God speaks to man in many ways. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans of the most obvious, when he exclaimed that “For since the beginning of the world, His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.”
Nature and all its beauty and complexity are certainly a big clue of God’s active interest in our world. He reminds us of His presence with every fresh wildflower, every sunset at day’s end.
And many centuries ago, as men looked up into the night skies with wonder, and named the constellations, He was already ahead of them. Job, in perhaps the oldest book in the Bible, gives credit to God for having put everything in its place. And those places already had names;
“He commands the sun, and it does not rise; He seals off the stars; He alone spreads out the heavens, and treads on the waves of the sea; He made the Bear, Orion and the Pleiades, And the chambers of the south; He does great things past finding out, Yes, wonders without number.” Job 9:9
Even in Job’s time, which may have been around 2000 BC, men in the Middle East had given names to the clusters of stars, and over time associated different cultures with different constellations. As prominent stars moved through the night time storyboard of bears and lions and scorpions, they imagined that the sky was like a great daily news report, foretelling or announcing the fortunes of whole countries and kingdoms. So preoccupied had they become with this mysterious pageantry that they often forgot Him who had put each star in its place. Thus the Jews were forbidden to consult the stars for news or clues or frivolous entertainment, but to the rest of the world they were a daily fixation.
Astrology and astronomy were so intertwined as to be considered inseparable. Astrologers were the most learned and respected men in Persia, and they often were mathematicians and chemists as well. We call them the Wise Men, but to the Persian kings they were essential consultants called Magi. Another of their talents was magic, and sometimes the occult. It was a time when blacksmithing and healing medicine were considered mysteries as well, and were just as much magic as eating fire or producing a dove out of a handkerchief. The Magi held the secrets to all these things.
But around the time of the prophet Daniel, a new powerful “art” was introduced to them. The art of Judaism. We know by the time of Esther, Jews were elevated to a high status in Persia. In a historic reversal of fortunes, lots were to be cast which would lead to the annihilation of the Jews, but instead backfired on the conspirators and they were destroyed instead. Jews still celebrate what they call the Feast of Purim, or Feast of the Lot People, who had survived this casting of lots, and with God’s help had overtaken the whole kingdom. And this was no small kingdom. The Jews of Persia were suddenly in dominance over an empire that stretched from India to Ethiopia.
During this era, many Persians converted to Judaism, the religion of their former slaves, and Esther’s father Mordecai became the second most powerful man in Persia. So in an amazing and ironic twist, to be Jewish, “Purim,” was to be powerful, and privileged. The new culture forged by the Jewish Queen Esther and her descendants would become known as the Parni, and to us today as the Parthian Empire. Wise men or magi had to incorporate Judaism into their bag of tricks in order to survive, and over time their teaching and soothsaying reflected a strong respect for the Hebrew God and His values and Laws.
The prophet Daniel had also made a lasting impression, and there was no doubt considerable knowledge of his writings and messianic expectations. So imagine an elite group of wise men, who have had a salting of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Buddhism, and occultism, living in a country where Jews are respected if not feared, familiar with Daniel and his predictions of a Savior to come. This was the fertile landscape of imagination and spiritual warfare during the time of the birth of Christ.
Ten tribes of Israel had been scattered all over the world, but they too had taken their culture and traditions with them. Just as the Parthian wise men had learned about the Jewish Messiah, the Lost Tribes of Israel had no doubt learned to read the skies and interpret them. There were no newspapers or Media to make announcements. What men had been musing over for centuries was actually a flawless timer, set to broadcast the coming of the Son of God, the Jewish Messiah. And as men looked up and studied the stars and their possible meanings, God told them in their own language and culture what each was hoping and praying for. A Savior. All the ancient Hebrew Scriptures foretelling of the Savior, pointed to this time in history. Much could be known about His coming from them. But one day, wise men saw an incredible star in the east. And inexplicably, they went after it…
According to recent astrological finds in history, it was around 6 BC, when marvelous alignments in the night sky began to foretell great happenings, in the minds of educated pagans who might discern such things. The brighter the star, the more important the King. Jupiter, the “King of planets” and the largest “star,” had aligned closely with Venus, to create a never before seen sensation; A star so bright that even a casual observer would notice. This star was seen in Aries, the Ram, telling the Lost Tribes of Israel, dispersed all over the world, that they were all about to receive a new king. The ram had always been a symbol of the twelve tribes of Israel, ever since God provided Abraham a ram for sacrifice instead of his own son. Now God was reminding the lost tribes that He was sending his own son, once and for all. The kings of Parthia minted coins commemorating this celestial event, as if it proved that they were the King of kings. Father and son began to kill each other off to settle the question.
Then according to College Station attorney Rick Larsen, around 3 BC the action moved into Leo, the Lion, the constellation associated with Judah. First the stars told the world a savior was coming from Israel then they pinpointed the tribe. Each morning Jupiter, also known as the Morning Star could be seen over the horizon, this time rising in the west. In another suggestive move, Jupiter, the King planet began a sort of dance with Regulus, the King star, in a slow motion coronation, inside of Leo, the lion of Judah. This too would have signified the advent of a new king, in Judea.
