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Looking for Christmas
If Katie Couric had been living in 1809, her evening news broadcasts would have concentrated on Austria–not Britain or America. The attention of the entire world was on Napoleon as he swept across Europe like fire across late summer grass. But at that time of invasions and battles, babies were being born in Britain and America. But who was interested in bottles and cribs while history was being made? What could possibly be more important in 1809 than the fall of Austria? Who cared about English-speaking infants that year when Europe was being torn apart? Someone should have.
Why? Because of the host of world changers that drew their first breath in 1809.
William Gladstone was born in Liverpool
Alfred Tennyson began his life in Lincolnshire
Oliver Wendell Holmes cried out in Cambridge, Massachusetts
Edgar Allan Poe, a few miles away in Boston, started his brief and tragic life
A rugged log cabin in Hardin County, Kentucky, owned by an illiterate, wandering laborer was filled with the infant screams of a newborn boy named Abraham Lincoln
All that and more happened in 1809–but who cared? The destiny of the world was being shaped on battlefields in Austria–or was it? Not really! Only a handful of history buffs today could name even one Austrian campaign–but who can measure the impact of those other lives? What appeared to be super-significant to the world has proven to be merely a burp in history’s timetable. What seemed to be totally insignificant was, in fact, the beginning of an era.
Now go back eighteen centuries before that. Who cared about the birth of a baby while the world was watching 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 and conversation. Israel existed under the crush of Rome’s heavy boot. All eyes were on Augustus, the cynical Caesar who demanded a census to determine how to increase taxes.
At that time, who was interested in a couple making an eighty-mile trip south from Nazareth? What could possibly be more important than Caesar’s decisions in Rome? Who cared about a Jewish 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. In fact the most common response to Jesus today is to ignore Him. Most people are so busy with Christmas they’re indifferent to Christ. Our city observes the season, but only because culture says it’s the thing to do. Most of your friends are oblivious to the reality of what they’re celebrating. We have compounded the holiday with so many traditions, hype and hysteria that we miss the simplicity of Christ’s birth.
For most people, Jesus has become a nice story to consider during the holidays. Like fictional Santa, genuine Christ is not taken seriously, but is casually ignored. For a few, Jesus represents a demanding faith, and therefore is put down, sometimes even hated during Christmas–and that hasn’t changed since the time of Joseph and Mary.
Like today, only a few back then even noticed that God came into the world. But there were a few strange men who traveled a long way just to see this infant King. And as they came to Christ, by their very actions they exposed the deceptively phony in the believing community. And in the process of coming, they showed just how to come to Christ ourselves and get right with God. These were the wise men, whose story is told in Matthew 2:1 to 12—open there and take out your outline. Let’s follow these men on their journey as we expose three I’s.
#1 Their identity
In Matthew 2:1-2 we 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.’” These magi, called “wise men” in some translations seemed to materialize out of nowhere.
The Bible gives us hardly any details about them—what country they came from, what system of belief they represented, or how they knew the meaning of the star they had seen. They just show up, leave their gifts and disappear. The perfect Christmas guests—show up, leave gifts, then disappear. In addition to very little information, a lot of wrong traditions about these men have been passed on to us leaving most people totally confused.
Can you pass a simple Bible quiz about these interesting men from the Bible? Give it a try.
1. Who were the men who came to give gifts to Jesus?
A) Kings B) Wise Men C) Rich Guys D) Wise Guys E) Magi
2. What is Frankincense?
A) Precious metal B) Precious fabric C) Precious perfume D) Eastern monster story
E) None of the above
C. By definition, a precious perfume
3. What is Myrrh?
A) Easily shaped metal B) Spice used for burying people C) Drink D) After-shave lotion
E) None of the above.
B. See John 19:39 or a dictionary–a spice
4. How many wise men came to see Jesus?
1, 2, 3, 6, 10 or a small army or Unknown?
No one knows–they only gave three gifts (see Matthew 2:1)
5. What does “wise men” refer to–which answer is wrong?
A) Men of the educated class B) They were eastern kings C) They were astrologers D)They were smart enough to follow the star E) They were sages F) They were king makers
A, C, D, E, & F B is wrong
6. The wise men found Jesus in a:
A) Manger B) Stable C) House D) Holiday Inn E) Good mood
C. See Matthew 2:11–they were in a house when they came
7. The wise men stopped in Jerusalem:
A)To inform Herod about Jesus B) To find out where Jesus was C) To ask about the star that they saw D) For gas E) To buy presents for Jesus
B. See Matthew 2:1 to 2
It is doubtful the wise men were anything like the camel-riding travelers we usually see portrayed in pictures and Christmas pageants. Even the old standard Christmas song, We Three Kings of Orient Are is wrong on several counts. There is no evidence there were three of them–only that they brought three kinds of gifts. They weren’t kings at all, but king-appointers. We can’t call them oriental, we only know they came from the east. History indicates the magi probably came from the land of the Medes and Persians where Iran is today.
