Now when 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 have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.’” Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; 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.” When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; 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. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
When Mark Twain published his novel Tom Sawyer, a man accosted him in a hotel lobby complaining, “Mr. Twain, I wish I’d never read your novel!” Taken aback, Mr. Twain asked why. To which the man replied, “So I could read it all again the first time!”
Do you ever feel like that with the Christmas story? Have we read it so often it has lost its first surprise? Today let’s reread the saga of the coming of the wise men and see if we can rediscover that old amaze. In doing so, let’s consider three things: 1. The myths, 2. The reality, and 3. The practical implications.
First of all, consider some of the facts popularly known about the visit of the Magi. There are at least eight.
- There were three wise men.
- They were kings.
- They were from the Orient.
- Their names were Caspar, Melchoir, and Bathazar.
- One was a black man.
- They visited Jesus in a stable.
- They were astrologers who followed a comet-like star to Bethlehem. And
- They visited December 25 around 1 A.D.
Amazingly enough all eight of these notions are probably false. Consider!
1. “There were three wise men.” Verse one simply says wise men visited. No number is given. It is in verse 11 that we’re told that the wise men gave three gifts. So we make the assumption there were three givers. But two men can give three gifts.
Fact is, there is one tradition saying there were twelve wise men. In reality, no one can say how many there were. At least two.
2. “They were kings.” Verse one calls them “wise men.” The Greek word is “magus.” This means they were skilled philosophers, soothsayers, interpreters of dreams, holy men who sought for truth.
The near East is home to the ancient religion of Zoroasteranism.
This religion built step pyramids known as ziggaretts. Priests perched atop them to study the night sky in an effort to divine the future. The Magi were such students who believed their destiny was written in the stars.
3. “They were from the Orient. This comes from the hymn, “We Three Kings of Orient are bearing gifts..,” Verse one simply says they were “from the East.” Jewish persons would have understood the East as Persia or Afghanistan not China or India.
4. “Their names were Caspar, Melchoir, and Bathazar.” Such names are only legendary, not biblical. Did you know Kolon Cathedral in Germany claims to have the tomb of one of the wise men? Christendom is full of such lore that is not authenticated in Scripture.
5. “One was a black man.” This is not likely. There were from the East. Africa is to the South.
6. “They visited Jesus in the manger.” The traditional creche included baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, a wide variety of animals, and three wise men. Yet verse 11 explains the wise men found Jesus in a “house” not a stable. Likely as soon as the census was over and the crowds thinned Joseph secured better quarters.
Verse 11 also refers to Christ as a “child.” The Greek is “paidion” not the usual Greek “brephos” for “baby.” In every likelihood Jesus could have been as much as two years old. Evidently King Herod thought so, for in verse 16 he ordered the slaughter of boys aged two and under hoping to kill Jesus in the process.
7. “The wise men followed a comet-like star to Bethlehem.”
It is possible the star of Bethlehem was a super-nova or exploding star. This is a normal star in the heavens that suddenly brightens for a time and is extinguished.
Others say they followed a comet that rode across the heavens for a season. We do know that Haley’s comet appeared in 11 B.C..
The text, however, tells us three things about the star. 1. It was visible in the east. 2. It was something the wise men saw, yet others seemed not to notice, and 3. The star went before them coming to rest over Bethlehem’s cradle.
While some have raised the possibility the star-sign was a rare planetary conjunction of three heavenly bodies including Jupiter, Venus and Saturn that occurred in 7 B.C., we shouldn’t rule out a more miraculous star sent by God to lead the way.
8. “Jesus was born December 25, 1 A.D.. Verse one tells us Herod was king when Jesus was born. Now Herod ruled from 47 B.C. to early in 4 B.C..
Luke 2 also tells us shepherds were “abiding in the fields” with their flocks on the night of Christ’s nativity. Shepherds only do this in summer months because of the cold.
So, according to the best evidence, Jesus was birthed in the summer before 5 B.C.. How then do we get His birthday December 25?
Well, December 21 is the time of the longest night. Ancient pagans were fearful the sun would leave entirely. So they held a wildly orgiastic fertility ritual each year in an effort to entice this sun to return. Christians confronting their world with the gospel chose this period of the year to celebrate Jesus, “the Light of the world.” And so it has been ever since.
Well, that’s something of the myth, what didn’t happen. Now this– the truth– what really happened.
About a year ago I spent several weeks in Israel. I found spiritual mayhem. Jews, Muslims, Christians of every stripe, B’Hai’s were all milling about in rising anger and confusion. They were squabbling over which day was holy, who had rights to the religious sights, and, of course, they argued over land, oil, and water. I tell you, the Mid East is a babel of voices, a clash of values, a cacophony of ideology.
Is it hopeless? No. For God is working His purposes out. Hebrews 1:1 informs us, “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers…” Fact is, God is a relational Lord. He loves people and is declaring His presence among the nations. One can see this in the Christmas story.
Now, the wise men had their own religion. They were Magi– learned, respected men of wealth and stature from the East. Yet it was not enough. They were hungry for more. So they set off on the journey of a lifetime.
T.S. Eliot in his poem, “Journey of the Magi,” wrote,
“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of year for a journey,
And such a long journey…
…with the voices singing in our ears,
Saying that this was all folly.”
