Jesus born in Bethlehem: According to Scripture
Would you please turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew chapter 2. As we continue our study in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew. Last week we concentrated on the circumstances of Jesus’ birth and the nature of our Savior. Some of the things that Matthew teaches us about who He is. His virgin birth sets forth His divinity and His perfect humanity. His name Immanuel reminds us of the mystery of the incarnation. His very given name, Jesus, the one who saves, reminds us that He has come to save us from sin, save us for holiness. This week we begin in chapter 2, which sets forth the worship of that Christ. Let’s hear the word of the living God.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him.” And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he began to inquire of them where the Christ was to be born. And they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet, 'AND YOU, BETHLEHEM, LAND OF JUDAH, ARE BY NO MEANS LEAST AMONG THE LEADERS OF JUDAH; FOR OUT OF YOU SHALL COME FORTH A RULER, WHO WILL SHEPHERD MY PEOPLE ISRAEL.' ” Then Herod secretly called the magi, and ascertained from them the time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, “Go and make careful search for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, that I too may come and worship Him.” And having heard the king, they went their way; and lo, the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshipped Him; and opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their own country by another way.”
Thus ends this reading of God’s holy and inspired word. May He add His blessings to it. Let’s look to Him in prayer.
Our Lord and our God, guard us against the familiarities of this passage. We have read it so often. We have sung it so often. We have heard it so often. Perhaps on our fathers’ and our mothers’ knees. Perhaps in Sunday School. The many associations of great sentiment with this passage. But remind us this day that this passage is meant for our instruction, for our training, for our edification, for our correction, our up-building in righteousness. So by the Spirit illumine the minds that we might behold wonderful things in your word. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
There are many glorious things in this passage that I would like to talk with you about this morning. But I must discipline myself to focus on only a few. There are four things in particular that I would like to draw to your attention in this passage today. First, the concealment of Christ, second the revelation of Christ, third, the worship of Christ, and fourth, the birth of Christ. We will take them in that order.
I. The concealment of Christ in Israel.
The first thing that I would like to draw to your attention from God’s word is the concealment of Christ in Israel. Isn’t it striking that we have Gentiles from the east coming to worship the king, but in Israel, neither the king, nor the religious leaders, nor the people have the slightest idea that the Messiah of God has come into the world. He is known by Gentiles, but concealed in Israel and that truth surely, my friends, teaches us that God must reveal Christ if we are to see Him, if we are to embrace Him.
Think of the progression of Matthew’s story. Matthew writes his gospel with a view to his beloved Jewish brethren. He wants them to come to faith in the Messiah. But isn’t it interesting that the story the he tells first of the birth of Christ has to do not with the Jewish faithful coming to worship the long awaited Messiah, but with Gentiles from the Pagan east, Babylonia, or Persia, coming to worship the one true Messiah. It is so strange these Magi appear as it were from nowhere following this star and announcing that they have come to worship the king of the Jews. And when they announce this to the Jewish people in Jerusalem, they are met with baffled looks.
The king of Israel, as it existed in those days, was a man named Herod. We know him in the Bible as Herod the Great. He was in the last years of his reign. If our chronology is right, this King Herod only lived a year or two more. And yet, when he hears report of this King of the Jews born somewhere in Israel, he is immediately troubled at the stability of his rule. Herod, by the way, was not a full-blooded Jew. Herod was an Idumean, or an Edomite. His father was from Edom. His mother was an Arab. Now, you can imagine what the Jews of his day in Israel thought of him with regard to his allegiance to the true faith. And Herod himself was apparently no practicing Jew, because even the Idumeans had been converted to Judaism by this time. He doesn’t even know the Bible passage which specifies the place of the Messiah’s birth. He has to go to the religious leaders to find that out. And that wasn’t one of the questions that would have been a deep dark secret amongst Israel. You would have known, had you studied your prophets in Hebrew school as a child, that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem. But Herod meets the news of these Gentiles not just with indifference, but with fear and eventually rage.
