After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”
When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the [Messiah] was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:
You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs,
who will shepherd my people Israel.”
Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.
Today, we’re celebrating the Epiphany (which is actually tomorrow), the last day of Christmas. Epiphany means, “a manifestation or appearance, especially of a deity.” Specifically for us, it’s “the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” Our passage tells us a lot more than that, though. First, let’s look at King Herod.
Herod the Great (73 BCE - 4 BCE) was of Edomite descent (his father was Antipater) and the Roman appointed king of Judea and reigned for 32 years. So, you can imagine how unsettling it would be when a group of foreigners show up asking about the “newborn king of the Jews.” I mean, Herod was the reigning King of the Jews!
Let that sink in.
Herod was the King of the Jews. And here’s this group asking about his successor! You can see why the text states Herod and “everyone in Jerusalem” was “troubled.” The Greek word for “troubled” here is ταράσσω (tarassó) and it means “properly, put in motion (to agitate back-and-forth, shake to-and-fro); (figuratively) to set in motion what needs to remain still (at ease); to ‘trouble’ (‘agitate’), causing inner perplexity (emotional agitation) from getting too stirred up inside (‘upset’).” In other words, Herod was visibly shaken by the magi’s question. And that, in turn, caused everyone else to be “troubled.”
So, to get some information on this supposed “king of the Jews,” Herod gets all of the experts together and they tell him that, yes, the magi are correct. But there’s something else that might have come up. I’m fairly certain that while doing the research into Herod’s question, the experts ran across this passage about a “star” and the Messiah (Numbers 24.17-19; NLT):
I see him, but not here and now.
I perceive him, but far in the distant future.
A star will rise from Jacob;
a scepter will emerge from Israel.
It will crush the foreheads of Moab’s people,
cracking the skulls of the people of Sheth.
Edom will be taken over,
and Seir, its enemy, will be conquered,
while Israel marches on in triumph.
A ruler will rise in Jacob
who will destroy the survivors of Ir.
Here we see that the “star” is associated with the “ruler” that arises in Israel (Jacob). But notice verse 18, “Edom will be taken over…” That is, this “ruler,” the Messiah, that comes out of Israel will take over Edom. And, as we noted above, Herod is an Edomite! Needlesstosay, I don’t think Herod was very comforted by what the experts were telling him! And as we know later on, he sets up a plan to rid the world of his successor to ensure that he continues to be the “king of the Jews.”
Now let’s focus on the magi. As we noted above, the magi are important because they’re not Jews. They’re Gentiles. The magi were Persian priests in the Zoroastrian tradition. They focused on astrology and magic. What I find most interesting about this band of priests is the way Yahweh interacted with them. According to the story, they saw a “star” and somehow figured out that this was to lead them to the Messiah, the “King of the Jews.” G_d chose to show them a star. G_d chose to speak to them in ways that they understood.
This is quite significant. G_d didn’t use the “traditional” Israelite means to convey the message about the Messiah. G_d used the Zoroastrian tradition. As we celebrate the Epiphany, may we remember that G_d speaks to all of us differently. For some of us, it’s through the various Christian traditions. For others, it’s through Buddhism. For others still, it’s through Judaism. Or Hindu. Or Nature. Whatever it is, G_d has become manifested in the world. The key way that G_d is manifested in the world is through people.
All of us.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC