A Gift for God (Matthew 2:1-15)

A Gift for God (Matthew 2:1-15)

Introduction

We are all familiar with the story and song of the kings that visit Jesus shortly after his birth. In the song there are three of them. In most depictions the three kings are from three different ethnic groups and come from the west to present their gifts to Jesus shortly after his birth. In fact, based on the typical nativity scene, the barn animals, shepherds, the three kings, Yoseph, Miriam, and newborn Yeshua are all together for a moment.1 That is, based on the nativity scenes, there was a point in time when the shepherds from the field were at the manger with the three kings (hereafter wise men). At least that what they are selling me on Amazon.com.

Figure 1 – Amazon.com Nativity Scene

The real story is quite a bit different. Based on the Bible the shepherds and the wise men do not arrive on the scene at the same time. Not even close. If we consider the real story based on the Scriptures we can get the facts straight. More importantly, in what Luke records we can see four very valuable truths for us today. First, we can see God’s great and gracious love for the nations. Second, we can witness ungodly reactions to Yeshua’s right to reign. Third, we can view a principle concerning revelation and ministry. Fourth, we can see a principle of provision for those called to work for God. Fifth, the text is telling us in no uncertain terms what gift to give God.

God’s Great and Gracious Love for the Nations (Matthew 2:1-2; Daniel 5:11-12)

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, 2 saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”

Our story picks up after Jesus was born in Bethlehem. (Matthew may assume that his readership is aware of where Messiah was born. He is a Jew writing to Jews about a Jew. In any case, since he aims to prove that Jesus is Messiah, it supports the point he is making by mentioning for the first time in his narrative the place of birth.) To give us an idea of the time Matthew says that it was in the days of Herod the king.

Behold this sight, says the former tax collector. Into Jerusalem come a group prominent and influential Gentiles from Babylon. They are astrologers known throughout the region for their sorceries; officially they are employed to make sense of dreams and signs in the heavens. (The rabbis of the time do not think highly of them. The Sanhedrin regards the act of gathering information from the magi as a crime punishable by death.2) These men have come from afar looking for Someone. In fact, the men arrive asking a question: Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? Wow! The sight of a group of magi coming to town is wildly unusual. Their question, though, is unsettling. First, why do Gentiles believe the King of the Jews has been born? Second, why do they care? To answer the first question let us consider what they have seen and where they are from. We see in the text that these wise men have seen His star while watching from the East. That star was to them a heavenly indicator that Messiah had been born. To understand why they make this connection we have to look at the history of the Jews and ultimately the great grace of God.

Figure 2 – Balaam was so eager to make money that he trespassed against God (Numbers 22:22-33).

Why did these Babylonian wise men even correlate the birth of Jesus to the appearance of a star? To be sure, the connection between a star and the birth of Messiah was recorded in Torah. And it was actually revealed to an astrologer — Balaam. Although Balaam had been hired to curse the Jews by the king of Moab he was moved by God to make the following prophecy:

17 I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near;
A Star shall come out of Jacob;
A Scepter shall rise out of Israel,
And batter the brow of Moab,
And destroy all the sons of tumult.  (Numbers 24:17)

The Star and the Scepter of this prophecy are both recognized by rabbinical teachings as messianic. So, the special revelation of God to the Jews contains a clear and recognized connection between the appearance of a star and the rise of ruler that is Messiah and King of the Jews. But the fact that the Jews have this in their writings does not explain how Babylonian astrologers made the connection.

