Twelve Days of Christmas: Day 8

The Wise Men
Magi Watching the Stars

Excerpted from Rubel Shelly, What Child Is This? (West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing Company, 1996).

What's wrong with the following pictures: Moses on Mt. Sinai typing out the Ten Commandments on his notebook computer? Simon Peter calling to shore from his fishing boat for one of his friends to bring him a Pepsi? Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and three men in regal robes bowing before the Holy Baby on the night of his birth?

All three scenes are anachronistic. Each puts an object or person out of its proper chronological place. Each misplaces something in relation to the other parts of the event. There were no notebook computers in Moses' time. There were no Pepsis in the Ancient Near East when Peter fished on the Sea of Galilee. And there were no Magi at the original nativity scene.

The mystery surrounding the Wise Men who came to see the Christ-child has spawned a host of legends. The most obvious bit of folklore that passes for history is that there were three Magi and that each was a king. They have been given names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. They have been held to represent three major branches of the human race: the Semitic race, other white races, and the black race. At the Cathedral of Cologne, the obituaries of the three are preserved. All three are said to have died in A.D. 55 ÄÄ Caspar at age 109, Melchior at age 116, Balthasar at age 112. The myths about the men who sought Christ because of a star they saw in the east go on and on.

The notion that there were three Wise Men is probably a deduction from the fact that they offered three gifts. That they were kings is a tradition traceable as far back as Tertullian, who died around A.D. 225, and may be based on a strained reading of Psalm 72:10-11: "The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him; the kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts. All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him."

What we actually know about them is next to nothing. They came from the east, but that could mean Babylon, Persia, or the Arabian desert. Their identification in the biblical text as Magi (Gk, magoi) doesn't tell us a great deal either. The term embraces a wide assortment of people -- ranging from honest seekers of truth to charlatans in search of easy money from gullible people -- who studied ancient documents, dreams, and astrology. My assumption is that the ones in Matthew's Gospel were scholars with limited data but unbounded eagerness. They wanted to know God and to do his will.

Getting back to the discrepancy of chronology that is typically reflected in Christmas nativity scenes, we can be sure that the Magi did not see baby Jesus in the manger on the night of his birth. For one thing, the text informs us that the little family was living in a "house" by the pilgrims from the east arrived at Bethlehem (Matt. 2:11). For another, the expensive gifts they brought would have made it possible for Joseph and Mary to offer a better sacrifice than two birds -- the sacrifice of the poorest people who could not afford a lamb -- at Mary's purification on the fortieth day following the birth of the child (cf. Luke 2:24). When Herod later calculated backward to the time the Magi had indicated for the appearance of the star they saw, he decided to destroy all the infants two years old and under (Matt. 2:16). Granting that he probably expanded the outer limit a bit so as not to miss the baby in question, this suggests that they saw a several-months-old baby rather than a newborn when they finally arrived at Bethlehem.

From Suetonius and Tacitus (cf. p. xx of this book), we know that Gentile scholars had somehow learned of the sacred writings of the Jews and knew of their prediction of a Jewish ruler-deliverer. Large Jewish communities in places such as Babylon would account for the spread of this knowledge to men such as the Magi.

Specifically, the thing that had moved the Wise Men of our narrative into action was the appearance of a star in the heavens. The star has generated almost as much speculation as the identity of the Magi themselves.

Some suggest it was the explosion of a faint star that gives off a tremendous amount of light for several weeks or a few months, a supernova. Others associate it with an unusual alignment of the planets Jupiter and Saturn that is known to have occurred in 7 B.C. Still others offer an appearance of Halley's Comet in 12 B.C. to explain the heavenly light that called the Magi to the homeland of the Jews. How would such distant phenomena have guided men to the very house where Jesus was?

The more natural explanation of the star -- for those who believe at all in the supernatural -- is that it was a special sign within Earth's atmosphere that went before the Magi to lead them to the holy child. As the cloud and fire moved before ancient Israel in the wilderness (Ex. 13:21), so did a heavenly light move before these travelers from the east. Whether it was seen by others, we have no way to know. Neither can we be sure that it was before them constantly as the cloud and fire were before the Israelites, for the language of Matthew 2:10 may mean that a previously visible sign that had brought the men to Palestine reappeared to them after their Jerusalem call on King Herod. "When they saw the star, they were overjoyed."

Matthew begins his account of the Magi with the information that they went to Jerusalem. If the star had originally appeared, been taken as a sign of the appearance of the expected Jewish royal figure, and then disappeared, this route makes perfectly good sense. Where would easterners be expected to go in search of a Jewish king, if not to Jerusalem? They 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."

