The story of the magi, who have come from afar to worship the one who was born king of the Jews, is a familiar one, and yet every time I read it I experience a sense of wonder and amazement. This wonder is occasioned by a variety of factors. There is, of course, the wonder of the incarnation, which overcomes me in every account of our Lord’s coming to the earth in human flesh. But there are, in addition, three occasions of wonder and amazement in our text.
First, I am appalled by the irrational jealousy of Herod the Great toward an infant, born in an obscure little village. I am horrified by the cunning and cruelty of Herod, who is willing to kill all of the infants in the vicinity of Bethlehem in order to eliminate the threat of one child.
Second, there is the additional wonder of the incredible zeal of the magi, whose search for the “one born king of the Jews” compelled them to travel to a distant land to worship of foreign king, who was still in its mother’s arms. And so far as we are informed by our text, this search is prompted by the appearance of a star.
Third, I find myself struck by an even more intense feeling of wonder at the response (or should I say the lack of response) of the entire city of Jerusalem. The magi diligently search for the infant king to present gifts and to worship Him. Herod the great also seeks eagerly to find the child, so that he may put him to death. But the vast majority of those who live in Jerusalem are seemingly unwilling to travel five short miles to the south of the city of Jerusalem to Bethlehem where they could have found their promised Messiah.
As we come once again to the Christmas season, this text has much to say to us about our response to the King of the Jews who has come as the Savior of the world. Our response will undoubtedly be like that of the magi, or Herod, or Jerusalem. How we respond has eternal implications. In addition to our response to the birth of the King, this passage also has much to say to us concerning our perspective of prophecy. We are now awaiting the second coming of the Christ, as promised by the Old and New Testament prophets. We, like the magi, Herod, and Jerusalem, may respond to this coming of Christ in different ways. Our message will thus turn our attention to the condition of our own hearts as we await the return of Messiah to the earth, and will enable us to evaluate our perspective of prophecy.
Our approach in this message will be to consider and then to compare the response of the magi, of Herod, and the city of Jerusalem to the news of the coming of Israel’s king, and then to seek to identify what it is that led to these very different responses to divine revelation.
Matthew’s account of the magi is garbed in a cloak of mystery. While there is much we would like to know about them, we are often left to speculate on those matters which are not elaborated on in the text. We are not certain about the precise meaning of the term “magi,”1 nor do we know where “in the east”2 they came from. It is necessary to set aside almost everything we think we know about the mysterious magi, because our thinking has been shaped almost entirely by Christmas carols and cards which are more based on imagination than revelation. If what we can know for certain is that contained in Scripture, we know very little indeed, about the magi. We do not know the number of the magi, nor their names, nor the size of the party which traveled to Jerusalem. We do not know the source of their information, other than the fact that they saw some unusual phenomenon in the sky, which may or may not have been a star.3 One should also say that what little we do know is all that we need to know. I personally believe that the mysteriousness of the magi is by design, piquing our curiosity and at the same time highlighting the depth of their understanding and commitment to find and to worship the Christ.
We can safely say that the magi were men who had an interest in astronomy, which is consistent with the stage of scientific development in the east, including the Babylonians and other nations. Something unusual was observed, which is described as though a new star had suddenly appeared. We cannot know precisely what phenomenon took place, nor does it matter. What we can be assured of is the fact that God arranged this astronomical oddity in order to signal these magi to a very significant birth--the birth of a child who was born as the king of the Jews.
While some have theorized that there can be a kind of “gospel in the stars” we are no doubt on safer ground to assume that the appearance of the “star in the east” was only a signal to an important event, and that this led to further investigation and inquiry on the part of the magi.4 Since we know of the godly testimony of men like Daniel and others, who were taken into captivity, it is not at all unlikely that at least some of the Old Testament Scriptures were available to the magi, and that there were those in the east who were genuine God-seekers, whose hearts were prepared for the coming of Israel’s Messiah. I do not find it likely that the magi could have come to such sound theology and practice without having had access to some of the Old Testament.