Let us not forget the deportation of Jews by Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar some 600 years prior to the birth of Yeshua (605 BC). Some of the Jews that were deported remained in Babylon long after their initial captivity and eventually came into seats of power and prominence (Brown, 1994, p. 169). Most notable among them was Daniel. Daniel was taken captive from Jerusalem when he was probably about 16 years of age. He was a young, good-looking, intelligent man with an uncompromising commitment to God (Daniel 1:1-6). After many trials and tribulations Daniel came to be a leader in the land where he was originally a captive in the royal court. Eventually this Daniel was promoted:

47 The king answered Daniel, and said, “Truly your God is the God of gods, the Lord of kings, and a revealer of secrets, since you could reveal this secret.” 48 Then the king promoted Daniel and gave him many great gifts; and he made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon, and chief administrator over all the wise men of Babylon. (Daniel 2:47-48)

Did you see that? An intelligent Jew with a heart to serve God, originally brought in as a slave, was put in charge of the wise men. In due time God made a Jew who loves God the president of the astrology college. Listen to the words of the queen when her husband King Belshazzar, the son of King Nebuchadnezzar, needed help interpreting a sign:

11 There is a man in your kingdom in whom is the Spirit of the Holy God. And in the days of your father, light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods, were found in him; and King Nebuchadnezzar your father—your father the king—made him chief of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers. 12 Inasmuch as an excellent spirit, knowledge, understanding, interpreting dreams, solving riddles, and explaining enigmas were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar, now let Daniel be called, and he will give the interpretation.” (Daniel 5:11-12)

Figure 3 – Pastor Pratt helping with a Christmas Tree Lighting in the community on Wednesday, 15 December 2021.

How did the wise men make the connection? And where did they get the information? The connection was made for them by a man of God. (Balaam was a contributor. But ultimately the record was kept officially by the Jews.) And the timetable was written down for them by a man of God. They have Daniel’s text book A Timeline of When to Expect Messiah and Balaam’s prior contribution What to Look for When Messiah Comes. What they did not have was the place where Messiah would be born. Not a problem, though. Just go to Jerusalem and ask.

Finally, why did they come? The ability to make the connection, in light of what has been shared, makes sense. But why make the trek? This reason is simple – to worship Him. We have to see that this also was based on Daniel’s influence. He would be given a vision of the Son of Man that revealed His relationship to God, the scope of His dominion, and the right response to His reign.

13 I was watching in the night visions,
And behold, One like the Son of Man,
Coming with the clouds of heaven!
He came to the Ancient of Days,
And they brought Him near before Him.
14 Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom,
That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion,
Which shall not pass away,
And His kingdom the one
Which shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)

Based on what they understood from their time under Daniel’s authority and teaching the coming Messiah is seated with God in authority, has an everlasting kingdom, and is worthy of worship from the nations. The only right response to the King of the Jews is worship. And thus we are introduced to the first thing that we must see in all of this.

What God Wants – God has been at working providing a witness for Himself to the nations (Isaiah 43:12; 44:8). Even in the miserable moments of captivity those whose lives belonged to God were being used to communicate the truth about the coming of the King. God’s grace is so great and unrelenting that He would use a remnant of His people as a witness even as they suffer for the ongoing wickedness of their nation’s majority. What does God want? In the midst of a mess you did not make God wants someone to make the most of every moment to magnify Him.

God was at work through the prophecy of Balaam and the captivity of Daniel to make Himself known to the nations. Through His leading and grace worldly spiritists were given the truth about when the Messiah would be born, what sign to look for, and the proper response.

Ungodly Reactions to Yeshua’s Right to Reign (Matthew 2:3-6)

3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:

6 ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;\
For out of you shall come a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.’ ”

Herodand all Jerusalem with him were troubled (from ταράσσωbe troubled; be disturbed. This word is used to communicate emotional distress. See Matthew 14:26 and Luke 1:12.) Why are they distressed? The idea that there were only three wise men is not part of the text. The distress of Herod and all Jerusalem indicates that the number was larger than three.

So there were at least two, but maybe there were twenty, or two hundred, or two thousand. There were enough to cause the whole city of Jerusalem to be tremendously stirred up (Mt. 2: 3), and this implies that, perhaps, there were considerably more than just three of them. (Fruchtenbaum, 2016).

