“Following Yonder Star” — A Christmas Meditation

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Dec 23, 2009 6 Comments ›› John Eidsmoe

“Following Yonder Star” — A Christmas Meditation

“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? for we have seen his
star in the east, and are come to worship him.”
Matthew 2:1-2

For 2,000 years, the Wise Men of the East have intrigued us. Who were they? From whence did they come? Whom were they seeking? And why? And what was that star they were following?

Traditionally, we have pictured the manger scene with Mary, Joseph, and the baby, and on one side shepherds and on the other Wise Men, as they all adored Him. But many today state, as though it were common knowledge for everyone except ignoramuses like me, that in fact the wise men didn’t arrive until at least a year later, because it would take them at least that long to prepare for the journey and travel that distance.

I respectfully disagree. Always ready to fly in the face of so-called modern wisdom, I suggest that the Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem either at the time of Jesus’ birth or within 40 days thereafter. This is not a major point of doctrine, and I’m willing to listen to anyone who wants to prove me wrong. But I think the best reading of the Scriptures points to this conclusion.

What Was the Star?

First, what about the Star? For centuries scholars have tried to explain it. A meteor? A comet? A planetary conjunction? A supernova? Possibly some of these phenomena might explain how the Wise Men could have seen this Star while they were in the East and have followed the Star westward to Jerusalem. But Bethlehem is about seven miles southeast of Jerusalem. How, then, could the Star have suddenly made an abrupt 90+ degree turn at Jerusalem and led the Wise Men southeast to Bethlehem?

No, the Star of Bethlehem defies all scientific explanation, because it was a miracle of God. Either the Star was a special celestial light which God created and placed in the heavens at the right time and place to lead the Wise Men, or – and I think this is the better explanation – the Star was what theologians call a theophany – a pre-incarnate appearance of God to men. In the Old Testament God appeared to Moses in the form of the burning bush, and to the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness He appeared as the shekinah glory. The Star was a similar theophany, an appearance of God, this time in the Person of the Holy Spirit, because the role of the Holy Spirit is to lead men to Christ.

Who Were the Wise Men?

Scripture tells us only that they were “wise men” from the East. For those living in Judea, the “East” could be anywhere from Babylon to China. The most likely explanation, however, is that they were members of a priestly caste that exerted great influence in Persia and Babylonia, a caste known as the magoi or Magi. Probably they followed the Zoroastrian religion which was influential in Persia at that time. The Zoroastrians were monotheists, worshipping a god called Ahuramazda, and they believed in an eternal conflict between good and evil. The forces of good, and Ahuramazda, were represented by light, and the forces of evil by darkness. The Magi were the intellectuals in Persia, and some of them held important positions in the king’s cabinet. They were not actually kings, and the Scriptures do not call them kings; but Tertullian (circa 200 A.D.) says they were “well-nigh kings” and played a major role in selecting kings from those of the royal lineage who were eligible. Some of them practiced astrology, seeking Ahuramazda’s wisdom by tracing the signs of the heavens. Particularly they would look to the heavens for signs of a coming king. Naturally, then, the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem would draw their excited attention.

God does not approve of astrology. But in this instance He accommodated the knowledge and desires of the Magi by creating this special Star to guide them to Him Who is born King of the Jews.

Where Did the Wise Men Go?

A journey from Persia would have taken several weeks, at the very least, and preparations would have been necessary. But this does not mean the Magi could not have been present at Jesus’ birth. God, in His perfect foreknowledge, could have caused the Star to appear in Persia well in advance of Jesus’ birth, sufficiently in advance that the Magi could have completed their journey in time.

Led by the Star, the Magi came to Jerusalem, where they inquired of the birth of the King of the Jews. King Herod was not aware of the birth, apparently, but the chief priests and scribes confirmed that Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:5-6, quoting Micah 5:2). And Matthew 2:8 says that “he [Herod] sent them to Bethlehem.”

“When they had heard the king, they departed; and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, til it came and stood over where the young child was.” Matthew 2:9)

“They departed;” but where did they go? The chief priests and scribes had said Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem, and Herod sent them to Bethlehem. So the natural flow of the text would lead us to conclude that the Magi went to Bethlehem. If in fact they had not followed the counsel of the chief priests and scribes and the directions of Herod, and went to another place, Matthew would have told us that. Any natural reading of the text leads us to conclude that the Magi went to Bethlehem, and there they worshipped Jesus.

When Did the Wise Men Arrive?

Matthew does not state a definite time frame. But remember, Bethlehem was not Joseph’s place of residence. Joseph resided in Nazareth, about 60 miles north of Jerusalem. But Bethlehem was his ancestral home, “because he was of the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:4), and so he and Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register for the census and taxation.

