'When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy' Matthew 2:10.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as Micah the prophet promised seven hundred years before He was born. Bethlehem, the city of David, is six miles south of Jerusalem on a limestone ridge, 2500 feet above sea level. The name in Hebrew means house of bread and it was in a fertile area which grew crops very well. Bethlehem had a long Biblical history, serving as the place where Jacob buried Rachel, where Ruth had lived with her husband Boaz, looking across the Jordan valley to her home in Moab. It is the water from the well in Bethlehem that David longed for and which his mighty men procured for him while he was on the run from Saul. Indeed it was the city of David, Bethlehem, where knowing Jews expected Messiah to be born. The houses in Bethlehem, high on the limestone ridge, had dug out caves below them, which served as stables for their animals. This, no doubt, was the kind of place where Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary.
Sometime after Jesusí birth Matthew tells us that Magi from the east came to pay homage to Messiah. Scholars are not sure of the origin of the word Magi, but they appeared to be priests, religious, scholarly, holy men from the Medo-Persian Empire in Iran. They believed that reading the stars of heaven could foretell or explain important acts in history. Later the word Magi would refer to fortune tellers and charlatans, like Simon Magus in Acts 8:9, 11, but at the time of Jesusí birth they were a well-respected, well-educated people. What star were the Magi following? Matthew does not tell us, nor do we know how many Magi travelled together, though we tend to think the number was three because they brought three gifts to Jesus. We do know, however, that Halleyís Comet was brilliantly visible at the time, and very possibly could have been what they saw.
Not only were the Magi highly interested in the bright star and what it may mean, but many others in the Roman Empire at the time were convinced that something monumental was soon to occur. They were expecting a king to be born in the east, to come from Judea to rule the world. Suetonius in his Life of Vespasian reported this. Tacitus also believed that Judea would grow strong and that a universal ruler would come from there. Josephus says the same thing in Wars of the Jews, that the Jews at the time of Jesusí birth were expecting a ruler to govern the whole world. And about the time Jesus was born the people of Rome hailed Augustus as the Saviour of the world. My point here is that there was a genuine eagerness in Judea and the rest of the Roman Empire. Many were looking for something monumental to happen.
So when Herod the Great heard of a king being born he was deeply concerned. He called his High Priests (those of aristocratic blood) and his biblical scholars, the scribes, to discern the place where the rival king was to be born. Herod, half Jew and half Edomite, had been appointed Governor by the Roman Emperor in 47 B.C. due to his allegiance to the Empire, and he gained the title King in 40 B.C., ruling until his death in 4 B.C. In many ways Herod was indeed great. He was a master builder, rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, and he could be magnanimous, melting down his own gold plate at one point, to buy food for the poor in a time of famine. On more than one occasion he reduced taxes to relieve the burden on the poor. But he was a jealous, vindictive, and suspicious man. He liquidated any rival, including his own wife Mariamne, her mother Alexandra, and three of his sons - Antipater, Alexander, and Aristobulus. Augustus had said that Herodís pigs were safer than his own children. Knowing that he was hated and despised, just prior to his death he had some of the finest citizens of Jerusalem rounded up, and directed that they be executed the day he died, thus assuring that there would be weeping on the day of his death.
So, with this in mind it is not hard to understand why Herod was so intent on killing Messiah, a rival to his kingdom. Which brings me to this - there are three responses possible to the birth of Jesus. First, you can hate Jesus, wanting to kill his memory, like Herod sought to do. People today still try to kill Jesus by impugning his deity, saying that the gospel accounts are not trustworthy, pushing the Gnostic gospel notion that he was married to Mary Magdalene and bore a child through her which was the beginning of French aristocracy. There are those of the Jesus Summit who reduce the gospels to superstition, claiming that very little of them is accurate. People typically 'kill' Jesus because they donít like what he demands of them, namely total submission and devotion. They donít want Jesus challenging their lifestyles. One must humble himself before Jesus as Lord and Master before he can know or claim him as friend.
Second, some are indifferent to him, like the Chief Priests and scribes who were so busy with their religious ritual, so given to prejudice, that they could not see him for who he was. Are you like that, so busy with your work, even your religious life, paying lip service to Jesus by giving him one hour on Sundays, two or three times per month, without truly worshipping him, bowing down to him, giving your life to him?
Or third, some truly worship him, like the Magi, who brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We suspect that the gold represents Christ as King. People in that day would not approach a king without a gift, and the Magi rightly understand Christís kingship by presenting him with such a gift. We suspect the frankincense represents his office as priest. Frankincense is a sweet smelling perfume used at that time by the priests in temple sacrifice. The priests were to bridge the gap between God and man with the sacrifices of goats and bulls. Incidentally, the Latin word for priest is pontifex, which literally means bridge builder. And we suspect that myrrh represents Christís death. Myrrh was used as an embalming agent in those days, and the Magi are proclaiming that Messiah came to die.
So, what will you do with the birth of Jesus? Will you allow the worldís fixation on money and 'Happy Holidays' to rob you of the incomparable condescension of our King and Saviour, or will you bow down before him as the Magi did, bringing your sacrifice of praise and devotion to the one who has loved you with an everlasting love, the one who has ripped open heaven and come to earth for his people, the one whom we call King, the one to whom every knee in heaven and earth will one day bow, the one whom all will confess to be Lord?
Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.