Matthew’s account begins with the arrival of the magi in Jerusalem.5 Contrary to popular conception, the magi did not seek out Herod to learn the birthplace of the “king of the Jews.” They knew that a baby, not king Herod, was the “king of the Jews” they sought. If Herod’s reputation was as well known as we would expect, the magi may very well have sought to avoid him. Matthew’s gospel leaves us with the impression that the magi arrived in Jerusalem, asking whomever they met where the Messiah could be found. Surely if they had been so clearly guided by God thus far the people of God must have had an even greater awareness of His birth. The magi must have marveled at the shrugged shoulders and bewildered looks on the faces of the Jerusalemites as they were asked concerning Messiah’s whereabouts.
Word must have traveled quickly about Jerusalem. The arrival of this group, the zeal of their search, the certainty that the Messiah had come must have caught the Jewish people off guard. How could foreigners from afar have received such information, without Jerusalem first learning of the Christ’s coming? How could a Jewish king be sought by those who would be considered Gentiles, so that they might worship Him? The worst part of it all was that those who considered themselves the spiritual elite of Israel could do no more than to shrug their shoulders when asked of Messiah’s residence.
Herod soon became aware of the magi’s arrival and of their search for Israel’s king. Regardless of Herod’s motives, his secret meeting with the magi supplied them with the name of the village--Bethlehem--where the Christ child could be found. Herod thus unwittingly served as a channel of divine revelation to the magi who sought to find and worship the Savior.
It was not until after they were headed south from Jerusalem that the “star” reappeared,6 this time leading them to the very house where Mary and Joseph and Jesus were staying. The “star” then stood still over the place where the Christ child would be found. From the fact that the text tells us the magi entered in “the house” (v. 11), we know that the stable provided only emergency quarters for the Lord and His earthly parents. Not only has the place changed from a stable to a house, but a certain period of time has lapsed as well--the amount of time necessary for the magi to travel from the east to Bethlehem. The wise men should therefore not be envisioned as standing around the babe in the manger, presenting their gifts.
The eagerness of magi to find the “king of the Jews” is amazing to me. While Herod and all Jerusalem are troubled by the news of the birth of the king, the magi eagerly seek Him, rejoicing greatly at the return of the star (v. 10). They fall in worship of the Lord Jesus and give Him expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (v. 11). The worship of the infant Jesus is all the more amazing in the light of factors which could have dampened their enthusiasm. Why, for example, was all Jerusalem ignorant of and so apathetic to their reports of Messiah’s birth? Why was Jerusalem not informed about Messiah’s birth, and why was Jerusalem not streaming to Bethlehem to worship their king? Why, if the child was a king, was he surrounded by the trappings of poverty (e.g. “swaddling clothes,” a borrowed house, parents whose appearance must have betrayed their humble means)? In spite of all these things, the magi fell in worship and gave expensive gifts.
The wonder of the magi is inescapable. God revealed the Messiah’s birth to a people far away, but all of Jerusalem seemed uninformed and apathetic. God revealed these things to the magi through those means which were most familiar to them: the heavens (vss. 2, 9-10) and dreams (v. 12). The visit of the magi had a very practical benefit, as well. It was necessary for Mary and Joseph to escape to Egypt with the child, to avoid Herod’s scheme to kill the king. I believe that the gifts which were given by the magi provided the material means to travel to Egypt and to stay there until it was safe to return. In addition, the arrival of the magi in Jerusalem and their inquiry as to the place where the child could be found served to notify Jerusalem of the birth of Christ. How marvelous are God’s ways!
Many marvel at the cunning cruelty of Herod the Great, as it is described by Matthew. Those who are familiar with history will not be as startled, for this kind of cruelty was common among the kings of those days. While I am surprised by the response of the magi and that of the people of Jerusalem, I find Herod’s actions true to form, in the light of this ruler, whom A. T. Robertson has given the dubious title, “Herod the Great Pervert.”7
At the time of our Lord’s birth, which had to have occurred somewhere between 7 and 4 B.C., Herod the Great would have been nearly 70 years old, in very poor health, and destined to die within a short time (4 B.C.). Matthew tells us that after the death of Herod, Mary and Joseph returned from hiding in Egypt (2:19-23). It is not without significance that Herod’s rule was threatened by the magi who sought to worship “the king of the Jews.” Herod’s reign began in 40 B.C., more than 30 years before the birth of our Lord, by his proclamation by the Roman Senate as “king of the Jews.”