But he would not have stayed in Bethlehem very long. According to Luke 2:22, at the time of Mary’s purification 40 days after Jesus’ birth, Joseph took Mary and Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem. (He may also have previously taken them to the Temple for Jesus’ circumcision on the 8th day after His birth; Luke 2:21 tells us Jesus was circumcised on the 8th day but does not say He was taken to the Temple for that purpose). Remember: Bethlehem is southeast of Jerusalem; Nazareth is north of Jerusalem. After traveling to the Temple on the 40th day, and possibly after the 8th day, there would have been no reason for Joseph and his family to return to Bethlehem. Leaving Jerusalem, he would have traveled north and returned to Nazareth.

Now, as explained above, the Magi must have visited Jesus in Bethlehem. But Jesus would not have been in Bethlehem more than, at most, 40 days after His birth. So the Magi must have visited Him in Bethlehem within 40 days of His birth.

Some note that Matthew 2:11 speaks of the Magi entering the “house,” and the Greek word oikos cannot refer to a stable.  It may be, however, that after the first night or two in the stable, Joseph was able to rent a room in the inn.  Also, stables sometimes were attached to houses or inns.

Herod’s order to slay the male Hebrew children age two and under does not prove Jesus was already that age at the time of the coming of the Magi.  Herod simply did not know the exact date of Jesus’ birth and set that age to make sure Jesus did not escape.

Why Were the Wise Men Interested In Jesus’ Birth?

From the appearance of the Star in the East, the Magi knew that the King of the Jews was to be born. But Judea was a small nation without much political power and at that time under the domination of Rome. One can understand why they would be interested in signs in the heavens that foretold the birth of a Roman emperor, or a Persian king, or an Egyptian pharaoh; but why would they travel across the desert to worship a newborn King of the Jews?

One possible explanation is that, being learned in matters of law and government, they understood and appreciated the republican principles of Jewish law.

Another related explanation is that they knew of the Old Testament prophecies of the coming Messiah. The Magi were learned in the laws, histories, and beliefs of many cultures, but they had a special reason to appreciate the Hebrew Scriptures.

Around 605 B.C. King Nebuchadnezzar had conquered Jerusalem and taken Daniel and his friends captive to Babylon. There, we are told in Daniel 1:19-20, King Nebuchadnezzar communed with Daniel and his friends after their studies, “and in all matters of wisdom and understanding, that the king inquired of them, he found them ten times superior to all the magicians [magoi] and astrologers that were in all his realm.” In Chapter 2 Daniel prevents the king from killing all of the Magi, and in 4:9 he is called “master of the Magi.”

Very likely, the Magi of Christ’s time would have been familiar with the writings of their earlier “master of the Magi,” Daniel. And from Daniel 9:24-27, the Magi could have understood that the time of the coming of “Messiah the Prince” was at hand.

Why Are the Wise Men Significant Today?

Jesus Christ took upon Himself human flesh and became a Man among men, to die for our sins and redeem us. But He also came to redeem the nations. Isaiah 9:6-7 tells us that ‘the government shall be upon His shoulder, and He shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever.”

Luke’s Gospel records the adoration of the shepherds but does not mention the Magi. Matthew’s Gospel records the adoration of the Magi but does not mention the shepherds.  Luke recorded the shepherds’ worship to emphasize that Christ came to redeem commoners like us, to save individuals and to transform our hearts. Matthew recorded the Magi’s worship to emphasize that Christ also came as Lord of the nations. We need to understand both if we are to truly and fully appreciate the miracle of Christmas.

So we at the Foundation for Moral Law wish a Merry Christmas to all, and God bless us every one!

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Comments

  1. James E. Reeves says:

    The Jewish Responsibility in Art

    The goal of oneness in the Garden, of mindful children blessed,
    Was to just obey the one true God
    Who did not see their nakedness.
    But the cunning serpent cast a doubt with lies to undermine
    The very One that created him,
    The One True God Divine.
    It cost blood to clothe their nakedness that they proclaimed to God,
    The knowledge gained would send us all, right back into the sod.
    Then Abel’s brush of sacrifice would point straight to a lamb
    But Cain refused to sacrifice in love, to the Great I AM.
    Reminders of our failures are painted through the years,
    The blessings and the cursing come with bitter tears.
    A master plan of pictures was cast in time and space,
    Like Isaac on a pile of wood
    To have someone to take their place!
    Painted stories have been revealed to Jews throughout the ages,
    Brushed with Jesus Jewish blood and put upon the pages.

    James E Reeves

    The truth of His existence is undeniable but people who now call Him Lord do so because of His blood. Holy and once Jewish turned Holy Ghost for all who claim Him.