The king is troubled because he is not the king of the Jews. In fact he is not a Jew but an Edomite. And he is unwilling to tolerate even the thought that someone might want the throne. Herod the Great kills his favorite wife (Mariamne) and three of his own sons (Alexander, Aristobulus, and Antipater) because he believes they are trying to replace him. Ultimately he is threatened by Yeshua’s birthright to reign.

The same is true of the religious leadership. Instead of being satisfied with the honor of stewardship they have coveted the things of God and have set their hearts on ownership of what belongs to the Son of God. They cannot be content to be vinedressers but would even kill the heir in order that the vineyard would be theirs (Matthew 21:38; Luke 20:14; Mark 12:7).

But let us not sit as judges of Herod and the rulers. Instead of condemning them for their criminal attitudes toward Christ we should examine ourselves. The hard questions, the ones we are reluctant to ask ourselves, and the ones for which we often do not want the answer are “In what ways am I like Herod? How am I similar to the people who should rejoice with the news of the Messiah in our midst but find themselves unsettled and even rejecting His right to reign in their lives.”

What God Wants – the realization that Jesus is just and holy makes me uncomfortable with Him coming into my life. The wickedness in me wants to keep doing my will and not His and rejects His right to reign in my family, in my friendships, in my finances, and in my faith. I find myself refusing to release a throne that belongs to Him and that I know He wants. God wants a willingness to give the Son His inheritance, authenticity about my own fallenness and need for a Savior.

The passage about Herod and the priests and scribes reveals ungodly reactions to Yeshua’s right to reign. In the former there is an immediate hostile rejection that will become manifest in a plot to kill the Son of God (Matthew 2:16-18). In the case of the priests there is disbelief and disinterest. They do not believe that anything of substance could be known or revealed by God to the Gentiles and they manifest a disinterest in giving up what they are doing to make ready for the The King of the Jews. Religious folk do this a lot. We talk about our desire to see Jesus come again but do little or nothing of substance to make ready for His return. In fact, we are sometimes found in the ongoing practice of things He does not like and are made to feel uncomfortable when people talk about His second coming. God wants us to admit that we have these issues and come to Him for healing (Matthew 13:15).

The Sinister Plot to Kill the King (Matthew 2:7-8; 16-18)

6 ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’ ” 7 Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared.

The sinful ruler, upon hearing that the real King of the Jews has arrived, begins concocting an sinister plot to eliminate Yeshua. To be effective in the elimination of his rival Herod has to gather some information. His goal is to develop a profile that can be used to target anyone that might be the actual King. Creating a good profile requires answers to two questions.

  • Target Region Question — Where was the King of the Jews born? With this question Herod is trying to narrow the geographical scope of a search. He is also attempting to mitigate the number of people that will have to be killed. It is not that he cares for the people. If he cannot minimize the number of people that have to be killed he will catalyze and invite scrutiny from Caesar Augustus that he would rather avoid.
  • Target Age Question — What time did the star appear? With the question Herod is determining the age of the Christ. This information can be used to decide which children will be put to death (Matthew 2:16-17).

Good religious people, even if they have no real interest in the Person or program of God, can give you some great information. They are full of it. Herod knew that the religious rulers could be consulted for the whereabouts of the birthplace of the King of the Jews.

To get what he wanted he called a secret meeting. Why was it a secret? I see two reasons. First, when people are up to no good they want to remain in the darkness lest their deeds come to the light and be clearly seen (John 3:20-21; Ephesians 5:11-13). Second, people who want to remain in control compartmentalize information so that no one but them has the big picture (Wikipedia, Compartmentalization). Third, because the Sanhedrin has made consulting with the wise men a crime punishable by death, Herod wants to avoid the appearance of conspiring with them to get information. He does not fear execution by the religious leadership but needs to mitigate the appearance of being altogether without regard for Jewish law and customs.

