Matthew 2: Magi, Moses, Messiah


Last week we read chapter 1 of Matthew’s Gospel.
We saw how Israel waited 2000 years for the Messiah,
God’s promised King.
He would save them from their enemies
And bring a new Golden Age.

We counted down 42 generations from Abraham
Until Christmas,
When Jesus was born.
He was the true Christmas present:
God’s presence with us – Immanuel.

Now we’ll carry on the story in Matthew 2.
It’s action-packed:
One mystery star.
Two dangerous journeys.
Three meetings with a king.
Four amazing dreams.

And we have two special guests.
The first is an old wise man from Babylon.
Before I go to find him,

Let’s read Matthew 2:1-12

The Wise Man

Thank you for inviting me to speak at the Babylonian Philosophical Society.
Sorry!  The Babylon Astrologers’ Union!
No? You’re the bab, bap,… The Baptist Tabernacle – right?
I’m getting old, I forget these details.
But I’ve come to tell you about the trip of my life that I will never forget.

I’m from Babylon.
When I was young I watched all the people rushing around the city.
Merchants in the marketplace making money.
Guys in the gym working out to look strong.
Politicians making speeches to feel important.
Everyone busy trying to get things that will not last.
It all seemed meaningless.
Like chasing the wind (Ecclesiastes 1:14)

One night I looked up at the stars.
So beautiful, so peaceful, so still.
So different from the noisy city.
I decided I would spend my life looking for knowledge that lasts. (Ecclesiastes 7:25)
Wisdom to understand life.

I spent my days in the libraries of Babylon and Persia.
I searched books of wisdom from around the world.
I spent my nights with a telescope gazing at the sky.
To unlock the secret message of the stars.

The more I studied, the more I knew
I hadn’t yet found the truth.  (Ecclesiastes 7:23-24)

Who has the key to knowledge?
Where can wisdom be found?  (Job 28:12)

I also read the old scrolls of Israel.[1]
I read of King David the Great.
And his son, King Solomon the Wise.
He knew the secrets of plants and trees, animals and birds.
He wrote 3000 Proverbs about how we should live. (1 Kings 4:29-34)
King Solomon was the wisest man who’s been born.

Down in Arabia lived the Queen of Sheba.
She was hungry for wisdom – like me.
She travelled long miles to see King Solomon.
She asked him many hard questions,
And he could answer each one. (1 Kings 10:1-13)

I was inspired!
But Solomon lived 1000 years ago.
Who could answer my questions?
Where to find wisdom now?

For a season I was very sad.
I feared I would never find the key.

Then I discovered the Hebrew prophets.
They spoke of another Son of David to come, greater than the first!

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding and knowledge.
Isaiah 11:2

That’s what I’m looking for!
How can I meet this king?
When would he come?
As I searched the heavens,
A new star appeared near Israel.[2]
Its constellation meant the birth of a king! [3]
The Son of David!  Could it be?
I had to go and see.

I called my friends to come along.
We loaded up our camels:
Clothes for the cold, food for the road, gifts for the king.

It was a long journey – nearly 1000 miles.
Many times, in the long hot days,
The cold lonely nights.
I wondered if I was a fool.

Then we reached Jerusalem.
For many days we asked around, “Where is the new-born King?”
Nobody knew.

Early one morning while the city still slept,
A heard a knock at the door.  A soldier.
“Get up.  Come quickly!”  He said.
“You’ve got a meeting with the king.”

King Herod was a funny chap, kind of nervous, and strange.
He really really wanted to know exactly when I saw the star.

Then he said,
“Go to Bethlehem.
Look for the baby.
Once you have offered your gifts, let me know where he is.
So I can bring my gift too.
But don’t tell anyone you’ve talked to me.
I want my present for this baby King
To be a special surprise!”

A creepy guy – we were glad to get away.
Only 6 miles south to Bethlehem.
The same star appeared to guide us.
It filled our hearts with joy.

Joseph let us in.  Mary said hello.
And then we saw the Son.

I don’t know how to describe him.
The gifts we had brought seemed unworthy, unimportant.
But we left them for him anyway.
I guess I also left my heart.

My friend had a dream: don’t go back to Herod.
So we stayed off the main road.
We returned by a different route.
And I returned as a different man.

Because in that baby, I met
The living Truth.  (John 14:6) [4]
I found what I was looking for.
In him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3)

The Gifts

A real Star Trek!
Can you relate to the wise man’s journey?
Many of you are wise men and women from eastern lands:
China or Korea or Japan.
You have come a long way – following the stars of the Southern Cross!

