Message: Magi Making Much of Majesty | Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12 | Speaker: Stephen Choy
I have a theory that all basketball coaches have the same plan in selecting their teams because everyone I’ve played for would do a similar thing. Let me describe to you the worst time it happened. It was during tryouts for my high school team—I was in grade 11—a junior—and the coach, at the end of the tryout, stopped us and he said, “okay, I’m going to call out a few names, and if you’re called, I want you to stand.” So, he goes on to call out those names, and the guys he’s calling out are pretty good players. They weren’t the best ones, but we all thought they’d at least be second or third stringers.
But then something happens, as coach is getting to the end of his list, he goes, “Gentlemen, you played great today, I like what I saw—good tenacity, good athleticism, good mind for the game, but, unfortunately, I can only fill a roster of 15 guys, and you lot will not be a part of that 15. Now, you’re free to stay for the rest of the tryout, but you’re also free to go.”
From then on, every time coach stopped practice, I thought I was getting cut—we all did, but he never did it again. I’ve often tried to think about his motivations for this? Why cut decent players so early in the tryout for all of us to watch? And my answer, overwhelmingly, has always been to keep those of us who remained humble—to tell us this isn’t our team, it’s his. His gameplan was more important than individual talent.
Well, we’re in the second chapter of Matthew—pretty much right at the beginning—and the evangelist-gospel writer is about to pull a “coach” and separate those who he’ll call his people—his true worshippers—from those who think that they are. And it’s utterly surprising who makes the cut.
But there’s a purpose—a method to his madness in pulling an audible so early in the game—as we look at our text because I hope you’ve noticed that my last two sermons were information and fact heavy. They were filled with making us know with great intentionality who Jesus is and why he’s come, and, more than it being my intention, it was Matthew’s intention from the start, why? So, that when he gets to defining who belongs in the kingdom, they—you—we—might know that this isn’t and will never be our kingdom. It will be the King’s, and this King is not a trifling King. He wants us to know not only who He is, but how incredible it is to be allowed to enter into his courts.
He wants to ensure that those permitted entry are humble because they kneel before one who does not want to and will not rule over us like a vindictive or power-hungry tyrant, but as a humble King himself—one who would willingly condescend to live amongst us and then die for us. His kingdom will be filled with those who exhibit his character genuinely and fearlessly because he is the worthy one over all—worthy of our servitude—of our submission—of our praise.
This morning, Matthew invites us to come praise the humble King, but he also intends to warn us that in doing so, we come as those who belong. We are to ensure that worship is not due our selfishness or our vain ambitions but because of who he is and how he’s brought us in despite our best efforts to stay out. Come praise the humble King and do it rightly, first, by casting off worldly ambition.
1) In Order to Praise Him Rightly, You Must Cast Off Worldly Ambition
Read along with me in Matthew 2:1-8. TWoL: 1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men1 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.”
We find ourselves in Jerusalem, after our introduction to the person of Jesus in chapter 1, here, which is, historically speaking, the king’s city. It is the city, particularly, where the rule of David and Solomon was solidified. Jerusalem was thought to be the most important place in Israel’s history. And yet, in our text it’s become a shadow of its former self. The one who sits on the throne is not a descendant of David but a roman named Herod, or Herod the Great.
Now, King Herod was born in 73 B.C. and named king of Judea by Rome in 40 B.C. The reason why he was known as Herod the Great is because of his military and political exploits—killing contenders for his throne before taking it up and administering the rebuilding of the city, including the temple in 20 B.C. He was wealthy, politically gifted, ruthless, an excellent administrator, and an intensely loyal member of the Roman state.
This is why he is able to stay in power in Jerusalem for so long—from 40 B.C. until about 4 B.C., despite being a gentile. Normally, gentile kings wouldn’t last very long in this area because they would upset the people to the point that Rome would have had to step in and replace him with another after a short stint, but Herod was so good at his job that even his enemies admired him. Thus, it is no surprise that he was known by a third title during his reign—a title acknowledged by some of his superiors and, even some of his Jewish subjects—though not all. They called him “the king of the Jews.”
But as we all know, and as we’ll find out next week, King Herod also had a mean streak to him—one that was born of increasing paranoia that he would lose his power in his old age. This became apparent when he would target and persecute certain pockets of Jews who believed him to be a usurper of the throne. Or, even more so, in his killing of his own wife, a Jewish descendant, and at least two of his sons who he thought were conspiring to take his throne. He was a man who’d do anything—including killing anyone—to protect his power.
