The Shepherds And The Magi


Jesus has just been born in a manger in Bethlehem and we pick up the story in Luke 2.

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” Luke 2:8-9

The names of these shepherds are unknown, but how blessed they are about to be. And those shepherds were the perfect representatives of mankind because they didn’t live in big houses or strong palaces. They lived in a field which reminds us that life on earth has its limitations and we only stay on Earth for a short time.

Notice they were watching their flock at night, which tells us that Jesus was born at night. But it also reminds us that the earth at this time was a place of darkness, it was dark because of man’s sin. But once again we see that when the angel of the Lord appeared they were terrified. But wouldn’t you be terrified if you saw one of God’s mighty messengers appearing above you?

Notice Luke tells us that ‘the Lord’s glory shone around them’. Now, what does the Lord’s glory look like? Moses says the Lord’s glory was in the form of a cloud and when the Israelites saw the Lord’s glory, they said, it looked like a consuming fire, Exodus 24:15-17. Peter, James and John saw the Lord’s glory at the mount of transfiguration, Matthew 17:5-7.

Whatever the Lord’s glory looks like, it was enough to make people tremble to their knees. And so these poor shepherds are understandably afraid and so the angel has to reassure them.

“But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” Luke 2:10

The angel is about to make one of the greatest announcements ever made in the history of mankind. The angel is proclaiming to these shepherds the very message which is later going to be proclaimed to the world.

The coming of the Saviour of the world would be good news of great joy to all those who realise that they are captives of sin. In other words, the world has been waiting for this day ever since the fall of man in that garden back in Genesis 3:15.

Notice something important here, the good news announced by the angels was first announced to these shepherds who were Jewish. Luke who was a Gentile records the first announcement of Jesus’ birth, not to Gentiles, but to Jewish shepherds.

Later we will see that Matthew who was a Jew, introduced Jesus’ birth to the Jews through the message conveyed by a star. God’s ways are not our ways, Isaiah 55:8-9.

And so the angel continues with his announcement.

“Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” Luke 2:11

In one verse this angel has just described Jesus, the Son of God in three very different ways.

They first describe Him as a Saviour.

Jesus the sin-bearer, Jesus the Man who brings and offers salvation to all of mankind, Jesus who came to restore that fellowship with God and mankind which was lost in Eden.

Secondly, they describe Him as the Messiah, the Christ.

Jesus the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, the Shiloh, the Anointed One, the suffering Servant, and the long-awaited Messiah. Jesus the lawful ruler of Israel, the promised Son of David who would usher in the great kingdom.

Thirdly they describe Him as The Lord, not just any lord but The Lord.

The Lord who is the head of His church and ruler of the universe, the Lord who has all authority, power and rule. The Lord to whom every knee will bow and confess His Name, the Lord of Lords who will reign and rule people’s lives.

Jesus is the Saviour, the Messiah and the Lord and how blessed these shepherds were to be the first to hear this good news which would bring great joy to all people.

“This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” Luke 2:12-14

Just like Mary before them, they didn’t ask for a sign but the angel is going to give them one. And please don’t make the mistake of thinking they were to look for a child who was wrapped in cloth because this was the way most newborn children were clothed. The sign was this baby would be ‘lying in a manger’.

And if the sight of one angel was terrifying enough, Luke tells us that out of nowhere, a whole host of heavenly hosts appeared above them. Now a host of angels is represented in the Old Testament as forming the bodyguard of Deity, Psalms 103:21 / Daniel 7:10.

What an amazing sight this must have been as these angels are singing praises to God. The birth of the Son was God’s goodwill to man, for Jesus was the manifestation of the grace of God to all men, Titus 2:11.

No wonder they declared, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven.’ No wonder they declared, ‘peace on earth to those on whom his favour rests’.

The birth of Jesus certainly was and still is worth rejoicing about today. I can imagine those shepherds being in absolute awe of what they are witnessing. And although we don’t know how long the celebrations went on, Luke continues with his account.

“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about. So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.” Luke 2:15-16

Notice how the word ‘Lord’ here is used as the title of the Father in heaven but it’s the same use of the word to describe Jesus which again confirms the Deity of Jesus. So leaving their flocks, the shepherds hurriedly made their way to Bethlehem to see the newly born infant.

Remember that during this time, the Jews had been following the prophecies of the prophets who prophesied events that would transpire during the inter-biblical period.

