No Middle Ground
The magis’ challenge to seek and submit to Christ–Matthew 2:1-12
You’ve said it—“put up or shut up.” No sitting on the fence. Pick a team. Choose a side. Make a decision. There is no middle ground. You see, Christmas is not a nice holiday, because this holiday demands you make a decision about Christ.
No more “those beliefs are fine for you, but they don’t work for me.” If Jesus is God, if Jesus is Creator, if Jesus is the only way, the only truth, the only life and no one will come to God the Father except through Christ–if there is salvation in no other name, if there is no other way for you to go to Heaven and avoid eternal torment burning Hell except through Christ–then Christmas is a desperate time of decision with no middle ground.
This is exactly what the magi proved about Christ in Matthew chapter 2. Open your Bible to Matthew 2 and follow along in your outlines as we expose what God meant by what God said in the only objective certain truth there is–the Word of God, the Bible, the most published book ever written.
What’s going on in Matthew 2? The world is Rome in all her splendor, bordered on the west by the Atlantic, on the east by the Euphrates, on the north by the Danube, on the south by the Sahara Desert. The Roman Empire was as vast as it was vicious. Political intrigue, racial tension, increased immorality, and enormous military might occupied everyone’s attention.
The nation of Israel existed under the crush of this awesome empire. All eyes were on Augustus, the cynical Caesar who demanded a census to determine how much he can raise taxes. At that very moment in history, a couple was making an eighty-mile trip south from Nazareth. Yet the baby born to this couple will radically revolutionize history–far more than Caesar. Yet who cares about a Jew baby born in Bethlehem? God did.
Without realizing it, mighty Augustus was only a tiny tool in the hand of God to fulfill biblical prophecy. While Rome was busy making history, God arrived. God pitched His fleshly tent in silence–on straw, in a stable, under a star. The world didn’t even notice. Reeling in the wake of Alexander the Great, Herod the Great, Augustus the Great, the world overlooked Mary’s little Lamb. And it still does. Yet there is no middle ground. Reject Christ or receive Christ, but don’t consider him a nice story.
For a few, Jesus represents a religion that makes demands you don’t like and makes claims you reject. But there are others who have been so internally transformed by Christ, they surrender their life to Him. Ignore Christ or adore Christ, but don’t put him away with your nativity set. There is no middle ground.
Caesar, the innkeeper, the Jewish leaders ignored Christ. But there were others in the first century who sought Him out and they press you to embrace him too. A few strange men traveled a long way just to see this infant King. They press you to not remain in the middle ground of indecision or indifference. They were the wise men, talked about in Matthew 2:1 to 12. Who were they?
#1 Their IDENTITY
In Matthew 2:1 to 2, you briefly meet this band of travelers who have mystified Christians for centuries. Look at verse 1, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the East, and have come to worship Him.’” The magi, also called wise men, seemed to materialize out of nowhere.
The Bible gives us few details. What country did they came from, what system of belief did they represent, or how did they know the meaning of the star they had seen. They just show up, leave their gifts, then disappear. In addition to little info, a lot of wrong traditions about these men have been passed on, leaving most people totally confused.
They’re not three kings–they were magi, kingmakers. Frankincense is not an eastern monster story, it’s a precious perfume. There were not three wise men–they gave three gifts, but the number of men is unknown. The wise men do not belong in your manger scene. They didn’t show up at the stable–by the time they arrived, the Bible tells us Mary, Joseph and Jesus were in a house.
“We three kings of Orient are” is all wrong–not kings, kingmakers. Not the Orient, just east. Not three, just three gifts. So in your manger set, move your wise men across the room so they appear on their way. Who were the magi? Our words magic and magistrate come from the name magi, which tells us what they did in ancient times.
The magi were esteemed for their amazing intuition, wisdom, knowledge, and abilities. They rose to places of prominence in three great kingdoms, acting as the chief advisors to the kings–actually appointing some of the kings of the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, and Greek empires. Their heyday lasted from about the sixth century B.C. through the time of Christ, and that’s why you can read about them in the book of Daniel, where they’re seen serving in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. This is the strongest clue as to how the magi knew to anticipate the birth of Christ.
Nebuchadnezzar was the Babylonian king who conquered Israel starting in 605 B.C. From the Jewish nation, he handpicked choice men and had them serve in his court. These included Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. In a sense, they became the magis’ rivals. In Daniel 1, Daniel made an early favorable impression on Nebuchadnezzar by doing what the magi were supposed to be best at–interpreting a dream in Daniel 2.
Because of this extraordinary miracle, the king made Daniel the master of the magi. Knowing Daniel’s incredible character and zeal for God, you can be certain Daniel had an incredible impact upon the magi, helping them understand the true God and the 300 Old Testament promises of a coming King and Savior.
Plus, many godly Jews didn’t return to Israel, but stayed in Babylon, intermarried, and founded synagogues, even after the king allowed them to return home. In other words, the magi learned from Daniel and other dispersed Jews about the coming Christ. And that longing survived until the star appeared.
