the heart to make it soft towards Christ.
Wherever you fall on the theological spectrum, your salvation is owing to God’s grace this morning. I think that means a couple of things.
(1) It means, first of all, that no one has any reason to boast. Don’t you remember those words of Paul in Ephesians 2:8-10? He says, “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.” So we have no reason to boast, because we are saved by grace.
(2) Secondly, and I think beautifully and wonderfully, this truth also means that no one is beyond hope. If God could save a pagan magician, if God could save a sorcerer, if God could save someone out of witchcraft and all of these other things, then certainly he can save anyone. No one is outside of the scope of God’s saving grace.
So if you’re praying for someone in your life—maybe it’s a family member, maybe it’s a neighbor, maybe it’s a friend, someone who does not know Christ—it may seem to you that they are hardened against the gospel. It may seem to you that there’s no spiritual inclination whatsoever. They may seem completely outside the scope of being able to reason them into the kingdom of God. You’ve tried evangelizing, you’ve tried the apologetics, and there’s simply no interest whatsoever. Don’t give up praying, because the God who changed the hearts of these men and brought them to faith in the Messiah is the same God who can work in their hearts and draw them to himself. Sola Gratia; salvation is by grace alone.
2. Sola Fide: By Faith Alone
Again, even though the word “faith” is not specifically used in the passage, I think this whole story illustrates the responsive faith of the magi and illustrates it in contrast to the unbelief of Herod.
If you look at the cast of characters in the story, you have both the magi and you have Herod. The magi are intrigued by this star, and they come to Judea searching for this king who is to be born. When King Herod hears about it, he is troubled (verse 3), and literally the word there means “terrified.” He is shaking in his boots because this child who is born who is to be a king poses a threat to his own rule.
Notice what the magi do. They seek the newborn king to worship him. Notice what King Herod does. He seeks this newborn king as well, ostensibly to worship—that’s what he says—but if you read the rest of Matthew 2 you know that his real reason is to destroy the child. All he wants to do is get rid of this child king. So that will lead to the slaughter of a number of innocent children in Bethlehem as he tries to stamp out this Messianic child of promise.
The magi demonstrate their faith through their seeking, through their worship, and through their gifts, whereas King Herod shows his unbelief through his fear, his deceit, and his hostility.
I think we can say that this passage illustrates one of the most basic characteristics of faith, and that is responsiveness to God. You see this with the magi. In every step of their journey they are responding to whatever light, whatever revelation they have received.
They’re intrigued by the star; they respond to that. They go looking for answers, and they’re asking in Jerusalem. Then someone shares the word of God. When Herod seeks the scribes and chief priests to find out where the Christ child is to be born—in Bethlehem—and they get that information, they respond to that. They go to Bethlehem. Then, when they see Jesus there, they are filled with great joy and they respond in worship and through their gifts, giving their gifts to this child.
I wonder this morning, are you also responsive to God? Wherever you are in your spiritual journey, when you sense an inward stirring in your heart to pray, to seek the face of God, to start reading your Bible, to get involved in church, to ask some questions, to have a spiritual conversation, do you respond with obedience? Do you stop, do you listen, do you give it some time? Or do you just squelch that voice, and instead of responding you just go on with your life?
When you hear a message from the word of God, do you respond in obedience and in faith and in repentance? Are there ever times in your life when you bow in humble adoration of God in worship? I don’t just mean in public worship, but privately. Do you ever stop and, in your own relationship with God, privately, in the secrecy of your home and your private devotional, do you ever just express your adoration and your worship to God?
Do you give sacrificially of your time and resources? Not out of a sense of guilt and not because you feel compelled to by someone else’s need, but simply out of a desire to love and to honor Jesus?
All of these are expressions of faith. We see that exemplified for us in the magi.
