The Visit of the Magi
We will conclude our series on the birth of Jesus today by looking at Matthew’s account of the visit of the magi. Read 2:1-16. As you can tell, this is not a “fun” story—it is full of intrigue, deception, murder, etc. The main focus of Matthew’s narrative is the very different reactions to Jesus—but before we look at theses reactions closely, I’d like to briefly correct some popular misconceptions about the magis’ visit.
3 Misconceptions About Their Visit
When did the magi visit Jesus?
Our Nativity Scenes and Christmas cards usually have the magi at the stable along with the shepherds, presenting their gifts to the Baby as he lay in the manger. But Matthew tells us this picture is inaccurate. The magi came to Bethlehem “after” Jesus was born (2:1), and that by the time they got there Jesus and his parents were in a “house” (2:11). So their visit came some days after Jesus’ actual birth, by which time his parents had found more hospitable lodging.
Who were the magi?
Tradition speaks of them as kings (“We Three Kings”), but historical sources disagree. Magi held no position of political power whatever. They were a caste of educated Persian men who specialized in philosophy and astronomy/astrology, and who served as advisors to their kings (see Daniel and his three friends). By the way, although the song speaks of three magi, we don’t know how many there were. This is just an inference from their three gifts (2:11).
How did the “star” guide the magi to Jesus?
Tradition (including the above carol) says that the star guided them from their home to the stable. The fact that such a dramatic and unusual celestial event is not mentioned by extra-biblical sources leads many to conclude that this is a legend/fable. But this is not what the text says. It says that the magi saw this “star” (the word means virtually any light in the night sky) from their homeland “in its rising”—that is, when it rose. They saw some kind of astronomical occurrence that communicated to them that a great ruler of the Jews had been born (probably two years earlier—see 2:7,16). So they traveled to Jerusalem in order to get more information about this child. Then, when they left for Bethlehem (about 5 miles SSE from Jerusalem), this same light reappeared and this time shone in the very direction of Bethlehem.1
What did the magi see that led them to this conclusion? There are many theories, but no one knows for sure. Here are two of the most popular theories:
Johann Kepler (the famous father of modern astronomy) suggested that they saw the great Triple Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces. This is a very rare conjunction, occurring only every 805 years. In 1604, Kepler observed it, and calculating backwards, realized it occurred in 7 BC—about 2 years before Jesus was born.
These heavenly bodies had meanings for these astronomers/astrologers. Jupiter stood for the ruler of the world. Most people equated Jupiter with Caesar Augustus. Saturn stood for Palestine. Pisces stood for the last days. So they may have reasoned that this conjunction meant that the world ruler of the last days was to be born in Palestine (i.e. Jewish).2
Perhaps another (supernatural?) light appeared in the midst of this Conjunction to draw their attention to it, and then later reappeared as they traveled to Bethlehem (2:9). Chinese astronomical tables seem to record such a light.3
Michael Molnar, a non-Christian astronomer, theorizes that they saw a rare double-lunar eclipse of Jupiter in Aries in 6 BC. He found a Roman coin that links Aries with the Jewish people. Historical sources suggest that this was interpreted to herald the birth of a divine, immortal and omnipotent person from the Jews. The second lunar eclipse of Jupiter would have been stationary “in the east” on April 17, after which Jupiter went through Aries to become stationary again on December 19.4
While we don’t know exactly what the magi saw, we know enough to be confident that this account is not a legend/fable. Matthew’s account is historical; it be harmonized with other historical accounts about this period. This historical accuracy is one feature of the Bible that makes it so different from the scriptures of other religions. It claims to give us truth about God, or dilemma with God, and salvation—but it gives this “spiritual” information in the context of historical events that we can verify. Why is this so important? Because if we can trust what the Bible says in areas that we can verify, we have a reasonable basis to trust its reliability in the spiritual information it communicates.
3 Ironic Reactions to Jesus
However, the passage does not focus primarily on the star or the magi or when they got to Bethlehem. It focuses rather on the birth of Jesus—and on the ways people reacted to Jesus as he entered human history. No sooner did he come into the world than people started reacting to him in very definite and very ironic ways. These reactions foreshadow the way people would react to him throughout his life—and the way people still react to him today. Think of this passage as a mirror into your own heart—which is your current reaction?
First, there is Herod’s reaction. When he heard that a king of the Jews had been born, he became “troubled” (2:3). He launched a plan to locate this baby so he could destroy him—and when his plan failed, he became “enraged” (2:16) and wiped out every male child in the vicinity of Bethlehem. I call Herod’s reaction hostility. Why was Herod so hostile? Because he was king of Israel—and there is only room for one king! In order for him to stay king, the other king would have to go. This reaction was typical of Herod’s entire reign,5 like so many despotic rulers in our own era (STALIN; MAO; SADDAM).
