[January 6, 2008] Matthew does not give us the details of Jesus’ birth, referring instead (in 2:1) to Jesus having been ‘begotten’ of Joseph, the Son of David, in Bethlehem, the city of David. The word for ‘birth’ is different and is used in verse 4. Thus the connection with the emphasis in chapter 1 (the Davidic descent of the One who would fulfill all the hopes of the Old Testament) is sustained. If we want the details of Jesus’ birth, we need to look in the gospel of Luke.
Last Sunday we considered the reaction of King Herod to the presence of the real ‘King of the Jews’— that it was like King Saul’s reaction to David, only more diabolical. We saw this as the dark shadow cast by the light of God’s revelation. Whether we consider the history of the Old Testament, the New Testament, or the history of the church, the presence of God’s revelation casts a shadow of apostasy. The presence of the kingdom of God is accompanied by the shadow of a false kingdom, a ‘kingdom’ that imagines it represents God yet persecutes those who are faithful to God.
In our study of Exodus we also saw how the ‘world’ is a system of organized rebellion against God, ruled by Satan through principalities and powers, that enslaves the people of the world.
Now we are going to consider another aspect of the world, the world not as a system but as the totality of the people on the earth, the Gentile nations.
The angels announced the good news to the poor Israelite shepherds of Bethlehem. They made no such announcement to the rich magi from Gentile lands. Yet they still came seeking the One whom the star announced, seeking Him that they might give Him homage and offer their treasures. This will be our topic—that pagan Gentiles would (and do) seek our Lord, groping in the darkness, as it were, and following the little light that they have. Let us consider the “desire of all the nations” (Haggai 2:7).
The Magi and the Star
The ‘magi’ were religious scholars (priest-sages) of the Persian world. They, like most people in the ancient world, linked the stars to events on earth. There was also a Jewish presence in the Persian Empire, and it is from these Jews that the magi probably learned about the Jewish expectations concerning the Messiah. Alfred Edersheim points out an ancient Midrash (rabbinical commentary), that might go back to the time before Christ’s birth, which says that ‘a Star in the East was to appear two years before the birth of the Messiah.’ If Christ was born in 5 BC (Herod the Great died in 4 BC), then such a star would have appeared in 7 BC. This is the time Herod had ascertained from the magi, which is why he killed all the boys in Bethlehem from two years old and under, that is, those born since the time of the star’s first arising.
In 7 BC Jupiter and Saturn came together in the constellation of Pisces, a phenomenon that only occurs every 800 years. It occurred three times that year, in May, October and December. It apparently was a “most brilliant spectacle in the night-sky.” In the following year, Mars joined this conjunction. This would have aroused the stargazing magi who would have inquired of all around, including the Jews. Astronomers have found other stellar phenomena that occurred around this time. In February of 4 BC, a comet appeared, which might have been just as the magi were leaving Jerusalem for Bethlehem (Herod died in March). From the view of Jerusalem, it would have stood over—and thus point in the direction of—Bethlehem.
The magi arrived in Jerusalem with their strange news, probably hoping to get more information about where the newborn ‘King of the Jews’ might be found. The last ten years of Herod’s reign was marked by intrigue and murder as he became maniacally insecure about threats to his power. And now he was also incurably sick in body. When he received word of the magi’s news, it predictably enraged him, and Jerusalem was probably troubled just by thinking of what the consequences of Herod’s reaction might be for them. The nature of Herod inquiry of the chief priests and scribes was to ascertain where the people expected the Messiah to be born. It is unlikely he believed the prophecy.
When the magi arrived in Bethlehem, they found Mary and the child in a house, no longer the stable (of course), but we are told nothing more. Nor do we know how many magi there were. Some traditions say twelve, others three based on the number of gifts. The gifts, which seem strangely inappropriate, were “evidently intended as specimens of the products of their country, and their presentation was . . . expressive of the homage of their country to the newfound King.” Their offerings were thus symbolic of the Gentile world, foreshadowing the Gentiles turning to Christ in faith and worship, in the church now and in the coming kingdom. (See Alfred Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah(Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993; first published in 1883), pages 141-150.)
The Desire of All the Nations
While Herod represents the world under the oppression of the devil, the magi represent the world in its search for truth (actually, for God). When Paul addressed the Gentiles in Athens (Acts 17:27), he spoke of their seeking God that “perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, even though He is not far from each one of us.” In this sense, the star of Bethlehem represents this seeking and groping to find God.
