Living in Israel for nine years gave me the opportunity to look at Christmas differently than the Christian tradition with which I grew up in the West. Since worshipping with Messianic believers, I have come to believe that Christmas should more appropriately be celebrated as "Incarnation Day." It is a celebration of Jesus first coming—in human flesh as God incarnate—to "dwell among" us. Nevertheless, the multiple stories in the Bible surrounding the birth of Christ reveal insights into God's ways and Christian truth. Let's look at one taken from Matthew chapter two. How can we better understand God's ways by examining this story?
Matthew 2:1 - 11
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "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."
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 'In Bethlehem in Judea,' they replied, 'for this is what the prophet has written: "But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel."
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, 'Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.'
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
I. The Journey of the Wise.
The Magi mentioned here belong to an earlier class of Eastern sages whose researches were sincere and earnest. They were not like Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8 who was rebuked by Peter at Samaria or Elymus who was rebuked by Paul in Acts 13. They were more like Daniel, who had been president of a college of philosophers who studied astrology, interpretations of dreams and occult. Therefore with a special academically motivated interest they watched the stars.
By the sign of the star Christ communicated to these wise men before they came to Him. This is true of all worshippers; we must all be drawn. "No one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God" (I Corinthians 2:10). "No one can say, 'Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit'" (I Corinthians 12:3). We cannot see or find Him unless he reveals Himself. The good news is that He does reveal Himself. He does communicate. That is definite. The indefinite things is: will we listen? Will we catch or understand it?
As Jesus adapted Himself to Jewish shepherds who believed in angels, to fishermen by the miraculous draught of fishes, to the sick by healing them and to all common hearers by His understandable parables, so did He draw these astrologers to Himself by condescending to their favorite science. On those nights of research and observation the Word came to new life and it could be said that "The heavens declare the glory of God." (Psalm 19:1)
Notice how God helped them twice with the star, supernaturally, but in between these miracles they themselves must prove their desires by usual and natural means. The star got them started, then it disappeared some time before they arrived at Jerusalem. We should not rely on extraordinary means when ordinary means are available and at our disposal. It was only when they had traced the matter as far as they could, and started toward Bethlehem from Jerusalem, that the star reappeared. Even though they arrived in Bethlehem, where would they go? At a loss, humanly speaking, they may have been at wits end, but they were not at faith's end. They trusted God and began. And then the star reappeared, "the star which they saw in the east went before them."
If we go as far as we can in the way of duty, God will direct us and help us in what we cannot do for ourselves. God is more likely to give His aid to the active, rather than the idle, and unmotivated. Those that keep going when the star goes out will find that it will reappear. Has your star disappeared? Has your miraculous sign gone away? Will you continue anyway?
The wise men came from a far country to worship Christ, while the people of Jerusalem, Jesus' own kinsmen would not stir a step. They would not go even just to the next town to welcome their king. The chief priests and scribes knew about Jesus' birth because Herod had consulted with them and learned that Bethlehem was the place. So, why didn't they too go to Bethlehem? Today, just as then it is sad that many more know about Christ than are worshipping Him.
The eastern travelers could have become discouraged to have come so far, but not find many worshippers. May we, like them, learn to worship Him even if we do so alone. If they will not go the heaven with us, yet we must not go to hell with them. Others may be in a position to worship or serve Jesus more easily than we, but we will not be discouraged by their indifference.
Herod called on the scribes and chief priests who did the right thing. They answered from the Scriptures. Without the light of Scripture all the stars in the sky will not suffice to clear away the darkness. When the miracles disappear let's find Jesus as He appears in the Scripture.
Centuries earlier, Israel was led by a pillar of fire to the promised land. Now the wise men were led by a star to the promised Savior. And for you and me, He Himself belongs to us and He is "the bright and morning star."
