The Wise Men and the Star

The Truth About Christmas
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©2014

Study 4

The Wise Men and the Star

The Wise Men

There was good news to be appreciated when our Savior Jesus Christ was born. The shepherds and those in Bethlehem were encouraged. They told others about what they saw and heard. But there was trouble brewing not far from Bethlehem.

About five miles to the north in Jerusalem was the very evil King Herod. His life had been filled with assassinations, murders and violent revenge. When he was just a child he was permitted to personally execute the man who killed his father.

By 37 BC Herod had used political pressures to get Rome to declare him “King of the Jews”. To protect his title and the power he exercised over the Jewish territories …
– He had 45 Hasmonean Priests killed.
– He killed his wife Mariami soon after he married her.
– He even had his wife’s mother executed for conspiracy.
– He feared that his brothers might become competitors so he killed them too.
– He murdered Costobar, a governor he himself had appointed.
– Just prior to these events in Matthew he killed his own son Alexander, and was suspected in the death of his other son Aristobulus who died in a questionable bath-tub drowning.

While Herod was king, a group of foreign scholarly advisers arrived in Jerusalem.
Matthew 2:1, “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,”

They are often called “wise men” in our Bibles. They were not kings as the old song goes. That is based upon later mystical writings, not the Bible. The word used here is “magoi” (μαγοι) the plural of “magos” (μαγος). It means, “magician”, but not in the modern sense of a performer or conjurer. They were scholars, men of science, keepers of ancient knowledge, important advisers to the kings, experts in astronomy. The term “wise men” is a responsible way to describe them.

Historians tell us that when the magoi traveled, they usually had a military escort, sometimes as many as a thousand troops. They were very valuable men, highly respected advisers to kings.

They came from the East, probably Persia, old Babylon (modern Iraq). There is no reason to believe there were three of them. That idea probably comes from the three kinds of gifts they brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It would be like a child saying he got gifts of clothes, toys, and DVDs. That wouldn’t mean only three people gave him gifts.

Their message would have been obviously troubling to King Herod.

Matthew 2:2-3, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”

A contingent of eastern Magoi had arrived in Jerusalem, probably with a large military escort, and they were looking for a new-born King over the Jewish people.

Herod probably knew the prophesies about a coming Messianic King. The Rabbis taught that he would be a revolutionary who would overthrow Rome. Herod was appointed by Rome, and took pride in being King of the Jews.

He wanted to know who this rival to his throne was so he called for his advisers.

Matthew 2:4-6, “And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, ‘And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.’ “

The quote comes from the Book of Micah.

Micah 5:2, “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”

It was the Bible, not the star, that first led the Wise Men to Bethlehem.

Herod called these wise men to come to meet with him privately.

Matthew 2:7-8, “Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, ‘Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.’ “

It would have taken these Magoi a while to get to Jerusalem. They had to travel over 800 miles. The trip would have required planning and making sure their duties in Babylon were covered while they were away. They would have to camp out along the way so they needed all the supplies and equipment for the trip. A contingent of military escorts would likely have been put together. It may have been a year after they saw the star that they arrived in far off Jerusalem.

Later we read of Herod’s plan to slaughter all Bethlehem’s children two years old and younger, a year older and a year younger than this new “King of the Jews”, his intended victim (Matthew 2:16). This fits with Jesus being about one year old at the time.

So the Savior they found and worshiped likely was not a baby in a manger any more, but a 1-year-old child. King Herod died in 4 BC so it was probably about 5 BC that Jesus was born. Since they were “wise men” they knew better than to return to Jerusalem and report what they found to Herod.

The Star of the Wise Men

When the wise men came to worship the one born King of the Jews, they did not come to Bethlehem. They came to Jerusalem, the capital city. That is where they would have expected to find a king. They came to Herod and asked, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.”

God sent a very special star to bring these men to Jesus. It appeared on the night Jesus was born. Somehow, God used it to reveal to them that the promised King of the Jews had been born. Ages ago, during the Jewish Captivity in Babylon, Daniel the Prophet lived there. He had become one of the Magoi (wise scholars) of Babylon. His influence and teachings were probably passed down in the traditions of those scholars. He would have told about the Promised One, the Messiah, who would be born to the Jews.

Today, every year poorly informed news broadcasters and newspapers interview astronomers trying to look for some natural explanation for this star that appeared when Jesus was born. From the descriptions we have in the Bible of the star’s appearance and movement, it could not have been an actual star, a comet, a super-nova, or a conjunction of planets. The natural explanations unbelievers read into the story do not fit the recorded facts.

The word translated as “star” is “aster” (αστηρ), which simply means a lighted object in the sky. It was used to describe stars, planets, meteors, comets, or any bright object in the sky.

Notice that the Bible does not say that the star lead them there. They did not come to Bethlehem after they saw it. They went to Jerusalem. The image of three kings following a star across the deserts is pure fiction.

It wasn’t until they left Jerusalem to go to Bethlehem that the star appeared again and led them.

Matthew 2:9-10, “When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”

No actual star, meteor, comet, or conjunction of planets could behave that way. It appeared while they were in the East. Then appeared again almost a year later to guide them south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. It pointed out the actual place where Jesus was living. No natural explanation could account for that. This was a special light sent from God unlike anything we have observed in nature.

There is no star mentioned appearing over Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth. The star was seen by the wise men while they were back in the East on that night. It may or may not have been visible from Bethlehem or from Jerusalem on the night of his birth.

It was only after they left Jerusalem to go to Bethlehem that the same supernatural light in the sky guided them to the home where Jesus was then living.

The Worship of the Wise Men

After the wise men left Jerusalem the star guided them to the very house where our Lord was living.

Matthew 2:11, “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshiped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.”

The word used here for “house” shows that he was no longer lying in a manger somewhere in a shelter outside a relatives home. The word in the text is “oikia” (οικια), the common word for a simple family residence. Mary and Joseph were staying in a regular home by this time.

As we saw previously, Jesus was probably about one year old by the time the wise men from the East arrived. The census crowds would have left by then so there would have been space available with relatives in Bethlehem. It is also possible that Joseph was able to do some carpentry to buy or rent a house, or perhaps to build one himself.

The Magoi worshiped Jesus when they found him. By the work of God’s grace upon their hearts they recognized Jesus for who he really was. This little toddler, no longer an infant, was the Promised Redeemer.

Like these wise men, we need to put the worship of Jesus Christ above everything else in our lives. They left their comfortable homes and honored positions in life to make an 800 mile trek to find and worship the new born King of the Jews, the Messiah. They freely gave valuable treasures they could have used to improve their own life-style. They could have bought more luxuries for themselves, fine clothes, or feasted on lavish meals. But they understood a higher responsibility than serving their own personal comforts.

They humbly submitted themselves to a higher King than the one they served back in the East. They found a better and more self-satisfying investment for their riches than saving up for toys, luxuries, or adventures.

The thing we need to focus upon most in or lives is our worship of Jesus Christ. We should give him our time and resources to do our part in carrying out his work here on earth. Our love and gratitude should make us want to obey his moral principles, regardless of luring temptations. Our behavior at home, at school, at work, in the church, and in the community should reflect our gratitude for this greatest gift ever given, ever imagined.

Jesus Christ is the one sought by the truly wise. He is the one enjoyed by those who trust in him and in all he taught. He is the Good Shepherd and Lord of all.

Note: Bible quotations are from the King James Version unless otherwise noted.

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