Now, to the text to see just how God wooed this company of Magi to behold His face in Christ.
Verse 2 explains how God used a star to get the wise men moving toward Jesus. Psalm 19 reminds us, “The heavens proclaim the glory of God.” In other words, creation bespeaks of a Creator. John Donne called nature “God’s greatest evangelist.”
This summer a CNN reporter was in the Sinai wilderness viewing the Leonid meteor shower. He said, “Three thousand years ago in these hills, the psalmist said ‘When I consider the heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou hast made, what is man that Thou art mindful of him?’ It was just as humbling beneath those same heavens this evening.”
Verses 2-3 explain how the wise men came to Jerusalem to King Herod to inquire of the new King’s birth. Makes sense, eh? Go to the capitol. Ask the priests, the king.
Psalm 32:9 admonishes us to “Be not like a horse… without understanding which must be curbed with a bit…” Use your head. Use your common sense.
The wise men did so.
It was in Jerusalem that the priests gave the wise men their clearest guidance. And they did so by using Scripture. In verse 6 they quoted Micah the prophet, chapter 5, verse 2.
It seems that centuries ago a prophet raised his eyes one star-lit night and prayed, “O God, is there hope?” And the voice of God came to him, “Yes, Micah, there is hope.”
“But when and where?” He cried.
Back came God’s answer, “In Bethlehem.”
“But it’s such a tiny place.”
And again God spoke, “And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah, for out of thee shall come a governor, that shall rule my people Israel.”
Scripture is still the clearest way God speaks to Christians today.
Tongues are okay. Dreams are fine. Experiences are wonderful. But it was Scripture that got the wise men to Bethlehem. And it is still the overreaching authority of Scripture that teaches us Jesus Christ.
Thank God that here in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church we still hold the Bible to be, “The only infallible rule of faith and practice.” It supercedes reason, tradition, ecstacy and all else!
Verses 2-3 tell us how the Magi came to Herod asking, “Where is He born, King of the Jews?”
Now Herod was the Jew’s king! And he was a murderous old man. Having sat on the throne over forty years, Herod was paranoid and controlling. If he suspected anyone of rivaling his authority he killed them. Herod assassinated his wife, his mother-in-law, and three sons, causing Caesar to complain, “It is safer to be Herod’s pig than son.”
So, the wise men foolishly blundered into Herod’s paranoid and murderous domain inquiring of a new king’s birth.
Do you see the sovereignty of God here? Matthew 2 and Luke 2 tell us that a pagan king’s decree gets Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem where Christ is born to fulfill ancient prophecy. Clearly God is working His purposes out in society. And nothing is beyond the scope of His Majesty. No king. No law. No journey. No taxes. No thing is able to thwart God’s plan.
Verse 12 teaches God went beyond nature and common sense, kings, and Scripture. He guided the wise men in dreams.
If we’re honest, each of us, after quiet reflection, can testify to intensely personal experiences we’ve had with God’s Spirit– nocturnal dreams, waking visions, quiet nudgings of God guiding us onward.
I became a writer on Emory University’s campus in the spring of 1973. Sitting on a stone bench, musing, there God commissioned me to write. It’s hard to talk about even thirty years later. But is all still very real.
So it is that “in many and various ways God spoke of old” to the wise men (Hebrews 1:1). He voiced His call upon their lives, He beckoned them to Bethlehem’s Child in nature, dreams, prophets, kings and Scripture. All these wooings brought them to Jesus where with joy they knelt to worship, opened their treasure, and returned home by a different way.
What a picture of the changed life!
Four or five quick abiding truths of practical import for yours and my life.
1. The story of Herod, Christ, and the Magi shows that our sinfulness comes as no surprise to God.
Herod is an old man irrationally paranoid over a future King’s birth. Why, logically, Herod would be long dead before Jesus even grew up to reign. Yet he orders the slaughter of all boy babies two and under.
Our world hasn’t changed much in 2,000 years. The Columbine School massacre, nearly a million babies aborted a year, work place shootings, and ethnic cleansing. If there is one doctrine easy to believe it is total depravity.
But to us God gave Jesus’ birth.
2. God is wooing all nations unto Himself. Wherever we begin– in some East, atop any Ziggaret, a vaulted Magi– we are beckoned in many ways by God to Christ’s cradle in Bethlehem. He is calling to you. Come! See! Believe!
3. God is able to guide you to Himself.
In William Cullen Bryant’s poem, “To A Waterfowl” there is this:
“He who from zone to zone
Guides through the boundless sky
Thy certain flight,
Will in the long way I must tread alone,
Guide my steps aright.”
All of our universe points to Jesus! Every star, every verse of Scripture!
4. We need to be sensitive. God may use our work, our lips, to help others to Christ.
5. And finally, spiritual journeys are best taken in groups. It is “the wise men” not “the wise man.” Get with other hungry seekers and find your way to Christ.
In closing, the most popular Christmas song ever written is, “White Christmas.” Over 500 versions of it have been rendered from Perry Como to Barbara Streisand to the London Philharmonic.
And our text is one of the most popular versions of the Christmas telling. Yet each of us must live our own version of it. For we all start far away in some Eastern fog of man-made religion and must respond in spiritual hunger to begin the journey of a lifetime that leads us to Christ, to kneeling worship and joy.
Lord, bring me to faith in Jesus. Amen