DIG: Why was it important that Jesus be born in Bethlehem? From whom did the magi learn about the King of the Jews? What was this star? Where did they learn about it? Why did they follow it? Who was King Herod? What was he like? In light of the prophecy in Matthew 2:6, why was he so concerned that the Child be found? What do the star, the magi, the gifts, the worship, and prophecy tell us about the nature and significance of the Messiah?
REFLECT: In your journey toward God, how are you like these magi? Unlike them? Have you had to leave anything to follow Jesus? What are the gold, frankincense and myrrh in your life? How have you responded to Yeshua?
The purpose of Matthew’s Gospel is to present Jesus as the King of the Jews. Through a carefully selected series of quotations from the TaNaKh, Mattityahu documents Yeshua’s claim to be the long-awaited Messiah. Therefore, the first thing he needs to establish is that Yeshua of Nazareth was born where the Meshiach must be born – in the town of Bethlehem. He explains how it was in fact the birthplace of Christ, even though later events would dictate His relocation to Nazareth in Galilee.
Jesus was born between 7 and 6 BC. The reason He was born BC, or Before Christ, is that Dionysius Exiguus, the sixth-century monk who set up the modern calendar, made a mistake in determining the date which was not corrected until later. Instead of the terms AS, or Anno Domini, meaning in the year of [the] Lord Jesus, and BC, the Jewish community normally represents these time periods by using CE, or Common Era, and BCE, Before the Common Era, to avoid using a dating system that points to Yeshua as the Meshiach.143
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, Joseph and Mary evidently decided to continue to stay and live in the town of their ancestry. Two years later, during the reign of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked repeatedly: Where is the One who has been born King of the Jews (Matthew 2:1-2a)? The word asked is a present participle, emphasizing continuous action. They kept on asking and asking. They had calculated exactly how many years would transpire before the Messiah would come (Daniel 9:24-27). Although they were familiar with the book of Daniel and the book of Numbers, they were, however, not familiar with the book of Micah, where in Micah 5:2 it predicted that the Meshiach would be born in the town of Beit-Lechem. As a result, they came to Yerushalayim because they were desperate to find Him.
Around Christmas time, the nativity scenes are put up and they all look about the same. There is a little hut to represent a barn, and within it there are three people: Miryam, Joseph and the baby Jesus in a manger, or a feeding trough for cattle. Facing them are three shepherds on one side and three magi on the other. The whole scene is really unbiblical because the shepherds and the magi never saw each other because they were separated by about two years.
There are several misconceptions in the common nativity scene as well. First, is the very popular Christmas song that begins with, “We three kings of Orient are.” There is no way of knowing how many there were. The Bible merely mentions them in the plural. There could have been two, twenty or a hundred. We don’t really know. The second misconception is that they were kings. They were not kings, but magi or astrologers from the east. Why would those Gentile astrologers want to worship a Jewish king? These were magi from Babylon. In the past, Daniel had saved the lives of all the magi of Babylon by interpreting King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (see my commentary on Jeremiah Dq – Nebuchadnezzar’s Troubling Dream). The source of Daniel’s ability was not the stars of the heavens but the God of Heaven. As a result, a line of Babylonian astrologers spanning generations worshipped the One true God, and having Daniel’s prophecy, looked forward to the coming of the King of the Jews. We can conclude from the book of Daniel that Babylonian astrologers did know the time Messiah was to be born. But Daniel says nothing about a star that would proclaim the birth of the King of the Jews. So how did the magi know about it?
Balaam, another Babylonian astrologer prophesied that: A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will arise out of Isra’el (Numbers 24:17). Traditional Jewish sources have long regarded this verse as referring to the coming of the Messiah (Tractate Taanit IV.8; Targum Onkelos). But it is not a literal star because the star and the scepter in this verse are one and the same. We know this because Balaam’s prophecy is in the form of Hebrew poetry, which is not based on rhythm or rhyme but on parallelism. The term scepter is a symbol of royalty or kingship. This star that would come out of Jacob, would be a King Himself.