As a result, you find magi at the birth of Christ familiar with Bible prophecy and seeking the true God. They were seeking Christ, the promised Messiah. Now you don’t have a star, but you have the glow of lights, nativity scenes, chorales, light crosses, and fervent worshipers, all pointing to a deeper reality. They are calling you to remember who Jesus is.
Think about it–His life is the focal point of history. The entire world now sets its calendar by Christ’s birth. B.C. means “before Christ,” and A.D. means anno domini, “in the year of our Lord.” Jesus never wrote a book, never held political power, and wasn’t wealthy. Yet He altered the world completely. In fact, no other person has even come close to affecting history like Jesus Christ. He’s been opposed, hated, fought, censored, banned, and criticized in every generation since His birth.
Yet Jesus continues to forgive sins and transform lives for the better, and He can change yours too. He can free you from guilt, transform you from the inside out, give you a new life now and eternal life forever–if you submit to Him. Which leads us to . . .
#2 Their INQUIRY
The magi were men from a nation of tremendous power at the time of Christ. As foreigners, they were feared by Rome as a threat to their eastern borders in Parthia. So when these Kingmakers from the east arrived in Jerusalem, asking for the One who was born King of the Jews in verse 2, Herod was understandably troubled, verse 3.
Try to picture this–they arrive in Jerusalem with sauce and show. Many believe they were wearing cone-shaped, wizard-like hats–but not riding camels, more likely Arabian horses. Everyone took notice. If there had been cell phones, everyone would have been out and on them. As they entered the city, they had a small army, since they were in enemy territory.
Geographically, little Israel formed a buffer between Rome and Parthia—two world powers. This was intimidating. Herod’s small army was currently on duty with a worldwide census. This was no time for a band of Kingmakers from an enemy nation to be inquiring about an infant they called, “King of the Jews.” After all, that was Herod’s title, given to him by Caesar Augustus himself at his coronation.
It should not be a surprise, God’s Word tells you in verse 3 that Herod “was troubled.” Troubled means shaken or agitated–like the heavy-duty cycle of a washing machine. In other words, Herod was really afraid. But known for his cunning, Herod wisely decided to take a diplomatic approach. Look at verses 4 to 6.
“And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he began to inquire of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 And they said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet, 6 And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; for out of you shall come forth a Ruler, Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”
Herod called in all the Jewish experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. Then he summoned the magi in verse 8 and told them, “Go and make careful search for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, that I too may come and worship Him.” The magi must have assumed everyone in Israel would know about the new King’s birth and could tell them where He was. Look back at verse 2.
Imagine their surprise, when they began asking people in Jerusalem, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”, and no one seemed to know what they were talking about. No one knows how the Magi knew about the promises of Christ’s coming, but obviously God revealed it to them in some way. He confirmed it with the sign of a star.
Perhaps they drew the connection between that star and Numbers 24:17 which says, “A star shall come forth from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise from Israel.” Of all the verses in the Old Testament, as astronomers and astrologers, the magi would have been drawn to that one verse. It’s the only verse which talks about a star being any kind of sign. And the phrase, “a scepter. . .from Israel” does seem to suggest a King of the Jews.
It is funny how everyone focuses upon the star. Planetariums and astronomers will suggest Jupiter, or a comet, or the conjunction of two planets, or some other natural event. None of those explanations are plausible, because the star led them right to the house where Jesus was. No known natural occurrence could have done that.
What was the star? The Word of God doesn’t say. But, a biblical phenomenon that resembles the star is the shekinah glory, the visual expression of God’s glory which, in the time of Moses also led Israel to the Promised Land, appearing as a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night. It was the same glory that shone on the shepherds when they learned of Christ’s birth in Luke 2:9. Perhaps what the magi saw was a similar display of God’s glory, which appeared to them like a star.
Whatever the star was, it signified to them that Jesus had been born. Look at verse 9, “After they left Herod, the star reappeared to them and “went on before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was.” What’s so important about Christ, it would require a moving star to point the way?
Some say Jesus Christ was just a good teacher, but good teachers don’t claim to be God. Some say He was merely a good example, but good examples don’t mingle with prostitutes. Some say He was a madman, but madmen don’t speak the way He spoke. Some say He was a crazed fanatic, but crazed fanatics don’t draw children to themselves or attract men of intellect like Paul to be their followers.
Some say He was a religious phony, but phonies don’t rise from the dead. Some say He was only a phantom, but phantoms can’t give their flesh and blood to be crucified. Some say He was only a myth, but myths don’t set the calendar for history. Jesus has been called the ideal man, an example of love, the highest model of religion, the pattern of virtue, the greatest of all men, and the finest teacher who ever lived.
All of those descriptions capture elements of His character, but they all fall short of the full truth. The apostle Thomas expressed it perfectly when he saw Jesus after the resurrection and exulted, “My Lord and My God” (John 20:28). So when the magi find Jesus, they gain . . .
#3 Their INSIGHT
The place where the wise men found Jesus wasn’t the stable where Jesus was born. All those nativity scenes are wrong. You can give those wise statuettes away as gifts now. Verse 11 says the magi found Jesus in a house—“and they came into the house.” This may have occurred as much as two years after Jesus’ birth. How do we know that?
