Gerard David, Adoration of the Kings, National Gallery, London, circa 1515. Google Art Project, Public Domain. The image has been cropped to fit this space.
Matthew 2:1-12 is one of the most familiar passages in the New Testament. It describes a special visit made to the infant Jesus. Most of the time, we read this passage with preconceived notions. However, if we suspend those notions, and read it carefully we discover some important details, or the lack thereof. I would mention four things that are of primary importance.
First, Matthew implies that this star was a special star, not visible to everyone, just to those to whom God chose to reveal it.
We know this because the star moved in a careful pattern. It appeared. It disappeared. Herod had to ask the Magi when it first appeared, meaning that neither he nor his servants could see it.
I have seen people object to this story because there is no historical or astronomical record of a star appearing in the heavens at this time. They ignore the text of Matthew. The risen Christ was not revealed to everyone, just the witnesses God had chosen. It is the same with the star. The star was not revealed to everyone, and certainly not to Herod, but only to those to whom God wished to reveal it.
Do I believe in the star? Absolutely, but I also believe it was a special star, not just because we can’t find a historical record of it, but because Matthew implies as much.
If you and I could somehow travel back through time to that night, and if we sat ourselves down on a hilltop near the City of David, I doubt the star would be visible to us, for we were not and are not God’s chosen witnesses. However, I have no doubt that if we had the proper vantage point and night-vision glasses, and if we peered carefully into the darkness, we may be able to catch sight of a small party of travelers from the east, gazing heavenward, as they made their way into the little town of Bethlehem.
Second, we call this small party of travelers “magi” because magi is the Latinized form of the Greek, “magoi” which is found in this text.
The word “magoi” was transliterated from Persian and was associated with a sect of priests. We get our word “magic” from the same root, but these men were no mere magicians. In the context of the passage, they were “wise men” because they were the first Gentiles who came seeking Christ!
We don’t know how many wise men there were. We assume three because there were three gifts—but the Biblical text does not number them.
The rest of the stuff we think we know about the Magi comes not from scripture, but from Christian Tradition. By the 3rd century, the three Magi were viewed as kings. By the 6th century, they had names. By the 14th century, an Armenian tradition fixed those names. Since then, they have been known as Balthasar (Ball-tha-sar), King of Arabia; Melchior (Mel-key-or), King of Persia; and Gasper (Gas-per), King of India.
Third, the Magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Traditionally, it is said that Jesus Christ came into the world to fill three “offices” and each of the gifts is associated with one of these offices. 1) Gold speaks of His kingship. In his Resurrection, Jesus is revealed not just as the Messiah King of Israel, but as the King of kings and the Lord of lords. 2) Frankincense was a spice used in priestly rituals. Jesus came that he might “give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) Jesus was not just the sacrifice, but the “faithful High Priest” that offered himself, once for all (Hebrew 2:17). 3) Myrrh is associated with the prophetic–and with the prophetic prediction of Jesus’s death. Mark tells us that it was mixed in the cup of wine that Jesus was offered as he was dying on the cross. (Mark 15:23) John tells us that after the death of Jesus, Joseph of Arimethea claimed his body, and Nicodemus, who had at first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds’ weight to anoint his body for burial. (John 19:39) Thus the three gifts tell the story of the 3 most important offices or rolls filled by Jesus.
Fourth, the Magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they departed to their country by another way.
Matthew is fond of dreams. In Matthew, it is in a dream that an angel appears to Joseph and tells him that Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit. In Matthew, Joseph has three other dreams of consequence. Likewise, when Pilate was sitting on a judgment seat, and Jesus was before him, he received a word from his wife which declared, “Have nothing to do with this righteous man, for I have suffered much over him in a dream.”
Most people are a little uneasy with the idea that God sometimes communicates with people in dreams (on in a still small voice). They say that there is always a possibility of abuse. That is true. However, in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, people are warned against false prophecies and false prophets and false dreams and false dreamers. Every revelation, vision, or dream (a vision of the night) had to stand the test of 1) the Law, and 2) the Elders, and 3) history. It had to come to pass! It had to happen!
Still, we long for something more definitive. The hymnist says it best:
We long for mighty signs of God
Cathedral, miracle, and sword,
His pow’r and glory written plain
So, none may doubt that he is Lord.
But poor, in weakness, comes the Christ;
His glory gone, no king we see;
A servant Lord, no praise he seeks.
Thus, comes God’s power to you and me.
The meaning of the first verse is obvious. What does the second teach us? It teaches that when we seek God that we might rise in power and in glory, we miss God altogether. When we seek God that we might become the servants of all, then we find Him.
Thus, Herod sought the life of the Christ child, and we seek the offer of LIFE that comes through Him from God.