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Matthew 2:1-12

Wise Men Still Seek Him

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “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 shepherd my people Israel.’[b]”

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 search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 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, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.


Isaiah 60:1-6

“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
    and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
2 See, darkness covers the earth
    and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
    and his glory appears over you.
3 Nations will come to your light,
    and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

4 “Lift up your eyes and look about you:
    All assemble and come to you;
your sons come from afar,
    and your daughters are carried on the hip.
5 Then you will look and be radiant,
    your heart will throb and swell with joy;
the wealth on the seas will be brought to you,
    to you the riches of the nations will come.
6 Herds of camels will cover your land,
    young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
    bearing gold and incense
    and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.


Ephesians 3:1-12 

God’s Marvelous Plan for the Gentiles

For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—

2 Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. 4 In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. 6 This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

7 I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. 8 Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, 9 and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. 10 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11 according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.

The Story of the Maji in Matthew

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “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 shepherd my people Israel.’[b]”

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 search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 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, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

The not So Wise men in Daniel 2

2 In the second year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; his mind was troubled and he could not sleep. 2 So the king summoned the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers[a] to tell him what he had dreamed. When they came in and stood before the king, 3 he said to them, “I have had a dream that troubles me and I want to know what it means.[b]”

4 Then the astrologers answered the king,[c] “May the king live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will interpret it.”

5 The king replied to the astrologers, “This is what I have firmly decided: If you do not tell me what my dream was and interpret it, I will have you cut into pieces and your houses turned into piles of rubble. 6 But if you tell me the dream and explain it, you will receive from me gifts and rewards and great honor. So tell me the dream and interpret it for me.”

7 Once more they replied, “Let the king tell his servants the dream, and we will interpret it.”

8 Then the king answered, “I am certain that you are trying to gain time, because you realize that this is what I have firmly decided: 9 If you do not tell me the dream, there is only one penalty for you. You have conspired to tell me misleading and wicked things, hoping the situation will change. So then, tell me the dream, and I will know that you can interpret it for me.”

10 The astrologers answered the king, “There is no one on earth who can do what the king asks! No king, however great and mighty, has ever asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or astrologer. 11 What the king asks is too difficult. No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among humans.”

12 This made the king so angry and furious that he ordered the execution of all the wise men of Babylon. 13 So the decree was issued to put the wise men to death, and men were sent to look for Daniel and his friends to put them to death.

14 When Arioch, the commander of the king’s guard, had gone out to put to death the wise men of Babylon, Daniel spoke to him with wisdom and tact. 15 He asked the king’s officer, “Why did the king issue such a harsh decree?” Arioch then explained the matter to Daniel. 16 At this, Daniel went in to the king and asked for time, so that he might interpret the dream for him.

17 Then Daniel returned to his house and explained the matter to his friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. 18 He urged them to plead for mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that he and his friends might not be executed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon. 19 During the night the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision. Then Daniel praised the God of heaven 20 and said:

“Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever;
    wisdom and power are his.
21 He changes times and seasons;
    he deposes kings and raises up others.
He gives wisdom to the wise
    and knowledge to the discerning.
22 He reveals deep and hidden things;
    he knows what lies in darkness,
    and light dwells with him.
23 I thank and praise you, God of my ancestors:
    You have given me wisdom and power,
you have made known to me what we asked of you,
    you have made known to us the dream of the king.”


Below is an excerpt from Gibbs Commentary on Matthew.

He is the lead professor of The New Testament at Concordia Seminary St Louis . (LCMS)


In many ways, all of Matthew 2 is a continuous narrative, with the contrasting figures of the two kings, Herod and Jesus, dominating the entire chapter. However, since the Magi are only in 2:1–12, we are justified in considering the significance of this unit, all the while acknowledging the flow of the entire chapter. With his opening genitive absolute construction (τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ γεννηθέντος ἐν Βηθλέεμ τῆς Ἰουδαίας, “Now after Jesus had been born in Bethlehem of Judea,” 2:1), Matthew also recalls the events of 1:18–25 and links chapter 2with chapter 1—and not only verbally. The themes of human ignorance and divine revelation, of “normal” expectations and hidden realities, flow seamlessly from chapter 1 and are magnified in chapter 2. From the account of Joseph and thenaming of Mary’s child we learned that apart from God’s interruption and revelation, human beings will neither comprehend nor believe in God’s ways of working through his Christ, the Son of David and Son of God. That same contrast helps to drive forward the narrative of chapter 2 in even more powerful ways, through the contrast of the two kings as well as the unexpected believers who arrive in Jerusalem.

