Then and Now


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Matthew 2:1-12

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v.1       Jesus, therefore was born before the death of King Herod in 4 B.C.  It was not until the year 533 that Dionysius Exiguus (a name more impressive in Latin than English: Dennis the Short) proposed to reckon years from the birth of Christ instead of from the founding of Rome. By that time it was easy to mistake the year of the Lord’s birth and this was what happened.

“Magi” refers generally to astrologers and magicians, important court officials in almost all countries of Western Asia. They were what we would today call “advisors.” Since the Babylonian exile, there were many Jews in those eastern lands and it would not be at all unlikely that such magi would know about Jewish belief and the expectation of a Messiah. As we now learn they expected to find not just any king, but “the King of the Jews.”

v.2       You may be aware that several astronomical possibilities have been suggested as an explanation of this star, for example, the convergence of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces in 7-6 B.C. or even Halley’s Comet in 12-11 B.C. No explanation carries conviction however, and obviously Matthew understood the movement of this star to be a supernatural occurrence. The magi probably thought that the king was to be born in the capital city and went there first.

v.3       Herod was a man who would always have been troubled by any report of a possible pretender to his throne. He was a Roman appointee, not a Jew, and always felt himself vulnerable to the claims of a king of true Davidic descent (France, 82). By the end of his life he was genuinely paranoid. He had already had two of his own sons executed for fear that they planned a coup. [Bruce, NT History, 23] The fear of “all Jerusalem” may thus have been a fear of what Herod would do. When in a rage he was careless of human life.

v.5       The priests and the scribes, the doctors of the Jewish Scriptures, would be the natural ones to consult, but the answer was simple; any Jewish schoolboy could have given it. The fact that Jesus was from Nazareth but was nevertheless born in Bethlehem makes that fact an even more striking demonstration of his messianic credentials. Why would a child from a poor family in Nazareth, a tiny village in Galilee, be born in Bethlehem, a tiny village in Judea? It is important to observe here that the revelation of nature, the star, could not take the magi all the way to Christ. Holy Scripture was necessary for that.

v.8       As subsequent events demonstrate Herod had no intention of worshipping the child. He wanted to kill him and so remove the threat to his regime. Rather than send soldiers, whose presence might tip his hand, he had no reason to doubt that these foreigners would do as he said. As Bishop Hall, the 17th century Anglican observed, “There is no villainy so great, but it will mask itself under a show of piety.” [Contemplations, 415]

v.10     The presence and movement of the star delighted them because it proved that they were still being led on this mission by supernatural means and would certainly find the king they had traveled so far to see.

v.11     Those were gifts for a king! The Queen of Sheba had given such gifts to King Solomon a millennium earlier. The idea that there were three wise men or magi comes, as you know, from the fact that there were three gifts given.

v.12     Interpreting dreams was part of the world in which these men lived and worked. That God used this means does not imply that he approved of their practices of divination or that they were ordinarily reliable as predictors of the future. He was simply meeting these men where they were.  [France, 84-85]

There are those, of course, who imagine that this account is simply a pious legend with no basis in fact. However, like so much else in the Christmas history, not only is it written as history, intended to be taken as history, its historical character lies on its face. Eastern magi made such trips, we know that. There is an interesting parallel to this occurrence, reported in the Roman histories of Dio Cassius and Suetonius, when eastern magi came to visit Nero in A.D. 66. There is even evidence in Persian materials that eastern magi had a special interest in events in Palestine. No doubt, that was in part because of the number of Jews that still lived in their countries. King Herod here is certainly the Herod of history. What is more, this is a story the church would scarcely think to invent since it had no sympathy for magicians and astrologers. Here, however, they are presented in highly favorable terms. What we have here, in other words, is an account of what had happened, surprising as it was!

But it has also long been observed that the narrative of the Lord’s birth is both history and meta-history, that is, it is paradigmatic in the same way as other biblical historical narratives, such as those we have recently considered from Genesis. Again and again as we made our way through Genesis we observed that the history itself, and all the more the way the history was written, laid bare fundamental principles of believing life and the salvation of God. Again and again the principles and patterns of the working of God’s grace were revealed in flesh and blood history.

This should not surprise us. God has always been the same. Human beings have always been the same. The world as a moral/spiritual milieu has always been the same. The kingdom of God has always been the same. For that reason, wherever we enter the story of God’s dealings with men and women in grace or in judgment, we find the same principles in operation, yesterday, today, and forever. Reality is one and so the perfect record of that reality is equally one.

