Matthew 2:1-2 “The King’s Reception, Part 2a: Searching for the King of Kings”
“Now, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea, in the days of Herod the king, behold! Magi from the east came to Jerusalem. They were saying, ‘Where is the born-king of the Jews? For we saw His star at its rising and are come to worship Him.’ But when king Herod heard this, he became disturbed and all Jerusalem with him and gathering all the chief priests and scribes of the people he kept inquiring from them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judaea. For thus its written through the prophet: And you Bethlehem of the land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah. For out of you will come a leader who will shepherd my people Israel.’ Then Herod, after secretly calling the magi, carefully inquired from them the time of the star’s appearing. Then sending them to Bethlehem he said, ‘Go and make an accurate search for the child, but as soon as you find him, report to me so that I too might come worship Him.’ So, after hearing the king, they departed and behold! the stay which they saw at its rising was going before them until it stood over where the child was. So, seeing the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And coming into the house they saw the child with Mary His mother, and bowing down they worshipped Him, and opening their treasures they offered to Him gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, by another road they departed to their land.”
As strange as it is to say, Jesus is not necessarily the primary focus of these verses. Rather, Matthew’s focus is on two different groups of people as they respond to the knowledge that Jesus, the son of David and heir to Israel’s throne, has been born. Matthew follows the response of the foreign magi for the majority of vv. 1-12 (vv. 1-2, 9-12) although their response is interrupted by Herod and the Jews of Jerusalem (vv. 3-8). From Matthew’s chiastic structure already discussed, we see a very neat three-point outline emerge from the text: (1) The magi’s arrival to Jerusalem (vv. 1-2), (2) Jerusalem’s reaction to the magi (vv. 3-8), and (3) The magi depart from Jerusalem (vv. 9-12).
There are several points that are worth our meditation. First, the information that the magi seek is already well known in Jerusalem and yet the magi find what was hidden from the wise of Jerusalem. Second, there was already an established precedent of foreign dignitaries bringing gifts to Israel’s king (1 Kings 10) as well as an expectation of Israel’s future king to receive such tribute (Ps. 72:10-11). The past precedent was during Israel’s united glory days under Solomon and the future expectation is supposed to be during Messiah’s redeeming rule. That expectation would also include a restored and repentant Israel. Matthew’s description does not lead any to consider Israel very repentant or very restored. The point is that while this scene anticipates the later scene of Messiah receiving the wealth of the nations (Is. 60:1-6), this anticipation is not the fulfillment. Finally, the magi clearly have made some connection between a star which they have seen and the Jewish Messiah. As we follow these magi from their entrance into Jerusalem, through the commotion they stir up, only to find what they were looking for far outside the walls of the city of peace, we will soon have to answer questions regarding the nature of the star’s connection with Messiah and how the magi would have known to make such a connection.
Our conclusion then is this: While the big picture of Matthew chapter two contrasts the honorable reception Jesus received from the nations to the hostile reception He received from Israel, he also creates a crucial precedent; that is, to emphatically affirm that Jesus is the anticipated Christ and yet did not fulfill many of the Old Testament prophecies at the time of His birth. In Matthew 2:1-12 we see not one, but three allusions to Old Testament prophecies concerning Messiah: (1) Messiah’s connection with a star (Num. 24:17), (2) Messiah is born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2; 2 Sam. 5:2; 1 Chr. 11:2), and (3) Messiah is paid homage by the nations as they offer their wealth to Him (Ps. 72:10-11; Is. 2:2-4; 60:1-6; Mic. 4:1-3; Zech. 2:10-12; 8:20-23). Yet none of the prophecies alluded to can be said to have been fulfilled in Jesus’ birth or the events surrounding His birth. The point Matthew is making is this: not all aspects of Jesus’ Messiahship were fulfilled in His first advent. There is more to come. We will examine each of these Old Testament references with each portion of Matthew’s chiastic structure.
The Magi Enter Jerusalem to Seek the King’s Location (vv. 1-2)
“Now, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea, in the days of Herod the king, behold! Magi from the east came to Jerusalem. They were saying, ‘Where is the born-king of the Jews? For we saw His star at its rising and are come to worship Him.’”
