Though we’d all agree there is quite a disconnect between our Christmas Traditions and the Religious Story of Christ’s Birth, there are two things both narratives do have in common…
First, whether it’s the account of good old St. Nicholas traveling from the North Pole on a sleigh pulled by reindeer to each of our homes, working his way down the chimney, so that he can quietly place presents under the tree or the record of a young virgin girl giving birth to the Son of God in a quaint stable outside the ancient town of Bethlehem - both tales have the unique ability to captivate an audience and spark the imagination! Fundamentally they’re each great stories - which explains why most incorporate them both into Christmas.
And yet, I should point out there is a second interesting commonality… You see unlike other classic Christmas stories like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “The Grinch”, “A Christmas Carol”, or my favorite “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”, these two foundational Christmas tales don’t base their appeal on the central characters being all that relatable.
For example… While the story-arch of Ebenezer Scrooge’s character or that of the Grinch challenges each of us to be generous instead of self-consumed and greedy, George Bailey’s experiences illustrating the importance of family and community as being the greatest gift of all, and Clark Griswold’s dysfunction demonstrating the importance of all bosses giving good bonuses for the holidays, the character of Santa doesn’t even attempt to be relatable.
Beyond that, and if we’re being honest, the same rings true for the Nativity Scene. No women can possibly relate to a virgin conceiving the Son of God. Aside from this name one other man but Joseph who’s had to navigate the fallout of having his betrothed wife divinely impregnated? The truth is that even the experience of the Shepherds being personally invited by an angelic host to visit the new born King is absolutely unique only to them.
None of these characters (Mary, Joseph, or the Shepherds) are all that relatable, which is fine because the story itself doesn’t demand this to be profoundly powerful. And yet, while all of this is true, this is why I personally find Matthew’s account of what followed the birth of Jesus so interesting. You see the story of a group of Wise Men from the East and a Judean king named Herod does present for us a set of extremely relatable characters.
Before I explain let’s read the first twelve verses of Matthew 2 and unpack their story… Matthew 2:1-12, “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 have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.’ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
So they said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’
Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.’ When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.
When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.”
Before I take the time to explain what makes any of these ancient characters so relatable to our 21st-century context, I should begin by explaining that you’d be hard pressed to find a more mysterious group in all of the Bible than these Wise Men! Note: Though we assume there were three because of the gifts, the Bible never says there were only three.
As you transition from Jesus’ birth to this specific account questions abound! Who were the Wise Men? Were did they come from? Why would foreigners care that a King of the Jews had been born, yet alone come to worship Him? How did they know to look for a star? How was it that this particular star indicated such an important birth had occurred?
Aside from this… Why were these Wise Men almost two years late? Why did they not know to look in the town of Bethlehem and instead have to stop over in Jerusalem to gain further direction? Why, upon arrival, did they give gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to a baby?
As we attempt to answer these questions, let’s begin with what we do know from the text itself… First, Matthew tells us, “Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem…” In the Greek the word used for “wise men” is “magos” which can also be translated as “magi”.
What makes this word interesting is that Matthew’s account is not the first time we encounter Magi. Historically, Magi was a title given in the orient. And scripturally, the word was used to describe men who heald all kinds of roles and positions. Magi could be teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, soothsayers, even sorcerers.
In Genesis 41 and then again in Exodus 7 the word Magi was used to describe the counselors of Pharaoh. In the story of Queen Esther Magi once again described the advisers of the King of Persia. In the book of Daniel you’ll even come to discover the “wise men” or Magi were actually part of Nebuchadnezzar’s inner circle of confidants.
Contextually, since the passage affirms they were “from the East” and Egypt was south of Judea, it’s likely these men came from the remnants of the Babylonian and Persian Empires.
Secondly, Matthew also informs us these Magi came searching for the “King of the Jews…” Though it’s highly unlikely these men were Jewish and were instead pagan Gentiles, it’s obvious they did possess some kind of Hebrew, religious heritage.
Because of the nature of the quest there is no doubt they understood this Jewish King was unique which explains why they traveled 1000 miles through tough desert terrain to find Him.