So, when these magi show up in Jerusalem at the height of his paranoia asking him, “where is he who has been born King of the Jews?”—and notice, the magi are not asking where is the one who has been born who is called the king of the Jews—it’s definitive and definite—where is he who has been born King of the Jews—there should be no surprise to us that this troubles Herod because everything that he holds dear comes under siege.
What’s more is that Matthew is creating an alignment here between Herod and the Jews—because as we’re told, when Herod hears the Magi’s question—it’s not only Herod that’s troubled, but the Jews become troubled as well. What does Matthew mean by the Jews being troubled? Well, it’s a direct parallel with Herod. Just as Herod is afraid of losing his power to someone who is the rightful heir to the throne, so too is Israel afraid to lose their safety net and their way of life as Jews under Roman occupation—made more precarious because of Herod’s increasing paranoia over them. They know that the Magi’s visit means he’s likely to go after those from whom the King of the Jews is born.
Here’s what’s astonishing in all of this because in verse 6 the chief priests and scribes tell Herod exactly what the Magi are inquiring about. They quote almost directly from Micah 5:2 and 2 Samuel 5:2—words that describe the coming ruler and deliverer of Israel from their exile—words that, when coupled together, tell us that this deliverer is not just another saviour figure but a King after the line of David.
These words ought to have sparked a fire of deep hope and anticipation in them, and yet it’s clear they aren’t listening! Why? Well, two reasons are likely impairing their senses. The first is that they’re blinded by fear of Herod and a desire to keep what little security they have. But even more dauntingly and secondly, it’s likely because the people who are asking for this King aren’t Jews. They’re Magi—outsiders who the Jews think know nothing about their Scripture, traditions, hopes, and expectations. In their preoccupation with Herod’s paranoia, they think that these Magi have nothing important to say to them.
And this is where Matthew’s genius is put on greatest display because these words from Micah 5:2 and 2 Sam 5:2 aren’t just true words, but they’re also words that condemn both Herod and the Jews. See, this quotation tells us that the world both overestimates its own importance while neglecting and undervaluing the role that God has to play in order for us to have any, true importance at all. So long as we make ourselves our own primary focus, the truth—the good news of the gospel—will always be unexpected and ignored. Bethlehem is a symbol of that which is unexpected—of that which has been ignored by the greater cities that surround it. And yet, in its worldly insignificance, God makes it eternally important by bringing from its midst the Messiah—the Saviour King.
But Herod is too hard of heart, like Pharaoh was before Moses, to hear the truth of the words and hears, instead, only their threat to his position. Even worse, Israel cannot see past its own sin and pride in a life wholly given to them by God in the first place. So, when that same God, intentionally, sends these unexpected messengers into their midst—just like he did before with his prophets—and just like he will with his own Son—they’re thinking more about what they stand to lose than about the greater gift that God desires to give them.
And the application for us seems clear, doesn’t it? That in order for us to give praise to God and his Saviour-King rightly, we must cast off every sense of worldly ambition so that we don’t miss that which is far greater. We have to see what’s right in front of us as we behold and unpack the Word of God—who, two thousand years ago, came incarnate—in flesh—to dwell among us, and in so doing, recognize that all we hold dear in this world means nothing unless we have him—unless he is the prize of our life.
More importantly, we must honestly ask ourselves the opposite truth: that if all we had was stripped from us, even in that nothingness, would we still confess that God in Christ is sufficient? This is so often what we lack in our minds and hearts, isn’t it? Not simply the truth that we are insufficient—sinful and wicked—but that in our insufficiency to save ourselves we fail to seek after the one who is wholly sufficient in himself to save us—to keep us—and to satisfy us. We fail to recognize that instead of being saviours unto ourselves, salvation has come to us.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that you should stop doing the work. I’m not saying that when you go to your jobs you should stop working hard, or, for those of you not working, that you’re supposed to stop striving for those things that God intends to give you. Rather, what I’m saying is that we are never to make those things the ultimate thing—our treasure—our goal. They are never to be the source of our hope and joy—and their potential loss is never to cause us so much fear that we forget about the one whose given all things to us. Didn’t get that promotion, that’s okay. Not being recognized for your selflessness at home, that’s okay. Why?
