by Lee Anderson Jr. —
After the Thanksgiving holiday, we start seeing Nativity scenes pop up on front lawns, in church grounds, in shop windows, and in a variety of other places. More often than not, we see Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus, attended to by a handful of shepherds—along with three other men who typically are depicted as wearing royal garb and riding on camels. Even if you have never before been in a church, chances are that you still know who these three figures are. Virtually all of us are familiar with the Christmas carol “We Three Kings.” Composed in the 1850s for a Christmas pageant, this song became very popular. Around the holiday season, we can barely go a day or so without hearing this song played on the radio or in a department store.
Many of us know the words to this Christmas carol—at least the first verse:
We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.
And from this song, along with so many other passing references in Nativity scenes and greeting cards, we have managed to construct a quite elaborate view of these unique visitors who came to behold the young Christ-child. We have come to think, for example, that (1) they were three in number; (2) that they were kings; (3) that they came from the Orient, that is, the far East; (4) that they arrived to find Christ in a stable, around the same time as the shepherds; and (5) that they had followed the miraculous star all the way to Bethlehem in Judea.
That fact remains, though, that none of these traditional beliefs are necessarily true. The first of these ideas, that there were three visitors, is inferred from the fact there were three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We know there were at least two visitors, because the Bible uses the plural to speak of them—but there also could have been many more than three.
The biblical account in Matthew 2:1–11 also dispels the other traditional beliefs: The visitors were not royal; they were not from the Orient, as we know it today; they did not come to see baby Jesus in a stable; and the mysterious Bethlehem star led them only at certain times. We will soon look at these details. More concerning than these simple mistakes about the identity and journey of these unique visitors, however, is the fact that—in the midst of the carols, the Nativity scenes, the holiday cards, and even reruns of The Little Drummer Boy—we have neglected the actual significance of these special visitors, and of their journey to Bethlehem in Judea. Why did they come to see Jesus Christ anyway?
The Inquiry of the Magi
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.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:
‘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.’”
Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. 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.”Matthew 2:1–8*
In Matthew 2:1–8, the visitors, Magi, are first introduced to us—along with some information about the cultural and historical setting. This is very important. The time is around 4 bc, after the birth of Christ as recorded in Matthew 1. The place is Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, a nation occupied by Imperial Rome and ruled (at this particular time) by Herod the Great, an appointee of Augustus Caesar. Herod, significantly, was not an Israelite. Into this very tense setting comes a group of Magi from the East. It is worth noting the word East here is relative. The word is used in the Bible to speak of any land east of Israel. Over a century ago, it was common to speak of those lands comprising the ancient Near East as the Orient. Now, of course, when we use that term, we typically have in view Far East Asia—China, Korea, Mongolia, etc. But we know—from both the Bible and other records—that the Magi came from the land once a part of Persia, and now situated within the borders of modern-day Iraq.
The journey from Persia across the Arabian Peninsula would have taken the better part of a month or more, given the state of transportation and the roadways in the first century bc. Upon their arrival in Jerusalem, the Magi created quite an uproar. They asked, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” Once word about their inquiry made its way back to Herod, the puppet regent, he was exceedingly perturbed. Why? In part, because Herod was extremely possessive of his throne—even if he was a mere appointed dignitary. Herod had played quite the political game to secure his position as “king,” somehow convincing Caesar that he was a loyal ally despite having formerly sided with Mark Antony and Cleopatra, who had been the main civil enemies of Caesar. All that to say, any thought of a challenge to his rule was not likely to be well received. Further compounding this problem was the fact that Herod was a maniacal victim of extreme paranoia. He was nothing less than a deranged madman. While known for his political adeptness and great architectural accomplishments, Herod is most remembered for his disturbing cruelty. The regent had executed both his wife and two of his sons based on unsubstantiated suspicions that they (at different times) were attempting to usurp the throne. In response to this, Caesar quipped that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son.
The point is that Herod was certainly not pleased to be notified by the Magi, people beyond the reach of his domain no less, that they had come seeking a newborn king. And it likewise made the inhabitants of Jerusalem uneasy to hear the inquiry because they feared how the cruel anger of Herod would exhibit itself in response. At first, Herod probed for information. He brought together the chief priests and scribes. The priests were mostly Sadducees, while most scribes (or students of the Jewish law) were Pharisees. The Sadducees were pro-Rome and fairly liberal, theologically speaking. The Pharisees were nationalists and generally were theologically conservative. These two sects usually despised each other, so by asking both of them, Herod was protecting against a deceptive or politically motivated answer.
Herod’s inquiry met with a straight response. Where was God’s anointed one, the Messiah (translated “Christ”), to be born? The response came in the form of a paraphrase of Micah 5:2: In Bethlehem, in the land of Judea. “Out of you [Bethlehem]” the Lord promised, “shall come forth a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.” The fact that this is not a verbatim quote of Micah 5:2 is not problematic, for the paraphrase fairly summarizes the emphasis of Micah’s outlook on the Messiah. For that matter, it likewise represents very well the whole Old Testament’s presentation of the Messiah. As we saw before, the Messiah was to be a shepherd to the people of Israel. Isaiah 40:10–11 says, “Behold, the Lord God will come with might, with His arm ruling for Him. Behold, His reward is with Him and His recompense before Him. Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, in His arm He will gather the lambs and carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes.” The Messiah promised to Israel would be God Himself clothed in human flesh, who would faithfully lead and care for His people, just as a good shepherd cares for all his sheep.
The theological implications were hardly of concern to Herod, however. After gathering the information about the location of the Messiah’s birth from the religious leaders of the Jews, Herod called the Magi secretly. We wanted to find out the time they had first seen the star which had alerted them to the birth of the new king. His intent to exterminate the newborn ruler, as we see described later in Matthew 2, is here only thinly veiled as an interest to go himself and pay his respects to the legitimate heir to the throne of Israel.
The “Christmas Star” and the Magi
As an aside, we must ask the question, what are we to make of the “star” spoken of in Matthew 2? Much speculation abounds, although we may conclude safely from the information given in this account that it was no ordinary star—no conjunction of planets; no supernova; no other natural phenomena. It was a miraculous manifestation which somehow gained the attention of the Magi—who, throughout the centuries of their existence as a special order, had engaged in the study of the heavens. How did the star indicate to them that they ought to travel to Israel? It is not altogether clear, but I would suggest that it was a combination of their familiarity with two prophecies—the first being found in Numbers 24:17, which speaks of a “star [that] shall come forth from [Israel]” and is associated with the coming of a king of Israel who will establish eternal dominion; and the second being found in Daniel 9:24–26, in which is noted (at least indirectly) the timing of the Messiah’s coming.
However the Magi pieced together the information, the fact is that the “star” was the Lord’s supernatural witness to them that the time had come to welcome the one that God had for long ages past been promising to send. Regardless, the main thrust of the scriptural text is not on the star; it is on the Magi’s visit itself and the significance of them being there.
Woven throughout Matthew’s account, we find a repeated emphasis on the fact that these Magi were not there just to bring tidings from afar, albeit to a special family; rather, they had come to pay homage to one who, though still a little child, was nevertheless the rightful King. Wrapped up in this, we will see, is the true significance of these mysterious visitors.
†Photo by Batang Latagaw on Unsplash
*All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, is from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.