Furthermore, Balaam’s occupation was that of an astrologer. Even more significant is that he came from Pethor, a city on the banks of the Euphrates River in Babylonia (Numbers 22:5; Deuteronomy 23:4). With the book of Daniel and the prophecy of Balaam, we have a double Babylonian connection. Hence the revelation of a star in relation to Meshiach’s birth came by means of a Babylonian astrologer who, no doubt, passed the information down to his colleagues. Centuries later, Daniel was able to give further details to the Babylonian astrologers about the time that the star of Jacob would appear.144
These magi said that they saw His star when it rose and had come to worship Him (Mat 2:2b). The Greek word translated star is aster, and means light, radiance or brilliance. What they saw was the Shechinah glory, or the visible manifestation of God Himself. There are five reasons why this could not be a literal star. First, it was uniquely the Messiah’s star because it is called His star. In that way, it is not true of any other star. Second, this star appears and disappears. Third, this star moves from east to west, from Babylon to Tziyon. Fourth, it moves from north to south, from the City to Bethlehem. Fifth, it hovers over the very house where the child was living. A literal star cannot hover in one place. So just as the Shechinah glory was used to announce the birth of the King of the Jews to Jewish shepherds, it was also used to announce the birth of the King of the Jews to Gentile astrologers (see my commentary on Genesis Lw – The Witness of the Stars).145
Without condemning astrology, Matthew’s Gospel challenges his Jewish audience about their prejudice against outsiders to their faith (also see Mathew 8:5-13 and 15:21-28). His inspired message communicates that even Gentiles may respond to Yeshua if given the opportunity (Jonah 1:13-16, 3:6 through 4:1 and 10-11).146 They, unlike the Jews, prove receptive to the King and God’s purposes for Him.147
Several years after the Jewish shepherds had worshiped the Messiah in a cave in Jerusalem, the very presence of God, His Shechinah glory, appeared in the eastern sky (Matthew 2:9). It was seen by many, but followed by few. The magi were probably excited to see it for they remembered Balaam’s prophecy and knew its true meaning. They immediately loaded up their precious gifts and turned their plodding camels toward the brilliance. They traveled almost a thousand miles across the sands of the desert, with the rising sun behind them. They pitched their tents by day and mounted again when the evening sky turned deep blue, following the radiance along the rim of sky and earth. It was a long hard trip by camel, probably over a year. They eventually came through the passes of Moab into Jericho, where the Dead Sea and the River Jordan meet, and they crossed the river and went up into Tziyon.
When they came into Jerusalem the magi probably desired to speak to someone in the Temple. After entering through the Huldah Gate, they entered the massive 500 cubit square Temple Mount [Overview of the Second Temple and Fortress Antonia]. After some dozen meters they came to the dividing wall of partition, which ensured complete separation between Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 2:14). It consisted of a low wall of 75cm upon which a wooden see-through fence of 52.5cm was secured. It was built low and allowed a view through so that no one, not even a child, might be prevented from seeing the glorious view of the golden Sanctuary.148
So there they stood - looking through the fence for a Levitical priest on the other side. One happened to be walking by and they asked, “Where is the Child King of the Jews? We have come to worship Him?” It stands to reason that although the magi would be happy and expectant, the priest would not share their joy. “If the Meshiach had returned,” the Levite probably reasoned to himself, “He would not reveal Himself to Gentiles, but to the Jews . . . to the high priest himself!” The high priest was possibly summoned with the magi explaining when they had seen and their interpretation of the happy sign. But he knew of no such sign. How could it be true? Surely if anyone would know it would be him! But, as a mark of respect, he probably detailed the beliefs of the Jews concerning the Messiah and Bethlehem was mentioned.
The magi may have thought that this was the most promising clue since the brilliance they had seen was close overhead. Beit-Lechem, five miles to the south of the Holy City would be a good place to go. They probably thanked the high priest and camped outside the walls for the night because they were very tired from their travels. They would head for Bethlehem the next afternoon. But more than likely the high priest did not wait until morning, he reported to the place of King Herod and relayed the news.
