Of Shepherds and Magi
By Peter Amsterdam
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On the night of Jesus’ birth, in the hills near Bethlehem, shepherds were watching over their flocks. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord, His light and brightness, shone around them. The angel told them not to fear, that he had good news for them. He then revealed that a Savior, Christ the Lord, was born in the city of David that night. He told them that a sign would be that the child would be found lying in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes. Upon telling them this, there appeared a multitude of the host of heaven praising God. When the light of God’s glory and the angel and the host departed, the shepherds decided to go to Bethlehem right away to see what God had told them about.1
There is evidence within Jewish writings that shepherds and herders were considered to have a very low social status within first-century Israel. This was partly because they were in the fields all the time and were unable to keep up with all the religious laws. Also, they would have the sheep graze on other people’s land without permission. Given that context, it makes this announcement to the shepherds all the more interesting, because shepherds would have been seen as not only poor or lowly, but somewhat as outcasts as well.
In Bethlehem the shepherds found Mary, Joseph, and the baby. Finding Jesus lying in a manger swaddled in cloth within the main room of a peasant house, with animals in the stable area, would be rather normal for them, since most likely their children had been swaddled in the same manner, as that’s what peasants did with their newborns. Placing a child in a manger was probably not what was normally done, but due to the overcrowded accommodations, it was a practical solution.
What would have been extraordinary for them, and so was referred to as “a sign,” was that a child whose birth was announced to them by an angel, accompanied by the glory of God and a praising heavenly host, was found in a crowded village home that was just like theirs! The shepherds were people of low degree, the poor and humble, and they discovered that night that the Messiah, the Savior of the world, was born a humble peasant just as they were. They left praising God and telling others all they had heard concerning the child. Jesus had come for the poor and needy, the lowly, the downtrodden, and not just for those of status and good reputation. The message was that everyone is welcome, that salvation is for all.
Matthew’s Gospel tells of the visit of the Magi, who came from the East after they saw a special star, which they understood to be an omen that a king of the Jews would be born. They traveled to Jerusalem in search of the king, and upon their arrival began inquiring where this child who would be a future king was, so that they could pay homage to him.
When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, as the birth of a new king could mean a challenge to his throne. He gathered the chief priests and scribes to find out where such a child would be born, and they told him that according to scripture the birth would be in Bethlehem. Though the religious rulers knew that scripture proclaimed where the Messiah would be born, they had no idea that He had already been born. While Bethlehem is only about five miles from Jerusalem, there is no record of any of the religious leadership going to seek out the child.
Herod secretly met with the Magi to ascertain when they first saw the star, which was apparently two years earlier. After getting this information, he sent them off to Bethlehem with instructions for them to report the child’s whereabouts so he too could go to pay Him homage. The Magi left Jerusalem, found Jesus and His family, bowed down before Him and paid Him homage, and gave gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
No one knows exactly where the Magi were from. Some Bible scholars say Persia, others Babylon, and others Arabia. A number of the earliest Church Fathers stated that Arabia was their homeland. Gold and frankincense were associated with the camel trains coming from Midian and Sheba, both in Arabia. Frankincense and myrrh were harvested from trees which grew in southern Arabia. In the Old Testament the term “people of the east” most often refers to desert Arabs.
After finding the newborn King, the Magi were instructed through a dream to not return to see Herod, and they obeyed those instructions. When Herod found out they had left the country without telling him where to find the child, he was furious. He ordered his soldiers to kill all the male children who were two years old and younger in Bethlehem and the surrounding area, in hopes of eliminating any challenges to his throne.
Besides relaying events, what was Matthew trying to convey in this part of his narrative? Herod and the religious leaders in Jerusalem were unaware that the promised King was born, showing that God hadn’t given the religious or the political leadership a sign. On the other hand, the gentile Magi had seen a sign in nature, in the star. They responded by seeking for the newborn king and eventually saw the Savior and worshiped Him. Matthew was making the point that the salvation God had promised wasn’t reserved for Israel only, but for the gentiles as well, meaning it was for everyone.
Luke tells us that eight days after Jesus’ birth, He was circumcised. A while after that, His parents took Him to the temple in Jerusalem to be redeemed. While they were there, an old devout Jew named Simeon saw them. God had told Simeon that he wouldn’t die before he saw the Christ, the Messiah. Upon seeing Jesus he took Him in his arms and prayed: “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”2
Simeon’s prayer speaks of salvation being for all people, both Jews and gentiles. As was the case with the Magi, the message is of salvation available to all through Christ; the Incarnate Son of God came to earth for everyone.
Simeon then blessed them and prophesied, saying to Mary, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”3
Having proclaimed that salvation would be for both Jews and gentiles, Simeon also prophesied that there would be rejection from within the nation in which Jesus was born. Among the Jewish people, some would believe and others wouldn’t; there would be division among the people as the thoughts of people’s hearts were revealed. He indicated that Mary would also suffer, probably referring to all she would see Jesus go through. Simeon predicted the rejection of Jesus by the Jewish authorities during His ministry.
In Luke’s Gospel the shepherds, some of the lowly within Jewish society, witness a supernatural announcement through the angel, and the child is a peasant child, showing that He has come for the common people. There is also a prophecy from a religiously devout Jew saying the Messiah is for everyone, though He will be rejected by some. In Matthew’s Gospel, the sign of the Savior seen in nature is followed by the gentile Magi coming to Him, again signifying that salvation is for all.
The consistent message throughout the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth—in fact, throughout all of the Gospels—is that Jesus has come for all humanity; He died for the salvation of all. God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life.4 This is the good news of Christmas. This is the news that the angels were proclaiming, the message portrayed by the star leading the Magi, and the message of God’s love that each of us carries in our hearts.
Originally published December 2012. Adapted and republished December 2015.
Read by Jason Lawrence.