Matthew’s use of ἰδού, “look!” (2:1b and 2:9b), marks out a two-part structure for 2:1–12. An unspecified length of time has passed after the birth of Jesus, when—look!—Magi from the east appear in Jerusalem, inquiring about the location of the King of the Jews who had been born.14 There is a contrast between the seeking Magi and Herod and those under his direction, who were unaware of the birth and star until the Magi arrived. This is the contrast between knowledge and ignorance, faith and unbelief, truth and hypocrisy. The difference between the two kings in the narrative is equally stark. Herod is already king, for Matthew so names him in 2:1, 3, 9. His rule is typical of worldly despots; he governs by fear, deceit, and murder.15 D. A. Carson helpfully summarizes the career of Herod the Great:

Herod the Great, as he is now called, was born in 73 b.c. and was named king of Judea by the Roman Senate in 40 b.c. By 37 b.c. he had crushed, with the help of Roman forces, all opposition to his rule. Son of the Idumean Antipater, he was wealthy, politically gifted, intensely loyal, an excellent administrator, and clever enough to remain in the good graces of successive Roman emperors. His famine relief was superb and his building projects (including the temple, begun 20 b.c.) admired even by his foes. But he loved power, inflicted incredibly heavy taxes on the people, and resented the fact that many Jews considered him a usurper. In his last years, suffering an illness that compounded his paranoia, he turned to cruelty and in fits of rage and jealousy killed close associates, his wife Mariamne (of Jewish descent from the Maccabeans), and at least two of his sons.16

By contrast, the “King of the Jews who has been born” (2:2) is unknown, weak, in need of protection,even though his coming was prophesied in the OT.17The true King will be found in lowly Bethlehem, where David himself arose, and not in Jerusalem—the capital, where the religious leaders who have ledIsrael’s lost sheep astray and the false King Herod are found. After questioning the Magi, Herod succeeds in concealing from them his murderous intentions and sends them to find the precise location of the new Child-King. On the surface of the narrative, the powerful Herod seems to be in charge.

Off the Magi are going when—ἰδού, “look!”—God intervenes (2:9b). The star that the Magi had seen now reappears and guides them to the true King of the Jews. After they greet the King and offer appropriate royal gifts in an act of obeisance, the Magi apparently intend to return and report their experience to Herod. But no! God intervenes once again, and “warned in a dream” (2:12), the Magi depart by another way to their own country. Earlier through a message conveyed in a “dream” (1:20), God did not allow the well-meaning ignorance of Joseph to negate or contradict or even misunderstand the significance of Mary’s child (1:19–23). Just so, God will allow neither the naiveté of the Magi nor the designs of “Herod the king” (2:1) to threaten or thwart his plan to save all people, both Jew and Gentile, through Mary’s child, the true King of the Jews, who fulfills God’s promise that all nations shall be blessed through Abraham’s Seed (see the commentary on “Son of Abraham” in 1:1). As already exemplified by the women in Jesus’ genealogy,18 God works in unexpected and unknown ways—in Jesus, and in bringing others to the knowledge of Jesus.

A closer look at 2:1–12 will help to flesh out this overall theme of comparison and contrast. In particular, understanding the Magi in light of how afirst-century Jewish reader/hearer would have seen them will show how Matthew’s portrait of the Magi fits into some of the overall themes of the Gospel. All agree that the Magi are Gentiles, and so their presence in Matthew 2 is another obvious anticipation in this very “Jewish” Gospel that Israel’s Messiah and true King has come for the blessing of all the nations.19 But that these Gentiles are Magi is also significant. Here we can pause to ask this question: How would a first-century Jewish reader have responded to the announcement in the narrative, “Look! Magi from the east appeared in Jerusalem” (2:1)?