Though his character is not shown in its full in the passage that we read today, next week we will see just how devious, and hateful, and wicked, and malicious, and conniving this man could be. This man had killed almost his entire family in order to be crowned king by the Romans. In the passage we read next week, Herod will slaughter the little children, the little male children in Bethlehem, just to try to secure the reign that was slipping away as his life slipped away. Let me say in passing, that Herod for that deed, for the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem, has been vilified for two millenniums. And yet, on next Sunday, when many of our hearts are turned to the matter of sanctity of life, as we remember a fateful day in 1973, when much changed in this land with regard to our view of the sanctity of life, will we not stand under his judgment for much more? A handful of innocents this man slaughtered. Millions upon millions are on our hands year after year.
Notice that Herod turns to the religious leaders in Jerusalem. He goes to the chief priests, the ones who are the leaders among the supreme court of Israel, the Saducees and others appointed by them. The current high priest and those who are past high priests and he says to them, where is the Christ to be born? And he is told straight way, from the prophecy of Micah, which we read today, He will born in Bethlehem. But isn’t it interesting that neither Herod, nor the religious leaders send anyone to Bethlehem along with the Magi to see if this be true. Herod and the religious leaders of Israel both meet the word of the birth of the Messiah with indifference and fear. And even the people about whom we are told in verse 3 that they too, were troubled, all Jerusalem with them. Even they did not make their way to Bethlehem.
The people of Jerusalem were troubled only because they knew the reputation of vindictive Herod. They knew how he had brutally oppressed all those who opposed his rule. And they feared when they had heard a rival king laying claim to the throne of Israel. They feared that he would start yet another pogrom, another warfare against many in the city of Jerusalem. They were troubled, but no one, not the king, not the religious leaders, and not the people, none of them had a view to the birth of the Messiah. The Messiah was born in Israel, but He was concealed from Israel.
And this surely, friends, reminds us that God must reveal Christ if we are to see Him and embrace Him. And this reminds us of the possibilities of very religious people, possessed of great heritage and revelation, the Scriptures, the covenants, the promises, being blind to spiritual things. Because it doesn’t matter how great the light is if we do not have eyes to see. If we are spiritually blind, it doesn’t matter how blinding the spiritual light is, we will not see it. And so these Gentiles have seen the light. But none in Israel, save the shepherds, and the tiny family of Mary and Joseph were rejoicing at the coming of the Messiah for which they had been waiting since the time of Abraham and Adam before him. Spiritual blindness is a real possibility even for those who are very religious and possess the scriptures of God.
Are we spiritually blind this day? Have we recognized the coming of the Messiah? Have we bowed the knee to Him? Have we made the pilgrimage to Bethlehem to worship Him? Have we embraced Him by faith as our Lord and Savior? Have you found in Him our salvation and our all and all? If we have not, we are not in principle different from Herod or the religious leaders or the people of Jerusalem in their day. The concealment of Christ in Israel, ah, it is a mystery.
II. The revelation of Christ to the Gentiles.
The second thing that I would like to point to you is the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. If it is surprising that Messiah comes to Israel and no one seems to know or care, it is even more surprising that God has children in a far off place, far from the word of God, far from the prophets of old, far from the land of Abraham, far from the land of Canaan. And He brings them to Bethlehem to worship. And this reminds us, my friends, that God has appointed Christ as the one true Savior of the world. He is not merely the Savior of Israel. He is not merely the hope of Israel. He is the only hope of the world. And from far off, he brings worshipping Gentiles to Bethlehem to worship His son.
Isn’t it amazing, whereas Herod and the priests, and the people are unaware of the most momentous event in the history of Israel, that Gentiles from Chaldea or Babylonia, or Persia, have journey hundreds of miles to worship Him. Isn’t it amazing that God has revealed His Christ to these Gentiles and they go joyfully to worship the Son of God. And isn’t it amazing that in verse 12, God protects these Gentiles from the schemes of His own people, who would surely have undone them for the unrest that they brought. We are reminded, when we see these Gentiles making their way to Bethlehem, that Christ is the only true Savior of the world. There is salvation in no other name. God did not say, Israel, you have your Messiah, and the nations can have theirs. There is one Messiah for the nations. And the Gentiles in this passage worship that one Messiah, even though Israel is not aware of Him yet. The revelation of the Christ to the Gentiles. It is an amazing thing. God brings His son into the world in an ironic way. His own people know Him not, but the Magi journey from the east to worship Him.