But there are some truths about the magi we can learn from the Bible and from history. 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 and actually appointing some of the kings of the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, and Greek empires. Their heyday lasted from about the sixth century BC through the time of Christ, and that’s why we can read about them in the book of Daniel, where they’re seen serving in Nebuchadnezzar’s court.
That is the strongest clue we have as to how the magi knew to anticipate the birth of Christ. Nebuchadnezzar was the Babylonian king who conquered Jerusalem in 586 BC. From the Jewish nation, he handpicked choice men and assigned them to serve in his court. These included Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. In a sense, they became the magi’s rivals in Daniel 1:5 to 7.
Daniel made an early favorable impression on Nebuchadnezzar by doing what the magi were supposed to be best at–interpreting dreams in Daniel 2. Because of this extraordinary miracle, the king made Daniel the master of the magi in Daniel 2:48. Knowing Daniel’s incredible character and zeal for God, we can be certain he had an incredible impact upon the magi, helping them to understand the true God and the 300 Old Testament promises of a coming King and Savior, all of them found in the Old Testament and all of them fulfilled hundreds and thousands of years later in the person of Christ.
Plus we know many godly Jews 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 we find magi at the birth of Christ familiar with Bible prophecy and seeking the true God. What are you seeking today? You don’t have a star, but you have the glow of lights, nativity scenes, carolers, lighted crosses, and fervent worshipers, all pointing to a deeper reality. They are calling you to remember who Jesus is. Think about it–His birth is the focal point of history. In fact the entire world now sets its calendar by Christ’s birth. BC means “before Christ,” and AD means “anno domini,” “in the year of our Lord.” Every time you date your signature, you are affirming the power of Christ to change all of history–2010 years from Christ.
Jesus never wrote a book, never held political power, wasn’t wealthy or famous for His good looks. Yet He altered the world completely–in fact no other person has even come close to affecting history like Jesus Christ has. He’s been opposed, hated, fought, censored, banned, and criticized in every generation since His birth. Yet Jesus continues to change lives for the better, and He can change yours too. He can free you from guilt, transform you from the inside out, and give you a new life now and eternal life forever if you let Him. That was their identity.
#2 Their inquiry
The magi were men of tremendous power at the time of Christ, and 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, Herod was understandably troubled.
Try to picture the scene–they arrive in Jerusalem with a great deal of pomp and show. They are wearing cone-shaped hats like those we associate with wizards, and riding not camels but more likely Arabian horses. Everyone took notice with a jaw drop as they entered the city with their small army, being in enemy territory—wow! This was intimidating, since Herod’s small army was on duty with a worldwide census. This was no time for a band of foreign kingmakers to be inquiring about an infant they called “King of the Jews”–after all that was Herod’s title, King of the Jews, given to him by Caesar Augustus himself at His coronation.
Herod was also in a difficult spot geographically. His region formed a very small buffer between Rome and Parthia. Israel had already been a battleground in several wars between these two world powers. Herod undoubtedly saw the magi as a serious threat to the stability of his kingdom. Look at verse 3, “And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” It should not surprise us that the Word of God tells us Herod “was troubled,”–the word means shaken or agitated, like the heavy-duty cycle of a washing machine. In other words he was in great turmoil–he was really afraid.
But known for his cunning, Herod wisely decided to take the diplomatic approach. Read 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 he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, ‘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 would be able to tell them where He was. Look back at verse 2, “’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.’” 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.
Now we don’t know 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 a 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–it’s the only one that 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. Every Christmas the planetariums and astronomers offer explanations of the Christmas star. Some say it must have been Jupiter, or a comet, or the conjunction of two planets, or some natural event. None of those explanations are plausible because the star led them straight to the house where Jesus was. No known natural occurrence could have done that.
What was the star? No one knows, and the Word of God doesn’t say. But a biblical phenomenon that most closely resembles the star is the Shekinah glory, which was the visible expression of God’s glory, which, in the time of Moses led Israel to the Promised Land, appearing as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. It was that 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.” Even though the whole world was indifferent, the magi had to find Jesus the King. They were passionate. What is keeping you from turning to Jesus as your King? Is it the opinions of others? The phoniness you’ve seen? Or some false idea of who Jesus is?
And do you know what the worst lie about Jesus is? You can claim to be a Christian but not follow Christ–that you could somehow be a Christian and not be transformed–that you could claim to be a Christian but have no desire to do anything and everything for Christ. Christ is God in a body and radically changes those whom He saves.
