Sunday School Lesson
Lesson 5 (KJV)
The Faith of the Wise Men
Devotional Reading: Isaiah 49:1–6
Background Scripture: Micah 5:2–4; Matthew 2:1–12
1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
2 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.
3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. 5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,
6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
8 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.
9 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.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
11 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.
12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
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.—Matthew 2:2
Faith That Pleases God
Unit 1: Profiles in Faith
After participating in this lesson, each learner will be able to:
1. Describe the historical setting of the encounter between Herod and the wise men.
2. Contrast God’s guidance of the wise men on their mission with His guidance of Christians today.
3. Identify one area of ministry where God is leading him or her and discuss with a church leader the best way to follow that path faithfully.
How to Say It
magoi (Greek) mah-joy.
A. Still Seeking Jesus?
The Christmas season reveals many sayings that try to encapsulate the meaning of the holiday in just a few words. Near my neighborhood, one house always displays a banner that reads, “Christ is the reason for the season.” Another neighbor annually displays a sign proclaiming, “Let’s put Christ back in Christmas.” These sayings are self-explanatory. After all, why have a season bearing the name of Christ without consideration of Christ himself?
Even asking that question shows the absurdity of some secular Christmas traditions. Should Christmas remind us of cola-drinking polar bears in red mufflers? Clydesdales hauling a beer wagon? A snowman come to life? Or is there something more important?
Another saying requires a bit of knowledge of the biblical Christmas story to make sense: “Wise men still seek him.” This saying is based on the account in today’s text.
B. Lesson Context
Our text for study involves a mysterious star. This invites a consideration of the distinction between astronomy and astrology. In modern times, we make a clear-cut distinction between those two areas of inquiry. But the two were blended together in the ancient world. Astronomy is the scientific study of the sun, moon, stars, planets, etc.; astrology combines that study with the belief that the so-called gods orchestrate the appearance, positions, and movements of heavenly phenomena and, therefore, reveal information about divine plans for the future (omens). Astrology is practiced today in the form of horoscopes associated with the zodiac.
In the Old Testament, astrologers are mentioned most notably in the book of Daniel (Daniel 2:2, 10; 4:7; 5:7, 11; see also Isaiah 47:13). The people of Israel were warned about pagan occult practices; astrology, being a type of divination, was one of those (Deuteronomy 18:10–11; Jeremiah 10:2). And moving from consulting the stars to worshipping the stars was an all-too-easy step to take (Deuteronomy 4:19; 17:2–5; Jeremiah 8:2).
The ancient Greek translation of the book of Daniel designates such men as magoi, from which we derive our modern word magician. But words change meaning over time, and how ancient people viewed magoi is not to be equated with the contemporary role of a magician who uses sleight of hand to entertain audiences. Instead, this word describes men of wisdom; we surmise they were astrologer-scholars. This same Greek word magoi is behind the English translation “wise men” in Matthew 2:1, 7, 16. It occurs also in Acts 13:6, 8, translated there as “sorcerer.”
I. The New King Is Born
A. Coming to Jerusalem (v. 1)
1a. Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea.
Matthew gives fewer details about the actual birth of Jesus than does Luke. Instead, Matthew relates the nativity story with simplicity: Jesus was born in Bethlehem. A few details are added, tying his account to the geography and history of Palestine. Bethlehem (meaning “house of bread”) of Judaea was a village located a few miles south-southwest of Jerusalem. It is not to be confused with Bethlehem of Zebulun (Joshua 19:15). The Bethlehem noted in today’s text was the birthplace of King David (1 Samuel 20:6).
1b. In the days of Herod the king.
The phrase the days of Herod the king sets the context of a specific ruler in an identifiable time frame. This is the king known as Herod the Great, who ruled 37–4 BC as the first Roman puppet-king of Judea. The name Herod occurs in the New Testament about 40 times, often referring to different people—it’s a challenge not to get them confused! According to our best records, the Herod in view here died in 4 BC. Therefore, the events in today’s text take place shortly before that (compare Matthew 2:19).