III. The worship of Christ.
Thirdly, I would like to point you to the worship of Christ in this passage. In verse 2 and in verse 11, it is stressed that the Magi came for the purpose of worshipping. And we learn from this that God expects His Son, His divine Son, His only begotten Son, to be worshipped. He expects Him to be worshipped. Twice in this passage the Magi stress that they are coming to worship Christ. You know, Matthew tells us a beautiful story. It is a mysterious story that he tells, because everything that he tells us raises two or three questions in our mind. He tells us about the Magi. We immediately begin to wonder, well, who were they? He tells us about the star. And he gives us details about it. And we begin to wonder, well, what is this star? I mean, is this something that God is creating for the experience? Is this in conjunction with the planets and the celestial bodies? What is this? And we begin to ask all this? How did the Magi know to go to Jerusalem? How did they know to find Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem? How did all this happen? Hundreds of questions come into our mind.
And scholars have puzzled over all these questions for not only years, but for centuries. Matthew does not tell us. He continually presses forth to press home one truth. He presses home the truth that these Magi, whoever they were, had come to worship Christ. Matthew does not tell us who the Magi are. Biblical scholars have argued for years over the Magi. Were they from Persia? Were they from Babylonia? Were they magicians? Were they princes? Were they astrologers or astronomers? How did they know what the star was? Was that something that they had picked up from Daniel? Or was that something that they picked up from the Jews who had made their way into Arabia? How did they know these things? How many of them were there? We sing, ‘we three kings,’ but Matthew doesn’t tell us that there were three kings. He just tells us that there were three gifts. And we deduce from that, “Well, there must have been three kings.” But all that Matthew tells us is there were more than two of them. Or at least two of them. They were plural, Magi. There are two or more. There may have been forty of them. There may have been two them. But there were Magi. He doesn’t tell us. Matthew doesn’t tell us how they were dressed. Matthew doesn’t tell us their names. He doesn’t tell us their later history. He doesn’t tell us when they die. He doesn’t tell us where they were buried. All these questions he leaves you. If Matthew had been a reporter, his editor would have fired him.
But Matthew is telling you what he is telling you because he wants you to focus in on the fact that these Gentiles were coming to worship the Christ of God. As little knowledge as they had of the truth, they had been brought by faith to worship the Christ of God. Notice that Matthew doesn’t tell you about the star. He doesn’t tell you how this came about. He doesn’t tell you what kind of luminary this is. Was this a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn as many astronomers have suggested that it was? Was it the conjunction of planets? Was it a comet? Was it a unique heavenly body created by God just for this circumstance? At one point it seems to act like a regular star, and then at other points it moves. Matthew doesn’t tell you.
But what it does tell you is that these Gentiles came to worship the Christ. That is the one important fact that he continues to drive home in the passage. And this truth reminds us that the Christ child is not simply an occasion for sentiment, He is not simply a person to be admired. This Christ child is to be worshipped because He is the Son of God. All of us have sweet memories of these passages perhaps being read over the years at Christmas time. And there is great sentiment attached to that season. But Matthew realizes that Christ is more than an occasion for sentiment. He is the very Christ of God. And many people of the world, who say, “Oh, I admire Christ. He is a great moral teacher. He is the greatest moral teacher that ever lived. Even though I disagree with most of the things that He said about morals, Oh, He was a great prophet. He was an apocalyptic prophet, calling for the end of the world.” People say all sorts of things about, “O, we admire Christ. We are not against Christ. We just do not believe that He was God. We don’t believe that He was the only way.”
But isn’t it interesting that Paul tells us that not every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is the greatest moral teacher that ever lived. Not that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ brought about a social revolution that has changed the world, as we know it. But that Jesus Christ will be professed by every knee and every tongue as Lord, as the one true Messiah, the God of Israel, who is the Savior of the world.
The worship of Christ is what Matthew is pointing out about these Gentiles, and he wants you, and he wants me to bow the knee to Christ. Have you bowed the knee to Christ? Have you acknowledged Him as Lord of all? Can you sing truly the words of “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name?” Can you say, “Crown Him Lord of All?” He is the Lord of all Matthew says, and therefore He ought to be worshipped. And so we see the worship of Christ in this passage.