One evening, my wife came home from a discipleship meeting, back when we lived in Louisville, and she told me a story about the lady who was discipling her and a situation that came up with her kids at home. It turns out that she homeschools, and one morning, this lady’s daughter just would not cooperate with her—wouldn’t study. She didn’t know what to do. She’d done all the disciplining, told her that if she didn’t study, she wouldn’t be able to pass her test. But still, the little girl would not listen.
Then the father came home, and the mom told him about her day, and after hearing what she said and consoling her over how difficult it was, he went over to her daughter, sat by her, and asked her, “why is it that we study and do our absolute best to learn as much as we can?” And the daughter, having said this before, looked at her father and her mother, knowing where she’d gone wrong, and said, “because it glorifies God.”
This is what we have to get right, church—that what we do—is about having God and knowing he’s the prize—the joy of our lives. We do what we do to get closer to God. The things he gives us are simply additional benefits that, in their reception, increase our gratitude but, in their loss, change not our perspective and our love for him.
It is God who builds up and God who tears down, and if we’re merely focused on what he’s building and tearing down rather than on who is doing the work, then we’ll miss the point. If you are a Christian, and if you have grasped his sufficiency for you, then cast off the prideful sin and the ambition that you have for the world and for yourself. Cast off the fear you have of losing what cannot save you and cling to him who has.
2) In Order to Praise Him Rightly, You Must Be Held Captive to Wonder
Read along with me from Matthew 2:1-2 and 9-12. TWoL: 1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men1 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.” [. . .] 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.
I’ve said it previously that the overarching theme of Matthew is fulfillment through revelation and separation—that God has revealed the culmination of his plan for salvation history by sending his Son as the dawn of the end of the age, and through him, separating for himself his true, eternal people. But what exactly is it that will define those who are included in the kingdom from those who are not? It is our passage that helps us see the answer to this question as it compares and contrasts the two main parties that are described for us here: Herod and the Jews juxtaposed with the magi and Christ
But before I get ahead of myself, I need to answer the question of, “who are the magi?” Well, as we’re told, they’re men from the east. Given the word that Matthew uses to describe them and his knowledge of the Old Testament, it is likely that these men are gentiles come from one of two places: Persia or Babylonia—places where Israelites knew Magi could be found. And not only were magi known to the Jews in these places, but they were often seen as indecent, immoral people.
When we think of magi, we often think of the story in the book of Daniel when King Nebuchadnezzar has a dream, and he calls upon his magi to interpret the dreams, but they are unable to. In fact, it’s because of stories like these in Jewish history, that magi were usually seen as false prophets within Israel—students of astrology—men of faith in celestial things that were open to their own interpretation. They were not to be associated with, and, on some occasions in Scripture, we even see them being mocked by the Jews.
Yet, here at the start of his gospel, Matthew does something that would shock his Jewish Christian audience by showing them that a redefinition—a separation is taking place—and the people who are separated as the protagonists and antagonists are not the parties that they might expect. See, as I’ve already said in our first point, Israel, and Jewish culture as a whole, becomes identified with and represented by King Herod, who is a pagan gentile intent on securing his inheritance and position in the world. Israel, who has long assumed its position as those who are inside the kingdom of God, is now being equated with those who are outside of it—those who place their faith in things and not in God.
Still, the true surprise isn’t only in the displacement of insiders who are now outsiders but in who Matthew says replaces Israel—namely, those who aren’t simply respectable, expected outsiders but those who are outsiders to the extent of having been prior enemies, revilers, persecutors, and rejecters of God—not merely gentiles, but the worst of sinners. It’s these Magi from the east that see the star, who follow it, and who find Jesus—the one born King of the Jews. It’s the Magi—not Israel—that become associated with Christ.
And how is it that they’ve become associated with Christ? It’s through the very practice that the Jews made fun of—it’s through their study of something as silly as astrology that brings them to the Messiah. Now, don’t mishear me—I’m not saying go out and study astrology or other irreverent and silly myths. I’m saying that God takes the silly and irreverent—he takes the unexpected and unlikely—and he humbles us by revealing that he controls even those details of the world—that nothing is outside of his grasp and that no one is too lost for him to find and redeem.
