Saturday, December 24, 2011

Did You Know? - Christmas 2011 (Pt-5)

How well do you know the Christmas story? Here are some lesser-known facts (& some conjecture) about what happened all those years ago...

The Christmas Star – What Was it Really?

One of the things that annoys me most about the weeks before Christmas is to see all the posts, emails, & articles resurface speculating about the nature of the Christmas star that the Magi saw. But in nearly every one of these, the authors and forwarders make the same mistake in that they've apparently only read half the story. It seems they pay close attention to the part about the Magi seeing the star appear at the moment of Jesus' birth, and from this they deduce all kinds of possible astronomical phenomena and possible dates to help determine the moment of the Nativity. They propose supernovae, planetary conjunctions, comets, even eclipses in attempts to bring the Biblical story into the realm of verifiable modern astronomical science. But for all their presumably sincere desire to authenticate the story, they seem to have entirely missed several key components - including the entire 2nd appearance of the star.

If it were unintentional, it's easily dismissible. However, with the incredible amount of investigative work that often accompanies these ideas it seems highly improbable that the author didn't bother to read all the information available in the original story before staring a scientific investigation. So this leaves me to conclude that it is being ignored - likely because no known astronomical event can explain all the details of the story ... which pretty clearly rules out all of the proposed ideas. If correct, this is not only bad science (ignoring the data that doesn't fit your hypothesis), but dishonesty with oneself and one's readers. Those who approach the Bible as a smorgasbord (pick what you want, leave the rest) are doomed to failure in any conclusions they attempt to draw from it - whether scientific, spiritual, or otherwise. If you don't trust or believe part of it, why do you trust any of it ... and how do you know which parts to trust? Ahh, but I digress.

Let's look at what the Bible actually tells us about the star and let it provide the conclusions for us.

First, we note that Matthew is the only source of information about the Christmas star. All references to it appear in chapter 2 (vss 2, 7, 9, & 10) and in reference to the visit of the Magi. From these verses we can conclude the following directly from the text:

Verse 2
saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him."
  1. The Magi saw the star appear when they were in the East (some speculate that the star itself was in the east, but this makes no sense astronomically since the stars appear to move across the sky like all other heavenly bodies)
  2. The Magi attribute this particular star to Jesus Himself referring to it as "His star"
  3. From something about this star (timing, position, nature, or all these?) they have deduced that:
    • A child has been born
    • He will be King of the Jews
    • He is worthy of their worship (discussed in my last post in more detail)
  4. Herod, the current king, should knows nothing about Him
  5. Neither Herod, nor the other Jewish leadership has noticed or understands the meaning of the star

Verse 7 Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared.
  1. The Magi knew exactly what time the star appeared (implying it did not exist before or, less likely, something about it changed in a single event)
  2. Both the Magi and Herod believed that the moment of the stars appearance coincided with the birth of the child.
  3. The Magi did not immediately provide information about the timing of the star's appearance. Herod had to call them back a second time (in secret) to obtain this more detailed information.

Verse 9 When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.
  1. Upon leaving for Bethlehem the star reappears. This strongly implies that they have not seen it for some time - probably shortly after its first appearance some months ago.
  2. Note This: We are specifically told by the Holy Spirit here that this is the SAME STAR which they had seen previously. This is one of those fascinating times in the text where it's clear that the Holy Spirit has gone out of His way to let you know something important. In this case, it appears He has anticipated a lot of the silliness about trying to dismiss the star or to separate this more supernatural aspect of the story from a more "explainable" astronomical phenomenon. But no, this is the SAME STAR that now appears to them again.
  3. The star is now moving. It "went before them" leading them toward Bethlehem and the location of Jesus.
  4. Note this is not the first time a supernatural phenomenon from God has lead His faithful on a journey. God did this for 40 years with the Israelites coming out of Egypt and through the wilderness.
  5. When they arrive, it comes to rest and "stands" over the place where Jesus is.
  6. As discussed in a previous post, we note that the location is no longer a stable, but a "house", and Jesus is referred to as a "young Child", rather than an infant or baby.