3. Sola Scriptura: By Scripture Alone
Thirdly, we also see something here about Sola Scriptura, by Scripture alone. You see it in Matthew 2:3-6 when Herod the king, troubled at this news that the Messiah is to be born, seeks to find out where he is to be born, so he asks the chief priests and the scribes of the people. They tell him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophets.” Then there is a quotation from Micah 5:2.
In other words, the Scriptures here are essential. You’ll see this throughout the Gospel of Matthew as we study this wonderful book together. Over and over again Matthew is showing us that Christ came to fulfill what was written by the prophets. It teaches us something about what theologians call the doctrine of revelation. That doesn’t mean so much the book of Revelation, but it means the doctrine that teaches how God reveals himself to us.
I want to read a quotation to you from Frederick Dale Bruner and his commentary on Matthew. He says,
“The magi’s story can teach a doctrine of revelation. (1) The star. Revelation by creation leads the magi to (2) Israel’s Scripture in Jerusalem—this is revelation by Scripture—which in turn leads them to (3) the child in Bethlehem—revelation by Christ. [Notice this.] The star brings us to Jerusalem; only Scripture brings us to Bethlehem. Creation can bring us to the church; the church’s Bible brings us to Christ. God’s revelation in creation raises the questions and begins the quest; God’s revelation in Scripture gives a preliminary answer and directs the quest towards the goal. Finally, God’s revelation in Christ satisfies the quest.”
Many people have been on precisely that journey. Things about the created world, existential questions, philosophy—these things begin to start them on the quest to find the truth, but then they come to the Scriptures, and it’s the Scriptures that actually direct them to the answers they are searching for and direct them to Christ, and it is when we find Christ that we find salvation. But we come to Christ through the instrumentality of the word of God.
(1) To apply this, let me just ask, are you a seeker? Are you seeking for truth? Even if you’re not a confessing Christian this morning—if you’re not, I’m so glad you’re here. Maybe you’re just seeking for answers, you’re seeking for truth, you want to know the truth, but you’re not convinced yet that that truth is found in Jesus.
Let me encourage you, if you want real answers, read the Scriptures. Read the Scriptures for yourself. This is what the Scriptures themselves say: “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” There are many people—and many of you have experienced this already in your lives—it was when you began to seriously read and wrestle with the teaching of the Scriptures, that’s when everything began to make sense, your questions began to be answered, and you came to a life-changing faith in Jesus Christ. Read the Scriptures.
If you don’t know where to begin, maybe just read through this Gospel of Matthew. Read through the Gospel of Matthew and follow along as we study through it in these coming weeks.
(2) Secondly, let the Scriptures lead you to the Savior. The goal of the Bible is not simply to give us information, it is to lead us to Christ. The tragic thing in this story that we read this morning is that there were actually Bible scholars—the scribes—and church leaders—the chief priests—who knew the Bible and they missed the Savior. It’s possible to know a lot about the Bible and still miss Jesus, if you don’t allow the Bible to lead you to Jesus. Let the Scriptures lead you to the Savior.
Jesus, later in his life—this is recorded in John 5—actually confronted people with this very thing. He said, “You search the Scriptures for in them you think you have eternal life, but they testify of me and you will not come to me that you might have life.” The Scriptures, Paul says, are able to lead you to salvation, to make you wise, leading you to salvation, and we find that as we are led to Christ.
I love the words of Martin Luther the Reformer. He said, “In the words of Scripture you will find the swaddling clothes in which Christ lies. Simple and little are the swaddling clothes, but dear is the treasure, Christ, that lies within them.” Let the Scriptures lead you to the Savior. And that leads us to point number four.
4. Solus Christus: In Christ Alone
Look at Matthew 2:9-11.
“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. When they saw the star they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy [and notice this in verse 11], and going into the house they saw the child with Mary, his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.”
Don’t pass over that too quickly. They fell down and worshiped him. That’s an important word in Matthew’s Gospel, proskuneo. It’s a word that literally means “to fall down prostrate” before someone. It’s a word that denotes kneeling and worship and showing reverence through one’s outward posture. And this word is used a number of times in Matthew’s gospel. Sometimes it’s translated “worship” and sometimes as “kneel” or “knelt.”
