O Captain, My Captain

Last week, at the end of Matthew 1, we read about the birth of Jesus, which we discover in chapter 2 took place in Bethlehem, which is about 5 miles south of Jerusalem.

If you will look at the map, notice the red circle.

Jerusalem and Bethlehem map

The focus in Matthew 2:1-12 is the famous appearance of the Magi, sometimes referred to as the Wise Men.

There are some important lessons for us to learn from the Magi—lessons that begin with questions.

  • Who were the Magi?
  • Why did they take such a long, dangerous, inconvenient, and expensive journey just to see a baby?
  • Why were they willing to risk the wrath of a ruthless king by defying his orders to report to him the location of the child?

Let’s find out.

 

VERSE 1

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem…

Jesus has been born in Bethlehem, which was called “the city of David,” because David, Israel’s most famous King, had been born in Bethlehem around 1040 B.C. as the youngest son of a man named Jesse, who was a member of the tribe of Judah. [1]

By the time Jesus is born, Judah is under Roman occupation and governed by a regional governor, or king, named Herod.[2]

While Herod was known for overseeing a number of major construction projects in Jerusalem, he also had a reputation as being paranoid and ruthless about protecting his position, going so far as murdering his own wife, several sons, and other relatives. [3]

It is this wrathful disposition that will be revealed later in the narrative.

In addition to Herod, Matthew mentions the Magi. Our English word for the Magi comes from the Greek, magoi.

In the ancient world, Magi belonged to a group of scholars from Persia and Babylon (modern day Iraq and Iran) who studied the movements of the heavenly bodies and applied these signs in the skies to the interpretation of events upon earth.[4] Essentially, they were astrologers.[5]

If you look at the map, you will get an idea of the route the Magi would have taken from Babylon to Jerusalem.

Map of Magi Route.png

According to tradition, three Magi traveled to Bethlehem. But the Bible actually does not say how many there were.[6] Most likely there would have been quite a caravan in order to carry all the supplies needed for a journey that easily could have taken 3-4 months or even longer.[7]

The main question for us is this: Why did they travel to Jerusalem?

We find out in verse 2.

 

VERSE 2

2 and they [the Magi] asked [King Herod], “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.”

It is important to note that while Herod was only half Jewish, the Roman senate given him the title “king of the Jews.”[8]

Herod knew he wasn’t the rightful heir to the Davidic throne and the Magi were claiming that the rightful heir recently had been born. The Magi assumed the child would have been born to the king, Herod, or in his family, which is why they went strait to him to inquire about where the baby was? [9]

While outwardly composed, Herod inwardly is freaking over this news.

This raises another question.

How would the Magi have known that a star in the east would signal the birth of a new King?

If you know your Old Testament history, you may remember that the Jewish inhabitants of Judea were enslaved by a foreign people from Mesopotamia in 586 B.C—the Babylonians.

Scholars like Magi would have been incredibly interested in the sacred religious texts that the Jews would have brought with them into captivity, even if just for intellectual interest.

What they would have read in the texts of the Old Testament spoke of a prophecy from a fellow Mesopotamian named Balaam, who in the book of Numbers 24:17, proclaimed, A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” [10]

As observers of the sky, the appearance of a star that had been predicted over 1,000 years before would have compelled them to risk life and fortune in order to see with their own eyes the fulfillment of such an ancient promise. [11]

This was a once in forever opportunity.

Herod was not so thrilled.

 

VERSE 3

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.

Craig Blomberg suggests that the translation “disturbed” is too weak of a translation for how Herod was feeling and that something like “he was in turmoil” or “terrified” or “greatly agitated” would be more accurate.[12]

Herod felt his position and rule being threatened.[13] Not just the title, but the perks and the reputation—his image and status as King. He may even have feared for his life.

Apparently, news spread quickly about the birth of a Jewish King.

Why the rest of the city shared his emotional reaction is not quite clear.

It may have been the uncertainty of what Herod’s mental turmoil would mean for them. How far would he go to protect his reputation and position?   

How far do we go? We all have thrones we try to protect, don’t we. Whether thrones as parents, thrones in our marriages, academic thrones, athletic thrones, thrones in the workplace. What lengths do we go to cover up, to deflect, to defend, excuse, shift blame, lie, cheat or steal? Or achieve a throne?