Verse 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy
  1. In the typically understated language of the Scriptures, the phrase "rejoiced with exceedingly great joy" is a rather amazing statement. It's hard to overestimate their reaction here. We need to have the picture of some really, REALLY excited people here over what they are witnessing!
  2. Remember that these are professional astronomers and that they have even seen this specific "star" before. But their reaction here clearly indicates that the start is doing something:
    New - Their reaction indicates they have not witnessed this behavior before
    Unnatural - As professional astronomers, they would have have had this reaction to a natural phenomenon
    Understandable - They interpret it's intention to lead them and they choose to follow it
    Intelligent -
    • It responds directly to their need as they leave Herod's palace with no clue where to find Jesus other than the city in which He was born many months ago.
    • It meets them where they are and and draws their attention to itself
    • It leads them from their current location directly to Jesus several miles away.
    • It stops ("comes to rest") when its mission is completed
    Knowledgeable - It knows their need, it knows their current location, it knows Jesus location, and it knows how to lead them there
    Meaningful - It has accomplished bringing the Magi into the presence of Jesus so that they may worship Him and present their gifts. This is not only meaningful to the Magi themselves, but to us as well since it was considered important enough to be included in the Scripture by the Holy Spirit
By this time, I expect you're on to me. This second appearance of the star - the one that leads the Magi directly to the young Jesus in their moment of need - really steals the show. And it leaves no doubt whatsoever that we're not dealing with any natural phenomenon. No supernova, comet, or planetary conjunction could do what this star did for the Magi. It demonstrates awareness of their situation and need, and graciously provides for it leading them to Jesus. Jesus' own words many years later would seem to illuminate (pardon the pun) the source of this miracle, "Jesus therefore answered and said to them, "Do not murmur among yourselves. "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day."(10) Whether the star was actually an angel, the Holy Spirit Himself, or something altogether unique, it was clearly a supernatural phenomenon and we are intended to understand it as such, not attempt to rationalize it away with naturalistic explanations. God has a long history of leading those who seek Him in the right direction when they need it most. It's also interesting to note that, up until Herod pushed them out the door with instructions to "go and find the child", the Magi probably did not even realize that they would need supernatural help in their quest. Until their arrival, they had assumed that Herod and the Jews would already be aware of their new King's birth and His location. It must have been stunning to realize that they, outsiders and even aliens to the land, were the only ones who knew anything about this ultimately important event. To be essentially pushed out the door with no more clue than the name of a city must have left them surprised and perhaps hopeless of finding Him. Perhaps it was at that very moment, their recognition of their own inability to find what they were searching for, did God step in to meet their need in a supernatural way.
"Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 "For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened." (11)

(10) John 6:43-44
(11) Matthew 7:7-8
For a more in-depth study, see my full study in the file titled "The Christmas Story" at:

Friday, December 23, 2011

Did You Know? - Christmas 2011 (Pt-4)

How well do you know the Christmas story? Here are some lesser-known facts (& some conjecture) about what happened all those years ago...

The Magi – How Much Did They Know?

19. The Magi’s knowledge of Jewish Scriptures, and “astronomy” (a mixture of what we would call both science and astrology), caused them to recognize and apparently MUCH more about the BIRTH of the Messiah than even the Jewish scribes did. From their actions and statements, we know that they recognized:
A. The time of His birth
B. The general location of His birth (though not exact)
C. That He was born to be King of the Jewish people
This is amazing enough when we consider that these people were not Jewish, not related to the Jews, and in fact, not even Roman citizens. The last involvement that history records them having with the Jews at all was 500 years earlier when the prophet Daniel was the head of their order just prior to the Jews being released from their 70 years of captivity to return home. So apparently, Daniel's legacy was powerful and enduring to have caused these people to watch and wait for 500 years for the coming of the Jewish Messiah. But as we will see next, it appears they really knew much, much more than this about Him.

20. The Magi’s gifts and actions upon meeting Jesus reveal that they had a breath-taking amount of knowledge about Who He was. Their choices might be explained by any of 3 possibilities: Either...
  • They were extremely lucky in their gift choices, or
  • They were unknowingly guided guided by the Holy Spirit, or
  • They demonstrated and extremely advanced knowledge of the nature and mission of the Messiah - not just to the Jews, but to all Mankind.
Why do I say this? Let's look at the gifts they offered.

