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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Sceptre, Star & Saviour


“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the people of Sheth."

Numbers 24:17

This prophecy would be wonderful for us to consider in the lead up to any Christmas. Usually, however, I would feel compelled to give more background to this account of Balak and Balaam. Context is rarely, if ever, irrelevant. But opportunity knocks! Just a few weeks ago, we considered the context and therefore, this time, it can be kept brief.

The Israelites were on their journey to the Promised Land. God was on their side. They had been able to defeat the opposing armies of their enemies, and other, neighbouring nations, like Moab, were getting nervous. Numbers 22:3 tells us that ‘Moab was terrified’ & ‘filled with dread.’ Moab’s leader, King Balak realises that he doesn’t have the resources at his disposal to defeat Israel. He calls on the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites. But Israel’s God has his hand everywhere. He prohibits Balaam. Instead, against his every intention, Balaam ends up pronouncing blessing upon the Lord’s Old Covenant people. Included in these messages of blessing is our text today. It’s the promise of someone who is coming, ‘not now’ but in the future.

Hebrews 1:1 reminds us that, ‘in the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways.’ He really did. Often he spoke to Israel using really faithful men. Here he uses an unfaithful, unbelieving, man, to declare awesome truth. ‘Various ways’ indeed! Israel’s God spoke much truth to that nation. His greatest truth was about his Son. In fact, his greatest truth was, and is, his Son. Hebrews 1:2 continues with the glorious reality of New Covenant days, ‘but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…

Jesus would come to this earth and speak wonderful truth. But, actually, he had more than words of truth. He was truth. He was the embodiment of truth (John 14:6), and the embodiment of God himself (Hebrews 1:3). Now we can really know what God is like. Balaam, in this period of Israel’s developing nationhood, is prophesying about this coming of God’s Messiah, his promised one. He says, ‘I see him’. It’s in the present tense. Why? Because it is certain and definite.

Israel is being led, at this time by a man called Moses. In the future they would have a succession of leaders. Among them were two men, named Joshua and Solomon. Both these men would survey Israel’s past and remind Israel of a truth that is foundational to our Bible, and underpins our faith (see also Joshua 21:45 and 1 Kings 8:56). Joshua, in Joshua 23:14 says this, ‘of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you’, ‘not one… has failed.’ And, if not one of God’s promises can fail, then how secure must his greatest, most extra-ordinary, promise be? It was as certain and as definite when Balaam spoke these words, as it was some 1300 years later, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Balaam says, ‘I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near.’ Though it is definite, it is a way off yet.

He continues; this person, who is coming, will ‘come out of Jacob’ and ‘rise out of Israel.’ God began his series of promises about the Messiah in the accounts recorded in the earliest chapters of our bibles. Have you ever looked through binoculars that were out of focus? You then turned the wheel at the top, and some far off object, gradually came increasingly into focus. That’s basically what Old Testament is. God gradually adds definition to this distant arrival, so that we can see. Every turn of the focus wheel reveals more detail, or confirms things that were previously glimpsed.

Another person who God spoke through was a man called Jacob, who was renamed Israel. His descendants were the ‘Children of Israel’. Jacob was an unpleasant character, whose life was misshapen by sin and selfishness. But the Bible tells us something about Jacob that is awesome. Was it that once he turned his life around, God forgave him? No. Romans 9 tells us that ‘before… (he) had done anything good… I loved him.’ God had ‘mercy on’ him. Jacob didn’t turn his life around. He didn’t have the capability, but his God did. Genesis 49 tells us about Jacob’s death.

What is the last thing you take off before you go to bed at night? The answer? – Your feet off the ground. That is what we find in Genesis 49:33. But it wasn’t the last thing that Jacob did before retiring for the night. It was the last thing he did before he retired from life altogether. The NLT tells us, ‘when Jacob had finished…, he drew his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and joined his ancestors in death.’ So, what had Jacob ‘finished’? What was the second-to-last thing that Jacob did? He told his family where they were to bury him; he read them his will, if you like. But the really important thing is what he did third-to-last. Just before Jacob gave his will to the Children of Israel, he gave them God’s will. How did he do that? Hebrews 11:21 tells us. ‘By faith Jacob, when he was dying…’ gave blessing to his family and, even though he had no strength left to stand in his final hour, yet he, ‘worshipped as he leaned on the top of his staff.’

