Chapter 4.1 Star of Bethleham
Adoration of the Christ Child, original oil painting on canvas by L. Lovett, size 36 x 24 inches, July 1995
Adoration of the Christ Child, original oil painting on canvas by L. Lovett, size 36 x 24 inches, July 1995
(CLICK on the image above for a LARGER version)

About the time Jesus was born, wise men from Eastern lands saw the rising of a bright star in the sky. The Greek term magi refers to Eastern (especially Chaldee) priest sages whose extensive research seems to have deep knowledge, although tinged with superstition.

Medes and Persians were dispersed over various parts of the East, and in those lands was a large Jewish diaspora through which they would gain knowledge of the great hope of Israel. The oldest opinion traces the magi to Arabia. Combining knowledge of astrology with Jewish prophecy, Eastern magi could connect the appearance of “the star” at that particular time with Jewish expectancy and the birth of the Jewish Messiah-King.

After extensive study, the wise men Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar embarked on a long journey through the desert of Arabia and mountains of Moab on their camels, during which they endured hunger, thirst, heat, cold, and ceaseless danger from wild beasts and desert robbers.

At last they arrived in Jerusalem. As they rode through the streets, these travel stained and tired, yet majestic and awe-inspiring men made an instant startling impression on the crowds. The magi came to the Jewish capital to obtain authentic information where Messiah might be found so they could pay homage to him.

In their simplicity of heart, the stargazers went to Herod’s palace, the headquarters of the nation. One of Herod’s officials greeted them at the gate and inquired why they had come. The wise men asked their burning question, “Where is the newborn King of the Jews? We have observed the rising of his star, and have come from far away to worship him.”

The official went in to Herod and repeated their question. “What reply should I give them?”

The king was deeply disturbed by it, but did not let his official know. He spoke calmly, “Tell them I will call them back when I am ready to answer.”

Herod the Great had been appointed first as governor of Galilee, then shortly came into virtual control of Judea, and eventually was designated by Emperor Augustus as “King of the Jews.” He had killed thousands in order to erase all who might have a claim to the throne. With this record of treachery and murder behind him, he would have no hesitation in putting to any newborn king death—if he could locate him. Unscrupulously cruel as Herod was, even the slightest suspicion of danger to his rule must have struck terror to his heart and to the people of Jerusalem as well, for they knew what the consequences were.

The king took immediate measures, characterized by his usual cunning. He summoned the high priest and others among the priestly hierarchy who worked closely with him in Jerusalem. Belonging to the party known popularly as the Sadducees, the chief priests had perhaps known more prosperity and favor during the reign of Herod than in any previous period since the kingdom of Solomon, and were heavily obligated to him.

Without committing himself as to whether the Messiah was already born or only expected, he asked, “Where did the prophets say the Messiah would be born?” Their reply would show him where Jewish expectancy looked for the appearance of his rival, and thus enable him to watch that place, and at the same time bring to light the feelings of the leaders of Israel.

After a brief consultation they all agreed, “In Bethlehem, for this is what the prophets wrote:

‘O Bethlehem of Judah,
you are not just a lowly village in Judah,
for a ruler will come from you
who will be the shepherd for my people Israel,
whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.’”

Even Herod understood that this prophecy referred to no ordinary king. It must mean that the ruler had been eternal with God from the beginning and would one day come out of Bethlehem. That description fitted only the Messiah. Now he must take immediate steps to destroy this newborn child who threatened everything for which he had worked.

After sending the priests and scribes away, he plotted a way to get the information he wanted, and sent a private message to the wise men telling them to come see him.

Tall, richly dressed, and assured in manner, the men were far different from the rascally soothsayers of Arabia and the people east of the Jordan who thronged to Jerusalem to prey upon travelers. They entered an external area in the palace courtyard and bowed courteously before Herod, showing the homage due him as king of Israel.

“What question would you ask me?” Herod inquired.

Balthazar, the tallest and eldest of the ambassadors answered for the group. “We would like to know where the King of the Jews was born.”

“I am King of the Jews.”

Melchior shrugged, “It is written, ‘No man shall live forever.’”

“My sons shall rule in my stead,” Herod insisted. The question might well have been asked whether Herod would have any sons when the time came for the scepter of kingship to pass on to another.

Balthazar did not belabor the point. “We have seen his rising star,” he said quietly, “and have come to worship him. Would you kindly tell us where he is?”

Herod shuddered and his body seemed to shrivel beneath the mantle of Tyrian purple about his shoulders. The seers of the east knew the stars like the streets of their own cities. If a new one had appeared from the land of Yemen, whose kings also professed the Jewish faith, it could only mean that the birth of the long awaited Messiah they had announced was indeed no ordinary event, but a sign of the coming of the Anointed One.

