Were They Kings?
Rev. Kurt Lantz Epiphany of Our Lord Matthew 2:1-12
January 06, 2021 Resurrection Lutheran Church St. Catharines, ON
There is some debate about the visitors to the Christ Child that are the subject of the appointed Gospel on the Festival of the Epiphany of Our Lord. In Greek, Matthew chapter 2 refers to them as “magi” from which we get our English word “magician.” It was a word in ancient times that was not given to those who perform tricks of misdirection and sleight of hand, but to those who studied astronomy and displayed some skill at interpreting dreams. Both of these skills are evident in these men who come to worship the Christ Child. Men with these abilities were often in the service of kings (like Daniel and his colleagues in Babylon), but not kings themselves. Hence, according to the Gospel, it is helpful for us to refer to them as “wise men” as the English Standard Version does. They were astrologers at the very least, who had seen His star in the east. They had noticed an astronomical anomaly and had an interpretation of its meaning.
An argument is made that their gifts reveal that they were kings. “Opening their treasures they offered Him gifts of gold and frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11). Were these gifts that could only come from kings? Or were they gifts that were fit to give to a king? Do the gifts confess that those who brought them were royalty or that the One to whom they were given is? It is also quite possible that being in the service of kings from afar, they told their kings about the star they had seen and what they believed it meant, and their kings sent them with gifts to pay homage to the newborn king heralded in the heavens.
Right from the very start, these wise men tell Herod that they are looking for a king. “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” (2:2). They are looking for a king who has his own star. They are looking for a king to worship. Even if these wise men were kings, they were not on the same level as the king they came seeking. Any kings who may have sent them would have recognized that a newborn king with his own star was to be honoured above themselves and all others.
Our first reading from Isaiah 60 was a prophecy that kings would come to the Christ. “And nations shall come to Your light, and kings to the brightness of Your rising” (Is 60:3). It seems to be a specific prophecy about this very visit occasioned by the appearance of a light rising in the night sky. The prophecy continues with more pertinent detail: “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD” (v. 6).
Our appointed psalm also referred to kings coming to the Christ: “May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands render Him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before Him, all nations serve Him!” (Ps 72:10f). Certainly kings will bow down before Him when He comes again in glory. And if the wise men were themselves kings, they were foreshadowing what will happen when all kings shall bow down to Him on the Last Day.
But in the reading from Matthew, the one who is most clearly referred to as a king does not go to worship Jesus. And it is not Jesus either. The only one repeatedly referred to as king, three times no less, whose name is even attached to the title, is Herod the king. King Herod, as he is called, was greatly disturbed that one had been born King of the Jews.
Herod, who claimed that very title for himself, was not born king of the Jews. He was a military governor under his father who was not a king either. They were like generals appointed by the Romans to keep peace in Palestine. At the time, a priestly family had assumed the title of king in Judea. But Herod went directly to the Roman Senate and appealed for the title to be given to him instead. Because he had shown support for Roman causes, they consented and he went back to Palestine, fought to regain control, crucified and beheaded the current king and then executed 45 more priests in case they got any ideas of taking the title back from him. He also married into the priestly family in order to gain some outward appearance that he had a claim to the rule that the Jews might accept. Then he continued to execute any and all who might contest him for the title, including his own family members.
You can see then, why “Herod was troubled and all Jerusalem with him” when these foreign kings(?) came looking for “He who has been born King of the Jews” in order to worship Him. And when they added that they had seen His star, it would have been troubling to Herod that some might claim this Child was to be king by divine right, rather than a Roman appointment. It fits entirely within Herod’s character that when the magi do not return to tell him where the King is, he has all the male children in Bethlehem, two years and younger, exterminated.
What makes a true king? Do you have to be born into a royal family as heir to the throne? Are you appointed to it by some public decree? Do you have to have certain characteristics, like wisdom and knowledge? What about bravery, honour, generosity, or mercy? We all have our ideas of what makes a king. If you are to be king of a particular kingdom, the people in that kingdom must recognize the authority by which you have your title.
Some of the Jews still had hopes and dreams for a king like David of old, who had found favour with God and whose rule was blessed by God for the good of the people. They received divine favour under David’s reign, which was much better than the favour of the Romans. And the LORD had promised that He would raise up a descendant of David to reign over His people forever. So the religious faithful were still looking for the time when the LORD would make good on His promise. It was pretty clear to everyone that Herod was not that king.