Some say 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 as followers. Some say He a religious phony, but phonies don’t rise from the dead. Some say He was only a phantom, but phantoms can’t be crucified. Some say He was only a myth, but myths don’t change the calendar for history.
Jesus has been called the ideal man, an example of love, the highest model of religion, the foremost 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 exclaimed in John 20:28, “My Lord and My God.” But 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 the wise men away as gifts now. Or put them twenty feet away from the manger headed toward it. Verse 11 says the magi found Jesus in a house. This may have occurred as much as two years after Jesus’s 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 he learned they were not going to reveal Jesus’s 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.”
And when the magi found Jesus, look at 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 magi out of a foreign land to find themselves face-to-face with the Savior of the World, and as a result they worshiped Him.
They may have actually begun seeking Jesus because of political motivations. Perhaps they thought this new King would help the Parthians defeat Rome. Maybe they were looking for a new King to unify the two empires. Possibly they were simply curious about the long-prophesied Jewish Messiah. Or it could be they were genuinely seeking the true God. Whatever their motives were at the start of their journey, when they saw Him, 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 and thus became the earliest Gentile believers in Christ–incredible! God’s own people ignored Jesus, ultimately rejected Him and hated Him so much 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 Him because he wanted no king but himself. The population ignored Jesus because they were trying to fill the emptiness in their hearts with religion, things, money or relationships. But here are some Gentile mystics from a foreign land who recognize Jesus as Immanuel, God with us. So the magi worshiped Jesus and showed their adoration with some interesting gifts. Gold was a common symbol of royalty, acknowledging Christ as their King. Frankincense was an expensive perfume used in worship, and in giving it the magi were pointing to Jesus’s deity. Myrrh, on the other hand, was a curious gift for a newborn king–it was a substance used for embalming the dead. Therefore myrrh seems to foreshadow Jesus’s death for my sins, for His children throughout all time—for the entire world.
There’s no indication the magi foresaw the details of this. But it’s likely that just as God led the magi to the infant Jesus, He also guided them in the selection of their gifts so that the combination of gifts they brought would testify to the new King’s royalty, His deity, and His death on behalf of his true children. What’s God saying to us through them?
#4 Our 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. His death would pay the price for their sins. And because of that coming sacrifice, the magi, whose lives had been spent in sorcery, wizardry, and the occult could be forgiven and transformed by His power. Scripture is silent about what became of the magi after their visit. I am confident that God, who revealed Jesus’s birth to them, led them to where He was and warned them about Herod in a dream, also saw to it they had 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 to Christ and becomes one of His worshipers in spirit and truth. 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 says “Wise men still seek Him.” It’s true. In all 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 rejects and literally hates the Savior because he would have no king over himself. The Jewish religious leaders who counseled Herod were fools of a different kind. They didn’t hate Jesus at first–they just ignored Him. They were too busy and too wrapped up in empty religion to bother with Him, like most people today.
The magi, on the other hand, were true wise men. It wasn’t convenient for them to come to Jesus, but they realized they had no option. Although it meant great sacrifice for them, they doggedly pursued Him until they found Him. They typify every true wise man or woman who has ever lived. How about you? Who or what takes first place in your life? That alone is what will determine whether you’re a fool or wise. You’ll fit in one category or the other, for the only possible responses to Christ are to hate Him, neglect Him, or like the magi, adore Him. This Christmas can be the greatest event of your life if you do what the Magi did—make the only wise choice.
First To receive the announcement of God
They saw a star that called 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 give your life to Jesus Christ.
Second To act upon the invitation they received
The Magi took the step to come and see Jesus. Will you take the step to see Jesus for who He is?
Third To worship Jesus Christ as the way, the truth and the 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’s your Creator and Redeemer. He’s the only way you can be right with God and go to heaven. He’s the only way you can be re-made into what God intended you to be. I beg you to submit to the message that Christ died for your sins and rose from the dead–to put your hope in Christ as your Savior. Act upon that message, turn from your sins and give your entire life to Christ and worship Him as Savior and King.
There is a story of a wealthy couple who invited all their friends and relatives to a christening party to celebrate the birth of their baby. As the party moved along and everyone was having a wonderful time, someone asked the mother, “By the way, where’s the baby?”
The heart of the mother jumped as she instantly ran to the master bedroom, where she had left the baby sleeping. Upon her arrival she found a huge pile of coats where the baby had been, and after pushing them aside she found her child underneath–dead. The very purpose of the celebration had been ignored. The very reason they threw the party had been lost in the celebration.
I pray you do not miss the reason for Christmas. We celebrate Jesus Christ and He invites you–He calls you to celebrate as well. Today, do what is most wise . . . exchange all that you are for all that He is.