Through Jacob, God points the finger at one of Jacob’s children, named Judah. Not only was the Messiah coming to Israel, he was coming to the tribe of Judah specifically. Jacob uses the same word as Balaam, the word ‘sceptre’. ‘The sceptre will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his’ (Genesis 49:10). Yes, the focus is being narrowed but, also, we see a glorious expansion. Because Jesus was coming to do something that wouldn’t just impact the nation of Israel, but ‘every nation, tribe, people and language’ (Revelation 7:9).

Through the further unfolding of Old Testament prophecy a descendant of Judah is singled out. A young shepherd called David. He became King of Israel and ‘the hero of Israel’s songs’ (2 Samuel 23:1). David was promised that the Messiah will be one of his descendants, and that God would, ‘establish the throne of his kingdom for ever’ (2 Samuel 7:13). Then the prophet Micah defines the birthplace of Jesus. We find this in Micah 5:2, and it is referenced in our reading from Matthew 2 this morning. It is Bethlehem; ‘for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel’ (Matthew 2:6).

So what is a ‘sceptre’? The Oxford dictionary says that it is ‘an ornamented staff carried by rulers on ceremonial occasions as a symbol of sovereignty’. This idea of a ‘sceptre’ reinforces those prophecies about a ‘ruler’, and about the Messiah’s ‘kingdom’. The baby born in Bethlehem’s stable was going to rule. But not as the head of an earthly kingdom. No. He was going to do something that would bring hope and peace to those who would believe in what he was going to achieve. As Colossians 3:15 tells us, this peace can ‘rule in (the) hearts’ of those who trust in him.

I believe that the ‘star’, that Balaam mentions, also features in Matthew 2. It refers to Jesus himself, much as the sceptre does. It details something about his character and mission. But it also refers to that herald of his coming, the Star of Bethlehem.

But, first, we have to consider these men, described in the NIV as ‘Magi’. Our, English language, Bible translators must have spent countless hours considering how to deal with this one. The AV and the NLT both go with ‘wise men’. Is this accurate? Well, as a literal translation, just focusing only on the Greek word, ‘Magi’ in isolation, no it isn’t. But that isn’t the full story. One of the most literal, word for word, translations is the NASB. Like the NIV, this goes with ‘Magi’. But this isn’t a translation. The (transliteration of the) original Greek word has just been slotted in. It’s as if the translators have gone with Beefy Bert from Horrid Henry (children’s TV programme). ‘Err, I dunno!’ ‘Why don’t you translate it?’

The problem seems to be that the usual way that this word ‘Magi’ is translated, doesn’t quite fit the character and actions of these men. If I asked you to add one letter to ‘M…A…G…I…’ to make a complete word, I think that everyone would do the same. Magic! Because, that is what we have here. It’s Black Magic; ‘the Dark Arts’, if you find that helpful. In fact, the Greek word, ‘magos’ is translated as ‘sorcerer’ in Acts 13, which is the only place in our New Testament where this noun is found outside of Matthew 2. It is used for a character, who is described by the apostle Paul (v.10) as ‘a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right!’ ‘You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery’, he says. In Acts 8:9, we have this Greek word in its only Bible appearance in verb form as ‘mageuō’. It refers to the actions of a character called Simon. In Christian literature you will find him, at times, referred to as Simon Magus. Our NIV, says that he ‘practised sorcery.’ Other translations talk of ‘practicing magic’ (as NASB). Before Simon heard the gospel message that was how he made his living. Simon was a con-man. He wasn’t seeking truth. He delighted in deceiving others with his falsehood. These examples don’t seem to fit well with the Magi of Matthew 2. But actually, essentially, they do. And they highlight the wonder of the Good News that the coming of Jesus into our world would bring.

Yes, when we get to the point in these men’s lives, that we find them at in Matthew 2, they do seem to have developed what we may think of as a ‘more noble character’ (similar to Acts 17:11). But their starting point was not good. Their field of study meant that they were wrapped up in all sorts of dark and destructive things. The American country singer, Johnny Lee, sung about the concept of ‘looking for love in all the wrong places’. These men, for the most part, were employed in looking for truth in all the wrong places. Their relationship with the God of truth, would have been like Paul’s description of other heathens, in Ephesians 2:13. They ‘were far away’.