If you can find a map of the Roman Empire at the time of Herod’s rule in the back of your Bible you will see that Judea was the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire. Further to the east you will see the “Parthian Empire,” an empire which had once been a part of the Persian empire conquered by Alexander the Great, but had become an independent empire and a rival of Rome. In see-saw fashion, Judea changed possession from the rule of Rome to that of the Parthian empire.
Palestine was invaded by the Parthians in 40 B.C. and Herod’s brother Phasael was killed and he himself had to flee for his life to Rome. It was at this time that he was designated “king of the Jews.” Herod returned to claim his kingdom, recapturing Jerusalem from the Parthians, but only after a difficult battle and the aid of Roman troops. At Herod’s request, Antigonus, the ruler appointed by the Parthians, was taken away in chains and executed. It is of great significance that the Parthian empire, which gave Herod such opposition, was “in the East” and very likely the kingdom from which the magi had come. At about the same time of our Lord’s birth, pro-Parthian Armenia was fomenting revolution against Rome, which within two years was successfully acomplished.8 Herod knew that the time was ripe for another attack by the Parthians. Can you imagine the impact on Herod when the magi arrived, asking the whereabouts of the “king of the Jews”?
The cunning and cruelty of Herod displayed in the slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem and the vicinity is not without precedent. Herod had never hesitated to use his power to destroy anyone who might get in his way. Among the victims of his suspicion or displeasure were:
1. Aristobulous, Herod’s brother-in-law, whom he appointed as high priest--he “accidentally” drowned while swimming in the Jordan River with some of Herod’s servants. He was guilty of winning the favor of the people.
2. Antigonus, a Hasmonean, and thus a possible heir to the throne.
3. Hyrcanus II, the elderly and mutilated father of Herod’s Hasmonean wife, Mariamne. He was executed because Herod viewed him as a threat.
4. Joseph, Herod’s uncle and brother-in-law. He was accused of allegedly bestowing improper affection on Miriamne, Herod’s wife.
5. Sohemus, one of Herod’s servants, for an alleged illicit relationship with Miriamne.
6. Miriamne, Herod’s Hasmonean wife, executed for adultery.
7. Alexandra, Miriamne’s mother, for who knows what reason, although she was a schemer.
8. Alexander and Aristobulous, the two sons of Herod and Miriamne--after many family plots and counter-plots.9
Herod’s life history reads like a dime novel. One can hardly keep track of wives, children, and victims. Herod had no less than 10 wives and 12 sons, although a number of these were done away with in one way or another. Repeatedly he changed his will and thus the heir(s) to his throne. On more than one occasion, when Herod left Judea on what might be a dangerous journey, he left instructions one or more of his family (including his wife) to be killed if he were to die. His position and power were a matter of paranoid fear and sudden retaliation.
Herod’s response to the arrival of the magi is therefore totally consistent with his life. The news of these influential easterners, perhaps citizens of the Parthian kingdom, asking about concerning the child who has recently been born as “king of the Jews” would have immediately kindled intense concern for his kingdom. Imagine this, a 70 year old king, with failing health, afraid of a newly born child! When you stop to think about it, there is a sense in which this was probably the only occasion when Herod’s fears were well founded.
If Herod’s reputation was at all known in the east, it is no wonder that the magi avoided Herod’s palace in their search for the “king of the Jews.” It was not long, however, before reports reached the ears of Herod. So far as I can tell, there was never any question about what Herod was intending to do. Herod’s inquiry, first with the chief priests and scribes, and then with the magi, was regarding only two matters: the place and the time of the infant-king’s birth. There was never a question as to what he would do, only the necessity of gaining the information so that the “kill” could be done with precision.