A. Gold represents both royalty and deity throughout Scripture. By presenting it to the baby Jesus, in conjunction with their statements to Herod, it illustrates that they at least knew He was to be a King to the Jewish people. Whether they understood His deity I'll address later). But even if it only represents knowledge of His earthly kingship, the fact that the Parthian Magi have undertaken this immense, expensive, and very risky journey to present Him with this gold indicates that they knew His Kingship was far broader than just the Jewish people. We can be confident that wasn't just political maneuvering to ingratiate themselves with a future Jewish king for several reasons. First, the Parthians had successfully withstood the advance of the Roman Empire itself. They had no fear or need to be concerned about becoming allies with the tiny and insignificant province of Judea. Further, in performing this act, they were actually infuriating the existing king of the region - a man known to be tyrannical, volatile, and insane. If it was peace they were after, this was one of the last things they would have done. In addition, if they were interested in winning the lasting favor of this future king, they would have waited to visit Him when He was at least old enough to remember their visit and generosity. As an infant, there was no guarantee anything they did would be remembered or appreciated. Neither history nor Scripture records any further visits or connections between the Magi and Jesus as He neared adulthood and His ministry. Rather, it appears clear that their recognition of His Kingship indicates their intent to glorify God and demonstrate their own humility toward the Messiah at His advent.

B. Frankincense (incense of any type in Scripture) represents the Priesthood. Frankincense is referenced at least 21 times in the Bible, but most notably as a part of the special and very specific blend of incense God required to be used in the Tabernacle / Temple before His own presence(5). In presenting Jesus with frankincense, it appears they were recognizing Him as a priest. However, Jewish Law prevented a single individual from being both a king (who had to come from the tribe of Judah) and a priest (who had to come from the tribe of Levi). There are Scripturally only two people (or groups) that are permitted the privilege of being both a king and a priest. One is the Messiah Himself. The other, is a member of the Church ... The Christian(6). The New Testament makes a big deal of the importance and privilege that Christians are afforded in this regard. For these non-Jewish Magi to recognize that the Messiah was to be both King and Priest is a profound insight that appears to even have been missed even by Jewish leadership. So a gift of incense in general alongside their gift of gold demonstrates this advanced knowledge of the nature of the Messiah. But the fact that the incense chosen is in fact Frankincense, may also indicate a far deeper knowledge of Who He is in that Frankincense is one of the primary ingredients burned before the Holy of Holies unto God Himself in the Temple. But it may be much more. While it's possible that the gift is intended simply to recognize Jesus' Priesthood, another possibility is that they are ACTING in the role of priest and offering the incense themselves. In other words, they are recognizing that Jesus is in fact God incarnate! If this were being offered by itself, or in conjunction only with the gold, it might be a stretch to consider this. But the next two gifts (yes, there were four gifts), in my opinion, make their intentions clear. Read on...

C. Myrrh has many uses including perfume, incense, spice, sedative, antiseptic, and others. It appears a few other times in Scripture, but was used widely in Jesus' day as an embalming agent due to its antiseptic (preservative) properties. As a spice, it has a bitter taste. Both these properties are almost certainly the purpose of the gift here by the Magi. As such, it signifies that they knew His death was to be both bitter and very important – as important as His Kingship (represented by the 1st gift) and Priesthood (represented by the 2nd gift). The symbolic nature of the gifts would make no sense whatsoever unless they actually realized that He had come to die a bitter, but extremely important death. Whether they understood the full importance of His death, we don't know. But the next gift may shed even more light on this question as well.

D. Worship, the fourth gift, which is usually missed, was that the Magi literally "fell down and worshiped" the young Jesus. Technically, this was the first gift, for Scripture records that this was their first act upon meeting the young Jesus(7). As Christians already knowing that Jesus is worthy of worship, we are in danger of missing the significance of this act. But recognize that there was no earthly reason for these extremely high ranking officials from an “enemy” empire to Rome to be there recognizing a Jewish King in the first place. For them to actually prostrate themselves and worship Him is nothing short of shocking. Given their political positions, this act is actually an affront to their national sovereignty and would likely even have been considered an act of treason by their own king and punishable by death under normal circumstances. Imagine the Secretary of State, or even the President of the US bowing down before a foreign king. OK, perhaps bad example, but more than just a bow of "respect" or even submission, the word used here(8) and the context indicate full worship of Jesus as before God Himself.

