Submit to the True King - Matthew 2:1-12
The other day I came across an article titled, “Idolatry at the Office: Confessions of a Workaholic.”
The writer wrote about her slavish work schedule in her second year of surgical residency. Maybe some of you can relate.
In the article she told a couple of stories on herself. She shared how she wrecked her car at 4am on her way to the hospital due to her exhaustion. She also wrote the following:
“My idolatry climaxed in a night spent crammed under my desk at 37-weeks pregnant, napping after staying overnight to perform an operation the on-call surgeon could have completed.”
We’ve all heard stories like this. A very natural question, is why? Why would she do this to herself?
She answers that question in a way that makes far too much sense. She writes:
“Modern professionalism demands an impeccable standard of performance... Amid the pressure, many of us depend on labels such as thorough, hardworking, diligent, tireless, and strong to substantiate our worth. [This] ideology claims we can finely control all variables in life if we only work hard enough. [It’s] a creed that prizes titles, status, and public opinion over humility and quiet faithfulness.”
We want the titles. We want the positive feedback. We want the praise of those around us.
Too often we’ll go the extra mile not because we genuinely care, but rather to receive compliments and build our legacy.
In case you didn’t know, even the medical profession, where your work literally saves lives, your work can be twisted in such a way that’s self-serving.
To be fair, this is true for every profession, even pastoral ministry. I bet you’d never thought about that!
I shared this story with you as a window into the human heart. John Calvin famously said, “Man's nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”
Our hearts continually make idols because we want to be god over our own world. We want the throne. We want the status. We want the glory. We want the legacy and praise.
In the words of R.C. Sproul, this “sin is cosmic treason.” We want to overthrow the rightful king. Maybe you’re wondering who is the rightful king?
Jesus Christ is the true King and he sits on his heavenly throne in sovereign control over all things and demands your worship.
Our passage this morning teaches us three things about the true king. First, you and I should seek the king, second, embrace the true king, and lastly, you and I are to worship the true king.
Seek the true king (vv. 1-6)
It feels a little weird to be reading this passage of Scripture not during the Christmas season and singing “We Three Kings.”
It’s a familiar passage, but there’s so much Yuletide lore mixed in it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction apart without actually reading this passage. We’ve all heard of the magi or wise men. We’ve all sung about them during Christmas. But who are they?
Some time after Jesus is born these wise men from the east appear on the scene looking for him. They wanted to pay homage to the true king.
It’s often assumed that there were three wise men because they gave three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
But the passage never tells us how many wise men there were. Where were they from?
Somewhere in the east. Some suggest Babylonia. But again, we don’t know anything for sure.
This passage forces us to ask basic questions of this well-trodden Christmas story that are rarely answered: Who were the wise men? Were they kings? Were they royal court officials? Or something else?
It’s really tough to say. The word Magi which comes from the word magos which is used to mean magician. In Acts 13, we read of a character named Bar-Jesus or Elymas and he is described unfavorably as a magos. The term is used a few times in the Scriptures to refer to pagan astrological and dream interpreters, which makes sense because they were able to interpret the star.
This is the common understanding of the wise men - astrological, dream interpreters, which makes sense given the star and the divine dream at the end of the passage.
But the wisdom of these so-called wise men was a secular and pagan as you could get.
But that’s not the only aspect of this passage where you probably have questions.
What was the nature of the star? A supernova or a comet? We don’t know.
Or how did the wise men know to associate the star with Jesus? Again some suggest the wise men were familiar with Numbers 24:17, which says,
“a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel”
Were they familiar with that passage? Maybe. We can assume that they had been taught by Jews to expect a coming deliverer, or messiah.
We do know… that the little drummer boy was not there. He didn’t make it. I think he had a prior engagement.
But the priests and scribes in Herod’s court were able to answer the wise men’s question. They asked in verse 2, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?”
They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
“‘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.’”
The Scriptures were very clear where the Messiah would come from - Bethlehem. The priests and scribes quote Micah 5 which was understood as a prophecy that the Messiah, deliverer and true king of Israel would be born in Bethlehem.
You see the Scriptures are being fulfilled but you can almost see the priests and the scribes shrug their shoulders. It’s simply a statement of fact.
The weren’t interested in learning why the wise men were searching for the true king.
I think the key to this passage is in their question in verse 2, “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 were seeking Jesus in order to worship him.