They knew what was prophesied concerning the coming of the Messiah was soon to happen. Their acceptance of the signs surrounding the birth of Jesus was based on their expectation that God was bringing to pass the fulfilment of prophecy.

The shepherds couldn’t wait to see this newborn King and they found Him lying in a manger exactly how the angel said they would.

“When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” Luke 2:17-18

Having seen the child for themselves, they now had the evidence they needed that would satisfy others. I’m sure they would have been somewhat puzzled that the Saviour of the world was born in such a humble environment. But they believed and they became the first preachers of the Gospel and went out and proclaimed to others that the Messiah had come.

And it’s not surprising that everyone they spoke to were amazed at their message, but what isn’t so amazing is that no one was amazed enough to go and check it out for themselves. The greatest news of all ages had broken out in their community, and the people just ‘wondered’ about it as the King James Version renders it.

“But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”. Luke 2:19

Mary is treasuring and thinking about not only the things the shepherds had just said to her but also the things Gabriel said to her before and the things the angel said to Joseph.

You know when children are born today the parents usually go nuts and take lots of pictures and they begin to keep a photo album of every little moment of change in their child’s lives.

Well in a way that’s what Mary is doing, she’s thinking, meditating, and thinking about what the outcome of these things will mean for her Son. Mary, as well as others who had experienced all the miraculous events surrounding the birth of Jesus, didn’t understand that the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, were actual events that pointed to Him as the Messiah, 1 Peter 1:10-12.

“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” Luke 2:20

I’m sure Mary and Joseph would have shared their story with the shepherds and when the shepherds returned to their sheep, they just glorified and praised God for what they had seen and heard.

What a great privilege this was for them, you can almost imagine them declaring, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, peace on earth to those on whom his favour rests’.

And if this tells us anything it should tell us when we leave our place of worship after glorifying and praising God we too can go back to our normal daily duties but still be praising God as we go.

Now let’s fast forward to the second group of visitors.

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Matthew 2:1-2

There are a lot of theories concerning the date of Jesus’ birth. And it’s here in Matthew where we find the closest reference we can actually find. Matthew says that Jesus was born ‘during the time of King Herod’.

Herod the Great was the son of Antipater, an Idumean and descendant of Esau. He was proud, cruel, bloodthirsty and unmerciful as a ruler of the Jews. Herod the Great as he was called, cruelly reigned from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C. according to our calendar today.

And so this establishes the date of the birth of Jesus about two years earlier than 4 B.C., for Herod had sent out a decree before his death to kill all children under two years of age. But like we said last time, knowing the exact date of Jesus’ birth isn’t important, but what is important is that He was born.

These magi were possibly Gentile astronomers from Arabia, Persia, Parthia, or even India. And unlike most of the nativity plays we see today where they always have three wise men, we actually don’t know how many there were. I guess most people presume three because there were three gifts, but we simply don’t know.

Some translations use the words ‘wise men’ which is good because we can imagine the truly wise of all ages are indeed those who bow down and worship the Lord Jesus Christ. But the fact that these wise men came from a great distance to see Jesus indicates that they had possibly received a revelation of some kind concerning the birth of Jesus.

Isn’t it interesting that the Old Testament opens with a question, when God is seeking man, He asks in Genesis 3:9, ‘Adam, where are you?’ The New Testament opens with a question when man is seeking God, and man asks, ‘Where is the one?’

Where is which one? The magi say, ‘the one born to be king of the Jews.’ You see it was the hope of the Jews that the Messiah would come into the world.

It was believed by many that the Messiah would supposedly reign as king on earth and restore national Israel to her former glory. But as the Jews were soon going to discover, not this King, His reign and rule and His kingdom were going to be spiritual, not physical.

And so the magi say, ‘We saw his star’. Now this star the magi saw was not a natural phenomenon, this star was a miraculous signal sent by God to the Magi to alert them of the birth of the Messiah for whom they hoped. And there is a possibility that this was a fulfilment of prophecy but we can’t be certain, Numbers 24:17.

Now again we don’t have to be dogmatic about what this star was or what it looked like. But we mustn’t lose sight of Who this star is hovering over, Jesus, the King of the Jews.

“When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” Matthew 2:3-8

It’s very obvious that Herod didn’t want a rival king in his kingdom and so his pride and arrogance moved him to scheme against any possible contender for the crown.

