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Two thousand and twelve years ago last night a group of magi found a baby in a house in Bethlehem, guided there by the planet Jupiter. The baby was three months old at the time, born earlier in a stable, due to overcrowded conditions at the local inn. Because of the lateness of their arrival, the inn had canceled their reservations and had given the room to another weary traveler.
We do not know if they met any of the shepherds who had come to the stable on the night he was born three months earlier. It is likely that the magi did meet some of them, as there is little doubt that they were holding nightly Bible studies at the house. After all, the birth of the Messiah under such conditions was largely unexpected, and everyone needed a new understanding of the messianic prophecies.
It had all started as Augustus Caesar reached his Silver Jubilee--that is, the 25th anniversary of the day he had been proclaimed "Augustus" in Rome back in 27 B.C. The Roman Senate wanted to honor him as "Father of the Country," so they passed the bill by a landslide and decreed that everyone in the Empire must ratify it with their signatures.
The bill was passed in February of 2 B.C., and Quirinius (or "Cyrenius"), their Director of Census and Taxation, was sent to Syria (Asia Minor) in March to begin this work. He finished by late summer and then moved on down to Palestine, which was under the jurisdiction of Syria at the time. The actual governor of Syria was in Rome to participate in the Jubilee celebrations and did not want to return so early for political reasons. Quirinius had a high enough ranking where he could assume the post of lieutenant governor while he was there. Hence, he was technically the governor of Syria when Jesus was born (Luke 2:2), because he remained in his position until at least October.
All citizens were thus required to register their signatures on a copy of the Roman document in their home towns. Thus, Joseph took his very pregnant wife Mary to Bethlehem.
They arrived the day before the feast of Trumpets, and her son Jesus was born that night. September 28/29 of 2 B.C., fulfilling that feast day. His birth was announced by the usual fanfare of trumpets to a few righteous shepherds who took the Messiah's birth seriously.
Meanwhile in far-off Parthia, the educated class of wise men (magi) who acted as advisors to the kings, and who were experts in the signs of the heavens, witnessed a very unusual event. Jupiter, the king's planet, "crowned" Regulus, the king's star--the star that was positioned between the feet of the lion (Leo). It fulfilled the prophecy of Gen. 49:10, "The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the lawgiver (Regulus, the "regulator") from between his feet until Shiloh comes."
They knew from the teachings of Daniel that this was a sign of the birth of the Messiah in Judea. Daniel, after all, had been appointed head of the magi, as we read in the first chapter of Daniel. He "continued in office" (Dan. 1:20) until the reign of Cyrus close to 70 years later. Daniel had made a huge impact on the magi, for he had added to their knowledge the messianic prophecies of Scripture.
So when Jupiter began to move across the sky from east to west, they followed it to Judea. On the night of December 24, 2 B.C., as they watched from Jerusalem, Jupiter hovered directly over Bethlehem, and it led them to the Baby they were seeking.
By this time Jesus was three months old. In fact, it had been precisely a year since He had been conceived by the Holy Spirit when the angel had appeared to Mary (Luke 1:36). That was the moment when the Messiah (Christ) left His glory as a spirit in heaven and began to grow in earth as physical "mass."
About 335 A.D., a kind old man from Ephesus named Nicolaus, later known as St. Nicolaus, decided to follow the example of the wise men. He began to put small gifts at the door of the poor on the night of December 24 each year. The idea caught on and spread quickly. To that simple tradition were added many other features, some good, some not so good. They eventually lumped the shepherd's visit in with that of the wise men, and they began to celebrate it as if it were Christ's actual birthday.
In my view, Jesus is not insulted by any of those inaccuracies.
The commercialization of Christmas in recent centuries, however, can be a problem. Poor old Saint Nicolaus was turned into Santa Claus with raindeer led by Rudolph. Trees and yule logs were added to the celebration. The Roman holiday of Saturnalia (Dec. 17-23)was banned, but the pagans found that they could continue their celebrations if they just moved their holiday back a few days to Dec. 25. Christmas provided the perfect "cover" for Saturnalia.
However, none of the pagan additions to "Christmas" can change the historical and biblical facts. Jesus was conceived Dec. 25, 3 B.C., then born 9 months later Sept. 29, 2 B.C., witnessed by the shepherds, and then, on the anniversary of His conception, the magi arrived 3 months later on the night of Dec. 24/25, 2 B.C.
The sequence of events--first the shepherds of Judea, followed by the magi of Parthia--gave to us the basic outline of the divine plan and purpose of Christ's birth. This pattern showed that He came first to the Judeans, and then to the other nations and the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 1:8).
In those early years, the gospel did not venture far from Jerusalem, except for Philip's evangelistic mission to Samaria, and Peter's call to minister the baptism of the Holy Spirit to the Roman band of Cornelius. After 14 years or relative obscurity, Paul was called to bring the gospel to the uttermost parts of the known western world. Thomas brought the gospel as far east as India.
We today are heirs of the gospel, called to complete this work in places where the Messiah is yet unknown.
If we understand that the first coming of Christ focused upon the scepter of Judah, while the second coming focuses upon the birthright of Joseph, then we get a clearer picture of our present mission. In the book of Acts, the gospel went from Judea (Judah) to Britain and India. Today, the Gospel of the Kingdom must go from the modern nations of Joseph-Israel to regions still further away. Only this can and will complete the divine plan to put all things under the feet of Christ.
In the book of Acts, the gospel was not meant to be hoarded by the Judeans, though many tried to do just that. It took the Apostle Paul to break free of those restrictions. Today, some feel that the Gospel of the Kingdom ought to be hoarded by the ex-Israelites of the dispersion who migrated into Europe from their captivity in Assyria. But God is raising up other apostles who, like Paul, have caught the worldwide vision of a Universal Kingdom, where peace reigns and where the overcomers apply the biblical law of equal justice for all.
The "stone" will grow until it fills the whole earth (Dan. 2:35), and when it does, Christ will be recognized by all as "the God of the whole earth" (Isaiah 54:5). When He came of Judah, His throne was usurped; but when He comes of Joseph, with his robe dipped in blood, the temporary era of Judah will give way to the reign of Joseph, even as Jacob prophesied in Gen. 49:10,
"The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the lawgiver from between His feet, until Shiloh comes, and unto Him shall the gathering of the people be."
Shiloh (peace) is coming. Joseph's dream will be fulfilled when all the brothers, including Judah, bow before him.