Taken together in full context, their journey and these four gifts seem to point rather powerfully to the conclusion that the Magi were not just a group of well-meaning visitors who happened to know a bit more about the stars (more on this in my next post) than the Jewish leadership did. Rather, their journey and gifts demonstrate that the Magi knew more about the Nature, Mission, and Destiny of this baby than every professional Jewish cleric of the day, more than His disciples (prior to Pentecost), and in fact, more than many Christian scholars of the first several centuries of the church(9) and in some measure - even today! It seems very reasonable to conclude that the Magi knew:

  • That He would be King, not just of the Jews, but of them as well
  • That He was a Priest of higher order than any living or historical Jewish priest (history records no such recognition by the Magi of any other Jewish priest),
  • That His death was important, again, not just to the Jewish people, but to themselves as well - probably recognizing that it would be important for all Mankind, and
  • That they recognized Jesus' Deity. The gold certainly indicates acknowledgment of Royalty, but given the symbolism of the other gifts, the cost and risk of their journey, and their personal worship of Him, it's reasonable to conclude that the gold was also a full recognition of His Deity.
The evidence is quite strong that the Magi knew exactly Who Jesus was and that they had been awaiting His coming, probably since the time of Daniel 500 years earlier. It is a more difficult question to know how the Magi knew all this about Jesus, but the best evidence is that they had been schooled extensively in the Scriptures by noneother than Daniel the Prophet about 500 years earlier when he was the head of their order for several decades. How they were able to interpret the moment of Jesus' birth from the stars is also a difficult question. Whether this type of knowledge came from Daniel is unknown, but we'll look at it a bit more in-depth next time.

Stay tuned. Next time we'll examine the famous Star of Bethlehem.


(5) Exodus 30:34-38
(6) Psalm 110:4, Jn.18:36, Hebr 6:20, 1 Pet 2:9, Rev.1:6
(7) Matt 2:11
(8) προσκυνέω
(9) Referring here to the many heresies that divided the early church regarding the deity of Christ and the mechanism of His atonement for sin.

For a more in-depth study, see my full study in the file titled "The Christmas Story" at:

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Did You Know? - Christmas 2011 (Pt-3)

How well do you know the Christmas story? Here are some lesser-known facts (& some conjecture) about what happened all those years ago...

The Magi’s Visit to Jesus

14. The Magi must have been shocked to arrive in the capital city of Palestine and discover that no one there – not even the Jewish Priests or Scribes had any idea that their own future king (it’s likely the Magi realized he was the Messiah) had just been born. They were probably even more surprised to have been ushered out the front door with no escort and no more information than an ancient prophecy (which they probably already knew about that He was to be born in Bethlehem. They would have traveled to Jerusalem first even if they had known the prophecy in order to consult with the King to explain the reason for their incursion and to see permission to see the Child.

15. The traditional picture of the Magi’s arrival on the night of Jesus’ birth with the shepherds is purely fiction. Their arrival was probably between one and two years after Jesus’ birth. We know this from:

a. The logistics of how long such a journey would have taken to plan, fit out, and begin along with actual travel time.

b. When the Magi arrive, Jesus is referred to as a “young child” (not the word that would have been used for a newborn or even an infant.)

c. Mary and Joseph were then living in a “house” rather than the initial emergency arrangement in the stable. Whether they owned the house or were renting or staying with someone is unknown. But it is reasonably clear that Joseph had chosen to settle in Bethlehem for some time rather than returning to Nazareth.

d. When Herod realized the Magi had “duped” him, he ordered all the children under 2 years of age to be slaughtered. He knew the exact time of Jesus’ birth from the Magi. Though it’s likely he may have added some "age" to the order to be certain, Jesus was probably at least several months old – perhaps more than a year - by that time.

