Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 2:1a (Holman) After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod,. . .
Bethlehem, five miles south of Jerusalem, was the birthplace of David, Israel’s beloved songwriter, warrior, and king. The word “Bethlehem” means house of bread. We would call it Breadville or Breadton. Its name was evidently derived from crops harvested in the fertile, productive fields surrounding it.
The town was and is small, but has gained international fame because it has the distinction of being the birthplace of not only David, but also Jesus. In our text, the birth of Jesus was dated from Herod. Now Herod is dated from Christ.
In 40 B.C. the Roman Senate crowned Herod as King of the Jews. He was mistitled. The real King of the Jews was born later in a barn and laid in a manger.
Titles bestowed on monarchs were often appropriated by early believers, who were always desperately seeking superlatives to describe Jesus. Herod was called King of the Jews. The early church disagreed. They felt Jesus was.
Alexander the Great, generally conceded in the Roman era to be the greatest man who had ever lived, enjoyed the title “King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.” Early believers felt otherwise. “We don’t think so, but we know who is.”
Caesar Augustus was called Savior and Lord. “Not really. Jesus was.” At Jesus’ birth angels called Him “a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
Herod’s man-bestowed title was about the only thing he and Jesus shared in common. Jesus was Prince of Peace, but Herod was one of history’s most ruthless and bloodthirsty rulers.
Life in Israel was hard under him. The Jews, feeling he was suffocating their culture, found it difficult to sustain a hopeful, buoyant spirit.
Israel, sick at heart, had long waited and yearned for deliverance, but was sinking into despair. In these gloomy days, Jesus came. He loves to come when needed most. He often arrives when we are the sickest, our bills are the highest, when we have cast off all hope. He’s never early, never late, but always on time.
Matt. 2:1b . . . wise men from the east arrived unexpectedly in Jerusalem, . . .
Tradition has wrongly portrayed these men as kings. They were Magi (pronounced may-ji), members of an ancient Persian priesthood which served as teachers and counselors for Persian royalty.
They were considered holy men. Their religious beliefs revolved around astrology. They studied the stars. Being astrologers, they would have believed the stars explained life, plus foreordained and foretold the future. We see vestiges of this in Shakespeare’s description of Romeo and Juliet as “star-crossed lovers.”
They were considered wise men. The Magi were students of the old scrolls. Their libraries would have included ancient writings of the Jews. These scrolls would have been brought to the East during the dispersion of the sixth century before Christ, when Jews were deported to the cities of Persia (2 Kings 17:6).
The Magi were for sure somehow acquainted with Jewish anticipations of one who would be raised up by God to serve as His special King. They knew at least enough about Israel’s expectations to be willing to travel about 1,000 miles, from the heart of Persia (Iran) to Israel, to see if the predictions had been fulfilled.
Traveling maybe for months, they came a long way, risking hostile foes, braving the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and hazarding desert wind and sand.
Jesus’ birth set the whole universe in commotion. Angels began showing up and preaching, a virgin conceived, shepherds were put on alert by Heaven, a new star appeared, wise men exited Persia. The moment Jesus was born, He started stirring the pot.
He changed the whole world. He still changes everything when He arrives. He alters hearts, cities, and nations when He arrives.
Matt. 2:2 . . .saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”
If the Magi’s anticipation had been sparked by Jewish writing, their guiding verse may have been Numbers 24:17b, where Balaam, a fellow Easterner, had predicted, “A star will come from Jacob, and a scepter will arise from Israel.”
The prophet combined the images of a star and a king. Whether the Magi knew the verse or not, they had somehow connected the two in their thinking.
From their home in the East, the Magi saw in the night sky an extraordinary, stunning star. To men who worshiped the sky, stars represented structure and order in the cosmos. If something phenomenal interrupted this orderliness, it indicated the gods were interrupting history, breaking in to do something special.
What if the Magi had seen what we recently saw, the once-every-44-years near conjunction of the moon, Jupiter, and Venus? They would have immediately begun expecting some huge event to take place.
What if the Magi had seen the meteor, “like a billion-watt light bulb,” that lit up the Canadian sky last month (Nov. 2008)? They might have thought the world as we know it was coming to an end.
Stars were especially important in forecasting a newborn’s future. People’s destinies were irreversibly determined by the star under which they were born. An extraordinary star could mean only one thing, the birth of an extraordinary person.
They knew Israel was expecting God’s Messiah. They saw the star situated in the western sky, hovering as best they could tell over Israel, the westernmost country they could go to before reaching the Mediterranean Sea. Thus, they came.
We usually think the star guided the Magi by moving. Maybe not. They went to the wrong city, Jerusalem not Bethlehem, had to ask where the child was born, and rejoiced when the star reappeared (2:10), which implies it had disappeared. They saw the star initially, but it evidently did not remain constant.
The Magi star has been the subject of unending speculation: supernova, meteor, convergence of planets, etc. Where natural scientists leave off, dreamers begin. Art, which sparks sanctified imagination, finds in the Magi star fertile soil.
Though neither an artist nor the son of an artist, let me boldly add my two cents worth to the artistic avalanche of opinions. I believe the Magi’s star was a supernatural miracle, unexplainable by any known astronomical phenomenon.
God, who is Light, often made His presence known through a shining light. Day existed before the sun was created. This light has to have come from God.
God blazed in Moses’ bush. A bush that didn’t burn up wasn’t as important as a fire which needed no fuel. In the wilderness, God guided His people by night in a miraculous pillar of fire.
In the Temple, the Holy of Holies was filled with supernatural light. To arrest the shepherds’ undivided attention, God shined light round about them.
Light transfigured Jesus, came on the Apostles at Pentecost, and blinded Saul of Tarsus. These were all manifestations of God’s glory.
To me the Magi star was a miracle, but hear the crux of if all. Whatever the “what” of the star was, its most important detail was its “why.” A light lit up the dark sky to foreshadow the birth of a Light who would light up Earth’s darkness.