So, what was true in Genesis is true as well of the narrative of the Lord’s birth. Again and again the events of the Christmas narrative lay bare the nature of life and of salvation. For example, John tells us in his first chapter that the birth of Christ – its supernatural character, its accomplishment by the Holy Spirit – is paradigmatic. That history reveals more than just itself. It serves also to disclose the nature of the new birth, the supernatural new beginning the Holy Spirit creates in and for every true believer at some point in his or her life. Comparing John 1 with John 3 we learn that not only the Lord Jesus but every believer in Jesus is born “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but born of God.”

In another case, the cast of insignificant characters in the Christmas history serves as a foretaste of the composition of the church itself, which, as Paul reminded the Corinthians, includes not many powerful, not many of noble birth. Consider as well, the place of waiting in the Christian faith and life. Jesus was born 2,000 years after Abraham, 400 years after the last prophet had delivered the word of God to the Jews, and near the very end of the long lives of both Simeon and Anna, both of whom had been waiting throughout their long lives for the consolation of Israel. Here we are, 2,000 years later still waiting for his second coming. Very little happens at once in the Christian life! It is one of the most difficult lessons to learn and one of the most important. So, it is a truth laid bare throughout the biblical history.

Or see how the necessity of faith is emphasized in the narrative. Only a few are visited by angels, none of them a person of consequence in that time and place. The angels didn’t appear to Herod the king or to Quirinius the governor, or to Augustus the emperor. They appeared to a minor priest who lived in a country town and only rarely came to the capital to serve in the temple; they appeared to a young couple who lived in a tiny backwater of Galilee; they appeared to some shepherdsa lowly occupation in those days on a hillside outside the little village of Bethlehem. It would have been, it proved to be the simplest matter to ignore or to discredit the report of such people. Pagan critics would later mock the claim that Jesus had risen from the dead as the rantings of an hysterical female. None of the events that form the backbone of this history was witnessed by anyone of consequence or by any significant number of people.

Our faith rests on testimony, eyewitness testimony indeed, but for almost all Christians that testimony must be taken on faith. So few saw these things come to pass. There are very good reasons to trust that testimony, more reasons to trust it than to doubt it, but nevertheless it must be believed. None of us was there; none of us saw or heard an angel! And so it is with every aspect of our faith. True enough, the doubters and the unbelievers must rest their doubt and their unbelief on faith as well, more faith than is required of us, but we should never forget that the very nature of the gospel invitation is that we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ! And so it is everywhere the case in the history of the Bible, as it is here. The great events were always witnessed by only a few but believed by multitudes thereafter.

But there is still another window opened in this history on the reality of human life and the kingdom of God. I’m speaking of the way human beings encounter the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ and salvation. Just as the events themselves are paradigmatic – the power of God by his Spirit invading human life, the secret working of God in the lives of human beings, the reliability of biblical prophecy, the existence of the spiritual kingdom of angels and demons, and so on – equally paradigmatic are the responses of human beings to this mighty work of God. Every sort of human response to the gospel, the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ; the responses that human beings have been making to the news of the coming of the Son of God through the ages since that day; all of them are here in this historical narrative. Any honest person, willing to reckon with his own relationship to this history or to the claims of the gospel, can find himself or herself in this history. In this way too history and theology, history and faith, or history and reality converge. The gospel is an appeal, an invitation, and a summons. And people respond to that invitation and summons in very different ways: always have, always will.

There have always been those who, for one reason or another – 1) insecurity (the fear of what others will think or say, the fear of the gospel’s implications for his or her life); 2) pride (taking offense at the thought that he or she is in such desperate need of salvation); 3) or a visceral hatred for the principles of the Christian faith or for Christians themselves – I say, there have always been those who have despised the Christian message and hated those who proclaim it and believe it. We have witnessed in recent years an uptick in the number of people in America today who are willing publicly to number themselves among the despisers of the Christian faith. The so-called new atheists have, for example, made no bones about their opinion that the Christian faith is a bacillus infecting the body of Western civilization, that it is harmful to society, that it stands in the way of human progress, that it appeals only to the uneducated or the morally defective, and so on. We’ve had prominent academics suggest that Christians should be prevented from teaching their faith to their children. That is the position Communist states used to take and some still do.

