READ : Matthew 2:1-11
Welcome to this special Christmas program. Today David Bast turns again to one of the
best-loved stories, the story of the magi’s visit to Bethlehem. He 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 newborn 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, and 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 when it rose 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.
Matthew 2:1-11, esv
h4. 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
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 any place 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’re 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 wise men 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. And yet it was to such men that God chose to reveal the birth
of his Son.
h4. Two Truths
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_. Now that’s a word that often
carries a negative connotation, doesn’t it? 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 is 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. So 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.
And 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 Christ Jesus.
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, another kind of king altogether. 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 wisemen, 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?