It wouldn’t be long before the residents of Jerusalem would discover how alarmingly far Herod would go to protect his throne.

So…

 

VERSES 4-6

4 Herod called together all the chief priests and teachers of the law,

The chief priests gave oversight to temple activities while the teachers of the law, also called scribes, were the official interpreters of the OT.[14]

[Herod] asked them where the Christ [“the Messiah”] was to be born. 5 They replied, “In Bethlehem in Judea, for this is what the prophet has written: 6 “‘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.’”

The quote about Bethlehem in verse 6 is from the Old Testament prophet, Micah. In 930 B.C. the Kingdom of Israel divided into north and south. Israel in the north (which fell to the Assyrians in 722 B.C.) and Judah in the south (which fell to the Babylonians in 586 B.C.). Micah prophesied around the time of the Northern Kingdom’s fall in 722 b.c. Through Micah, the Lord gives a promise of hope in a coming ruler/shepherd who will bring restoration. It is in this context of hope that the words quoted by Matthew are written in Micah 5:2 of a great ruler,[15] a ruler taken by pre-Christian Jews as a Messianic promise—which was fulfilled in the incarnation of Jesus.[16]

But he wouldn’t only be a ruler. He would be a shepherd, a metaphor that Jesus applies to himself in John 10, saying “I am the Good Shepherd, who lays his life down for his sheep,” alluding to his substitutionary death for the sins of his people that would take place on a cross.

But Herod didn’t want to wait until the cross. He had in mind to eliminate the competition before he could walk.

 

VERSES 7-8

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 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.”

Obviously, Herod had no intention of worshipping the child. He wanted to kill him—just as he had done to others whom he perceived as rivals to his throne.

Insecurity led to a violent plan of self-protection.

 

VERSE 9

9 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.

The Magi likely followed this star like as a sailor follows the stars to get to his destination. [17] Yet the movement of the star suggests that it is not a natural phenomenon such as a comet, supernova, or conjunction of planets, but more likely was a guiding angel that appeared as a star, or perhaps some specially created heavenly phenomenon that had the brightness of a star.[18]

 

VERSES 10-11

10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.

One thing to notice about verse 11 is that the Magi arrive at a house, not a stable. While nativity scenes typically have the Magi by the manger, they actually were not present at the birth of Jesus but visited some time before Jesus’s second birthday.[19] This is why in our nativity scene at home, we’ve moved our Magi from the mantle to the kitchen. 😊

While the gifts[20] the Magi bring to Jesus may have had symbolic significance,[21] they certainly would have providentially funded Mary and Joseph’s upcoming exodus to Egypt with their son in order to escape Herod’s wrath.[22]

What stands out to me is the word “overjoyed.” The NIV translates the collective force of a four-word Greek phrase with the one word, overjoyed, which does capture the essence of their emotional reaction. Yet translations such as the ESV translate the entire Greek phrase, saying: the Magi “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy!”

We simply can’t exaggerate the exuberance of their joy.

Their worship was not muted. They were not just a going through the religious motions. They had anticipated seeing this long-promised and awaited King.

When they arrived, they received confirmation that their hopes were true.

And so they bowed down and presented him with costly gifts. Bowed to a baby!

I think it is instructive for us that the Lord, just like he used a prostitute to teach the Pharisee Simon about worship in Luke 7, uses pagan astrologers to teach us about true worship. To rejoice in our Savior—King with exceeding great joy!

This worshipful encounter with Jesus reveals how God had re-wired their souls.

They didn’t know everything about this Jesus (we know much more), but their allegiance to him is unquestioned.

 

VERSE 12

12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.[23]

They probably had to go out of their way, as the route they would have used to arrive would have been the most convenient and expedient. But it is not just the inconvenience they are being asked to endure, it is the very real danger of defying a “greatly agitated” and “disturbed” king who is known for executing his enemies.

Imagine the courage it took to show allegiance to the child by defying the king?

Like John Keating’s students in the film, Dead Poet’s Society—a story about a young, creative, and somewhat eccentric instructor of literature at an elite boarding school for boys.

With the now famous phrase, “Carpe Diem,” Keating, played by Robin Williams, inspires his students to read and savor the writings of some well-known, dead poets. Thus, the Dead Poet’s Society was born.