Herod the Great was not an ethnic Jew but an Idumean (related to modern Arabs). He is designated “the Great” because of his extensive building projects. The grandest of these was the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, a project he began about 20 BC and that was unfinished at the time of his death (compare John 2:20).
1c. Behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem.
Many legends have arisen in Christian tradition about these wise men. These include speculations regarding their occupations (kings?), their number (three?), their names (Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar?), and their place of origin (Babylon? Persia?). Matthew’s account doesn’t answer such questions. See the Lesson Context for background observations regarding the word magoi, translated as “wise men.”
We should understand from the east as describing their point of origin, not their route; it’s “wise men from the east,” not “came from the east.” This origin reminds us of the lands of Babylon and Persia, which lie 600 miles or more from Jerusalem in a straight line that crosses the Syrian Desert. But it is highly unlikely that the wise men traveled across that intervening desert. Instead, they would have come to Jerusalem by following the Euphrates River valley to Syria and then south through Damascus. This was a well-traveled trade route through a region known as the Fertile Crescent. Such a route would have been over a thousand miles, making a grand geographic arc from the Middle East to Palestine. To walk this distance would have taken four months (compare Ezra 7:8–9).
That there are at least two wise men is certain because the term is plural. But beyond that, we don’t know how many there were. (The tradition that there were three wise men seems based on the fact they offer three gifts to Jesus in Matthew 2:11, below.) They likely would have been in a large, well-funded entourage, perhaps a couple of dozen men altogether (compare 1 Kings 10:1–2). These details paint a picture of determination on their part.
B. Seeking the King (v. 2)
2a. Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews?
Verse 7, below, indicates that the wise men were granted a personal audience with Herod at some point. But we aren’t sure that was the case, as the wise men posed the question in the verse before us. An immediate audience would indicate that they were not a rag-tag group of nobodies! They either had diplomatic letters of introduction, could offer generous bribes, or presented such a regal appearance that Herod agreed to see them sooner rather than later. This access to Herod has led some to speculate the visitors were “kings” in their own right. However, Matthew does not mention this, and it is not implied in their designation as “wise men” or magoi.
2b. For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
The reason for the wise men’s question is threefold. First, the fact that a particular star caught their attention points to their vocation as learned stargazers. These were astrologers who spent many hours attempting to interpret astral movements as omens from deities. (See the Lesson Context for a deeper dive here.) While the Old Testament connects divination with pagan idolatry (Deuteronomy 18:10; 2 Kings 17:17; Jeremiah 14:14), we should not rule out God’s use of a specially prepared star to signal the birth of Jesus.
Second, the wise men’s departure point in the east yields the possibility that they were Jews from the large Jewish community that remained in Babylon after the exile ended around 538 BC. But that possibility seems unlikely, given their astrological orientation.
Third, the wise men interpreted the new star as a sign that the newly arrived King of the Jews was important enough to be worthy of their worship. Although not specified by Matthew, this is often seen as a fulfillment of the “Star out of Jacob” prophecy of Numbers 24:17. Whether these men were Jews or not, this realization had touched them profoundly—so much so that they were willing to come to Jerusalem at enormous cost and considerable danger.
What Do You Think?
In what ways can seeing creation lead you to worshipping God?
How would you respond in worship in this regard?
As I was channel-surfing one day, I chanced upon a science-fiction tale. It was a TV adaptation of a short story titled “The Star,” written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1954.
The plot involved a spaceship that was exploring the Phoenix Nebula, the remnant of a star that had exploded as a supernova. Aboard the spacecraft was a Roman Catholic priest highly skilled in astrophysics. As the exploration progressed, a horrific truth dawned on him: this supernova had been the star of Bethlehem. The viewer was drawn to the conclusion that an entire civilization that was “disturbingly human” had been exterminated by this supernova. The result for the priest was a crisis of faith.
Such stories can engage the imagination in profound ways, but the imaginative elements are (or should be) easily recognized. When it comes to pondering rightly God’s provisions for humanity, it’s vital to avoid speculations and to stick with established facts: (1) the wise men were guided by a phenomenon provided by God, and (2) the “how” of that phenomenon is not provided. When you are pondering how God may be guiding you, how much effort do you devote to separating fact from imaginative thinking? —R. L. N.
