Numbers 24:15-19; Matthew 2:1-12
January 7, 2018 • Download this sermon (PDF)
Last Sunday, our New Testament reading was also from Matthew 2 the first seven verses. We looked at the wickedness of King Herod, who was a prime example of the wicked man in Psalm 10. He was arrogant and godless, full of lies and curses, and murderous. In his jealous rage, he ordered the massacre of all infants in Bethlehem two years old and younger. Today, our text includes the first 12 verses of Matthew, but we will focus on the gifts the wise men brought as they relate to the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Who haven’t seen Christmas pageants and nativity scenes where Jesus lay in a manger surrounded by Mary and Joseph, angels, shepherds, cows and sheep, and the wise men? But there are many things in these depictions of the birth of Jesus that are not in the Bible and are purely grounded on “tradition.”
In the Christian calendar, yesterday, January 6, marks the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, particularly to the “wise men from the east.” One of the most popular hymns to commemorate this event is “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” And one of the many misconceptions in the Christmas narrative concerns the “wise men from the east.” In 1857, John Hopkins Jr., an Episcopalian minister, wrote “We Three Kings” for a Christmas pageant in a seminary in New York. Hopkins called the wise men “kings,” but they were called “wise men from the east” in Matthew 2:1. In the original Greek, the word used is magoi, a word used in the Persian religion Zoroastrianism that refers to “wise men” consulted by ancient kings for interpreting dreams, omens, signs and the stars. As early as the 5th century B.C., the historian Herodotus mentioned the “magi” or wise men.
“Wise men” were already mentioned in the Old Testament. In the 14th century B.C., when Moses went before Pharaoh of Egypt, Moses cast down his staff and it became a serpent. So in Exodus 7:11, Pharaoh called “the wise men and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts,” and they also turned their staffs into serpents. In Numbers 22, Balaam, who was probably from Babylon, was hired by the King of Moab to curse Israel. He was one of these “wise men” who were actually diviners, seers, magicians, or astrologers. In the New Testament, in Acts 8:9, Philip met a man named Simon, who was a magus, or one who “practiced magic.” In Acts 13:6, the apostle Paul encountered Elymas, who was also called a magus, or a “magician.”
But were they kings? In ancient writings, there were wise men who had royal status. Joseph was made the Prime Minister of Egypt after he exhibited that he was wiser than all the Egyptian wise men, so that Pharaoh praised him, “there is none so discerning and wise as you are” (Gen 41:28-31). Daniel was made the “chief over all the wise men of Babylon” (Dan 2:48). The second century theologian Tertullian considered the wise men as kings, citing Psalm 72:10–11 as a praise to the coming Messiah, “may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!” and Isaiah 60:6, “A multitude of camels shall cover you . . . They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD.” The parallelism with Matthew’s account of the wise men from the east with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh is striking.
And how did the number of the wise men become three? The number comes from the three gifts they brought. The Roman Catholic Church even adopted the tradition of naming them Melchior from Persia, Gaspar from India, and Balthasar from Babylon or Arabia. They claim that they were martyred for their faith, so they were conferred sainthood, and January 6 became the “Feast of the Three Kings.” But these things are not found anywhere in the Bible.
The wise men brought the Child Jesus three gifts befitting his Person and Work as the Messiah or Christ. And the Person and work of this Messiah demand worship by all people, so the wise men came to worship him.
Worship Him as the Light of the World
The wise men traveled from Persia or Babylon to Jerusalem, through all kinds of terrain and weather imaginable. We don’t know how long it took them to travel about 600-800 miles, but it could have been a few months. So manger scenes with shepherds and wise men cannot be real.
They knew that the “king of the Jews” had been born because they saw “his star.” Countless theories have been proposed as to what kind of star it was, including: a comet, a conjunction of planets, or a conjunction of stars. But the proposal that this star was an entirely new star is most convincing. If this was a star they see in the heavens day after day, how would they have known that it is the star announcing Messiah’s birth?
This new star signified to the wise men what they might have been waiting for: the fulfillment of the prophecy by the diviner Balaam, who was controlled by the Spirit of God. In Numbers 24:17, he said, “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” This Star will give light to the Jews who live in a darkened nation of unbelief and rebellion against God. And he will also be a King who would destroy his enemies.
How would the wise men have known the prophecies about this coming Light and King? What about its timing? The Jews had waited for 400 years, and even they did not know. Remember that the Jews were exiled in Babylon for 70 years after they were conquered in 586 B.C. And even after the Persian king Cyrus later allowed them to return to Israel, only 50,000 did. The rest stayed and made Babylon and Persia their home, including Esther who became queen, for over five centuries. The wise men might have learned about the coming of the Messiah from these Jews. As for the timing, they might have learned the prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27 that “an anointed one, a prince,” the Messiah or Christ, would appear after about 500 years from the return of the exiles. That would put His appearing during the time of the wise men.
