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 saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” 7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
In his book Is the New Testament Reliable? Paul Barnett pointed out a very interesting possibility related to the star of Bethelehem. He writes:
Every 805 years the planets Jupiter and Saturn draw near to each other. Astronomers have calculatedthat in 7 BC the two planets were conjoined three times – in May, September and December and that in February, 6 BC they were joined by Mars, presenting a spectacular triangular conjunction. It appears likely that the magoi, knowing the ancient star prophecy, on seeing the brilliant planetary formation, decided to visit Judaea to see the new king of the world. Incidentally, the Biblical record does not say there were three magoi.
In 1871 the astronomer John Williams published his authoritative list of sightings of Comets. Comet number 52 on Williams’ list appeared for seventy days early in 5 BC and would have been visible in the Middle East. Was this the “star” which guided the magoi? Why did Herod kill the boys who were two years old and younger? Could this figure be explained by the time in 7-6 BC when the conjunction of the stars appeared?
Time Magazine, in its cover story of 27 December 1976, commented that while “there are those who dismiss the star as nothing more than a metaphor…others take the Christmas star more literally, and not without reason. Astronomical records show that there were several significant celestial events around the time of Jesus’ birth.”
I find things like this interesting, natural explanations for miracles. Seen from the human and scientific perspective, perhaps there is something to it. But, of course, if this is so, then astronomical history would only be confirming what scripture said happened, not getting behind the event to the why of it. For that, only scripture can help. And scripture does give us the why of the event of the star: it is bound up in God’s loving and gracious giving of the Son for salvation and life to a lost world. The star is a signpost, yes, pointing the magi to Christ. Yet, it is more than that. It is also a sign of coronation, for the baby that was born is a King, a King, in fact, above all other kings. We will let this understanding of Christ as King guide us in our approach to the amazing events of Matthew 2.
Christ’s kingship is universal.
We note first that Christ’s kingship is universal. I do not mean “universalistic,” as in the idea that all will be saved. As we have said earlier, this is not a biblical idea. But it is universalistic in its offer and potential. All could be saved. The universality of Christ’s Kingship is symbolized in the coming of the wise men.
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 saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
These wise men are, of course, familiar figures to Christians, but who were they really? David Bentley Hart says of the wise men that they were magoi, “‘Magians’ (men of the Zoroastrian priestly caste of the Persians and Medes, largely associated in the Hellenistic mind with oneiromancy [the interpretation of dreams] and astrology)” and that the word magoi “is a word that never merely means ‘wise’ or ‘learned’ men.” In other words, we may call them “wise men” but that does not mean that they were mere sages, men possessing wisdom. They were more than that. These men were readers of signs and dreams and texts. They were understanders and interpreters.
But the text reveals more than that. It also reveals that they were men of great faith, for they made the long journey to Jerusalem. They not only saw the signs, they believed the signs and allowed the signs to spur them to movement and action. In this, they proved themselves to be “doers” and not merely “hearers” as James described it in James 1:
22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.
But we can say even more about these wise men. We can also say that they are emblematic, symbolic of the reach of God’s love and loving invitation. Early in the church’s life it was understood that the presence of the magi from the East was saying something about the universality of Christ’s coming. John Chrysostom said of the magi that “the Lord brought barbarians from a far country” and that thereby “the people first learned from a Persian tongue what they had refused to learn from the prophets.” Epiphanius the Latin wrote that the “magi are figures for all the nations (i.e., the magi represent the Gentiles).” The author of the early Incomplete Commentary on Matthew wrote that the magi “came as an exoneration of the Gentiles…since they foretold the coming faith of the Gentiles…” He then calls the magi “the first-fruits of the faithful from all the Gentiles” and, indeed, says that they “bore the image of the church that would soon be.”
This is a beautiful thought, and one that can be defended. The magi indeed speak of God’s reach and the scope of His love. That the first to enter Jerusalem and inquire as to the location of the Christ were Gentiles is a fact that goes well beyond coincidence. God was saying then and is saying now that His love and grace are for all people’s everywhere. The magi are a sign of that. These men come from far away because they realize that the Christ has Kingly authority over all people. There is also a challenge in this for us, for if the presence of the magi in Jerusalem speaks of how God had revealed Himself to those far away the blindness of those in Jerusalem to the reality of what was happening speaks of how those “closest” to God can sometimes miss the truth of God.
Primarily, however, let us see the note of comfort in this. Do you feel far from God, far away? Do you feel that you are on the outside looking in? Do you feel that you do not belong, that you are not “part of the club”? Take heart! The gospel invitation is for you! This Jesus is for you! Christ has opened the door for all to come, be they the Jews of Jerusalem, the magi of Persia, or you and me! You can come right now to Jesus!
Christ’s kingship is a threat to all other thrones.