Is God entirely absent from the Gentile world? In Genesis Melchizedek worshipped God before Abraham did. Job was also a Gentile who worshipped God, having no apparent connection to Israel. It would seem that God left a mark on the world: His ‘logos’ (Word) through whom all things came into being (John 1:3). The book of Proverbs speaks of Wisdom in this way. Paul speaks of God leaving the Gentiles a witness to Himself, “in that He did good by giving you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17). “That which is known of God is manifest within them, for God has manifested it to them. For the invisible things of Him, both His eternal power and divine characteristics, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being perceived by the things made” (Romans 1:19-20). He even says to the Athenians, “While I was passing through and carefully observing the objects of your worship, I even found an altar on which was inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’ What therefore you worship without knowing, this I announce to you” (Acts 17:23).
In the world’s great religions there is a ‘Wisdom Tradition’ (or ‘Perennial Philosophy’) that expresses true things about the nature of God and creation and humanity. The East, as well as modern psychology, very analytically unfolds the nature of humanity’s delusion, and shows that we are a being made up of body, soul and spirit. They, together with modern science, say certain things about the nature of God that are true. Because they have been so analytical and thorough, we can learn a great deal from them. They also derive remarkably similar ethical teachings (e.g., the importance of love) from their understanding. These discoveries express the longing of the human heart.
This natural knowledge, however, is not revelation. While they can discover something about the unknowability of the essence of God, they have not discovered God’s Person. Their analytical methods go too far and by dissecting reality as they do, they take the life out of it (if you take living things apart, they die). Sometimes they exalt the ideal over the material, developing disgust for the body instead of seeing its inherent beauty and potential for divinization (hence, they do not imagine a resurrection). Also their doctrine of karma, while eminently logical, does not recognize the inherent disorder and chaos of the world, that is, its irrationality and radical evil.
What all people long for in their heart of hearts, even though they do not know it, is to be united with the Person of God, and they can only know this through God’s own self-revelation in Christ, through the Word. What the Wisdom Traditions have not yet discovered is that the reality they seek is embodied, or incarnated, in a Person, in the Lord Jesus Christ. Unlike the great sages of East and West, Jesus does not only teach wisdom, He is its very incarnation. The wisdom that they seek is not impersonal, as they imagine it to be, but is a Person whose personhood makes us persons. We can only know this by God’s grace, through His revelation, and not on our own.
It goes further than this, though—further than the fact that what people seek, God Himself, is embodied or incarnated in our Lord Jesus, and is a Person. One might point out that in Hinduism God is incarnated in the avatars (such as Krishna). But much more than this, Jesus—through His death and resurrection and through His thus ‘becoming’ the Holy Spirit—unites us to Himself so that we are in Him and He is in us. He imparts to us His divine life. No other ‘avatar’ has done this. Only Jesus as the substance of both the Old and New Testament is the true object of all that every Gentile long for.
The Basis of Our Witness
Why does all this matter? It matters because it makes us all the same. Every human being has the same longing, the same desire, even though in their darkness they might grope after all the wrong objects to satisfy their thirst. This should give us a great sympathy and love for all the people around us. If we touch this cord in people, we cannot help but feel this bond. We witness to people concerning Christ by appealing to their hearts, in the same way that Christ has won our hearts. How we love Him! So would your neighbor, if she or he knew Him. Thus the love of Christ compels us to share Him with our family and friends and neighbors. We want the whole world to know what we know—because it is what the world wants to know!
So often I hear Christians talk about non-Christians as though it were ‘us versus them.’ I fear that I often sound like this. We divide the world into two groups, two tribes. We love our own kind and have intolerance towards the others. But this is not how God sees things, it seems to me. While we divide the world horizontally into territories, the truth of the matter is that the division is really vertical. Christians and non-Christians share the same life in their bodies and in the world. We have the same problems in our souls. Even our hearts long for the same One. When the Gospel reaches us and we are born again, we are affected on another level, on the level of our spirit. We become one with Christ through the Holy Spirit in our spirit. We discover salvation in Christ, the forgiveness of sins and the love of God, and our aching hearts come alive because they are fulfilled and satisfied. Then, Christ within us and God providentially around us begins to break and heal our soul of its mortal sickness, enslavement and rebellion. We can say it is from the top down, or we can say it is from the depths up. The point is, however, that our life in the world, our life in our bodies and the sickness in our souls, and even the longing of our hearts, is in common with the non-Christian, the unbeliever.
This commonality is the basis of our compassion for them and our witness. It is also what entitles us to share Christ with them.
The magi sought Christ by following a sign, and God faithfully led them to Him. May God use us to give people hope and lead them to Christ!