There is a cunningness and calculation evident in the way in which Herod acquired information about the birth of the Lord Jesus. He first called together all of the chief priests and scribes (v. 4), carefully ascertaining the place of the Lord’s birth. The tense of the verb rendered “to inquire” suggests that there was a meticulous process involved, perhaps a questioning of each scholar one by one. The conclusion was unanimous: the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem. Herod now had learned part of what he needed to know. Now he need only learn the age of the child (or children) whom he would kill. If he could kill his own wife, children, and relatives, the murder of the children of others would be of no great concern.
There was a reason for Herod’s first inquiring of the chief priests and scribes about the place of Messiah’s birth. This would give him a the answer to the question asked throughout Jerusalem by the magi: “Where is He who is born King of the Jews?” Secretly, Herod called the magi, and feigning a desire to worship the King himself, sought to more precisely locate the home of the child. This is he expected to ascertain when the magi reported back to him after finding the child in Bethlehem. But just in case such information could not be gained, Herod cunningly asked about the time of the star’s appearance. Indirectly this informed him of the age of the child, thus determining what age children he must kill as a group if the one child could not be identified.
The slaughter of the children of Bethlehem (2:16-18) is horrifying, but not surprising, given an understanding of Herod’s character and conduct. I personally believe that Herod’s cruelty extended to the point of leaving himself a fairly generous “margin of error,” killing not only the children of the village of Bethlehem, but the surrounding vicinity as well, and not just killing the very young children, but those up to two years of age. Our parental emotions cause us to feel that the fires of hell cannot be too hot for such a man and Herod. Let us remember that the depravity of this man is but the depravity of any man, given the right soil in which to more fully develop.
The most shocking response to the birth of Messiah is not that of the magi, and not even that of Herod the Great. The greatest wonder in Matthew’s account of the birth of our Lord in chapter 2 is that of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. The most significant statement comes in verse 3:
And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
Some have suggested that the city of Jerusalem was disturbed because they feared the reaction of wicked Herod to the news of the birth of Messiah.10 I find this explanation unacceptable and ill conceived. Jerusalem is said to have been troubled “with him.” This suggests that there is a common concern, a mutual apprehension, while perhaps different in some particulars, the same in general.
That the magi would travel a long distance to find and to worship a Jewish (and thus foreign) king because of the appearance of a star is amazing in itself. But in contrast, all Jerusalem failed to find the announcement of the birth of her king sufficient reason to travel the five short miles south to Bethlehem. Here is the greatest wonder of our text.
Jerusalem was the site of the temple which contained and communicated the Old Testament prophecies foretelling the birth of Messiah. It was therefore no great task for the religious leaders to inform Herod of the birthplace of Messiah.
The arrival of the magi in Jerusalem must, however, be viewed in the context of all that had transpired in Jerusalem during the previous year. The miraculous pregnancy of Elizabeth and the miracles accompanying the birth of John were well known to those in Jerusalem (cf. Luk. 1:10, 21-22; 2:57-66). So, too, the birth of Jesus was announced to the shepherds, who came to see the babe, and who proclaimed what they saw to others:
When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them (Luke 2:17-18, NIV).
The presentation of Jesus in the temple was the occasion for the Spirit-filled proclamations of Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:21-38) could hardly have occurred in secret.
Thus, the arrival of the magi, with their announcement of the appearance of the star and the birth of the “king of the Jews” could hardly have caught the city by surprise. This was but consummation of those events which were understood as imminent by those who were looking for the coming of their king.
In and of itself, the announcement of the magi could not be overlooked. The whole city of Jerusalem could not have failed to have heard of their arrival, or of their search for the newborn king. All of the chief priests and scribes had been summoned and questioned by Herod, and the prophecies of Messiah’s birth had been reviewed. Matthew is hardly exaggerating when he says that all Jerusalem was troubled with Herod.
