This is the first in a series of posts adapted from a sermon preached on December 14th, 2014 entitled The Wise Men and the Christ Child. Be sure to also read part 2 and part 3.
The History of the Story
The story begins in the little town of Bethlehem. That’s where Jesus, the one born King of the Jews, launched his campaign. Bethlehem really was a little town. It’s located 5 miles Southwest of Jerusalem. If you read through the Old Testament the city of Bethlehem doesn’t show up much. It isn’t the seat of government. That was Jerusalem. It wasn’t like Carmel where Elijah called down fire out of heaven. It had little historical significance unlike Bethel. That’s where Abraham first built an altar to God in the Promised Land and where Jacob wrestled with God and was given a new name, Israel. Bethel means “The House of God.” Bethlehem means “The House of Bread.” Nothing of importance ever really happened in Bethlehem. In fact, there are only 2 significant things that happened there. Jacob, one of Israel’s patriarchs buried his wife Rachel there, and David, Israel’s most famous king was born there. Aside from these two events Bethlehem almost goes unmentioned in the histories of Israel.
And yet, 700 years before the birth of Christ the prophet Micah foretold of his coming when he wrote, “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” It was only fitting that the heir to David’s throne would be born in the city of his ancestor. David was a shepherd who went out on behalf of the nation to fight against Goliath, and so David’s greater son Jesus would go out on behalf of all humanity to fight against our sin. But unlike David, who only risked his life for the nation of Israel, Christ would give his up completely for us. But more on that in a little bit. In Bethlehem, 2000 years ago, the hopes and fears of every age were met by God in human skin crying for his milk.
Secondly, Matthew tells us that Christ was born in the days of Herod the king. Matthew makes sure to root his narrative of Jesus in history so that we can go back and be assured of the truthfulness of his message. Herod was a family name, and there are a handful of Herods mentioned in the New Testament. This Herod was known simply as Herod the Great. He was a half-Jewish half-Idumean man, which to any 1st century Jew- half-Jew was the same as not a Jew. Herod was elected to rule in Israel by the Roman Senate in 37 BC, and ruled until 4 BC. Now some of you are wondering how it is that Herod ruled when Christ was born if his rule ended at 4 “Before Christ.” The short answer is that a man named Dionysius Exiguus screwed up our calendar in AD 525. So Jesus was actually born around 5 BC. His rule in Israel was responsible for one of the greatest public works campaigns in history. He rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem and you can still see a remnant of Herod’s temple today. It’s called the Western Wall, or the Wailing Wall, and Hebrews still go there to pray. Herod rebuilt cities, and he stabilized the region.
Herod, however, had a lethal flaw. His hunger for power and authority was overwhelming, and he would kill anyone he deemed a threat. In fact, the saying went that it was safer to be Herod’s sow than Herod’s son. Late in life Herod had one of his wives and two of his sons executed for fear that they were plotting against him. If you pick up reading Matthew 2 where our passage ends you see that Herod, for fear of the Christ child usurping his throne ordered the extermination of all male children under the age of two in Bethlehem. Herod, like every other earthly king was corrupted by power, and now the wise men have traveled to tell him of a new King who will establish his throne.
Wise men from the East
What we now refer to as the wise men were actually called Magi. The Magi were a group of priests and court officials in Persia who studied the stars and practiced astrology. Now I realize that when you hear astrology you instantly think of Madam Zostra who reads palms and lives in a van down by the river. But that’s not who these guys were. These were the cultural elites of their time; the culturati if you will. They were the most educated mathematicians and astronomers of their day. And we traditionally refer to how many wise men? That’s right, three. But as you can see from reading our text Matthew doesn’t indicate how many there were. Christians in the 7th century began to assume there were 3 Magi because there were three gifts- gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They even gave them names, Balthazar, Gaspar and Melcor. There is no Biblical evidence supporting any of that. From a historical standpoint, it’s highly unlikely that 3 men would travel over 1,000 miles, alone, across the Northern Arabian Peninsula with bags full of gold, expensive spices, and oils.
Matthew doesn’t tell us how many people were with the Magi, but he does say that Herod was troubled, and that all of Jerusalem was troubled with him. I doubt that three men on camels caused widespread worry and panic in the city. It’s far more likely that these Magi, however many there were traveled with their entire houses, their families as well as a small army to guard them and their treasure. And when a caravan including a few hundred soldiers ride into town to asking all the town’s people where the new king who was just born is— then you start a panic.
But how did they know to come to Jerusalem? Let’s take a look at the star they followed.
Star– The big question that most people have here is, “What did they actually see?” Was it really a new star that appeared? And to be honest, there are a lot of theories. I’m sure that at least one of you is an astronomy nerd and you want to know if the star they saw was the conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces that occurred in 7 BC. The truth is I don’t know, and Matthew doesn’t seem to care. Matthew takes zero effort to explaining the celestial phenomenon. Instead, Matthew is interested in another question, and one that is far more important.
Regardless of what the Magi saw in the night sky, how was it that they made the leap from “O, there’s a new star in the sky” to “Let’s pack up our families and treasure and go to Jerusalem because the king of the Jews has been born?” How did they get from “new star” to “king in Israel”? Well, because we aren’t Matthew’s original Jewish audience who are familiar with the Old Testament that seems like quite a leap for us. But if you were a Jewish person in the first century, reading of the Magi and the star and the king you would know exactly what Matthew was referencing. The Old Testament contains an ancient prophecy of a ruler who would be born to Israel. We don’t have time to read all of the prophecy now, but the most pertinent part of the prophecy is in Numbers 24 and says this:
I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near:
a star shall come out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel
Along with that prophecy, as the Old Testament was written there are many other prophecies about this same ruler. And Israel, generation after generation waited for that ruler. Even when they were carried off into exile in Babylon they took their scriptures with them. If you read the Old Testament you know of Hebrew men like Daniel, and Sadrach and Abednego who all worshiped God and waited for the Messiah—who also served as leaders for the good of Babylon.
And so, centuries later the Magi in what was then Persia were still reading the scriptures of Israel and waiting for the star to come out of Jacob. Now it has appeared, and they have journeyed for many months to present their gifts and pay honor to the king who is now close to being a toddler. O, you thought the wise men were there with the shepherds. Sorry— your nativity scene is incorrect. If you want to, I guess you could put the wise men on their camels on the other side of the house signifying that they are somewhere in the middle of the Arabian Desert.
So that is the History of the Story. I’m sure it’s more than you bargained for, and I apologize for ruining a few Christmas carols and your manger scene. But what does the story mean? Read about the significance of the story in part 2 of this series.