Luther’s Notes on the Gospel: Epiphany (January 6) – Jesus, Savior of Gentiles: The Wise Men

Matt 2:1-12

2 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, 2 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.”

3 When Herod the king heard this, 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 inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.

5 So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:

6 ‘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.’”

7 Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. 8 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.”

9 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. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. 11 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, frankincense, and myrrh.

12 Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.

Luther’s Explanatory Notes

1 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.

In the days of Herod, the King. In these words the Evangelist Matthew declares, that the prophecy of Jacob is fulfilled: “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a law giver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.” (Genesis 49:10) As Herod, the alien from Edom, was now governor or king, this was an indication, that Christ, the true King had come; for before the reign of Herod was ended, Christ was already born, that the prophecy might be fulfilled. Christ was the natural King and rightful heir to the throne; but Herod was made king by the sword. Herod was externally a mighty king, successful in war, cunning, etc.; but internally, in his house, or family, he was unsuccessful; but Christ, our true King, was externally very poor, despised and rejected; but inwardly full of all joy, comfort and courage.

There came wise men. No doubt, these wise men were the remnant of those, who had been the scholars or disciples of the prophet Daniel. The Evangelist calls them magi; such may be regarded as students of nature; for magic is the art or study of nature or created things; such students of nature were Solomon and others. In imitation of these some have sought to do other things, which are not in nature; these are art-fanatics and sorcerers.

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.

Born King of the Jews. The promise given to Abraham, “In thee shall all nations of the earth be blessed,” (Genesis 12:3) is here in process of fulfillment; for here God reveals this child, his dear Son, to the Gentiles by such wonderful means, and moves them by the Holy Spirit to seek and worship him.

This was a great and wonderful sign to the Jews; him, whom his own nation, the inhabitants and citizens of Canaan, neither seek nor recognize, these strange and foreign people seek and come so many days’ journey to find.

The star-gazers and astrologers can not strengthen and magnify their false art by this gospel; for although the magi may have been proficient also in these arts, yet they did not use this star further than as a sign. For they do not pretend to foretell what shall in future be done to Christ, but are satisfied that the star is the sign of a great King, and only ask where he may be found. The stars are not set, that they may regulate my birth or your birth, but that they shall shine. (Genesis 1:14)

But when they say “his star” they do not mean that Christ had just created it, but simply that it is a sign of his birth. Also, when they say they came to worship him, they do this, because in the east the kings were worshiped.

3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

Herod was troubled. What now is the cause of this fear? Nothing else than this concern, “If this child is to rule, we must become beggars; if this child is to be exalted, then we must be put down.” It is the same with the Jews in Jerusalem, as it was with the Israelites in Egypt; this trouble in Jerusalem shows their unbelief; they trusted more in human than in divine power.

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.

Demanded where Christ should be born. Here we ask why Christ did not permit the wise men to be led by the star to Bethlehem, but required his birth-place to be searched out of the Scriptures. This was done to teach us to be guided by the Scriptures, and not by our imagination, not to follow any human wisdom, example of saints, explanations of the fathers, ghostly aparitions and the like. We seek neither Jerusalem nor Rome, but King Christ in the Scriptures.

But here we see how the Scriptures and Christ have three kinds of disciples.

1 The first kind are the Priests and Scribes; they understand the Scriptures and teach them to every body, while they themselves do not live according to them.

2 Another kind are Herod and his people; for Herod also believes the Scriptures. Yet notwithstanding he rises up, and sets his head straight in opposition to God’s word and work.

3 The third kind are the pious magi. These are they who openly and freely confess Christ and his truth.

6 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.

Prince and governor. That which the prophet meant, and yet passed over in silence, the Evangelist expressed and fulfilled, as he looked more upon the spiritual greatness. As he is a Lord and Prince, and yet is not glorious before the world, what can his Lordship be, but that he is mighty and rich in that in which the world is poor.

His goings forth. After these words in Micah follows this expression: “Whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.” The Scribes did not repeat this to King Herod; yea, probably did not understand it themselves. The prophet wishes to say, I foretell the Lord, who will come from Bethlehem, but he has been before the creation of the world; therefore our true and eternal God must be with him. Again, if he is to come in the fullness of time from Bethlehem, he must also be a true natural man.

The prophet proceeds in proper order; he writes first of the bodily birth; and of this he speaks more than of the other birth from eternity: for he who would know how our adorable God is disposed towards us, must begin below, and learn what he has done on earth, and how he has revealed himself to men.

7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired 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.

Privily called the wise men. Why does he call them privately? Because he feared that if he called them openly, the Jews might anticipate him, and instruct the magi that they should not inform him correctly, in order that the new king might remain in safety. But that he asked them at what time the star appeared to them, was because he thought “The Jews might hide the new king for a time, until he is grown up, then proclaim him and destroy me; therefore I will anticipate them.”

