Pastor Scott Andrews | December 18, 2022
Christmas is one week from today – a day that has traditionally been set aside to remember the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. I say traditionally because, we don’t really know when Jesus was born. The day we celebrate, December 25th, wasn’t actually decided upon by the Christian church, specifically, Pope Julius I, until the 4th century. And, you know, if you think about it, there are a lot of other traditional ideas about the birth of Jesus that make nice greeting cards, but, sometimes we’re surprised to find aren’t in the Bible. Jimmy Smith and Mark Hodges love it when I do this – they say I’m just trying to ruin Christmas. Not really – just trying to make it more biblical.
For example, while we picture Joseph and Mary making their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem with Mary riding a donkey, we have no idea how they got there. While we suppose a conversation between an innkeeper and Joseph, the Bible never even mentions an innkeeper. While we imagine Jesus being born in a stable as displayed in all of our nativity scenes, the Bible doesn’t say that – it simply says He was laid in a manger, which was a feeding trough for animals. While we sing of cattle lowing and oxen and donkeys feeding and bowing in our carols, we don’t know if there were any animals there at all. They are not mentioned.
We have lots of misconceptions about that first Christmas. One of my favorites comes from the second verse of “Away in a Manger” which says, “The cattle are lowing, the Baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.” Why? Because a crying baby doesn’t fit those serene nativity scenes – it doesn’t go with the halo over His head – because we can’t imagine God crying to say, I’m hungry, or I need changing. Now, it is true Jesus never threw a temper tantrum, but crying – well, that’s the way babies communicate. Oh, and by the way, Mary probably didn’t experience any labor either.
Then there are those three kings. We’re probably more messed up about them than anything else. I did some searching on the Internet, looking for the true story of Christmas, and found this explanation of the three kings:
“As the star shined over Bethlehem, in the east three kings would see it. They knew it was a sign and they set off to follow the star. There was Caspar – the young King of Tarsus; Melchior – a long-bearded old man and leader of Arabia; and Balthazar – the king from Ethiopia. They traveled on camels for many days over the mountains, and through the deserts, and plains. Always following the bright star. When they finally arrived in Bethlehem, they found the child in the manger. The three kings bowed to their knees and offered gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They would stay the night in the cave and the next day returned to their lands to spread the news.”
Another site pointed out, “Twelve days after the birth (that’s epiphany or Jan 6 by the way), the Magi or Three Kings, arrived carrying gifts for the infant.” If that is true, these were very fast camels. Incidentally, tradition also says that the disciple Thomas, one of the Twelve, traveled east with the gospel after he stopped doubting, found these three, and baptized them.
Well, of course, there are some challenges with some of those details. You see, as for the three kings, they were neither three, nor kings, nor named, nor rode camels, nor present at the manger scene.
We know the story well, don’t we? It’s recorded for us in Matthew 2. I’m taking a break from Revelation because war in heaven just didn’t seem appropriate for today. We sing of Matthew 2 every year at Christmas in songs like, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” We carefully unpack those three kings from our porcelain nativity sets. We know the story, but, when you stop to think about it, why is it here? What’s its purpose?
You see, I’m sure there were lots of stories that could have been shared about the boyhood of Jesus. And yet, we have so few. We know the circumstances surrounding His birth, we know about this visit of the wise men, we know about His flight to Egypt, and His return to Nazareth. And we know about a trip He made to Jerusalem with His parents when He was about 12 years old. And that’s about it. So of all the stories that could have been recorded, why this one?
Now, let me say, I’m not suggesting that you go home and destroy your nativity sets, okay? You don’t have to smash the little porcelain figurines of the kings or the camels or the cattle. You don’t have to burn down the stable or start tearing the wings off the angels, who, by the way, are not mentioned being present at the nativity and who probably didn’t have wings.
