Bible Text: Matthew 2:1–23
Lesson Focus: Jesus is revealed as king of all—whether the people recognize him or not.
Big Question: Jesus was a poor baby. Why am I supposed to worship him like a king?
Key Words: EPIPHANY, GENTILES, HEROD THE GREAT, MAGI, HOMAGE
• The Christmas story in Matthew bears no resemblance to the one in Luke.
• Matthew 1 shows that Jesus is the fulfillment of promises made to Israel. Matthew 2 introduces the idea that Jesus fulfills Gentile hopes for salvation as well.
• The primary message of Matthew’s Christmas story is that Jesus is revealed by God as Lord and king for the entire world.
• The magi were probably astrologers or magicians of a priestly clan of Persians. They were exotic pagans—Gentiles in the extreme.
• It was a widely held belief that a new star rose in the sky at the birth of a great leader.
• The story of the magi shows us that Jesus is God’s gift to the entire world.
The Christmas story in Matthew bears no resemblance to the one in Luke. In Matthew, there is wealth, a star, and foreigners from afar, as opposed to the poverty, angels, and shepherds in Luke’s story. The writer of Matthew tells Jesus’ birth story, in part, as a foreshadowing of a central theme in the Gospel—that Gentiles seek Jesus and accept him as their king. Matthew 1 shows that Jesus is the fulfillment of promises made to Israel, and chapter 2 introduces the idea that Jesus fulfills Gentile hopes for salvation as well. The primary message of Matthew’s Christmas story is that Jesus is revealed by God as Lord and king for the entire world. The gospel writer uses details in the current political scene to show the clash with Roman powers and principalities that Jesus will continue to experience throughout his life.
The Herod in this story is Herod the Great, a Jewish king backed by Rome. He was made governor of Galilee when the Romans occupied Palestine, and he became king of Judea, Galilee, Samaria, and the area east of the Jordan in about 37 B.C. Exploitation and brutality were his ways. He died in 4 B.C. (The historical dates of his life and reign are part of what makes the exact year of Jesus’ birth difficult to determine.) Herod’s armies and workforces, comprised of Herod’s own people, built Caesarea and Jericho. Herod also had the temple in Jerusalem rebuilt according to the descriptions of Solomon’s Temple. This was done in an effort to become popular with the Jews of the time. However, he was not popular because he was beholden to Rome and was a cruel man. When the magi told him that the new king of the Jews had been born, Herod knew enough to feel threatened. He knew the prophecy that God would send a Messiah to deliver the people, and he was acutely aware that two claims of kingship would exist when that new king was born. Herod’s claim to be king was threatened and he knew it. This story contrasts two kings: Herod and Jesus. The rest of the Gospel story plays out the royal struggle that begins with the birth of a baby under a special star.
The magi—the ones we commonly call the three kings or the Wise Men—were probably astrologers or magicians of a priestly clan of Persians. They were exotic pagans—Gentiles in the extreme. They came seeking the new “king of the Jews.” Obviously, this was not their king, yet they were driven on this long journey to come pay him homage. We are left to conclude that they were seekers of some sort. The writer of Matthew seems to have found their story to be an ironic juxtaposition with the story of Herod, who was so threatened by this new baby. There is much irony in two aspects of this story: (1) the powerful and cruel ruler was threatened by a baby, and (2) those from afar sensed something important was happening while those close by struggled with this whole idea.
It was a widely held belief that a new star rose in the sky at the birth of a great leader. Jewish tradition also linked the hoped-for Messiah to the star of Jacob (Numbers 24:17). Various scientific interpretations have been proposed for this mysterious star—comets, a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, and so forth—but the writer of Matthew makes the point that this star was miraculous. It moved to guide the magi precisely to the new king. The author is telling us that something extraordinary was at work.