This is a very troubling statement. Against the backdrop of the diligent search for Messiah by the magi is the apathetic disregard of the whole of Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem is more like Herod than it is like the magi. In fact, we could even say that Herod is, in one sense, more commendable than the rest of the city of Jerusalem. Herod must have believed that the child really was a king, or he would have gone to a great deal of trouble for nothing. Who would summon all the chief priests and scribes and secretly call the magi, and then kill small children if he were not genuinely threatened?
Jerusalem’s apathy is much harder to comprehend than is Herod’s annihilation of the small children of Bethlehem and the surrounding vicinity. Why would Jerusalem be so apathetic? Let me suggest some possible reasons.
1. A “helpless babe” could hardly fulfill Israel’s expectations of a mighty Messiah, who would throw off the shackels of Rome and who would throw out a madman like Herod.
2. The object of the magi’s visit was vastly different from the intent of Jerusalem’s population. The magi did not come to the babe in the manger to receive anything, but to give. They gave the Messiah their earthly treasure and their worship. Israel awaited a messiah (I have deliberately failed to capitalize messiah) who would give them freedom, dignity, and power. A babe in a manger could hardly meet Israel’s expectations. To put the matter plainly, the babe in the manger had little to offer the Jerusalemite.
3. To worship the babe as “the king of the Jews” was to invite the wrath of Herod, who had been appointed “king of the Jews” by Rome. It was one thing for Gentiles to come from afar to worship a babe, but something vastly different for a citizen of Judea, under the authority of a man like Herod. No doubt there was a reluctance to infuriate Herod by provoking him to jealousy.
4. Jerusalem was unwilling to worship a Messiah who was not “properly introduced”. You will remember that Jesus was disdained by the religious leaders because He did not associate with them, but rather identified Himself with the poor and the sinners. I don’t believe that the chief priests and scribes were willing to accept the Lord Jesus as their Messiah because they assumed that God would introduce the Messiah to them first and then through them to the masses. How humiliating to have a caravan of Gentiles arrive in Jerusalem and announce that the “king of the Jews” was born.
5. I fear that the Jews were too prejudiced to worship their king alongside Gentiles. The animosity of the Jews toward the Gentiles went far beyond the separation which the Old Testament Scriptures called for. Throughout the New Testament this animosity causes problems in the relationships between Jews and Gentiles, even in the churches (e.g. John 4; Acts 10; Gal. 2). I seriously question if the racial pride of the Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem would allow them to have gone with the magi to worship Him.
6. Jerusalem, in the time of our Lord’s birth (like today) was in unbelief, and thus was unwilling to seek Him or to worship Him. I am reminded of Paul’s description of all mankind (including Jews) in the third chapter of the Book of Romans: There is no one righteous, not even one; There is no one who understands, no one who seeks God (Rom. 3:10-11).
Unbelieving Jews are just like all other unbelievers--they refuse to seek God or to worship Him (cf. Rom. 1:21 ff.). Being Jewish no more inclines one to recognize God’s salvation (which is what the name “Jesus” means) than being raised in a Christian home does. Proximity to truth is not enough. Ultimately it is those to whom God chooses to reveal Himself who come to Him (cf. Matt. 11:27; John 8:42-47; 10:22-3). It is not shocking to find that when our Lord publicly presented Himself to the nation some thirty years later, accompanied by signs and wonders, they failed (as a nation) to accept Him as their king, and it was in Jerusalem that He was crucified.
The three responses of the magi, Herod the Great, and Jerusalem typify the responses of mankind to the message of a Messiah, who has come to redeem fallen man, and later, to reign over all the earth as king. Throughout history there have always been those who, like the magi, have sought God’s Messiah and found Him. Often they have not been those whom we would have expected to find in worship and adoration. But it has always been God’s way to draw some of those who worship Him from “afar,” whether that distance be geographical, racial, or cultural. We who are Gentiles should have a very special place in our hearts for the magi, for we are, in many ways, like them:
Therefore remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands--remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Eph. 2:11-13.
