George Booker
To Us A Child Is Born

(9) The Star and the Wise Men (Matthew 2:1-12)

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi [traditionally, Wise Men] from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him’ ” (Matt. 2:1,2).

How did they learn of the birth of Jesus? Perhaps it was by open revelation, similar to the shepherds’ angelic visitation. It is likely too that a general acquaintance with Scripture (for example, Daniel’s “seventy ‘sevens’ ”: 9:24) had prepared them to expect great events in Israel at about this time in connection with a king.

“From the east”

Where did they come from? Popular opinion favors either Babylon, known for its wise men and astrologers, or Persia, where some faint light of truth might have persisted from the days of Daniel. Another suggestion should be considered, since it is based more upon Biblical allusions than are the others: that “the east” refers to Arabia. Consider:

David speaks of the king of Israel (Solomon in the first instance, but more especially Christ) receiving gifts from subject peoples, including the kings of Sheba and Seba (Psa. 72:10), which are Arab lands. Specifically, the king of the Jews would receive gold from Sheba (v. 15; cp. Matt. 2:11).
Isaiah’s words (chapter 60) have been noted already by Simeon, as a prophecy of light brought by the Messiah to the Gentiles (vv. 1,2; Luke 2:32). Isaiah, however, saw also that the nations would come to the light (60:3), and this is precisely what the wise men did. (If there is any doubt that the light of the Lord refers to the Messiah, it is dispelled by reference to Isaiah 59:20, 21, the opening verses of the prophecy: “The Redeemer will come to Zion”.) These Gentiles would bring presents, which are enumerated in Isaiah 60:6,7: camels of Midian and Ephah; gold and incense from Sheba; flocks from Kedar; rams from Nebaioth. (These are all Arabian names.)

One cannot refrain from musing that wise men from the same areas today would bring the precious gift (at least to the industrialized world) of oil. On further reflection, such a thought might not be so far-fetched after all. History could repeat itself in the near future, when the King of the Jews returns to Israel.

Both Psalm 72 and Isaiah 60 mention that the Gentiles were kings. In this case, the common Christmas tradition has some basis in Scripture. However, it has been rightly remarked that just one line of a popular Christmas carol may contain three inaccuracies: the “three kings of Orient” were certainly not from the Orient, strictly speaking; they may or may not have been kings; and the only reason, rather fragile, for supposing they were three in number is that three gifts are mentioned. So much for songwriters as Bible students.

The star

No matter what nation they came from, or whether or not they were kings, we may be assured that they traveled a considerable distance on the basis of rather scanty knowledge. Perhaps they trekked through great cities, and past shady oases, which would beckon them aside from their single-minded mission. Perhaps they met discomfort and hardship in the pursuit of their goal, but they would not be deterred. In their determination they brought to God and His Son an even greater gift than gold — obedience.

Possibly the wise men did not start their journey together, but came from different places and, as strangers, met along the way. Possibly each one was drawn in a unique way to embrace the common quest. They may have had little in common otherwise; they may even have been irritated by one another’s company. Such matters could, however, be set aside; they must ride together, for they followed the same star, and they were wise men. Being wise they accepted the rough with the smooth, and submerged their temporary problems in their eternal desires.

The problem of the star has taxed the ingenuity of countless scholars, who might have done better to spend their time on more spiritually beneficial questions. Their suggestions include a comet, a meteor, a planetary conjunction (several choices offered), and a supernova or star explosion. Each of these natural phenomena proves deficient when the facts of the narrative are considered. What do we know, for certain, about the star ?

It was seen by the wise men, and could be followed to Judea. This argues for some sign which would have remained in the heavens for a considerable time, and rules out meteors and most comets.
The star first pointed them or led them to Jerusalem (v. 1). It is difficult to see how some ordinary star could lead followers to a precise location. Still less do the above suggestions mesh with the other details listed below.
The star was apparently not seen by Herod (v. 7).
It disappeared from the wise men’s view after they reached Jerusalem (v. 8), then reappeared suddenly when they started toward Bethlehem (v. 9).
Thus the star changed direction. First it moved westward, and then southward.
It was a moving object. It “went ahead of” the wise men (v. 9), leading them as a procession.
Then it stopped (v. 9).

This sequence, carefully analyzed, rules out every natural explanation. The details of the activity of the star, however, call to mind a miracle from the Old Testament. The star, sometimes visible and sometimes invisible, led its followers, changed direction, and at times stopped. This is exactly what the “Shekinah” glory of Yahweh — the pillar of fire and cloud — did for the children of Israel in the wilderness. It led them, changing direction, sometimes stopping for long periods; finally, of course, it disappeared. Here, then, is a simple, Bible-based explanation of the star of Bethlehem: it was the Glory of God which carefully led the wise men to Bethlehem, where they found the greater “glory” of God manifested in human flesh.

“Where is he?”

Having come as far as the capital, Jerusalem, the wise men naturally inquired in the city about the one born as king. This just as naturally came to the attention of Herod the Great, a shrewd, malevolent, and jealous man. “He was disturbed”, and when a wicked ruler given to murderous fits of temper was disturbed, it is easy to imagine that all Jerusalem was disturbed along with him (Matt. 2:3).

Who was this man, who could disturb a city with a frown? He was an Idumean by birth, though he accepted the Jewish religion out of expediency. He inherited Galilee from his father Antipater. His skill in suppressing dissent won him recognition in Rome, and he was rewarded with the gift of Judea. He had reigned about 36 years by this time, and was notorious for his cruelty. Cold-blooded murders of in-laws and relatives were commonplace, culminating in the public execution of his wife, Mariamne, and the strangling of their two sons. These last acts — atrocious even by Herod’s standards — seem to have driven him into fits of depression and madness during his last few years.