But they were looking for truth. It appears that they knew this prophecy of Balaam, about the rising star that would come, heralding the sceptre bearer, the King, and most probably, they also had access to the writings of Daniel the prophet, who predicted that this Jewish Messiah would appear during a very narrow period of time (as Daniel 9 – although it is, admittedly, complicated). They knew that the time was now. They studied the stars during their misguided practise of astrology, and noticed something that they had never seen before. They put two and two together, and set off on a considerable journey to the Land of Israel. When they arrive, their spiritual transformation seems almost complete. ‘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’.

During that period of time when Jesus engaged in public ministry he made that wonderful promise – ‘seek and you will find’ (Matthew 7:7). These Magi are a prime example of who can, and who will, seek to find the truth of Jesus. Sadly, Herod, and the chief priests and teachers of the law, mentioned in Matthew 2:4, are a prime example of those who won’t seek and who, consequently, won’t find that Jesus truly saves. These religious teachers studied God’s word, they understood Micah’s prophecy about that little town of Bethlehem. They seemed so close. They were so near and yet so far. Their preconceptions, coupled with their self-interested agendas, blinded them to the light that shone from the pages that they read. How sad?

But what good news we find in the story of these sorcerers. Naturally speaking, they were miles away. Without hope it would seem. But they believed the small amount of God’s prophecy that, by his grace, had come their way. And when they believed, they acted. I believe this is why the AV and NLT both refer to them as ‘wise men’. That is what they had become. It is exactly like Paul said when writing to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:15, about these same Old Testament scriptures, and the message that lay at their heart. He said they, ‘are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.’ How the truth of Ephesians 2:13 had become so true of them. ‘But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near…

These wise men committed wholeheartedly to going the distance. They sought and they found. When they got to their destination looking for a king, their new found faith wasn’t shaken by being shown a young boy. Not only did they worship him, ‘they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.’

I was blessed with hearing shades of gospel truth, as a boy growing up. I’ve now been a baptised believer for over three decades. But when I read the account of these men, who started off in complete darkness, it begs a question of my conscience. Am I willing to go to such lengths in my pursuit of my Lord, my Ruler, and my King? Am I really willing, as they were, to give the very best that I have to Jesus Christ? These are challenging things.

That Star of Bethlehem was full of light. It testified to the light that Jesus would bring into this world, previously lost in the desperate darkness of sin. What is light in this context? Say I was struggling with a math question. I just don’t understand what it all means. So, I ask Auntie Joan because she knows the subject inside out. She helps to explain. I might then say something like, ‘Auntie Joan shed light on the matter’. What I would mean is that she made it possible for me to understand, to know more about what I could not fathom alone.

That is the light that Jesus brings. He can help us fully understand the Lord God Almighty, and show us the way to have renewed relationship with him.

Jesus was honoured by the wise men. They called him the ‘king of the Jews’ soon after his birth. He was born for a mission. He ‘came to seek and to save the lost’ (Luke 19:10). The bringer of light, would achieve this by suffering and dying for the dark, dark sin, of those who would otherwise have been hopelessly lost. He was given the same title when he died as when he was born, but in a much more mocking way. The Roman Governor, ‘Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS.’ (John 19:19). ‘The (Roman) soldiers also came up and mocked him. ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself’, they said (Luke 23:36 & 37). He could have done. Jesus, himself, said, ‘Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?’ (Matthew 26:53-54).

In that Scripture, that is quoted in Matthew 2:6, Jesus is spoken of as ‘a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ David was a shepherd who became king. His life prophesied about his descendant, Jesus. He would be the ultimate shepherd-king. On Calvary’s cross, he could have chosen to save himself, but he would have lost his sheep. As he had promised to do (John 10:11), ‘the good shepherd (laid) down his life for the sheep.’

By his death he has ‘destroyed’ (2 Timothy 1:10) those formidable enemies of his people; sin and death. This is how Balaam’s prophecy ends. The rest of his fourth message, and his fifth, and sixth, and seventh are all taken up with this single theme of ‘utter destruction’ (Numbers 24:20). Israel never saw fulfilment of such a comprehensive victory. But the church of Christ has. What should this mean for us? I’ll finish with the Apostle Paul’s take on the matter. This is 2 Timothy 1:9-10 from the NLT.

For God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time—to show us his grace through Christ Jesus. And now he has made all of this plain to us by the appearing of Christ Jesus, our Saviour. He broke the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the Good News'.

May Christ Jesus, our Saviour, be ‘the hero of (our) songs’.


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