Text: Matthew 2:1-12
Do you remember why, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the White Witch is constantly on the lookout for humans? If you’ve read the book or seen the movie, you remember that she is actually afraid and has an order for any of the creatures of Narnia to immediately alert her if any humans show up. The reason is because she knows that their arrival signals the end of her reign. According to ancient prophecy, they would take over the rule of Narnia, and so she has to put a stop to that. Nearly the same thing is going on with King Herod when Jesus was born. Whether he knew to be on the look out for the birth of the messiah beforehand, once the Wise Men showed up from the East, he was on high alert. As we learn from our text today, their visit signaled the birth of the King of the Jews, and this was a direct threat to Herod. It was something he had to fight against with all his might.
While Herod may have misunderstood a great many things about Jesus, he was not wrong about the basic fact that Jesus was a king. The Wise Men were looking for an earthly king, and Herod, after consorting with the priests and scribes, believed that the messiah was this king, someone who would put him out of business. And while there is much to say about this topic, the bottom line is that both the Wise Men and Herod were correct. Jesus was a king, and he had come to bring a kingdom.
The Wise Men
“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem…” (vs. 1). Matthew’s text does not tell us a great deal about these men, but the word he uses is Magi, a term which referred to court-astrologers, men who watched the stars and advised the king. The text also simply says “the East,” but given what we know of world history at this time, the most likely candidates are Babylon or Persia.
The thing that stands out about the Wise Men’s interpretation of this star is that it signified the birth of a king. When they got to Herod they said, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” (vs. 2). The fact that they came to worship Jesus may have meant nothing more than the Persian custom of worshiping an earthly king. But they may have also had an understanding of Jesus’ divine presence. When they do find Jesus, they offer him “treasures… gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (vs. 11). This was an act of tribute-paying. They wanted to honor the new king and to show their fealty towards him.
Herod’s reaction also teaches us something important about who Jesus is. “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (vs. 3). This reaction of panic is because the news of a “King of the Jews” was a direct threat to Herod’s rule. The whole city of Jerusalem was troubled, as well. This may have been because of Herod’s reaction. He may have given them cause to worry through his own behavior or even political response. It may have also been the case that the arrival of the Wise Men was a great public spectacle and their announcement was also public. In that case, Herod would have had quite the problem indeed! The possibility of a popular uprising and civil revolt was very real.
Herod calls for the chief priests and scribes to find out more about the messiah, what this star could possibly mean, and the implications of his kingdom. Herod had some knowledge about the Jewish scriptures, of course, and he seems to know what the concept of the messiah was all about. He asks the priests and scribes to tell him where this messiah would be born, and they respond by quoting from Micah 5 which identifies Bethlehem as the city. It’s interesting to read that portion to get the full effect. There is a slight translation variation between the Greek version of the Old Testament and the Hebrew which we use, but it has no effect on substance of the prophecy. It says:
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Though you are little among the thousands of Judah,
Yet out of you shall come forth to Me
The One to be Ruler in Israel,
Whose goings forth are from of old,
Therefore He shall give them up,
Until the time that she who is in labor has given birth;
Then the remnant of His brethren
Shall return to the children of Israel.
And He shall stand and feed His flock
In the strength of the Lord,
In the majesty of the name of the Lord His God;
And they shall abide,
For now He shall be great
To the ends of the earth;
And this One shall be peace.
Notice that not only would the messiah come from Bethlehem, but that he would go on to become the ruler of Israel. His arrival would signify the end of one time of judgment and the beginning of the reign of Yahweh Himself. Thus Herod knew that this was more than normal politics. This was a fulfillment of Scripture. And yet he still tries to stop it.
You know how it goes. Herod tells the Wise Men to go find the baby and then return to tell him where it is so that he too can visit and pay tribute. But Herod never really wanted to do this at all. He wanted to kill the child and prevent the reign of the new king. But this is really quite amazing when we consider what Herod knew and what his court priests and scribes knew. This king was not just any king, but God’s special king who would rule over Israel eternally. This was a threat to Herod politically, to be sure, but it was also a threat to him personally. He couldn’t stand the idea of giving up power, not even to God.
Jesus is King
The big point which arises from both reactions, the Wise Men’s and Herod’s, to the news of the birth of Jesus is that He is a king. Jesus is not just a spiritual-emotional king, some sort of “king of my heart.” He was a sovereign and ruler to whom neighboring courts wanted to pay tribute and rival magistrates sought to kill. In the 1st century, His birth was interpreted as an earthly ruler and an earthly kingdom, with the blessings and dangers that come with that.