Notice also that the wise men sighted the star twice: first in their homeland, “in the east”; then after they arrived in Jerusalem, “the star that they had seen in the east went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was” (Matt 2:9). This star is not only new, it is one of a kind in the universe. What kind of star would come to rest over a specific house? Also note that the star did not guide the wise men on their journey from Babylon to Jerusalem. Rather, they knew that he would be born “king of the Jews,” so they went to Jerusalem. They were only guided by the star from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
Worship Him as Eternal King
The wise men brought three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold is the most precious of all metals that is fit for kings. The amount of gold a king possesses indicates his riches and power. King Solomon might have hoarded 800 tons of gold (1 Kgs 10:14), which would be valued at $29 trillion today! The Jewish chief priests and scribes confirmed to Herod that a king would be born in Bethlehem, “for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (Matt 2:6). But the “riches of the glory” of Christ the King is “unsearchable” (Rom 9:23; Eph 3:8) and “of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:33).
One of the earliest prophecies about this coming King is found in Jacob’s declaration about his son Judah, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah.” This was fulfilled when David became king and God made a covenant with him, “Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam 7:16). The Lord commands David, “Rule in the midst of your enemies!” (Psa 110:2). David’s rule ended after his death, but Jesus the Son of David will rule over his enemies forever, because he lives forever.
Jesus himself affirmed that he was this king, when at his trial, Pilate asked Him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered, “You have said so” (Matt 27:11-12). And on a placard above his head as he hung on the cross was written the charge against him, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” (Matt 27:37). But when he returns from heaven, “he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” as King of kings and Lord of Lords (Rev 19:15-16).
As our eternal King today, Jesus “governs us by His Word and Spirit, and defends and preserves us in the redemption obtained for us” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 31; Psa 2:6; Matt 28:18-20).
Worship Him as Eternal Priest-God
Frankincense is a fragrant gum and had many functions in Israel’s worship. As it was burned, its smoke symbolized the prayers of the people ascending to God (Psa 141:2; Rev 8:4). It was mixed with oil used to anoint the priests of Israel. It was also blended into food offerings that were brought by the people to the high priest as thanksgiving to God. And incense emitted a pleasant aroma (Lev 2:2), and as such also looked forward to Jesus’ “fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2). So it symbolizes the deity of Jesus, as well as his Priesthood.
But while used in many thank offerings, incense was never used for sin offerings, reminding us that Jesus was the final Priest and Sacrifice without blemish or spot (Heb 9:14; 1 Pet 1:19). And since he was the only sinless human being who ever lived, it is fitting that frankincense was given to him.
Like the shepherds and the wise men, we are to worship Jesus the Child given to us, for he is called the Eternal God in the prophecy of Isaiah 9:6, “his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” In John 8:24, Jesus calls himself God, saying in John 8:24, “unless you believe that I AM– [no he] – you will die in your sins.” “I AM,” or Yahweh, is the covenant name of the LORD God of Israel in the Old Testament. Paul affirms that Jesus is fully and truly God in Colossians 2:9, “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” And the writer of Hebrews says of Christ as God and Eternal King, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom” (Heb 1:8).
Worship Him as Our Perfect Sacrifice
The last gift mentioned is myrrh. Myrrh is a rare and expensive perfume imported from Arabia and Greece. The psalmist describes the king’s robes at his wedding as “all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia” (Psa 45:8). But myrrh is not only used as perfume; it is also used as an embalming spice. At the burial of Christ after he died on the cross, it is one of the 75 pounds of spices brought by Nicodemus to embalm his body (John 19:39-40).
Myrrh was also used as an anesthetic, a kind of a numbing agent. When Jesus was about to be crucified, Roman soldiers offered him “wine mixed with myrrh” so he would not suffer much (Mark 15:23). Knowing that he would lose feelings in his body, he refused to drink this bitter wine as his mission was to endure all the hellish sufferings that we would have had to suffer as sinners.
Jesus is our Priest-Sacrifice, “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins… he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb 10:11-14). Now in heaven, he continues to intercede and mediate for his people in the presence of God on our behalf (Heb 9:24).
Dear friends: Gold for a King, frankincense for a Priest-God, and myrrh for a Sacrifice. The wise men most probably did not know that the star pointed to the Child who would be the King, Priest-God, and Sacrifice for them and for all his people. But the Holy Spirit put in their hearts to bring gifts to the Child that would symbolize his Person and his work.
All of these precious gifts are fitting for One who was rich in heaven but became poor on earth for your sake. But through the Holy Spirit, Jesus also gives you gifts – all spiritual gifts in the heavenly places – so that you may also be kings, priests and sacrifices to God. You are kings because “with a free conscience [you] may fight against sin and the devil in this life” (HC 32; Eph 6:12) You are priests and sacrifices because you are enabled to “present yourselves a living sacrifice of thankfulness to Him” (Rom 12:1-2; HC 32).
Because you are partakers of Christ and his anointing, he also gives you his own “treasures of wisdom and knowledge” – treasures from the Scriptures (Col 2:3). In the new heaven and new earth, he will also give you all the treasures he has in store for you. All because he has fully and perfectly accomplished his work as your King, Priest-God and Sacrifice. And in eternity, you will sit with Christ on his throne and “reign with Him over all creatures” (Rev 3:21; HC 32).
Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy in Psalm 72:10–11, “may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!” The apostle John also prophesies about the new heavens and new earth, “By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Rev 21:24).
Therefore, together with the Apostle Thomas, let us worship Jesus, saying, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). He is our God-Priest, Eternal King, and Perfect Sacrifice.