The Visit Of The Magi


I’ve heard the story of the wisemen since I was a child. At one point, one of my favorite Christmas carols was “We Three Kings.” But when I learned the Bible never calls them kings and that we don’t actually know if there were three or three dozen, it kind of spoiled the song for me.

Largely their part in the Christmas story has been a mystery to me. I mean, is there some truth to astrology—God does tell our stories in the stars? Or were the wisemen experiencing a miracle? But how can you know to look for a miracle? Unless, as some think, these particular wisemen, more accurately called magi, came from Persia and had access to or had been influenced by Daniel’s writing, including some Messianic prophecy.

Mostly, we don’t know. It’s a mystery.

But what we do know is really interesting, and the pastor who preached at my church this Sunday drew a really interesting contrast. Others have done so in part, but there’s more than we often consider.

I’m talking about the contrast between the magi and King Herod of Judea.

The magi showed up in Jerusalem asking to see the new king because they wanted to worship him. That, in itself, is a little startling. I mean, Caesar likely took the role of a god in the Roman empire, but I don’t think the lesser kings who ruled in out-of-the-way places like Judea would have talked about themselves as deity.

In other words, there’s a spiritual aspect to the magi’s visit. They didn’t just come to make a political statement, though that would not have been unheard of. At various times in the Old Testament one king or another was traveling to a neighboring country or sending emissaries to honor a new king, the son of one who had recently died.

The thing was, Herod had not yet died and no son of his had recently been born. The magi could only be looking for one person—the promised King of the Jews, the Christ, the Messiah.

Herod knew this, which was why he turned to the Jewish religious leaders to find out where the Christ was to be born. Once he had the location spelled out for him via the scribes and priests who knew the prophecies, he passed the information on to the magi, for one reason and one reason alone: he planned to execute this “new king.”

Apparently historical records all agree about Herod: he was a power-hungry, barbaric ruler who would kill anyone he suspected of trying to usurp his position, including his own sons and his own wife. In other words, all Herod cared about when the magi showed up was putting down a new threat to his power. He wanted to hold on to what he had, at all costs.

The magi, on the other hand, had nothing to gain. Their mission was to give. Yes, the physical gifts they had brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But they also had adoration to give because when they came to the house and saw Jesus with Mary and Joseph, they prostrated themselves before the baby and worshiped Him.

Before that, they gave their knowledge—some amount of study had to go into their ability to recognize what this star that they saw rise in the east, referred to. Then there was the planning and the preparation to go to Jerusalem. I mean, you didn’t just hop in the car and take off to another country. Then there was the travel time. Maybe four months, maybe six, maybe eight, followed by the return trip.

In short, the magi went all in. They invested their talent, their resources, their time, their treasure, their worship.

And Herod? He wasn’t willing to invest in anything except a plan to kill the Christ Child.

Sadly, the priests and scribes who gave Herod the information about where the Messiah would be born, responded more like Herod than like the magi. I mean, Bethlehem was maybe five miles from Jerusalem, they knew that was where the Messiah would be born, and they knew the magi were looking for Him, so why didn’t they look too?

I suspect they were just as concerned about holding on to their religious power as Herod was holding on to his political power.

But one more cool thing about the magi: they opened the door to us Gentiles. The Messiah, after all, was King of the Jews. But Gentiles came and worshiped Him. Oh, I suppose the magi could have been of Jewish descent—descendants of those exiled to Babylon years before. But still, they came from a foreign place, which foreshadowed the worldwide ministry Jesus declared: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

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Published in: on December 17, 2018 at 5:06 pm  Comments (3)  
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Did You Know? First Christmas Facts


First Christmas Facts

A widely celebrated event like Christmas generates all types of art and music, which sometimes overshadows Biblical facts. Did you know what actually happened, though artists’ renditions might show something else? Here are various statements taken from the Bible that might be surprising in light of what we think we know from Christmas carols, cards, nativity scenes, and the like.

• The events surrounding the birth of Christ hinge on an understanding that God can do the impossible. (Luke 1:37)

• Mary was a virgin at the time of Jesus’s birth. (Matthew 1:24-25)

• Jesus’s birth was predicted to Joseph by an angel in a dream. (Matthew 1:20-21)

• Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home. (Luke 2:4)

• Jesus was born in a stable because there was no room in the inn. (Luke 2:7)

• An angel appeared to a group of shepherds to announce the good news that that day the Savior had been born. (Luke 2:9-11)

• The angel gave the shepherds two signs by which they could identify this Savior: he’d be wrapped in cloths and he’d be in a manger. (Luke 2:12)

• A host of angels joined the first and spoke, rather than sang, praises to God. (Luke 2:13-14)

