Of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke are the only ones that supply some detail concerning the birth the Lord Jesus. As Luke is concerned with the human aspect of His person, it gives more information. Matthew verifies the fulfilment of prophecies made in antiquity about the coming of the Messiah from God, He being the legitimate Heir to the throne of David, therefore the King Messiah.
The visit of the Wise Men (verses 1-12)
This is the only reference made in the Bible to the visit of the Wise Men from the east. It is very short, giving room for some legends that can hardly correspond with reality. As far as we can deduce from the Biblical account, the facts would be as follows:
1. When did they arrive in Bethlehem? - We have two indications, from which we may conclude that it would have been about a year after the birth of the Lord Jesus:
The Child was found in a house with His mother, so He was no longer a baby in a manger at an inn.
In the attempt to eliminate Him, Herod ordered the killing of all the children up to two years old, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.
2. How many were they? - The number is not important, and the Gospel only tells us the kind of gifts they brought. There would be at least two of them, but probably more than the three of the legend, given the trouble they had caused in Jerusalem and Herod.
3. Who were they? - Certainly they were not kings, for if they had been, this would have been an important detail that would not have been omitted. Kings do not visit other countries without escort and formalities, and would have been received with honours by Herod. They probably were only scientists of that time, well informed on Judaism, God fearing and researchers of nature.
4. What star would that be? – It was seen in the East by the wise men, and they only saw it again when they had left the presence of Herod. It went before them till it came and stood over where the Child was. No known star is able to do such a thing, so it must have been created especially for this purpose.
We cannot know for sure what there was of special with the star so that the wise men could identifyit as being of the new King of the Jews. The possibility exists that they made a connection between the prophecy of Balaam (Numbers 24:17) with the one of Daniel (Daniel 9:24), and then God attended to their longing to see its fulfilment by giving them the vision of this star, whose characteristics differed from all those known. They had gone to Jerusalem to worship the new King, who they knew to be the Messiah of God.
Matthew tells us of the concern of Herod. He had been placed on the throne in Jerusalem by the Romans, and was afraid to lose his position, as he did not even belong to the Jewish people, being an Edomite, traditionally an enemy Arab race. The chief priests and scribes of the people, gathered by Herod, identified where the Messiah was to be born: in Bethlehem according to Micah 5:2. Knowing now where He would have to be born, Herod determined the likely date, by asking the wise men what time the star had appeared to them.
Herod sent the Wise Men to Bethlehem, and told them to bring back word when they had found Him. He hid his true intention which was to eliminate Him, but encouraged them saying that he also wanted to worship Him: when saying this Herod identified the Messiah with God. Upon the information received, the Wise Men proceeded to Bethlehem and the star guided them to the house where the new King was to be found.
He was no longer a new-born baby lying in a manger, as many think! The Wise Men fell down and worshipped the Child (not His mother). They had also given Him gifts, worthy of a King (gold), proper for a Priest (incense), and perfume used for embalming the Dead (myrrh). It is surprising that these Wise Men already knew so well the mission of the Messiah from God! Their gifts remind us that the ember in them that the Gentiles from Sheba shall bring gold and incense to the Lord in the Millennium, but will not bring myrrh, because His death is already in the past (Isaiah 60:6).
God intervened in a dream warning the Wise Men not to go back to Herod, certainly for their protection and to allow Joseph time to run away with His family.
The escape for Egypt (verses 13-18)
Again God intervened by sending an angel to Joseph in a dream, instructing Him to take the Child and His mother, flee to Egypt and stay there until new orders, because Herod would seek the Boy to destroy Him. So did Joseph, arising immediately, taking the Child and His mother and departing for Egypt.
Herod was infuriated when he saw that he was deceived by the Wise Men, as they did not return to tell him the house where the new Heir to the throne was, so he ordered all the boys two years older and younger who were in Bethlehem and surrounding districts to be put to death, according to the information he had got from the Wise Men concerning the date when they had first seen His star.
The number of children killed would not have been very great, because the population of that area was still small. Even so, the event had already been prophesied in Jeremiah 31:15: Ramah was just a few kilometres away from Bethlehem, and was included in the massacre.
The Return to Israel (verses 19-23)
According to secular historians, Herod, called “the Great” died in April of year 4 B.C. Assuming that Jesus was one year old when taken to Egypt, and that Herod died six months later, His birth would have been in October of year 6 B.C. Therefore, our calendar has an error of some six years.
Again an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, after the death of Herod, instructing Him to return with the Child and His mother to the land of Israel, for those who sought His life were dead. Joseph obeyed, but when he arrived in the land of Israel he found out that Archelaus, the son of Herod, had succeeded his father. History tells us that the kingdom of Herod was divided between three of His children, Archelaus receiving Judea and Samaria, and Philip and Antipas the remainder.
Fearing to go into Judea because Herod Archelaus was known for His cruelty, and by means of a divine revelation, Joseph took his family to live in Nazareth of Galilee (Archelaus was a tyrant and, hearing the outcry of the Jews, he was deposed by the Roman power two years later; Galilee was inherited by Herod Antipas, a skilful politician, and it was He who ordered John the Baptist to be beheaded and condemned the Lord Jesus to death). The circumstance of the family of Joseph having moved to Nazareth made the Lord Jesus be called “Nazarene”, and it was said later that His followers were of the “sect of the Nazarenes”, of which Paul was accused to be the ringleader (Acts 24:5).
In this chapter we see the fulfilment of three prophecies that seemed conflicting, but whose perfect compatibility is demonstrated as follows:
The Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, in the land of Judah (Micah 5:2).
The Messiah would be called, by God, from Egypt (Hosea 11:1).
The Messiah would be called “Nazarene” (the Nazarenes were rejected by the Jews [John 1:46], thus fulfilling the prophecy in Psalm 22:6 and Isaiah 53:3, perhaps also Isaiah 11:1 because in the Hebrew the word “Nazarene” has the same root as a “Branch”).
Note the interference of the Gentiles in this part of history, with consequences foreseen in the prophecies: it was the Wise Men of the East who, when inquiring in the palace of king Herod about “He who has been born King of the Jews”, had stimulated the jealous Gentile usurper to search to kill Him, compelling His parents to run away to Egypt; with the death of Herod they had come back to the land of Israel, but they had to go to live in Nazareth to be out of reach of the son of Herod that assumed the throne of Judea, Archelaus.
We have here two undisputed proofs of the divine inspiration of the Bible:
The prophecies were fulfilled rigorously, and
Some facts unconsciously generated by Gentiles contributed to their fulfilment, not the people most interested in their fulfilment, who would be the Jews.
On the other hand, we also see God’s interference, necessary to direct events towards His perpetual designs:
Providing the star that guided the Wise Men.
Instructing the Wise Men not to return to Jerusalem.
Instructing Joseph to flee to Egypt.
Ordering Joseph to return to the land of Israel.