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The Visit of the Wise Men


In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,

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1. Now when Jesus had been born How it came about that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Matthew does not say. The Spirit of God, who had appointed the Evangelists to be his clerks,177177     “Scribas;” — “greffiers.”Clerks, not Authors in the ordinary meaning of that term, but persons who wrote to the dictation of another. This conveys the idea of what is frequently called plenary inspiration. If such a term as Clerk, or Penman, may be supposed to lower the sacred writers, it is not by a comparison of them with uninspired historians, the ablest of whom cannot, without arrogance, aspire to an equal level with those who wrote by inspiration. But when man is brought into a comparison with God, no language can express too strongly the infinite distance between the parties. The Evangelists do not ask the praise of invention, or judgment, or of anything else which would imply that the work was their own production. But they lay claim to a loftier and peculiar distinction, that they faithfully committed to writing that history which they were honored to receive from its Divine Author. Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost, (2 Peter 1:21.) — Ed. appears purposely to have regulated their style in such a manner, that they all wrote one and the same history, with the most perfect agreement, but in different ways. It was intended, that the truth of God should more clearly and strikingly appear, when it was manifest that his witnesses did not speak by a preconcerted plan, but that each of them separately, without paying any attention to another, wrote freely and honestly what the Holy Spirit dictated.

This is a very remarkable narrative. God brought Magi from Chaldea, to come to the land of Judea, for the purpose of adoring Christ, in the stable where he lay, amidst the tokens, not of honor, but of contempt. It was a truly wonderful purpose of God, that he caused the entrance of his Son into the world to be attended by deep meanness, and yet bestowed upon him illustrious ornaments, both of commendation and of other outward signs, that our faith might be supplied with everything necessary to prove his Divine Majesty.

A beautiful instance of real harmony, amidst apparent contradiction, is here exhibited. A star from heaven announces that he is a king, to whom a manger, intended for cattle, serves for a throne, because he is refused admittance among the lowest of the people. His majesty shines in the East, while in Judea it is so far from being acknowledged, that it is visited by many marks of dishonor. Why is this? The heavenly Father chose to appoint the star and the Magi as our guides, to lead directly to his Son: while he stripped him of all earthly splendor, for the purpose of informing us that his kingdom is spiritual. This history conveys profitable instruction, not only because God brought the Magi to his Son, as the first-fruits of the Gentiles, but also because he appointed the kingdom of his Son to receive their commendation, and that of the star, for the confirmation of our faith; that the wicked and malignant contempt of his nation might not render him less estimable in our eyes.

Magi is well known to be the name given by the Persians and Chaldees to astrologers and philosophers: and hence it may readily be conjectured that those men came from Persia.178178     “Le mot Grec, (μάγαι,) du quel use l'Evangeliste est celuy d'ou vient le mot de Magiciens: mais les Perses et Chaldeens nomment ainsi leurs Astrologues et Philosophes: et pourtant nous l'avons traduit par ce mot de Sages. Parquoy il y a grande apparence de dire qu'ils etoyent venus du pays des Perses.” — “The Greek word, (μάγοι,) which the Evangelist employs, is that from which the word Magicians is derived: but the Persians and Chaldees give this name also to their Astrologers and Philosophers: and therefore we have translated it by the word Sages, or Wise men. Wherefore there is great probability in saying that they had come from the country of the Persians.” As the Evangelist does not state what was their number, it is better to be ignorant of it, than to affirm as certain what is doubtful. Papists have been led into a childish error, of supposing that they were three in number: because Matthew says, that they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh, (verse 11.) But the historian does not say, that each of them separately presented his own gift. He rather says, that those three gifts were presented by them in common. That ancient author, whoever he may be, whose imperfect Commentary on Matthew bears the name of Chrysostom, and is reckoned among Chrysostom’s works, says that they were fourteen. This carries as little probability as the other. It may have come from a tradition of the Fathers, but has no solid foundation. But the most ridiculous contrivance of the Papists on this subject is, that those men were kings, because they found in another passage a prediction, that

the kings of Tarshish, and of the Isles, and of Sheba,
would offer gifts to the Lord, (Psalm 72:10.)

Ingenious workmen, truly, who, in order to present those men in a new shape, have begun with turning the world from one side to another: for they have changed the south and west into the east! Beyond all doubt, they have been stupified by a righteous judgment of God, that all might laugh at the gross ignorance of those who have not scrupled to adulterate “and, change the truth of God into a lie,” (Romans 1:25.)

The first inquiry here is: Was this star one of those which the Lord created in the beginning (Genesis 1:1,16) to “garnish the heavens?” (Job 26:13.) Secondly, Were the magi led by their acquaintance with astrology to conclude that it pointed out the birth of Christ? On these points, there is no necessity for angry disputation: but it may be inferred from the words of Matthew, that it was not a natural, but an extraordinary star. It was not agreeable to the order of nature, that it should disappear for a certain period, and afterwards should suddenly become bright; nor that it should pursue a straight course towards Bethlehem, and at length remain stationary above the house where Christ was. Not one of these things belongs to natural stars. It is more probable that it resembled179179     Calvin says, not that it was a comet, but that it resembled a comet; and it is probable enough that the meteor assumed that aspect. He refutes, in a masterly and conclusive manner, the supposition that it was “natural star,” but, with modesty and good sense, avoids shocking the prejudices of his age. Of astrology he speaks more doubtfully. If he had lent the countenance of his name to that pretended science, we ought not to have blamed him severely. Long after he had left the world, men of powerful minds, and of extensive attainments in science, found it no easy matter to disentangle themselves from its meshes, and to proclaim their freedom. But Calvin needs no vindication. He has left us a treatise, Adversus Astrologiam Judiciarium, "Against Judicial Astrology;" which Servetus, as much his inferior in philosophical views in sterling worth, brings forward as one of his charges. Damnatam a me fuisse Astrologiam conqueritur, says Calvin; "It is made a ground of complaint against me that I have condemned astrology." — Ed. a comet, and was seen, not in the heaven, but in the air. Yet there is no impropriety in Matthew, who uses popular language, calling it incorrectly a star.

This almost decides likewise the second question: for since astrology is undoubtedly confined within the limits of nature, its guidance alone could not have conducted the Magi to Christ; so that they must have been aided by a secret revelation of the Spirit. I do not go so far as to say, that they derived no assistance whatever from the art: but I affirm, that this would have been of no practical advantage, if they had not been aided by a new and extraordinary revelation.