It is interesting that only now Matthew provides a geographical location to the events he describes. Nowhere did he state where Joseph and Mary lived during their betrothal or after Joseph took Mary to be his wife. We might even assume that the location of betrothal was the same location of Jesus’ birth. All these things remind us that we are not Matthew’s intended audience. The Jewish believers between 35-40 AD knew the details of Jesus’ early life and Matthew could therefore make such assumptions upon his audience. Only now does Matthew mention Bethlehem as the place of Jesus’ birth.
As already mentioned, the birth of Jesus is not itself particularly important to Matthew. He mentions that it occurred (1:25) only after making sure to record the circumstances leading up to it and the necessity of it. The event itself only needs to be confirmed as having happened. The son whom Joseph called “Jesus” (1:25) is the same Jesus mentioned here as having been born in Bethlehem. After that event, in the days of Herod the Great, magi appeared in Jerusalem.
The magi claim to be searching for the king of the Jews because they have seen his star. Our background of the magi introduced their interest in astrology; therefore, it is hardly surprising that they are acting on information gained from the night sky. What’s shocking is that this information seems to be accurate. Because the Scriptures make it clear that astrology is evil and should not be practiced (Deut. 4:19; Is. 47:13; Amos 5:26) it seems odd that these eastern astrologers should be able to use this dark art in order to identify the time when the world’s savior would arrive. This supposed paradox can be laid to rest by answering two questions: (1) what did the magi see? and (2) how did they connect what they saw to the king of the Jews?
What did the Magi see?: Various explanations have been offered through the years ranging from planetary conjugations to comets to supernovas. The problem with these naturalistic explanations is that such formations are predictable, chartable, and able to be demonstrated retrospectively. In other words, if such a natural phenomenon occurred in or around the year 4 BC able to be observed anywhere between Tehran and Jerusalem, then we would be able to prove it. The problem is, no such phenomenon was recorded.
This should not cause the believer any anxiety when the star’s behavior in v. 9 is taken into account. After all, what globe consisting of millions of tons of gas is going to descend low enough to distinguish a single house among hundreds without completely disrupting and destroying the earth? The answer is very simple: this is not a natural phenomenon but a miraculous one. The magi did see something, but that something was no common star. They witnessed something so unique, unexpected, and unprecedented that they immediately began looking for an explanation. Their explanation rests in this one called the king of the Jews.
How did the Magi make the connection?: The star that the magi saw is identified as “his star” or the star belonging to the king of the Jews. Why would they make such a connection? At this point is important to recall the connection established between Daniel and the magi. The nature of astrology is to find some sort of significance on earth to extreme irregularities in the heavens. Comets or eclipses could indicate the birth or the death of someone of great importance. What about something greater than a comet? Something like an uncharted, unknown star that was observed and then vanished? What would that indicate? Certainly, such a phenomenon would indicate the coming of a person the likes of which the world has not yet seen. Did not Daniel predict the succession of kingdoms after Babylon? Was not Daniel proven correct when Persia conquered Babylon, Greece conquered Persia, and Rome conquered Greece? What of this divine and stony kingdom that is supposed to come and crush all these kingdoms, as well as a fifth yet unidentified kingdom (Dan. 2)? Would not the arrival of such a king fit the precedence of the unprecedented?
The rest of Daniel’s book make it clear that he refers to a person known by the Jews as “Messiah”. The Jewish Scriptures are full of information regarding their Messiah, but one in particular connects Messiah with His role as king with a star: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, a scepter shall rise from Israel, and shall crush through the forehead of Moab, and tear down all the sons of Sheth.” (Num. 24:17).
Many have doubted the connection of this text with Matthew 2:2, but there’s more here than might meet the eye. First, the phrase “ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ” in Matt. 2:2 is normally translated something like “in the east” (…for we have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him). The problem with this translation is that while “east” is certainly based on the noun ἀνατολή (rising, sprout, shoot, east) it’s only translated as “east” when it appears in the plural without the article. Here we have an articular singular noun, better translated as “at its rising”. The LXX of Num. 24:17 uses the verbal cognate ἀνατέλλω (to rise, cause to rise, spring up) in connection with this star of Jacob who is clearly Messiah. The Magi are not providing a location where they saw this star. They are stating that they saw the star at its rising or when it appeared. They’re tracking this unprecedented miraculous star from its beginning.
