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2006-01-01_The Star of Bethlehem_Matthew 2.1-12

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The Star Of Bethlehem

Shaun LePage, January 1, 2006

I. Introduction

A.   The stage was set! Some children were presenting the Christmas play complete with costumes, props and lights. To show the radiance of the new­born Savior a light bulb was hidden in the manger. At just the right time, all the stage lights were to be turned off so that only the illumination from the manger could be seen. On cue, the Angel, Joseph, Mary, the shepherds and the sheep had positioned themselves next to the manger exactly as they had rehearsed. The time had finally come for the boy who controlled the lights to bring down the stage lights and bring up the manger light. But, alas he got confused—he hit the wrong switches and all the lights went out! It was a tense moment, broken only when one of the shepherds said in a loud stage whisper, “Hey, You switched off Jesus!”

B.    Now that we’ve passed through another Christmas season—along with Frosty the Snowman, candy canes, and Santa Claus; and considering the fact that it may soon be a misdemeanor to wish someone a “Merry Christmas”—no doubt some of us feel that somewhere, somehow, somebody switched off Jesus.

C.   But, as unfortunate as it is that Christmas has been commercialized and secularized let there be no doubt: Jesus Christ is the Star of Christmas; the Star of Bethlehem.

D.   In fact, it is interesting to me that Jesus continues to be the cover story of the best-selling magazines of our time. True, they attack Him and try to minimize Him, but every once in a while, the truth comes out.

1.     In 1999, Newsweek magazine acknowledged that Jesus Christ was the most influential Person in the history of Western civilization. Listen to this quote from that article: “For Christians, Jesus is the hinge on which the door of history swings, the point at which eternity intersects with time, the Savior who redeems time by drawing all things to himself. As the second millennium draws to a close, nearly a third of the world’s population claims to be his followers…But by any secular standard Jesus is also the dominant figure of Western culture. What we now think of as Western ideas, inventions, and values finds its source or inspiration in the religion that worships God in his name. Art and science, the self and society, politics and economics, marriage and the family, right and wrong, body and soul—all have been touched and often radically transformed by Christian influence.” (Newsweek, March 29, 1999, p.54)

2.     Jesus Christ cannot and will not be “switched off”!

E.    CPS: Jesus Christ will be received; He will be honored; He will be worshiped!

F.    Matthew wrote his version of the story of Jesus to answer the question, “Who is this Jesus?” In Matthew’s day and in our time, people have heard the name of Jesus, but they are often confused and misinformed about His true identity. It is our task to introduce some to Jesus and reintroduce Him to others.

G.   The stage was set for the true Star of Bethlehem in Matthew chapter 1. For the believing Jew, and those familiar with the Old Testament, this was incredibly exciting! Matthew uses some very powerful words to describe Jesus:

1.     “Christ”—The Greek translation of “Messiah”; “Anointed One”

2.     “Son of David”—Jesus fulfills the Davidic covenant

3.     “Son of Abraham”—Jesus fulfills the Abrahamic covenant

4.     “Judah”—Messiah was to come from the tribe of Judah

5.     “Immanuel” —“God with us”; Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14

H.   The stage was set! Then, in chapter 2, Matthew shares the strange and beautiful story of the visitors from the East—the Magi. What we discover is that from the very beginning, there were those who tried to “switch off Jesus”. But there were also those who recognized Jesus for Who He really is—and they responded correctly.

II.   Matthew 2:1-2 (Read entire story then come back to verse by verse)

A.   1-2 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 2   “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”

1.     “Bethlehem of Judea

a)    All Jews knew that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

b)    Matthew knew that one of the charges leveled against Jesus was that He was from Nazareth. He could not be the Messiah, some must have been saying, because He was not from Bethlehem. Matthew explains—in this chapter—how Jesus was born in Bethlehem and then moved to Nazareth.

2.     “Herod

a)    This man was called “Herod the Great” because he was the first in a long line of “Herods”. “Herod” became a title after this one died—much like “Caesar” became the title for the Roman Emperor.

b)    “Herod” just one of many in a long line of history’s brutal and cruel dictators. Herod, Hitler, Hussein—they’ve come and done their damage and gone.

c)    He was not a true Jew. He was an Idumean (Edomite) who convinced the Roman emperor to declare him “king of the Jews.” He was feared and hated by the Jews.