In that clandestine meeting with the religious leaders Herod is told that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem. The priests and scribes knew that much; this information had been provided by God through the prophet Micah over 700 years earlier (Micah 5:2). When King Herod got his information he was ready to put the next phase of his plot into action – use the wise men to get the exact location of the target. After all, they are really good at using information to find things. Let them finish the work they have begun and use the the results (Matthew 2:16-17). This brings us to the theme of this article.

What God Wants – What part am I playing? Am I a help to God as He brings the King and His kingdom. Or do I (1) harbor a wicked desire to remain in control, (2) have people thinking I am trying to help, while I (3) hinder the work, and (4) plot to harm the workers. God wants me to prayerfully and in light of His Scripture to consider what role I am playing in His work to tell the world about the Son.

This type of self-assessment is part of why the Scriptures were given to us. Instead of looking down over our noses at Herod, shaking our heads in disapproval at the priests, and condemning the other criminals we see in the pages. What does God want? God wants us to use these pages to come to Him with the hard questions about who we really are.

11 Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. (1 Corinthians 10:11)

The Principle of Revelation and Doing-it-Differently Ministry (Matthew 2:9-11; John 12:29; Acts 26:12-14; 22:6-9)

9 When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. 11 And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.  

The wise men, accustomed to working in the service of kings to get answers, departed in search of the Child. What happens next was unexpected even by them. The star which they had seen in the East went before them. This raises the question about what it is they were seeing. Was it an actual star? Even a rudimentary understanding of what a star is says that it was not. A fusion reactor based on the combining of hydrogen atoms to make helium atoms that was close enough to stand over where the young Child was… don’t make no sense. A literal star would incinerate Bethlehem, Judea, the continent, and the planet. So what was it? It was what had appeared around the angels to the shepherds and what had led the Jews in times of old at night — the shekinah glory of God.

Is it strange that only the wise men saw it? That is, does it seem odd that only the wise men could see what they called a star leading them to a particular home in Bethlehem? Not really.

For Your Eyes Only (Matthew 2:9-10)

  • Word of Encouragement for Jesus Alone 29 Therefore the people who stood by and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to Him.”  (John 12:29)
  • Calling for Saul Alone6 “Now it happened, as I journeyed and came near Damascus at about noon, suddenly a great light from heaven shone around me. 7 And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ 8 So I answered, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ 9 “And those who were with me indeed saw the light and were afraid, but they did not hear the voice of Him who spoke to me.  (Acts 22:6-9)

What God Wants – The principle is plain. Revelation is given to the worker for the work and not to the crowd for general consumption. As God is working in and through you to do something new it is often the case that others cannot see what you see. They are not supposed to. It is for your eyes and ears only. What you see or what He is leading you to will eventually become apparent. Until then you may have to accept the fact that your vision for a ministry, for a change in your church, for a different way of doing things is a gift of God for your eyes.

A mentor and good brother, Dr. Alejandro Mandes, shared this word with me years ago as I was starting a ministry. “Roderick, do not be upset with late adopters.” He was telling me that there are things that I would have a vision for that would not get the support I wanted when I started.

Part Ways with These People (Matthew 2:12) – Notice that God does not want the wise men to go back to Herod. What do you think Herod would do to them wants he got his information? God is not only graciously giving the Gentiles an opportunity to worship the King He is also protecting them from potential harm through those bent on preventing the good news or telling the truth about his dastardly deeds. Now we see why the meeting was kept a secret. By keeping the groups separate it would lessen the likelihood that they would have told the truth about what he was trying to do:

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more.”