Eventually, Mr. Keating is fired from his position, as the stodgy school administration did not approve of his less-than traditional methods of instruction.

Upon threat of expulsion, the administration forces the students to sign a document that falsely implicates Keating in the tragic death of one of the students.

In the scene I want to show you, Mr. Keating has returned to gather his things from his office and is about to depart the school grounds.

What I want you to notice is how you respond emotionally to this clip. How does it make you feel?

How did that scene make you feel?

Maybe you are ready to stand up on the table and declare your loyalty to Jesus.

Maybe you feel ashamed. You identify more with the students who remained seated with their heads down, protecting their thrones and unwilling to risk position and reputation. Unwilling to show loyalty to the man who had invested in their lives so completely.

The only way we will have the courage to demonstrate such allegiance is to witness him, not protect his throne, but to give up his throne… to be expelled for those of us who haven’t stood. Those of us with our heads down in share are told to “look up,” not at a star but a cross, revealing to us the glory of grace–forgiveness, mercy, hope, peace, and joy. All for those who failed to stand.

In showing his allegiance to the Father’s plan, he didn’t stand upon a table.

He was nailed upon a cross. 

And because he was nailed for us, we are motivated and empowered to stand for him—on whatever table will give us opportunity, like the Magi, to show our allegiance to our Savior-King, Jesus.

 


[1] John Peter Lange and Philip Schaff, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Matthew (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 55.

[2] Craig Blomberg, Matthew, vol. 22, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 61–62. Herod’s rule lasted from 37 B.C. until his death in 4 B.C. This means that Jesus actually was born around 6 B.C. not in year 1 of our calendar. The dating confusion was caused by the switch from a Roman to a Christian calendar in the sixth century A.D., based on the faulty calculations of Dionysius Exiguus, who did not have accurate information about the time of Herod’s death.

[3] Craig Blomberg, Matthew, vol. 22, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 62.

[4] Wayne E. Ward, “Matthew,” in The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, ed. H. Franklin Paschall and Herschel H. Hobbs (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1972), 589.

[5] John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), Mt 2:2. The Magi would have considered the movements of particular planets, stars, comets, meteors, and other astrological phenomena to be signs or portents

[6] Louis A. Barbieri, Jr., “Matthew,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 21.

[7] The standard trade route from Babylon to Jerusalem would have been approximately 800 miles.

[8] Stuart K. Weber, Matthew, vol. 1, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 19.

[9] John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), Mt 2:8.

[10] Stuart K. Weber, Matthew, vol. 1, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 20.

[11] ESV Study Bible

[12] Craig Blomberg, Matthew, vol. 22, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 63.

[13] John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), Mt 2:4.

[14] ESV Study Bible

[15] Stuart K. Weber, Matthew, vol. 1, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 20.

[16] Craig Blomberg, Matthew, vol. 22, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 64. When we add the part of Micah’s prophecy Matthew left unquoted, we realize that the ruler in mind is no mere mortal, as the verse continues, “whose origins are from old, from ancient times.”

[17] Stuart K. Weber, Matthew, vol. 1, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 20.

[18] ESV Study Bible

[19] Craig Blomberg, Matthew, vol. 22, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 61–62. A comparison of vv. 7 and 16 suggests that perhaps one to two years have elapsed since Jesus’ birth. Verse 11 describes Joseph and Mary now living in a house, so they obviously have left their temporary lodgings described in Luke 2:7. From other historical materials we know that Herod died in 4 b.c.

[20] David Seal and Matthew M. Whitehead, “The Magi,” in Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016). The magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were well-known products of ancient Arabia (Matt 2:11; 1 Kings 9:28; 10:2; Job 28:16), suggesting they were from this region or from Babylon or Persia—all in the east. The gift-giving may be an allusion to Psalm 72:10–11 and Isaiah 60:6, which refer to foreigners bringing gifts in honor of God’s royal Son.

[21] Louis A. Barbieri, Jr., “Matthew,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 22. Some believe the gifts had further significance by reflecting on the character of this Child’s life. Gold might represent His deity or purity, incense the fragrance of His life, and myrrh His sacrifice and death (myrrh was used for embalming).

[22] ESV Study Bible

[23] The Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), Mt 2:1–12.

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