• The shepherds believed the angel and went to Bethlehem right away to see the Christ Child. In other words, they didn’t go to see if what the angels said was true. They went because they knew they would find the Savior. (Luke 2:15)

• Magi from the east visited Jesus later; they did not arrive the night He was born. (Matthew 2:1, 11, 16)

• These visitors saw, rather than followed, a star in the East and went to Jerusalem in search of the King of the Jews. (Matthew 2:1-2)

• The number of these magi is not specified in Scripture. There may have been three—each giving one of the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But there just as easily could have been a larger group, each giving one of the three types of gifts. (Matthew 2)

• Scripture does not refer to the magi as “kings.” (Matthew 2)

• Herod told the magi to go to Bethlehem. Of course, he first had to ask the learned Jewish scholars. He himself apparently wasn’t knowledgeable concerning the prophecies connected with the Messiah. (Matthew 2:6-8)

• From Jerusalem the magi followed the star and came to Jesus who was now in a house. (Matthew 2:9-11)

Feel free to play the following as you continue blog reading this week.

Published in: on December 12, 2018 at 5:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Truth About The Star – And Why It Matters


Christmas Eve a bright star shone over a lowly stable—or so all the pictures and videos and Christmas cards would lead us to believe. A busy star, that, because the same legends have it leading the wisemen from wherever they lived in the East to that same ramshackle stable, with a little side trip into Jerusalem.

Even when I was young, I had some serious questions about this popular notion about the Christmas star. First, why did the star lead the wisemen to the wrong place before it led them to the right place? And secondly, if it was so bright, why didn’t other people go see what it was pointing to? I mean, would they ignore such a dramatic heavenly sight?

As it turns out, much of our ideas about the star are legend, not Biblical fact. Take the first point—the idea that the wisemen followed the star from their home in the somewhere East to the wrong place, Jerusalem.

A careful reading of Scripture shows that initially no travelers from the East followed the star. Rather, the magi—another name for astrologers who studied the heavens—saw the star that indicated a king had been born in Judea while they were still in the East. They decided to pay homage to this king, so they packed up their caravan and went to the most likely place you’d find the heir to the throne—the capital city, the home of the sitting king.

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, 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.” (Matthew 2:1-2)

Upon arrival, of course, they learned that, oops, no heir had been born to Herod, which could only mean one of two things—either a coup would occur overthrowing Herod, which was unlikely since Rome ultimately oversaw who sat on the throne, or the promised Messiah of Scripture had been born. Most Jews, it seems, believed He wouldn’t unseat Herod, but Rome, at least as far as it held jurisdiction in Judea.

Herod checked with the scholars familiar with the prophets. From them he learned that the promised Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and that’s the information he passed on to the magi, all the while making his own plans to do away with this child that just might be a threat to his own rule.

When the magi packed up and headed out of Jerusalem, that’s when they saw the special star again. They recognized it as the same one they’d seen in the East, and this time it moved in front of them, only to stop when it came to the place where Jesus was—not a manger any longer but a house.

So why didn’t others join the wisemen and follow this star too? I mean, Scripture says “all Jerusalem” was troubled—unnerved, perturbed, perplexed—by what the wisemen had to say. A star, a king, magi come to worship? Wouldn’t “all Jerusalem” then be only too eager to see where that bright star was going? They’d been waiting for generations. Couldn’t this be it???

Well, the thing is, nowhere in Scripture does it say this star was bright. The wisemen saw it and recognized it because they were wise men. They made it their business to study the heavens, to learn the secrets of God.

Here’s what Strong’s Concordance says about the magi:

the name given by the Babylonians (Chaldeans), Medes, Persians, and others, to the wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augers, soothsayers, sorcerers etc.

It’s uncomfortable to think that God spoke to these non-Jews in a way that seems so different from the one He used with the Jews and later with the Church. No sorcery, He said in Scripture. No divination, no interpreting of omens:

There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. (Deut 18:10-11)

Yet clearly the magi saw in the heavens the proclamation of the birth of God’s Son. This brings to mind a verse in Colossians in which Paul says “… the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation ” (1:23b – emphasis mine).

So what if the star declaring Jesus’s birth wasn’t an isolated incident? What if God, through His omnipotence, put the gospel message out there in any number of ways for men who wished to worship Him?

But that’s speculation on my part. What isn’t speculation is that the star didn’t lead the wisemen to Jerusalem and Scripture says nothing about the star being particularly bright.

And this is important because … ?

For one thing it illustrates how easily we come to believe something we’ve heard over and over and seen time and time again, regardless of its Scriptural underpinnings. For me, the star is a reminder to be cautious. The faddish interpretations of Biblical events just might be built upon a legend, so it’s imperative to examine ideas in light of what Scripture actually says.