But what I am saying is this – every once in a while – at least once a year, it’s good to revisit the Scripture and see what we do know about the birth of Jesus Christ. And so I want us to look at the story of those three kings – since I mentioned it last week – when Herod, inspired by Satan, sought to destroy Jesus. Let’s look at what really happened, because in so doing, we’re going to see three responses to the birth of Jesus. Three responses that people still make today. And let me tell you at the outset what my purpose is this morning – on this Sunday before Christmas, I want each one of us, without exception, to know and experience the third response.
So turn in your Bibles to Matthew chapter 2. We’re going to be looking at verses 1-12 that tell us the story of the three kings, or more rightly, the magi. And the three responses we want to examine are these:
- First is the Response of Indifference
- Second is the Response of Rejection/Hostility
- And third is the Response of Worship
So let’s begin by reading those verses together – Matthew 2:1-12.
Well, before we look at each of those responses, let’s set the stage by looking at the characters. Let’s see what really happened so we have an accurate understanding of these visitors from the east. The first thing we see is that when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a star appeared, so let’s start with that. There has been a lot of speculation about that star – what was it? Many astronomers have tried to figure out what it was – they’ve tried to find a natural explanation for it. For example, they’ve looked at the paths of comets to see which ones may have been near the earth at the time of Christ’s birth (the closest one is Haley’s Comet – but it came by around 12 BC – too early); they’ve determined what alignments of planets may have occurred at the time that might account for an abnormally large looking star – they’ve discovered that happened with Jupiter and Saturn around 7 BC – a little closer to the time of His birth, but those planets didn’t get close enough to appear as one star; they’ve even speculated that a supernova may have occurred – no way to really document that.
But you know, it doesn’t seem like any of these explanations actually work, especially when you consider that the star later “went on before them, until it came and stood over the place where the Child was.” The best explanation is that it was a supernatural phenomenon, not a natural one. God gave this unusual star, whatever it was, to lead the Magi to Jesus. Think about it, there were some other miracles surrounding the birth of Jesus that made His coming unusual, not the least of which was the virgin birth and the heavenly choir praising God for His birth. So why not also a miraculous star? And by the way – notice that the star appeared while they were in the east – then it seemed to disappear, and then reappear to lead them on the seven-mile journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, stopping over the house where Jesus was – how would a comet or supernova do that? This is one of the mysteries we can ask about when we get to heaven.
At any rate, this star was seen by magi from the east. Now, who were they and how many were there? Let’s take that last question first – were they three in number? Probably not – it’s thought that number comes from the number of gifts which were given – gold, frankincense and myrrh. But it’s more likely this was a large delegation that came, which was more in keeping with the travel of the day – three people carrying costly gifts would not have made it on such a long journey alone. And think about it, how would their presence in Jerusalem have caused such a stir if there were just three of them? Most feel this was a big group of people that arrived, which troubled all Jerusalem.
And secondly, who were they? Were they kings? Probably not. We have no idea what their names were, and the Magi were modern day magicians, interpreters of dreams, astrologers, and scientists. They were the educated class of their day, and they were probably from Persia (formerly Babylon). While most were charlatans, some genuinely sought after truth.
It is quite possible this group of Magi was descended from the astrologers and magicians that Daniel ruled over in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. If so, they might have had access to the writings and prophecies of Daniel, which explains their knowledge of the coming of the Messiah to Israel. It’s because of these prophecies, that contemporary historians like Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius tell us that there was a widespread feeling that a world ruler would come out of Israel. The point is – many in the world were looking for Him – everyone except those who were supposed to be looking.
So, these Magi came riding into town. Oh, just a side note: if they were from Persia, it’s doubtful they would have been riding camels – more likely, if they rode anything, they would have been on horses. Now, as I said earlier, the Magi didn’t visit Jesus when He was still in the manger. Coming from the east, both the planning of the trip and the trip itself would have taken some time – many months or a year or two. The text tells us they came to the house where Jesus was. And when Herod determined when the star first appeared, he would later give the order to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem under the age of two. So, it was apparently some time after the birth of Christ that the magi appeared.
