Who Were the Magi, and Why Did They Worship Jesus? (Matthew 2)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

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1Now 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 saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
      are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
      who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

7Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

God’s Plans Prevail

Skeptics doubt that a star with supernatural origin could have led anyone to Jesus. They dismiss the story as legend, citing parallels to pagan myths in which stars guided heroes to their destination.1 In ancient literature, astrological phenomena also accompanied the birth or death of notable kings, including both Julius Caesar (death) and Augustus Caesar (birth).2 Skeptics therefore propose that Matthew fabricated this episode or perhaps adapted a legend. If Matthew’s sources misled him, he was deceived. If he invented this episode, he was a deceiver. But why would Matthew concoct a story of worshiping astrologers for a predominantly Jewish audience? Roughly like gambling today, astrology was a plague, denounced by prophets and ethicists alike. But if God chose to summon Gentiles by speaking their language, then Matthew could put that fact to use, since it matched his themes.

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Magi, or “wise men,” were royal counselors. At best, they were learned and prudent. At worst, they were charlatans, sycophants, and brutes (cf. Dan. 2:1–10; Acts 8:9–24).3 Whatever their character, the line between astrology and astronomy was thin, if only because stargazing was respectable. Scripture both prohibits and mocks astrology (Jer. 8:2; 19:13; Isa. 47:13–15), yet God reversed expectations and spoke to stargazers in language they understood, thereby calling Gentiles to Jesus. Popular Christian images of the magi clash with Matthew’s account. The magi were counselors, not kings, and while they bore three gifts, their number (unstated) was large enough to cause a stir in Jerusalem (Matt. 2:3). Contrary to nativity scenes, they found Jesus in a house, not a manger (v. 11).

The Birth of the King

Matthew stresses God’s mission to the Gentiles (1:5–6; 4:15; 8:10–12; 15:21–27; 28:18–20), beginning with the men who travel so far, at great risk and cost, to pay homage to the one “born king of the Jews” (2:2). They expect to find the future king in a palace. But no son has been born to Herod, so he takes the announcement of a new king as a threat and thus is “troubled” (v. 3). This fits Herod’s character. As a ruler, Herod was talented and vigorous, but also violent and paranoid enough to kill several of his sons as well as his favorite wife. His desire to kill Jesus coheres with his pattern of eliminating all threats. If Herod, cruel and violent, is “troubled,” it is no surprise that Jerusalem is too, although one might have hoped for more of a populace awaiting its Messiah.

Herod consults rival groups of experts and inquires closely as he asks “where the Christ was to be born” (v. 4). “Inquired” is in the imperfect tense in Greek, implying that Herod questions them repeatedly.4 Given that the “scribes” were conservative teachers and (typically) Pharisees, while the “chief priests” who rested atop the temple hierarchy were Sadducees who collaborated with Rome, we see that Herod chooses to consult antagonistic groups regarding the birth of Messiah. When they agree, Herod knows he can trust their answer. Citing Micah 5:2, they reply, “In Bethlehem of Judea.” They also add the essential line, “From you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel,” as well as a perfect citation formula, “for so it is written by the prophet.” “It is written” signifies that this is God’s abiding word. “By the prophet” acknowledges the prophet as God’s agent. So they know the answer and face no more than a 5 mile (8 km) journey, yet, reading Matthew, we see none of them traveling to see Jesus.

Once Herod knows where the child is, he plans his murder. He questions the wise men, gains their confidence, and feigns a desire to join them in worship after they identify and locate the child. The magi believe him, but God’s plans supersede Herod’s.

More Than Respect

One can understand Herod’s fear. The belief in astrological signs is widespread, so he reacts to the magi. Besides, Herod is an Idumean, not a proper Jew, and because he is both a tyrant and a usurper (having taken the kingship by force and intrigue), he knows he has few friends. Yet, like many fears, his is also irrational. If Jesus is indeed the God-ordained ruler of Israel, why would he dream that he could kill him? And if the wise men were wrong, why would he try to kill a harmless child? Herod is cunning, but his sin makes him a fool.5

Meanwhile, as the Jews stay home, the Gentiles head to Bethlehem, and the star eventually “came to rest over the place where the child was” (Matt. 2:9). They find the house, “saw the child with Mary his mother, and . . . fell down and worshiped him” (v. 11). We observe that the magi worship him, not them—that is, not Jesus and the holy family or Jesus and Mary. Mary is not, as some say, a member of the “Christian pantheon.” But do the magi fully comprehend Jesus’ identity? Do they fall in worship before the one they know to be God incarnate?

