Matthew's record of the Magi's visit is shaped in such a way as to reflect the Moses story and so demonstrate how Jesus' birth fulfills scripture. The story reveals, in the coming of Eastern astrologers, the birth of a royal prince, the son of Abraham in whom all the families of the earth will be blessed, cf. Gen.12:3. The powers of darkness move against the child, but their plans, for the moment, come undone.
v1. There is debate over the date of Herod's death, but 4BC is favoured. So, Jesus is born some time before 4BC in Bethlehem, in Judea (rather than Bethlehem in Zebulun). Magi are referred to in Daniel,1:20, 2:2, 4:7, 5:7. The word loosely covers astrologers, magicians and interpreters of dreams. It is possible that they have journeyed from Babylon. In tradition they are named Melkon, Balthasar and Gasper.
v2. For Matthew, the importance of this story lies in its fulfillment of scripture - Messiah is "a star" that will "rise out of Israel", Num.23:7. Although the Old Testament denounces astrology, Matthew relates the story, emphasizing that the Magi come to "worship", ie. do obeisance, do homage. The "star" is possibly a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in 7BC. People of the time saw significance in this planetary conjunction.
v3. In Herod's final years he was quite paranoid and ordered the death of numerous officials, including family members, so the visit of the Magi not only disturbs Herod, but also the populous, who are rightly worried about how he might respond.
v4-5. Herod consults the priestly hierarchy, along with experts on the Old Testament, for the birthplace of the Messiah and is told "Bethlehem in Judea."
v6. Matthew loosely follows the Masoretic text of Micah 5:2 with some words from 2 Samuel 5:2.
v7-10. The Magi obviously came to Jerusalem on the assumption that the new Hebrew king would be born there, but Herod is able to tell them where they must go. Obviously Herod wants to know when the star appeared so he can calculate the child's age and efficiently eliminate any possible contender for his throne. As for the Magi, Herod is able to present himself as a devotee of the newly born king, but of course, he never expected God to intervene. As the Magi headed toward Bethlehem the star appears overhead, confirming their journey's end.
v11. The Magi track down the family, now living in a home, and "worship him" (They see both Jesus and Mary, but worship Jesus alone). Following Eastern custom, they give gifts to Jesus, in much they same way as gifts would be given to an important dignitary. Opening their treasure boxes, they give gold, frankincense (mixed gums used for incense), and myrrh (a spice for embalming). The ancients suggested these represented royalty, divinity, and sacrifice, but there is no evidence the Magi intend this understanding. Three gifts don't necessarily mean three visitors (always a good trivia question!).
v12. God intervenes and warns the Magi to head home without returning to Jerusalem.
It's very easy to allow the picturesque nature of the "we three kings" story to hide its substantial teaching. In fact, other than the little drummer boy, Christmas cards depicting the three kings on their camels is the most widely chosen secular Christmas scene. It wouldn't even offend a Muslim. Although I have to say, when I was young, most Christmas cards depicted a snow-bound English village scene, sometimes with the church in view - a rather incongruous scene for Australia. Anyway, we can easily miss the point of these visiting astrologers.
Matthew goes to great length to remind us that the events surrounding the birth of Jesus fulfill scripture; nothing is accidental. These events are designed and were long ago foretold by the prophets. Matthew makes the point that God's providential care, even supernatural care, touches these events and moves them to their intended end. He also gives us an early hint of the hostility that will be shown toward Jesus by the Jewish authorities, and the opposite response shown by the Gentiles. There is a sense where the Gentiles will recognize Jesus' reign, while Israel will reject it. The Magi had but the light of a star, while Israel had the light of the scriptures. So, like Nineveh in the day of judgment, the Magi will condemn Israel for neglecting the privilege of their greater light.
Many years ago, in communist Russia, a soldier was given a page from a Bible. It was from Isaiah. He didn't much understand it, other than the repeated phrase, "thus says the Lord." About all he could understand of God from that single page was that God speaks. So, he asked the God who spoke with Isaiah, to speak with him - and He did. With this minute revelation, this flickering star, he kneeled before the God who speaks and worshiped him.
"The light shines in the darkness." God's grace in Christ is a fine light shining in the midst of confusion. Yet, the seeker will always find the light, so let us always seek rather than be dulled by the confusion. Let us join with the wise and worship the newborn king.
Why is this gospel reading chosen for Epiphany? Explain.