The rest of the New Testament confirms the Messianic nature of this star by identifying it as Jesus and correlating its rising (ἀνατέλλω) with His coming (Lk. 1: 78; 2 Pet. 1:19; Rev. 2:26-28; 22:16). Num. 24:17 foresees the coming of Messiah as He crushes Israel’s enemies (of whom Edom/Idumea [Herod] is mentioned in the very next verse). The later passages of 2 Pet. 1:19, Rev. 2:26-28, and 22:16 all refer to Christ’s second coming when He will certainly do all that the Numbers passage foresees upon His arrival. This passage is different in that Messiah has already arrived. His star has risen. Yet the head of Israel’s enemies is not yet crushed. This is the first of three instances in this passage where Matthew confirms Jesus’ identity as Messiah yet clearly reveals that the present circumstances fall short of fulfilling the Old Testament expectation. Believe it or not, the failure of total fulfillment is a good thing.
The point then is this: Because of their exposure to Daniel’s influence and access to the Jewish Scriptures, the magi were able to make sense of the spontaneous miraculous “star” they observed by connecting it to the promised “star” to come from Jacob. This star indicated the greatest king which the world would ever know has been born. It would be wise to show allegiance to such a king who will crush the world’s kingdoms in order to establish His own. Naturally, a quest to find this king from Jacob would lead the magi to Jerusalem.
We have already created a character sketch of Herod and provided the historical background concerning these magi. These Parthian dignitaries and kingmakers have crossed the frontier between Rome and Parthia in order to search out the king of the Jews. Several observations should be made.
First, though they certainly know who Herod is and the nature of his title as given to him by Rome (King of the Jews), the magi are not searching for Herod. They specifically say that they are searching for the born king of the Jews (ὁ τεχθείς βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων). From this we can gather that the magi (a) are seeking one who is of royal blood and (b) they are seeking one who is currently king and not a king in waiting. This description is not indicative of Herod. In fact, this phrase is almost an indictment of Herod. As an Idumean interloper, Herod has neither a claim to the Hasmonean line of the Maccabees nor the promised line of David which has long since been abandoned. The fact that the magi have entered Jerusalem with this inquiry on their lips demonstrates that they do not consider Herod to be the legitimate king over the Jews and that there is currently one living who is.
Second, the magi have come on a mission of king making. They state very clearly how they have heard of this king and what their intentions are. They received no royal announcement regarding the king’s birth but have witnessed a signal from the heavens. In response, they have traveled hundreds of miles to worship or prostrate themselves to Him. The term προσκυνέω can take on the nuance of worship though it means to bow down, fall down, prostrate oneself to the ground in humble submission to a superior. As Parthian dignitaries, they have come to support this one’s right to rule, not by granting him permission to rule, but by bowing themselves to him who rules. They have come to recognize and to submit to His authority.
Third, this is a very dangerous position for Herod. By putting our first and second points together, it is now obvious that these representatives from Parthia have not come to affirm Herod in any way, shape, or form. In fact, they have not even requested an audience with Herod. Foreign dignitaries entering the capital looking for a supposedly legitimate king while ignoring the presence of the current king is a recipe for disaster. As we will see next week, Herod and all Jerusalem anticipate such a disaster.
 There is no indication from the text that the magi followed this star from their homeland to Jerusalem. The only time the star is said to have led them is from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. In fact, the sighting of this star is what brings such joy to the magi. Tradition may teach that the magi followed this star from Mesopotamia to the Levant, but Matthew says nothing of the sort.  Charles Quarles, Matthew, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2017), p. 24-5.  D. A. Carson, Walter Wessel, and Mark Strauss, Matthew & Mark, Revised, vol. 9, 13 vols., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2010), p. 112.