We Have Come to Worship!
Christmas is about the simple fact that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (I Tim. 1:15). We broke God’s law. God sent his Son to suffer the full weight of God’s justice in our place and then lead us to heaven.
That’s what has already happened. The question now is, How should we respond to it? What does the Christmas message call us to do? The answer to these questions was given a long time ago. The wise men said to King Herod: Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him (v. 2). The Christmas message requires us to humble ourselves before King Jesus and worship him as our only sovereign.
The visit of the wise men presents us with a contrasting picture of how men worship our King. Herod demonstrates what not to do, and so do the Jewish officials who knew where the Messiah was to be born but did not seek him. Their worship is at best nothing more than lip-service, and at worst a mask of contempt. The wise men, on the other hand, show us how to worship Jesus. The fact that they found him in humble circumstances — living in an ordinary house in a very small town and not in a palace — did not deter them. They offered him their most precious gifts, believing him to be a King with no equal.
Our purpose this evening will be to examine this contrast so that we might improve our worship of the King this Christmas season.
The Worship of Herod the Great
We’ll begin with the man who has come to be known in history as “Herod the Great.”
Herod, although heralded as the king of the Jews, was not really a Jew. His father was an Idumean (a descendent of Esau) and his mother was a Nabatean (a descendent of Ishmael). And not only was he not a Jew, he had no interest in the Jewish religion at all. The only reason he invested a fortune in enlarging the Jewish temple was to secure the favor of the Jews and increase his praise throughout the world. He was motivated solely by self-interest.
Moreover, Herod was as misanthropic a king as any man has ever been. He had a reputation for maintaining his power by eliminating anyone who got in his way. History tells us that he wiped out the entire Hasmonean family, including one of his nine wives, for purely political reasons. Later, he executed two of his brothers, three of his sons, and the entire Sanhedrin. And toward the end of his life, when he finally accepted the fact that he was dying, he ordered his soldiers to massacre Jewish officials at the hippodrome before announcing his death. At least this way, he thought, the Jews would mourn at his death even if they were not mourning for him. So, compared to his other misdeeds, the murder of perhaps a dozen small children in Bethlehem was a minor footnote to a reign filled with cruelty and terror.
In any case, sometime about 5 BC the wise men came to Herod looking for the newborn King of the Jews. Herod’s first response, according to verse 3, was to be troubled. The word used here (ἐταράχθη) indicates an extreme agitation of mind, distress, terror, dread and confusion. To use a phrase familiar in our day, he was at his wit’s end. He was in a crisis that had no solution. Having spent forty years protecting his throne, along came a new threat he didn’t even know about and it was announced to him by, of all things, eastern magi. The eastern realms had already forced him to seek refuge in Rome once before, and here they are again announcing the end of his kingdom.
But our text says it was not just Herod who was troubled. All Jerusalem was troubled with him. No reason is given for the city’s turmoil, but considering the fact that Herod believed no sacrifice was too great to maintain his control — not even the executions of his wives, sons and brothers — and that he was disposed to intolerable cruelty, it’s very likely that the people feared a new wave of brutality that the visit of the wise men might unleash. Their fears, as we know looking back on the story, were more than justified.
Sadly, Herod’s response to the announcement of the new King is exactly what we would have expected from him. He carefully sought out information that would help him identify the one who threatened his kingdom.
First, he wanted to know where this new King was. So, he gathered together all the chief priests and scribes of the Jews. If anyone would know the location of the Messiah’s birthplace, they would. The chief priests, which included both the high priest as well as the heads of the Levitical families, were the religious leaders of the day. The scribes were experts in the Old Testament Scriptures. Herod asked them where Christ would be born, and they identified his birthplace as Bethlehem of Judea. Their opinion was drawn from several passages of Scripture, the most obvious of which is Micah 5:2, which specifically mentions Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Ruler of the Jews. However, the last phrase of verse 6 comes from II Samuel 5:2, where the men of Israel sought David to be their king and assured him of God’s favor. David, whose kingdom foreshadowed the Messiah’s, was also born in Bethlehem. Isaiah 9:6–7 was probably also in their thinking, since it describes the greatness of the Prince of Peace’s reign: Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever.
Next, Herod wanted to know the new King’s age. The best way to determine this was to ascertain when the star first appeared that led the wise men to Jerusalem. So he met with the wise men secretly and asked them when the star appeared. Matthew did not record their answer, but the fact that Herod killed all the young boys in Bethlehem under two years of age according to what the wise men had told him (v. 16) suggests that the star had appeared no more than two years earlier.
In addition to this, there are at least two other indications in our text that Jesus was no longer an infant when the wise men came to see him. For one thing, Matthew consistently refers to Jesus not as an infant (βρέφος), but as a young child (παιδίον). The same word appears in verses 8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 20 and 21. Further, according to verse 11, the wise men found Jesus in a house, not in a stable. Enough time had passed for Jesus and his family to settle in a home somewhere near his birthplace.