And here’s what we find. We find in Matthew 4 when Jesus himself is being tempted by the devil in the wilderness, that one of the temptations of the devil is the temptation to give to Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. He says, “All these I will give you if you will fall down and worship me.” And you remember what Jesus said? He said, “Be gone, Satan. For it is written, you shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” You shall only worship God. Not to worship man, not to worship an angel, not to worship, of course, an evil, fallen angel, only to worship God.
But then you read the rest of the Gospel of Matthew, and there are ten times in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is worshiped. You’re only to worship God, and yet Jesus is worshiped.
A leper worships Jesus (Matthew 8:2)
A ruler worships Jesus (Matthew 9:18)
The disciples in the boat worship Jesus after he stills the storm (Matthew 14:33)
A Canaanite woman worships Jesus (Matthew 15:25)
The mother of James and John worships Jesus, kneels down before Jesus, in Matthew 20:20
After Jesus rises from the dead, the women who were witnesses at the empty tomb fall down and worship Jesus (Matthew 28:9)
Then the disciples in Galilee worship Jesus (Matthew 28:17)
Only God is to be worshiped, and yet Jesus is worshiped. Matthew must be telling us something about who Christ is, and he is. He’s telling us that this is not only Jesus of Nazareth, this is the very Son of God; that Jesus is incarnate deity, the eternal word in human flesh. He is Emmanuel, God with us. It is in him and in him that we find salvation.
We might also go to Micah 5:2, which is quoted in Matthew 2:6 in part. Read that whole verse. It says,
“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 [and then notice this],
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.”
Maybe Matthew meant to evoke the rest of that verse when he quoted this portion of it, reminding us that this one to be born is also at one and the same time the Ancient of Days. He is both the child in the manger and he is the eternal God, the Creator of the world.
This is why it’s so important for us to hold closely to the orthodox teaching of the church about the person and the work of Jesus Christ. Most of the time when we think about “in Christ alone,” Solus Christus, we’re thinking about the work of Christ. But the work of Christ hingest on the person of Christ, who he is. He is the God-Man, as we confess in the Nicene Creed:
“We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of the same essence as the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit in the virgin Mary, and was made human.”
Truly God, truly man; two natures united in one person.
You know what this means, friends? Here’s the application.
(1) It means, first of all, that Christmas is about doctrine. Let’s be careful to not over-sentimentalize the Christmas holidays and forget what it’s about. It’s about our faith.
That’s one reason I love paying attention to the Christian calendar, the Christian year—Christmas, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Pentecost Sunday. We call attention to these days in the Christian year. You know why? Because they are giving us the basics of the faith. It’s an outline of the Apostles’ Creed. It’s the basics of the faith. When we celebrate Christmas, we are celebrating the person of Jesus Christ, the incarnate God-Man who was born among us.
(2) Secondly, this doctrine is seen in the stories. I want you to see that. It’s not just in the propositional, didactic parts of Scripture like Romans and Hebrews and so on.
In fact, I love this word from Dorothy Sayers, from the mid-twentieth century. She was a novelist, she was a Christian apologist, she was a contemporary of C.S. Lewis and a friend of his. Dorothy Sayers said,
“We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine, ‘dull dogma,’ as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man, and the dogma is the drama. That drama is summarized quite clearly in the creeds of the church, and if we think it dull it is because we either have never really read those amazing documents or have recited them so often and so mechanically as to have lost all sense of their meaning. The plot pivots upon a single character, and the whole action is the answer to a single central problem: What think ye of Christ?”
The drama is the dogma. The stories give us the doctrine. The story of the birth of the Christ-child is giving us the doctrine of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. For us and for our salvation he came down and he was made flesh.
Solus Christus—salvation is found in him and in him alone.
5. Soli Deo Gloria: Glory to God Alone
And this leads us to Soli Deo Gloria, Glory to God Alone. Again, notice Matthew 2:11. “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.”
