Advent thoughts: December 4

“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17—read Numbers 24:15-19).

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, wise men came from the east, following a star. From the appearance of that star, they knew that a king had been born in Israel. The wise men came to worship him and to offer him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Why would wise men associate the appearance of a star with the birth of a king in Israel? And why would they wish to worship such a king? The answer appears to lie in the prophecy of Balaam as recorded in Numbers 24. Balaam was a prophet of the true God, even though he was not an Israelite. He was not descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Even though God had chosen that family to be a holy nation, God’s grace was not exclusively for that one family or that one nation. There were always believers among the other nations of the world, even kings and prophets who honored the true God. Balaam was one of those prophets.

The Israelites were on their way to the Promised Land. God directed them around the countries of Edom, Moab, and Ammon, because those nations were kindred to the Israelites. However, Balak king of Moab feared the Israelites and their might. Therefore, he tried to hire Balaam, prophet of the true God, to curse the Israelites.

Balaam did not curse them; instead, he blessed the Israelites. Three times he blessed them. The third time the blessing turned to prophecy, and Balaam spoke of the blessing for the entire world that would come from Abraham’s family while they lived in the Promised Land. Balaam spoke of the coming King as a star and as a scepter. These words were preserved by Moses in the book of Numbers. They quite likely were written and remembered in other places as well.

Therefore, when Jesus was born, wise men were led by a star to come and honor him. These wise men, or Magi, were scholars, advisors to a government. They could be compared to Cabinet officers in the American government. The first group called Magi arose in the Persian Empire, but Egyptian kings and Babylonian kings had also had advisors. Their job was to know as much as could be known about everything: history, languages, literature, religions, science, and any other subject that might influence or affect the government they served. If anyone outside of Israel would have known Balaam’s prophecy, it would be a group of Magi.

From where did they come? Some say Babylon, and some say Persia. There is a significant clue, though, in the gifts they brought. Since ancient times, when representatives of different governments have met, they have exchanged products of their homeland with one another. Presidents still do this today. Only one place in the world produces gold and frankincense and myrrh in any abundance. That place is Arabia.

This would not be the last time that a group of Arabs caused consternation to the government in Jerusalem. That was not their intention, though. They came to honor a King. And the gifts they brought, products of Arabia, were also highly symbolic of the nature of that King. Gold recognized his kingship. Frankincense recognized that he is also a Priest, for incense is used in the worship of God. Myrrh recognized that he would be not only Priest but also Sacrifice. In fact, when Jesus was buried after offering the sacrifice that defeated his enemies, his burial was accomplished with strips of linen, with aloes, and with myrrh.

Balaam is remembered largely for the fact that his donkey once spoke to him (Numbers 22:28-30). Far more important is that he foretold the star that would signal the birth of a King. That King would be honored by foreigners even though he was rejected by his own people. From this we see the growth of the Church which contains people from every nation, language, tribe, and culture, all honoring the same Savior and citizens of the same Kingdom. Thanks be to God! J.

Christ in Genesis: Melchizedek

In Genesis 14, Abraham leads a commando unit to rescue Lot and the other citizens of Sodom after they have been seized in a raid led by four kings from the east. Abraham’s mission is successful, and afterward Abraham is blessed by Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of God most high. Abraham gives Melchizedek a tenth of everything. The identity of Melchizedek is a puzzle. He is mentioned in Psalm 110 and plays a prominent role in the letter to the Hebrews, where Jesus is declared to be a priest in the order of Melchizedek.

Some people have suggested that Melchizedek is Jesus, the same Jesus who spoke with Abraham on many occasions and even ate at the tent of Abraham. Another suggestion is that Melchizedek is Shem, the son of Noah, who lived 502 years beyond the flood. (This is an interesting suggestion, as Methuselah, according to the book of Genesis, was born early enough to have known Abraham and lived long enough to know Noah and his sons. Now Shem was born early enough to have known Methuselah and lived long enough to known Abraham.) Both these suggestions overlook an important truth: Abraham and his family were not the only people on earth who believed in God. Although the promise of salvation was being carried out through the family of Abraham, other people also believed that promise and were saved through the future work of Jesus. As a priest of God, Melchizedek taught and served some of those people.

Hebrews 7 notes that Melchizedek is a picture of Jesus. His name means “king of righteousness,” and as king of Salem he is also “king of peace.” Like Jesus, Melchizedek is both a king and a priest. This was forbidden in Israel. King Saul was rejected by God because as king he offered sacrifices to God rather than waiting for Samuel to arrive. King Uzziah was punished, stricken with leprosy, because he burned incense to the Lord in the Temple, which was intended only for priests to do (II Chronicles 26:16-21). In Israel, no one but Jesus Christ was fit to serve as both priest and king.

All the kings of Israel and Judah were pictures of Jesus, the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Jesus is the ultimate King, but every other king is a picture of Jesus. Even bad kings are bad pictures of Jesus. All the priests of Israel were pictures of Jesus, making offerings for the forgiveness of sins, representing the people to God and pleading for their forgiveness. Jesus is the ultimate Priest, offering himself as full payment for all the sins of history, pleading to his Father for our forgiveness. Even evil priests and ungodly sacrifices are bad pictures of Jesus. By combining these jobs, Melchizedek was a unique picture of Jesus. Only he and Jesus belong to the order which bears his name.