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Matthew 2:9-12 "The King's Reception, Part 2c: The Magi Leave Jerusalem & Find the King"

Updated: Dec 14, 2022

It is at this point in the narrative that the chiastic structure becomes quite apparent. The magi depart from Jerusalem (v. 9) as they came (v. 2). They see the star (v. 9) that they first saw in their home country (v. 2). They find the child (v. 11) whom they were seeking (v. 2) and worship Him (v. 11) as they originally desired to do (v. 2). After fulfilling their purpose, the magi depart for their own country (v. 12) leaving Jesus in Bethlehem and Herod in Jerusalem (v. 1).

While these verses do not quote the Old Testament as in v. 6, there is still a strong Old Testament allusion that preserves the precedent established in vv. 1-2 and followed in vv. 3-8. The basic sense of the precedence is as follows: (1) Jesus is certainly the Christ/Messiah as predicted in the Old Testament, (2) Jesus’ birth fails to fulfill the entirety of the expectations within these Old Testament predictions, (3) the magi are portrayed in a positive light, and (4) Israel is portrayed in a faithless/negative light.

There is another precedent that is introduced in these verses that is carried through the rest of Matthew’s gospel; Jesus is not so much found as He is revealed to those who seek Him. Those who seek out Jesus for who He is (as opposed to who they desire Him to be), find Him because He is revealed to them. As the focus of the passage returns to the magi from Herod, there is an implicit emphasis on Jesus as the born king of the Jews (v. 2). Here we see how Jesus is revealed to those who seek Him while at the same time Jesus is concealed from those who reject Him.

The King Revealed (vv. 9-11)

There are at least three things to note before venturing very far into these verses. First, we need to understand that the reappearance of the star was not expected by the magi. There is nothing in v. 2 to lead us to believe that they have seen this star since its rising (ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ) and everything stated in vv. 9 and 10 suggests that its appearance was an unexpected pleasure. Second, we should remind ourselves that the star in question is no normal star. Stars do not move in the night sky, a fact that makes them dependable points from which to navigate. Moving stars are useless for navigation. Also, it is curious how a star could “stand over” a specific focal point, like a house, so as to distinguish it from similar points only feet away. Finally, these verses drive home the point that Jesus is revealed to the magi.

The Magi are Led to Jesus (vv. 9-10)

So, after hearing the king, they departed and behold! the star 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.”

It is interesting that we never read the magi’s response to Herod’s scheme in v. 8. Many assume that the magi became unwitting accomplices to Herod’s dastardly plans, yet Matthew discloses nothing of the kind. The text simply says that they heard Herod out, and then departed. If assumptions are allowed to be made, then it would be wise to assume that the magi had no intention of aiding Herod. Everything that Matthew has put into writing has portrayed the magi as being somewhat passive-aggressive toward Herod. Meanwhile, Herod is portrayed as not really knowing how to handle the magi, but is attempting to control and contain the volatile situation. If assuming now passes for exegesis, then assuming the magi to be unwitting accomplices to Messiah’s murder appears to be utterly without basis. The truth of the matter is that assumptions are luxuries that the exegete cannot afford and are in fact prohibited from indulging in. Exegesis means to draw meaning out of a text based on what is there. Assumptions are the applicational handmaiden to inserting meaning into a text based on what one desires to be there. The text simply states that the magi heard Herod, and then departed. The aorist participle ἀκοῦσαντες is understood as a temporally adverbial to ἐπορεύθησαν: first they heard the king (i.e., what he had to say) and then they departed. Any idea that they agreed to Herod’s scheme (even if true) is wholly invented and inserted. When in doubt, stay glued to the text.

Matthew often punctuates his narrative with ἰδοὺ (behold) in order to point out a significant aspect. The appearance of the star at this time is significant because there is no indication that the magi have seen it since before they began their search for the born king of the Jews. As was the case in v. 2, it’s better to translate ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ as “at its rising” (ESV) rather than “in the east” (NASB, NKJV, LSB).[1] This star not only rose again in the night sky but proceeded to lead them much like the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night led the Israelites through the wilderness (Ex. 13:21; Num. 14:14). This star did not simply confirm Herod’s words to the magi that the Christ would be in Bethlehem by indicating the village or even a particular part of the village. Rather, the star came to rest upon the very spot where the child was.[2] This is nothing short of divine revelation. The magi were seeking the child to be sure, but they only found Him because God revealed His location to them. Jesus was not found so much as He was revealed.

