Question: "What does it mean that the magi saw His star in the east (Matthew 2:2)?"
Answer: Part of the Christmas story is the visit of the magi. Some time after Jesus was born, wise men from the east arrived in Jerusalem asking, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him” (Matthew 2:2, NKJV). In order to understand the significance of that event, one has to go back in time more than a thousand years prior to the birth of Jesus.
During the time of exodus, there was a ruler of Moab named Balak (Numbers 22:4). He saw how the Israelites had defeated the Amorites, and he was afraid. Balak and the Moabites began to feel the threat of the people of Israel moving closer. Balak sent word to a prophet named Balaam and asked him to curse the people of Israel on Moab’s behalf (Numbers 22:6). God instructed Balaam to refuse the invitation (Numbers 22:12). But, after several exchanges between Balak’s messengers and Balaam, Balaam finally went to meet with Balak (Numbers 22:21). Despite God’s displeasure with Balaam and after God’s miraculous deliverance of Balaam’s life by the voice of his donkey (Numbers 22:22–35), God allowed Balaam to present a message to Balak.
God’s message to Balak was not what the king wanted. There was no curse of Israel, only blessing. Included in the oracle was a prediction that a star shall come forth from Jacob and a scepter would rise from Israel (Numbers 24:17). While the message spoke in part of the coming judgment on Moab, it also reminded the world that there would one day be a King in Israel who would lead the people to victory and judgment on Israel’s enemies.
Sometime after Jesus was born (Matthew 2:1a), magi (Gr. magos) from the east came to Jerusalem to find that King (Matthew 2:2a). Tradition tells us that the wise men may have been three in number, that they were from three different nations, and other interesting embellishments, but the biblical text simply records that these wise men were from the east (Matthew 2:1), and they all seemingly came from one country (Matthew 2:12). The magi journeyed west to find the prophesied King because they saw His star in the east (Matthew 2:2).
The magi recognized that the star they saw signified that the King of prophecy had arrived. They followed the star to Bethlehem until it was directly overhead the Christ Child’s location (Matthew 2:9). They “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” when they saw the star above (Matthew 2:10, ESV), and they came to the house where Mary and Jesus were.
Upon entering the house the star had led them to, the magi presented their gifts to Jesus and began to worship Him. They had met the One they recognized as the King of the Jews and the fulfillment of prophecy (Matthew 2:2, 11).
In contrast to the magi’s reaction to the birth of Christ is that of King Herod (the Roman-appointed ruler in Jerusalem). Herod heard that the magi had come to Jerusalem looking for the King of the Jews. He reached out to them secretly to inquire when they had first seen the star in the east (Matthew 2:7). He then tried to deceive them into thinking that he also wanted to worship this newborn King, but God warned the magi of Herod’s deception. Rather than report Jesus’ location back to Herod, the magi went home another route (Matthew 2:12).
Matthew does not make it clear whether the star the magi saw in the east is the same star predicted through Balaam, but there was a star predicted to rise in Israel, and that star would be associated with the King (Numbers 24:17). The magi rightly calculated that the particular star they saw from the east would lead them to the King of the Jews. Perhaps God communicated something directly to them (as He did in Matthew 2:12). Perhaps they also knew of Daniel’s prophecy concerning the timing of the King’s birth (Daniel 9:25). Perhaps they just recognized a connection to Balaam’s prophecy. In any case, the magi got it right: they were guided by “His star in the east,” and they arrived at the exact place where the newborn King of the Jews was staying.