Not too long ago, I saw a comedian talking about being pitched offers from big TV executives. He said, they’ll say things like, “we really like what you’re doing, how can we fit you into our organization?” And he said that he always focuses on the wrong things… instead of focusing on what they’re saying, he’ll ask what was that shape you were just making with your hands?
I think the same is true for this passage. It’s easy to get caught up in the details like who were the wise men, and what was the nature of the star, and miss the point of this passage.
Jesus is the king over all people, Jews and gentiles alike. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham that he would bless the nations through him. He’s descended from the lineage of King David. In fact, he was born in Bethlehem just like David! He is the eternal king promised to David in 2 Samuel 7!
He deserves honor, praise, adoration. And yet he’s in a stable.
You wouldn’t expect these gentile, pagan men to be the ones seeking the true king. You’d expect Herod, the priests, and scribes to be excited about the birth of the true king.
But that’s not the case. It’s these mysterious wise men. Could it be that so much detail is left out of this passage in order to ensure the focus of this passage is on worshipping Jesus Christ?
They were seeking Jesus, the true king, in order to worship him.
Probably one of the most striking aspects of this passage is the indifference of the priests and scribes over the possibility of the anointed one, the promised messiah, the Christ compared to the excitement of the wise men.
You would expect the opposite.
Here’s my point: Those that appear religious may be spiritually blind and those that seem spiritually distant may be searching for Christ.
The priests and scribes were spiritually blind. And yet, these pagan magician types are seeking Christ.
It raises an interesting point for us: never assume that because someone holds a spiritual office, they’re actually spiritually enlightened.
The great Bible commentator Matthew Henry said, “The greatest wickedness often conceals itself under a mask of piety.”
Just because someone says they’re a pastor, elder, deacon, works in a church, or is some sort of guru, doesn’t mean they’re born again.
The other side of that coin is, those that seem spiritually disinterested may be seeking Christ.
Just because someone isn’t saved right now, doesn’t mean God can’t save them. Have you given up hope on anyone? Continue to pray and share the gospel with them.
God can work in the lives of anyone at anytime, anywhere. Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”
The wise men sought after Jesus Christ and they found him!
What an encouragement!
Embrace the true king. (vv. 3, 7-8)
We learn, in verse 3, that Herod was terrified by the news of a birth of a king. Jerusalem was troubled as well, because of the uncertain political fallout of a new king. A freshly minted king could have brought war upon them. Needless to say, it seems those that should have been elated by a new king were troubled by him.
“Herod the great” or King Herod was in fact, an Edomite, a descendant of Esau, Jacob’s brother, that became an enemy to the nation of Israel, yet the Roman Empire put Herod in charge over the Jewish population.
He was well known for his cruelty and paranoia. He had his wife and sons killed in order to protect his throne.
So it makes perfect sense that verse 3 would describe him as troubled. The meaning of the word, troubled in the greek sheds even more light on Herod’s emotional state. It means, to shake, stir up, or agitate.
He was thinking, “I’m king of the Jews.” “Didn’t Rome gave this title on me?”
It had probably taken him months or years to achieve his position. And frankly, losing his position and title was his greatest fear.
That’s why Herod wanted to meet with the wise men and encouraged them to find the king in verses 7-8. Herod asked the wise men about the star simply as decoy. He didn’t care about the star or about worshipping Jesus. He wanted them to find this king so that he could destroy him.
What I find most interesting about this passage, is that everyone accepts the accuracy of Micah’s prophecy. No one questions or doubts it. And yet at the same time, neither Herod or the priests and scribes were willing to go investigate Bethlehem for themselves. Instead they took the lazy way out.
Herod says bring word back to me so I can worship him, but really in his heart he was thinking so I can eliminate this threat to my power.
There are some things that people just aren’t willing to give up. For Herod, he felt threatened that there could be another king out there that would try to take his power. He didn’t want to give up his power.
Sometimes people stay in a position well past their prime. Bobby Bowden, the long-time football coach at Florida State had to be forced out in 2010.
He was 80 years old when they pushed him out. By all accounts, he was coaching well past his prime. And yet, he kept coaching and coaching and coaching.
Bobby Bowden, from everything I’ve read is a wonderful Christian man. But it’s so easy to hang on to things well after we should have let them go.
Herod was deeply threatened simply by the idea of another king. The fact that there might be someone out there that could make a run at his position, authority, his power did not sit well with him. He refused to give up his crown for Jesus.
He was so protective of his throne he was willing to kill anyone that threatened his title and power.