  2. Mark Sutherland says:

    John,

    I have to question one suppostition, that after the forty days they returned to Nazareth. Scripture tells us that Herod sent the soldiers to Bethlehem to kill Jesus, but Joseph, having been warned in a dream, fled to Egypt. How does this element of the timeline fit into the theory espoused above?

    Thanks,

    Mark

  3. Michael says:

    I do not know who wrote this, but it loses some credibility when the author starts out ignoring Scripture. I went to Bible Gateway and looked at every English translation of Matthew Chapter two. Every translation refers to Jesus as young Child, little Child, or Child. Not once does it refer to Him as a baby, infant, newborn, or Babe (as Luke 2:12&16 do). Matthew 2:11 refers to a house, not a stable or anything else that would contain a manger.
    The author says in the Where Did the Wise Men Go? Section “But this does not mean the Magi could not have been present at Jesus’ birth.” He must not have read the Bible very carefully to make a statement like that. In Matthew 2:1 it says that AFTER Jesus was born the wise men came to Jerusalem. That is pretty clear that there is no way they were at the birth of Jesus if they did not arrive in Jerusalem until after the birth.
    The author makes a BIG assumption that if the wise men did not go to Bethlehem, Matthew would have made note of it. Matthew does not say where they found him, only that they followed the star till it came and stood over where the young Child was. The only thing the chief priests and scribes knew was where the Christ was to be born, not where he was at that time. There is nothing to say they followed Herod or his priests and scribes advise. The author is making an assumption to fit his hypothesis.
    Again, if the wise men were there soon after Jesus’ birth as the author claims, then why would they take Jesus to Jerusalem after Joseph had been told to flee to Egypt(Matthew 2:13)? In Luke 2:21-22, it tells of Jesus being taken to Jerusalem once Mary’s purification was completed. That would be at least a week after the birth that the wise men could not have been there. Then in Luke 2:39, we are told that they then returned to Nazareth in Galilee. So unless Joseph went against God’s warning (we know he did not because Matthew 2:14 tells us took Mary and Jesus and left) the wise men could not have seen Jesus in Bethlehem.
    Herod had all male children two years old and under killed in Bethlehem and its districts. Why that old if Jesus was a newborn at the time? I would say it had something to do with the answer he got when he asked the wise men when the star first appeared (Matthew 2:7).
    With Christianity constantly under attack, I think it is very important that we pay close attention to the Scriptures and recount them accurately. As far as my faith, it does not matter who saw who when, but does matter greatly if it is Scripturally accurate.
    God Bless and Merry Christmas!

  4. Michael says:

    Correction for the above. It would have been at least 40 days before the wise men could have seen Jesus and not in Bethlehem. Luke tells us that they went to Jerusalem to present Him. Why would they go to Jerusalem AFTER God told them to flee to Egypt as Matthew tells us? Luke makes it clear they went to Jerusalem then returned to Galilee. Matthew makes it clear that once the wise men left, Joseph fled to Egypt with his family.

  5. James E. Reeves says:

    Again I must remind everyone that it has been agreed to by all creditable historians that Jesus was born. The time took a place in history called “anno Domini” that no other child except Adam could have held or laid claim to. The change taking place at the pinnacle of Roman rule as recorded. And changes in language took place now reading from left to right marked the difference in Jewish reading which was from right to left. It would appear that their whole world was ending or being fulfilled at this time in history.
    To squabble over the exact date seems ludicrous to me and distorts the real issue of Messiah in Jewish life and historical readings.
    I must ask the real question that Jesus asked “Who do you say that Jesus is today?”
    All these distortions are an effort to remove the truth which has already been qualified as irrefutable.

  6. John Eidsmoe (http://morallaw NULL.org) says:

    Two quick responses:

    Michael, the Greek term used by Matthew that is rendered “child” in 2:9, paidion, is broad enough to include a baby.

    Mark, you ask a very good question. The flight to Egypt is difficult to fit into the chronology of events surrounding Jesus’ birth. If we accept the 4 B.C. date that is commonly given for Jesus’ birth, Herod must have died shortly after Jesus was born. It may be, then, that Joseph and his family left Bethlehem for Egypt very shortly after Jesus’ birth, and very shortly after their arrival in Egypt they received word of Herod’s death. They then returned to Judea in time for Mary’s purification at the Temple in Jerusalem on the 40th day. If so, they may or may not have stopped in Bethlehem on their way to Jerusalem. After Mary’s purification, the family would then have continued northward to Nazareth in Galilee. If this explanation is correct, then the Magi must have visited Jesus within a few days of His birth. This seems most likely, but I am open to other explanations.

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