Mark Allan Powell has carefully examined three questions about the Magi: (1) How did the Magi inMatthew 2 come to be regarded as “kings” in the history of interpretation? (2) How did interpreters come to regard the Magi as “wise” in the positive sense of the term? and (3) How would the first-century Jewish “implied reader” of Matthew’s Gospel have regarded magi?20 Regarding the first question, Powell shows that the Magi were not widely regarded as “kings” until the sixth century.21Commentators long have known the relatively late origin of that interpretation, and so few today would hold that Matthew either portrays the Magi as royal figures or understood them as such himself.22 When Powell addresses the second and third questions, however, he argues provocatively against views widely held by other modern commentators.

It is commonplace for interpreters to regard the Magi as learned or wise in positive matters. As examples of this widely accepted interpretation, Davies and Allison call them “representatives of the best wisdom of the Gentile world,” “eastern intellectuals,” and “open-minded Gentile wise men.”23 Luz describes the Magi as “wise and pious Gentiles who from the beginning seek that which is right, namely, to worship the child Jesus.”24 Brown states that the Magi in Matthew 2 “represent the best of pagan lore and religious perceptivity which has come to seek Jesus through revelation in nature.25

Nevertheless, Powell contends that the strain of interpretation that understands the Magi as “wise” in the sense of “learned in matters of significance” isinvalid.26 Those who thus read Mt 2:1–12 have construed the narrative in a way that the evangelist would never have foreseen and that would have been alien to his original readers/hearers. Powell claims that the assumption that the Magi’s own “learning” is a positive thing emerged late in the history of interpretation. He writes:

In the patristic and medieval periods, the magi’s learning was often simply ignored. They were depicted as foreigners, as pious, and—after Constantine—as models of godly rulers. When their learning was addressed, however, it was universally denounced. Their so-called science or art was regarded as false knowledge, even as a false religion. It did not aid them in coming to the Christ but rather was rejected after they came to the Christ.27

Powell is unable to find any reference that “actually extols Matthew’s magi as wise men” before the eighth century.28 It is only in the Enlightenment and on into the modern period that the Magi came to be generally regarded positively as scholars and seekers after truth, according to Powell.29

Powell searches out what Matthew’s readers would have known by examining the roles and characterizations of μάγοι (“magi”) in Greco-Roman literature, Jewish literature, and the LXX. He concludes that although magi are often the servants of royal figures and kings, they themselves are never kings, and they are often portrayed as relatively powerless in relation to their overlords.30More important, in the OT and in Jewish literature, magi are never “wise” in the sense of “learned in matters of significance,”31 and so the very translation of μάγοι as “wise men” ought to be avoided.32 The best example of this truth is the one OT narrative wherein “magi” figure: Daniel 2.33 In the LXX, the Babylonian courtiers who are summoned to interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dream are described as “the wizards and the magi and the sorcerers of the Chaldeans” (οἱ ἐπαοιδοὶ καὶ οἱ μάγοι καὶ οἱ φαρμακοὶ τῶν Χαλδαίων, LXXDan 2:2). However, when the king asks them to reveal both his dream and its interpretation, they declare that they are unable and even protest that no “wise man or magus or Chaldean” (σοφὸν καὶ μάγον καὶ Χαλδαῖον, LXX Dan 2:10b) had ever been asked to attempt such a task. These various Babylonian practitioners of occult learning, which would be anathema to a first-century Jewish audience, are lumped together as “Chaldeans” (Dan 2:4, 5, 10a), who refer to themselves as the Babylonian king’s “servants” (Dan 2:7).

Daniel’s familiar account turns on the contrast between the Babylonian king’s courtiers and pious and faithful Daniel, to whom the true God gives the ability both to reveal and to interpret the king’s dream. The point of the narrative is that contrastbetween the incapable, uncomprehending magi and Daniel’s God-given wisdom.34 The magi are not “wise” in any learning that comports with truth and piety. And this is exactly why Matthew’s original readers would have been surprised by their appearance in Mt 2:1, which is probably why Matthew marks their appearance with “look!” (ἰδού,2:1). Magi did not worship the God of Israel; they were often servants of rulers who oppressed the people of Israel, and they were in league with a supernatural power that opposed the one true God. No one would expect magi to come in search of the Child-King whose birth was prophesied in Holy Scripture. What, then, are they doing here?