We have no idea, really, how many magi there were. Tradition has assumed there were three, probably because three gifts are mentioned. Those three gifts were later allegorically interpreted to foreshadow Jesus’ death. Their more immediate message seems to be simpler. These magi undertook a long journey, with precious gifts in tow, to worship a new king who seemingly had no direct connection to them. The profound message is embedded in the irony of this visit. Jesus is God’s gift to the entire world. The rest of the gospel of Matthew, and the other gospels as well, contrasts the unexpected devotion exhibited by the magi and other Gentiles (who were not expected to know the Messiah) with the misunderstanding and scorn of Jesus’ own people.
The themes and contrasts haven’t changed much in 2,000 years. Jesus’ own people—those of us who very quickly and very loudly claim a relationship with him—often do not represent him as well as the seekers who are willing to ask good questions and wrestle with the meaning of those questions for their own lives. What can we learn from the royalty who traveled so far to worship a baby they probably didn’t understand?
Jesus was a poor baby. Why am I supposed to worship him like a king?
Herod didn’t know that Jesus was going to be a very different kind of king. He became worried, jealous, and angry. Emotions play a vital part in our ability to think, reason, and learn. Brain research tells us that learning is filtered through emotions. In a learning situation, tapping into emotional content may help youth anchor new information. Fear and jealousy are emotions that most people have experienced. Encouraging youth to remember their own experiences and the circumstances that have triggered feelings of fear and jealousy and to relate those situations to the feelings that were attributed to King Herod will help them understand this story. Asking youth what causes them to feel afraid or jealous may reveal vital information that will link them to these same emotions in Herod. Herod was concerned that this newborn child might cause a major problem for his reign, and he responded with fear and jealousy. Asking youth to equate their feelings with Herod’s will help them find meaning in this momentous event and the destruction that followed.
Welcome and Review
Help kids dive into the Key Words by asking for definitions and/or providing these definitions:
EPIPHANY: the church’s celebration on January 6 of the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus. Epiphany means “revelation” and recognizes that Jesus is “revealed” as king for all people by this visit of the magi.
GENTILES: people who weren’t Jewish.
HEROD THE GREAT: a corrupt Jewish king who served as governor of Galilee and was backed by Roman power. Threatened by the birth of Jesus, the true king, he sent the magi to Bethlehem to find Jesus so that he could have the child killed.
MAGI: stargazers or astrologers from Persia. They recognized Jesus as a great king, chosen by God, even though they were Gentiles.
HOMAGE: a ceremony by which people acknowledge themselves as servants of a master or lord
Choose an option to introduce the lesson. Then lead students in the Opening Prayer.
Object Lesson Option: Sappy Gifts
Frankincense and myrrh are both resins, which are like tree sap. Bring in a bottle of maple syrup as an example of syrup that comes from sap. If there’s a person in your congregation or community who collects sap to make maple syrup, have him or her in as a guest speaker to tell about the process. If there isn’t someone available, show a YouTube(tm) video that details this process.
Debrief the activity with these questions:
• If you were to choose one very valuable gift to bring to baby Jesus from your community, what would it be?
• If you were to choose one very practical gift to bring to baby Jesus from your community, what would it be?
• Why did the magi bring such valuable gifts to a new baby?
If possible, dim the lights. Light a candle that is set in a central place. Ask the students to focus their eyes on the candle in silence. After a number of seconds, pray this prayer (or write one of your own), pausing for 10–15 seconds at the end of each sentence.
Jesus Christ, you are the Light of the world. Help us to know you as Savior, Lord, and king. Let your glory fill the whole world. Rule all nations with mercy and justice. Fill our hearts with joy. Jesus Christ, you are the Light of the world. Bring us your peace. Amen.
My Faith Story
Ask kids to respond to the Big Question: Jesus was a poor baby. Why am I supposed to worship him like a king?
Then share a part of your own faith story using the suggestion below or another way to share about an awe-inspiring experience in your life.