Finally, Matthew is clear these Magi came because “they had seen His star in the East” and wanted “to worship Him.” While it would have been completely customary for another nation to send a delegation to pay homage and respect when a son was born to a foreign king, the text indicates the intention of these men was much deeper than that...
The word Matthew uses for “worship” suggests these Wise Men hadn’t come to just show honor… They came intending to bow their knee as an expression of profound reverence!
And it’s at this point two logical questions immediately arise… (1). Why were these Wise Men looking for the birth of this Jewish King? and (2). How did a star indicate the timing of His birth? Though the text is mum as to these questions, I do think in describing them as “Wise Men from the East” Matthew does provide his audience a logical clue.
While I’ll admit what I’m about to share this is purely conjecture, I do believe in order to effectively answer these two questions you have to rewind the clock some 500 years to a Jewish prophet living in Babylon named Daniel. Let me set a little context…
Following an elongated season of rebellion by the Jewish people, God eventually used the Babylonian Empire to be His vessel of judgment for the nation of Judah. Not only had Jerusalem been sacked and the Temple destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, but the Hebrew people were forced into exile with a group of the brightest men being taken back to Babylon.
Understand, as one of these young men, the prophet Daniel was admittedly concerned the Jews had permanently vacated their privilege as the chosen people of God!
Because this burden and the subsequent implications if it were true were indeed great, in order to calm his fears, God allows Daniel to peer into the future in order to see that not only did God still have a plan for the people of Israel, but that the long promised Savior (the rightful “King of the Jews”) would present Himself exactly 483 years from the decree to “restore and build Jerusalem.” (This is called Daniel’s 70 Weeks Prophecy.)
What makes this significant is that we know this portion of the prophecy recorded in Daniel 9 ends up being fulfilled exactly 483 years or 173,880 days from King Artexerxes decree on March 14, 445 BC allowing the Jewish people to return and rebuild Jerusalem when, on April 6, 32 AD, Jesus gloriously entered Jerusalem ridding on a donkey!
Jesus even seems to make a reference to this in Luke 19:35-42… “Then the disciples brought the colt to Jesus. And they threw their own clothes on the colt, and they set Jesus on him. And as He went, many spread their clothes on the road. Then, as He was now drawing near the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen, saying: ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the LORD! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’
And some of the Pharisees called to Him from the crowd, ‘Teacher, rebuke Your disciples.’ But Jesus answered and said to them, ‘I tell you that if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out.’ Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, ‘If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.’”
Now this is where things become interesting and relevant for our purposes… While Daniel had not only received prophetic insight concerning the future arrival of the Messiah, he also proved to be such a valuable adviser to King Nebuchadnezzar that we’re told in Daniel 2:48, “The king promoted Daniel and gave him many great gifts; and he made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon, and chief administrator over all the wise men of Babylon.”
Is it an accident that “wise men from the East” had been specifically placed under Daniel’s charge some 500 years before they seek out Jesus? Since Daniel knew when the Messiah would be revealed to Israel is it a leap to assume he established an order of the Wise Men charged with instructions to present certain gifts upon the birth of this “King”?
Additionally, because one of the areas of expertise concerning the order of wise men was astrology, it’s even likely Daniel (knowing when the Christ would reveal Himself) was able to designate the pattern of a particular star that would position itself over Judea close to the birth of the Messiah. In many ways this star acted as a countdown for the order of Magi.
Since stars were used in the ancient world as a navigation tool, I also don’t believe it’s farfetched to conclude Daniel left behind instructions for these Magi to follow this special star approximately 450 years following the coming decree allowing the Jews to rebuild Jerusalem. Don’t forget the Wise Men told King Herod they had “seen His star in the East.”
Furthermore, Daniel’s personal involvement some 500 years before the fact would also explain why the Wise Men end up arriving late. In case you were unaware, the truth is that our traditional Nativity Scene has it all wrong! Our text is clear the Wise Men were not present when Jesus was born and therefore never crossed paths with the shepherds.
Notice how Matthew begins his account… “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea... Wise Men came to Jerusalem.” Matthew also tells us “when they had come into the house.” It would seem Joseph found it best to move into a home instead of living in a stable.