To underscore how the original readers/hearers of Matthew’s Gospel would have considered the Magi to be most “unlikely devotees,”35 Powell also keenly describes the manner in which Matthew’s narrative characterizes the Magi in 2:1–12. No information is forthcoming from the evangelist about how or why the visitors from the east concluded from the earlier manifestation of the star that the King of the Jews had been born.36 Rather, they arrive in Jerusalem not knowing where the new King is. They must be guided by Scripture to know the correct town: Bethlehem, not Jerusalem, which was Herod’s capital and the logical place to find a new king. From Jerusalem, they apparently need the guidance of the star to get to the house where the child and his mother reside. When they arrive at the house where the child and his mother are living, the Magi offer to him the kind of obeisance that would be offered to any other earthly king. They do not, in fact, show that they fully understand the kind of rulethis King has come to bring.37

The Magi bring gifts to the newborn King, and even here Matthew’s description reveals that the Magi have not fully understood the significance of the child to whom they are paying homage. The gold, frankincense, and myrrh are the sorts of gifts that one would expect a monarch to receive.38 But Jesus is not a normal monarch! Although the history of interpretation is marked with attempts to interpret symbolically the gifts of the Magi, the number and variety of those attempts shows that there is not enough data to support such symbolic interpretation.39 The best approach is simply to allow them to be “gifts fit for a king” that show the Magi’s genuine, yet limited, understanding and faith that God has sent a new king to his people Israel.40

Finally, as Powell notes, the Magi’s naiveté is manifest in that they are successfully duped by Herod’s evil plan to kill the child until they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod. In a word, Powell concludes, the Magi are portrayed not as wise men, but as fundamentally ignorant.41 The things they know that are worthwhile have all been revealed to them, and yet their knowledge and understanding are still limited. This narrative characterization of the Magi, coupled with the natural associations that the Gospel’s original readers/hearers would have linked to “magi” by their very nature, allows Powell to lay bare the powerful message that lies at the very center of 2:1–12. When Matthew writes, “Look, Magi from the eastappeared in Jerusalem and said, ‘Where is the King of the Jews who has been born?’ ” the only conclusion that his readers/hearers may draw is not that “the magi [are] wise men whose learning leads them to Christ but [that they are] ignorant people to whom God reveals the Christ.”42

Mt 2:1–12 thus shows continuity with 1:18–25and with the entire Gospel. Can pious Joseph be expected to know God’s ways of salvation? No, God must send his angel to Joseph in a dream (1:18–25). Jerusalem with its chief priests and scribes should have expected the birth of the King of the Jews as prophesied in the OT, but those religious leaders are unaware of Jesus’ birth until Magi from the east arrive and announce it to them. Although the Magi were aware that the King has been born, they are unable to find him until they are guided by the Scriptures (2:6) and the star (2:9). Even then, the Magi unknowingly would have enabled Herod to kill the child if they had not been warned in a dream (2:12). When Peter confesses the truth of Jesus’ identity as Christ and Son of God, will he be commended for his wisdom and clarity of insight? No, Jesus pronounces eschatological blessing upon Peter because the heavenly Father revealed Jesus’ identity to Peter and enabled him to confess (16:16–17). Jesus’ words in 11:25 express this important theme in Matthew’s Gospel, and in all of Holy Scripture: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you hid these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to infants.”43

In 2:1–12, therefore, the evangelist proclaims that God reveals his saving ways in Jesus to unlikely recipients. But the birth of the King is the plan of God, as the Scripture citation from Micah 5 and 2 Samuel 5 shows. Significantly, when Herod hears that a star revealed the birth of the new “King” to the Magi (2:2), he in turn asks the chief priests and scribes where “the Christ” was to be born (2:4). This shows the overlap between the truth that Jesus is God’s “Anointed” or “Christ” (1:1, 16–17) as well as the promised “King” for God’s people.

The question of the OT citation’s text form is addressed above in the textual notes on 2:6. Hermeneutically, it seems likely that in the case of this OT citation, the words from Micah 5 constitute a straightforward case of a future prediction, uttered in the eighth century BC, of a royal Davidic deliverer who will save the people. To be sure, as with the promise in 2 Samuel 7 to David himself, subsequent faithful Davidic kings played a partial or imperfect role in anticipating the final fulfillment of the promise in Micah 5, for Micah 5:1 (ET 5:2) is firmly connected to the eighth-century context and the threat of Assyrian aggression (Micah 5:5–6 [ET5:6–7]). But even after that time the text was read as unfulfilled.44 Matthew is proclaiming that the promise of a Ruler from the line of David for God’s people has come true in Jesus.

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