IV. The birth of Christ.
The last thing I would like to point out to you today is the birth of Christ. In the birth of Christ, as it is recorded in verses 5 and 6, and in the prophecy of Micah, and also in verse 11, we see that God calls Christ’s birth to be according to the prophecies of Scripture. According to Scripture, according to that prophecy of Micah that we read earlier today. Christ’s birth was prophetically foretold. It was told beforehand by the prophets of Israel. And one of the things that that gives to us is God’s own confirmation that this is His Son. He said, seven hundred years in advance through the mouth of the prophet, Micah, that His Son would come, would be born in Bethlehem, and would shepherd His people. This confirms who Jesus is. It validates His identity. It verifies His ministry. It confirms God’s blessings on His life and on His ministry. It tells us something about our Savior.
Even the gifts that are given to Christ in this passage teach us lessons. I know that gold and frankincense and myrrh had many uses in the Bible. I wouldn’t deny that for a minute. But I am not so sure that Origin wasn’t right 1700 years ago when he pointed to the specific uses of gold and frankincense and myrrh as revealing something about the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Origin said, “Gold as to a king, myrrh as to one who is mortal and incense as to God.” Could it be that the very gifts that are given to the king are designed in God’s providence to illumine the work of Christ. Ursula von Williams caught on to this truth when she was writing the beautiful poem used by her husband, Ralph Vaughn Williams, in his Christmas oratorio Hodie. These are her words, “gold from the veins of earth He brings. Red gold to crown the king of kings. Power and glory here behold shut in a talisman of gold. Frankincense from those dark cans was gathered in eastern sunrise lands. Incense to burn both day and night to bear the prayers of priests will say. Myrrh is a bitter gift for the dead. Birth but begins the path you tread. Your way is short. Your days foretold by myrrh and frankincense and gold.” It is true. The Lord even reveals to us the Savior in the gifts given to Him by the kings.
But let me say in closing, my friends, as we think on the birth of Christ and His incarnation. That His birth is as relevant, it is as stunning, it is as needful; it is as essential today as it was then. We live in a world with prosperity beyond the dreams of the Utopias, and we live in a world of technology that would have boggled the minds of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and great-great-grandfathers. And yet those technologies and that prosperity have brought untold suffering and isolation and sorrow. We think of the technologies of transportation that we have which enabled us to span the globe in 24 hours, something that would have taken our forefathers months to do. And yet that very capacity for transportation has left us in isolation. Did you know that in any given year, twenty percent of the American public moves. Do you have any idea what that does to the structure of family life, family connections, friendship connections, and relationships. We have become a nation of strangers as the sociologists have told us. That very capacity for transportation enables a family of five to be in five places at super time on any given night, whereas we used to gather around the table at that time of day to spend time of fellowship. Our very technological capacities today enable us to live solitary lives. In the midst of all our prosperity and our technology, people gather in cities, with millions of people around them, living alone.
Even this vehicle that we are on today, this vehicle of television that allows news from the ends of the earth to be poured into your living room, has produced isolation. For we are told that most people in this nation watch that invention alone, and even if they are in the midst of families they are isolated as they relate to a machine. And so we see increasing isolation. We feel that loneliness in our culture, and that loneliness and isolation is but a symptom of sin. It is a symptom of the effects of sin in the world, which takes good things and uses them for bad purposes.
Isn’t it wonderful that our Lord did not send us a book from heaven to tell us how to save ourselves? Isn’t it wonderful that our Lord did not beam to us instructions for self-salvation from the halls of heaven? The Lord came into the world in our flesh. He came to us as close as we could possibly be, so that if you are one of those victims of isolation today, I can tell you that God is with us in Christ. He came from Heaven Himself to redeem us, because He not only wanted to save us from our sins, but He wanted to usher us into a relationship with Him and a relationship with one another. And so in His very incarnation, He has broken the walls of isolation which surround us everywhere we turn this day.
Oh, the incarnation is just as relevant and powerful as it has ever been. Are you a victim of isolation and sin? Have you sensed it? Do you not have any idea where to turn? Look to the one that the Gentiles from the east bowed their knees to. The Lord. The Lord of glory. “Who is He in yonder stall? At whose feet the shepherds fall? Tis the Lord, O wondrous story. Tis the King, the King of glory.” May the Lord bless His word. Let’s look to Him in prayer.
Our Lord and our God, we worship You for this inestimable gift. And we worship Christ, the Messiah and Savior of the world. We ask that You would hasten today, in the knowledge of the Lord covers the earth as the water covers the sea. And we will give You the praise and glory. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.