It is important to note that the cause of the magi’s joy was the sight of the star. The aorist participle ἰδόντες is better explained as a causal participle (because they saw the star, they rejoiced…) rather than a temporal participle (when they saw the star, they rejoiced …). Once again, they were not expecting to see this star. The magi departed Jerusalem under the vague directions provided by Herod only to see again the star that began their journey. It had likely been months since they have had any confirmation that they were on the right track. Their arrival in Jerusalem was hardly encouraging. Now they have a clear revelation from heaven that the child exists, is nearby, and they know exactly where to find Him.

The Magi Worship Jesus (v. 11)

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.

For a final time, we correct the misunderstanding that this scene is in anyway connected with the events of Luke chapter 2. Matthew begins this pericope by announcing the time frame as after Jesus was born in Bethlehem (v. 1). Luke records the events at the time of Jesus’ birth. During the events of the nativity, Joseph and Mary are forced to bunk with the animals and lay their newborn in a feed trough (Lk. 2:7). Here, the family is not in a cave, stable, nor even in an inn but a house. What happens in that house marks the climax of this entire paragraph.

The structure of this verse is quite precise. Each indicative verb is predicated with its own adverbial participle: (1) The magi saw (εἶδον) the child with His mother as they came (ἐλθόντες) into the house, (2) the magi worshipped (προσεκύνησαν) the child by falling down (πεσόντες) on the ground, and they offered (προσήνεγκαν) gifts after opening (ἀνοίξαντες) their treasures. If we were to take out the explanatory participles, the verse would flow like this: They saw the child with His mother, bowed to Him, and presented gifts to Him.

By stating that the magi saw Jesus Matthew implies that they have now come into personal contact with Him. The magi were not content to remain outside. Once the precise house had been revealed, they went in and found what they were looking for. More than this, it is the sight of Jesus that precipitates the next two actions.

The term translated as “worship” (προσκυνέω) literally means to prostrate oneself as an act of submission to an authority figure. To bow before someone is a physical and visual demonstration of superiority in a submissive manner. It is not that they superior being forces the subservient one to the ground or that he climbs over them. Rather, the subservient one lowers himself to the ground in an effort to admit (or confess) their inferiority to the one to whom they bow. The magi immediately recognize their inferiority to the child, and they rush to prostrate themselves before Him to make this reality become manifest. At this point we would do well to remember who these magi are. As members of the Parthian court and representatives of one house of the Parthian council, the magi were men who made kings, not bow to them. If the magi were only seeking a means to undermine Herod and create a thorn in the side of Rome by taking the Levant back under Parthian control, there would be no need to bow to this child-king. One does not bow to just any king. One bows to a king who has sovereignty over them. By bowing to the child Jesus, the magi do more than affirm that Jesus is the rightful born king of the Jews. They also affirm that His rule extends over them.

It’s best to understand the presentation of gifts as an extension of the magi’s worship. The term translated “present” (προσφέρω) is often used in the context of bringing or presenting offerings to Yhwh (Ex. 29:3; 32:6; 34:26; Lev. 1:2-14; 2:1-14; 3:6-9[3]). It may seem strange at first that these Gentile magi are offering what amounts to an offering of worship outside the temple and without the conduit of the priesthood until we remember that this very act was given precedent under king Solomon and foretold by the prophets. The nouns “gold” (χρυσός), “frankincense” (λίβανος) and “myrrh” (σμύρνα) do not appear together anywhere else in Scripture. However, “gold” and “spices” were given by the queen of Sheba to Solomon in recognition of his glory (1 Kings 10:10; 2 Chron. 9:9). In this same line of thinking, “gold” and “frankincense” are samples of the nations’ wealth that will be brought to a renewed, redeemed, and restored Israel (Is. 60:6). Some suppose that these three gifts identify the child as a royal (gold) divine (frankincense) person who will die (myrrh).[4] This precise nuance is somewhat doubtful. What is certain is that the magi (a) are offering gifts of great value to a glorious king as was precedented by ancient dignitaries to Solomon, the seed of David (1 Kings. 10:10; 2 Chron. 9:9) and (b) demonstrate the expectations of future nations once Messiah rules and Israel is repentant and restored (Ps. 72:10-11; 110:3; Is. 60:6). The point is simple: the nations are bringing their wealth to lay at Messiah’s feet while submitting to Him.

