text: Matthew 2:1-12
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
The term Magi described a class of pagan magicians, astrologers, and seers. The Magi were not “kings” or rulers. The word originally was very specifically applied to an elite group of court astrologers in Babylon but by the first century it described anyone known for magical ability and proficiency in reading the stars. In Europe, people like the magi were called druids or wizards but Matthew tells us in verse 1 that they were from the East which most likely means that they were from Babylon or somewhere near modern Iraq or Iran...about a forty day journey on camel back.
Now as we've studied the historical accounts of the New Testament I've tried to point out those parts of the biblical record that show the truthfulness of scripture. This account he Magi is one of them. When you look at the features of this account, the moving star, the exotic VIPs from distant lands who see the star and follow it to a newborn Jewish peasant family to honor their new born baby with expensive gifts...it all seems fanciful. But if Matthew is making this up he is a very strange first century Jew. What is the general attitude of Jewish people in the first century toward pagan astrologers and magicians? Not too positive. The Torah is very clear about such things: “Let no one be found among you...who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist...Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you.” (Deuteronomy 18:10-12)
Now don't get me wrong. It would be important to show that Gentiles came to honor the Jewish messiah because that would be a fulfillment of prophesy. God says to Isaiah, for example: “I will beckon to the Gentiles, I will lift up my banner to the peoples; they will bring your sons in their arms and carry your daughters on their shoulders. Kings will be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers.” (Isa 49:22-23) But, if you're a Jewish Christian, the presence of Magi here, not kings and queens, is embarrassing. If Matthew wanted to make up a story about Gentiles coming to pay homage to the Jewish Messiah, Magi are the last sort of Gentiles he would want to write into the story…for the same reason you would not, if you were making up stories, make women the first witnesses of the resurrection. These are embarrassing facts, not impressive ones for first century Jews. But for historians, the embarrassing features are the most valuable. Because they establish the veracity, the truthfulness of the account. The only reason to include Magi in Matthew’s story is that Magi really did come.
So now that we have established who the Magi were we need to ask, why did they come? What do they say to Herod: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." The magi saw a star. Not just any star but “His star”. A star that for them represented the birth of a Jewish king. That, they say, compelled them to travel.
Why would a group of Magi in Babylon see a star and up and decide that it was a star that signifying the birth of “The King of the Jews”? It seems so odd. Well, let's look at this a little more closely. Turn in your bibles to Genesis 49:10. Jacob is blessing his sons before he dies. How many sons did Jacob have? He had 12. The descendants of the 12 sons of Jacob became the 12 tribes of Israel . From which tribe did King David come? Judah . Which means Jesus was also from the tribe of Judah. Okay let's read Jacob's blessing:
“The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.”
The scepter symbolizes kingship, royal authority. Kingship will not depart from Judah until what... “he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations.” So according to Jacob's blessing, the tribe of Judah one will come who will hold royal authority not only over the nation of Israel , but over what? The nations of the world. Did David possess this sort of authority? No. In the first century this promise/prophesy is still unfulfilled.
Turn forward to the book of Numbers 2:1-3. Numbers was written by Moses during the Exodus, when the12 tribes were being led out of slavery in Egypt to the promised land. During the journey, God gave specific instructions about the arrangement of their camp. When when they stopped, they were to pitch their tents in a great square with three tribes camping on the north, south, east and west with the tabernacle the place where God met with his people in the very center. Listen to God's instructions regarding Judah: “The LORD said to Moses and Aaron: "The Israelites are to camp around the Tent of Meeting some distance from it, each man under his standard with the banners of his family. On the east, toward the sunrise, the divisions of the camp of Judah are to encamp under their standard.”
So every morning, when members of the other tribes woke up and stepped out of their tent, what would they see? They would see the sun, the blazing sun, a star, rise up over the tents of Judah as a divinely given sign of Judah 's authority. Now so far, we've looked at two passages that may seem disconnected to you. Okay, the scepter will never depart from Judah until a ruler comes who will hold world authority and the sun, a star, rose over Judah's tents in the desert so what? Well these two passages were very important to Jews and they were linked together prophetically.
Turn forward in the same book to chapter 24:15. The Hebrews are still wandering through the desert on the way to the promised land. A king paid a pagan seer named Balaam to lay a curse on Moses and the people of Israel. But when he opened his mouth to curse, blessings poured out. One of those blessings is in verse 17: “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel .” In this very short verse, scripture links together, a star, Jacob's offspring, Israel, and a king. Jews, looking back at these texts, did not miss that. An expectation grew up that the coming of God's savior would be proclaimed not only on earth but in the heavens.
But the Magi were not Jewish. How would pagan Magi know to look to the heavens for a sign of the Jewish king and if they saw the sign why would they care? Well an important event took place on or around March 15th, 597 BC that helps answer those questions. On that day, Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. And in the aftermath the Babylonians carried away into exile the elite, the nobles, scholars, wise men, and young educated men of Jerusalem. Young Jewish men like Daniel and his friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego grew up among the Babylonians and were trained to be magi. Through Daniel and Jews like him, the magi of the east became very familiar with the Jewish scriptures. Being astrologers, prophesies having to do with heavenly signs would have been intriguing to them, especially those pointing to the rise of a messianic king who would rule not only Israel but over Babylong and all the kingdoms of the world.
Almost 600 years later, in 7 BC., something important took place visible in the eastern sky. There was a conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, which in eastern astrology related to kingship and authority. They conjoined within the constellation Pisces which, to eastern astrologers, represented the lands to the west, Palestine. Some say that Magi saw this conjuction as a sign that the King of the Jews who would one day rule the world had come and headed to Jerusalem to find him.
And I think they are at least part right. But there's more to this story. The star that compelled the Magi to come doesn't act like natural stars or planets. Look at verse 9. “And the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” The Magi may have seen the conjunction of planets and recognized it as a sign. But constellations and planets do not move like the star they describe. Nothing in the heavens naturally moves that way. I have no doubt that the Magi saw the real conjunctions of stars and planets and expected that something important was happening in the west. But I also think God did something more here, something like what he did for the shepherds in the fields at night. God sent heavenly hosts of Angels to the Shepherds to proclaim the birth of his Son. He told them where to go in a specific way.
For these Gentile magi, these pagans, he sends a light that shines in their darkness, leading them to the tents of Judah, to the one who will hold the scepter of Heaven and earth. God uses both the power of heaven and nature to declare the glory of his Son; the skies, as Psalm 19 says, proclaim the work of his hands. They pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard...it goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.
And the Gentiles come. God sends a sign, God calls pagan Magi to his son. They leave everything to follow. But God's people, descendants of Abraham,what do they do? The Magi, Herod, Jerusalem, everyone believes God's Word. Everyone believes prophesy. Everyone believes the King has been born. And everyone knows that this baby will change the world. The difference is in the response. The Magi see the light, see the truth, deny themselves, bend the knee, and embrace him. Jerusalem is troubled. Herod sees only a threat. If this baby is king, I'll be king no longer.
And he is right. Everyone who hears about Jesus faces that same truth and the same dilemma. Jesus will be king. God has set him at his right hand in Heaven and in the end he will reign on earth. We can deny ourselves and worship him with the Magi or seek to suppress him with Herod. There's no middle way. Everyone born follows one path or the other. And it is not just a decision made once. Herod rises in my heart daily, a desire to kill off Christ, to throw off his yoke, to be king, to sit on the throne. But the light also rises and shines in our darkness, calling us in love and mercy and compassion to the Son, to obedience, to self-control, to daily set all that we have at his feet.