For those who believed they were subjects of the gracious LORD who redeemed them from slavery under the Egyptians, and delivered them to their own land, and saved them from all their enemies, the only king that would suffice would be the king that their LORD appointed for them, anointed by a prophet, chrism-ed to be the Christ King, as Jesus would be when He was baptized by the prophet John the Baptist and anointed by the Holy Spirit descending as a dove.
Not everyone held to this hope. When the magi came to inquire, it appeared that the religious elite had forgotten all about this. They didn’t know where the Christ was prophesied to be born. They had to get out their dusty scrolls and search. But sure enough, there it was in the Book of the Prophet Micah, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for Me one who is to be ruler in Israel” (Micah 5:2).
The magi were not perfect either. They assumed they would find the newborn King in the capital city, Jerusalem. But there they only found the usurper Herod who would not willingly give up his title. The wisdom needed to find the Christ is in the Scriptures. That is where the scribes, once they bothered to read, found that the true, promised king, divinely appointed, was to born in the city of David, Bethlehem. The magi went to worship Him. Herod did not bother to search himself. He would let others do his work for him, feigning the intent to worship the Divine King, while planning His assassination from the safety of his palace in Jerusalem.
What is a king appointed to do? Conquer enemies. Protect the people. Provide for the people. Yet these are not the images that immediately jump into our minds when we hear of a king, the persona has been so distorted. We immediately see caricatures of one seated on an opulent throne, crowned with gold, secluded inside of a fortified castle, served hand and foot, with little knowledge of the daily life struggles of his people.
The king is not to hold up inside his castle when enemies threaten, making plans for someone else to go out and get rid of the invader, like Herod sending out others to do his dirty work. The king is to go out and lead His people to victory. That is what David did and what our King Jesus did, too. The Son of God did not stay hidden away in heaven, but came among His people in order to be their champion. The king is not to separate himself from his people, but to have an intimate knowledge of the struggles of the people, that he might work to relieve them and to provide for their needs. Jesus took on our very nature and was born humbly under a carpenter’s care, wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger.
A king is not to receive taxes to enrich himself, but to use his resources to save his people in time of need. The king is not to lock the doors of his castle in order to secure his throne for himself, but to open the doors to let the people in for their salvation from all manner of threat. The castle is to be the fortress of the people, their hospital, their storehouse, their refuge, their church.
There is one who is clearly the King in Matthew chapter 2 and it is not the one who appealed to the Romans for the title. It is not the ones who bring gold, frankincense and myrrh. It is the One to whom these treasures are given, who will use them for the good of His people, to be their Saviour as well as their Lord. He was divinely appointed before the foundation of the world. He was publicly anointed at His baptism.
The gold was not deposited to fund a future war chest, but likely spent to flee from Herod’s murderous campaign down into Egypt. In some way it was used to preserve the Child King’s life in order for it to be given on the cross at the proper time to save all. He has “redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death” (Luther’s Small Catechism. Creed. 2nd Article).
The frankincense offered with prayer to the Child on Mary’s lap, was a visual and olfactory reminder that this King hears the prayers of His people. He savours their sweet aroma and is present to hear and answer as He was in the tabernacle when He led His people to the promised land. He gives attention to the pleas of His people. He is aware of their every need and as a gracious king He provides for every need of body soul.
And the perfumed myrrh was not to enhance the ambience of the home, but to signal a death and burial that would cover the stench of the sins of the world. Jesus Himself pointed this out when a woman anointed Him with costly ointment and He said that she did it in preparation for His burial (Matthew 26:12). This King went willingly into death and suffered all of its indignities so that you would live forever and everything that death takes away from you would be restored in the resurrection.
Gifts fit for a king, but not for His benefit. Gifts that our King would use for your benefit, in order to be sure that you see a king who gives the greatest gift to His people, a king who gave Himself for you. He went out to face your demonic enemies. He paid the full debt incurred by all of your sins. He secured for you the victory and opened the gates of heaven’s fortress where the crown of glory is laid up for you and for all those who love His appearing.
We are glad to celebrate this day of Epiphany, when we find “He who has been born King of the Jews” and come to worship Him. He is a king for all nations, a king for us all. We lay aside our own royal aspirations to let the one on Mary’s lap wear the crown and wield the sceptre. He is the only true King, the only One who truly reign as all kings should. One day, all will acknowledge Him, the King and Saviour of the nations.