3.     “Magi

a)    “Magi” is a transliteration of the Greek word used here (magoi or magos). It is a plural and masculine word. The King James Version translates—rather than transliterates—the word calling them “wise men.”

b)    It is almost frustrating to read this story, because Matthew gives us very little information about these men.

c)    Scholar Marvin Vincent has written: “Many absurd traditions and guesses respecting these visitors to our Lord’s cradle have found their way into popular belief and into Christian art. They were said to be kings, and three in number; they were said to be representatives of the three families of Shem, Ham and Japhet, and therefore one of them is pictured as an Ethiopian; their names are given as Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior, and their three skulls—said to have been discovered in the twelfth century by Bishop Reginald of Cologne—are exhibited in a priceless casket in the great cathedral of that city.”

d)    No one knows how far they traveled. It must have been some distance. If they came from Persia they would have traveled anywhere from 500 to 1500 miles. Two hints in Matthew’s story indicate that they might have arrived several months or even a couple years after Jesus’ birth.

(1) They found Mary and Jesus in a “house,” not in the place where Mary had laid Jesus in a manger.

(2) Herod ordered the slaughter of all boys two years old and younger. The Magi—not knowing Herod’s intent—had told Herod when they first saw the star, and based on this information Herod chose the age of two years and younger.

(3) This is not definitive, though. Joseph and Mary may have found a “house” the next day and Herod was so cruel he may have chosen “two years” randomly just to make sure he got the right boy.

e)    How did they know this “star” they saw in the east announced the birth of the Messiah? This is a question that has been pondered and studied and debated for quite some time.

(1) It is possible these “wise men” were descendents of exiled Jews. The prophet Daniel was promoted to a position of great influence during the Exile. He was called “Chief of the magicians, conjurers, Chaldeans and diviners” (Daniel 5:11). Many believe these titles were synonymous with Magi. Perhaps these Magi were Jews who studied and believed the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah.

(2) They were probably Gentiles, though, who had been taught or influenced by exiled Jews—like Daniel—to read and study the Old Testament prophecies.

(3) What prophecies might have led them to believe this “star” announced the birth of the Messiah? Perhaps passages like these—along with the star—led them to the conclusion that the Messiah had been born:

(a)  Numbers 24:17: “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel…”

(b) Is 60:1-6: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, And the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. 2 For behold, darkness will cover the earth And deep darkness the peoples; But the LORD will rise upon you And His glory will appear upon you. 3 Nations will come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising. 4 Lift up your eyes round about and see; They all gather together, they come to you. Your sons will come from afar, And your daughters will be carried in the arms. 5 “Then you will see and be radiant, And your heart will thrill and rejoice; Because the abundance of the sea will be turned to you, The wealth of the nations will come to you. 6 A multitude of camels will cover you, The young camels of Midian and Ephah; All those from Sheba will come; They will bring gold and frankincense, And will bear good news of the praises of the LORD.”

(c)  ©Isaiah 9:2: “The people who walk in darkness Will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them.”

(d) Psalm 72:10-15: “Let the kings of Tarshish and of the islands bring presents; The kings of Sheba and Seba offer gifts. 11 And let all kings bow down before him, All nations serve him. 12 For he will deliver the needy when he cries for help, The afflicted also, and him who has no helper. 13 He will have compassion on the poor and needy, And the lives of the needy he will save. 14 He will rescue their life from oppression and violence, And their blood will be precious in his sight;
15 So may he live, and may the gold of Sheba be given to him; And let them pray for him continually; Let them bless him all day long
.”

(4)  I believe these passages—and others like them—figured into the equation, but my personal belief is that these men received a direct revelation from God. Along with the “star” they were given something like the dream they had later (v.12) that sent them on this long journey. I believe this will make more sense after we identify the nature of the “star,” which we’ll do in a moment.

B.    3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

1.     Because Herod was not a true Jew, he had married the sister of the Jewish high priest to make himself more acceptable to the Jews. But then, he eventually killed her and her brother—Aristobulus the high priest—because he felt threatened by them. He also killed three of his own sons—is there any surprise he could so cruelly order the murder of all the infant sons of Bethlehem? When he was on his deathbed, he ordered the arrest of the most distinguished citizens of Jerusalem and ordered that they be executed at the exact moment of his own death. Why? He knew no one would mourn his death, but the slaughter of all those he had arrested would guarantee there would be great mourning in Jerusalem on the day he died. Fortunately, his orders were not followed.

2.     It was to this man that the Magi came, announcing the birth of “the King of the Jews.” The old saying, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” comes to mind. If Herod was disturbed, everybody got disturbed. He was capable of doing anything to anyone. He confirmed their fears later, of course.

