Of Messiah it was prophesied that He should bring blessing to the nations as well as to Israel. Aged Simeon epitomized these promises when he declared of Jesus that He should be “a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:32). The incident now before us is an earnest or foretaste of this.
Many nonscriptural ideas and legends have been linked with the visit of these wise men from the East. Contrary to the pictures we see generally, they are not called Kings, but Magi, that is, wise men, who devoted themselves to the study of ancient lore. Undoubtedly they were somewhat acquainted with certain prophecies, possibly those of Balaam (who was of the East) and of Daniel, whose book was written partly in the Hebrew and partly in the Chaldee languages. We need to remember also that the entire Old Testament had been translated into Greek some two centuries earlier, and this translation, known as the Septuagint (LXX), was available to scholars throughout the world and was studied, undoubtedly, by many Gentile students of sacred lore. We have no authority for saying there were only three Magi. This may have been deduced from the fact that three kinds of offerings are mentioned (2:11). It is probable that an attempt to see in their visit the fulfillment of Psalm 72:10 is responsible for the idea that they were Oriental kings. But Psalm 72 is yet to be fulfilled at Christ’s second coming. We read:
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judea: for thus it is written by the prophet. And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. (vv. 1-12)
The circumstances connected with the nativity of our Lord in David’s city, Bethlehem, are given in considerable detail by Luke. Matthew tells us only that He was born in that city in the days of Herod the King. This gives the date of His birth as several years earlier than the commonly accepted record. He was born at least four years B.C. This question, however, is one to which chronologists have given much thought and study, and inasmuch as they are still in disagreement as to the exact date, we need not discuss it here.
The wise men (Magi) had learned of the birth of the promised King by divine revelation, or else had worked out the great time prophecy of Daniel 9, so that they felt assured he was present in Israel. Guided by a star, they came inquiring as to the place in which He might be found. Their question, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” proved most distracting to the aged wretch who sat upon the throne at that time—one of the most wicked kings that ever reigned. He called a meeting of the chief priests and scribes, and sought from them the answer to the inquiry of the Eastern visitors. Without hesitation they pointed him to the prophecy of Micah 5:2 where, quoting from the Septuagint, they read, “Thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.” They knew the Scripture; yet subsequent events proved they were unprepared to welcome Him of whom those sacred records spoke.
Herod, determined in his heart to destroy the infant King—if indeed He had appeared already—conferred with the Magi as to when the mysterious star had first appeared, and then bade them go on to Bethlehem, and if they found the babe to return and report to him that he, too, might do Him honor. Actually, his intention was the very opposite.
Led by the star that was seen again as they left Jerusalem, they had no difficulty in locating the house where the holy family resided at this time. It is evidently a mistake to suppose that Mary and Joseph, with the child, were still in the stable where the shepherds found them. They were now in a more convenient dwelling. Doubtless some weeks or even months had elapsed since the birth of Jesus.
Beholding Him, the wise men prostrated themselves before Him and presented their well-selected gifts: gold, speaking of the divine nature and righteousness; frankincense, suggesting the fragrance of His perfect human life; and myrrh, pointing forward to His sacrificial death. Mary’s thoughts may well have been exalted as she beheld these Eastern sages thus doing homage to her sacred Son. Joseph is not mentioned. He may not have been present during the visit of the strangers. “Being warned of God in a dream” not to return to Herod, the wise men departed to their homes by a different route.
From His earliest infancy the holy child Jesus was in a very special way under divine protection, for, though God manifest in the flesh, He was not exempt from human suffering. Angels watched over His early years like a heavenly bodyguard. They announced His birth, even as Gabriel had predicted His incarnation, and they were sent of God to explain the mystery of Mary’s condition to Joseph. Then they instructed him as to each step he was to take in order to guard his sacred charge from the vengeance of Herod and others who might seek to put Him to death before the appointed time. The angels were created by the eternal Word, the Son, who in the fullness of time became Man for our salvation. It was their joy to herald His coming into the world and to watch over and minister to Him in His humiliation down here. Upon the departure of the Magi, it was an angel who spoke to Joseph in a dream (which in itself reminds us how God often has revealed His will to men, as in Job 33:14-17). Joseph was commanded to “take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt,” there to abide until further instruction came in order to protect the child from the wrath of Herod, who was determined not to permit anyone to live who might contest the rights of his family to the throne.
According to the bidding of the angel, Joseph “arose … and departed into Egypt.” There God was to provide a place of refuge where the holy babe would be permitted to develop in peace and security. The family, with Jesus, remained in Egypt until word came that Herod had died, “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called My Son.” These words were spoken by Jehovah through Hosea (11:1) and referred primarily to Israel as a nation. Now they were to be fulfilled a second time in Him who came to redeem Israel. He, like the family of Jacob, went down into Egypt and was brought out of it in God’s due time.
Herod’s reaction to the refusal of the wise men to bring him word again was terrible. In his rage and fury, he ordered the massacre of all the innocent children two years of age and under, who were in Bethlehem, hoping thereby to destroy Him who was born to be King of the Jews.
“Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet” (v. 17). “Jeremy” is a translation of the Greek form of Jeremiah. The prophecy referred to is found in 31:15: “In Rama was there a voice heard… Rachel weeping for her children.” Primarily, these words seem to refer to the distress of the mothers in Judah when their sons went into captivity. But the passage is cited as fitting perfectly with the grief of those mothers of Bethlehem whose infants were so ruthlessly slaughtered. Often in Scripture we find these twofold applications.
“When Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth” (v. 19). In due time the word came through a heavenly visitant, speaking to Joseph in a dream as before, “Saying, Arise, and … go into the land of Israel” (v. 20). The way was now clear for the young child Jesus and His mother to return to their own land. Herod had passed away, and now had to answer to God for his life of crime and cruelty. Joseph “arose, and … came into the land of Israel” (v. 21). Joseph’s obedience to each message of the angel is noteworthy. Without raising any questions, he complied immediately with every commandment that was given him in this supernatural way. We know very little of the life and experience of this man, who was chosen to be the foster-father of Jesus, but what little we are told makes us realize that he was one who was very sensitive to the Word of the Lord. He furnishes us with a most precious example of implicit obedience to the will of God, even under most perplexing and difficult circumstances.
“When he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judea… he was afraid” (v. 22). Herod had murdered most of his own offspring, but Archelaus was permitted to live, and to him he willed his kingdom. Joseph feared he might be as vicious as his ungodly father, so he hesitated about actually putting his little family into his power. But again God directed him by appearing to him in a dream, and warning him not to settle in Judea but to turn aside “into the parts of Galilee.” “He came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth.” From Luke’s gospel we learn that Mary was living in Nazareth when Gabriel first appeared to her (Luke 1:26). Joseph also dwelled there, and it was from this city that the two journeyed to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born (Luke 2:4). They returned, therefore, to their own former home town, and there Jesus grew from childhood to manhood. Because of His residence there, He was called a Nazarene, a name intimately connected with the Hebrew word Netzer meaning “branch,” as in Zechariah 6:12, and other Scripture passages. In a secondary sense, it might mean “a separated one,” a Nazarite, as in Numbers 6:2, for Jesus was the true Nazarite, separated to God from His birth. The city of Nazareth evidently took its name from this word Netzer, possibly because of some special tree or sprout found in that vicinity. Therefore, it was easy to link the name Nazarene with the prophecies concerning Jesus as the Branch, or Sprout of the Lord (Isa. 4:2), the branch out of Davids roots (Isa. 11:1). But as applied to Jesus by His enemies, it was a term of reproach—a term, however, which the early Christians readily appropriated and gloried in (Acts 24:5).