Herod may have been ignorant of the prophecy of Micah 5:1-2 which spoke of Bethlehem as the place of the birth of the Messiah. But he went ahead and called a meeting with the chief priests and the teachers of the law.

The Chief priests were the principal leaders of the Jewish religious system who were in charge of the temple. The teachers of the law were the educated men of the Jewish law and it was their responsibility to preserve and interpret the Old Testament law for the people.

Herod has probably heard over and over again talk about a coming Messiah and so he wanted to know where this Messiah was to be born.

The magi more or less say to the Herod, ‘O King, we don’t really know anything about it, but there is, it so happens, a verse in one of the prophecies that speak of the birth of the Messiah, and that says it is to take place in Bethlehem.’

But as we know it was not Herod’s plan to worship, but to destroy the newly born child whom he saw as a possible competitor for his throne. He knew the birthplace, he thought he knew the child’s age and he only needed to find out the exact location of the Christ in order to kill him.

“After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.” Matthew 2:9-10

It’s obvious here that the star in question was miraculous in nature because it appears again. And it appears here for the second time to make it possible for the Magi to find the baby without drawing attention to the birthplace by making inquiries. And notice this time, the star came and stopped over the place where Jesus was.

And what was the outcome of them seeing the star again and it stopping? It was pure joy. And there is always joy when we come to meet Jesus. And we can only imagine the magi’s joy got greater and greater the closer they get to their destination.

“On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” Matthew 2:11

By the time the magi had arrived Jesus had been moved from a manger into a house. We don’t know how old Jesus would be at this point in time but He would only be a few weeks old at the most.

But notice ‘they bowed down and worshiped him,’ they didn’t bow down and worship Mary or Joseph but Jesus. Jesus is always the main focus of our worship and as I mentioned earlier it’s to Him that every knee in heaven and earth and every demon in hell will have to bow down to one day.

It was a custom of the orient to bring gifts to the newly born and such gifts were commonly given to those who were considered noble. Some commentators believe that the three gifts symbolised the three works of Jesus, that is, His kingship, His divinity, and His sufferings.

The gift of gold would certainly provide money for the fleeing to Egypt which is going to happen soon. The buildings and treasures of kings and pharaohs from the ancient past have left reminders that gold was the prize of rulers and kings. Men such as King Solomon and King Nebuchadnezzar treasured gold. Yes, we know that while gold can be a gift for anyone, gold was a gift, especially for kings.

Frankincense was incense that was made from the sap of a tree that grew both in Arabia and India. Frankincense was once greatly valued throughout the Middle East, from Rome to India. It was very expensive and a gift having a wonderful fragrance, it was used for a variety of purposes such as incense, medical treatment, and perfume. It was used in worship and so frankincense speaks of the worship of God.

The myrrh was also a perfume that was made from the sap of a tree and although it was less expensive than frankincense, it was still highly valued. Myrrh was used for a variety of purposes, such as a perfume, an anaesthetic, and burial embalming, and it was used as an ingredient in anointing oil and to deodorise clothes.

We also know that John 19:39 records that myrrh was used in Jesus’ burial. In the New Testament, myrrh is primarily associated with death.

But the point is this, we cannot come to worship Jesus without giving. Those who worship Christ give and those who don’t or won’t give do not worship either. In other words, true worship simply can’t exist if there is no sacrifice.

“And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” Matthew 2:12

In everything surrounding the birth of Jesus, God was directing the movements of the Magi in order that they not be discovered by Herod. God warned them in a dream and they listened which means the wise men refused to cooperate with Herod.

Dreams were often a vehicle of revelation among the Hebrews and they were considered inferior to visions but often played a vital role in protecting the chosen people.

But as we know God doesn’t operate through dreams and visions today. God used to speak through the prophets, He used to speak through visions and dreams but now He speaks through Jesus, Hebrews 1:1-2.

Notice that the magi returned another route which is what God offers all to come to Him in worship. The new and better route is that route through Jesus, a route where sinners don’t have to live in sin anymore without any hope for eternal life in heaven.

The events surrounding the birth of Jesus are fascinating, to say the least, but they all point to one thing. Jesus the Christ was born and He came to save sinners and offer salvation to all those who would come to Him. Jesus is no longer this cute little baby lying in a manger, He’s reigning with the Most High in heaven.

And He’s asking all of us today, will you come and worship Him, will you make room for Him in your life?