That they were men of some wealth and status seems to be implied from the stir they caused at Jerusalem. Vagabonds passing through and asking about the King of the Jews would get curious looks, perhaps, but not the official notice these men received. When King Herod heard about the city's notable visitors and learned what they were looking for, he was disturbed. More than that, the whole city got upset. And well it might be unsettled.

Everything we know about King Herod is consistent with the things Matthew tells about his involvement in this story. Born somewhere around 73 B.C., Herod was given the title "King of the Jews" in 40 B.C. by the Roman senate. After three years of fighting to establish his rule, he actually reigned over Judea from 37 B.C. until his death in 4 B.C. He was hated by the Jewish populace, for they regarded the Idumean Herod as a half-breed usurper propped up in office by the Romans. Though politically adept at staying within Roman favor during changes in the Imperial City and a great builder, the man Herod is a sad study in human depravity.

Always scheming, violent, and unpredictable, he became paranoid in his final years. He was so jealous of his favorite wife -- among his ten -- that he twice ordered that she be killed if he failed to come back from a dangerous mission. He could not bear to think of another man having Mariamne. He did, in fact, have her put to death before he died. Out of suspicion that some of his sons were plotting to take away his throne, he murdered three of them. It is not surprising that Jerusalem was upset about Herod's discomfiture over a "baby born king of the Jews." It could well be the occasion for a murderous rampage in the city.

Herod did not know the Hebrew Scripture, so he called together the chief priests and teachers of the Law of Moses to get to the bottom of what was happening. They informed him, based on a statement from Micah 5:2, that the Jewish Messiah was to come from Bethlehem of Judah.

An interesting thing about Micah 5:2 is that it is not quoted quite accurately at Matthew 2:6. A closing line is added to the prophecy from 2 Samuel 5:2, so that it reads this way:

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.

Whether the Jerusalem scholars advising Herod or Matthew altered the verse to include that line is difficult to say. In either case, the prospect of a ruler who would treat the Jews with a shepherd's concern rather than Herodian contempt is a stark contrast in the text.

With the information he wanted from them in hand, Herod dismissed the Jewish teachers and summoned the visiting Gentile scholars to a private meeting. He wanted to know the "exact time" when the star had appeared to them and started them on their journey. Then he sent them on to Bethlehem with this charge: "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." Worship him? Destroy him! But he had to say that to the Magi so they wouldn't suspect anything. Apparently they didn't at that point and would have returned to give the child's location to Herod except for a dream that later warned them against doing so.

After their audience with King Herod, the Magi were on their way again. Sent toward Bethlehem by Herod, they were also guided by the star they had seen earlier. That they were "overjoyed" by the sight of the star suggests that its presence before them on their long journey had not been continuous. Since the star had initiated their search, it would be fitting that the star should mark its termination and identify its goal.

The star moved in front of them and finally "stopped over the place where the child was." Some take this to mean that it identified the very house where the child could be found -- as if a helicopter searchlight were shining on a target. Perhaps it means only that the star led them to Bethlehem and stopped. This would indicate that they were in the right city and allow them to inquire after the child in the town where shepherds had earlier spread the word of his birth (cf. Luke 2:17-18).

When they came to the house where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were, it may have been a sight for which they were unprepared. If the Magi were men of substance and rank, Luther's suggestion that the humble dwelling of a Jewish peasant family was probably a great trial to them is on target. Had they made their long journey to find a king here? It is a testimony to the sincerity of their faith that they entered the house.

When they did go inside, they saw the child with his mother. Then, Matthew writes, they "bowed down and worshipped him." Scholars were bending low before a baby. Literate men were paying homage to the child of peasants. Gentiles were worshipping a Jew.

What could they have known about the baby at that point? How well-informed could their worship have been? Might it have smacked more of pagan superstition and noisy gyrations so typical of eastern religion of that time rather than the restrained reverence westerners tend to read back into the scene?

And how did Joseph and Mary react to it? Were they embarrassed? Could they have been offended? Was the baby startled? Might he have cried out?

Conscientious seekers of the truth were in the presence of deity. They were there at God's call. Beyond that, they had neither information nor a worship program. So they bowed. They worshipped. They gave what they had -- humble, believing, devoted hearts.

Then, having already given themselves, they presented him the gifts they had brought with them. Out of their personal treasure boxes, they presented gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They offered gold, the precious metal that remains a universal medium of exchange. They gave frankincense, a fragrant resin extracted from trees and used as incense at the temple. They delivered myrrh, a very expensive perfume often used in preparing corpses for burial.

How long they stayed is not told. What we do know about their departure is that it was not via Jerusalem and Herod's court. They were warned in a dream not to reveal the baby's whereabouts to King Herod, so they returned to their country by another route. What conversations they must have had along the way!

