The Source of Joy

The Source of Joy

Having just celebrated the birth of Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, of Jesus who is God and Light who came to bring his light to a world that was then—and is now—and ever has been—in deep darkness, this morning we turn our focus to the mysterious Magi who sought Jesus who, though only a baby was also, in their words, “born king of the Jews” (v. 2) in order that they might worship him.

Though a number of Christmas carols mention the Magi, referring to them as “three kings” or “three wise men,” we don’t actually know much about the particular men who are mentioned only by Matthew in the entire New Testament. Historically the Magi in general were religious priests who originated in Persia and Babylon. As part of their religion, they paid particular attention to the stars and gained an international reputation for astrology which at the time was highly regarded as a science. This is unlike our “astrology light” fortune-telling version. Though the Magic came to be associated with sorcery or magic, the Zoroastrian religion from which they originated was strongly opposed to this.[1] In this opposition to sorcery[2] or magic,[3] their views were consistent with Scriptural teaching that similarly condemns such practices. This brief background helps us better understand why the Magi are often called “wise men” but as to why they are sometimes referred to as kings, scholars think this may be due to their being understood as fulfilling various Old Testament prophecies that speak of kings falling down to worship[4] Messiah and bringing him gifts.[5] By AD 500 this interpretation of the Magi as kings had become widespread.

As to why the biblical Magi came to be viewed as three kings[6] given that Matthew’s text doesn’t specify how many there were, you can probably guess the reason: it’s because, as stated in verse 11, they gave three gifts to baby Jesus, “gold, frankincense and myrrh.” Worth mentioning, however, is that though our western ecclesial tradition has assumed there were three Magi, in eastern Christianity they often number twelve.[7] And personally I think that it very well may be that the eastern branch of the Church got it right. As a friend of mine once pointed out, not only may there have been more than three Magi, but it’s quite likely that at least one of the Magi was a woman. We suspect this because, as noted in the text, the Magi stopped to ask for directions—and we know that men never stop to ask for directions!

And having presented that historical fallacy, let’s turn from background matters to our actual text. According to one source, it’s possible that as much time as two years had passed between the end of Matthew 1, which records the birth of Jesus, to the beginning of chapter 2.[8] Even within our passage we see that in verse 11 the Magi come to the house where Jesus and Mary were, not the manger where he was born.[9] So we’re no longer dealing with the newborn Jesus. The passage of time is important to watch for as we read Scripture for it’s easy to assume that events recounted occur immediately following one another and this isn’t always the case. Now as recorded in verse 2, the Magi’s initial inquiry upon arriving in Jerusalem was, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Isn’t it wondrous that God’s revelation was given to these astrologers who saw Jesus’ star rise? And their understanding must not have been limited to their skill and expertise in observing and reading the heavens, sun, moon, and planets. They must also have had some knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures about Messiah for as they stated, they sought “the one [to be] born king of the Jews.” This familiarity with Old Testament prophecy was likely due to their proximity to and interaction with Jews living in Babylon. Specifically, they may have been familiar with Balaam’s prophecy from the book of Numbers,[10] “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” which prophecy was understood by Jewish believers as referring to a messianic deliverer.[11]

As to the Magi having “come to worship” Jesus, “the one who [had] been born king of the Jews,” the jury is out as to whether this “worship” is intended to mean worship as to God or was more an expression of profound reverence or respect. Though our English word “worship” tends to be used only of God, the original Greek word has a wider variety of meaning than this.[12] I confess that in preparing and pondering this text, I’ve wavered in both directions. What I suspect—and you can come to your own conclusions—is that whereas initially the Magi may have intended to pay homage to a King, not God, by the time they actually saw and departed from Jesus’ presence, their intended obeisance to man was transformed to a recognition and genuine worship of Jesus as God. And the reason I think this is that there exist traditions about the Magi that indicate they were so moved by their encounter with Jesus that they either became Christians on their own or were quick to convert fully upon later encountering one of the apostles. Further they were so strong in their beliefs that they willingly embraced martyrdom. And even within the limited amount of information in our text, we see God using a dream in verse 12 to warn them not to report back to Herod and the Magi heed this divine warning. So this obedience to a providential dream further leads me to conclude that they were recipients of God’s special—that is his saving—revelation.

Now whatever the Magi’s original understanding about Jesus’ birth may have been, their visit was sufficiently momentous and unusual that we read in verse 3 about another king, Herod,[13] being “disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him” upon hearing about the inquiries the Magi were making. Their visit may have been the first occasion Herod had to hear about this potential rival King. And again, this was a King whose birth had not only been perceived by these pagan experts in astrology but, to make matters worse, had also been prophesied about in the Scriptures of the Jewish people over whom Herod ruled. It’s no wonder he was disturbed! His very regency might be at stake. So Herod took action, verse 4: “When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.” Smart man, that Herod was. Jewish understanding associated the King of the Jews with the Messiah, the Hebrew word for Christ. So if this baby had been born king of the Jews, who better than the religious leaders of the Jewish people, the chief priests and teachers of the law, to provide Herod with the details? And so they did, verses 5 and 6. They told him that Messiah was to be born “In Bethlehem[14] in Judea.” And, again, his birth there was no coincidence. As we see time—and time—and time again, nothing about Christ’s coming to earth was coincidental for Jesus Christ’s entire birth, life, death, and resurrection all took place according to the Scriptures. So quoting Micah 5[15] these leaders replied, “…this [birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem in Judea] 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 shepherd my people Israel.’” Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah, prophesied these words 700 years before they were fulfilled. And now the stars, as interpreted by the Magi; and Scripture, as declared by God’s prophets, had aligned to confirm what the God who made both the heavens and Scriptures had revealed. Namely, that this ruler, this king of the Jews descended from the tribe of Judah who would shepherd God’s people had now indeed been born.

Having learned more about Jewish prophecy concerning the birth of the Messiah King, now, verse 7, King Herod “called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.” Again Herod’s interest in this infant king shouldn’t surprise us for if both Gentiles and Jews were acknowledging the infant Jesus as king, then he was clearly a potential threat to Herod’s own kingship. So he summoned the Magi secretly. Now though the Magi had come of their own accord by their expertise and abilities in reading the stars to worship baby Jesus, King Herod now chose to enlist them for his own purposes. So we’re told in verse 8, “He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.’” Now if we were to take Herod’s words at face value, we might find cause to rejoice here: How wonderful that even the king would take such interest in the birth of Jesus! How wonderful that he, too, wanted to follow in the Magi’s steps and worship—revere—pay homage to this majestic baby! And it’s possible, though perhaps not likely,[16] that this is how the Magi received Herod’s words and mandate. For from their perspective, this moment in history was replete with meaning and filled with great consequence. Indeed shouldn’t everyone be seeking to find this child that they, too, might worship him?

Next we read in verse 9, “After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” Their search had now drawn to a close and “When they saw the star, they were overjoyed” (v. 10) The Magi had now reached their destiny. All of their hard work and labor had been rewarded. So, verse 11, “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.” What must Mary and Joseph have thought? These strangers, prominent men of learning, had traveled a great distance from the east (or the orient), for the sole purpose of seeing Mary’s baby—and worshiping him. Now most parents are delighted when others tell them how beautiful and wonderful their baby is. But this worshipful response, this bowing down before Jesus, is completely out of the ordinary. Much as one may love babies, no one would bow down before one the way these Magi did. Again, what must Mary and Joseph have thought?

After bowing down and worshipping baby Jesus, the Magi “Then…opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (v. 11b). Again, the fact that three gifts were given is the main reason the western church has concluded there must have been three Magi but we simply can’t know for certain. As to the significance of the gifts, we’re not told but numerous suggestions have been made: gold was obviously valuable therefore perhaps this was an indication of Jesus’ Kingship on earth; frankincense was a perfume or incense perhaps pointing to the fact that this King was also God or a deity; myrrh was commonly used as an anointing oil perhaps indicating, again, that this baby was to be anointed as King or perhaps foreshadowing his death. An early Church theologian named Origen broke it down in just this way:[17] gold as to a king, myrrh as to one who was mortal, incense as to a God. Another interpretation understood gold as virtue, frankincense as prayer, myrrh as suffering. Yet others think the gifts were medicinal rather than for tribute.[18] Even the song we sang this morning provided an interpretation: “Gold—a King is born today; Incense—God is with us; Myrrh—His death will make a way; By His blood He’ll win us.”[19] Again, we need to be careful because the significance of these gifts is never actually explained. But we can at the very least know that they were costly—the Magi had opened their treasures—and these three particular gifts were viewed as being appropriate to commemorate such a momentous birth.