But there is a tragic irony to Herod’s reaction. It is paranoid. He evidently projected his own cruelty and brutality on to Jesus—but Jesus had come to be a very different kind of king. Would Herod have to vacate the throne to Jesus? Yes. But did Jesus want to use his power to exploit and crush Herod? No! Jesus came as God’s King to call rebellious sinners like Herod to repentance so he could save them! Jesus is God’s righteous King—but he is also the Good Shepherd who loves a lost humanity and lays down his life so they can be forgiven and experience the healing and liberation of his loving authority. But Herod refused to believe that anyone (especially the Messiah) would use power any differently than he used it. So he tried to kill the Messiah—but he failed and died shortly thereafter as alone and without a friend.6
Have you ever been hostile to Jesus because you insisted on being king? I sure have. It is no coincidence that the period of my greatest hostility toward Jesus—the period when I eagerly and uncritically accepted arguments against the existence of the God of the Bible —coincided exactly with the period of my insistence that I was the competent master of my own life. Was it that the arguments were so compelling—or was it that they appealed to my desire to be the ruler of my own life? I resented God and Jesus because they represented a threat to my autonomy. Only when my autonomy failed me did I become open to Jesus’ offer to forgive me and lead my life. When I humbled myself to admit my failure and received his offer, I had to vacate the throne—but he has always used his authority and power for good. Are you willing to reconsider?
Maybe you are suspicious of Jesus because other people have used their power to abuse you. Maybe you decided that you will never again entrust yourself to anyone so you can’t be hurt that way again. I sympathize with your reaction—and so does Jesus (who was abused in this passage). But I beg you consider that Jesus is different that the people who abused you. You can hold on to your mistrust and become more and more hard and lonely—or you can choose (I know it’s scary) to trust Jesus enough to let him come into your heart and prove his loving and trustworthy intentions.
Then there is the reaction of the chief priests and scribes. They weren’t hostile—they were indifferent. This is terrifically ironic, because they were the spiritual leaders of Israel! They knew the Old Testament virtually by heart. When Herod told them about the arrival of the Messiah and asked where he was to be born, they didn’t have to look it up. But when the fulfillment of the Old Testament arrives, they didn’t bother to go see him!7
Why didn’t they drop everything and go to Bethlehem? Probably because they were busy. Busy with what? Busy with the Temple services, busy with their lecture on Old Testament messianic prophecy, busy being chief priests and scribes. None of this was wrong in itself—but when their focus on these legitimate things made them indifferent to the most important thing, this is a full-blown tragedy!
Do you know anyone like this? Have you ever met anyone who got so immersed in and distracted by good things that they were indifferent to the most important thing? I was talking to a man not long ago about the fact that Jesus is real and that he has changed my life in an amazing way. When I asked him what he thought about this, he wasn’t hostile. He just said, “Maybe I’ll look into it later—I’m too busy right now.” He wasn’t a mobster or pimp—he was busy with good things like family and career. I thought (but was afraid to say): “What could possibly be more important than meeting the Messiah? Are you too busy to receive eternal life? Too busy to discover the meaning of your existence and the purpose for your life? Too busy to meet God personally and experience his love?”
Finally, there is the reaction of the magi. They were humble seekers. They were looking for the true God. When they got guidance from God, they acted upon it and got more guidance. And when they found Jesus, they worshipped him. There is a tremendous irony here as well. These men, who had the least knowledge about God (lived 100’s miles away; not part of chosen nation; raised in different religious tradition), find him—while those who had the most knowledge didn’t.
Actually, it’s not so much that they found God as that God took extraordinary measures to lead them to Jesus. God reached out to them through their flawed astrological beliefs to give them a sign. God gave them directions through indifferent priests and scribes while protecting them from a hostile Herod. He guided them right into Jesus’ personal presence.
He will do the same for you. When it comes to finding God, the most important factor is not your upbringing or your Bible knowledge—it’s your heart attitude. If you are willing to admit your need for God and tell him you want to know him, he will take extraordinary measures to lead you to Jesus. There are dozens of similar stories in this room! See you willing to tell God you want to find him? If he has taken measures to lead you to Jesus, are you ready to receive him?
1 “The Greek text does not imply that the star pointed out the house where Jesus was; it may simply have hovered over Bethlehem as the Magi approached it.” D. A. Carson, Expositors Commentary Series.
2 See Ethelbert Stauffer, Jesus and His Story (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), pp. 32-35.
3 See Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), Part One, p. 213.
4 See Michael Molnar, The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi (Rutgers University Press, 1999). See also his website: http://www.eclipse.net/~molnar/index.html.
5He killed all those who had anything to do with the former ruling party of Israel (Hasmoneans), including several members of that family, and an entire clan who had supported them (Bnay Baba). When an overthrow plot was discovered, he not only executed the ring-leaders, but also had their wives and children tortured to death. In 7 BC, when 6000 Pharisees refused to take an oath of allegiance to Rome, he had all of them executed. Since his wife was a Hasmonean, he killed her. Then he killed all 3 of his sons by her along with 300 officers. See Ethelbert Stauffer, Jesus and His Story (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), pp. 37-40.
6 In 4 BC, when he knew his death was imminent, he ordered all the prominent men of Israel brought to the Hippodrome at Jericho and stationed archers around the stadium with orders to shoot them all the moment news of his death came. Ethelbert Stauffer, Jesus and His Story, pp. 38,39.
7 One of Matthew’s themes in his gospel is a critique of the chief priests and scribes for their culpable failure to see in Jesus the coming of the Messiah. This incident is the first example of that theme.
Copyright 2003 Gary DeLashmutt