Secondly, it shows that even the wisemen needed to verify their findings with Scripture. God didn’t send them an errant sign that inadvertently took them to Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem. No, they made that mistake all by themselves.

Thirdly, if God had wanted the whole area to drop everything and run to see the baby Jesus, I don’t doubt that He would have made the star particularly bright or sent the host of angels to Jerusalem instead of to a handful of shepherds going about their regular duties. In His divine wisdom, though, He chose a small reception party—actually two separate parties by two divergent groups: lowly shepherds and foreigners. The latter were not Jews. They were people from Somewhere Else.

Above all, it seems to me that the star, which apparently the Jews laden with Scripture completely missed, shows that God intended His Son to be the Savior of the world. He was not the political powerhouse the Jews were looking for. He was and is the King available to all who wish to bow the knee, to worship and adore Incarnate God, born to save.

This post is a lightly edited version of one that appeared here in November, 2012.

Published in: on December 3, 2018 at 4:50 pm  Comments (7)  
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Heroes Of Christmas – The Magi



Wise men still seek Him, the little Christmas saying goes. The problem is, the term wisemen is misleading. The Bible does record an event involving visitors from the East who came to worship the new king born in Judea.

These visitors were not kings, necessarily. And they weren’t men known for their great wisdom. There also were an undisclosed number of them. Some scholars project from other historical records that a caravan traveling some distance could have included as many as three hundred people.

But that’s conjecture. What we know for fact is that these visitors were magi—astrologers, soothsayers. Kinda close to wizards. OK, that’s the fantasy writer’s spin on things. Sticking with what we know of the word used in Scripture, magi refers “to the name given by the Babylonians (Chaldeans), Medes, Persians, and others, to the wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augers, soothsayers, sorcerers etc.” (Strongs Bible Dictionary accessed through the Blue Letter Bible)

We know they came from somewhere in the East, so some scholars have suggested the possibility that they may have been familiar with Jewish prophecy because of Daniel’s influence upon the Babylonian wisemen. Except, they didn’t know the prophecy about were the new king was to be born.

Just like the shepherds, the magi are subject to much speculation that has hardened into legend that’s difficult to dislodge. Too bad, because what the Bible reveals to us is pretty impressive.

As a result of their study of the heavens, the magi knew something, but they didn’t know everything. They knew a king had been born in the land of Judea, but they didn’t get the parentage right or the place of birth right or the kind of king he proved to be, right.

Still, based on what they knew, they went. In other words, they acted. That’s more than we can say for the chief priests and scribes who knew where the Messiah would be born, knew that these magi had seen his star indicating his birth, and still didn’t go to worship him. Even though they were the religious leaders of the day, they played it safe while these men from afar, not only made the dangerous journey, but were willing to ask for directions. OK, that’s a little humor there. But not far afield.

These magi were also humble. I mean, they came all that way to worship a toddler. Jesus could have still been an infant, but given that Herod later killed all the boys two years old and younger who had been born in that region, and that he did so because of the information he learned from the magi about their journey, it’s likely that Jesus was a year old maybe a year and a half or even two years old. Regardless of His age, these men who came such a long way, knelt to give him homage.

Then, too, the magi were pretty generous. They brought expensive gifts to give to the new king. As it happened, the items proved to be symbolic, but it’s unlikely they selected them because they thought a baby would need gold or a rich perfume used for the temple incense or an embalming spice. The thing that’s notable here is that these gifts had to cost the magi something. They were not ordinary and they were not inexpensive. Maybe the magi were rich, but even so, they weren’t hoarding their wealth.

There are a few other things we can conclude about the magi, but one more I’d like to highlight. They were not above listening to God. They didn’t mind changing their plans or changing their directions, so when they received a warning in a dream not to go back to Herod and report the whereabouts of the Messiah, they listened. And again they acted. Did they argue about it? Did they all have the same dream so they knew the warning had to be true? The Bible doesn’t tell us these details.

But it tells us enough to know the magi who came to honor Christ were men we can respect and admire, certainly for their willingness to act on the knowledge they had, for their humility, for their generosity, for their obedience to God’s message.

Published in: on December 21, 2017 at 5:18 pm  Comments (5)  
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Merry Christmas, All


Image courtesy of christmas-clipart.com

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 2 “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.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:


    6 ‘AND YOU, BETHLEHEM, LAND OF JUDAH,
    ARE BY NO MEANS LEAST AMONG THE LEADERS OF JUDAH;
    FOR OUT OF YOU SHALL COME FORTH A RULER
    WHO WILL SHEPHERD MY PEOPLE ISRAEL.’”

7 Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.” 9 After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.

– Matthew 2:1-12

Published in: on December 25, 2011 at 9:14 am  Comments (4)  
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