READ : Matthew 2:1-11
Welcome to this special program for Christmas. Let’s listen to David Bast as he turns again to the world’s best-loved story and brings into focus once more the true meaning of Christmas.
It’s Christmas again, and all over the world, hundreds of millions of people are doing exactly the same thing: celebrating the birth of the Christ-child. Amidst the splendor of stained glass and stone in a European cathedral, under a thatched roof in the African bush, within the walls of a humble house in a Chinese village, across the length and breadth of North and South America, in huge churches and tiny chapels alike – everywhere the spirit is the same. The same story is retold, a story about a stable and a baby in a manger, and angels appearing to shepherds, and wisemen journeying from afar to worship the new-born king. The same song is lifted to heaven: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth.”
In a way it seems incredible that this birth should be marked and remembered as the central event of history, for nothing could have been more obscure than what happened on the first Christmas. Think about it – a poor peasant girl gives birth to a baby one night in a dirty little corner of the world. Hardly anybody noticed; there weren’t any media present to record the event, no reporters, no cameras. And if there had been, who would even have paid attention? Would any journalist have left his comfortable Jerusalem hotel that night to run down a lead in Bethlehem? Yet that’s where the event that changed the world took place, and we rejoice in it and celebrate it still.
The first to worship were the angels, the heavenly host who lit up Bethlehem’s midnight skies with their carols of praise. They told a group of shepherds tending their flocks out on the hillsides, and these men came to see the newborn Savior in the stable. But later on, others came to worship the child too. Matthew tells us about them in the second chapter of his Gospel:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” . . . And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” . . . And behold, the star that they had seen . . . went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. . . . And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.
We Three Kings?
Who were these strangers who came to do homage to the King of the Jews? Christians still sing about them in a popular carol that we have to confess is just a bit misleading: “We three kings of Orient are: Bearing gifts we traverse afar.”
The first line of that song makes three different claims about the magi, and of the three only one is certainly true: They were from the Orient. The word orient is literally “the place of the sun’s rising,” so it refers to anyplace to the east, in this case, to the east of Jerusalem.
The song’s next claim is that there were three magi, and that’s the way they were always depicted in the Nativity scenes. But Matthew doesn’t say anything about their number. He does mention three gifts, but to assign one man per gift is to make an assumption which may or may not be true.
And as for their being kings, the Bible doesn’t say anything about that. The fact is, our ideas about these mysterious visitors from the east owe a lot more to artistic imagination and to legend than they do to Scripture.
Over the centuries, Christian tradition described these wisemen with remarkable detail. They were given names: Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. One was said to be 20, one 40, one 60; one was white, one was black, and one was brown. It was also said that the apostle Thomas found them many years later living in India and baptized all three; eventually they were martyred for the Christian faith, and their bones are preserved today at the cathedral of Cologne in Germany – or so it is claimed. All of this is simply legendary, but the legends do point to a real and important truth because the magi are in a way the first-fruits of the gentiles. They represent all the different nations and races of humanity that would eventually come to worship the Lord Jesus.
So the legendary view is in a sense the true view of them. What do we really know about them? We often call them the wisemen, because that’s the name the King James Bible gives them, but the Greek term is magi, from which the English word magician comes. Magi were priest-sages who most commonly came from ancient Persia. Such men were skilled in the study of the stars and the movements of the heavenly bodies, and in the interpretation of dreams and other secret arts. Magi, in short, were a bit of a mixed bag, combining elements of medicine and magic, astrology and astronomy. Some were almost like scientists, students of ancient wisdom; others were more like magicians who dealt in the dark business of the occult. Yet it was to such men that God chose to reveal the birth of his Son.
The story of the magis’ visit to Bethlehem illustrates two important truths for us. The first one is a truth about God: that God is condescending. That’s a word that often carries a negative connotation. It offends us when people who think they’re better than we are behave in a condescending manner toward us. But, of course, God truly is better and higher than we are – infinitely so! So when he condescends to us, when he comes down to our level, that’s a wonderful thing! God doesn’t make us struggle to reach him; he lowers himself to us. This is demonstrated supremely in the central fact of the Christmas story, namely, that God chose to enter our world as a human being. The Bible says of Christ that
though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped and held onto, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
You can’t humble yourself any more than that. Imagine what it took for the God of the universe to come down and be born into our world as a tiny, helpless baby!
But then he goes still further, lowering himself to our capacity in order to tell us about it. God is like a mother, cooing to her infant in baby-talk in order to communicate her love the only way the child can grasp. God comes to us as we are, on whatever level we may be living, using whatever means we can understand, to make himself known to us. The magi understood the heavens, so the Lord led them by a star. He reaches out to people in all sorts of places and by all sorts of means that we wouldn’t expect him to use. He can reach out to the followers of any religion, or to people with no religion at all, and bring them to Jesus. God is condescending. That’s the truth.
The other truth this story teaches us is a truth about ourselves. The magi were obviously gentiles. Jesus was born, as they themselves said, the king of the Jews. But his kingship was not intended for just one race or tribe. The blessings of his reign – peace and joy and hope – are meant for everyone. Jesus is the Light of the whole world, and the magi represent a sort of preview of all the different peoples who have come, and who continue to come, to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Why did they come? What drew them on? Yes, they were curious. They were intrigued by the star. But imagine the time and effort their journey cost them; think of the obstacles in their way, the hunger and thirst, the fatigue, the expense, the danger. And still they persisted in their search. Why? It certainly wasn’t out of ambition or desire for gain. “We saw his star,” they said, “and have come to worship him” (v. 2). I don’t think they would have gone to all that trouble just to honor another earthly prince, do you?
It was something different that must have attracted them, something that gave them cause to hope, for this child would be different. This king would bring the reign of God himself into the world. His name would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, and of his government there would be no end” (see Is. 9:6-7). Somehow the wisemen sensed this; maybe they saw it in the stars! It gave them hope, and hope drew them on, and faith gave them strength to continue.
No Bible, no prophets, no long history with God, just a hint from the heavens, and off they went, pressing onward through the weeks and across the miles. They went to worship Christ, even when Herod and the leaders of his own people showed no interest in doing so. They believed even when they saw that the King they were expecting was just a little baby on a poor mother’s lap in a humble village house. There was no apparent greatness here, no obvious majesty, but still “they bowed down and worshiped him” and “they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts” (v. 11).
But the real gift of the magi wasn’t contained in any box. It was the gift they gave as they knelt in glad and humble adoration. It was the gift of themselves, of their love, their hearts, their lives. It was, in fact, the same gift that the Lord wants from you. If these wise men, with so little to go on, could give Christ the worship of heart and treasure, of time and effort, can’t you and I, who know so much more, do so as well?