18th Day of Advent
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, 2saying, “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; 4and 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.
Just who were the wise men? Were they, as the carol proclaims, three kings of the orient?
The wise men are more accurately called the magi from the Greek word mágoi. From that same Greek root we get the words magic and magician. To the magi was ascribed the power to interpret dreams. Long before the 1st Century, magi had assumed a much broader meaning. The magi were thought to possess supernatural knowledge and ability. They were interpreters of dreams, fortune tellers, astrologers, scientists, magicians, and counselors to those in power. By Jesus’ day the magi were no longer exclusively Persians. They ranged from charlatans to some of the most learned men in the ancient world. The magi in Matthew 2 are pictured as wholly admirable characters, magi at their best.
Where were the magi from? The Gospel simply says that they were “from the East”. Beyond that, there are three locations that are usually suggested: Parthia, Babylon, and the deserts of Arabia or Syria. So what do we know?
- We know there were at least two, since mágoi is a plural.
- We know they were men, since these words have masculine endings.
- We can assume that they were men of some financial means. Their gifts were valuable. In the First Century frankincense and myrrh were worth more than their weight in gold. They had the leisure and financial means to make a long journey. Given the dangers of travel in the border regions on the eastern end of the Roman Empire and the value of their goods, they were probably accompanied by a large contingent of armed guards.
- We can assume they were men of some stature and influence, since they were quickly granted a private audience with King Herod.
- We can assume that they traveled a great distance to get to Jerusalem.
- We know that they were regarded as wise and learned men in their day and that a part of their learning included a study of the stars. Their statements to Herod’s court were regarded as quite credible and were taken with utter seriousness.
Why did the magi come? Why would important and wealthy men journey great distances at considerable cost and risk with no apparent prospect for personal gain? What drew the magi to Bethlehem? The star. An unusual star in the night sky would take on special meaning to those wise men. It was a sign of some important event that was happening or was about to happen. It had meaning to the world at large and to them personally. Perhaps the star was in a constellation. We do know that they were not led to Jerusalem by literally following the star. That is a common misconception. In verse two the magi told Herod that they saw the star in the east. Later in verse nine we are told that the star reappeared to them as they were leaving Jerusalem and led them to Bethlehem—directly to the place where the child was located.
So what was this star? Was it some natural phenomenon that was interpreted symbolically? Many theories over the years have been offered with just such an explanation in mind. But the actions of the star in Matthew 2:9 defy any such naturalistic explanation. Bethlehem was a scant five miles SE of Jerusalem. For a light in the heavens to guide travelers from Herod’s palace to a specific location in Bethlehem means that this light must have been very low in the sky and had to have been moving very slowly. Whatever that star was, it was no thing of nature. God supernaturally brought these men to welcome the Son of Man.
Questions to Ponder
- Why did God chose pagan Gentiles to pay homage at the birth of his son?
- Instead of leading us by a star, God leads us by His Holy Spirit. How you can be more attentive to the leadership of the Holy Spirit in your life?