C.   4-6 Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
5   They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: 6 ‘AND YOU, BETHLEHEM, LAND OF JUDAH, ARE BY NO MEANS LEAST AMONG THE LEADERS OF JUDAH; FOR OUT OF YOU SHALL COME FORTH A RULER WHO WILL SHEPHERD MY PEOPLE ISRAEL.’”

1.     Again, every Jew—certainly the priests and scribes—knew that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem.

2.     John reports that at one point Jesus was causing such a stir that the Pharisees attempted to arrest Him. Nicodemus—who was one of the Pharisees—tried to defend Jesus. Listen to John 7:50-52: “50Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, 51”Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?” 52They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”

3.     Matthew is once again quotes from the Old Testament to show that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies about Messiah. Here, he even has a direct quote from the scholars of the day to confirm that this prophecy was understood to refer to the Messiah.

D.   7-10 Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.” 9 After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.

1.     “Star

a)    What was this “star”? John MacArthur summarizes the speculations surrounding this star very well: “What was the nature of the star? There are some people who believe that it was a genuine star. Some say it was Jupiter, because Jupiter is called the king of the planets, or, in accordance with Kepler’s theory, that it was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the sign of the fish. Other say that it was just an erratic comet or a low-hanging luminous body. Still others go so far as to say it was the star of destiny in the heart of mankind, which is a lot of drivel if ever I heard it.”

b)    There are many different theories by those who attempt to find “natural” evidence of this star:

(1) Halley’s comet passed by earth in 11 B.C., but this was too early—several years before the birth of Christ.

(2) There was a conjunction of Jupiter (the “king” of the planets) Saturn and Mars in 2 and 3 b.c. that must have been spectacular. Many believe this is what the Magi saw.

c)    I do not think we should be dogmatic about this, because God could have done anything He wanted. He could have used Halley’s comet or a conjunction of stars to lead those Magi to Jesus. He could have rearranged all the visible celestial bodies in space to spell out the address and zip code of where Jesus was if He wanted.

d)    But my personal view is that the “star” was Supernatural—not natural.

(1) This “star” was seen several months before, but apparently went away. Halley’s comet or a conjunction would be visible for a long period of time and then gradually disappear or change.

(2) This “star” reappears and leads them to a specific village and a specific house. It’s hard to understand how a celestial body or bodies millions of miles from earth could do such a thing.

(3) I believe the answer lies in the context of Matthew’s Gospel—and in the greater context of the Bible.

(a)  I believe this “star” was the Shekinah glory of God—a physical representation of the presence of God.

(b) In the Book of Exodus (40:34-38) after the Tabernacle was complete, God gave the Israelites a physical representation of His presence: a cloud by day and a fire by night.

(c)  The Greek word Matthew used for “star” is aster (asthr) the word from which we get our English word “asteroid”. Aster is not a technical term for a self-luminous celestial body—such as our sun. It is a general term for “bright light in sky.” It is used to describe angels, churches and even Christ in the book of The Revelation.

(d) In 1:23 of Matthew, just before Matthew gives us the story of the star over Bethlehem, he told us that Jesus was “…Immanuel, which translated means, ‘God with us.’” This bright light was simply physical proof that in Jesus, God is truly “with us”.

(e)  Perhaps the Magi saw—from a distance—what the shepherds saw in Luke 2:9: “And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened.”

(f)  Just as the “fire by night” led the Israelites through the wilderness, I believe this bright light led the Magi to the King of the Jews.

(g) Notice their reaction in v.10: They were overjoyed. They “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy”—a very different reaction than Herod and all of Jerusalem.

E.    11-12 After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
12   And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.

1.     “Fell to the ground and worshiped Him

a)    Notice first of all that they worshiped “Him.” Not Mary, not the gifts—Jesus.

b)    The word used here is proskuneo—to prostrate oneself. Matthew’s Gospel begins and ends with this word.

(1) Here in chapter 2—the beginning of the story, the Magi bow down and worship Jesus.

(2) At the end of the story of Jesus on earth—in the final chapter of Matthew—we read:

(a)  v.9: “And behold, Jesus met them (Mary Magdalene and the other Mary) and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him.”

(b) vs. 16-17: “But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. 17  When they saw Him, they worshiped Him...”

(3) It is significant that Jesus received this worship. He did not try to stop it. He Himself had said in 4:10: “You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.”

2.     “Gifts

a)    The gifts were expensive gifts. Whether or not these Magi understood it or not, I believe these gifts symbolized the Kingship, the Deity and the Death of Jesus. Gold was a gift suitable for a King. Frankincense was considered by Gentiles and Jews to be a gift suitable for a god. Myrrh was used to bury dead people. John (19:39) reports that after Jesus’ death, His body was wrapped in a mixture of myrrh and aloes—about one hundred pounds of it.

