Who is King?

Matthew 2:1-12

I am sure that many of us have played the game “king of the hill” before. One person gets at the top of the hill and everyone tries to get him off so that a new person sits on the top. It can get quite animated. Children can be very cruel at this game, if they let themselves. But none of them were as cruel at this game as Herod the Great.

Herod the Great was truly a great king. He had magnificent building projects, including the great temple at Jerusalem. He could be diplomatic when it suited him. Building such a temple was one of those times. He tried to please everyone, and generally succeeded. He pleased the Romans, because he could actually control the Jews without resorting to rebellion against the Roman Empire. Herod did all the Roman things correctly, even having Olympic-style games in Jerusalem, which did not please the Jews so well. However, Herod was a paranoid king, and it got worse as he got older. He even had his wife Mariamne executed, along with her two sons, because they were of the Hasmonean dynasty, which claimed the rightful rule of the throne. Herod could not bear the thought of a successor to his throne. That is why he does what he does. He is sitting on top of the pile, and he will kill anyone who even thinks of taking him off that throne. He has the throne, and will suffer no rival. This sounds a lot like Cain, which we heard about this morning. In fact, Herod is described as a murderous brother to Israel (Herod is an Edomite, and is therefore a descendent of Esau), and winds up killing a lot of children because God has favored them over him. We may think of Herod as the new Cain.

The time at which these wise men come is later than the shepherd story related in Luke. There they are at the stable. Here the wise men come into the house of Mary and Joseph (verse 11). Another reason for believing that this incident is later than the shepherds is that Herod kills all the children two years and younger. Of course, this would give Herod some margin of error in his calculations. However, if the wise men had come at the same time as the shepherds, then one year and under would have been sufficient for Herod’s purposes. Therefore, much as we like the picture, it simply is not true that the wise men visited Mary and Joseph in the stable. The stories do not happen at the same time at all.

These wise men are interesting folk. They probably came from Babylon, since Babylon had a Jewish community who would know about such things as the birth of the Messiah, and the star that would accompany it (Numbers 24:17-18), which also explains Herod’s anxiety. The wise men were astrologers. Now, we have to realize that astronomy and astrology were not separate studies in that time period. People thought that the stars proved that the universe had an order to it, and that any remarkable happening in the stars indicated a remarkable happening on earth. We now know that that is not how God operates. However, God used the belief of the time to direct the wise men to Jesus. God can hit straight with a crooked stick. Matthew makes a special point about this: astrologers from Babylon, probably for the Jews the most despised people on earth except for the Romans, have come to Jesus to worship Him. Moreover, they travel about a thousand miles to see him. This is in amazingly strong contrast with the Jews in Jerusalem, who will not travel the mere 6 miles to Bethlehem to see if the prophecy is true. Gentiles believe, and the Jews do not. Gentiles will come from far away for their salvation, but the Jews reject the salvation that is in their very midst. This will become a major theme in Matthew.

It is mere tradition that says that there were three wise men. That number comes from the number of gifts presented to Christ, but it is not proven that there were three of them. It is never said, either, that the wise men were kings. So the famous line “We Three Kings” is not based on Scripture. There could have been three wise kings, for all we know. But let us separate biblical fact from tradition that grows up around the text.

What is more important is that they have come to worship the Davidic king. A similar situation happened in the Old Testament. A foreign queen came to see what Solomon was all about, and to see if his wisdom was truly as great as everyone said it was. The account is in 1 Kings 10:1-13. Notice what the queen gives Solomon: gold and spices. Solomon’s name means peace. Matthew, then , is telling us that Jesus is the better Solomon, who brings us true peace with God. Interestingly, Matthew draws the connection explicitly in 12:42 with his reference to the queen of the south.

So, given Herod’s paranoia and the prophecy from Numbers, one could understand that Herod would be afraid. Verse 3 indicates fright, not just a sleepless night. When it says “all Jerusalem,” that indicates that the Jews knew how bloody Herod could be, and thus they were afraid at what Herod might do to them in his efforts to keep the throne. We can see just how alarmed Herod was by the fact that he immediately called an emergency session of the Sanhedrin, which was a collection of scribes and Pharisees who knew the law, and who ruled in the country. These were the country’s leaders, subservient, of course, to the king.

He asks the Sanhedrin where the Messiah was to be born. They told him that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Next, he asks the wise men the time of the star’s rising. Notice that he does not ask them how old the child would be by now. That would be too obvious. Herod is crafty, just like Satan in Genesis, and just like Cain. He wants to find out as much as he can from the wise men without arousing their suspicions. Then he asks them to do his dirty work for him. He asks them to find the child and bring back word, so that “he too may go and worship him.” We know that Herod was lying here, but the wise men did not know this. They had to be warned in a dream not to go back to Herod.

God led them again. The star reappeared. There is no way to account for this except by a supernatural occurrence of a star that revealed to the wise men where the Christ was to be born. Notice, however, that God’s revelation in nature was not enough to take them all the way. They needed the light of Scripture as revealed in Micah 5 in order to know where Christ was to be born. They traveled to Jerusalem at first, thinking (logically) that the Christ would be born in the capital city amidst great pomp and circumstance. That is not what they found, of course. But they rejoiced when they saw the star again. This joy was exceedingly great. The Greek is about as emphatic as it gets: They rejoiced with a great joy exceedingly. They were overcome with a sense of God’s leading them. They knew that God had led them. It was obvious to them. They found Jesus and worshipped. Notice that they did not fall down and worship Herod when they were with him. Instead, they bowed in front of this child, and gave him truly royal gifts.

