Rev. Marcus is pastor of the First Protestant Reformed Church in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
“When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”
Christmas is a time of joy.
But what is it that gives us joy in this season? For some, it is a time to get together with family. For others, it is a time to renew friendships. Many look at Christmas as a time to give and to receive all sorts of gifts.
It is not that there is anything necessarily wrong with these things. Indeed, some of these things are legitimate reasons to be joyful. But if we seek for joy only in these things, then we will be sadly disappointed.
True and lasting joy comes only from God. In His presence is fullness of joy. Our joy comes as we fellowship with God through Jesus Christ. That is the joy of believers. That is the joy of Christmas. That was the joy of the wise men who sought Jesus Christ after His birth.
Nobody knows for sure how long it was after Jesus’ birth that the wise men came to visit Him. What we do know is that the wise men found Jesus in a house. So it appears that they did not visit Jesus on the night He was born. If they had visited Him then, they would have found Him in a stable. The other thing we know is that when Herod tried to kill Jesus, he had all the babies in Bethlehem killed who were two years old and under. Herod was trying to make sure that the baby Jesus was among the children that were slaughtered. Based on this information, the wise men probably made their visit to the baby Jesus some time within the first two years of Jesus’ life.
Not that the time of their visit is so important. Rather, the fact that the wise men made this visit is what makes this story significant. It is significant, too, that God brought the wise men to Jesus by means of a miraculous star. When they had finally arrived at their destination and saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. That is the joy that God gives to His people. That is the joy of Christmas that the wise men expressed some two thousand years ago.
The Wise Men
The wise men are mysterious figures. Scripture does not reveal much about them. For example, Scripture does not reveal anything about how many wise men there were. There might have been two or three or even three hundred. The reason that so many think there were three is that Scripture says they brought three different kinds of gifts, gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It is assumed that, if they brought three gifts, then there must have been three wise men. But, really, Scripture does not say anything about how many men brought the gifts. Neither does Scripture tell us that they were kings. We have all heard the song, “We three kings of orient are….” But the word used in Scripture to describe these men does not indicate they were kings.
Well, just who were these wise men, and where did they come from? Scripture gives us two clues. In the first place, Scripture indicates that they were from the East. When they arrived in Jerusalem, they reported to Herod, “We have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.”
Secondly, Matthew calls them “wise men,” or, literally, “magi.” One ancient historian, Heroditus, records that the magi were a priestly caste of the Medes, who were active in Babylon during Old Testament times. Generally speaking, the religion of those who were magi was not the true worship of God. Rather, magi usually practiced some sort of demon worship.
What is so striking, then, is that such men would seek after Jesus Christ. How did those who were once in the camp of Satan come to seek after the Savior? Why would they seek after a child born King of the Jews? Furthermore, why were they looking for a star? And how did they know that this particular star had anything to do with the birth of the coming King? Somehow, God revealed it to them. Only a wonderwork of grace could take men who were steeped in demon worship and paganism and cause them to seek the Messiah.
Scripture does not say exactly how; but they must have had some knowledge of the Messiah, the promised Savior. The explanation may be that these men came from Babylon. Recall that the Jews had once been captives in Babylon. Recall, too, that many of them remained in Babylon even when their captivity ended about five hundred years before Christ.
We read about magi in the book of Daniel: “Then the king commanded to call themagicians (the Greek translation of this word in Daniel is the same word that is used in Matthew: magos) and the astrologers, and the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans, for to shew the king his dreams. So they came and stood before the king” (Dan. 2:2). These men were called into Nebuchadnezzar’s presence to try to interpret his dream. They could not; but Daniel did. Therefore Nebuchadnezzar made Daniel ruler over all the wise men of Babylon, including the magicians.
It may be that Daniel himself taught them about the true and living God and about the coming Messiah. Or they may have learned it from other believing Jews who remained in Babylon. That knowledge could have been passed down through the centuries, up until the time of Christ.
At bottom, the magi were Gentiles. But they were Gentiles to whom God revealed the truth concerning the coming Savior. Though we do not know exactly how, we do know that God revealed enough information so that they knew about the Savior who was to be born King of the Jews. Not only did God give them that information, He also put it in their hearts to seek after Him. They did not come to see Jesus merely out of scholarly interest in something novel. Rather, they were living out their faith, the faith that God had graciously given to them.
The wonder of the gospel and the joy of Christmas is that God does the very same thing for His people today. He brings us the glorious message of the Savior born in Bethlehem. Through the preaching of the gospel, we learn of our King born into the world so that He might die. And, having brought the gospel to us, He also convicts us so that we believe the truth about the King born in a stable. Because He gives us new life, we seek Him too.
The Miraculous Star
How did God bring these particular magi to the Savior? The way that God brought them to Jesus was by means of a miraculous star.
There are many theories as to what this star really was. It is common to read these theories around Christmastime. Some say that the star was caused by a conjunction of planets in the sky. One theory goes that Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn all lined up very closely in the sky so that their light together looked like a very bright star. Others say that the star was a comet that came very close to the earth. And still others claim that the star was a nova, an exploding star that would have been extremely bright for a number of months.