16. The Magi would have faced a nearly impossible task standing there outside the door to the palace in Jerusalem, in finding a young child whom they know no more about than the time and general location of His birth (now many months earlier). With no additional help offered by the king or even the Jewish leadership than the name of the city, they were entirely on their own in a strange land with strange culture and customs, seeking a single child without even knowing his name. They must have felt utterly lost, frustrated, and defeated – likely pleading to God for help.

17. It is this situation that makes the reappearance of the Star that much more miraculous, essential to the story, and that much more breathtaking to the Magi. The Bible records “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.” In the typically understated language of the Bible, it’s difficult to overstate the magnitude of what this verse conveys about the reaction of the Magi.

18. The next verse of the text simply skips forward to “and when they had come into the house”. A verse earlier we are told that “The star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.” But the simplicity of the narrative belies the great drama that must have occurred as the star was revealed, and the entire caravan packed up and moved out of Jerusalem toward a tiny village a few miles away and then arrived at the front door of a humble carpenter, his wife, and their young son. If Jerusalem was troubled at their arrival, how must the inhabitants of the undefended village of Bethlehem felt? And how much more, Mary and Joseph? (More about the star later)

19. While purely conjectural, it’s certainly possible that Joseph had chosen not to return to Nazareth for several reasons. First, it would have been at least a little while before both Mary and the Baby were well enough to travel. If the birth had been difficult, it would have been even longer – we don’t know. Given the rumors and probable public opinion associated with Mary’s pregnancy before their marriage, it’s not at all unlikely that they simply had no desire to return to Nazareth at all. Since we know Joseph was born in Bethlehem (this is why he returned there for the census), it’s likely he had family there and some level of familiarity with the location. He would likely have brought whatever tools and other valuables they owned with them (there were no security systems for a house left vacant for months), he could have set up shop nearly anywhere. They may only have stayed in Nazareth as long as they did due to the proximity of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth. It seems likely that the rest of Mary’s family may also have been in or around Nazareth too.

For a more in-depth study, see my full study in the file titled "The Christmas Story" at:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Did You Know? - Christmas 2011 (Pt-2)

How well do you know the Christmas story? Here are some obscure facts (& some conjecture) about what really happened all those years ago.

The Magi’s Arrival in Jerusalem:

7. The Magi were not kings at all, but members of an elite group called the “Megistanes” of the Parthian empire who formed a kind of “senate” politically, but also served as priests, scientists, counselors, and astronomers to the king of Parthia(4).

8. The Bible records that the Magi brought 3 primary gifts and from this, tradition has derived that there were only 3 Magi who came to visit. This is almost certainly wrong. Parthia was a separate empire from Rome and, though there was currently a state of peace at the time of Christ’s birth, tensions were always high. But an incursion of Parthian Magi into Roman territory was no trivial matter. An undertaking such as this, combined with the length of the journey itself would have required a large caravan to bring the food, supplies, shelter, and various accoutrements the Magi would have required along the way. In addition to the large supply train, there would have been a large contingent of armed cavalry to protect the group not only from bandits, but also to prevent any attempt by the Romans to kill or take the Magi hostage.

9. Herod was “king” over one of the farthest Roman outposts from Rome (“Palestine”) lying at the very edge of the enormous Roman Empire, and frequently at war with the neighboring Parthian Empire. It would have taken weeks or months for Rome to send reinforcements to the local armies controlled by Herod and Pilate if war were to break out. Part of Herod's insanity was constant paranoia about Parthian incursions. This paranoia is demonstrated in the many fortresses he built including Herodium, Masada, the Antonia Fortress, and the Temple Complex itself in Jerusalem.

10. Herod’s paranoia was increased to explosive levels when the Magi showed up asking the question “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” This was both a statement of their primary mission and an insult to Herod. Herod was not born a king of the Jews. He was not even Jewish but an Idumean who was appointed by Rome to rule the area. But now Parthians were on his doorstep to recognize a replacement King whom they believed to have a birthright to the throne. Herod had killed many, including his own family members, when he felt his reign being threatened in the past and this was enough to push him over the edge enough to commit the horrendous mass murder event of slaughtering all the Jewish male children under 2 in an effort to eliminate his completion. Herod died only a few months later.