Aside from this we’re also told in Matthew’s account that when the Wise Men finally do arrive “they saw the young Child” as opposed to Luke’s description of Jesus being found by the shepherds as a “babe wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a manger.”
Most Biblical scholars believe the arrival of the Wise Men occurred approximately 18 months after Jesus’ birth. My point is that while Daniel knew with pinpoint accuracy when Jesus would present Himself to Israel as their King, he didn’t know how old He would be when He arrived. As a result Daniel was only left to speculate as to the date of Christ’s birth.
Consider that only Daniel’s involvement could provide a logical explanation as to why these Wise Men brought such unique gifts. Note: These gifts of “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” had significant meaning and possessed a particular purpose. Gold was the gift of royalty. Frankincense was used almost exclusively by the priests in the worship of God. And myrrh was nothing more than a common burial spice.
You see if left to themselves, the Wise Men would not have brought these gifts; however, as one of the most Christ-centric prophets, Daniel had a much broader understanding. Daniel knew the Messiah would be a King (gold). He knew this King would also be God incarnate (frankincense). And according to this same 70 Weeks Prophecy, Daniel was also keenly aware this divine King would die for the sins of His people (myrrh).
One more quick observation about this story most people overlook… Notice that while Matthew begins by telling us this star led these Wise Men roughly 1000 miles “from the East” into Judea, as they get closer to their destination something bizarre occurs…
Look what happens after the Wise Men leave their encounter with Herod in Jerusalem… Matthew says that “when they heard the king… Behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was…”
It would appear from the text that as the Wise Men are getting close to their final destination (which we know to be Bethlehem) the star suddenly vanishes! This may explain why after loosing their only source of navigation, the Wise Men are forced to do the only logical thing… Head to Jerusalem to consult with King Herod. As far as they knew Herod would have been in the know concerning a new “born King.” Surprisingly, he wasn’t!
Which leads us to another component of this story I think we should go ahead and address before discussing why these characters are so relatable… King Herod. Herod the Great was an Arab by birth (Edomite) who had been granted the title “King of Judea” by the Roman Senate and later confirmed by Caesar Augustus himself. What makes Herod such an interesting character is that aside from his sadistic tendencies, he was weirdly religious.
Approximately 50 years before his birth a Jewish man by the name of John Maccabaeus conquered Edom. And in one of his first acts he required all of the Edomites to either leave the area or convert to Judaism. This meant anyone who stayed (including Herod’s family) had to be circumcised and adhere to all the Jewish laws and customs.
Beyond developing and maintaining a good report with the Jews living under his dominion, as an Edomite proselyte we know historically that Herod deeply desired religious acceptance by the Jewish people. Not only does Josephus mention this in his histories, but it may explain why Herod spent so much time and treasure renovating the Temple in Jerusalem.
Understand, Herod cherished his position as king. He relished the power it provided - so much he notoriously killed off anyone who even remotely proved to be a threat (including his second wife and three of his sons). You can only imagine how troubled he must have been by the request of these foreign dignitaries searching for the new “born King of the Jews.”
You see a “born King” of the Jews was the ultimate threat to Herod’s power and control. A “born King” would have the rightful claim to the throne he’d taken by force and worked so hard to hold onto. A “born King” would immediately undermine his standing with the Jewish community he look to for acceptance. A “born King” placed his entire position in peril.
What’s interesting about this story is that Matthew tells us that Herod didn’t brush off the request of these Wise Men, and instead took their inquiry very seriously. We’re told he “gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, and inquired of them where the Christ was to be born....” This detail seems to reveal the reality Herod understood the Messianic prophecies of the Scriptures. He recognized a “born King” at this point in Jewish history would have to be none other than “the Christ” - the long promised Messiah.
Notice Herod “inquired of them where the Christ was to be born…” He literally “demanded” from them an explanation. And after consulting the prophecies of Micah, the “chief priest and scribes” returned with the answer… “They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”
Look again at the progression of our text… The star leads these Wise Men to Jerusalem - the wrong location. The Wise Men then logically turn to Herod for advice… But he’s clueless. Herod then consults the religious leaders of the day who don’t have a ready answer.