We know, of course, that Christians are not the only ones persecuted in the world. There are a great many people who genuinely hate other people and wish them harm for a variety of reasons: religious, racial, economic, sexual, political, and so on. The readiness of the human heart to hate others is a sad fact of life in this world. And so it is that there have always been those whose response to the gospel, however they hear it, is one of immediate and visceral repudiation. King Herod represents that class of people in this narrative.

There was no thoughtful weighing of evidence in his mind. He didn’t stop to ask if there might be some credible reason why these educated and influential men from the east should make such a long journey to offer their gifts to the newborn king of the Jews. He didn’t bother to ask how they knew that the star was a sign of his birth. He didn’t wonder whether they knew something that he did not. He didn’t consult the Jewish theologians to inquire precisely who and what such a king might be and what his arrival might portend for the world. Herod was a king himself, to be sure, but he knew very well that he was a minor king, a client king. The distance between himself and Augustus, the Emperor of Rome, was immense. The idea that there might be another king, even a king of kings, was hardly impossible for Herod to fathom. But Herod had no intention of taking the magi seriously; his mind was closed; his heart was hard. The only thing he cared about was destroying a potential rival. He had no other interest in the news the magi had brought; he wanted only to preserve the world as he knew it and himself in that world. His response may have been irrational, but it was not less ferocious for that! There have always been such people and are such people today.

Then, there is a much larger class of people who don’t have such strong feelings about the gospel message; they simply can’t be bothered. They are comfortable in the mental universe they have created for themselves, or have, without much thought, imbibed from the culture around them; they are uninterested in higher things, and hardly ever think about them. The great questions of life lie unanswered, filed away in the recesses of the mind. They have some philosophy of life, to be sure, everyone does, even if it is hardly ever articulated and never seriously thought through, but they don’t care much about it either. They live for the present and are largely untouched by the great issues of human existence.

The priests and the scribes and the population of Jerusalem represent various stages of this disinterest. We read in v. 3 that many people in the capital heard the report of the magi and many were troubled. But though we might well have expected that the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem would have soon been crowded with pilgrims determined to see for themselves whether a new king had been born, no one bothered to make the trip, no matter that Bethlehem was only six miles south of the capital: a mere stroll for people of that time.

The priests and the scribes would have said, of course, that they were looking for the Messiah, waiting for the prophecies of his coming to be fulfilled. They certainly knew the theoretical answer to the magi’s question. But, in actual fact, they were a self-satisfied bunch. There have been many so-called Christians like them ever since! The prospect of the Messiah’s coming was more important to them as a theological idea than as a living hope and expectation. These men, thirty years later, would become overtly hostile as Herod had been when Jesus exploded on the scene as a captivating teacher and worker of miracles and, more important, as a rival to their place as leaders of the people. Once threatened the claws came out, but for the moment they did not feel threatened by a mere report and they couldn’t be bothered. And so it was of the people of Jerusalem in general. The news of the magi’s arrival and their question no doubt circulated quickly through the city, but so far as we can tell people were more worried about Herod’s reaction than about whether or not the report might in fact be true!

How like so many people. Put the great questions of life to them and they will quickly demonstrate how little they have thought about them and how incapable of providing serious, thoughtful answers to them. When the gospel is addressed to them they answer not with serious objections or probing questions, but with a yawn. Their attention quickly passes to other things. They are more interested in the evening’s next installment of their favorite TV show than they are in whether eternal life is a real possibility. Hannah Arendt famously described the horrors of the Nazi brutalization and wholesale murder of the Jews and other undesirables as the banality of evil, because these terrible crimes were committed by such otherwise ordinary people, people like other people, normal people as we might say. But here is the true banality of evil at its foundation: people who can’t be stirred to care about the great issues of human existence.

Pascal famously proposed a wager to such people. Should they not bet on the Christian message rather than against it, for the simple reason that if it is true everything hangs in the balance, everything depends upon a person’s belief in Jesus and following him. If it is false no one is the worse off, but if it is true the unbeliever has lost everything. But the wager requires people to care about their future and in the dullness of the sinful human heart genuine concern is always in short supply. Surely there are great multitudes of human beings who can find themselves in Matthew 2:3!