II. The Old King Is Troubled
A. Consulting the Scholars (vv. 3–4)
3. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
The wise men’s inquiry did not sit well with the paranoid Herod the king. He was an old man who had sons and wives put to death when seen as threats to his throne. So Matthew, in grand understatement, says Herod was troubled. This was not mild irritation! The old family saying is “When Momma’s not happy, nobody’s happy,” and it applies here. In Jerusalem, when Herod wasn’t happy, no one in Jerusalem was happy, fearing another murderous rampage. The people of the city would be willing to do about anything to placate the king.
4. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. The chief priests ruled Jerusalem’s temple. They had an uneasy alliance with Herod that had enriched them greatly as the party of the Sadducees (Acts 5:17). The scribes were the experts in the Jewish Scriptures, often called upon to interpret fine points of the Law of Moses.
Herod was no expert on things such as prophecies concerning coming kings. Even so, he was apparently aware that the Jews believed a Christ was coming, the chosen Messiah of the Lord. (Christ and Messiah both mean “anointed one”; John 4:25.) Herod connected these prophecies with the inquiry of the wise men. Therefore, he demanded the religious leaders to reveal the birthplace of the Messiah, believing it must be specified in the writings of the prophets. While this would give an answer to the wise men, Herod had a more devious motive in learning the location, as we shall see.
B. Pinpointing Bethlehem (vv. 5–6)
5–6. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
In response, the religious leaders quoted Micah 5:2. On the precise designation Bethlehem of Judaea, see commentary on Matthew 2:1a, above. The prophet Micah worked in the eighth century BC, during the time of the prophet Isaiah. So this prophecy was already 700 years old at the time of Herod.
The Gospel of Matthew shows great interest in fulfilled prophecy, so this verse is a highlight. Micah’s prophecy checks many boxes. It recognizes the relative insignificance of Bethlehem, still valid in Herod’s day. It foretells the raising up of a new Governor or ruler from this city. And it indicates this person would not be a mere city ruler or district supervisor. Instead, the prophesied Messiah would rule my people Israel.
What Do You Think?
How might your congregation’s influence in your community remind people of Jesus?
How will your congregation glorify the Lord locally? nationally? globally?
C. Plotting Murder (vv. 7–8)
7. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
The word privily indicates that Herod had dismissed the religious leaders in order to meet with the wise men alone. He set aside his rage in favor of putting on his happy face for this meeting. Ancient astrology was based on keeping precise records, so the wise men would have known the time the star appeared. The response of the wise men is not given. But we know the answer must have been at least four months prior to this meeting since that’s the time required for the wise men to have walked to Jerusalem. The wise men’s response was important to Herod because it determined the time window of his murderous decision in Matthew 2:16.
8. 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.
Since we know Herod’s real intent and how things turned out (see Matthew 2:13–18), the story becomes downright sinister at this point. His expressed desire to worship him also is a flat-out lie. But since Herod had been helpful to the wise men, they had no reason to suspect ulterior motives. So they took his words at face value.
What Do You Think?
How do believers discern whether to obey or disobey government leaders?
How do Daniel 3; Romans 13:1–14; Titus 3:1–2; and 1 Peter 2:13–17 inform your answer?
The Great and the Terrible
Ivan IV was born into the royal family of Russia in the year 1530. At 16, Ivan was crowned “tsar and grand prince of all Russia” by the Russian Orthodox Church and became the undisputed leader of feudal Russia.
Ivan was convinced that he was God’s representative on earth. Therefore Ivan saw extending the power of “Holy Russia” over neighboring countries as his duty. Moreover, he thought it was his right and responsibility to punish the sins of his rivals with unspeakable tortures that were fashioned after medieval ideas of hell. Increasingly mentally unstable, he killed his eldest son and heir to the throne in a fit of rage. By his death at age 53, he had thoroughly earned his reputation as “Ivan the Terrible.”