As Peter says, "We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts." I Peter 1:19
II. The Terror of Herod
The scepter had left the tribe of Judah years before. Though the Jews had rulers, yet no king from David's line had reigned sovereignly since before the captivity in Babylon. The Maccabees led Israel for a time between the testaments. They were of the tribe of Levi. But an Idumean dynasty then ruled the Jews for a time and it evolved into the Herodian dynasty—circumcised, partly pagan and barbarian though outwardly civilized. Who were the Idumeans? They pertained to Edom. This is a term employed by Greeks and Romans for the country of Edom. They were descendants of Esau—Edom.
The former dynasties, the Maccabees, ruled with a consciousness that they would bear responsibility only until the 'coming prophet" would rule. Then they would welcome their Messiah. But Herod recognized no such right of the Messiah, though he knew of the prophecies about him.
Therefore, for Herod to hear of the "king of the Jews" was more than just a threat to his throne and more than mere political dread. Religious and moral pangs would have gripped him with awareness that the Messiah—One who would judge both that nation and the world—was born. When such a tyrant as Herod was alarmed, his whole capitol could not but be also alarmed. No wonder he "was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him."
Herod could have been and would have been a better person had he too worshipped Jesus. When we worship Jesus, we become better people. When we don't worship Jesus, people are troubled.
Notice the paradox: The helpless little baby Christ in the cradle was a terror to an unjust monarch on his throne.
This serves to illustrate that the living Savior ever puts the old Adam in terror and threatens to drive him from his throne. There is a part of Herod in each of us and Christ can confront him. So the drama of the centuries continues; Jacob and Esau fight on. The seed of Jacob—Christ—and the seed of Esau—Herod. Which one will win in your heart?
Herod "found out from them the exact time the star had appeared." Herod later used this intelligence in his attempt to destroy his competition. He had asked the Magi when the star appeared and, by killing children two years old and younger, the text indirectly informs us, the readers, that the star had either appeared two years earlier than the arrival of the Magi in Jerusalem or that Jesus was already a two-year old.
So Herod was angry; "disturbed." Think about Herod's lack of self-control. Just as it was unfair for Herod, who could not control his emotions and selfish anger, by his ill temper to cause all of Jerusalem to be troubled with him, using the same logic though on a smaller scale, it is unfair for parents or persons in any other position of responsibility and authority, to cause children or others to be uncomfortable just because the parent cannot control his or her emotions or anger. Again, there is a little bit of Herod in all of us. Let's kill it. We unjustly make others uncomfortable when we are angry and do not control our emotions. Take a lesson from Herod's bad example. Let's grow up. Learn self-control.
I notice a curious inconsistency in the character of Herod. He had faith in the letter of the Scripture to realize that a rightful king and Messiah would come and had come. But now he was resistant to God's degree in it. Herod believed a Messiah would come, possibly had come, but instead of worshipping as would be the natural conclusion, against all logic, Herod refused the Christ and tried to kill Him. If the Messiah is not from God, don't fear Him; if He is from God, bow before Him.
Since the wise men saw the star again as they left the king, it must have been evening or night. Perhaps it was evening or night when Herod called them back for the second visit planning to make them unknowingly do the work of spies; intending that they would play informers parts to his murderous plot.
The extent of Herod's anger at being mocked (vs. 16) is shown by killing all male children two years old and younger. Which of these two do we want to be like? We can rigorously overcome all obstacles and worship Jesus as the wise men did, or we can resent His authority and Kingship. We identify with either the wise men or Herod. We either worship Jesus or are threatened by Him.
III. The Worship at Bethlehem.
The trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem is a beautiful illustration. God's guidance is always towards Christ.
"When they saw the star, they were overjoyed." Man will disappoint us; God never will. We cannot expect too little from man nor too much from God.
Note how joyfully they followed God's direction. Now they, in turn, could laugh at the people in Jerusalem who had laughed at them as though they had come on a fools errand. "Let the heart of those rejoice that seek the Lord." Ps 105:3
They could have been but were not disappointed to find just a house, not a mansion. "Is this the king of the Jews?" Yes, this is He, who, "though he was rich," yet, "for our sakes he became poor." They were not detoured, but saw beyond the simple physical circumstances and by using their spiritual eyes discerned "the glory as of the only begotten of the Father." How many times do things turn out differently than we expected? Can we learn to look beyond the common material appearance and see the glory of God hidden, yet revealed, in God's handiwork?
