The News to the Magi

by Lois Tverberg

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “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.” (Matthew 2:1-2)

To most of us, the story of the wise men is strange. Who were they? Why would they look for a king because of a star? In different translations the travelers are called wise men, magi or astrologers. The term “wise men” (hakamim) is often used to describe a pagan king’s counselors that are schooled in the magical arts, and are often mentioned with magicians and diviners. It was common that pagan kings had magicians. We hear about them interpreting dreams of Pharoah and Nebuchadnezzar, and trying to reproduce the miracles of Moses.

One of these diviners who lived 1500 years before Jesus made a prophecy that is important for understanding why they were looking for a star. Balaam was a powerful, internationally known magician who was hired by a king to put a curse on the Israelites. But instead, God forced him to bless them and prophesy about their future. He said:

I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star rises from Jacob; a scepter comes forth from Israel… Numbers 24:17-18

Stars in Sky

The imagery of stars is closely associated with kings, and kings were poetically described as stars in the heavens. The poetic parallel of the word star in this passage is “scepter,” which certainly is a kingly image. The word scepter also means “comet,” also hinting that there was a tie between celestial events and earthly kings. It seems logical that the messianic king that the Jews expected was associated with a “star rising from Jacob” (meaning Israel), a celestial event that announced his arrival. Astronomers are still speculating what event was associated with Jesus and how the wise men interpreted it. It seems that when they learned by of the coming of this powerful figure, most likely the pagan kings had sent them with riches to deliver to this new ruler to pay homage for their countries.

It is interesting to note that these pagan magicians probably also used divination to gain this news. This tells us how the rest of the spiritual world reacted to the coming of Jesus. We know that the angels rejoiced to see that he was born. But it seems that all of the spiritual world was also in an uproar about the coming of this king! Not only were the angels telling the shepherds, but demons were telling the pagan magicians in distant countries about the powerful king who had arrived on earth. They knew that he would be king of all creation, and that he was more than human – he was the Son of God who would have a unique authority over the spiritual world that made the demons shake in fear. We should be reminded of the great authority and power of Christ, whose coming was not just earth-shattering, but “heaven-shattering,” rocking the spiritual world as well.

Photo: Joe Parks

What’s the Good News?

by Lois Tverberg

But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)

NewspapersPeople who lived through World War II often say that there was no greater joy than on May 8, 1945, when the victory was declared in Europe. More recently, the scenes most remember in our lifetime with joy are the felling of the Berlin Wall, and recently, the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein. Iraqis were shouting for joy, and many who had lived in fear of torture and murder for decades said that they felt like they had been “reborn.” In all of these cases, the “good news” was that of the end of a war, or a removal of an evil political power. It was as if a nightmare was suddenly over, and a new morning had come.

Interestingly, the word in Greek that we translate “good news” or “gospel,” euaggelion, has exactly that connotation in Greek. It is great news of a victory in war, or the rise of a powerful new king. It is a translation of the Hebrew word besorah, which is wonderful news of national importance about a political change, or war won.

When we understand that the main messianic image of Jesus is that of a king, we see how this fits into what the angels were saying. They were proclaiming the news to the whole world that a new king had come, the one God had anointed (Christ) to be ruler (Lord) over all. When Paul called himself an “ambassador of Christ,” proclaiming the “gospel of the kingdom,” he was also really saying that the anointed king of the world had come.(1) Although Caesar may seem to be in power, Paul’s mission was to be a representative to the real king to proclaim his victory and invite people to enter under his reign.

Let us not forget that we serve a victorious king, who has won the war against sin and death. And may we spread the good news of his reign everywhere on earth.

(1) See the article “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire” at this link by N. T. Wright.

Photo: Gérald Garitan