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him (Mattityahu 2:3). This is one of the great understatements in the Bible. He should have been called Herod the Paranoid instead of Herod the Great. He was cruel and merciless. He was incredibly jealous, suspicious and afraid of any royal rival. Fearing a potential threat, he had his high priest, who was his wife Mariamne’s brother, drowned in what turned out to be a rather shallow pool (Josephus War 1.437). Then he provided a magnificent funeral and pretended to weep. Later, he had Mariamne herself killed, then her mother and two of his own sons, Alexander and Aristobulus were wrongly strangled to death for supposedly plotting against him (Josephus Ant. 16.394; War 1.665-65). Five days before his death (about a year after Jesus was born), he had a third son murdered. Herod was a supposed covert to Judaism so he did not eat pork. Small wonder the great Roman emperor Caesar Augustus was rumored to have openly said of Herod, “It was safer to be Herod’s sow (huos) than Herod’s son (huios).”149
One of the greatest evidences of his bloodthirstiness and insane cruelty was having the most distinguished citizens of Tziyon arrested and imprisoned shortly before his death. Because he knew no one would mourn his own death, he gave orders that those distinguished citizens should be executed the moment he died, to guarantee that there would be mourning in Yerushalayim (Josephus Ant. 17.174-79; War 1.659-60).150 Fortunately his orders were not carried out. As a result, when he was disturbed, all Jerusalem was disturbed with him. The citizens of the City of David feared revenge from this heartless and cunning tyrant.
The prominent role of Herod in the story prepares us for his political holocaust in the next file (see Aw – Herod Gave Orders to Kill all the Boys in Bethlehem Two Years Old and Under). The Jewish reader could hardly fail to see the connection between Herod and Pharaoh in the time of Moshe. Pharaoh’s infanticide threatened to destroy Israel’s future deliverer (see my commentary on Exodus Ah – So God Was Kind to the Midwives), while Herod’s holocaust threatened to destroy Israel’s future Savior. Moshe’s escape from the slaughter and his subsequent exile and return when all the men who wanted to kill you are dead (Exodus 4:19), reminds us of Yeshua’s exile and return for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead (Matthew 2:20). This typology between Moses the deliverer and Jesus the Messiah runs throughout Mattityahu’s Gospel and its solid foundation has been firmly laid here from the outset.151
Herod was always fearful of conspiracies against him and he suspected another conspiracy. No other king would be allowed to take his place no matter who He was. We see the three basic responses that mankind demonstrate when confronted with Jesus when He was on the earth. These are the same three responses throughout human history.
The first response is anger and hostility as seen by Herod. Thenthe mad king, in frantic fear, called together all the people’s chief priests and Torah-teachers. As a secular man, he knew little about Jewish prophecies. The chief priests were not a particular category, but were composed of various leading influential priests, including the leaders of the daily and weekly course of priests, the Temple treasurer, and other Temple overseers and officials. Together with the high priest and captain of the guard, they formed the priestly aristocracy often loosely referred to as the chief priests. For the most part, these chief priests were Sadducees, whereas, the regular priests were Pharisees. The Torah-teachers were scribes, primarily Pharisees, who were the authorities on the Torah and the Oral Law (see Ei – The Oral Law), and were the most important scholars of Judaism.152 But the relations between Herod and the chief priests were not cordial and he really had to swallow his pride (which was a heaping spoon full) to even ask for their help. He despised them - and they hated him. However, he was desperate.
The second response is indifference as seen in the chief priests and teachers of the Torah. He inquired from them where the Messiah was to be born. The imperfect tense of inquire suggests a he kept on asking and asking and asking. Matthew’s interest is specifically in the birthplace of Christ, which was also what the magi wanted to know. When Herod asked, they did not have to look up the answer. They already knew it was in Micah 5:2 because it was a messianic prophesy. But the Sadducees showed no interest in the possibility of their Messiah’s birth. They had more fear of Herod and for their own lives than courage in protecting him from some rumor of a child king.153 In any case, the chief priests and the scribes told Herod what he wanted to know. Christ should be born in Bethlehem in Judea, for this is what the prophet Micah had written (Mattityahu 2:4-5). They had head knowledge about Messiah . . . but no relationship.