“What of this star?” Herod demanded.

“We are not of one opinion concerning its nature, noble king,” Gaspar admitted. “Some of us believe several bright stars are lying close together at this particular time. Others think it is a new star of unusual brightness, or possibly a comet.”

“When did you first see it?” This would enable him to judge how far back he would have to make his own inquiries, since the birth of the pretender might be made to synchronize with the earliest appearance of the phenomenon.

“More than a year ago and we calculate that the child is in this area.”

“Our scriptures say the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem. Carefully search for the child there. When you find him, report back to me so that I may go myself and worship him also!” What pretense on Herod’s part. He learned the time the star appeared so that he would know the age of the child in case the wise men didn’t return. Anyone who was born in Bethlehem between the earliest appearance of this star and the time of the arrival of the magi was not safe.

The wise men left Jerusalem at once. Before they were outside the city, the star shone bright and clear before them. Nor did it falter in its brilliance all the way to Bethlehem and the home of Joseph the carpenter, shining low over the roof so there was no doubt about where the child lay.

Adoration of the Christ Child

It was already dark when they arrived. The men left their servants with the camels in the street below, and climbed the stone steps with the starlight and lantern light glinting upon their swords and bright raiment, and the rich gifts carried so carefully. They were not taken aback at finding their king in this poor little house; they did not care where they found him, if only they could come to him at last. They rejoiced with exceeding great joy as they knocked at the humble door and stood waiting with reverently bowed heads.

Joseph heard the jingle of the camels’ bells and the sound of strange voices in the lane, and opened to them at once. By this time Joseph was quite accustomed to all sorts of men and women and children coming to see the child; yet he must have been astonished to see those strange and magnificent foreigners standing there like figures out of a dream, looking at him so humbly and eagerly.

Mary had put Jesus to bed some hours ago. Although he was hers, she realized by now that he belonged to everyone else too, and must share him gladly and graciously. As Joseph bowed at the door, she smiled at the three men, and lifting her sleeping son from his cradle sat with him on her lap to show him to them. All his life our Lord was always at the mercy of everyone who wanted him, and scarcely had a minute’s peace, yet he never lost patience. So he was patient now and did not cry when the voices and bright lights woke him up.

As first representatives of the Gentile world, the magi fell down and worshiped him, adoring him in the Eastern fashion with their foreheads touching the ground. Then they lifted themselves up to look at him, and knew a joy greater than anything they had ever dreamed. To see their king and worship him was worth all that they had suffered, worth the long journey, the weariness, hunger, and thirst, the danger, and the pain. They poured themselves out in adoration before Jesus; and laid at his feet all that they had and were.

Balthazar laid out his gift saying, “This gold symbolizes the giving of our wealth—our money, our talents, our health, and our strength.”

Melchior laid out his gift, “Frankincense is our prayer—our souls adoring God, our minds thinking about him, our hearts loving him, our wills resolved to serve him only.

Gaspar did the same, “I give you Myrrh, this embalming spice represents our pain—our grief and disappointments, the aches and the illnesses of our bodies, and our death.”

For the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh symbolize the utmost that a person can give to God—and they knelt there for us all.

The magi had found the Messiah at last. Leaving the splendid gifts there, they looked their last on the child; yet not sadly, for their quest was accomplished. Then they kissed a fold of Mary’s dress, bowed to Joseph, and went away. But they did not go back to Herod, for in their sleep that night God told them in a dream to go back to their country another way, and not through Jerusalem. Their journey was easy this time, for they traveled light. They had given everything to the Lord.

When Was Jesus Born?

According to Matthew, he was born during the reign of Herod the Great. Since Herod died in 4 B.C., the date of the nativity and accompanying events must surely have been earlier. Most scholars choose between 5 and 7 B.C. The census scheduled for 8 B.C. was likely delayed a couple of years or more in Palestine.

It is very likely that the traditional date for Christmas is inaccurate. December 25 was the date of the Roman Empire’s most popular pagan feast, the Saturnalia, a time of wild holiday abandonment, good will, and gift giving. Christians seized upon this day to celebrate in holy festival of good will and the birth of their Lord. Sheep would not usually be pastured in the open field during winter. Since Luke mentions that the shepherds were “out in the field, keeping watch over the flocks by night,” it is most likely Jesus was born in the early spring about the time of the highly important Jewish Passover Feast (April). Since Christ died on a Passover, it seems prophetic that he would have been born near that time, even more symbolic of his role as the Sacrificial Lamb of God. It is providential that the date was concealed so that we do not overemphasize holy days and places. The date really doesn’t matter, only the fact that he came.

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