For Herod all of this was quite troubling, as we read:
3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” 7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”
You have to give it to Herod: he rightly understands that if this baby was indeed a King and the promised King at that, his own position of power and, ostensibly, the positions of power for all who held them were threatened. Jesus offers hope to the lowly but He offers a challenge and threat to those who traffic in power and pomp!
W.H. Auden, in his poem “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” envisions what Herod might have been thinking at the prospect of the coming Christ. Herod shudders to think of what this will mean for the future of the world. And while some of what Auden proposes via Herod is a bit humorous, a good bit of it is spot on! Auden has Herod say this of the coming of Christ:
Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions… Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of schoolchildren ranked above the greatest masterpieces. Idealism will be replaced by Materialism. Life after death will be an eternal dinner party where all the guests are 20 years old… Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish… The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Age, when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.
Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen.
The last part of that in particular is truly insightful: pity and mercy did move onto the stage with the coming of Christ and hope truly was extended to “the rough diamond” and “the consumptive whore.” The coming of Jesus does in fact mean that “the epileptic girl who has a way with animals” is suddenly the “heroine of the New Age.” And, yes, “the general, the statesman, and the philosopher” are brought low from their lofty perches. Mary said much the same in her “Magnificat” from Luke 1:
46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
So, yes, Herod had reason to fear, as did and do all the mighty of the earth! The eternal throne of Christ is a threat to all other thrones! And yet, there was something else behind Herod’s trembling. The author of the Incomplete Commentary on Matthew made this point well so very long ago:
I think that Herod was not so much disturbed in and of himself as much as the devil who was in Herod. Herod was afraid because he had his suspicions, but the devil was afraid because he truly knew what was happening. Herod thought the king to be a man, but the devil knew him to be God. Already he had heard the angels crying aloud in heaven, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!” The more eyewitnesses were added on Christ’s behalf, the more the devil feared the destruction of his own power. Therefore, both of them were disturbed in their own fervor and feared the successor to their own kingdom according to their own nature: Herod feared an earthly rival, but the devil feared a heavenly one. Herod would not have been afraid if he had suspected that a heavenly king had been born; nor would the devil have feared if he had suspected that an earthly king had been born.
Yes! It is not merely that Christ’s coming was a threat to the earthly powers; it was also a threat to the spiritual powers. Satan trembled at the coming of Christ! And, to be sure, Satan was at work in and through Herod and the dastardly deeds he would exhibit.
It is likely that you might be reading this and experiencing some sort of abuse of attack by earthly or spiritual powers. This can take many forms and can manifest in our homes or schools or places of work or even, God forbid, in groups that call themselves “church”! Perhaps you are under attack and feel overwhelmed, afraid, and powerless. See in the trembling and troubled Herod hope for your soul: the powers of the earth and the air know that their days are numbered and that Christ the King will set all to right. Justice will be done, either here, now, or later—it will be done! The church rejoices as the powers quake for the King stands with and for His people!
Christ’s kingship receives a divine coronation.
And what a King this is! Our text reminds us that He is no mere earthly King. In fact, the evidence is here that this King is something special, something different, something bigger than the earth itself. I am speaking at this point of the evidence of the star itself.
9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
The star “rests over the place where the child was.” Earthly kings get a crown. The King of kings gets a star! Earthly kings get a palace roof over their heads. The King of kings calls the heavens His canopy. Subjects bow to earthly kings. The heavens declare the greatness of King Jesus!
The star was no mere astronomical phenomenon, whatever the history of the skies tell us. The star was an act of coronation, a dramatic statement that this child, Jesus the Christ, is Lord of Heaven and earth! Few people got at the drama of this so well as Charles Wesley when he wrote:
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new born King,
peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
join the triumph of the skies;
with th’ angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new born King!”
Christ, by highest heaven adored;
Christ, the everlasting Lord;
late in time behold him come,
offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
hail th’ incarnate Deity,
pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new born King!”
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
born that we no more may die,
born to raise us from the earth,
born to give us second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new born King!”
Ah, yes! Join the triumph of the skies! Look there and see: all creation stands in ready service to this child who is King and Lord of all! How amazing! How beautiful! What peace this gives to our hearts!
 Paul Barnett. Is the New Testament Reliable? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), p.122.
 David Bentley Hart, The New Testament. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), p.2.
 D.H. Williams, ed. and trans., Matthew. The Church’s Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018), p.25-26. Thomas C. Oden, ed., Incomplete Commentary on Matthew (Opus imperfectum). Ancient Christian Texts. Matthew, vol. 1. Trans. By James A. Kellerman. Ser. Eds., Thomas C. Oden and Gerald L. Bray (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), p.31.
 W.H. Auden, Collected Poems. Ed. Edward Mendelson (New York, NY: Random House, Inc., 1991), p.394.
 Thomas C. Oden, ed., Incomplete Commentary on Matthew (Opus imperfectum), p.34.