At one point, in 2 BC, and probably near the moment of Christ’s birth, Jupiter and Venus, the mother star, were aligned in an unprecedented union, in Leo, announcing nothing less than the conception of the King of kings, in Leo, the celestial counterpart for Judah. This could only mean the Jewish Messiah. Then most importantly, this amazing star finally passed through Virgo, the virgin, which was at the moment hosting a new moon. A new moon and the king star at the foot of the Virgin, literally at the moment of Jesus’ birth. Some of these were signs never recorded before or since, and wise men who had followed the message knew important details about the Christ-child long before they arrived to see him in person. If before they had worshipped the stars, or used them for divination, they suddenly understood this was a Messiah for whom the stars had been made. Only much later would everyone realize that in fact, this was the Son of God that had made the stars!
Even more amazing, Jupiter went into a strange astrological path known today as retrograde. Jupiter appeared to sit still in the heavens, even though it was still in orbit. And where did it do this? If the wise men had been leaving Jerusalem on Dec 25, 2 BC, they would have seen the brightest star in their lifetimes hovering in the sky… over the village of Bethlehem.
Why a group of wise men would be looking and recognize a sign in the night sky, that would tell of the birth of a king in Judea, and even care is a mystery. They not only cared, they came with gifts. Many had to have travelled thousands of miles, over wilderness and hostile territory. But they were sure beyond doubt that they must come to see the newborn king. A newborn king, so unknown and out of the mainstream in His own land that nobody but livestock herders knew where he was, or that he had arrived. What had blinded the people of Jerusalem, and all Judea, to something so obvious to the wise men from afar?
In a great and purposeful dysfunction, God had arranged it all, to protect his son, and yet include those from the farthest reaches of civilization in His greatest gift of all. The Jews were forbidden to ever study the stars or practice anything similar to Astrology. And over time they had begun to ignore the messianic references in their scriptures. In fact their king was not a Jew, and was a jealous, homicidal maniac, sure to be intolerant of competition. He had his own children killed that might be a threat to his power. The religious leaders in Jerusalem lived in fear and tyranny. They only sought the new born king when the king inquired of Him. And he only inquired when strangers, the “wise men,” stumbled into his court one day asking alarming questions.
Let us marvel now at these questions, and the assumptions behind them. They were innocent questions, from road weary seekers who only wanted to find the end of their epic journey. But their poetic end was the beginning of a world changing struggle, which would begin with the annihilation of all infant males in Bethlehem two years old and younger, by a jealous king who would stop at nothing to remain supreme.
Where is the One who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star from the east and have come to give homage to him… Can you imagine Herod’s reaction to these naïve magicians?
How confused the magi must have been, when they looked back on the whole scenario. They had been the first to recognize the unfolding events, and the first to make symbolic gestures that signified their hopes in the child they found under the star. They were the ones to whom the star had persistently appeared and then led to His birthplace. Yet they inadvertently caused alarm, jealousy, and murder, and their child king and his parents were forced into a flight into Egypt. It would be three decades before they might ever hear of the new king again… and then only after a deadly showdown in Jerusalem. Their stories would wane, and the mysteries melt into folklore, but even today in Iraq and Pakistan, there are legends of wise men who made the trek to find the Jewish messiah. Coins were minted in these areas during that period that can only represent some ancient connection to Christianity. God used the organization of the Roman and Persian empires to spread the news, as much as He used the constellations in the night sky.
From the apparent evidence, the skies were full of exciting astrological inferences, that brought wonderful news to some, and threats and death to others. For years Parthian kings made coins with their images superimposed with the King star and its celestial entourage, and the new moon presuming that they might be the One mentioned in ancient Jewish prophesies. The last one in 2 BC was minted by Phraates, who killed his father and co- ruled with his mother Musa, a Jewish Roman. Coins were minted in Pakistan, suggesting horsemen carrying gifts, assumed by historians to be Azes the Great, who it is believed was one of the celebrated wise men to follow the star. And later around 50 AD the Kushans of India minted copper coins featuring men reading and horsemen carrying crosses! On one side, written in corrupted Greek, is “Soter Megas.” Savior Great.
And then there are the gifts. What was worthy to bring, so precious, so necessary to bring from lands afar, gifts suitable for a new born king? The story handed down to us says they brought him gold. Even then gold was the standard of wealth, the most valuable commodity used as currency. Gold was the only gift that matched his deserved status. Even a modest amount of gold would buy him whatever he needed during his youth. And they would need it, because the young family was about to flee from their homeland and find refuge in another country, hundreds of miles away. No doubt the carpenter father could us the gold to purchase another set of tools, so he might make a living. Or it might defray expenses paying rent in a place suitable to protect the little mother and her baby, until they could safely return. The gold would make their long, hard journey possible. The gold made sense.