There are four ways that the New Covenant quotes the TaNaKh and one is found in this section - aliteral prophecy and a literal fulfillment. The literal prophecy is found in Micah 5:2 where it reads: But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come from Me, One who will be ruler over Isra’el, whose origins are from old, from ancient times. The literal fulfillment came when Christ was born in Bethlehem.154 Matthew wrote: But you, Beit-Lechem, 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 shepherd My people Israel” (Matthew 2:6). Mattityahu’s quotation, while keeping the integrity of Micah 5:2, is in fact a more direct reflection of Second Samuel 5:2. Both of these passages from the TaNaKh are closely related. The Second Samuel passage gives God’s original call to David; while the Micah passage describes the coming messianic reign of Yeshua, David’s future descendant. The Holy Spirit inspired Matthew to combine these two passages to better suit his purpose and audience of portraying Jesus as King of the Jews.
But that is not the only change the Ruach HaKodesh made. He also changed the archaic title of Bethlehem Ephrathah, to the more specific Bethlehem, in the land of Judah. This emphasized Jesus’ Judean origins, and was vital for Matthew to link Christ’s birth to Bethlehem, rather than Nazareth. In addition, Micah described Beit-Lechem as small among the clans of Judah, but Matthew claims it is by no means least among the rulers of Judah. Therefore, Micah’s words are not at odds with Mattityahu’s Gospel.155
The next morning, Herod secretly found the magi camped outside the City walls. He found out from them the exact time the radiance had appeared because he probably assumed that the child was born at the exact time the star appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem saying: Go and search carefully for the child. The term Herod uses for child is a Greek term paidion, which refers to a child that is at least one year old. As soon as you find Him, Herod said coyly: report to me, so that I too may go and worship Him (Mattityahu 2:7-8).156
But it was ironic, as Herod agonized and gazed toward Bethlehem, that Yeshua had been right under his nose all along. Twice before, Yosef and Miryam had brought their young son to Jerusalem. The first visit came only eight days after Jesus’ birth so that He might be circumcised (see At – On the Eighth Day, When it was Time to Circumcise Him, He was Named Jesus). At that time the child was formally named Yeshua, in keeping with the prophecy. The second visit came when He was forty-one-days old. The baby Jesus was brought to the Temple and formally dedicated to ADONAI (see Au – Jesus Presented in the Temple). Perhaps if Herod the paranoid had known the messianic threat had been so close – literally, less than six hundred yards from his throne room – his torment could have been relieved. But Jesus and His parents were just three more bodies making their way through the noisy bazaars and narrow, twisting streets en route to the Temple that day.157
After the magi had heard the king, they rested until the afternoon then they went on their way. They assumed that Herod was sincere and wanted to worship the king of the Jews once they found Him. The magi waited until the Shechinah glory came up, east of Yerushalayim, and then, they mounted their camels and followed it the final few miles. They stared out on the north side of Jerusalem, where there was a bazaar for Gentiles, and passed the Gate of Damascus and went across the swift-flowing brook Kidron to a little place called Gethsemane, then south toward the Valley of ben Hinnom and on up the winding road near the potters field and straight south to Bethlehem.
The radiance seemed to move before them, as stars do when people travel, but when they approached Beit-Lechem the Shechinah glory reappeared and went ahead of them until it stopped, or literally took its stand, over the place where the Child was (Matthew 2:9). When they saw the Shechinah glory, they were overjoyed (Mattityahu 2:10). It seems as though Matthew was almost at a loss for words to describe their excitement.
On coming to the house, they saw the child with His mother Mary (Matthew 2:11a). By this time Yosef and Mary were living in a house, not a stable or a cave. The shepherds found the baby Jesus in a cave; however the magi found Yeshua in a private house. Jesus is called a child, or paidion, here, rather than a newborn baby, or brephos (Luke 2:12). Once again, He is about two years old at this time. Evidently after giving birth to Yeshua in Bethlehem, Joseph and Miryam decided to remain where their family had originated from, rather than going back to Nazareth. The silence concerning Yosef, however, points to Mary as being the central figure in the narrative.