Gold has been called the gift of kings. It is for royalty because of both its beauty and its value. Frankincense was an expensive, aromatic incense that was used in worship. For example, in the Old Testament it was used in the grain offerings, the meal offerings in Leviticus 2. And myrrh was also an expensive perfume but this was used to embalm bodies, preparing them for burial. And in fact, in John 19:29 we find that the Pharisee, Nicodemus, who probably became a follower of Jesus, bought a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare the body of Christ for burial following his crucifixion.
Now it's unlikely that the magi themselves understood the significance of these gifts. Instead, the gifts were for them a tangible expression of their worship. And what is worship? To worship is to ascribe glory to God. That’s what it means to worship. To ascribe glory to God. We give glory to God, not in the sense that we give him glory that he didn’t already have, but we ascribe to him his glorious nature. We are recognizing and calling attention to the worth and the glory of God.
Brothers and sisters, when we really understand grace this will always be the response. When you understand grace it always leads to glory. If you understand the first four solas it will lead you to this one: Soli Deo Gloria—glory to God alone. No glory for me, no glory for us, no glory for the church. The glory is for God.
I would suggest to you kind of an experiment here. If you compare Matthew 2, which is the story of Gentiles here at the very beginning of the gospel coming to recognize and worship the Jewish Messiah, Jesus, who is the Savior of the world—compare that with Paul’s lengthy and complex argument in Romans 9-11, which is really all about God’s purpose both for Israel and his purpose for the Gentiles.
And what do you see in these chapters? You see the mystery of election. Why do the Gentiles, like the magi, believe when so many of Israel rejected the Messiah? And the answer is to demonstrate God’s sovereign mercy. Romans 9:18, “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” Sola Gratia—it’s by grace alone.
The necessity of faith—why do those who seek righteousness through the law fail to attain it? It is because they don’t seek it by faith, Romans 9:30-32. Sola Fide.
What about the Scriptures? How is it that faith comes about? Read Romans 10. “How shall they hear him whom they have not heard?” Right? How shall they call upon the name of the Lord unless they hear? How shall they hear without someone preaching to them? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news.” So faith comes by hearing and hearing from the word of Christ. Sola Scriptura.
And how does Paul end these three magnificent chapters, hard as they are? Having talked about both the salvation of gentiles and the salvation of Jewish people, he ends in this way. Romans 11:33-36,
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”
Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria. The glory goes to God alone.
Let me ask you this morning as we close—have you trusted in Christ? Have you trusted in the Messiah? Have you come to abandon the attempts to find truth on your own? To save yourself? To rescue yourself? And have you trusted in what God has done through the gift of his son, Jesus Christ? If you’ve not, I hope you will this morning. If you have trusted Christ I hope you will join me today as we worship our king. Let’s pray together.
Gracious, merciful God, we thank you this morning for the grace of the gospel. We thank you that you have extended that grace to us, sinners that we are, that you’ve had mercy upon us, that you have given us your word, and you’ve revealed Christ to us as an all-sufficient savior, truly God and truly man, fully worthy of all our trust and our hope and our confidence.
Lord, it’s our great joy to worship you this morning. As we continue to worship by coming to the table, we pray that in these moments we would prepare our hearts, that we would exercise true faith in Christ even as we take these elements; that what we would do physically in taking bread and juice we would also do spiritually as by faith we lean, consciously lean on Christ, trust in Christ. May the confession of our hearts be Christ and Christ alone. And we pray, Lord, that in drawing near to you at the table you would also draw near to us, that there would be a real sense of your presence this morning, and that as we continue in worship that you would be glorified and honored and lifted up.
Lord, may you work this morning in each of our hearts and for any who are on this journey to Christ and have not come all the way to saving faith, may today be a crucial step in their quest as they come to learn more about Jesus. We pray this both for our own benefit, but also that Jesus' name would be magnified and lifted up. In his name we pray, amen.