They gave him three very important gifts. Some scholars do not think that there is any significance to these particular gifts, except that they were worthy of a king. I disagree. I believe that every detail in Matthew is important. Gold is obviously a kingly gift. Many kings would accept nothing else for a gift during this time period. It was indeed customary for kings to give other kings gold. Any visitor could gain the king’s audience by means of a hefty gift of gold. Frankincense was used for the temple’s special incense recipe that only the priests were allowed to make. Frankincense was involved with priestly functions. Myrrh is a precious fragrant liquid used in embalming corpses, but it was also used in the anointing of prophets. I believe that we have here gifts that are fit for Jesus’ three-fold office of prophet, priest and king.

After another dream in Matthew’s gospel (God seems to direct people quite a bit with the use of dreams), the wise men go back to their own country another way. Herod, for all his cunning, is not cunning enough to thwart God’s purpose.

Herod and Jesus were rivals to the throne of David. Matthew says that Herod was the usurper to the throne. Only Jesus can sit on David’s royal throne. But Herod’s reaction is exactly how all people react to the good news of Jesus. Our sinful nature would just as soon see Jesus killed. That is what many scholars would like to see today, when they argue that Jesus was merely a great moral teacher (though he would have lied when he claimed to be God, but that is seldom remembered), or when they argue that Scripture has lots of errors in it, or when they say that Christ’s active obedience is not given to us in justification. In a way, that is trying to kill Jesus by trying to put the church of Christ to death, for the church is Christ’s body.

We are just like Herod: we want to rule our own life, even though we are usurpers to that throne. Only Christ is the lawful king of our hearts. The call for us is to surrender the throne of our hearts and lives to the proper king, Jesus Christ. We need to have the bright morning star rise in our hearts. When it does, we will have joy unbounded, just like the wise men. Where is our joy? Oftentimes I wonder whether our Christianity has lost its first love. Maybe our Christianity has gotten too much “reality” into it, such that we have lost that joy that is supposed to be there. Maybe it has gotten so hum-drum every-day, that we live life in a sort of waking dream. We go through the motions. I am not an advocate of finding ecstatic spiritual experiences, and that if we are not experiencing those, then our Christianity is inferior. However, there is a joy that comes with Christianity. We really need to ask ourselves if we are optimists or pessimists? If we are pessimistic about this world, then how much room have we left for God? Where will we go to find our joy again? We will not find it in work, or in pleasure, or in money, or in doing it our way. That is just what leads to despair. Joy can be ours again, if we surrender to Jesus. Instead of trying to kill him, like Cain killed Abel, and like Herod tried to kill Jesus, let us rather offer our gold, frankincense, and myrrh. When we do that, we will find out that we cannot go back to our own country in the same way. We will be on a different track, just like the wise men. Let us offer our gold, which is our time, talents, resources, and our treasure to Christ. We have to realize that it rightfully belongs to Him anyway. We are merely stewards, keeping it in trust. Let us offer our frankincense. Romans says that we must offer our bodies as living sacrifices, which is our reasonable act of worship. Our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit. Do we treat our bodies that way? What about habits that hurt the body? Maybe our eating habits are not healthy, or maybe we don’t give them enough rest. Maybe we abuse our bodies, putting them through more than is needful, just to get that extra dollar. Let us offer our bodies as living sacrifices, for this is pleasing to God. Let us offer our myrrh, our words. We are to be prophets, of a sort. We are all prophet, priest, and king, now that our Great Brother has gone into the heavenly realms. We are to be prophetic, crying out against injustice and oppression. We are to help the poor and needy. We are to cry out against the taking of life, especially these days with regard to abortion and euthanasia. Our country is headed for more murder. We must cry out against it. We are to be prophetic in sharing the Gospel above all. This means so many things. It means being a friend to a person who is not friendly, knowing that that is how Christ treated us. It is sharing the good news of Christ to someone. This might seem hard to many of us. How does one do it? A good place to start is by telling that person how God has changed you. The reason this is such a good place to start is that no one can argue with it. We might be afraid, because the person to whom we are sharing the Gospel might be a skeptic who doubts God. But your own personal testimony is irrefutable. No one can say, “no, that’s not how it happened.” They don’t know, and that is why it is such a good starting place. Oftentimes, the unbeliever is really asking the question, “Why are you different from everyone else around? Why are you different from the world?” Your personal testimony is the best answer to that question. What a testimony the wise men must have had when they went home to Babylon! They could have told how God led them by a star. They could have said how God thwarted the powerful king Herod. They could have talked about the immense joy that they felt. These are things that are regular parts of the Christian testimony.

Are we king of the hill? Or is Christ Jesus? Who is the true king… of our lives? Herod thought he was the king of Israel, and we think that we are king of our lives, but we are all only usurpers. Only Christ is king. Only Christ is the rightful ruler. When we put our trust in Him, we will find out that we are richer by far than we were before. By giving Him all that we have, we will find out that we are no longer usurpers. Instead we are fellow heirs to the Kingdom of God. We will rule with Christ. This world is ours, because it is Christ’s. Let us rejoice, for the world belongs to Christ.