What are you looking for here?
Knowledge of English, or other subjects, maybe to get a good job?

Or are you like the wise man?
The wise man was seeking true wisdom.
Hungry for truth about life.

Like him,
If you meet Jesus,
It could change your life direction.
You’ll go back, or go on, as a different person.

Let’s look to the Bible again.
The prophet Isaiah promised to Israel: [5]

Kings will come to your new day…
The riches of the nations will come to you….
The people of Sheba will bring gold and frankincense
and will come worshiping the Lord.
Isaiah 60:1-6

Does that sound like the Queen of Sheba coming to Solomon?
Then the wise men coming to Jesus?
These verses are why early Christians thought the wise men were kings.
And they brought three gifts,
So Christmas cards show three kings.

The Bible doesn’t say how many there were,
But it does say they brought the first Christmas presents:
Gold and frankincense and myrrh.[6]
What do these gifts mean?[7]

Gold to crown a king.
Gold for the Son of David who brings the Golden Age.
What’s more, gold lasts – it doesn’t rust like other metals.
And Jesus’ kingdom will last for ever.

Then comes frankincense.[8]
You can buy frankincense oil or sticks today for aromatherapy.
A sweet smell to make you feel better.
In the Bible, the priests used frankincense in the temple.
There’s even a recipe:

The Lord said to Moses… “Mix fragrant spices with pure frankincense… to produce a pure and holy incense… where I will meet with you.”    Exodus 30:34-37 [9]

The old Chinese called frankincense “calling back the soul fragrance”.
Jesus is the one who calls our souls back to God.
In him God meets with us as he did in the temple.
Jesus is the true priest.
Jesus is the bridge between heaven and earth.
God with us – Immanuel!

The third gift is myrrh.
Myrrh comes up a lot in the Bible.

It’s used in beauty treatment for women.
And perfume for people in love,
Like the king with his queen.[10]

You are the most handsome of men…
Your robes are all fragrant with myrrh…
At your right is the royal bride dressed in gold.
Psalm 45

That’s appropriate, because
God in Jesus is the great King and Lover of our souls.

Myrrh suggests love, and it points towards death.[11]
It was used to preserve Egyptian mummies – the bodies of dead kings.[12]
And myrrh was used when the greatest king died:

Nicodemus brought about seventy-five pounds of perfumed ointment made from myrrh and aloes… they wrapped Jesus’ body with the spices…  John 19:39-40

Frankincense and myrrh both come from small thorny trees.
In Africa or Arabia or India.
To get the perfume, you cut the bark of the tree so it bleeds.
They call the resin “tears.”
Sweetness that comes from suffering.[13]
Appropriate for Jesus.

Gold for the King,
Who rules forever.
Frankincense for the Priest,
Who brings God’s presence.
Myrrh for the Lover,
Who died for his bride – the people he loves, like us.

Precious and appropriate gifts.
What will you bring him this Christmas?
Most of all, he wants your heart.

So the wise men have brought their gifts and gone home.
But they didn’t tell King Herod where the baby was.
How do you think Herod felt about that?
Let’s read on and find out.
Then I’ll go and find Joseph.

Matthew 2:13-23


It’s good to be here at the Bethlehem Carpenters’ Convention.
What?  No?
The Galilee Woodworkers’ Workshop?
No?  G, G… Something starting with G… The Global Group!
My memory is not so good these days.
I sometimes forget where I am.
But that journey I will never forget.

You’ve heard how my wife Mary’s son was born.
You’ve heard about the wise men coming to worship him.

Well they rode off on their camels in their fancy foreign clothes.
And we went straight to bed.
So tired – what a day!

I was sound asleep, when something shook me.
I thought it was Mary giving me a push.
She says I snore – though I’ve ever heard it.
Then I saw the angel.

“Get up!”  He said.
“Right now!
Run to Egypt and stay there until I tell you.
King Herod wants to kill the boy.”

I sat straight up when I heard the name.
That man has a history.
He drowned his brother-in-law.[14]
He killed his favourite wife.
He strangled two of his sons to death.

If Herod is coming, we’re not hanging around.
“Mary, wake up!”  I shouted.
“We gotta move now.
You get Jesus while I load the donkey.”
I grabbed my tools and the blankets from the bed,
And the rest of the loaf of bread.

