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

Son of God, Son of David

by Lois Tverberg

Chess pieces“I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever.” 1 Chronicles 17:14

We know that the people of Jesus’ day were expecting a Messiah, hoping that he would deliver them from their enemies and that he would have a great kingdom. One question that we should be curious about is is what scriptures were the source of that belief.

Although the hints about the Messiah start in Genesis, it is in David’s time that God begins to make clear statements about his intentions for the future. At one point, David wants to build a temple for God, but then Nathan the prophet tells him…

“When your days are over and you go to be with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. I will never take my love away from him, as I took it away from your predecessor. I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever.” (1 Chronicles 17:11-14)

This prophecy has been understood as having a double fulfillment. It was first fulfilled in Solomon, who built the temple, but did that which God had forbidden – he amassed a fortune and married foreign wives. His kingdom broke apart within a few years of his death. But the prophecy also spoke about a “Son of David” who would come, who would have a kingdom without end. God would be his father, and he would be God’s son. The Son of David will also be the Son of God!

The Gospels are careful to point out that Jesus has descended from David from both parents because of this prophecy. Many other prophecies talk about the “Branch” from David’s tree (Jeremiah 23:5), or the “shoot from the stump of Jesse,” David’s father (Isaiah 11:1). They are using the image of a family as a tree, and Jesus as a “branch” means that he is a descendant.

This also explains why Jesus kept speaking about the kingdom of God in his ministry — because as the Messiah, he was the King that God had sent to rule over his kingdom that would never end! And if we follow him, enter his kingdom, we will live with him forever.

For more on this topic, see “The Messiah will Build God’s House.”

What Does “Christ” Mean?

by Lois Tverberg

“If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 10:9

It is always fascinating and enriching to bring the Hebraic cultural context into understanding the most important, basic words that Christians use. One of the most important is the word “Christ.” What implications does it have for us to say that Jesus is the “Christ”?

First of all, the word “Christ” comes from christos, a Greek word meaning “anointed.” It is the equivalent of the word mashiach, or Messiah, in Hebrew. But what does that mean? To be anointed is literally to have sacred anointing oil poured on one’s head because God has chosen the person for a special task. Kings were anointed during their coronation rather than receiving a crown. Even though prophets and priests were anointed, the phrase “anointed one” or “the Lord’s anointed” was most often used to refer to a king.

David being Anointed

So, the main picture of the word “Messiah” or “Christ” as the “anointed one” was of a king chosen by God. Even though we tend not to pick up on the cultural pictures, the gospels tell us many times that Jesus is this great King who has come. During Jesus’ trial, the main question that he is asked is “Are you the King of the Jews?” and he answers affirmatively:

And they began to accuse Him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King.” So Pilate asked Him, saying, “Are You the King of the Jews?” And He answered him and said, “It is as you say.” (Luke 23:2-3)

The fact that Jesus’ disciples and others who believed in him referred to him as “Lord” also suggests that they were giving him great honor, with the understanding that he is the Messianic King. To use the word “Lord” displays an attitude of obedient submission to a greater power. Jesus seems even to expect that those who call him Lord obey him – he said to his listeners, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). To call him Lord or to call him Jesus Christ is to say that he is the King that God has sent who has a right to reign over us!

This has implications about the basic understanding of what a Christian is. We tend to define ourselves by our statements of belief, but the very word “Christ” calls us to more than that. If “Christ” means King, a Christian is one who considers Jesus his Lord and King, and submits to his reign!

Photo: Lawrence OP