He is Lord over both the external hypocrite and the internal fool. He is God over the older brother who wants to have things his way and the younger brother who spurns his responsibilities. He is the Saviour-King who does things his way to bring us out of our way.
Is this not emphasized in a supernatural, extraordinary way through God’s gift to the Magi in the star? Now, some get bogged down in their reading of this passage by attempting to answer what the star was. Was it a celestial event? Was it a scientific abnormality? Was it a divine being—perhaps the physical manifestation of an angel? Here’s the thing, no one can be certain exactly what it was, and to spend more time salivating over an answer that will not satisfy you over and above mesmerizing at what these words are saying to us is to do ourselves a major disservice. Because all of these words—for those who can read them with spiritually discerning eyes—will confess to you this is about God orchestrating and directing all things towards his intended and purposed ends.
It was his will to make it so that only these Magi could see the star. It was his will to lead them to Jerusalem first and speak to Herod and the Jews so that readers of the Bible back then and today might understand what God is doing to bring insiders out and to bring outsiders in. It was God’s will to make the star appear again to the Magi after setting the stage for a Pharaoh and Moses-like confrontation between Herod and Jesus to show how Christ will supersede even the ministry of Israel’s greatest leader.
It was God’s will to bring the star and cause it to rest exactly upon the place of the scepter—where Jesus dwelt—just as he did for the Israelites with a pillar of fire and cloud as he brought them into the Promised Land. Only in this instance, the Magi were led to the fulfillment of all God’s promises—not to land only and not to a King who will sit upon David’s throne only, but to the maker and ruler of heaven and earth himself. The one whose foot will crush the head of the serpent. The one whose heel might be bruised for us as he does so.
And all that is required of us in response to all of this grandeur—to all this sovereign grace—is that we be held captive to its wonder. See, these Magi, in being led to Herod, in seeing his impressiveness, in considering the vastness of his rule and reign, in hearing of the longevity and influence of his days, and perhaps, even in the temptation to think that he might offer them a reward for their faithfulness to him, as they leave his castle having beheld great things, it is clear to us, in their joy of seeing the reappearance of that star, that their hearts are unmoved by all of Herod’s greatness because they know something greater lies ahead.
Is this not a sobering reminder and challenge to us not to turn to the left or the right—to fix our eyes on the great prize of our Christ—to not get bogged down in our own sin, pride, and unbelief, leaving ourselves numb to the incredible mercy and grace of the cross? That great payment for an inheritance laden with streets of gold, mansions of glory, feasts fit for royalty, and better yet than all of these things, the fellowship of God himself forever.
In this, each of us must admit that we struggle not only with holding onto that grandeur but with remembering what was so grand about it all in the first place. Why? Because we let our sin distract us. We let that website consume us, that purchase fill us with jealousy, that name entice our hearts to slander. We allow that comment to empty our hearts of courage to speak truthfully. We permit that promotion to tempt us towards servitude to man and the world or that opportunity for praise to seduce our carnal desire for glory. Whatever it is, for some reason we forget about the sufficiency and the wonder of Jesus, and this story of Herod, the Jews, and the Magi is meant to instill in us again that wonder—not only confronting you with your sinfulness, your penchant to forget, and your need to confess your shortcomings, but also, and more importantly, of the God who has pursued you to the ends of the earth and who has not—who will not let you go.
Went to the aquarium with my son recently, and a comment was made by the people we were with that they had seen all of this before, but as they made that comment, all I could see was my son’s eyes. See, he’d been to this aquarium four or five times already, but it didn’t matter how many times we’d been there, his eyes were always filled with the same wonder, and it made me think if I still think of the grandeur of my God and his loving salvation of a sinner like me? Do I still consider the beauty of my Christ and the joy he’s afforded me at great cost to himself, or was I like the one making comments on the side, saying, “I’ve seen all this before?”
The thing that will, ultimately, separate the people of God from everyone else isn’t what they do, or in how much of the world they own, but in their being held captive to the wonder of God’s mercy and grace in their lives—that he might call them and beckon them to himself through the gift of his own Son bearing their sin upon the cross—that he might look upon them and show them his face. This humble Messiah is worthy of our praise, is he not? Let’s make sure that as we come to do that, we do it rightly—not as the world or our flesh tells or expects us to, but as those who have been brought from the outside in to behold on our hands and knees all that he is—our truth, our hope, our joy, our Saviour-King.