Describe a time when you experienced awe—both the sense of amazement and the recognition of your own smallness in the world God created. Perhaps it was during worship, like a Christmas Eve candlelight service. Perhaps it was a conversation with someone who reminded you of Christ. Perhaps it was in a beautiful part of God’s creation. Who was with you? What contributed to your feeling of awe? How can experiences like this help us identify with the magi who came to worship Jesus? How can such an experience help us learn to worship Jesus as king?
Open the Bible
Have the students open their Bibles to Numbers 22. Be sure to have an NRSV translation available. Introduce the story with a summary, such as “The idea that a new star in the sky was a sign of promise has connections to the Old Testament. In Numbers 22–24, Balak, king of Moab, uses Balaam, a non-Jew, to be a visionary.” Ask the students to listen for references to the east and to a star as selected verses are read. Have a volunteer read Numbers 23:7 (use NRSV for this reading). Have another volunteer read Balaam’s oracle in Numbers 24:15–19. Have the students underline or highlight or make note in the margin of their Bibles that Balaam was summoned from the east and that Balaam’s oracle includes a reference to a star coming out of Jacob. Most Bible scholars think that this refers to the Davidic dynasty. Discuss what significance the east has in religious practices—either in the past or the present? (Examples: Early Christians adapted the Jewish practice of praying toward Eden in the east [Genesis 2:8]. Christ rose early on the first Easter morning, like the rising sun in the east. Many churches are built so that the altar faces east. Most cemeteries are laid out so that the dead would face east if they sat up—or rose—in order to meet Jesus.) How have stars provided direction for travelers? (Today people who are boating or hiking or canoeing in wilderness areas may try to use the stars to provide direction—along with a compass or GPS; before navigation instruments, travelers on both land and sea relied on the stars to guide them.)
Although Christianity began as a Jewish sect, it was the missionary Paul who brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. Rather than requiring new believers to follow the Law of Moses, Paul argued that the promise given through baptism brings about something altogether new. Have students turn in their Bibles to Galatians 3:23–29. Ask a volunteer to read these verses. Discuss ways we categorize types of people by class, race, gender, etc. How does baptism do away with those distinctions? (In baptism, we are all one in Christ, children of God through faith.)
Have the students turn to Matthew 2:1–23. Read (or have a volunteer read) these verses. Ask the students to listen carefully for the number of Wise Men who come to visit Jesus and for how Jews and Gentiles respond to Jesus’ birth. (No number of magi is mentioned! Because three gifts were offered, tradition has assumed that there were three magi. This story tells us about non-Jews who came to find the Messiah. In contrast, throughout the gospels, Jesus is often rejected by Jewish people, those closest to him, his own people. It is a reminder that we need to pay attention to insights from others who are different from us.) How can we learn from those who might have a different perspective from our own? How might we be awed by Jesus who is the great gift God has given to all people no matter how different they might be from one another? (Accept all thoughtful answers and help students to recognize the variety of expressions of Christianity throughout the world.)
Have students turn to the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26–40. Remind the students that Philip was a Jewish follower of Jesus while the Ethiopian was a Gentile. Ask three students to read the parts of Philip, the Ethiopian, and the narrator in this story. In this story, we see a Gentile—a non-Jew—coming to faith through a discussion with a Jew. The eunuch was not a part of Philip’s culture or community. He could be called a seeker, asking questions based on his encounter with the scriptures. How can asking questions as we read scripture be an opportunity to explore faith? How much of our faith remains a mystery no matter how much we study scripture? How much is clear and certain? (Accept all thoughtful answers and help the students recognize that we are always learning and growing in our faith. Often talking with other Christians from other parts of the world will give us new insights into our faith and Scripture.)
Have students turn to 1 Peter 2:9–10. Read these verses together. What does it mean to you that all the baptized share in the royalty of God, that is given in Christ? How might you act differently once you recognize that in God we are all kings and queens?
Open the Catechism
Student Book page 301: Read the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer and the questions and answers that follow it. When you pray, “Your kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer, what parts of your world, your local community, and your own life come to mind? In what ways do you participate or fail to participate in “God’s kingdom”? What does believing “God’s Holy Word” and “living a godly life” look like to you? Where can you see God’s kingdom making a difference in your world?