In a sense, we can say that the visit of the wise men is really a post-Christmas story, but that’s only partly true. It is also a Christmas story as well. It shows that Jesus came into the world to reign over a kingdom that contrasted with all the kingdoms of the world — a kingdom characterized by love, peace and joy. His is a universal kingdom in which he governs all the nations of the world according to the sovereign pleasure. His is an omnipotent kingdom that even hell itself cannot defeat, even when its king is only two years old. In our text, hell is represented by the Pharaoh-like King Herod, who like his ancient Egyptian counterpart tried to kill the Jews when they threatened his reign. Under Herod’s infamous reign, the scepter was departing from Judah (Gen. 49:10), but it returned with even greater glory and power in the kingdom of Jesus Christ. In fact, the purpose of every word in Matthew’s gospel is to show that Christ is King.
And finally, Herod wanted to know who the new King was. He sent the wise men to Bethlehem, told them to find the young child and then to let him know so that he might join them in their worship. But, of course, his kind of “worship” was not exactly what the wise men had in mind. After the wise men, who had been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, left by another way, Herod massacred all the children in Bethlehem that were under two years of age. He had pretended to be interested in the Messiah only to suit his own purposes.
Sadly, this is the way worldlings celebrate Christmas, too. They sing Christmas carols, exchange gifts and Christmas cards while pretending to honor the KIng, but when Christmas is over they either act like Christ never came or they oppose everything that he came for. The same people who spend tons of money to celebrate Christmas distribute contraceptives in the schools, fight against student-led Bible studies, and make sure that concerned parents do not have access to their minor children’s health records. By their actions throughout the year, they massacre Christ time and again in their thinking. And they foolishly believe that they are winning!
Did Herod win? No way! The results of his kind of worship are evident in the manner of his death, which is only a faint shadow of the unending misery that he will suffer in hell. Listen to Josephus’ account of Herod’s sickness that eventually resulted in his demise. He wrote,
But now Herod’s distemper greatly increased upon him after a severe manner, and this by God’s judgment upon him for his sins: for a fire glowed in him slowly, which did not so much appear to the touch outwardly as it augmented his pains inwardly; for it brought upon him a vehement appetite to eating, which he could not avoid to supply with one sort of food or other. His entrails were also exulcerated, and the chief violence of his pain lay on his colon; an aqueous and transparent liquor also settled itself about his feet, and a like matter afflicted him at the bottom of his belly. Nay, farther, his privy member was putrified, and produced worms; and when he sat upright he had a difficulty of breathing, which was very loathsome, on account of the stench of his breath, and the quickness of its returns; he had also convulsions in all parts of his body, which increased his strength to an insufferable degree. It was said by those who pretended to divine, and who were endowed with wisdom to foretell such things, that God inflicted this punishment on the king on account of his great impiety; yet was he still in hopes of recovering, though his afflictions seemed greater than anyone could bear.
In the end, Herod was unable to protect himself or his kingdom. His feigned worship of the King of Kings only increased his misery.
The Worship of the Eastern Magi
Now let us turn our attention to the wise men, who did not come to see Jesus out of self-interest but because they wanted to worship him in spirit and in truth.
But the visit of the wise men immediately raises a question: who were they? The KJV calls them wise men because they served as advisers to eastern kings. However, they were not themselves kings (contrary to the Christmas carol We Three Kings).
We do not know how many wise men there were. The traditional number is three, but this is based mostly on the number of gifts mentioned in verse 11 — the gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Roman Catholic Church also claims to have the three bodies of the wise men (whom they call Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar) in Cologne, Germany. On the other hand, a few early sources claim that there were actually twelve wise men. We really have no way of determining their number. If we had needed to know this, God would have revealed it to us.
But we do know some things about the wise men. The word used throughout our text is μάγοι, from which we get our words magi and magic. The wise men were magi or eastern astrologers who foretold the future by the stars. They were also active in other occult practices like soothsaying, sorcery, interpreting dreams, explaining omens and predicting events by using sticks (a practice known as rhabdomancy). It was no doubt their interest in astrology that occasioned their trip to Jerusalem, but there must have been more to it than that. Verse two says that they specifically saw his star while they were still in the east. They interpreted his star as a sign of the Messiah’s arrival. There was nothing demonic about this. Remember that the Jews have had significant contact with eastern people over the years, especially during the Babylonian Captivity. It’s very possible that the Jews may have told their captors some of the Old Testament prophecies, e.g., the prediction in Numbers 24:17 that there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth, or Daniel 9:24 which gives the timeframe for Christ’s coming. When they saw an unusually brilliant star, they assumed that these and perhaps other prophecies had been fulfilled.
