daily biblical sermons


Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, Th.D.
Homily of Sunday, the Epiphany of the Lord, January 05, 2020
Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 71, Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6, Matthew 2:1-12


 

Biblical quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted

 

 

 

“When they [the Magi] had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:9-11).

 

 

Who were these Magi? Where did they come from? What was the star that they saw that indicated to them that the King of the Jews had been born, and why did these foreigners come to worship the King of the Jews? How was it that this star indicated to them that a king was born whom they wanted to see, worship, and give royal gifts to? Do we know anything else about Magi, for these wise men are called Magi (magoi) in the Greek text.

 

 

The Magi are known in history. They were originally wise men of Persia who studied the stars and advised their kings, but eventually they also spread to Babylon and throughout the East. In fact, a well-publicized event occurred in 66 AD, which is somewhat similar to St. Matthew’s account, for a caravan of Magi, led by King Tiridates of Armenia and three Parthian princes, whom the Roman historian Pliny calls Magi (Hist. Nat. 30.6.16-17) came on pilgrimage to Rome to visit the Emperor Nero, according to Dio Cassius 63. 1-7 and Suetonius, Nero 13 (RT France, The Gospel of Matthew (The New International Commentary on the New Testament; William B Eerdmans, 2007), page 64 and note 21). This historical note may be useful to us who have never seen Magi, and most people have never even heard of Magi except in chapter two of St. Matthew’s gospel, to see that Matthew is speaking of something that was well known at that time, namely Magi.

 

 

Also astronomers, fascinated by the star of Bethlehem that led the Magi, tell us that in 7 BC (the time that most scholars believe that Jesus born, since he was obviously born before the death of Herod, who died in 4 BC) there was a planetary conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces. Ancient astrologers might have interpreted this as meaning that a king has been born (Jupiter, the largest planet, symbolized a king for ancient astrologers) in the land of the Jews (Saturn symbolized the land of the West, and the land of the Jews was the furthest land of the West before the Mediterranean Sea) who would be the King of the final days (the constellation Pisces symbolized the last days) (RT France, Matthew, page 68). So the Magi could have come to the conclusion that “there will appear in Palestine in this year the ruler of the last days” (E Stauffer, Jesus, page 36-38 in Ibid., note 41 page 68).

 

 

So Magi existed at the time of Jesus’ birth and traveled to honor kings and emperors; and an astral phenomenon (a “star”) appeared in the year of Jesus’ birth, which Magi might have interpreted as meaning that the King of the Jews who would be the King of the last days had just been born.

 

 

The account of the Magi is a marvelous description of noble pagan astrological scholars who saw a star that indicated to them that the king of the Jews had just been born and that he would be the King of the final days. They therefore set out on a long journey to find and worship him and present to him royal gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

 

 

Did they realize that this king that they were seeking was also the Messiah, the Savior of the world? We know that since the Babylonian captivity in the seventh century BC Jews had been dispersed throughout the Near East in Babylonia and other countries. Magi were wise men in Persia, Babylon, and Arabia, and we can assume that they knew something about Jewish beliefs and even about the Jewish Scriptures. They should have known that the Jews expected a Messiah who would be a son of David and would inherit his kingdom, which would be a kingdom of peace that would have no end and would be established with justice and righteousness forever, as Isaiah prophesied, “Of the increase of his [the Messiah’s] government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore” (Isaiah 9:7).

 

 

So having seen his star in the East, they set out for the land of the Jews and for their royal city, Jerusalem, hoping to get further information when they arrived as to the whereabouts of this King of the final days, the Messiah and Savior. St. Matthew does not say that the star led them from the East to Jerusalem, which they would have no need of, since there were clearly marked roads, and everyone knew how to get from wherever they were in the East to Jerusalem. When they got there, they started asking, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2).

 

 

When King Herod heard this, he was not at all happy, for he was a very unpopular king, and feared that the Messiah had been born and would take his place, so he planned to kill him at his birth to preserve his throne. But Herod didn’t know where the Messiah was supposed to be born, so we called in the chief priests and scribes of the people and “inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet’” (Matthew 2:4b-5). Then Herod sent for the wise men and told them that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, and told them to return once they had found him to tell him where he was so that he too could go and worship him, intending to kill him.

 

 

But Herod did not announce to the people that their Messiah had finally been born, nor did he send an escort to accompany the Magi to Bethlehem, nor did he go himself personally to see the Messiah, nor did he send undercover agents to watch the Magi and kill the Messiah when the Magi found him. Why didn’t he do these things? If he sent a military escort with them, it might have aroused their suspicions and aborted the whole thing. If he had the Messiah killed on the spot when the Magi found him, then a bad report about Herod would be taken to their home countries and spread about. Perhaps he did not want that either. So off they go alone coming from a far country to find and adore the Jewish Messiah, the Savior of the world.

 

 

Perhaps they were discouraged that no one in Jerusalem knew anything about the birth of the newborn King and that no one accompanied them to see him in Bethlehem. But then suddenly the star which they originally saw in the East appeared, apparently for the first time since they originally saw it in their home country, not that they would need a star to guide them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, which is only a 7 mile journey on a clearly marked road, but there were many homes in Bethlehem, and they would need a guide to point out which house the King of the Jews was in. Presumably he was no longer in a stable, and so they would need someone to point out the house for them.

 

 

And that guide is this miraculous star. “Lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:9-10).

 

 

Here we see that this was no ordinary star, for stars do not move and standstill and point out individual houses in a village, nor do they send down a beam of light that strikes just one house. Obviously a special miraculous heavenly light, which looked like a star, appeared to them, sent by God to point out the house, strengthen their faith, and encourage them.

 

 

First of all, they probably needed encouragement because of the lack of interest among the Jews themselves in seeing and visiting their own Messiah. Also when they find the Messiah, the King of the Jews, they might be scandalized by not seeing him dressed in gold with royal attendants and wealthy parents in a magnificent palace, as kings are at their birth, and they might doubt that this really is the King of the Jews that they were seeking (Joseph Benson, 1749-1821).

 

 

But this miraculous star, which caused them such great joy – “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10) – seems to have been the miracle that God gave the Magi to encourage them and strengthen their faith so that they could accept and worship this poor child born in such a mean way to such poor parents in a simple cottage (Ibid.). And so, “going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11). This is how rulers were honored in the East, by a full body prostration on the floor before him, and this is how they honored the newborn King of the Jews, the Messiah, Christ the Lord, the Savior of the world.

 

 

The shepherds worshiped Christ because an angel of the Lord announced to them that a Savior, who is Christ the Lord, had been born that day in the city of David (Bethlehem) and that they will find him dressed in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Then the angels sang in heaven, giving glory to God in the highest and wishing peace on earth to men of goodwill. With this miraculous sign, the shepherds believed and worshiped him. As for the Magi, God gave them a miraculous star, and they worshiped the newborn King in their customary way by prostrating themselves before him and giving him royal gifts.

 

 

During his life Jesus performed a great many miracles so that anyone of good will would have sufficient reason to put his faith in him. And our faith is based on the eyewitness testimony of the early Christians who saw these miracles – his resurrection being the greatest of them all. We too need to follow the Magi in falling down before Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord, and adore him.

 

 

 

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