Our passage closes with the Magi not returning to report back to Herod for, as we’ve already noted, they had “been warned in a dream” and therefore “returned to their country by another route.” By means of this dream—which, again, is difficult to view as anything other than divine intervention and providence—Jesus’ life was preserved. Indeed, the LORD divinely intervenes again as we read in verse 13 that after the Magi had left Mary and Joseph, “an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’” And so we have confirmed here what we’ve suspected all along: that Herod never had any intent to learn where Jesus was in order to worship him, but that, from the start, his desire had been to do away with, that is to murder this rival, baby King. So we read of the tragic turn of events in verse 16: “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi,”—again, there was no outwitting involved. The Magi obeyed the dream they had been given by God—“he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.”[20] Sadly this ruthlessness typified Herod’s behavior for over the course of his life the horrific deeds he carried out included: murdering his wife; murdering his three sons; murdering his mother-in-law; murdering his brother-in-law, among many others.[21] And isn’t it mind-boggling to consider that from the time of his infancy, people sought Jesus’ death. But God’s love and plan for humanity could not then—and cannot now—and will not ever be thwarted by mere human or even demonic intentions. No, nothing is able to happen outside of God’s timing and providence.

This morning many of Christ’s churches the world over are celebrating Epiphany,[22] the manifestation or disclosure of Jesus as the Christ, as God’s Messiah, not only to the Jewish people but also to the Gentiles, as represented by the Magi in our passage this morning. For Christ Jesus was born as King, a descendent of Judah, to rule not only the Jewish people, but he was born as King to rule us Gentiles as well. For it isn’t only the Jews who are lost, but also the Gentiles. It isn’t only the Jews who are in need of shepherd, but also the Gentiles. All people are in need of Christ’s salvation—and protection—and guidance—and care for all people have, as Isaiah tells us, like sheep, gone astray. Each of us has turned to our own way rather than God’s way. But as Isaiah goes on to tell us, “the Lord has laid on him”—has laid on Christ Jesus—“the iniquity of us all.”[23]

As we read in our passage, when the Magi saw the star, they were overjoyed—they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And that Christ came down from heaven to earth to incarnate the form of those whom he had made in his image; that God in Christ took on human flesh in Jesus should similarly be the cause and source of our joy. As John tells us because Christ, “the true light that gives light to everyone” came into the world;[24] because that eternal Word “was life, and that life was the light of all mankind,”[25] you and I can rejoice even in times of deep darkness—and sadness—and suffering because this earthly life isn’t the final chapter of our story for one day we will go to our Maker, our Savior, and our Lord and all our sorrow and sadness will cease. One day he will wipe every tear from our eyes[26] as he welcomes us into his presence. And even now, during the earthly portion of our journey, our Shepherd King and Ruler has not left us alone for he has given us his Holy Spirit to seal[27] and indwell[28] and encourage us; and he has given us his Word to teach us about who he is and about his love for us; and he has given us one another that we, too, might care for one another. So we continue to proclaim the source of joy as an encouragement to one another and a witness to others that Christ’s “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”[29]

Let us pray.



[1] Information about the Magi has been gleaned from the Wikipedia entry for Biblical Magi.

[2] Exodus 22:18: Do not allow a sorceress to live.; Deuteronomy 18:9–14: When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. 10 Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. 12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you. 13 You must be blameless before the Lord your God. 14 The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do so. Malachi 3:5: “So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty.

[3] The book of Daniel contrasts the godly versus the king’s magicians (chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5); Ezekiel 13:17–23: 17 “Now, son of man, set your face against the daughters of your people who prophesy out of their own imagination. Prophesy against them 18 and say, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to the women who sew magic charms on all their wrists and make veils of various lengths for their heads in order to ensnare people. Will you ensnare the lives of my people but preserve your own? 19 You have profaned me among my people for a few handfuls of barley and scraps of bread. By lying to my people, who listen to lies, you have killed those who should not have died and have spared those who should not live. 20 “‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against your magic charms with which you ensnare people like birds and I will tear them from your arms; I will set free the people that you ensnare like birds. 21 I will tear off your veils and save my people from your hands, and they will no longer fall prey to your power. Then you will know that I am the Lord. 22 Because you disheartened the righteous with your lies, when I had brought them no grief, and because you encouraged the wicked not to turn from their evil ways and so save their lives, 23 therefore you will no longer see false visions or practice divination. I will save my people from your hands. And then you will know that I am the Lord.’”Isaiah 47:8–15 (speaking to Babylon):“Now then, listen, you lover of pleasure, lounging in your security and saying to yourself, ‘I am, and there is none besides me. I will never be a widow or suffer the loss of children.’ Both of these will overtake you in a moment, on a single day: loss of children and widowhood.
They will come upon you in full measure, in spite of your many sorceries and all your potent spells.10 You have trusted in your wickedness and have said, ‘No one sees me.’ Your wisdom and knowledge mislead you when you say to yourself, ‘I am, and there is none besides me.’ 11 Disaster will come upon you, and you will not know how to conjure it away. A calamity will fall upon you that you cannot ward off with a ransom; a catastrophe you cannot foresee will suddenly come upon you. 12 “Keep on, then, with your magic spells and with your many sorceries, which you have labored at since childhood. Perhaps you will succeed, perhaps you will cause terror. 13 All the counsel you have received has only worn you out! Let your astrologers come forward, those stargazers who make predictions month by month, let them save you from what is coming upon you. 14 Surely they are like stubble; the fire will burn them up. They cannot even save themselves from the power of the flame. These are not coals for warmth; this is not a fire to sit by. 15 That is all they are to you—these you have dealt with and labored with since childhood. All of them go on in their error; there is not one that can save you. Revelation 21:8: But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” Revelation 22:15: Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