In verse 7, the Bible says Herod ascertained from the magi when the star appeared. Then in verse 16, when Herod learned they chose not to reveal Jesus’ location to him, Herod “became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its environs, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the magi.”
Yet when the Magi found Jesus, look what they did. In verse 11, “They came into the house and saw the Child and Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshiped Him; and opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.” God had led these men out of a foreign land, to find themselves face-to-face with the Savior of the world. As a result, they worshiped a toddler.
Whatever their motives were at the start of their journey–like politics, or finding a new King who might make peace with Rome, or an Old Testament prophecy. When they saw Christ, verse 11 states, “they fell down and worshiped Him.” God opened their eyes to something His own people didn’t see–that Jesus was God in human form. Their response tells us they were converted.
God’s own people ignored Jesus, ultimately rejected Him and hated Him so much that they murdered Him on a cross. The Bible tells us in John 1:11 to 12, that Jesus “… came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.”
Herod hated Christ, because he wanted no king but himself. The population ignored Jesus, cause they were trying to fill the emptiness of their hearts with religion, things, money or relationships. But here are some Gentile mystics from a foreign land, who recognize Jesus as Immanuel–meaning God with us.
So the magi worshiped Jesus and showed their adoration with some unique gifts. Gold was a common symbol of royalty, acknowledging Christ as their King. Frankincense was an expensive perfume that was used in worship, and in giving it, the magi were pointing to Jesus’ deity. Myrrh, on the other hand, was a curious gift for a toddler king. It was a substance used for embalming the dead. Myrrh seems to foreshadow Jesus’ death for my sins, your sins, and the entire world.
There’s no indication the magi foresaw the details of this. It’s likely, just as God led the magi to the toddler Jesus, He also guided them in the selection of their gifts, so that the combination of their gifts would testify to the new King’s royalty, His deity, and His death on behalf of humanity. So what is God saying to you through the magi?
#4 Their INSTRUCTION
Whether they realized it or not, the child they were kneeling before would one day grow up to suffer and die for their sakes, bear all of God’s punishment for their sins, become the only way anyone on planet Earth could be forgiven and go to Heaven. His death would pay the price of their sins. And because of that coming sacrifice, the magi, whose lives had been spent in sorcery, wizardry, and the occult, could be washed of their guilt, unchained from their sins and transformed by His power.
Scripture is silent about what became of the magi after their visit. I’m confident, the God who revealed Jesus’ birth to them, led them to where He was and warned them about Herod in a dream, also saw to it to give them enough truth to respond in faith and be born again in Christ.
In verse 12, Matthew tells us the magi, “having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod. . . departed for their own country by another way.” There almost seems to be a double meaning in that statement. Yes, they returned to their country by a different geographical route. But they were also now followers of another way in the spiritual sense.
That’s true of everyone who turns from their sin in repentance and puts their faith in Christ. That’s true of all who exchange all that they are for all that Christ is. Second Corinthians 5:17 says. “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” The familiar slogan, “Wise men still seek Him,” is true. In the world, there are only two kinds of people–those who are fools and those who are wise.
Herod typifies one brand of fool, who overtly reject and literally hate the Savior, because he would have no king over himself. Every non-Christian heart in this room declares, “No one rules me.” The Jewish religious leaders who counseled Herod were fools of a different kind. They didn’t hate Jesus–they just ignored Jesus. They were too busy, too distracted, too self-sufficient, too satisfied and too wrapped up in themselves to bother with Christ–like most people.
The magi, on the other hand, were true wise men. It wasn’t convenient for them to travel to Jesus, but they realized they had no option. Although it meant great sacrifice for them, they doggedly pursued Christ until they found Him. They typify every true wise woman, or wise man, who has ever lived. Christ was their life-focus, their first priority, and central to every priority.
How about you? Who or what takes first place in your life? That alone will determine whether you’re a fool or wise. All of you fit into one category or the other, for the only possible responses to Christ are to receive Him or reject Him–to submit to Him or sneer at Him, to desire Him or to dismiss Him. This Christmas will be the greatest event of your life, if you do what the magi did–the only wise choice. What’s that?
First To RECEIVE the announcement of God
They saw a star that called to them to respond. You, today, have received a message from God’s Word that’s calling you to respond with your life. The Word of God, the Bible, calls you to surrender your life to Jesus Christ. Your sin will send you to Hell forever, unless your sin is judged on Christ on the cross. If your sin falls on Christ, then He will cover you in His righteousness, which is the only way you can stand in the presence of a righteous God forever. He rose from the dead to give you a new, born again life now, and eternal life forever.
Second To RESPOND to the invitation they received
The magi took the step to come to Christ. Will you take the step to exchange all that you are for all that He is–to see Him for who He really is? God in the flesh–the only Savior, the Judge of the world, and your only hope for Heaven?
Third To REJOICE in Christ as the only way, the only truth and the only life
When they saw Jesus for who He really is, they believed in Him, worshiped Him, and followed Him. Jesus isn’t a nice story–He is your Creator and our Lord. But He is also the only Redeemer–the only way you can be right with God, the only way you can be remade into what God intended you to be. No middle ground. I beg you to receive the message, act upon it, and worship the only Savior and King right now.