The problem with all of these theories is that they do not do justice to the uniqueness of the occasion. If the star of Bethlehem was any one of these natural occurrences, how would the wise men know that this particular star was the star that they were looking for? After all, these kinds of events happen somewhat frequently throughout history. Most of us have lived when one of the comets has come near enough to see from the earth.
The simplest and best explanation is that the star was truly miraculous. And, really, how fitting that the messenger that announced the miraculous birth of Jesus to the magi was itself a miraculous sign.
This fits Matthew’s account of the magi. At first they saw the star in the East. But by the time they came to Jerusalem, they did not see the star anymore. No doubt that is why they went to Jerusalem for directions. When the chief priests and scribes informed Herod and the wise men that the anointed King would be born in Bethlehem, the magi went their way to find Him.
It was at this point that the star reappeared and went before them. “When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was” (Matt. 2:9). It literally led the way right to the place where the baby Jesus lay. No ordinary star, or comet, or nova, or any alignment of planets could do that. The star must have been miraculous.
The way in which the star went before them and stood right over the house reminds us of the pillar of fire that went before Israel. “And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night” (Ex. 13:21). Just as the light of the pillar floating in the sky went before the Israelites, so also this star went before the magi.
It is significant, too, that the light from the cloud that led the Israelites is called the “glory of the LORD.” This cloud stood over the tabernacle when Moses had finished the tabernacle. “Then a cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Ex 40:34).
Recall, as well, the shepherds who watched their flocks by night. We read that, when God announced the birth of Jesus Christ to them, “the glory of the Lord shown round about them.” Thus it would appear that the miraculous star was more along the lines of this glorious light of Jehovah.
The cloud, which is called “the glory of the LORD,” also descended upon the tabernacle when Moses was speaking with God. “And it came to pass, as Moses entered into the tabernacle, the cloudy pillar descended, and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and the LORD talked with Moses” (Ex. 33:9). Of course, the tabernacle was a picture of God dwelling with His people. How fitting, then, that the birth of Immanuel should be marked with the glory of the Lord appearing to the shepherds as well as to the wise men.
The Light Revealed
After all that has been said about the star, the important thing is that God showed the magi the truth to which the star pointed. God had revealed to them that the star pointed to a very special king who would be born king of the Jews.
We may wonder how the magi even knew that they should be looking for a star. Well, we do not really know that either. Perhaps they had been taught the truth revealed in Numbers 24:17: “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.” This prophecy may have been made available to Babylonians when the Jews were taken captive there. However they found out, somehow they knew that there would be a star that would come out of the nation of Israel, and that this star would be a scepter, that is, a king. God revealed the truth to these Gentile men, who otherwise would have been lost in paganism.
Then, having revealed the truth concerning the star that would arise out of Jacob, God also showed them the miraculous sign of the star in the heavens that led them to the baby, who is the bright and morning star (Rev. 22:16).
By themselves, the wise men would never have been able to find Jesus. That is why they stopped in Jerusalem to look for Him that was born King of the Jews. They looked in the place where men would expect royalty to be found—they looked in Jerusalem. But, by means of His Word, God directed the wise men to Bethlehem. And that is when God revealed the star to them and led them right to the place where the baby Jesus lay. It led them to Immanuel.
The Great Joy
That is why the wise men rejoiced withexceeding great joy. This was no ordinary joy. Their rejoicing was of a very high degree. Scripture does not say that they jumped up and down and let out loud ecstatic laughter; but their joy would certainly have warranted that.
The long-promised King had finally come! And the wise men had found Him! You understand, they were not just rejoicing over the fact that the Jews had a King. They were rejoicing because they themselves had found their King.
And their joy was not only in their hearts and mouths. The wise men also showed their joy by what they did when they found the promised King. Matthew tells us that they “fell down and worshipped him.” By their act of worship, they were expressing their complete submission to the baby Jesus, God the Son in the flesh.
After showing their complete submission to Him, they opened their treasures and gave Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Perhaps these gifts have a symbolic meaning. What is most important, however, is that the wise men gave the most precious of gifts. Not second-rate gifts, but the very best would they give to their King.
The great joy of the wise men was reflected in their humble worship. What a contrast with the attitude of Herod, who sought to kill the baby Jesus. What a contrast with the Jews who proclaimed, “we have no king but Caesar,” and promptly demanded that Jesus be crucified. The world will not worship and bow down before the King of all creation. Rather, they gather themselves against Him as His enemies.
Just as the Gentile wise men rejoiced over Him who was born king of the Jews, we also rejoice over Him. Not because by some great wisdom of our own we learned of Him and then found Him, but because, in His goodness, God has revealed Him to us.
Just as the wise men would never have found the Savior unless God had led them, so it is with us. We never would have sought and found Christ unless God had brought us to Him. And since God has revealed the bright and morning star to us, we also desire to express our joy by bringing gifts to the King. Not to make Him richer. But in thankfulness, to show our absolute submission to Him.
May Christ be the source of our joy in this Christmas season.