[4] Isaiah 60:3: Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.; Psalm 72:11: May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him.

[5] Psalm 68:29: Because of your temple at Jerusalem kings will bring you gifts.

[6] According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, Balthasar is often represented as a king of Arabia, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Gaspar as a king of India using names derived from a Greek ms (Excerpta Latina Barbari) composed in Alexandria about 500 AD. The later Collectanea et Flores (8th c. AD) continues the three kings tradition and their names plus additional details.

[7] Bruce Metzger, New Testament Studies: Philological, Versional, and Patristic, Volume 10, Brill, 1980, p. 24 (source found in Wikipedia entry for Biblical Magi).

[8] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Matthew 2:1–12.

[9] Luke 2:7: She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

[10] Numbers 24:17.

[11] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Matthew 2:2.

[12] Online Greek Bible <> προσκυνέω,v  {pros-koo-neh’-o} 1) to kiss the hand to (towards) one, in token of reverence  2) among the Orientals, esp. the Persians, to fall upon the knees and  touch the ground with the forehead as an expression of profound  reverence  3) in the NT by kneeling or prostration to do homage (to one) or make  obeisance, whether in order to express respect or to make supplication  3a) used of homage shown to men and beings of superior rank  3a1) to the Jewish high priests  3a2) to God  3a3) to Christ  3a4) to heavenly beings  3a5) to demons.

[13] This is Herod I or Herod the Great who ruled Judah and Israel from 37–4 BC. The Herod mentioned in Matthew 14:1 is Herod Antipas who was the Roman ruler over Galilee, the region where Jesus’ ministry took place, and Perea. He is also referred to as Herod the Tetrach, tetrarch indicating that he ruled over a fourth of the kingdom. He was 17 when his father, Herod the Great, died. Upon his death, his kingdom was divided between his three sons—Antipas, Archelaus, and Phillip II.

[14] Bethlehem is about five or six miles south of Jerusalem.

[15] NIV (full) version of Micah 5:2, 4:But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times….He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.

[16] I say not likely because the Magi would probably have known about Herod’s reputation.

[17] Contra Celsum.

[18] Wikipedia entry for Biblical Magi.

[19] This is part of the third stanza of Joy Has Dawned. Words & Music by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend.

[20] Even this tragedy was foretold in the Scriptures. Matthew 2:18 quotes Jeremiah 31:15: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” [NIV of the original is the same with one exception: “mourning and great weeping” rather than “weeping and great mourning.”]

[21] According to both Crossway ESV Study Bible and Zondervan NIV Study Bible. Both also note Herod’s many accomplishments, including theaters, amphitheaters, palaces (his own at Jericho), monuments, pagan altars, cities (harbor and city of Caesarea Maritima), fortresses (Herodium, Machaerus, Sebaste, Masada)—especially the building of the temple in Jerusalem begun in 20 BC and completed 68 years after his death (he died in 4 BC).

[22] Also known Three Kings Day. Epiphany falls on the 12th day after Christmas, January 6th. The six Sundays following Epiphany are the time of the manifestation. For Protestants this lasts from January 6 to Ash Wednesday in February and the start of Lent.

[23] Isaiah 53:6.

[24] John 1:9.

[25] John 1:4.

[26] Revelation 21:4: ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

[27] E.g., see Ephesians 1:13–14: 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory. 2 Corinthians 1:21–22: 21 Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22 set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

[28] E.g., see 1 Corinthians 3:16: Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?; Galatians 4:6: Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”

[29] John 1:5.

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