A Principle of Provision for Those Called to Work for God (Matthew 2:13-15)

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.” 14 When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, 15 and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”  

The wise men have made it possible for Yoseph, Miriam, and Yeshua to make a break from the region. How? Their gifts were actually a provision for a poverty-stricken family. In the gold, frankincense, and myrrh are symbols and the things needed for a trip they are about to make. Concerning the symbols listen to Fruchtenbaum:

The wise men left behind three gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh (Mt. 2: 11). All of these elements have symbolic significance. Gold is the symbol of kingship; Yeshua is the King. Frankincense is the symbol of deity; Yeshua is God. Myrrh is the symbol of death and sacrifice; Yeshua is the final sacrifice for sin. While the first line of the popular Christmas carol, “We three kings of Orient are,” is not biblical, the last line is correct: “God and King and Sacrifice.” (Fruchtenbaum, 2016, Kindle Locations 7806-7810)

Figure 4 – What can you offer to God? What He really wants is unique – you.

In the text Joseph receives another special revelation. This is, this is the second time an angel appears to him in a dream. And it is the second time that we see on display the character of a man that can be used to raised the Son of God. Immediate obedience is what we saw when the angel told him not to be afraid to take Miriam as his wife; he arose and brought her to his home (Matthew 1:20-25). And now it is immediate obedience that we see in Joseph when it is revealed that God wants to make the Child and mother safe by getting them away from Herod.

What God Wants – Is it not obvious that God wants people that He can use to glorify Himself and help others? For families and society God wants men (and women) that can be counted on to immediately obey with the aim of promoting, protecting, and providing for others. While He can use them God does not need men of influence or affluence. The Almighty will provide what is needed for the worker to do the work.

Conclusion

In the opening of this not-so-brief posting I mentioned things that we would see. First, we have looked at the grace of God to the nations; He revealed His plan to bring His King into the world to those who were outside of the covenants. Hundreds of years before Messiah was born He would use Daniel in the misery of captivity to make His plan known to the Gentiles. Second, we have seen ungodly reactions to the revealing of the King. There was hostility in Herod and disinterest in the religious leadership. Overall we see in them what, if we are honest, we can sometimes see in ourselves – angst and apathy toward Yeshua’s right to reign. Third and fourth, we saw principles of ministry. Finally, as promised, I set before you what God wants as a gift — You. In all of this God makes it clear that He wants the freewill offering of yourself. While some are loathe to give Him this gift the wise men are luminaries and lead the way. In them we see a positive example and exhortation to give the gift of ourselves to the King. Out of our lives we give our time, our talent, and treasure to be used in His service.

 

 

In His grip by His grace,
Roderick L. Barnes, Sr.

Notes

1The names used here are spelled so as to be (1) closer to what they are in Hebrew and (2) the way the names would have been known by the original Jewish readership.

2 There were other similar crimes for which the Sanhedrin was also committed to sentence people to death. “As to the magianism, Rab and Samuel (differ thereon): one maintains that it is sorcery, the other, blasphemy. For R. Zutra b. Tobiah said in Rab’s name: He who learns a single thing from a Magian is worthy of death.” (Gruber, 1996, p. 180)

References

Amazon. (2021). Set of 14 Christmas 14 Inch Real Life Nativity Set Includes People and Animals, https://www.amazon.com/14-Piece-Christmas-Nativity-Set/dp/B00H53WGAC

Brown, Raymond E., S.S. (1994). The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1994).

Fruchtenbaum, Arnold G. (2016). Yeshua: The Life of Messiah from a Messianic Jewish Perspective – Vol. 1. Ariel Ministries.

Gruber, Daniel. (1996). Gruber, Rabbi Akiba’s Messiah and the Origin of Rabbinic Judaism (July 1996)

Wikipedia, Compartmentalization, Obtained 2021.12.27 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compartmentalization_(information_security)

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About the author

Roderick was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. His early years were filled with learning about Jesus through the local church; his grandfather was a pastor and his grandmother always encouraged him to love and serve the Lord. Although he was brought up in a Christian home it was not until his second year in college that he made a decision to place the treasure of his trust in Jesus Christ.

Since that time Roderick has been on the adventure of learning from Jesus and helping others to learn about him. Roderick and his wife Darlene reside in Texas. They have six boys, two grandchildren, and a strange border collie.