So the Magi traveled to Jerusalem to ask, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2 NIV). Now the Magi may have assumed that the political and religious leadership of Jerusalem would have been pleased with the birth of their Messiah- but we’ll find out shortly that this was not the case.
But first, Matthew 2:3 tells us that a political leader named Herod was disturbed when he received the news about Jesus’ birth from the Magi. This unusual reaction is easier to understand if we take some time to get to know Herod and who he was.
The “Herod” mentioned in this passage is historically known to us as Herod the Great. The first thing Herod did upon his ascension to this position was to exterminate his leading opponent and forty-five of his opponents’ supporters. To ensure his continued rule, Herod also arranged to have every legal heir to his throne put to death as well.
Herod had at least nine or ten wives and eventually became suspicious that his favorite wife was plotting against him. So he put her to death too. Then he killed her mother. Later, he had both of his sons by her executed as well. Herod killed so many people who were close to him that it was half-jokingly remarked that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.
So it was Herod’s practice to eliminate anyone who might be a potential threat. This may account for the fact that all Jerusalem was troubled by the arrival of the Magi as well (Matthew 2:3). Perhaps the people of Jerusalem were fearful of what might transpire once Herod learned that the real “King Of The Jews” had been born.
“When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel'” (Matthew 2:4-6 NIV).
It’s interesting to note that these priests and the teachers had the right information about the Messiah- they even quoted directly from the Old Testament prophecy concerning Him as found in Micah 5:2. But even though these men had the right information, they didn’t seem very interested in finding out about the Savior for themselves.
“Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him'” (Matthew 2:7-8 NIV).
Herod predictably tried to use the Magi to find this newborn king- not to worship Him but to attempt an assassination. We’ll find out later that Herod eventually issued a command to kill every boy aged two or younger in an attempt to ensure that Jesus was eliminated (see Matthew 2:16).
“After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh” (Matthew 2:9-11 NIV).
So the Magi finally had an opportunity to meet the King they had been seeking. If we look closely at the gifts of the Magi mentioned above, we’ll find that each carried its own special meaning. For instance, gold was the first gift presented to Jesus by these men. Since gold is associated with royalty, it makes a suitable gift for the King of the Jews.
The next gift was frankincense, an aromatic resin. Frankincense is mentioned nine times in the first five books of the Bible and it was primarily associated with the Old Testament sacrificial offerings (see Leviticus 2:1-2, Leviticus 6:15, and Leviticus 24:5-9 for some examples). In light of this, we can say that this gift represented Jesus’ role as priest, the one who represents us before God (see Hebrews chapters 2-9).
Finally, we have the gift of myrrh. Myrrh was widely used as a perfume, but John 19:39 tells us that it was one of the ingredients that was used to prepare Jesus’ body for burial following His crucifixion. Thus we can say that myrrh was a gift that was associated with Jesus’ eventual death on our behalf.
The myrrh and frankincense were easy to carry and all three gifts were worth a considerable amount. Their monetary value may have been used to provide for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus later when they were forced to escape into Egypt for a time (see Matthew 2:13-15). But even though these gifts were important, the fact that the Magi worshiped Jesus was even more important.
So these verses identify three different responses to Jesus and serve to represent the different ways people often respond to Him today. First we have Herod, a man who displayed open hostility towards Christ. Next we have the representatives of the religious leadership, the ones who told Herod where the Messiah was to be born. These men showed great indifference towards Jesus; they heard about Him but didn’t care enough to see Him for themselves. Finally we have the Magi. They were the ones who looked for Jesus, spent time with Him, and worshiped Him.
So now that we’ve reached the end of this look at the Christmas story, let’s finish with one final observation. It’s been said that giving gifts at Christmas is not something that humanity invented- it was God who initiated the gift giving when He gave us the gift of His Son. Christmas is not about the gifts that we receive from others- it’s really about the gift that God has given to us.