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Misconceptions about the wise men following a star

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In two days, most Americans will begin the countdown to Christmas 2014. During the 2013 Christmas season, thoughts have turned to Jesus’ first advent as the reason for the celebration. Sermons have focused on angels, Jesus, shepherds, wise men, etc, with varying degrees of accuracy.

Religious art of the Nativity of Jesus is often at variance with biblical accounts when it involves the magi. Most paintings show a caravan of wise men following a special star to find baby Jesus. Actually, if the magi had followed the star, they would have gone right to Bethlehem to the house where Jesus was. Instead, they journeyed to Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, the most likely site for a new king’s birth. After King Herod consulted his religious leaders, he directed the wise men to Bethlehem, no doubt based on Micah 5:2.

When they left Herod’s palace, they spotted the star which they had seen when they were in the east. Matthew 2:9 says “it went before them, till it came and stood over the house,[not the manger] where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.” Why were they so thrilled to see the star if it had been shining in the sky and leading them during all their travels?

The wise men did follow the star, but only for about six miles, the distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Scripture says they saw the natal star of Jesus on two occasions. 1. Matthew 2:2 - they told King Herod they saw “His star” while they were still in the east (probably in Persia), and 2. Matthew 2:9-10 – when it guided them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.

We don’t know what that celestial manifestation was like or how the magi knew it signified the birth of Israel’s promised Messiah-King. Some suggest it was the Shekinah Glory, a special way God revealed Himself to Israel in the Old Testament. Perhaps they linked it to Numbers 24:17, which predicted a star coming out of Jacob and a scepter rising out of Israel. (See the video for a humorous take on the celestial marvel that happened in our hemisphere on May 26, 2013.)

I don't suppose we'll stop putting stars and three wise men at our manger scenes and in our Christmas art, but it does skew the biblical record somewhat. No matter whether we get all the details about the star correct or not, the important thing is that wise men from east of Israel made a long trip to honor the birth of Israel’s future king.

They recognized the importance of Jesus’ birth because He was “Immanuel—God with us.” Others who knew it were Mary and Joseph, Elisabeth and Zachariah, certain shepherds, Simeon and Anna, and everyone who has believed in Him. However, He came to His own people, and most of them rejected Him. “But to all who did accept Him and believe in Him, He gave the right to become children of God (John 1:11-12 NCV).

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