If you’ve been around Christian circles for a while then you have probably heard someone pontificate about the corruption of the biblical account of Jesus’ infancy in contemporary folklore. The standard features of nativity scenes we see around our community are shown to not quite correspond with the scriptural narrative. It is pointed out that features of the story such as the donkey, the inn, the stable and the three kings do not quite bear textual analysis.
In relation to the kings, we see pictures and sing carols about the three of them. Normally they are pictured riding camels with flowing robes and elaborate crowns and arriving at the stable to give their gifts. Yet, in studying the only account we have of this visit in Matthew 2:1-12 we notice that there is no mention of three kings. The visitors did bring three gifts, but how many of them made the journey is never mentioned. On top of this, they do not seem to visit Jesus lying in the manger of Luke 2:7. Rather we see that they came to a house in Matthew 2:11, presumably a significant time after Jesus’ birth. There is no mention of camels, robes or crowns. In fact, the only description we have is that they were Magi which means wise men. So the most probable description of these visitors was that they were not kings themselves but that they were a royal envoy. Kings would often have wise men advise them. We even see in Matthew 2:7 that King Herod had a group of wise men to advise him. As such, we should probably understand the story as implying that a certain King of the East, having received the advice of his wise men about extraordinary astrological phenomena, decided to send the wise men as a delegation to pay tribute. So, as sad as it is to dismantle the picture in our heads of three kings coming to the stable to visit baby Jesus, the evidence demonstrates that the historical events did not take place like that.
Nevertheless, despite this evidence, I want to mount an argument for three kings in Matthew 2:1-12. They are not the three kings commonly portrayed in nativity scenes, but they are certainly the kings nonetheless. The three kings in this passage are, King Jesus, King Herod and the King of the East who sent the royal envoy (who are often mistakenly thought of as three kings).
First, let’s dwell for a moment on King Jesus. Even in this short passage we see that Jesus was not just another king of the Jews—he is the king of the Jews. Moreover, he is not just the king of the Jews—he is the king of all nations. And finally we see he is not just the king of all nations—he is the king of the universe. You see Herod knew what the Magi were asking about when they came to see him. They were not just asking about another King of the Jews. Herod knew they were asking about the king of the Jews. In response to the question from the Magi he asked his advisors where the ‘Christ’ would be born. This king was the messiah whom God had promised hundreds of years earlier. This was the king that God promised would reign over God’s people forever. But Jesus was not just the king of the Jews. The Old Testament prophecies had promised the Christ would be king of all nations. All nations would pay tribute to him. And we have a glimpse of taking place with the Magi coming from the East. They come from far away to pay tribute to him. But Jesus is not just king of all nations, he is also king of the universe. Colossians 1:16 tells us that all things have been created by him and for him. And even in this little passage in Matthew 2:1-12 we see amazing astrological phenomena testifying to who King Jesus is. There was a star so different, so remarkable, so magnificent, that it testified to the Magi who this king was. The star testified to the whole universe who the king was—King Jesus.
So the first King we note in Matthew 2:1-12 is Jesus. He has power and authority beyond our imagination. He has love and humility surpassing our comprehension. The creator of all things came to earth as a little baby in order to save us. That is King Jesus.
The second king we see in Matthew 2:1-12 is King Herod. The picture that we get of Herod in the Gospel of Matthew is of a ruthless, conniving, evil man. The accuracy of this testimony is confirmed by other historical sources we have about Herod. His throne was never stable and he appears to have been plagued by paranoia about those around him. The writings of the Jewish historian, Josephus, which also come from the first century AD, describe how Herod was responsible for the murders of his wife, three of his sons as well as various brothers and uncles. All this in a relentless grasping to secure his authority. Josephus described Herod as ‘a pitiless monster’ and Caesar once said it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son. King Herod was an insecure and vile despot, which is why, when he heard the news—the good news really—that the Christ had been born, ‘he was troubled’ (verse 3). The arrival of King Jesus was a threat to King Herod. He did not want another king in his life. So Herod tried his best to get rid of Jesus.
There are many in our world who perceive Jesus claim as king to be threatening. He is a threat to our autonomy. He wants us to live differently from how we want to live. Or perhaps some just see him as a nuisance and an embarrassment. It is because of his royal claim on people’s lives they, like Herod, want to get rid of him. There is no place for Jesus to be king of their lives. Some who do not want Jesus to reign may even pretend and claim that they will worship him, but it is a hollow claim. After all, even Herod said that (verse 8). King Herod was not alone in feeling threatened by King Jesus. Many feel Jesus would be too much trouble, too much effort or too much inconvenience and so they prefer to do away with him.
The third king in Matthew 2:1-12 is the King of the East. He was the one who sent the royal delegation to pay tribute to Jesus. What do we see in this king? Well, firstly, we see that no trouble is too great to seek for the Christ. The Magi probably came from Iran or Iraq. As such, they would have travelled the best part of 1000 km to meet Jesus. They would have left their families, they would have endured the heat and the cold. All to seek Jesus.
How does their exertions compare with ours? So many people dismiss Jesus without even doing anything to verify the historicity or validity of his claims. But even those who are Christian can so often be ambivalent and lazy in their efforts to seek Christ. There is little or no effort made to learn what he is like or to learn what he wants from us. Well the King of the East knew that no trouble was too great to seek for Jesus.
The other thing that we learn from this King of the East is that nothing is too precious to offer to Jesus. In verse 11 the Magi worship Jesus and give him three extravagant gifts. They worship an infant and give him expensive gifts. But this is completely appropriate considering who this infant was. He was the king of the Jews, the king of the nations and the king of the universe. King Jesus deserves nothing less than for us to ‘fall down and worship him’.
So there are, indeed, three kings in Matthew 2:1-12. King Jesus who is Lord of the universe. King Herod who acknowledged who Jesus was, but felt threatened and determined to destroy him. And the king of the East, who acknowledged who Jesus was and was even more determined to worship him. In the end, each one of us responds like King Herod or the King of the East… the question is which king do you identify with?