Then there are also those, like Herod, who take the claims of Jesus seriously, but who, for selfish reasons, actively seek to rid themselves of His sovereign rule. Fortunately, there are few who have been as active and aggressive as Herod in resisting the reign of Christ. History does record the fact that some earthly rulers have zealously sought to overthrow the rule of Christ and His church.
Finally, there are those, like the vast majority of those who dwelt in Jerusalem, who are so apathetic to the claims of Christ that they will not bother to make the minimal effort required to respond to the fact that He has come. On this Christmas Sunday millions will not make the effort to travel a mile or two to a church where they may adore the Christ who came to save mankind from sin. In both America and Jerusalem, it is not because they were not told of His coming and His claims, but simply that people do not really care to bother themselves to respond to Him. The apathy of Jerusalem (or America) may be more socially acceptable than the atrocities of men like Herod and others, but it is, in some ways, more abominable. At least those who have committed atrocities against our Lord and His people have taken Christ’s claims seriously.
But apathy and indifference do not remain. The city which could care less about the birth of their king is, but thirty years later, in Herod-like fashion, seeking the death of Messiah. Rather than repenting of their sins and receiving Him as Messiah, that city cried out, “Crucify! Crucify! (Luke 19:21)”
The controversy over Christ was whether or not He was the “king of the Jews” (cf. Matt. 27:11; Luke 19:37; John 18:33; 19:1-2, 19-22). And rather than bowing down in worship before Him as their king, they shouted, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15).
Apathy has its way of turning into animosity. Those who, at first, ignore the Christ who has come, will eventually attempt to irradicate the world of Him and His rule.
May I ask you very honestly as we approach another Christmas celebration, “Which response most accurately reflects your response to the coming of our Lord Jesus?” I doubt that there are any Herod’s around, for they would probably be trying to burn the church building down. But is it possible that we have become so preoccupied with our holiday celebration that we have failed to do what is most important of all--to seek Him and to worship Him? Let us learn from the apathy of the city of Jerusalem.
The second lesson which we can learn from our text is to gain a proper perspective on prophecy. I do not know all that was revealed to the magi, but I am convinced that their revelation was not nearly as complete as that given to the Jews, and specifically Jerusalem. I am dumbfounded to read that the appearance of a star in the east could prompt the magi to embark on a long and dangerous journey to worship of foreign infant-king, while the people of Israel would not travel five short miles to Bethlehem, to worship the “king of the Jews.”
The chief priests and scribes of Jerusalem had no difficulty in supplying Herod with the birthplace of Messiah--Bethlehem. I believe that they had a very good understanding of the details concerning the coming of the Christ, but in spite of all this knowledge, they did not recognize His coming or respond properly to it.
Should this not serve as a warning to those of us who have a very meticulous map of God’s plan for the future? Does it not caution us that while we may know a great deal about the particulars of Christ’s coming, we might not recognize the person of Christ when He does come? This is especially pertinent in the light of the fact that Christ is coming again, and that before His return, many will come claiming to be the Christ (cf. Matt. 24:24). Knowing about His coming is no guarantee that we will know Him when He comes.
What, then, is it that enables some to recognize the King and keeps others from doing so? There are two answers, I believe, both of which are indicated by our Lord, when He said,
At that time Jesus answered and said, “I praise Thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that Thou didst hide these things from the wise and intelligent and didst reveal them to babes. Yes, Father, for thus it was well-pleasing in Thy sight. All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son, except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father, except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light” (Matt. 11:25-30).
The first answer is that it is only God who can illumine the darkened hearts and minds of men, enabling them to see the Christ as their Savior. Only those come to the Savior to whom the Son has willed to reveal the Father (11:27). Since there is none who is righteous and none who truly seeks God (Rom. 3:10-11), God must seek out men and save them. Divine election and calling are the basis for the salvation of any saint.