The salvation of the world in the form of a child was concealed yet revealed. God still does that. Do you see His glory or is it hidden to you? What do you need to do differently to see it?
It was a "House," not a stable, as any reasonable innkeeper or friendly shepherd would do under those circumstances. The family evidently, understandably, moved from the stable to the house.
Finally, after two years of research, preparation, travel and success over obstacles, they saw the Christ child. Notice the order, the sequence, in their worship:
First they presented themselves. They fell down and worshipped Him. We do not read that they honored Herod that way even though he was in the height of his royal grandeur. But to this babe they gave rightful honor, not only as King, but as God.
Secondly, they presented their gifts. In eastern nations gifts were given as tokens of homage or declarations of one nation's subjugation to another greater king or kingdom. These men brought gifts to Jesus. In that sense may we bring Him our gifts—making Him our king.
God will accept our offerings, but first of all He wants our hearts (as expressed in worship.) Let us follow the example of these wise men.
Their gifts seem to portray a deep symbolic meaning to the life and mission of Jesus. They presented:
1. Gold – as to a king, they paid Him tribute.
2. Frankincense – as to God, deity was honored by incense.
3. Myrrh – as to a man to die, Myrrh was used for embalming the dead.
Swaddling clothes were also wrapped around dead bodies and Mary wrapped the new-born Jesus in swaddling clothes. Jesus came to die. That was His purpose.
Note also how in these gifts God provided for the poor earthly parents of Jesus who were about to have unusual and unexpected travel, food, and lodging expenses in fleeing to Egypt. God knew about their need before they did. And He knows about ours too.
The wise men heard from God in a dream. They knew how to interpret stars and now they demonstrate that they either quickly learned or also knew how to pay attention to dreams. And the dream took them home by a different route. After worship they went back a different route. Does this same thing happen to us? After we have been with Christ, does having been in His presence affect our direction in life, does it influence where we go, and where we no longer go?
Herod had instructed them to bring him word again, and probably they would have except for the warning they received from God. The expression in the original language, however, seems to imply a former inquiry. They must have asked of God. Possible they had become suspicious from the contrast between the uncomfortable impression produced by the wicked king and the peaceful and spiritual feeling awakened in the presence of Jesus. They were unknowingly to have been spies, but God would have it otherwise. God will lead in the right way those who act cautiously, if they apply themselves to God for direction.
They went home. They did not stay. They had accomplished their mission. We do not hear of them worshipping later in the temple whom they now worshipped at the cradle, but is that necessary in the worship of an omnipresent God? He is, after all, everywhere.
We should be persistent in our worship. The wise men were persistent and steadfast in their determination to worship the new king; examples we should follow. True worshippers overcome obstacles to complete their intention to worship:
1. They did not find the new-born king in the capital city—Jerusalem.
2. They found a worldly-minded tyrant ruling the Jews.
3. They found representatives of the religious system indifferent and unbelieving.
4. They were directed to the poor village of Bethlehem.
5. In Bethlehem they were directed to a house, not a mansion.
Yet they worshipped and presented gifts. If we are looking for an excuse not to worship or serve Christ we probably could find some, but if we want, we can overcome each of them.
- We should not be stubborn or rigid in our views. We do not know if they saw the star two years before Jesus was born and the Jesus they saw was a new-born infant or if they saw the star when Jesus was born and the Jesus they saw was two years old. Luke does not even mention the trip to Egypt. He says that after the dedication and purification at Jerusalem, they went to Nazareth, not to Bethlehem. How many things about God and His Word may be actually different than we had thought? Dogmatic and stubbornly held opinions may be evidence of shallow thinking and an unteachable heart.