The third response is to worship Him as seen by the magi. And they bowed down and worshiped Him as the Messiah (Mattityahu 2:11b). The Jewish shepherds were the first ones to worship Him as the Savior, but this was the first Gentile worship of the Jewish King. It is important to note that when they saw the child Meshiach they bowed down and worshiped Him. If there ever was a time when Mary could have been worshiped, this was it. But they didn’t worship her . . . they worshiped Him.158
Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts The giving of gifts in the East is very significant. Hardly any transaction of importance can take place without a gift. Therefore, they appropriately presented the royal child with gifts, all of which have tremendous significance.
Gold symbolized His royalty (see Genesis 41:4; First Kings 10:1-13, etc), and pointed to the fact that Jesus is a King. Gold was used extensively in the building of the Temple (First Kings 6-9; Second Chronicles 2-4). Matthew constantly presents Christ as King, and here we see the King of the Jews, the King of kings, fittingly being presented with royal gifts of gold.
Frankincense symbolized His deity. It came from Southern Arabia and Somalia,was an expensive perfume, burned not only in worship but also at important social occasions (Song of Songs 3:6). In the TaNaKh, it was stored in a special chamber in front of the Temple and was sprinkled on certain offerings as a symbol of the people’s desire to please ADONAI.159 (see my commentary on Exodus Fp – The Altar of Incense in the Sanctuary: Christ, Our Advocate with the Father).
And myrrh symbolized His humanity (Matthew 2:11c). Mixed with other spices, it was used in the preparation of bodies for burial (John 19:39). It had several other uses as well. Mixed with wine it was used as an anesthetic (Mark 15:23) and it was also used as a luxurious cosmetic fragrance (Esther 2:12; Psalm 45:8; Proverbs 7:17; Song of Songs 1:13, 5:1 and 5). It reminds us of the ministry that the man-God, the God-man, came to do: die as the final sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 10:10-18).
Isaiah prophesied that the Gentile nations will bring the wealth of the world to Isra’el during the messianic Kingdom: Herds and camels will cover your Land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and frankincense and proclaiming the praise of ADONAI (Isaiah 60:6). When the magi came to worship the royal Child in Bethlehem they brought gifts with them. But what gift is left out at Messiah’s Second Coming that we see in Isaiah’s passage? Myrrh! They do not bring myrrh because it speaks of death. When Christ comes again, nothing will speak of His death. Gold will point to His kingship, and frankincense will point to His deity. But there will be no myrrh because He had already died upon a cross for the sins of the world. He will come as the Lion of the tribe of Judah, and the KING of kings and LORD of lords to rule and reign forever (Revelation 5:5 and 19:16).160
That very night, the magi were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod with the news of finding the Messiah. The use of dreams as a means of divine communication is seen in Genesis 28:12, 31:11; Numbers 16:6; First Kings 3:5 and Job 33:14-16; Matthew 1:20-23, 2:13, 19-20, 22. They were not told why; however, Herod would have killed the child if they had not been warned to go back to their own country by a different route. Already in this passage we see a motif that occurs throughout the Gospels: the presence of Jesus Christ demands decision and therefore causes division between those who accept Him and those who reject Him.161
The role of the magi in Matthew’s Gospel is now complete and they set off for home. But their route home, no less than their arrival, is supernaturally directed by God.162 In the morning they probably agreed that, although it would be wrong to ignore the invitation of Herod to return to Jerusalem, it would be even worse to ignore the warning of an angel in a dream. So they packed their tents and belongings, mounted their camels, and returned to their country by another route instead (Mattityahu 2:12). They went north towards the daughter of Tziyon (Jeremiah 6:2), headed east through Mar Saba, then north to Jericho and back across to Babylon.163 They would stay out of Herod’s sight and domain altogether.
Scripture records nothing else of these grateful visitors from the east. But blessed as they were, they surely must have witnessed about Christ in their own country. Because they were astrologers to kings, the news of Yeshua probably became well known in the courts of the east as it one day would become in the palace of Caesar (Philippians 1:13 and 4:22).
ADONAI, thank You for sending Your Son to be with us, and to die for us; Yeshua, thank You for being my personal Savior; Ruach HaKodesh, open my eyes to the wonderful truth of the Gospel. May I be amazed daily by Your grace. May I walk in Your power. May I have courage and joy to share the Good News of Immanuel, God with us (Isaiah 7:14).