Political leaders such as Herod and Ivan aren’t the only ones susceptible to seeing themselves as God’s infallible representatives. Many others have fallen (or jumped) into that trap (examples: Numbers 12:2; Ezekiel 22:28). Ordinary people still use the name of Jesus to advance their agendas. As the modern saying goes, “Hands are the window to the intent.” However, Jesus had this idea first (see Matthew 7:16–20). To know who follows Jesus, we must look at what they do. And when we look at them, let’s make sure to look at ourselves as well. —A. W.
III. The Child Is Worshipped
A. Following the Star (vv. 9–10)
9–10. 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.
The wise men would have exited Jerusalem from a gate near Herod’s palace on the city’s western side. We don’t know what time of day it was. But to travel near or after sunset in a pre-electricity era simply didn’t happen. The exceeding great joy the men experienced is thus understandable if the reappearance of the star, which they saw in the east happened as (or if) darkness settles. The wording indicates that the star moved in the same way as the pillar of fire guided the Hebrew people through the wilderness (see Exodus 13:20–22). The wise men could walk to Bethlehem in the dark, reaching the young child Jesus without waiting until sunrise.
B. Presenting Treasures (v. 11)
11. 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.
The location of the young child with Mary his mother was no longer the manger of Luke’s account (Luke 2:16) but a house. Therefore, we may assume that the time spent by Mary and Joseph in the place of the manger was short before they found adequate shelter.
The wise men were not empty-handed in their worship of the young child. They presented Him with costly gifts fit for a king (see Isaiah 60:6). We easily understand the value of a gift of gold. While Matthew does not specify the form of this precious metal, it was likely coins. These were a vital resource for the family’s subsequent flight to Egypt and return to Nazareth (Matthew 2:13–23).
Frankincense was considered the finest incense in the ancient world (see Exodus 30:34; Revelation 18:13). The word comes from Old French and means “pure incense.” Made from the resin of the Boswellia tree and imported from southern Arabia and Africa, it was prized for its use in religious ceremonies and as a costly sacrificial offering.
Myrrh is an aromatic resin of the Commiphora tree. It was (and remains) valued as an ingredient in perfume; it was also used for anointing and in preparing a body for burial (John 19:39). It also had medicinal uses, both as a type of antiseptic for wounds and as a type of pain reducer (see Mark 15:23). Both frankincense and myrrh were extremely valuable and served as a compact treasure for Joseph and Mary, providing further resources beyond the gold.
What Do You Think?
How will you bring your best gifts to Jesus?
Who will you share those gifts with as an act of worshipping God?
C. Exiting Another Way (v. 12)
12. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
The wise men, unsuspecting of Herod’s treachery, needed to be warned of God in a dream not to report back to that tyrant. This warning served to protect not only the child Jesus but also Mary, Joseph, and the wise men. Herod’s intent all along was to have this potential king killed, and the others could have very well ended up feeling the despot’s wrath as well (compare Matthew 2:16).
The wise men left Bethlehem by another way, a road that would not take them through Jerusalem. For Matthew, this further confirmed that God was orchestrating the birth and protection of the Messiah.
What Do You Think?
How can a believer discern whether a dream is from the Lord or not?
What Scriptures inform your response?
A. Offer Thy Heart
A favorite Christmas carol of mine about the wise men is the nineteenth-century composition “The Three Kings” by Peter Cornelius. True, it has many of the legendary aspects of their story in presuming that they were kings, that they came from Persia, etc. The lesson of the carol is still powerful, though, and speaks to us today as one stanza implores the audience to travel with the kings to Bethlehem and offers hearts to the infant King of kings.
Most of us don’t have much gold to offer Jesus. And if we even had any frankincense or myrrh, how would we offer those? But we can offer Him sincere hearts in worship. He is the Son of God, the true Messiah. At this time of year when we remember and celebrate the birth of our Lord in Bethlehem, may we offer our most precious gift: our hearts.
Father, help us to emulate the faith of the wise men! As they let nothing stop them from reaching Jesus, may we do so as well. May the faith that allowed them to thwart the plans of a powerful opponent be ours as well. May we offer Your Son, Jesus, no empty-handed worship. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
C. Thought to Remember
Wise men and women seek to worship King Jesus only and fully.
Standard Publishing. KJV Standard Lesson Commentary® 2023-2024 (pp. 418-437). David C Cook. Kindle Edition.