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Unless otherwise denoted, all Scripture references are to the
New International Version (NIV; British text)
“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, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews?”
(Matthew 2: 1, 2 – King James Version)
WHAT DO WE KNOW about those mysterious visitors who appeared briefly on the scene after the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem? Pictured on Christmas cards in our day, and portrayed by artists since the early days of Christianity, their identity has intrigued the world through the passing centuries, but the Wise Men remain anonymous. They arrive from the unknown and they return without trace. Their nationality, their status and their religion are not revealed. Nor does Matthew’s account support the idea that there were three Wise Men. There may have been two, three, or more.
Called by the Greek name Magi – believed to indicate scholarly Persian astrologers – the Wise Men arrived in Jerusalem and made inquiries about a newly-born Jewish King. According to the prophets, Messiah, promised for centuries to be a great deliverer and King, was due to appear about that time, and there was a general air of expectancy. This would be heightened by the coming of the Magi from a far country to show homage to the infant king.
IN HEROD’S PALACE
It is perhaps an indication of their high status that the Magi made their way to what they would regard as the seat of authority – the royal palace. Herod the Great, the detested tyrant over an unwilling people, was thrown into a fit of alarm and anxiety by the visit of these men who claimed they had seen a star indicating the birth of a new king. Herod was a cruel and violent monarch. He was also crafty and clever in achieving his own way, and to this end he feigned great interest in their enquiries.
So Herod sent for the leading priests and theologians of the Jews, who might be expected to have some indication of the birthplace of the new king who might one day threaten his own leadership. They told him that according to the prophetic writings the child would be born in Bethlehem. Concealing his murderous intention, he directed the Wise Men to that small town, urging them to report to him as soon as they had found the child, so that he too might come and worship Him.
So the Wise Men went on to Bethlehem, guided by a star. That star has fascinated professional and amateur astronomers for centuries, and a tremendous amount of time has been spent calculating just what was the nature of the appearance, but no convincing astronomical explanation has yet been presented. The Greeks and Romans had always considered that the births and deaths of great men were symbolised by the appearance and disappearance of heavenly bodies, and the same belief was continued down to comparatively modern times.
At the time of Jesus’ birth the star could have been a natural phenomenon used by God, or perhaps a special Divine revelation to manifest the tremendous significance of the birth of the one who would be the Saviour of all people. That there was a special star cannot be doubted. Its appearance to the Magi prompted their undertaking a long and arduous journey in order to honour the new King and to present their gifts. Whatever the star was, it appeared at precisely the correct moment to achieve the desired result and therefore was under the direct control of God.
That they had been watching for such a sign suggests that they were familiar with the Jewish prophetic writings. The Magi through past ages may have learned much from Jews held in captivity for long periods in their history, some of whom were still scattered abroad, dwelling even in the East, from where the Wise Men had journeyed.
Following the star to Bethlehem the Wise Men found the child in a house, evidently no longer in the stable, which on the night of His birth had been the only available accommodation. It is clear from St. Luke’s gospel that the family stayed in the Bethlehem-Jerusalem area for some time.
According to the Law, a firstborn son must be presented to the Lord and an offering must be made – a pair of doves or two young pigeons being acceptable. Joseph and Mary gladly fulfilled this obligation when they visited the temple in Jerusalem at the appropriate time (Luke 2: 22-24).
It is possible that they had relatives in or near Bethlehem, in whose home they were welcome to stay a while. And in that humble home those Wise Men from the East found Joseph, Mary and Jesus. There they worshipped the infant who would become a King and presented their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Perhaps the Magi were already uneasy as to King Herod’s intentions concerning Jesus, and being further warned in a dream not to return to Herod’s palace, they made the journey back to their own country by another route. Matthew tells us that
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him” (Matthew 2: 13).
In great haste the little family slipped quietly away to Egypt. They could not have known at that time what terrible suffering other parents in Judea would undergo, but would later learn that,
When Herod realised that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi (Matthew 2: 16).
Probably more than eighteen months passed before Joseph was again told by an angel to return to Israel. By that time a new king was in power, a man as evil as his father, but as his rule did not extend to Nazareth in Galilee, the town from which they had originally set out, Joseph, Mary and the child returned safely to their home.
There the baby Jesus, who had been visited by the Wise Men, grew to manhood in comparative obscurity until at thirty years of age He began the great mission for which He had come into the world.
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