Throughout Jesus’ life, He had the opportunity to minister to all kinds of people. But there is one type in particular that Jesus didn’t spend much time with. Those are the leaders and royalty of the world. In fact, when Jesus spent time with the Jewish leaders, He was normally butting heads with them and telling them how their beliefs were off based at best and downright sinful at worst.
But royalty does play an important part in the life of Jesus at His birth. We see this familiar Christmas story played out in Matthew 2.
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 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.”
There are a lot of misconceptions about the story of the Magi. Some things are understandable as we really aren’t told much about these men who travel from the east to see the baby Jesus. Traditionally we see them depicted in manger scenes along with the shepherds and angels. In actuality they almost definitely did not arrive until sometime later, probably a number of months if not a year later.
Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem for some time after the birth of Jesus. Part of this may just be the hand of God at work as we’ll see how all of this fits together to fulfill a number of prophecies in this story. There is a more practical reason for this as well though.
Mary has just given birth in an era before anesthetic and pain killers. She did so without a doctor’s help or even a midwife. In the best of circumstances she’s probably not ready to jump on the back of a camel and go home. More realistically, she would have to walk the many miles, carrying her newborn baby. We don’t know what time of year Jesus was born in, although some speculate that it was in the fall for reasons I don’t know. But whatever the case, if it’s rather cold or hot, traveling with a newborn baby is probably ill advised even if Mary is feeling up to it. So they remain in Bethlehem and find a house to stay in.
The identity of the Magi is another big question mark. In short, we don’t know who these men were. Theologians have speculated about them however and I think that there is reason to believe the speculation but we simply can’t know for sure, nor does it really matter.
It is possible that these men are from the former area of Babylon or modern day Iraq. This would meet our definition of from the east although they wouldn’t be from the Orient as the song goes. Secondly, they probably aren’t kings. They are obviously wealthy men as we can tell by their gifts.
It is possible that these men are people who follow the teachings of Daniel 500 years after his death. In Daniel’s day there were men who were referred to as magicians. This didn’t mean that they did parlor tricks or that they had any kind of power. In fact, many were frauds as is discovered in Daniel 2. Nebuchadnezzar has a dream and he wants its interpretation. But he knows that if he tells them the dream that they will just make up an answer to satisfy him so he insists that they tell him the dream as well as the interpretation.
Daniel 2 concludes with Daniel telling Nebuchadnezzar his dream and its interpretation. In verse 48 Daniel is rewarded: 48 Then the king placed Daniel in a high position and lavished many gifts on him. He made him ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men.
This is not conclusive proof that these men who visit Jesus are followers of Daniel but it at least makes sense that they could be. Daniel almost certainly taught those under him the prophecies of the Old Testament as well as the things that God had revealed to him. It is also quite possible that God revealed to Daniel certain things that are not recorded in scripture. Somehow the idea that a certain star revealed the birth of the great leader and the wise men took this as the proper sign.
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”
The wise men instinctively went to Jerusalem, the seat of power for a thousand years since King David established it as his ruling city. If a great leader had been born, it made sense that he would be born to the royal line. But there had been no such child born in Herod’s household so it disturbed him. Obviously any other great leader who was born was a threat to him and his reign.
Herod is a Roman and does not worship God but he is nevertheless familiar enough with the practices of the Jews to know who to turn to for advice. In fact Herod is the one who ordered the construction of the temple in Jerusalem once again. It is the same temple that Jesus would be presented in and years later would overturn the tables of the money changers. It was such a massive project that it would not be completed even when the Romans destroyed it in AD 70, well after Herod is out of the picture.
The Jewish leaders quote Micah 5:2 to Herod, telling him that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem.
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “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.”
Herod informs the Magi that they should go to Bethlehem to find the one they seek. But Herod isn’t interested in helping out the wise men. Instead he really wants to know when the star appeared so that he knows how old the child is. Herod doesn’t like rivals and his intention is certainly to find the child and kill him.
9 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. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
What is this star that the wise men followed? I believe that it is both natural and supernatural in origin. First of all, there is no natural star or anything else in the sky that can be followed so accurately as to arrive at the proper house where Jesus was. This seems much like in the book of Exodus how the Israelites were led by a cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night.
But it is possible that the star that initially led the wise men to believe that the Messiah had been born was of natural origin. Around the time of Jesus’ birth there was an unusual alignment of planets including Saturn and Jupiter. This would have created what appeared as a bright star. Chinese and Korean astronomers of the time wrote of such a bright object in the sky that it appeared to be a comet that did not move and had no tail.
If this is the astronomical sign announcing the birth of Jesus, it is possible that it first appeared on April 17, 6 BC. Of course you may be wondering how Christ could be born 6 years before Christ. The answer is extraordinarily simple. Our current dating system was designed about a thousand years after Christ. The fact that the person who came up with it was only off by six years is pretty remarkable. According to our dating system, King Herod also died in 4 or 5 BC which obviously doesn’t work unless Jesus was born before his death.
So it is possible that God used the natural alignment of the planets to create a bright object in the sky to signify the birth of Jesus and then used a supernatural object to lead the Magi to the proper house in Bethlehem.
The wise men present Jesus with three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We obviously understand how gold is of value. Frankincense is a strong perfume. It is thought to have cleansing or curative properties. Myrrh is another perfume. It is frequently used in burial. The gifts to Jesus appear to be divinely inspired as they are indications of royalty, his holiness, and prophetically looking toward his death and burial.
Traditionally there are thought to be three wise men but we aren’t ever told the actual number. Because there are three gifts most associate this with three people. Probably there is just a delegation that has been sent to honor Jesus.
The magi are warned not to return to Herod and for good reason as we’ll see in vs 13-18.
13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
Herod is a brutal man but God still uses his sin to fulfill prophecy. “Out of Egypt I called my son is from Hosea 11:1 while Jeremiah writes of the mourning for the children who were slaughtered at the hand of Herod.
Herod knows when the star appeared thanks to the Magi so he knows approximately how old the baby is. The fact that Herod kills all the boys under two does not mean that Jesus was two. Herod is brutal and paranoid but also thorough. Jesus may only be six months or a year old but Herod will kill all the males under two just to make sure he gets who he is looking for.
Undoubtedly God punishes Herod for his attempt to kill Jesus. It isn’t long after this that Herod dies. According to accounts written Herod knew that he would not be mourned at the time of his death so he had a stadium filled with 3000 Jews. He gave his commanding officer orders to kill the Jews when his death was announced so that there would be mourning in Jerusalem at his death. When word came or Herod’s death, the commander refused to carry out the order by simply saying that he did not take orders from a dead man.
So we have royalty involved in the Christmas story as well as the angelic and the common people. But what we have today is two sets of royalty. One group travels from a far distance in order to pay homage at the birth of a great king. The other is threatened and only thinks of what this child’s birth will mean to him.
Jesus came into the world for the lowly and common people. Those who society steps over and ignores were on Jesus’ mind when He left His throne in heaven. But Jesus also came for the wealthy and the well to do. He came for even despicable people like Herod and the Pharisees who would later crucify Him.
It is not our position in life that ultimately matters. It doesn’t matter if we are important or not. What truly matters is what we make of Jesus.