But finally, there are the magi themselves. How they came to know that the star pointed the way to the king of the Jews we do not know. It is likely, all the evidence being taken together, that they knew a good bit about the Jewish messianic hope. And perhaps they received information in a dream, as many Muslims have today concerning Jesus Christ and salvation in him. They certainly seem to have understood that this was no ordinary client king they were traveling to meet and to worship. They had never made this trip to honor Herod! Somehow, in some way they knew that Jesus was the Messiah and so the Savior of the world. What else explains the trouble they took to find him? After all, they were Gentiles, not Jews. As king of the Jews Jesus would be of importance to them only if he were more than the king of the Jews! They knew enough to care. They knew enough to realize that if Jesus were what they believed him to be, he was more important to them than anything else in their life. It was for that reason that they left home, traveled hundreds of miles, bearing expensive gifts, to meet and to bow down before this infant king.

The magi had certainly never done as much for the church of God as Herod had, who had invested huge sums to rebuild, enlarge, and make magnificent the temple in Jerusalem. They didn’t make the same show of piety that the priests and scribes were always making. They were astrologers, for goodness sake, an occupation forbidden in the Law of Moses! But they believed, they obeyed, and they worshipped the infant Lord from the heart. The magi are the true believers in this narrative!

And so it has been ever since: hundreds, then thousands, then millions upon millions of people who, by the grace of God, heard the gospel, realized that Jesus Christ is indeed the King of Kings and the Savior of the world and believed in him for themselves and began to follow him as their Lord and Master. Let me illustrate this with one of my favorite stories from the history of Christian missions, more history of the proclamation of the gospel to Gentiles, such as these magi.

Henry Martyn was one of the great heroes of the missionary enterprise that began in the early years of the 19th century. He was perhaps the brightest light in that galaxy of young Cambridge men who were nurtured on the ministry of Charles Simeon while students at the university. After serving as Simeon’s assistant for two years Martyn went to India. He served there only five years, but his erudition was so great that, though knowing nothing of the language when he arrived, he produced a valuable translation of the New Testament into Hindi. Returning to Britain to recruit more missionaries, to recover his failing health, and, he hoped, to marry the young woman he loved and had left behind, he traveled cross country through Persia. There he paused, worked on a Persian translation of the Bible and engaged in apologetics and evangelism among the Muslim doctors of theology. Continuing homeward he made it only as far as what is today Turkey where he died.

While he was in India working in the town of Cawnpore, the city where our own Frank and Esther Fiol worked for many years, Martyn would often gather a crowed of beggars around his bungalow door and tell them about Jesus Christ who had visited the world years ago and would someday come again. One day, as it happened, an Indian court official happened to see what was happening and stopped to listen. He was prepared to mock and to deride but, wholly unknown to Henry Martyn, the words he heard that day about Jesus Christ, the Savior of those who trust in him and the only one able to save us from our sins, took root in his heart. And soon he became a Christian himself. After Martyn had left India he presented himself for baptism, a daring thing for a Hindu in those days, and then gave up his large income and his prestigious political position for that of a catechist, the bottom rung of church work in the Church of England. Eventually he was ordained as an Anglican priest. He was Henry Martyn’s only Indian convert, so far as anyone knows, and Martyn himself never met him or learned of his conversion.

Bishop Reginald Heber, the Anglican missionary statesman in those early days of the Christian mission to India, the author of the hymns “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “The Son of God Goes Forth to War,” in his Indian Journal wrote of meeting this man who had taken at his baptism a new name, Abdul Messeeh, “Servant of the Messiah.” Heber, a devout man himself, wrote of how impressed he was by the man’s noble Christian character.

Here he was, like the magi, a Gentile, born and raised in a land far removed from the church of God, in a land where few followers of Jesus Christ could be found. But he heard of the Messiah and he responded not in indifference, not in fear of the consequences, but in submission, in grateful and cheerful trust and love, and in worship of the King. And how happy he was to have heard the good news – see how happy the magi were in v. 10 – and how happy, happy beyond words, he is now, where he has sat down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of God.

Now, my friends, why was this history written? Here is one primary reason why it was recorded in the Word of God. It poses a challenge to all of us. Among which group do you find yourself: the priests and the folk in Jerusalem, Herod the king, or the magi? They represent the options, really the only options: hostility or indifference or belief, real belief, the kind of belief that changes a person’s life, changes his or her behavior, commitments, everything. To which company do you belong? Think of this happy thought: if, like the magi, you believe in and worship Jesus, someday you will be able to ask them yourself how it was that they knew that the star was his star and would lead them to the King of Kings.