Under the stars, we left for Egypt.
The Roman road is good.
But it was scary at night.
I saw a shadow move – robbers?[15]
I heard a noise in the bush – a lion?
Just my imagination.

We stopped for a rest.
Far off I thought I heard galloping horses.
I could feel the ground shaking.
Herod’s soldiers coming!
Then I realised it was just my galloping heart.

God was with us, so we reached Egypt.
80 miles south-west to the blessed border.
We stepped across to freedom from fear: out of Herod’s control!

Most towns in Egypt have Jewish communities.
So it didn’t take me long
To find work, and a place to stay. [16]

We were safe in Egypt, but it wasn’t home.
Strange culture, strange language, strange food.
Whenever Mary pushed me at night because I was snoring
– or so she says –
I hoped it was the angel.

One night it was.
“Herod is dead,” he said.
“Now it’s safe to go home.”[17]

As I saw wood in my workshop in Nazareth,
I sometimes stop and think.

Moving down to Egypt.
The king killing the baby boys.[18]
One special child escapes.
Then brought back from Egypt and safely home.

I’ve heard that story before.
That’s what happened to us.
And it happened long centuries ago.

My ancestors moved to Egypt.  (Genesis 50)
There they became slaves.
For years they were beaten and forced to work hard.
Pharaoh the king was scared they would rebel.

He commanded,
“Kill every baby Jewish boy.
Drown it in the river Nile!” (Exodus 1:22)

God rescued Moses amazingly – as he saved Jesus for us (Exodus 1-2)
Through Moses God saved his people from Egypt.
And brought them to freedom in Israel.

God said, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1).
Back then God’s Son meant Israel, now it means Jesus.

It’s as if Jesus’ story repeats Israel’s history.
I wonder what that means.

God said to Moses,
“You shall free my people from Egypt” (Exodus 3:10)

The angel said to me,
“Name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  (1:21)

Sounds kind of similar, don’t you think?
I used to look at Jesus asleep in Mary’s arms.
Like another Moses.
But this little one will bring a greater freedom! [19]

For now, as he gets older,
I’m teaching him to work with wood like me.
To measure and saw and sand.

The Messiah in my workshop!
The thought makes me laugh.

But one day Jesus cut his hand on a nail.
When I saw the blood on his palm,[20]
I felt a sudden fear. [21]

Before I picked up my hammer and went back to work,
For a moment I could see:
He will pay a high price, a terrible price.
To set God’s people free.


Have you experienced such a dangerous journey?
Probably not, though many people have.
Like them, Jesus was a refugee. [22]

So what have we learnt about Jesus from our two special guests?

The wise man was seeking truth and understanding of life,
Like King Solomon the Wise.
He followed the star and met a greater king.
In Jesus, he found what he was looking for:
The treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Joseph was trying to keep his family safe – free from Herod.
Their journey to Egypt reminded him of Moses,
Who freed God’s people from slavery.
Jesus was a new and greater Moses.
He came to bring spiritual freedom.
To save us from sin and death.

True wisdom.  Real freedom.
We find them both in Jesus.
He said that if you follow him,

“You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”  (John 8:32)

And we saw the wise men bring three gifts.
What did they tell us about Jesus?

Gold: he is our King
Who lives forever.
Frankincense: he is our Priest
Who brings God’s presence.
Myrrh: he is our Lover,
Who died for his bride,
Whose love is stronger than death. (Song of Songs 8:6)

Death. Because Christmas looks forward to Easter.[23]
We saw that in Joseph’s final words.
Let’s look at a painting of Joseph’s workshop. [24]

On the left Mary has opened a treasure chest
It’s the gifts of the wise men.
She is remembering when Jesus was born.
The window is a star for his birth.

Teenage Jesus stretches, or maybe prays, in the setting sun.
Mary looks up.
There’s a dark dark shadow on the wall.
Like a vision of Jesus’ future.

He would pay a terrible price.
To set God’s people free.

Christmas is coming, one week tomorrow.
King Jesus is coming, and he wants to be king of our lives.
How will you and I respond?

Are we like King Herod?
Fear, then anger, then violence.
I want to be king of my own life,
So I reject any other king.

Or are we like the wise men?
First a hunger, wanting to know.
So we search until we find him.
Then, filled with joy, we bow down and worship.
We give our hearts to the king.