And this interpretation was perfectly reasonable. If you read the Old Testament prophecies about the messiah, they are all very clear that he would be a king. Psalm 2, Psalm 45, Psalm 80, Psalm 99, and Psalm 110 are a few clear examples. “The Lord reigns; Let the peoples tremble!” (Psalm 99:1). “Ask of Me, and I will give You The nations for Your inheritance, And the ends of the earth for Your possession” (Psalm 2:8)
Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool. The Lord shall send the rod of Your strength out of Zion. Rule in the midst of Your enemies! … The Lord is at Your right hand; He shall execute kings in the day of His wrath. He shall judge among the nations, He shall fill the places with dead bodies, He shall execute the heads of many countries. He shall drink of the brook by the wayside; Therefore He shall lift up the head. (Psalm 110:1-2, 5-7)
No wonder this made a political splash! The messiah was to sit on a throne, inherit the nations, and slay his enemies. This means that Jesus, if He is the messiah, must be obeyed. His word is law. All other earthly kings are subordinated to Him. Indeed, their rule is limited. And we need to be clear that these prophecies are still true. Jesus will reign on a throne in His kingdom and in a public way. This is all part of the role of the messiah, our Christ. Jesus is Lord.
But as we have mentioned before, if all of this is more than just pious language, if it is really and literally true, some immediate questions arise. Where is this kingdom now? Jesus did not actually do many of the things associated with kingly rule. He didn’t take up arms and start a war. He named no direct successors to sit on His throne. The Church today doesn’t really look like a kingdom at all. So what gives?
The first thing we need to know is that the New Testament and Jesus Himself comment on this question. They do not try to sneak anything by, subtly redefining all the terms. Jesus is clear that He is a king and does have a kingdom, and yet He also says that it currently has a certain form, something we call spiritual or interior, and that it will take on a different form, the more public and cosmic at a later point in history. For instance, listen to these verses:
Whatever city you enter, and they receive you, eat such things as are set before you. And heal the sick there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whatever city you enter, and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, ‘The very dust of your city which clings to us we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near you.’ (Luke 10:8-11)
Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21)
Then Pilate entered the Praetorium again, called Jesus, and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered him, “Are you speaking for yourself about this, or did others tell you this concerning Me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered You to me. What have You done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.” Pilate therefore said to Him, “Are You a king then?” Jesus answered, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” (John 18:33-37)
All of those passages show the otherness of the kingdom, that it is an otherwordly kingdom which has a spiritual presence now, “within you,” and it goes wherever the preaching of the gospel goes. And yet, Jesus also teaches that He will come again to set up His throne in a more temporal way:
“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. (Matt. 25:31-32)
That’s a sort of judgment that goes beyond the internal and “spiritual” judgment. And we see that Christians will also participate in this too. The Apostle Paul says in 1 Cor. 6, “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world” (1 Cor. 6:2). In the book of the Revelation we also read:
And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. (Rev. 20:4)
And so when Jesus comes again at the end of history, He will literally sit on a throne, literally judge the earth, and His people will reign with Him. Prior to that time, the kingdom is also present, but it is present as a spiritual reality, within the hearts and consciences of believers, and it manifests itself through the preaching of the gospel and the good works of the Christian as they point others to Jesus.
What does all of this mean? You may be thinking that I’ve gotten a bit abstract since the beginning. We went from Herod and the Wise Men to the spirituality of Christ’s kingdom and the future Second Coming. But this is all very important, because as we said earlier, Christ’s reign is that of a king and it sent shockwaves throughout the Earth when He appeared. Our following Him continues to do this, it continues to spread His kingdom and to undermine the sinful powers of this world. And so we need to view our Christian discipleship as life in the kingdom of the messiah. Our relationship to Jesus is certainly that of a saved people relating to their Savior, but it is also the relationship of a people to their king. And they are then going out spreading the message and teaching obedience to that king, to King Jesus.
And so, Jesus must be obeyed. Our obedience to Him is an act of loyalty, even political loyalty. And we must teach others to obey Him. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). And while this is, in the present age, a teaching ministry, not a violent or revolutionary one, it is still a teaching ministry which teaches all men, in every position in life, to obey the teachings of Christ. The kingship of Christ is relevant to all men and to every calling.
The kingship of Christ limits all earthly politics. It does not require us to be rebels and to fight against our government. The 1st century was full of very bad rulers, and yet the New Testament says that we are to submit to them. And yet, the kingship of Christ does limit all earthly rulers, puts them in perspective, says that they are not ultimate and that they too must obey Jesus.
And finally the kingship of Christ teaches us that Jesus is fighting for us. He will defend us from all of our enemies and His, and He will triumph over the powers of sin and the Devil. Jesus is not a mere bureaucrat giving orders from long distance. No, He is our king, and He rides into battle before us. He promises to be “in our midst” and through the agency of the Holy Spirit and the power of His Word, He continues to slay every foe. The kingship of Christ gives us great confidence and great hope. The battle is the Lord’s, and He fights to win.
And so this Christmas season and beyond, let us go forth and proclaim the birth of a king. Let us live lives of faithfulness and obedience to that king. And let us begin living the kingdom life now, through our faithful worship of Him, our truthful speech about Him, and our good works done in obedience to Him. Through the spread of the gospel, converted people, and deeds of piety, the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our God and of His Christ.
Let us pray.