“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel … (Numbers 24:17)
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “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.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born.
“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ” ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’” (Matt. 2:1-6)
The Magi were Parthian Priests, descendants of the priesthood the Prophet Daniel had organized in Persia some 500 years earlier, upon learning the timing of Messiah’s coming (Daniel 9:25). Knowing the time was at hand, these priests had been searching the heavens for the promised sign of His coming, a new star in the Eastern sky.
Parthia was a powerful kingdom north and east of Israel, a remnant of the Persian Empire that had recently defeated the Roman Legions, and the Magi were among Parthia’s most powerful leaders. No Parthian ruler could ascend to the throne without their blessing and indeed their political influence was felt through out the Middle East.
Contrary to the popular Christmas Carol, they were king-makers, not kings, and they were many more than three. Since Israel was under Roman control, the Magi technically represented an enemy country. Aware of this, but not intimidated, they traveled in a huge caravan with lots of guards, and their arrival in Jerusalem set the whole city a-buzz (Matt. 2:3).
Herod would be called a Jordanian today. He was appointed King by the Roman Senate. In short he was a pretender to the throne in Israel, and now these Parthian King-makers had come seeking the one born to be Israel’s King. No wonder he was disturbed.
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. (Matt. 2:7-12)
The three gifts are symbolic of the Messiah’s three present offices in His Kingdom. Gold is the gift for a King, frankincense points to the Priest, and myrrh, an embalming spice that foretold His death, represents the Prophet.
The Magi didn’t arrive on the night the Lord was born. The text indicates that by the time they did arrive, Joseph and Mary had found a house to stay in. And as we read above, they had already had Jesus circumcised and dedicated at the Temple on His eighth day of life, and Mary had completed her 33 day time of purification as required by the Law.
If Jesus was born on Rosh HaShannah as seems likely, the family would have stayed in the Jerusalem area for Yom Kippur and the Feast of Tabernacles as well, since Joseph’s attendance, as with that of all able bodied males, was mandatory.
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.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matt 2:13-15)
Too poor to buy a lamb for the purification only a few days ago, Joseph and his family suddenly had the means to travel to Egypt and stay there until Herod died. How can this be?
Tradition has it that because of his lifetime of service at the highest levels of Babylonian and Persian governments, Daniel had become a wealthy man. Since he was most likely castrated by Nebuchadnezzar he had no heirs, and so after he formed the Magi, he left his fortune in their care to be given to the Messiah upon His birth. If so then the Magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh came from Daniel’s estate, and were delivered to the Holy Family just in time to fund their escape from Herod’s soldiers.
This is what the LORD says: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15)
When Herod realized 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. (Matt 2:16)
The Magi had been watching for the star. When they first saw it they made preparations for a long journey and once prepared, set out to follow it. We don’t know exactly where they set out from, when they first noticed the star, or how long it took them to get ready, but their journey could easily have been several hundred miles long. The only clue we get as to the time of their arrival is that after asking them when they first spotted the star, Herod ordered all the boys in Bethlehem below the age of two years killed.
After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” (Matt. 2:19-20)
When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him. (Luke 2:39-40)
Home at last. A journey of several days had lasted several years. And just about every day of it a reminder to our Lord that the world He came to save held no place for Him.
“Foxes have holes,” He would later say, “And birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58)
It’s always fascinated me that after reading Micah’s prophecy of the Messiah’s birthplace, Herod and the chief priests sent the Magi to Bethlehem in search of Him, but didn’t go to see for themselves. Did they think they were sending the Magi on a futile search, certain they wouldn’t find anything? If so, why did they consult their Scriptures for an answer to Herod’s question, and why did Herod have all those children killed?
Maybe Herod can be excused for not going. He wasn’t even Jewish and probably knew very little of Messianic prophecy. But the Chief Priests were reading from their own scriptures, and with evidence of the star the Magi had followed to confirm the prophecy, they should have been the first to investigate. After all, Messianic prophecy was being fulfilled right before their very eyes. What I’d give to have overheard their discussions on this.
The nature of the Lord’s life on Earth had been predicted long before, and right from the start the words of the prophets were proving to be all too true.
He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isaiah 53:2-3)
The only ones who even had a clue as to Who He was were given their understanding through a direct revelation from God. They included Joseph and Mary of course. The Parthian priests had learned of Him through Daniel’s revelation, and the shepherds witnessed the angelic visitation. Two others, Simeon and Anna, had both received direct revelations about the baby and gave eyewitness testimony that He was the Christ child (Luke 2:25-38). This was a fulfillment of Deut. 19:15, A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.
And that’s it. Having looked for the arrival of the promised Messiah for nearly 4000 years, when He came only a hand full of His people understood. There’s no indication that either the priest who performed the circumcision or the one who received the obligatory sacrifice of the firstborn had any idea who this child was.
Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.(Isaiah 53:4-5)
And yet He had come for the sole purpose of healing the incredible rift in our relationship with God, (Colossians 1:19), delivering us from the unspeakable horrors of the destiny due us (Romans 5:9) and elevating us to the highest position in His Kingdom (Ephes. 2:6). Not because we could ever earn or deserve it, but because He loved us enough to do it, and had promised He would.