While this obvious Old Testament allusion confirms again that Jesus is the anticipated Messiah, this scene also confirms that the time of Messiah’s kingdom has not yet arrived. All of these texts speak of a repentant, obedient, and submissive Israel before the nations come to deliver their wealth to Messiah and pledge their submission to Him. Yet Matthew paints a picture of unbridled rebellion on the part of Israel and her usurper king. The nations have come to submit to Messiah and offer Him their riches. Therefore, Jesus was revealed to them. On the other hand, the nation of Israel cares nothing for Messiah unless it is to keep Him from taking David’s throne. For this reason, Messiah is concealed from them.

The King Concealed (v. 12)

And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, by another road they departed to their land.

The careful English reader would do well to note that the words “by God” are usually printed in italics to indicate that they are not found in the Greek text. Χρηματίζω is a rarely used term that either (a) indicates some sort of a message that either comes from a divine source (as is here) or (b) indicates the taking or bestowing of a name or identification that cannot be altered, exchanged, or undone (Acts. 11:26; Rom. 7:3). It is interesting that these dream interpreters were warned via a dream. It is also interesting that they were warned not to return to Herod. In other words, they were warned to keep Herod (and all Israel) in the dark.

It is not as if Herod does not know where the child is and where the magi went to look for Him. He was the one who researched the location of Messiah’s birth and relayed it to the magi. In other words, Israel and her king already know where Messiah is. If they wanted to worship Him, they would come and seek Him for themselves. Now is not the time where Israel will seek Yhwh as well as David their king (Hos. 3:5). They are to be kept in the dark. God does not intend to reveal Messiah to them.

The magi depart with as little warning as they arrived. They do not take the route through Jerusalem but go “another” way. We do not know whether they went north through Damascus or south around the Dead Sea, but they did not return through Jerusalem. Herod, along with all Israel, were by-passed. The king is concealed from His people.

This narrative reminds the readers that nothing much has changed in the last 400 years. The prophet Malachi wrote to a previous generation of Israelites who were also hard of heart and delusional in mind. They denied the accusation of wearying Yhwh (Mal. 2:17), the need to repent (Mal. 3:7), or that they have spoken against Yhwh (Mal. 3:13). They sought to better themselves at the expense of seeking Yhwh (Mal. 3:1) and they find nothing wrong with the arrangement. Israel had every conceivable advantage to find Messiah, yet because they never sought Him, Messiah was never revealed to them. One day Israel will understand the truth that all who ask will receive, all who seek will find, and all who knock will be opened to (Matt. 7:7). Until that day, the way is shut.


J. C. Ryle again suggests several devotional meditations from these verses. (1) “These verses show us that there may be true servants of God in places where we should not expect to find them. (2) These verses teach us that it is not always those who have most the religious privileges who give Christ most honor. (3) These verses teach us that there may be knowledge of Scripture in the head, while there is no grace in the heart. (4) The conduct of the wise men described in this chapter is a splendid example of spiritual diligence. (5) The conduct of the wise men is a striking example of faith.”[5] These observations are well and true, though I would like to add two additional thoughts.

First, Christ did not establish His kingdom during His first advent on earth. Every time Matthew alludes to or quotes the Old Testament, he does so to affirm that Jesus is the anticipated Christ. Yet the context of each Old Testament allusion is not fully consistent with the reality of Matthew’s context. The kings of the earth are not yet crushed (Matt. 2:2 vs. Num. 24:17), all Israel has not submitted to Jesus as their Davidic shepherd (Matt. 2:6 vs. 2 Sam. 5:2), and the nations are not bringing their wealth into a repentant and restored Israel (Matt. 2:11 vs. Ps. 72:10-11; 110:3-5; Is. 60:1-6). The savior has been born in Bethlehem to initiate a new kingdom, but that kingdom has not yet been established.

Second, there is a world of difference between knowing who Jesus is and seeking Him. Herod knew who Jesus was. He knew that Jesus was the Messiah and therefore was able to find out where to find Him. On the other hand, the magi sought Jesus out as the Messiah. They were looking for Jesus so that they would be able to bow before Him in a display of submission and present to Him offerings befitting a king. Their objective was to seek Jesus in order to submit to Him. It is no wonder that the Father revealed the Son to such as these.

Soli Deo Gloria!

[1] Quarles, p. 26. [2] John Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, An American Commentary on the New Testament (Forgotten Books, 2012), p. 20. [3] This is a small sampling to prove the point. Προσφέρω is used at least 69 times in the book of Leviticus alone and is almost always used in the context of bringing or presenting an offering. [4] Lenski, p. 71. [5] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2007), p. 10-12.


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