11. The Bible records that when the Magi arrived in Jerusalem (they naturally went to the capitol city first), seeking the new-born King of the Jews, Herod “AND ALL JERUSALEM WITH HIM” were very “troubled”! It’s difficult to imagine the concern and probably fear that would have accompanied the arrival of so large an armed caravan from Parthia unannounced and asking questions about a replacement king for the Jewish people!

12. The Magi were at one time ruled over by none other than Daniel himself (Dan 2:48, etc.) – a position he apparently held for his entire career. It is likely that the Magi’s response to the appearance of the star and the birth of Jesus had everything to do with what Daniel must have taught them 500 years earlier. There is no other reason for Parthian officials to show any interest whatsoever in the birth of a new king over the tiny and insignificant Roman province of Palestine and its corrupt government … much less to worship him! (more on this later)


For a more in-depth study, see my full study in the file titled "The Christmas Story" at:

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Did You Know? - Christmas 2011 (Pt-1)

How well do you know the Christmas story? Here are some obscure facts (& some conjecture) about what really happened all those years ago.

On a few occasions in the past I've posted what I consider to be interesting facts about some of our Christian HolyDays as the time approached. I've been meaning to do the same this Christmas season and just haven't gotten it done till now. Hopefully, it's better late than never though. I'll add to this over the next few days with some little-known thoughts / facts / info regarding the Christmas story. For a more in-depth study, see my full study in the file titled "The Christmas Story" at:

Did You Know? ...

The Birth of Christ:
1. The birth of Christ was predicted generally more than 530 years earlier by Daniel the Prophet. His writings predicted the event we’ve come to know as Palm Sunday to the very day (1). By extrapolation, the birth of the Messiah about 30 years earlier could have been easily recognized within a few years.

2. The Jewish scribes knew from Scripture the location in which the Messiah was to be born, but they had missed the prediction of the time of his birth (and apparently forgotten the knowledge of signs in the stars that was known by the Magi so that they did not recognize all the pointers to the time of His birth.

3. It is likely that there was no room in the local inn for Mary and Joseph because many were traveling to their home towns for the same reason they were (the census). Mary’s pregnancy likely slowed their travel considerably. Coming from far in the northern portion of the country made for an even longer journey and they arrived late finding no room in what was probably already limited space for accommodation due to the small size of Bethlehem. It’s possible that Mary’s condition – especially after the long journey so late in her pregnancy, made even the short trip back to Jerusalem (a much bigger city) impossible.

4. The fact that the Shepherds were still watching their flocks in open fields at night indicates that the season was not winter. Other clues, including timing of the birth of John the Baptist 6 months earlier probably place the birth of Jesus in late September.

5. The shepherds got a small glimpse into what was going on in the heavenly realms as the angels swarmed and hovered protectively around the infant Jesus - their Creator and King - having placed himself into so lowly and vulnerable a form. You can bet that Satan was doing everything he could to try to attack and kill the baby Jesus. In the stillness of that “Silent” and “Holy night”, there were not doubt ferocious battles taking place, or at least an unimaginably large and fortified gathering of the host (“host” means “army”) of heaven establishing a defensive perimeter around the manger

6. The "stable" was almost certainly a cave as is referenced by a number of early church historians all the way back to the first century (3). It was not uncommon to build a house (or inn) near a cave which could serve as shelter / stable for animals. Wooden structures were very scarce and typically small in rural places due to the scarcity of wood in the hill country near Jerusalem. Olive trees were the most common, but does not produce much wood. So the traditional pictures of a wooden barn like structure and even a wooden manger (animal feed trough) are very likely wrong. Both structures were likely carved from stone either by hand or naturally.

(1) Sir Robert Anderson’s work “The Coming Prince”. Anderson demonstrated the prophecy of the “70 Weeks” from Daniel chapter 9 predicted Jesus’ Triumphal Entry to Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) to the exact day.
(2) Clues from the text regarding John’s father being a priest and being in service in the temple are very important. The priests served in rotation on a schedule which is known from archaeology. If the timing of Christ’s birth can be discovered to within a year or two, then the exact time of John’s birth can be discovered to the month.
(3) Justin Martyr (c.100-165) "Dialogue with Trypho"