Which of them are you more like? [25]
Have you found wisdom and freedom in Jesus?
This Christmas, what will you bring to the King?


What is the most surprising gift you’ve received?

What was the wise man seeking and how did he find it?

What do the wise men’s gifts tell us about Jesus?

What history did Joseph remember that showed him why Jesus came?

Why do you think King Herod tried to kill Jesus?

Where can we find wisdom and freedom?

[1] When the Israelites were exiles in Babylon they probably left their writings there.
[2] There are different theories about this star: Halley’s Comet or two planets or a supernova. Some think it was an angel. In the end it doesn’t matter.  Let’s keep the spotlight on the true star: baby King Jesus and the gifts that we bring.
[3] In the ancient world people believed a star showed the birth of a king like an Emperor of Rome or Alexander the Great.  A star showed where Rome was to be founded (Aeneid 2. 694).  This star recalled a bible prophecy of a coming king:  “A star will rise from Jacob; a scepter will emerge from Israel.”  Numbers 24:17
[4] The Word beyond all words.  (John 1:1).  The morning Star (Revelation 22:16). The Light of all the world.  (John 8:12)
[5] Recalling God’s promise to Abraham (Genesis 12).  Also see Psalm 72:10-1, 15. “The western kings of Tarshish and other distant lands will bring him tribute. The eastern kings of Sheba and Seba will bring him gifts. All kings will bow before him, and all nations will serve him…  May the gold of Sheba be given to him.”  Daniel lists the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, astrologers of the Babylonian kings (Daniel 2:2). In AD 66, the eastern astrologer Tiridates visited Nero in Rome.  Many will come from east and west (Matthew 8:11)
[6] In Genesis 37:25, traders are taking myrrh to Egypt.  In Revelation 18:12-13, gold, myrrh, frankincense are all items that rich merchants traded with Babylon.
[7] Read some chemical information about them here.
[8] It’s been traded for 5000 years and found in Egyptians pharaohs’ tombs.
[9] “Never use this formula to make this incense for yourselves. It is reserved for the Lord.”
[10] Esther 2:12.  Proverbs 7:12.  Song of Songs 1:13, 4:14, 5:12.
[11] Myrrh was also used as a painkiller – like paracetamol or aspirin.  The Chinese used it for toothache.  When Jesus was nailed to the cross, they offered him wine mixed with myrrh so it wouldn’t hurt so much (Mark 15:23).  Read more on medicinal uses here.  The carol “We Three Kings” says myrrh is a bitter perfume: “Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying, / Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.”
[12] Myrrh and Brandy were used to preserve Admiral Nelson’s body in the 19th century.
[13] In TS Eliot’s poem “Journey of the Magi” one of the magi asks, “Were we led all that way for Birth or Death?”  Read the poem or hear Eliot reading it here.
[14] Officially a “drowning accident” in a remarkably shallow pool.  The Emperor said, “It’s safer to be Herod’s pig than his son.”  When Herod was about to die, he knew no one would mourn his passing.  So he arrested many leading citizens and ordered them to be killed when he died, so there would be genuine sorrow at his death.
[15] There is a legend they were attacked by robbers, but one called Dismas had mercy on them and spared their life.  He was the repentant thief on the cross beside Jesus, who in his last hour received mercy in return.
[16] There were nearly 1 million Jews in Alexandria.  Other Jews also fled to Egypt for safety: 1 Kings 11:41, 2 Kings 25:26
[17] Echoing Exodus 4:19 when Moses was sent back to Egypt because those seeking his life were dead.  But in the south around Bethlehem, now Herod’s son Achelaus was king.  He was worse than his dad – he once killed 3000 pilgrims at Passover.  So the angel sent them up to Galilee.
[18] In Revelation 12:4 a dragon waits to eat the promised child.  The first use of “fled” as in Matthew 2:13 in the Greek Old Testament is in Exodus 2:15 about Moses.
[19] see Isaiah 61:1
[20] See painting at Christ in the House of His Parents (Millais, 1850)
[21] When the priests seek to kill Jesus, it’s the same Greek as here (Matthew 2:13, 27:20).
[22] See
[23] All Jerusalem is disturbed in 2:3, then the same word appears in 21:10 on Palm Sunday.
[24] The Shadow of Death (Holman Hunt, 1873).  Read more about the painting and its symbolism here.
[25] Or like the religious scribes.  We know the Scriptures, we know about Jesus, but we’re too uninterested (or afraid) to go and meet him.