So, after consulting with Scripture, they determine the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. Which upon sharing this detail with the Wise Men the star now magically reappears leading them, not only to Bethlehem, but to the specific house Jesus was currently living in!
To me this is what makes these characters relatable… Were any of them (the Wise Men, Herod, the Scribes and Priests) present for Jesus’ birth? No! Were any of them drawn to Jesus through a supernatural invitation provided by an angelic being? No!
Like everyone not present that first night, all of these characters received a measure of revelation as to what happened - after the fact. In actuality, whether or not they encounter Jesus was determined by what they ultimately did with that revelation.
Yes! The Wise Men had a star that brought them to Jerusalem, but it was the revelation provided through God’s Word coupled with their faith in that revelation that ultimately facilitated their encounter with King Jesus. Equipped with a location revealed by Scripture we’re told they “came into the house… Saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him… Presenting gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
Please understand… What this story teaches us and why it’s so relatable is that what you know isn’t nearly as important as what you do with what you know. As Russian playwright Anton Chekhov stated, “Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.” As Jesus promised in Luke 11:9 and the Wise Men illustrate - those who “seek will find!”
You see what made these men wise was that they were willing to act in faith upon the few truths God had revealed to them! Without knowing where they were going or what to expect upon their arrival, they still made the decision to make this tough journey based off the instructions of a man who lived 500 years earlier for one simple reason… They believed a King had been born worthy of their worship! Their little knowledge produced a big act of obedience which resulted in a life-altering encounter with Jesus!
So… Why the deliberate detour to Jerusalem? I think it’s safe to say the Wise Men’s 4G LTE access to the star hadn’t entered a drop zone. You see the only plausible conclusion you can reach as to why the star disappeared is that God wanted them to stop in Jerusalem before ultimately leading them on to Bethlehem.
In God’s sovereignty, we can conclude He intentionally led the Wise Men to Jerusalem so that the religious leaders in addition to King Herod would also know the Messiah had been born in Bethlehem! In a fascinating twist to the Christmas Story God was inviting these men to also come and worship the new born King - to encounter Jesus for themselves.
How sad that while the religious leaders are able to ascertain where the Christ was to be born, they demonstrated zero interest in seeing for themselves! Tragically, King Herod goes one step farther. Matthew tells us Herod requests that these men bring back a report of what they discover under the false presence he was also interested in worshipping the infant King.
And then, according to Matthew 2:16, “When Herod saw that he was deceived by the wise men, he was exceedingly angry; and sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.” If the religious leaders failed to act out of blatant unbelief, Herod’s rejection of Jesus was based in a knowledge it may have been true.
Keep in mind, like the Wise Men, Herod as well as the Scribes and Priest had been exposed to the same amount of revelation. They knew the rightful King of the Jews had likely been born in Bethlehem; and yet, the all end up resisting this revelation! Why?
Again this is what makes these characters relatable… In contrast to the Wise Men, they refused to act on what they knew to be true because they understood the implications. Herod and the religious leaders realized Jesus was a direct threat to their power!
In closing… All of these characters are relatable because the same revelation and identical invitation given to them is the same that has been given to you and I! God’s Word testifies that King Jesus was born, lived amongst us, died for our sins, and rose the third day. God’s Word testifies that you can experience a transforming encounter with Jesus that these Wise Men enjoyed or you can reject Him as Herod and these religious men did!
This morning I issue this simple but forward challenge… Are you willing to receive the revelation God provides, act upon what you know to be true, humble yourself, and encounter Jesus? Or, while knowing the truth, will you continue to resists the rightful King to the throne because you’re simply unwilling to accept the ramifications.
The Wise Men encountered Jesus because they were willing to bend the knee and accept Jesus for who He was. While Herod and the religious leaders opposed Jesus because they were unwilling to cede the power and control they enjoyed?
We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star
O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy Perfect Light
Born a King on Bethlehem's plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign
Frankincense to offer have I
Incense owns a Deity nigh
Prayer and praising, all men raising
Worship Him, God most high
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb
Glorious now behold Him arise
King and God and Sacrifice
Earth to heav'n replies
O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to Thy perfect light
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