On the night that Jesus was born the skies were set alight with the glory of singing angels. This light was seen by a group of wisemen in the far east. These men were philosophers; men of learning and wealth who exerted a significant influence over the minds of the citizens in their native country.
When these men saw the light in the sky, a light that was brighter than any they had ever seen, they decided to investigate the matter further. They noticed, over time, that the light had shrunk to a single pin prick of brightness; a star, pulsing with light, luminous and fixed in the skies.
The star was, in fact, a shining group of angels, clustered in the far flung reaches of the galaxy but this was something the wisemen were not privy to.
Pulling out charts and astronomical maps the wisemen attempted to identify the star. They tried to find some explanation for its existence within the branches of science they had long studied but they found none. Intrigued they began to dig deeper, pulling out scrolls of ancient records and consulting priests and philosophers of various religious and spiritual persuasions in their pursuit of a plausible explanation.
Finally they stumbled upon the ancient prophecy of Balaam, the greedy magician of the east, who while professing to worship God, set out to curse His people on behalf of the King of Moab. Baalam’s prophecy is detailed in Numbers 24:17 and reads “a Star shall come out of Jacob’ a Scepter shall rise out of Israel”
Reading this the wise men began to wonder if they had stumbled on an answer to their questions. Could the star that they could see, pulsing brightly in the sky be a messenger, heralding the arrival of a divinely appointed king? Could they have stumbled on the fulfillment of a Divine prophecy?
Determined to find out, they decided to search for this new ruler. Much like Abraham when he set out for the land of Canaan, not really knowing where he went but willing to follow God’s leading by faith, the wise men loaded up their camels and set off on an adventure.
In keeping with eastern custom, they decided to take gifts with them, to offer the new king. They took the best of what they had available; the rich spices of myrrh and frankincense, which were costly and highly sought after commodities and gold, which, in any country, at any time is a valuable gift.
The wise men decided that they would follow the mysterious star that was at the root of their pursuit and because of this they were compelled to travel by night when it was visible. This meant long hours on the backs of animals, traipsing through frigid desert landscapes, on the lookout for wild animals or marauding bands. It also meant sleeping throughout the day in the blistering heat. It was not the most ideal arrangement but it spoke to the determination of these men to pursue this mystery to its end.
The star led them into the land of Israel, right to the very heartbeat of the nation; Jerusalem. As they were making their way down the Mount of Olives, with the temple in view, the star paused over the white marble edifice, shimmered for a fragile moment and then faded from sight.
The wise men began to make inquiries in Jerusalem as soon as was practical. Matthew 2:1-2 describes it in these words “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying “where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east and are come to worship him”
Their innocent inquiries served to stir up a hornet's nest of speculation. The excitement they were causing soon reached the ears of Herod, who was King of Judea and ruled under the authority of the Roman Caesars. He, like most rulers of his time, was power-hungry, unscrupulous, and bloodthirsty. But perhaps, the most telling characteristic he possessed was inexhaustible paranoia. He was always on the lookout for usurpers who were fixing to steal his throne and cast him down.
Herod seemed to think that the inquiries of the wise men had, somewhat unwittingly, uncovered a treasonous plot and he, determined to gain the upper hand. Feigning kindness and an interest in what the wise men had to say, Herod invited them to his palace where he questioned them extensively about their errand.
After hearing their story Herod immediately began to suspect a plot by the priests and spiritual rulers of the Jewish nation to usurp him and place a pretender on his throne. Concealing his rage and suspicion under a veneer of civility he called the chief priests and scribes of the nation to his palace and asked them about the birthplace of the Messiah.
For their part, the Jewish priests were chafing at the implied insult. To them, Herod was nothing more than a usurper himself. A man who had stolen a throne that rightfully belonged to the Jewish people. An angry tyrant who was lording his authority over them when he had no right to do so. The fact that he summoned them to learn about the Messiah irritated them and bruised their already battered pride.
Unable to refuse his request, they did the next best thing and took their time fishing out an answer for him. Their nonchalance only served to incense Herod further. Looking on, the wise men would no doubt have felt the tension in the room as thick and palpable as a heatwave in the desert.
Finally, and somewhat reluctantly the priests showed Herod and the wise men the scriptures about the place of the Messiah’s birth. Matthew records the story in his gospel with the words “So they said to him, ‘in Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet “but you Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel” (Matthew 2:506)
With this information in hand, Herod turned to the wise men and said “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also”
Agreeing to the king’s request the wise men left Jerusalem and as dusk was falling, saw again the star they had been following all along. Keeping it in view they made their way to Bethlehem, found Jesus with his parents, laid their gifts at his feet, and worshiped him.
The irony of the entire episode is that men from outside the Jewish nation were used by God to alertHis people, the very people who had every single prophecy about the Messiah at their disposal, that their long looked for Deliverer had arrived.
The irony was not really lost on the spiritual rulers of the day and perhaps because of it, they allowed bitterness and jealousy to fester, preventing them from making the same journey the wise men so eagerly made. It galled them to even entertain the idea that gentiles should make them aware of the arrival of the Messiah.
Having access to the Word of God, even reading it, doesn’t really guarantee a genuine life altering encounter with Jesus. What made the difference for the shepherd and the wise men, was a willingness to act upon what they had learned. This same principle applies to each of us; it is only to the extent that we are willing to step out in obedience to God’s word that we will have a genuine experience with him.
Once the wise men had worshiped Jesus, they decided to return home by way of Jerusalem, stopping by Herod’s palace on the way to let him know that they had found the King of the Jews and giving him directions to find the Child. Instead they were warned by an angel in a dream to return home via a different route.
When Herod realized that the wise men had left without a word to him, he was incensed. Convinced that he was being played for a fool, he immediately dispatched soldiers throughout Judea with the command to slaughter every baby boy under the age of 2. It is one of the bloodiest and most senseless massacres of innocent children by a ruling monarch in history and all in an attempt to secure a minor throne.
The human capacity for cruelty and violence can be appalling. It is a reminder of the truth behind Paul’s words in Romans 3:23 “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Herod’s actions plumb the very depths of the blood lust and tyranny that the human heart, given over to the darkness of sin, is capable of. In a lot of ways, Herod’s actions are both a warning and a wake-up call, prompting us to see our need for a savior to lift us out of the tyranny of sin.
Before Herod reached them, Joseph and Mary were warned in a dream by an angel of the storm approaching them. Gathering up their meager belongings and the gifts the wise men had recently given them, they fled to Egypt.
The story of the wise men is a story of a group of educated, affluent, and wealthy men, living in a society that didn’t know or recognize the God of the Bible, finding their way to not only encounter Him but also voluntarily worship Him.
It is a story for our modern age; an age of postmodernist pluralism that largely refuses to acknowledge the existence of God. It is a story that teaches us about God’s ability to reach those who seem unreachable in the most marvelous and original ways. It is a story that reminds us that no one is beyond the reach of God’s power to save.