By Davy Ellison
If you are guaranteed to see anything at a child’s nativity play it is this: three kings. Each child stands nervously, holding their tin-foiled shoe box (each shoe box supposedly containing gold, frankincense, or myrrh), awaiting their moment to step forward into the limelight and present their gifts.
If you read the Bible closely, however, you will soon notice that the number of kings is never actually stated. It appears that because there are three gifts it is supposed there were three kings. There are, however, three kings in Matthew 2:1–12. Let me introduce you to them and share the lessons we can learn from them.
The Frightened King: Herod
History knows him as Herod the Great. He was an impressive, intelligent individual. He was politically astute. He was not a Jew, however. Rather he was appointed king over the Jews by the Romans. This did not go down well with Jerusalem’s Jewish population. Employing his political skills, Herod fed the people of Jerusalem during a famine and rebuilt their temple. This won him some friends. For those who remained opposed to him, Herod crushed them with the Roman troops at his disposal.
Herod was a power greedy man. But paranoid. He became so paranoid about losing his throne that he murdered his wife and two of his sons. Herod killed off his own family to protect his position as king. You can imagine his reaction when he was told that some men had turned up looking for a child who had been born king of the Jews. Well, you don’t have to imagine: “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled” (v. 3). Could this be a legitimate heir to the throne in Jerusalem? Is this child a legitimate rival to his throne? Herod must find out, and so he attempts to locate the child (vv. 7–8). His intentions, however, are evil. God therefore intervenes to ensure that Herod remains ignorant of the child’s location (vv. 12, 16).
Herod is despicable—slaughtering children to maintain his position as king. These actions, however, are merely the outworking of fear.
Being frightened is not something we often associate with Christmas. Although I see that there is a growing trend in horror Christmas film being released. In 2019 we had Black Christmas and this year we have Violent Night. But perhaps you are frightened.
Herod, it seems, was more concerned about securing his throne than securing his salvation. Jesus Christ the Saviour lay a matter of miles away from Herod, and instead of seeking life Herod unleashed death. The reason? He was afraid of what Jesus would take away from him. I wonder are you afraid of what Jesus will take away from you? Herod was more concerned about securing his throne that securing his salvation—I wonder are we like him? We know that following Jesus means losing certain things that we have come to love—things we know that Jesus would not permit us to entertain any longer.
The Searching King(s): Magi
I must confess this is stretching it a little. Tradition tells us that these visitors were kings, but other evidence tells us they were astrologers or priests. No matter who they were exactly, they came from royal palaces in the east.
These men, like Herod, were not Jews. But somehow they knew about a Jewish king to be born. Perhaps they had some of the Old Testament or other Jewish books. Armed with this interest, they were fascinated by a star in the sky. Whether this is a comet or an angel doesn’t really matter. Whatever it was, it was directed by God to lead these men to Bethlehem (vv. 2, 9–10).
As they question Herod about the location of this child, Herod asks the Jewish religious leaders if they know (vv. 4–6). This is astonishing. The promised Jewish king has been born, and the Jewish religious leaders know where he will be born, and yet they sit in Herod’s palace! They are put to shame by these searching kings who locate the child and worship him (vv. 10–11). The word worship on the lips of the Wise Men probably refers to simply paying respect, but for Matthew’s readers we know better.
Many people know they need something more and they search for it in many different places: money, family, relationships, work, fame, power, authority, cars, holidays, and on we could go. In our search for satisfaction, we must consistently remind ourselves that it can be found only in Jesus. I can say this with confidence because Jesus is the final king we meet in our passage.
The True King: Jesus
In writing his Gospel Matthew is keen to communicate the reality that this Jesus is the True King for whom Israel has been waiting. He does this at the beginning of a family tree by reminding his readers that Jesus is “the son of David” (1:1). Even though Joseph and Mary appear to be peasants, the prophecy of Isaiah quoted in 1:23 is a prophecy of coming royalty. To strengthen those subtle hints, Matthew asserts that Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem is the fulfilment of prophecy concerning the birth of a future king (2:6). All this is capped off by kings from other countries coming to pay him homage.
Jesus is the True King that God promised to send—the True King who rules the world with justice.
Christmas is not a sentimental holiday about a wee baby in a smelly manger. It is a celebration of the moment that the King of kings appears to rescue his people from their sin. Christmas is the coronation of the Son of God as the True King in whom God is well-pleased.
Some are frightened of Jesus because as the True King they know that He demands full obedience. Others are searching for all that Jesus brings—love, peace, comfort, security, justice, and family—but searching in the wrong places. Whether we are frightened or searching, only coming to Jesus in humble worship will resolve these experiences. Fear will flee as we see his compassion. The searching will end as we find the True King.
Tim Keller explains:
[T]he gospel is not about choosing to follow advice, it’s about being called to follow a King. Not just someone with the power and authority to tell you what needs to be done—but someone with the power and authority to do what needs to be done, and then to offer it to you as good news.
Jesus Christ has proven himself to be the True King by defeating sin and death. In power and authority, he lived a perfect life, died a sinner’s death, and was raised again from the grave in a majestic demonstration that he is the True King who has definitively rescued his people from their sin. The good news Jesus now offers you is to follow him, the True King.
This is what Christmas is: the king of all power and authority coming to do what needs to be done so that we can have the good news of great joy offered to us freely.