Herod’s power and position was his god. His sin blinded him to the point where he could never lay down his crown and embrace the true king.
Even for believers, unrepentant sin can drive a wedge between us and God.
The truth is we all have sinful idols - sex, money, power. Those are the obvious ones.
But there are some idols that are more acceptable within the church. Children can become idols. Your family could be an idol. Your reputation could be an idol.
These idols can become crowns that we proudly wear. “Look at how tight knit my family is.” “Everyone respects me.”
Is your family more important to you than Jesus Christ? Is your relationship with you spouse more important than your relationship with Christ? Is your reputation more valuable than Christ?
Are you willing to lay down your crown and embrace the true king, Jesus?
If you’re not willing to lay down your crown you’ll never be able to worship the true king.
Worship the true king (vv. 9-12)
The wise men continue on their journey in verse 9. They had listened to Herod and headed to Bethlehem. Isn’t it interesting that verse 10 says, “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”
The light of God’s great star led these wise men through the darkness of the night. God was leading these men to Jesus Christ.
The light of God leading through the darkness of the world and finding its resting place on Jesus Christ. Sounds a lot like the Christian life, does it not? God leading us through the darkness to Christ. It’s a beautiful image. And the reaction of the wise men is just as beautiful.
And these men rejoiced exceedingly with great joy! That wasn’t very presbyterian of them was it!
Matthew Henry wrote some great stuff on Matthew chapter 2.
He said of verse 10 in particular, “Now [the wise men] could laugh at the Jews in Jerusalem, who, probably, had laughed at them as [going] on a fool’s errand.” The gentiles had made their way to Christ while the Jews stayed at home.
This story reaches its peak in verse 11, “And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.”
When you’re in the presence of God incarnate, God with us, Emmanuel there is only one appropriate reaction: You worship.
This is a picture of the gospel in action. God has never waited on you. He’s always takes the action. He came to earth to deliver us from our sin.
He died on the cross, he rose from the grave. You see from start to finish God has had a plan and is carrying it out. He plan worked and is still working.
That’s what makes this passage so beautiful. So magnificent. You read it and quickly realize it’s not about the wise men. It’s about Jesus Christ. It’s about worshipping the son of God. The divine fulfillment of the Scriptures.
The Savior of the World, the true King of the Jews, the blessing to the nations promised to Abraham, the eternal king promised to king David, lies innocently in a humble feeding trough.
And the wise men’s gifts were appropriate for the moment. They didn’t give Jesus a leftover toy from a McDonald’s Happy Meal.
Their gifts were rich with meaning. The ancient church father Origen wrote: “gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense as to God.”
It makes sense: gold suggests royalty, it is an appropriate gift for a king. Frankincense was a sweet aroma priests would offer to God in Old Testament worship, and myrrh was a perfume used by mortal men in order to, as one Bible commentator said, “to make his life a little more pleasant, his pain a little less dreadful and his burial less repulsive.”
This passage emphasizes Jesus as the fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies, but it also demonstrates who he is: a prophet, a priest, and king who will die for His people.
And God’s plan will never be thwarted by any man. That’s why he divinely intervenes and instructs the wise men through a dream not to return to Herod.
There are few things in life that are more satisfying than finishing a jigsaw puzzle. Or, if you’re like me, watching someone else finish a jigsaw puzzle.
You know when you have like a dozen or so pieces left, and you figure one out that sort of solves the puzzle for you? Based off of that piece you’re able to see where the other pieces go?
I think that’s a good analogy for this passage. The most important piece of God’s redemptive plan is set in place - Jesus Christ. The redeemer has finally come.
The wise men understood that very thing. They gave homage, adoration, and treasures to the true king. Interestingly, they didn’t give nearly the same level of adoration to Herod.
You see the wise men submitted to the true king. Have you? Have you submitted to the true king, Jesus Christ? Does he rule over your life?
I find it fascinating that these wise men sort of ride off into the sunset. They appear for this brief moment in time, and then they’re never heard from again.
Isn’t that a picture of the Christian life? The more you submit to king Jesus, the less you care you have for the things of this world.
You become more interested in giving him glory and less interested in getting it for yourself. It’s what John the Baptist meant when he, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
The wise men weren’t concerned with getting recognition or making a name for themself. They were concerned with worshipping the king.
Did you come here this morning to worship the king?
Bring your treasure of praise before him this morning and lay it at his feet.
Let’s pray together.