Edit: I don’t know if I need to redact this section of my book or rework it, but Bible scholar Michael Heiser’s work on the birth of Christ is reframing how I think about the wise men story. You can see his podcast episode, “What Day Was Jesus Born?” for all the fine details or read his book, “Reversing Hermon.”
We always seem to read the story of the wise men in a light that implies that it was truly God’s will to bring them to the nativity scene—as though their attendance is crucial to the story. But it’s not really all that important, is it? In fact, wouldn’t Christmas have gone better without them?
Try to look at the story in the light of its full cultural context and its place within the story of Christmas. Here comes these three occultists from out of town. They mess around with astrology, witchcraft and other things that pertain to the spiritual realm. They do not commune with the Holy Spirit, but with other spirits. It’s their job in life to seek guidance and direction from these spirits and sometimes provide such knowledge to the authorities.
But spirit guides are nothing more than demons trying to disguise themselves as “angels of light” just like Satan does (2 Cor 11:14). Really, they have to disguise themselves this way, because rarely will you come across a person that desires to team up with evil. Many of those getting involved with the occult are hoping to find spiritual answers and want to hone what they learn to help those around them. They hope to be Harry Potter or Dr. Strange, not the White Witch of Narnia or the Wicked Witch of the West.
Unfortunately, demons are pretty good at convincing people that they’re good spirits and that people will make a difference in the world if they listen to them. The church can take a bit of the blame here. After all, we are the only people in this world with full power and authority to change it through the Holy Spirit, yet many of us have hidden him and offered religion to people instead.
Like many New Age practitioners today, I imagine the wise men thought they were helping out too. At the very least they thought they might be able to bless and worship the new born king if they could find him. After all, this king must have been great, because the stars themselves revealed his birth. If they followed those stars via their astrological studies, they would be able to find his resting place.
Now astrology is essentially looking for meaning in the stars, which many people play around with today by getting into daily horoscopes. Occultists would say that what happens “up there” correlates “down here” and so they read the stars by using charts and graphs to figure it all out. Now if this all sounds ridiculous, it starts to make a little more sense once you add a spiritual dimension into the equation. Many astrologers often sense a spirit guiding them to read their charts and graphs a certain way. Now as a Christian, perhaps you’ve felt the Holy Spirit lead you to perceive or read things like your Bible in a certain way? Well, that’s probably similar to what astrologers go through, but again the source they get their information from is demonic.
So having read the stars and having listened to their spirit guides, the wise men head straight to King Herod and ask, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Mt 2:2). This makes sense, right? I mean, if you’re looking for a new king, you ask the current king where he is, because kings typically descend from kings.
It’s here that we see the ingenuity of the enemy. The trap has been set and the fallout will be great. But to better understand what that trap is, you have to understand the stage of life that King Herod is in when the wise men approach him.
Now King Herod had a lot of family drama going on in his life (polygamy will do that to a person). With ten wives and several children, problems were to be expected. Anyone who has read or watched any kind of royal or political drama knows what jealous family members are after: the throne. Even kids get this—it’s a part of the storyline of Frozen after all!
Herod exiled his first wife and first son, Antipater, causing the two sons of his second marriage to be his new favorite. Their names were Alexander and Aristobulus and now that Antipater was out of the picture, the two of them were in line for the throne.
One day, however, Herod decided he wanted to show his two favorite sons a little competition and invited Antipater to come back and live with him. But being exiled with your mom has a funny way of leaving a bad taste in your mouth. Antipater accepted his father’s offer to return to royalty, but he seemed to have ulterior motives in doing so: one way or another he was going to steal the throne. His intents were discovered when one of his attempts went awry. He had poisoned his father’s drink, but his uncle ended up drinking it by accident. Obviously offended, Herod had Antipater thrown in jail and eventually executed.
But his son wasn’t the only problem Herod had. His own sister was jealous for her son to take the throne and therefore created drama for Herod. Another man kept trying to turn Herod against his two favorite sons and eventually succeeded. In fact, Herod grew so angry with them that he had both of them thrown in jail as well!
He now had three sons left to choose a successor from that we have yet to meet: Archaelus, Philip, and Antipas. But just as his mind had been poisoned against his favorite two sons, so had his mind been poisoned against both Archaelus and Philip. Therefore, he chose his youngest son, Antipas to be his successor.