But they also brought more peculiar items for the Christ child. They brought him incense. Frankincense. The aromatic resin from the boswellia tree, that could be used to smell up a room; Perfume. But frankincense also was believed to have curative effects as well. It was used to treat arthritis, colitis and asthma. Ointments could be made for an anti-inflammatory to salve injuries. Still, a seemingly useless gift for an infant. Sure Mary might use it.. Even Joseph might use it to hide his need for a bath. The average yard and home of 2 BC was rife with unpleasant smells of animal dung, rotting garbage, sewage, and unclean people who never bathed. Incense was often used to mask the reality of everyday life. That is still a common use for perfume in the Middle East today. But the gift of medicinal incense seems almost irrelevant, for such an occasion, unless we visit upon the man Jesus, thirty-three years later… who was to be beaten almost lifeless before being nailed to a timber. And this is not the only mention of incense playing some kind of symbolic role in Jesus’ life.
You might recall when the disciple Judas Iscariot became furious over the breaking of an alabaster jar … of perfume called oil of spikenard. (John: 12). Spikenard was a rare and highly coveted perfume from India, used as incense and perfume. A woman named Mary, possibly the sister of Lazarus, or possibly the mother of Jesus, made a scene and a spectacle of herself, as she sobbingly broke the jar open, and smeared the fragrant oil on his feet. She dried her tears with her own hair. The jar was considered to be worth a great deal, an extravagance, something too valuable to be wasted. Judas suggested that it could have been sold, for as much as 300 denarii, and the money used to feed the poor. Then Jesus answered back, “Let her alone, she has kept this for the day of my burial…For the poor you will have with you always,” suggesting that his days were numbered, and Mary was doing the proper thing.
She was, in fact, preparing his body for burial. This may well have been what the frankincense was for as well. And I’m sure some of the tears Mary shed were for the hopes of those wise men who had obediently brought a gift just like this to the King of kings so long before… probably never suspecting… Jesus must have known all along what the incense was for, and interestingly, at least Mary did. And according to Matthew, this was the last verbal exchange before Judas went to the authorities to sell out His Rabbi. He could not understand what we understand today. Or what Mary did then. Perhaps this was the very same incense, kept back lovingly by Mary for decades, at first not knowing why.
And then, after His crucifixion, his followers all scattered, his body bloody and broken, a handful of close associates including a secret disciple named Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemas, not lonely had an immediate place for his burial, but a hundred pounds of a mixture for embalming… Not an easy thing to scrounge up on the Sabbath, made from, you guessed it, aloes and myrrh. Yes, the wise men had brought him myrrh at his birth. And now, three decades later, Jesus is embalmed in it. Myrrh, a resin extracted from commiphora trees in the Arabian desert, was the royal perfume of the Parthians. It was frequently mixed with wine, had medicinal uses as well, and was burned as incense. It was the main ingredient for Moses’ recipe for anointing oil. He was instructed by God to put it on everything around him that was to be consecrated, like his tent, the ark, and even his priests. Perhaps the wise men knew this, and brought this sacred Jewish element as a tribute to Jesus’ culture. Either way the gift was prophetic, as it pointed to the messiah’s very title, anointed one! Anointing myrrh for the Anointed One. And yet, it was also a foreshadowing of the death that was to come, and necessary burial, that would purchase us for eternal safekeeping. The wise men not only knew Jesus was the newborn king of Israel, a messiah worthy of worship, but they knew from their gifts that he was in for a rough road. A road that, according to scripture, would lead to brokenness and sacrifice. And they came, even as an infant, ready to salve his wounds, and even bury his body if necessary.
As Job said so well, “He has done great things past finding out.” And sometimes, in His time, we find out.
So God has been reaching out to us in every medium, through his creation, through the stars, strange gifts, and even ancient Eastern coins. And most importantly through the WORD, His Son, who was the focus of these things. Generations ignored the signs, of all kinds, dismissed them as irrelevant, coincidence, even lies. Man is nothing if not arrogant. When Job questioned God, he got the answer all of men deserve, and would do well to take heed.
“Where were you when I laid the
foundations of the earth?
Tell me if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements?
Surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
To what were its foundations fastened?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
If Job could not have fathomed who God was talking about, John certainly did when he wrote Revelation. It was the Lord himself who spoke through John in His last words before His Second Coming:
“And behold I am coming quickly, and my reward is with me, to give to everyone according to his work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last… I Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you these things in the churches, I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star.”
Jesus is the living God of angels and bright stars and providential gifts, who was there since the foundations of the world were laid. It was He who laid its cornerstone. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God,” the apostle John tried to explain. “All things were made through Him, and without Him, nothing was made that was made…” Jesus set the stars in their orbits, and He made and wound the great celestial clock that has revealed His Truth and Purpose in His Time. Omniscient, Omnipresent, Sovereign over all Creation, we should not be surprised when “He has done great things past finding out,” and left His unique signature in places we have never contemplated, revealed to peoples we have never known. It will be the pleasure of every believer, for the rest of our existence, to stand in awe of His power and glory, and to fathom the unfathomable, and finally perceive how everything in this Universe will eventually fall together according to His plan, and for eternity, we will take joy in the Greatness, the all Sufficiency, the Grace and Love of our God!