There is no indisputable case of Jesus’ receiving worship in the fullest sense prior to his resurrection.6 We should not leap to conclusions when reading that someone calls Jesus “Lord” or falls, bows, or even worships. “Worship” in verse 11, and elsewhere in the ESV, translates proskyneō, which the standard Greek lexicon defines this way: “To express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure, ( fall down and) worship, do obeisance to, prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, welcome respectfully” (BDAG, italics theirs). Thus, bowing can signify respect, homage, or worship, depending on the context.

The Gospels suggest that people pay Jesus homage that transcends respect. The needy and the demon possessed often fall (proskyneō or piptō) before Jesus, and he never tells them to get up (Matt. 8:2; 9:18; Mark 5:33). We cannot, however, call each instance an act of worship. Demons fall before Jesus (Mark 3:11; 5:6), but they do not worship him. Neither does the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17) or the mocking soldiers (Mark 15:19). We cannot be certain that the Syrophoenician woman falls in worship more than in need (Matt. 15:25). Falling to one’s knees or face is certainly worship in Revelation (1:17; 5:8, 14; 19:10; 22:8). In Matthew, falling is an act of worship at the transfiguration (17:6), after the resurrection (28:9; cf. Luke 24:52), and perhaps with the magi (Matt. 2:11).

It may not be worship every time supplicants fall before Jesus, but surely some come in something akin to a spirit of worship. The case of the ten lepers in Luke 17:11–19 illustrates this truth. Just one of the ten, a Samaritan, returns to thank Jesus, and he “turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.” Instead of telling the man to get up, Jesus asks, “Where are the nine?” So the leper prostrates himself before Christ, taking the position and using the terms of a worshiper. A moment later Jesus says, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:15–19). In the NT neither men nor angels can bear to see a fellow creature bowing to them in homage (Acts 14:8–15; Rev. 22:8–9). But Jesus allows the leper— and others on other occasions—to remain at his feet while they praise God. So Jesus implicitly claims deity, and they implicitly worship, or come close to it. That is, in the NT no one successfully falls ( piptō) or bows ( proskyneō) to anyone but Jesus.7 If the magi do not know enough to worship in the fullest sense, they at least move in that direction, as the statement of their homage suggests (Matt. 2:2, 11).

In that spirit, the wise men joyfully offer heady gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.8 It is too much to think that they infuse each gift with symbolic weight (such as myrrh for burial). Rather, gift giving was essential in that culture, especially when approaching a leader. Frankincense, gold, and myrrh were costly, the sort of precious thing found in one royal court and given in another. (Joseph and Mary possibly sold them to finance their journey to Egypt.) If there is symbolism in the gifts, it lies in the allusion to Psalm 72 and its prophecy that the nations would come to a king greater than Solomon, bringing gifts and falling before him as “all nations serve him” (Ps. 72:10–11).9

Cultural norms required reciprocal gifts. The magi, as representatives of the nations, go home empty handed, but Jesus more than repays them in the end. As they leave, God warns them by a dream “not to return to Herod, [and] they departed to their own country by another way” (Matt. 2:12). Once Herod realizes he has been duped, he seeks to kill Jesus another way (v. 16).


  1. Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 99.
  2. Suetonius, The Deified Julius 88; The Deified Augustus 94.
  3. Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977), 167–178, 197–200.
  4. Nigel Turner, Grammatical Insights into the New Testament (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1965), 27.
  5. Herod ordered hundreds of Jewish leaders to be slain when he died so that there would be mourning at his death. The command was ignored, but its cruelty increases his infamy.
  6. R. T. France, “The Worship of Jesus: A Neglected Factor in Christological Debate?,” in Christ the Lord: Studies in Christology Presented to Donald Guthrie, ed. Harold H. Rowdon (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982), 26.
  7. Unless one counts the parable of the unforgiving servant, in which two servants fall down in homage (Matt. 18:26, 29).
  8. Joy is the right response to the king and his kingdom; cf. Matthew 5:12; 13:44; 28:8.
  9. Cf. Isaiah 60:1–5, in which the nations stream to Israel’s light. The hope for glory, the NT shows, is concentrated upon and fulfilled in Jesus.

This article is by Dan Doriani and is adapted from ESV Expository Commentary: Matthew-Luke (Volume 10).

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