About this time Herod got very sick and was diagnosed with an incurable disease. Knowing that the end of his life would be coming sometime in the near future, he rewrote his will and left everything to Antipas. But then later, he changed his mind again. He altered his will to now include all three of his sons, spreading out their reign over three different territories. Archelaus would now be his successor as King of Judea, Idumea and Samaria. Antipas and Philip on the other hand would become tetrarchs. Antipas would rule over Galilee and Perea while Philip covered the territories east of Galilee.
Why do I tell you all of this? To help you see what the evil ploy the enemy is setting up in the background. Here’s Herod who is sick and dying; who has endured some pretty intense family drama even since his first marriage; who was nearly assassinated by his own child; and who, at one point, only seemed to trust one of his five sons. Here is Herod who is hoping that he has just finally figured out a way to let his family continue in power after his death and then three wise men walk in the room and say, “Hey, we heard new king has been born and we’re here to worship him!”
Herod doesn’t have much time left to secure his throne and now some occultic wise men have claimed that a new king has been born and that it’s been written in the heavens. But Herod hasn’t had a son recently, so who is this baby king? Whoever he is, he must have been born outside of the palace walls, right?
At this point, Herod calls in the chief priests and scribes—the best Jewish religious authorities he can find—and has them tell him where the King of the Jews is supposed to be born. These leaders point to Bethlehem as the answer, finding the location in a prophecy that Micah had given.
Herod then went back to the wise men, gave them secret instructions and lied straight to their faces. His ulterior motive was to find this new king and kill him so that he might protect his family line, but the words he actually told the wise men were, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him” (Mt 2:8).
And so the wise men’s journey continued. Having not found the new king where new kings are born, they set out to check Bethlehem. You have to wonder what their state of mind was at this point. Were they excited to be on an important mission from a king or were they suspicious as to why a powerful king would want to find another king so that he might worship him? Either way, the same star that was used to discover the birth of Jesus led the way to the nativity, this time resting over the place where the King of the Jews had been born. It was there that the wise men bowed and worshipped him and left gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
After this experience they got some rest and were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod. This is the first time we can discern that their supernatural direction is of Godly origin for the message actually protected Jesus’ life—all of the messages that had led them to this point had only threatened it.
But it gets worse. After the wise men head back home by a route that wouldn’t raise awareness and Joseph has a dream telling him to flee with his family and become refugees in Egypt, Herod looses his mind and becomes furious. He realizes the wise men aren’t coming back and that there’s only one way he can ensure the family throne: kill all the male children in Bethlehem two years of age and younger (the age range being based off of the information the wise men had given him). God saw the attack coming and in that horrible act of abortion, a prophecy of Jeremiah was fulfilled. The danger is incredibly real and Jesus will not be able to return home until Herod dies from his disease.
There are stories of angels all throughout the Christmas story. An angel appears to the priest Zechariah to tell him about John the Baptist’s coming. An angel appears to Mary to tell her that she is going to have a baby, miraculously created in her by the Holy Spirit. An angel appears to Joseph to deliver him the same news when he thinks his fiancé has cheated on him. An angel appears to the lowly shepherds and tells them that Jesus has been born, followed by a multitude of angels that rejoice and sing over the news. An angel appears to Joseph to tell him to flee to Egypt and an angel also appears to Joseph to tell him it’s safe to return home.
But there’s one supernatural story that causes a lot of damage at Christmas. It’s the one about the guys who follow stars, not angels. It’s the one about the guys who tell the jealous king about the birth of a new king that has not descended from his own line. It’s the one about the guys who ultimately create the circumstances that make Jesus and his family refugees. It’s the one about the guys who unknowingly set the satanic stage for a city of babies to be killed—something the crafty enemy still sets in place today.
But despite all of this, it is breathtaking that these occultists were some of the first people to see and worship God-in-flesh on this earth. The very people who practice the arts forbidden by God; who sin every time they do their job; who follow and deliver the messages of demons—are the very people who bend their knee in worship to Jesus. They don’t fully get him. They don’t entirely understand why he’s here or what he will do, but they know he’s important. And though they have unintentionally set up Bethlehem and Jesus for hardship, they have gotten one thing right: they have worshipped a savior who has come for even them.
For in his love, God illustrates the fact that he makes space for all. The very bread of life, lying in a feeding trough is for friends and enemies alike—for lowly shepherds and sinful occultists. No sin is too great to separate you from the opportunity of receiving his grace and mercy. This is the breathtaking grace, mercy and enemy-love of God that came down to us at Christmas time.
This is an excerpt from my book, A Taste of Jesus.
Photo Credit: Cherry Laithang