Fill in the Blank Questions
1. The visit of the Wise Men, or magi, to the infant Jesus is commonly known as __________. (Epiphany)
2. King Herod discovered Bethlehem was the place of Jesus’ birth from experts who searched the __________ __________. (prophetic writings)
3. Herod wanted to find Jesus in order to __________ __________. (kill him)
4. The magi offered Jesus __________, __________, and __________ as gifts. (gold, frankincense, and myrrh)
5. The visit of the magi was remarkable because they were __________, or non-Jews, and they offered __________ to Jesus. (Gentiles, gifts)
6. The magi consulted __________ to find where Jesus was born. (stars)
7. The date that the church celebrates the visit of the magi is __________. (January 6)
8. The visit of the magi reveals Jesus as a ruler for the __________ __________. (whole world)
Take a Break
Bring “kingly” gifts as your treat today, such as chocolate coins, rock candy that would resemble incense, or a spiced apple cider that would give off a wonderful smell as myrrh did.
Select one of the options below to explore in your small group. Then finish with the Best/Worst activity and prayer.
Option 1: Object Lesson Option: Have I Got a Gift for You!
Prior to class, gather crosses so each student may have one. They could be purchased or handmade, simple or fancy. Using wrapping paper, scissors, and tape, have students wrap a cross and ask them to think how they might share the gift of Jesus with others.
Have youth pair up and exchange the cross gifts. (If you have an odd number of students, have one group of three.) While they do this, ask them to tell each other the story of the magi’s visit and how the gift of Jesus is important to them.
Ask them to take the cross home and place it on their refrigerator or in their bedroom, where they can be reminded of the gift of Jesus.
Talk about this activity using these questions:
• How does this cross remind you that Jesus is a different kind of king?
• Jesus received gifts from the magi, but he gave gifts to the world. What gifts did Jesus give us?
• What’s the most meaningful physical gift you’ve ever received?
Option 2: Object Lesson Option: Are We Three Kings?
In advance, collect brightly colored envelopes and purchase or make cardboard/cardstock crowns for each student in your group. Have a cross set up somewhere in your meeting place – on a table, a large cross standing on the floor, etc. Hand out the crowns and envelopes, and invite students to consider what valuable gift they have that they can give to Jesus. It might be physical (money, jewelry, etc.). It might be a talent (singing, playing an instrument, acting, sharing joyfulness, etc.). Have each student write their gift on a sheet of paper and put it into the envelope, seal the envelope and write “For Jesus, the king” on the envelope. Invite students to come forward in groups of three, kneel before the cross, and present their gifts.
Talk about this activity using these questions:
• What gifts can you share?
• How are your gifts important to Jesus?
Option 3: Learning in Motion Option: Musical Flashlights
For this variation of Musical Chairs, have students sit on the floor in a circle. Give a flashlight to the group. (If a flashlight is not available, use a different token to symbolize the Light of Christ.) Play music from a sound system or sing the refrain to “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” While the music plays, students pass the flashlight around the circle. When the music stops, the one holding the flashlight must stand, turn on the light, and say what it means to her or him that “Jesus Christ is the Light of the world.” If the flashlight ends up with the same person more than once, that person should give it to someone else in the circle.
Talk about this activity using these questions:
• How is Jesus a light in your life?
• Does everyone think of Jesus the same way? Why or why not?
• How can we share Jesus’ light with others?
Best/Worst and Prayer
Go around the group and have each student share the best and worst thing from his or her week. Remind them to pay special attention to (for example) the person on their right, as they will be praying for that person in a moment. Alternate prayer partners from week to week.
Bring a symbol of Christ as king—a cardboard crown, a small to medium-sized cross (that can be held easily), a signet ring, etc. After each one of you has shared your best and worst things, have the students stand in a circle with you. As the prayer progresses, the symbol will be passed from one student to the next. You may begin and close this prayer time with the following prayer or one that you write yourself.
