Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “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.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.’ ” Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen 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 exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold and frankincense and myrrh. Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way. Matthew 2:1-12
The phrase ‘go the distance’ originates from boxing, meaning to go all the way to the last round without being knocked out. In today’s language, we use it to mean to follow through with what we have committed to, to complete the course, or in Archippian terms, to fulfil our assignment. But are we willing to go the distance?
Not everyone wants a king over them. This passage introduces us to three different characters who responded quite differently to the declaration of a new king.
Herod the Great Responded with Insecurity
Herod the Great is a powerful person appointed as the King of the Jews; yet despite Herod’s immense power and ability to dispose of anyone as he wishes, we see that Herod is an insecure ruler who responded quite seriously to any threat he perceived to his throne, even having his own wife and sons executed. Herod’s insecurity causes him to want to hang on to prestige, not wanting anyone reigning above him. Hence, he is certainly not too happy when the Magi bring him news of the king of the Jews. Just like Herod, each and every one of us has a certain desire to be our own king. We want to have the final say, we want to be in control, we want to be totally self-oriented. We would remove anyone who stood in our way as long as we had the power to do so and identify ourselves with our position and power. We need to beware of the Herod in us. Do we want a king? Or do we only want God’s blessings but not His ways?
The Religious Leaders Responded with Indifference
The chief priests and scribes are of Jewish descent, supposedly the best of the best of God’s chosen people who should be knowing and waiting for the Messiah. Yet despite their identity as God’s people and being steeped in the study of the Hebrew Bible, the religious leaders were indifferent to this news. To them, it did not matter who was king, as long as they continued to have the political alignment and favour to go about their daily business (collecting tithes, teaching Scripture etc.). These priests who represent the law of God reveal to us a ‘deceptive veneer of religiosity’ that we ourselves may be guilty of as well. It is a veneer that lulls us into complacency and comfort, happy to remain status quo and not rock the boat. These people have the appearance of spirituality and religious knowledge, but they lack the power. Isn’t it true that many come to God for the blessings but do not desire to serve Jesus as the king? We will do what serves our purposes, but other things we neglect.
The Magi Responded with Interest
These Magi are most likely astrologer-priests who study the arrangement of the constellations, who formed part of the wise men who served in the king’s courts (most likely Babylon, though possibly other places in the east). Yet even after they had experienced so many kingdoms, when the Magi heard of a coming Messiah, they said, “Count me in. We want this king. Where is he? Jerusalem? We will go the distance.” The Magi were interested.
We Can Know the Word, and Still Miss It Big Time
When Herod heard about the news about a king coming, he brought in the experts to get them to check their scripture to find out where the king would be born. In Matthew 2:6, he paraphrases the original prophecy from Micah 5:2 to make three important points.
“you, oh Bethlehem Ephrathah”
“you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah”
Judah/Judea is mentioned 4 times in this passage, We have got to get the hint – Jesus the Messiah is coming from Judah!
“who are too little to be among the clans of Judah”
“are by no means least among the rulers of Judah”
From this point on, Bethlehem will be insignificant no more. Just like Almost Anonymous Archippus, if we are willing to be interested in the things of the kingdom, God will bring out significance from insignificance.
“one who is to be ruler in Israel”
“a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel”
This is a direct quotation of the declaration over king David in 2 Samuel 5:2. Unlike Herod and many other conquerors who dominate with power and force, Jesus will be a shepherd king, ruling with righteousness and compassion.
How did the different people respond to this knowledge of the Word?
Herod Rejected the Word’s Authority
As a converted Jew, Herod would have grown up learning Scripture by default, but Herod did not know the Scripture. Even when this prophecy was made known to him, Herod was not interested in aligning. For insecure people like Herod, they believe they have earned their power and prestige and are afraid that if it is taken away, their identity is gone and they have nothing left. They will not submit to the authority of the Word even though only in the Word they find true security. Could we be like Herod? Do we cherry pick only the parts of the Word we like while rejecting and rationalising away the Scripture that confronts and convicts us, more interested in changing the Word than letting the Word change us?
The Word Had No Effect on the Religious Leaders
Religious leaders are supposed experts of the Law, they knew the Scriptures but the Word had no effect on them. For them, following the traditions was more important. They treated the Scriptures academically, preaching from context and footnotes but with no relevance or application. The worst thing is they are Aware of what the word is saying, but they are Apathetic. Although Bethlehem is just five or six miles away from Jerusalem, none of them made the effort to go the distance to see the Messiah. Are we too comfortable to stay put instead of going the distance? Maybe we are indifferent, which is why awakening is needed.
The Magi Acted Upon the Word by Going the Distance
Where would the Magi have first heard about the Messiah and the star? It could have been in a dream, but if they were from the Babylonian courts, they would have received the oral tradition passed down, including the testimony of Daniel. Daniel’s life is a record of a life lived out in consecration and commitment, displaying the wisdom, power and faithfulness of Yahweh. Being exposed to Yahweh and the Hebrew Scriptures, the Magi were now interested in the everlasting kingdom. The book of Daniel foretells that the moment Jerusalem was restored, the Messiah would be coming soon (Daniel 9:25-27). The prophecies of Balaam (Numbers 24:17-19) and Isaiah 60:1-3 tell of the star and scepter and the light who will come. With the knowledge of all these prophecies, the Magi were on the lookout and ready to go the distance, but only because they were interested.
We Don’t Worship the Star, but We Are Directed and Drawn by It to Jesus
The star is like a ‘follow spot’ in plays, pointing us to what we need to look at but not what we should be focusing on. God gives us signs, manifestations and miracles to point us to Jesus, and yet often we end up focusing on the signs and not the one the signs point to. The Magi were clear on this, they were only following the star so that they could find the true Star. Yet, Jesus is not just a celebrity for us to be fans of. “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17b). We are not just running after a fad but coming under the rule of His sceptre. Just like the Magi waited for nightfall to watch for the star, we need to wait and watch, being careful not to be attracted to follow other distracting and deceptive teachings.
If We Are Interested, Don’t Hang Out with the Insecure and Indifferent
The insecure and indifferent have a way of appearing interested, but all they are interested about is killing our interest. If we want to remain interested, firstly, we should gather with like-minded people who are aligned with God. Look out and protect each other’s interests in Jesus while on the road of sanctification, ensuring we do not veer off course and become insecure or indifferent. Secondly, we need to align our interests with the interests of the King, such that the desires of our hearts become the desires of His heart. Thirdly, once we are aligned and protected, then we go the distance, partnering on assignment with the King to reach the insecure and the indifferent to declare the Good News that God still loves them.
The Magi went the distance to fulfil their assignment of seeking Jesus. Through them, we have a glorious message that the Messiah came from the Jews but not limited to them for these Magi are Gentiles. All are invited to His kingdom, but we have to choose how we will respond. Jesus invites the insecure to find security in Him. He calls us not to be indifferent, for He was not indifferent to our needs and our sins. Will we keep indifference and insecurity from killing our interest for Jesus, and go the distance just as He did for us to the cross?