III.Application: Matthew’s purpose is to answer the question, “Who is this Jesus?” and the Magi help answer that question. Also—in contrast to Herod and the Jews—the Magi serve as an example to us of how we should respond to Jesus—the Star of Bethlehem.

A.   1. Jesus is Messiah: Will you receive Him?

1.     What we have in this story are three basic reactions to God’s revelation: hatred, indifference, belief.

2.     The Jews weren’t watching—they weren’t really ready. They were indifferent to God’s revelation.

3.     John 1:11-12: “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. 12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name…”

4.     Will you receive Him?

5.     Write down another question next to #1: Will you watch for His return?

a)    Listen to 2 Peter 3:10-14.

(1) Illus: The story is told of a christening that was to be held many years ago by a very wealthy European family. Many guests were invited to the home for the occasion and came in the very latest fashionable garb. Their wraps and coats were carried to a bed­room and laid upon the beds. After the usual lot of conversation and commotion, they were ready for the christening ceremony and someone asked, “Where is the baby?” The nurse was sent upstairs to look and returned in alarmed distress. The baby was nowhere to be found. After several minutes’ search someone remembered that the child had last been seen lying on one of the beds, and after a frantic search the little child was found smothered under the wraps of the guests. The chief reason why they had come had been forgotten, neglected and destroyed!

(2) The Jews also had forgotten the chief reason they existed. They had become completely indifferent to the most important prophecy in Scripture.

(3) Will you—will we be so preoccupied with the world around us—like the Jews in the days of King Herod—that we will not be ready for His Second Coming?

B.   2. Jesus is King: Will you honor Him?

1.     Herod desperately tried to cling to his kingdom even setting himself against God! He tried to thwart the plans of the One who was able to make and utilize the stars!

2.     Magi were important men, but they recognized who was truly important. They recognized the true King. It was not themselves, not Herod, but Jesus.

3.     Will you honor Him as King by inviting Him to reign and rule over your life?

4.     Do you realize what God—through Jesus—did for you? Look at Colossians 1:12-13.

5.     This is spiritual reality: If you have received Christ—put your trust in Him and His work on your behalf—you are no longer a subject of the kingdom of darkness. You are a subject of the kingdom of the Son.

6.     Will you honor your King in the way He deserves?

C.   3. Jesus is God: Will you worship Him?

a)    Jesus is God! Paul put it this way in Colossians:

(1) 1:19: “For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him…”

(2) 2:9: “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form…”

b)    Herod lied and said, “When you find Him, come back and tell me where He is so I too can go and worship Him.”

c)    The Jews—those who knew the Scriptures and had supposedly been waiting for thousands of years for Messiah—apparently didn’t bother to follow the Magi and see if what they said was true. Do you know how far Bethlehem is from Jerusalem? Six miles! They weren’t willing to walk just six miles!

d)    The Magi believed God’s revelation—through the “star” and Old Testament Scriptures and probably direct revelation—and acted accordingly. They went to great lengths to offer costly worship! How did they worship?

(1) The Magi worshiped by seeking. Their journey pictures for us that we should seek Jesus.

(a)  Matthew 6:33: “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” 

(b) Matthew 7:7: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”

(c)  Ask yourself, what am I seeking? Selfish, earthly concerns—like Herod and the Jews? Or Jesus—like the Magi?

(2) The Magi worshiped by giving. The Magi gave several things:

(a)  Time—to come from “the east” probably means they came from Persia, which means they traveled for several months.

(b) Humility—They “bowed down” and worshiped Him.

(c)  Material wealth—“Gold, frankincense and myrrh”—expensive.

(d) Attitude—“they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy”                                                                                          

(e)  Ask yourself: What should I be giving to God that I am holding back?

IV.Closing:

A.   “We Three Kings”—the great Christmas hymn by John H. Hopkins—is probably inaccurate in some ways, but I love the way that great hymn is crafted, especially the final verse: “Glorious now behold Him arise: King and God and Sacrifice; Hallelujah, Hallelujah! Earth to heaven replies!”

B.    What is your reply?

C.   There’s no need to worry about those who would try to “switch off” the Light of the World—as though that were possible. Like the Magi we need simply to remember that Jesus is the Messiah and receive Him—watching for His return; that He is the King of kings and honor Him appropriately; that He is God, worshiping Him by seeking Him first and giving Him our best. If we live this way, the Star of Bethlehem, the Light of the World, will continue to shine.

D.   Pray.

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