Lord Jesus, you are our king. You are the greatest gift we have ever received. Help us to share our gifts with you. (Insert your prayer for your prayer partner, then pass the symbol of Christ the king to your prayer partner. He or she will pray for her/his prayer partner, and so on around the group. When all have finished praying, the symbol should return to you, and you may close the prayer time . . . ) Jesus, we give all of these things to you. Take the good things and use them to show your glory. Take the bad things and help us to overcome them as we continue to follow you. We pray and entrust all we have to you. Amen.
Student Book Connection
Student Book page 182: Have everyone open to the article “The Seasons of the Church Year and What They Mean.” Find Epiphany and read about what happens during that time in the church year. Read each paragraph in this article and, using markers (or colored pencils or crayons), put a dot of the appropriate seasonal color beside that paragraph. For white, use black to draw a circle. Try to memorize the order of the seasons from Advent to Easter. How do these seasons of the church year help you to understand Jesus’ life? How do these seasons help you to understand Jesus as king?
Student Book page 184: Look at the diagram called “The Seasons of the Church Year.” Talk about how it can be helpful to look at these seasons in a circle. They can add color to the circle as they did with the previous article. Ask students to identify their favorite season of the year (spring, summer, fall, winter) and their favorite church year season. Do they happen at the same time? Find Epiphany on the circle. Find where you are currently located in the church year. What season is coming up next?
Talk about last week’s Life Connection. Ask your group what they did this week to live out last week’s lesson. What did they learn? What might they do in the future to keep living out that Life Connection?
As a challenge for this week and to apply the lesson, have the students write a note to themselves on paper or an index card saying, “Remember, Jesus is your king. How will you honor him today?” Ask them to post the note on a mirror or in their bedroom—somewhere they will see it each morning as they get ready for school or other activities. Ask them to carry that thought with them each day and to focus on honoring Jesus in whatever they do. Ask them to bring a report of their experiences to your next class session.
Kids this age have lots of questions about right and wrong, stories in the Bible, and faith and life. Provide time for them to ask questions. Remember, there isn’t always a right answer, but encouraging discussion is great! Questions help kids explore their faith. Help them explore on their path to confirmation.
After their questions, ask one or more of the following questions to connect your conversations with the Lesson Focus:
• Who might be modern-day magi?
• How does the visit of the magi help you understand Jesus as king?
• Note that the magi return home after their visit. How can you incorporate the revelation that Jesus is king into your life at home?
Use the following prayer or write your own to close your group time. In preparation for the prayer, write sections of the prayer on individual note cards or pieces of paper – one for each student and leader. You will also need a candle for each student and leader in your group. (Before lighting candles, check your local fire codes and your congregation’s fire policies regarding the use of open flames.) Explain that you will pray this prayer as a group with each person speaking the part he/she has been given, and that there will be a time of silence before and after the prayer. Explain that you will begin the prayer, the person to your right will speak the next part, the person to the right will speak the next part, and so on around the table. When everyone understands how the prayer will be prayed, pass out the note cards and give a candle to each person. Light your candle and have the student beside you light his/her candle from yours. In this way, pass the flame around the circle. Once all of the candles are lit, dim or lower the lights. Ask everyone to focus on the candles in silence. After 30–60 seconds, begin the prayer. When the prayer is finished, allow 30–60 seconds of silence before bringing the lights back up and blowing out your candles.
Lord Jesus, you are our wisdom and king of all nations. By the light of your word and your Holy Spirit, help us to live and share our faith in you. Help us to seek you and honor you with worship, praise, and service. Christ Jesus, you are the light of the world. Bring us your peace. Amen.
Have the students pair up. Tell each to give their candle to their partner and to proclaim this blessing: “May the light of Jesus fill you with wisdom and shine forth in everything you say and do, now and forever. Amen.”