"Is that what you expected to find?" one might have asked the others.

"That little house would hardly pass for the residence of a king!" would have been a natural reply.

Did the warning against sharing his whereabouts with Herod make them suspicious of the danger that lay ahead for the child? Did they try to figure out their own future responsibilities in relation to the child? Did they live long enough to know anything of his adult career? Perhaps we can get answers to these questions in heaven, but there is nothing more about the men in Scripture. They leave the scene as suddenly as they had entered it. The growth of legends such as the ones mentioned at the beginning of this chapter shows the degree of curiosity that has surrounded them from ancient times until now.

If shepherds watching their flocks near Bethlehem were included in the birth story to signify that God breaks into the routine of people's lives to show his glory and that he accepts the outcasts that society rejects, what justifies the inclusion of the Magi? If Simeon and Anna watching the temple courts shows that it takes a certain sensitivity to recognize God's presence, what is shown by the Magi watching stars?

First, it would misread the biblical record terribly for one to find a legitimation of astrology in the story of the Magi. The full array of superstition that goes under the general heading of occultism is dealt with severely in the Word of God. Deuteronomy 18:9-14 contains a scathing denunciation of it all, calling such things "detestable practices" that God's people must renounce.

If anything, the astrology of ancient times was more respectable than today's versions. It embraced a variety of educated people who today would be given more respectable titles as astronomers, mathematicians, philosophers, and theologians. Astrology itself, however, has always been nothing higher on the intellectual scale than a superstition. It is a fatalistic view of human destiny that seeks to find the meaning of human life in the movements of the stars rather than in the will of the God who created the stars.

There is no reason to think that first-century astrologers were any more adept at reading the stars for the true meaning of history than their modern counterparts who offer inane counsel to us in the daily newspaper. That the Magi of this story were brought to the Christ-child is a testimony to divine grace rather than to astrology. No more than God's decision to save Rahab endorsed her prostitution or lying does his gracious call of these men to Bethlehem sanction astrology.

Second, it is much more likely that the Magi's presence is intended to reflect God's willingness to reveal himself to Gentiles as well as Jews through the child born at Bethlehem. The shepherds were surely righteous men of Israel, albeit social outcasts and religiously disenfranchised men. Simeon and Anna, on the other hand, were devout people within the ranks of the temple regulars. Both would be embraced by the Son of God. But would there be any place for non-Israelites?

Whether they understood their messages or not, Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah were moved by the Spirit of God to predict the sharing of salvation with "all nations" under the Messiah's reign (cf. Isa. 2:1-2). Simeon had praised God for the child who would be "a light for revelation to the Gentiles" (Luke 2:32a). The summoning of the Magi was the initial fulfillment of these promises to people outside the covenant community of Israel.

Third, and most important, the Magi symbolize the hope we have for every truth-seeker from whatever culture or background. Do some people search after God in sincerity from different departure points than my own? Or yours? It is typically more important to know a person's attitude toward the truth he discovers than to know his present beliefs.

A gentle and sincere lady in Japan began attending Christian worship at the invitation of a neighbor she had come to respect. As I heard her describe the experience, she told how offended she was by the loud preaching -- surely modeled after the American method of sermonizing -- and the poor singing. But she continued to attend occasionally over a period of six or seven years. All the while, she continued to worship at the shrines of her traditional religion and to venerate her ancestors. Only very slowly did her heart begin to open to the message of Christ. She became a Christian very late in life.

Her starting point did not make her a likely prospect for the gospel. The method of teaching to which she was exposed was not very effective and may have delayed her salvation. The critical factor was the attitude of her heart to the truth God revealed to her.

Magi from the east, dabblers in astrology, devotees of the New Age Movement, members of far-left or far-right political groups, HIV-infected athletes, campus demonstrators, prisoners, street people -- all may look like unlikely candidates for the gospel to you. But there are good and honest hearts everywhere you turn in this world. While the percentage of such hearts reasonably might be expected to be higher in some settings than in others, we must be cautious about our judgments. We are to be salt and light wherever we go. God will draw those whom he seeks from whatever unlikely source he chooses.

God does not await our permission to draw people to his Beloved Son. He is doing that constantly. But he does want us to participate in receiving them into his kingdom, lest our coldness to them become the final, insurmountable barrier that keeps them from Christ.

The Magi came. Joseph and Mary welcomed them into the presence of the Son of God. They offered their worship. God accomplished his purposes.

Does God still call men to himself today? Do all come from the backgrounds we would like? Do they offer the same form or intensity of worship we do? So long as we welcome them into the presence of the Son of God by the faithful proclamation of the gospel, is God not able to accomplish his purposes in them?

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