In addition to this, Matthew’s description of the wise men is extraordinarily impressive. According to verse 9, they followed the star to Bethlehem because they believed that it would identify the exact location of the new King. And not only did they follow the star, but the next verse says that they rejoiced with exceeding great joy when they saw it. In other words, they weren’t just happy to see the star. They were elated, exuberant and overwhelmed with joy. Verse 11 adds that they fell down before Christ in recognition of his greatness, worshiped him just as they had planned to do and gave him their most valued treasures. These statements are especially strong in the original. For example, Jesus used the same word translated here as worshipped (προσεκύνησαν) when he said to the devil, It is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve (v. 10). Worship is the prerogative of God alone. And the word translated presented (προσήνεγκαν), found frequently in the Septuagint in reference to offerings brought to God, is used exclusively with this sense in the New Testament. Putting these two thoughts together, we conclude that the wise men did not honor Christ merely as another earthly monarch but as God manifest in the flesh. Their gifts recognize him as the King of Kings.
How fitting that the acknowledgment of Christ’s divine kingship should come from non-Israelites! It shows that his kingdom extends beyond the borders of Abraham’s descendents and reaches the ends of the earth. There was a hint that this would be so in Christ’s genealogy in the previous chapter, where two non-Israelites, Rahab and Ruth, figure prominently. Later in his gospel, Matthew develops this point even more. By the time we come to the end of chapter 21, he even records Jesus saying, the kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof (v. 43). The wise men testify to the opening up of God’s grace to the Gentiles on a much larger scale.
The entire Old Testament looked forward to the blessings of Abraham being given to the nations. God promised Abraham, And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed (Gen. 12:3). Psalm 72:10 predicted that the kings of the earth would humble themselves before David’s Son. David wrote, The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts. Likewise, Isaiah the prophet wrote, And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. Lift up thine eyes round about, and see: all they gather themselves together, they come to thee: thy sons shall come from far, and thy daughters shall be nursed at thy side. Then thou shalt see, and flow together, and thine heart shall fear, and be enlarged; because the abundance of the sea shall be converted unto thee, the forces of the Gentiles shall come unto thee. The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the LORD (Isa. 60:3–6).
The wise men were privileged to be the first of the great multitude of Gentile believers who worshiped Christ as the incarnate God and as the King of the Jews. Their worship is filled with love, joy, hope and gratitude. Our worship should be filled with the same, especially since we have the advantage of having the complete revelation of Christ in the New Testament. He is our God and Savior, our prophet, priest and king. As one of our hymns says, “Come, let us adore him!”
The passage that we’ve looked at tonight is not about the wise men or the star that led them to Bethlehem or even Herod. It’s about Jesus Christ, and its purpose is to encourage us to worship him.
We are encouraged to do this, for example, by the numerous fulfilled prophecies that Matthew cites. He explicitly mentioned four of them in this chapter alone: Christ’s birthplace in verse 6, his Egyptian exile in verse 15, the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem in verse 18, and his sojourn in Nazareth in verse 23. In addition to these, there are other prophecies that are simply alluded to, such as the calling of the Gentiles, which we see illustrated in the visit and worship of the wise men. These fulfilled prophecies testify to the fact that God is doing exactly what he said he would do to secure our redemption. The Word of Scripture is decisive. We therefore have greater cause to rejoice with exceeding great joy than even the wise men did.
Even Herod’s hatred of Christ gives us reason to worship him. Now, this might seem like a rather odd thing to say, but it is true for several reasons. For one thing, his Pharaoh-like animosity reveals his seed-of-the-serpent mentality, which had to be crushed underneath the foot of the Son of God. The second Psalm talks about this, observing that God’s Son, the reigning King, would use the heathen and the uttermost parts of the earth to fulfill his purposes. God calls the kings of the earth to kiss the Son, that is, to worship him just as the wise men did, in order to avoid his fierce wrath. Moreover, Herod’s fear and insecurity moved him to seek the Messiah by consulting the Word of God. He didn’t do this because he wanted God’s salvation, but to kill his rival. He was unsuccessful, but the fact that he sought him again helps to identify Jesus as the true King.
And finally, throughout our text (in fact, throughout the entire second chapter of Matthew) we see Jesus Christ arranging all things for his own glory. Even as an infant, he was undefeatable. Yet, his purpose goes beyond this. He worked out all the details of our salvation before the world was ever made. He is, after all, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (I Pet. 1:20; Rev. 13:8).
The same Word that summons the kings of the earth to bow before Christ requires you to do the same. Christmas is a time when all men say, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him, but few worship him for the right reasons or in the right way.
May the Spirit of God give each of us grace to worship Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh, as our eternal King and blessed Redeemer. Amen.
 Antiochus IV Ephiphanes, the ignominious Syrian ruler of the second century BC, did the same. Cf. I Macc. 1:60–61; II Macc. 6:10; 8:4.
 Antiquities 17.6.5.