If human wisdom could have helped him, he would have acted cunningly enough, to kill Christ; but it is true, as it is written, “The Lord bringeth the counsel of the heathen to nought; he maketh the devices of the people of none effect.” (Psalm 33:10) “The wicked plotteth against the just, and gnasheth upon him with his teeth.” (Psalm 37:12)

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.

When they had heard the king. From this we learn that the true saints may indeed be deceived by the hypocritical saints, but they can not be permanently deceived; they must soon be instructed from heaven. The “hearing,” also, may therefore have been spoken of by the Evangelist, because they heard the quotation, from the prophet; this is an example of how the enemies of Christ are sometimes useful, and teach correctly. (See John 11:49-51; Matthew 23:2-3; and Balaam, Numbers 23:24)

The star went before them. Here the Magi teach us the right faith. After they had heard the preaching and the word from the prophet, they were not indifferent nor slow to believe. And yet they had many offences and hindrances. The star goes before them and leaves them not, till it brings them to Christ, neither does it go any farther, but stands still over the house where the Child is. Thus also the light of the Gospel is as a lamp in the darkness (2 Peter 1:19) leads us to Christ, goes no farther; for beyond Christ it teaches us nothing. (1 Corinthians 2:2 ; Colossians 2:8)

10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

Rejoiced with exceeding great joy. This is always the experience of the Christian after his adversities. God stands by him, and becomes so cordially sweet and so clear to him, that he not only forgets his fear and adversities, but also gains love and courage to endure still more adversities.

11 If 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, frankincense, and myrrh.

And saw the young child. Such consolation the wise men needed very much, (verses 9, 10) for in the house they found nothing but poverty and beggary; but they hold fast what they had heard from the prophet Micah, and had seen in the star. Only the Scripture and divine light can reveal the Lord to us. (Matthew 16:17; John 6:44) It does not depend upon whether any one is learned or unlearned, whether he knows much Scripture or not, but he has it, to whom God gives it.

We notice that the wise men were not offended at the lowly and poor appearance of the little Child Jesus. If we would join them in honoring Christ, we must close our eyes to everything that is beautiful and brilliant, and glorious in the estimation of the world, and exercise ourselves in such works as appear foolish and of little importance in the estimation of human reason; for instance, such works as feeding and clothing the poor, consoling the distressed, and helping our neighbor in his troubles.

12 And being warned by God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

Being warned of God. Thus God will be with us and uphold those who seek and confess the child Jesus, and though they may be in great danger and trouble, yet he will deliver and finally save them.

Not return to Herod. And why does he not let them return to Herod, as he could easily have protected the Child against the whole world? That was done to teach us that we should not tempt God. What we can perform in a proper way and accomplish by natural means we should not despise. You must believe no sooner and no farther than the word of God authorizes. But this is the most noble purpose, that we avoid human tradition and do not fall into it again, after we have once been delivered from it, just as the Magi were loosed from Herod and returned not to him.

13 And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.

When they were departed. The an gel could have warned Joseph pre viously, three or more days before ; but our Lord God let it come to the last extremity, when there can be no longer delay.

Child and mother. The angel does not say, Take the child, whose father thou art, but take the child and his mother; give the child into the care and protection of his mother only. (Matthew 1:20) .

But why did Christ do this, and expose himself to so much trouble and misfortune? Why does he not rather avail himself of his divine power, or the protection and help of the angels, who could easily have removed Herod? Answer: The Holy Scriptures thereby present to our view the Lord, as a natural man, who was like unto us in all things, sin only excepted, as St. Paul says in Philippians 2:7.

But here we also see that, although God permits his church to be afflicted, yet we must confess that he truly and faithfully stands by her. Thus God has arranged it through the wise men, that they should provide the necessary means for the Child’s support in his flight into Egypt, (see verse 11.) That was doubtless no mean present. Thus God will constantly stand by his word and his church. Though tyrants may rage, they must still let his Church and the Word remain; yea more, their rage and persecution shall be the means of increasing the Church and spreading the word of God still farther. There is no doubt of this. Doubtless Mary and Joseph spoke to others of the great wonder connected with this Child, and brought them to faith and salvation.

Luther’s Explanatory Notes on the Gospels, pp. 13-16.

1 thought on “Luther’s Notes on the Gospel: Epiphany (January 6) – Jesus, Savior of Gentiles: The Wise Men

  1. I was just wondering if the Magi had saving faith. After reading this commentary, I believe that they did. They were called by and protected by God, and they worshiped the baby Jesus. I wonder now what they might have done or said upon returning to their own country(ies). I love reading Luther’s thoughts. Thank you.

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