Herod gathered together those who would be expected to know the Scriptures and inquired of them where Messiah should be born (v. 4). The answer was, of course, Bethlehem (vv. 5,6; Mic. 5:2). This information, coupled with the time factor learned from the wise men (v. 7), gave Herod all he needed to instigate the murder of the male children of Bethlehem who were under two years of age (v. 16). Meanwhile, he was all smiles to his visitors:

“Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him” (v. 8).

What a lie it was! In one sense, however, it is a lie of which any of us might be guilty. If we let others search for Jesus on our behalf, and wait complacently for their return, even in all sincerity, they may never come back to tell us where he can be found. Jesus must be sought for personally. We cannot delegate responsibility for our salvation to anyone else.

It is a measure of the cunning of Herod that the wise men suspected nothing of his motives. God, however, warned them in a dream that they should not return to Herod. After their visit they bypassed Jerusalem on their way home (v. 12).

Other Scriptures

“After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed” (vv. 9,10).

Other references to this scene occur in Scripture. Balaam the prophet saw a Star coming out of Jacob, and a Scepter (i.e., King)... rising out of Israel (Num. 24:17), who would be, among other things, “greater than Agag (Herod?)” (v. 7).

New Testament references apparently incorporate this “Star” into fuller prophecies of the manifestation of the Son of God:

Matthew 24:30: Since Christ’s first coming was witnessed by a literal “sign of the Son of man in heaven”, the suggestion should not be dismissed outright that Christ’s second coming will also be announced by some literal heavenly sign. No dogmatism is possible here, and there can be no question that signs in the political heavens will also play an important part in preparing a people to meet the Lord; but (“first literal, then figurative” being a sound principle), the more literal possibility should not be ignored.

Revelation 16:12: Meshing with the Lord’s reference to a sign in heaven, there is his reference (through John in the Revelation) to the “kings of the east” coming to him. Again, dogmatism before the fact is out of the question, but such correspondence between Scripture passages is often (we could almost say, always) more than coincidence.

Revelation 21:22-26: Gentile kings appear again near the end of the Apocalypse. In response to the revealed “glory of God” (v. 23), they bring the gifts of their glory and honor (vv. 24,26) into the city lightened by the Lamb. Christ himself assumes the role of the “Star” in 22:16.

Following the star

Like the wise men before us, we, if we are wise, follow the “Star”. We travel a long road, we know not how long, and unless we keep the “Star” in view, and wait for its direction, we may be lost along the way. Perhaps we began our journeys in company with parents or other older pilgrims. Trustfully we followed them, until we could see the “Star” for ourselves. It may be that our first guides have fallen asleep and been laid to rest along the trail, but we their “children” continue our pilgrimage, knowing that at the journey’s end we shall find those who preceded us. It may be that the wise men of the east will be there too, having completed another journey, to find at the end, not a baby in a crib, but a king upon a throne.

The gifts

“On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh” (Matt. 2:11).

No longer is the family in a stable; they are now resident in a house, indicating a passage of time since Christ’s birth of, perhaps, as much as two years (vv. 7,16), and the establishing of a more permanent residence in Bethlehem.

A brief chronological note: the common misconception that the Magi arrived at the stable on the heels of the shepherds is refuted, not only by the above points, but also by this: had they brought their valuable gifts before the temple presentation (Luke 2:22-38), then surely Joseph and Mary would have offered the best and not the poorest sacrifice.

The bringing of gifts by the Magi is probably the origin of the modern custom of gift giving at Christmas. Significantly, however, the gifts were given to Jesus and to no one else.

The gifts which the wise men gave to Jesus, along with their loving adoration, are figurative of the service we can all give to our Lord:

Gold is used by the Apostle Peter in his exhortation (1 Pet. 1:7) as representing the preciousness of a tried faith. Faith, until it has been purified by experience, persecution, and hard choices, is of little value. Our faith at the end of the journey will be a worthy gift to lay before Christ, precisely because it will have been perfected in the fiery trials of our probation.
Incense represents the prayers of the saints (Psa. 141:2; Rev. 5:8; 8:4) which, like the clouds of smoke from the altar of incense, rise in praise to God. No greater gift can we give to God than our thanks and praise.
Myrrh is bitter, yet also purifying, soothing, and cleansing. Thus it speaks of self-sacrifice.

The gifts given to Jesus were also indicative of his mission in life, and revealed an awareness of this on the part of the givers. In reverse order the three gifts foreshadow the three stages of Christ’s redemptive work: (1) the myrrh: his death (Mark 15:23; John 19:39); (2) incense: his mediatorship, interceding for the saints in their prayers to God, and (3) gold: his kingship, at his second coming.

What happened to the gifts? Since they were very valuable, it is possible they all served an immediate purpose in financing the unplanned flight to Egypt and the sojourn there. But the myrrh, at least, so eminently testified of Jesus’s eventual sacrifice (Mark 15:23; John 19:39) that it can easily be imagined that it was kept for that purpose. The mind flashes forward thirty-three years to Golgotha, where Mary — a sword piercing her own soul — looks from afar upon her crucified son. What more fitting than the thought that she carried with her that myrrh given to Jesus so long before. “To this end was (he) born”, and now the gift of the Magi sealed in death the perfect life whose beginning they had witnessed in Bethlehem.

“They saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him” (Matt. 2:11).

Let us come with reverence into the presence of Jesus, and lay at his feet all we possess.

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