The second answer is to be found in the state of heart and mind of those who seek God and find Him. While it is paradoxical, in the same text in which our Lord claims that only those to whom He wills to reveal Himself will come to Him, we find that those who do find Him are called “babes” (v. 25). The words of our Lord then conclude with an invitation for all to come to Him (vss. 28-30). I believe that those who worshipped our Lord at His birth were those whose hearts were prepared for His coming. It is the godly whose desire to see the Christ was rewarded (cf. Luke 2:25-32).
The more I have thought about the common characteristics of those who worshipped the Lord Jesus as the “king of the Jews,” the more my mind has turned to the words of our Lord Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:
Does this not describe the hearts of those who “saw God” in the manger and in that little house in Bethlehem, and who fell in worship? And does this not describe the state of heart and mind that we should have as we wait for the Lord’s second coming? Let this spirit be ours this Christmas.
1 While some commentators are quite dogmatic about the meaning of the term “magi,” others are more cautious. William Hendriksen, after considerable investigation (cf. footnote 159 on pp. 151-152) concludes: “We know very little about the wise men mentioned in Matt. 2. We know, however, that, as their actions are here described, whatever they do makes them deserving of the name ‘wise men.’ The best course for us to follow would appear to be to adhere strictly to the text, and to agree that these magi came from ‘the east,’ in all probability from either the one or the other of the two favored areas [Medo-Persia or Babylon].” William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973), p. 151.
2 “The expression “from the east” is rather indefinite. Did they come from the regions inhabited by the Meses and Persians, as some think, or from Babylonia, as others have confidently affirmed?” Ibid, p. 150.
3 “Out of the 28 occurrences of the words [aster, asteron] only five may be described as ordinary or literal: Acts 27:20 (as guides to navigation at sea); 1 Cor. 15:41 (where aster occurs three times in reference to differing orders of glory); and Heb. 11:12 (referring to the innumerable descendants of Abraham). . . . Unique to the infancy narrative of Matt. (2:1-12) is the story of the magi and the aster which led them to Bethlehem. It was not uncommon in the ancient world to associate the birth of a great ruler with extraordinary phenomena in the heavens. Whether in Mat. we have to do with a miraculous star or something natural such as the conjunction of planetary bodies or a supernova is uncertain. Quite possibly the star seen by the wise men was, as Johannes Kepler first suggested, a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn which occurred three times in 7 B.C. This possibility is strengthened by a Jewish astrological tradition about the conjunction, as well as the common association of Jupiter with kingly rule (and hence the messiah) and Saturn with the Jewish people.”
D. A. Hagner, “Sun, Moon, Stars” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978), p. 735.
4 “. . . since astrology is undoubtedly confined within the limits of nature, its guidance alone could not have conducted the Magi to Christ; so that they must have been aided by a secret revelation of the Spirit. I do not go so far as to say, that they derived no assistance whatever from the art: but I affirm, that this would have been of no practical advantage, if they had not been aided by a new and extraordinary revelation.” John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Associated Publishers and Authors, inc., n.d.), Vol. 7, p. 57.
5 The appearance of the star in the east to the magi is our conceptual starting point, but a closer look at the text informs us that Matthew begins his account with the arrival of the magi in Jerusalem. The appearance of the star is reported by the magi to Herod, as an explanation of their arrival and of their search for the king. Such an explanation must have seemed more necessary as time went on, for all of Jerusalem seemed to be caught off guard by the news of Messiah’s birth.
6 Calvin’s comments on the “star” are insightful: “. . . it may be inferred from the words of Matthew, that it was not a natural, but an extraordinary star. It was not agreeable to the order of nature, that it should disappear for a certain period, and afterwards should suddenly become bright; nor that it should pursue a straight course towards Bethlehem, and at length remain stationary above the house where Christ was. Not one of these things belongs to natural stars. It is more probable that it resembled a comet, and was seen, not in the heaven, but in the air. Yet there is no impropriety in Matthew, who uses popular language, calling it incorrectly a star.” Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 7, p. 57.
10 A. T. Robertson, for example, writes, “He showed his excitement and the whole city was upset because the people knew only too well what he could do when in a rage over the disturbance of his plans.” Robertson, I, p. 17.