What about this Herod? Which one was he? He was Herod the Great, the first of the Herods, who was ruling Israel under the authority of Rome, having come to power in 40 BC. He was given the title “King of the Jews,” by the Roman Senate even though he himself was not a Jew – he was an Idumean which is the Greek name for Edomite. That’s interesting. Edom is another name for Esau, Jacob’s twin brother. After selling his birthright to Jacob, Esau eventually left with his wives and settled south of Israel in what became known as Edom. They were always brutally opposed to the Israelites, seeking their destruction. For example, they refused to allow the Israelites to travel through their land after the Exodus from Egypt.
In our Men’s Bible Study on Wednesday mornings, we are in I Samuel. You remember the stories there – Saul is made king, but disobeys God over and over. So David is anointed by Samuel to replace Saul. Saul bitterly hates David and seeks to kill him. Once, when David was running, he stopped by the tabernacle to get some bread and the sword of Goliath from Ahimelech the priest. In chapter 22, when Saul finds out about this priest helping David, he ordered that all the priests of this family be slaughtered. Saul’s men wouldn’t do it, so he commanded a man named Doeg to kill them – he did, killing 85 of them. Only one escaped. By the way, Doeg was an Edomite. Later, in the book of Esther, Haman tried to annihilate all the Jews – you remember, because of Mordecai. He wasn’t successful – but Haman was an Edomite. And here, we will find Herod, who tried to kill Jesus, was an Edomite. By the way, we learn of God’s intended judgment of Edom in the book of Obadiah.
Well, anyway, Herod, king of the Jews, wasn’t even Jewish – he was an Edomite. Although he was an able administrator, politically gifted and quite a builder, he was also a harsh ruler – he loved power and levied incredibly heavy taxes on the people. And he wasn’t a very nice guy; he became quite paranoid near his death – which fits the description here – you see, he died shortly after Jesus was born. And right before he died, he had his wife and two of his sons executed as well as several of his close associates. He also left instructions for hundreds of Jewish leaders to be killed on the day he died. Why? So there would be somebody grieving at his death. This guy was paranoid and awful. So, it’s no wonder he felt threatened when these Magi arrived and asked, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”
When Herod heard this group of foreign travelers had arrived and were asking to see some new baby king, he and all Jerusalem were troubled. So he called together the chief priests (Sadducees) and scribes (Pharisees) – those who were supposed to be the religious leaders of the people, and asked them, where was the Christ, the prophesied Messiah, to be born. They immediately knew the answer to the question, quoting Micah 5:2, which said that He would be born in Bethlehem.
So, Herod then called the Magi together, and having ascertained when the star first appeared, he sent them on to Bethlehem. He asked that they report back to him, under the pretense of wanting to go and worship the new king. Of course, his desire was to eliminate Him.
So there you go – that’s what really happened with these Magi. But now I want us to take just a few moments to look at the three possible responses to the birth of Jesus that we see in this story – three responses that exist to this day.
- The Response of Indifference, as seen in the chief priests and the scribes, teachers of the law.
- The Response of Rejection, as seen in Herod
- And the Response of Worship, as seen in the Magi.
We start with the response of indifference. Look at this – these guys show up to town saying – hey, we know the king of the Jews has been born – you know, the Messiah you’ve been waiting for, for about 2,000 years – we saw His star in the east – where can we find Him? And while these religious leaders knew where to find Jesus, they didn’t seem interested at all.
You would think that they would have listened intently to what the Magi had to say, that they would have been amazed that a star guided them to Israel, that they would have pleaded to go with the Magi to see if, indeed, the King had been born. But they weren’t interested. They were too busy with their own agendas, their own lives, their own brand of religion. Certainly, John’s words rang true: “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.”
But how might that fit our world? Many people today are wrapped up in religion, even their own brand of Christianity, but they’re not interested in Jesus at all. And perhaps no time of the year is this more magnified than Christmas. People all over the world (over 2 billion) will celebrate Christmas. They even know that it has something to do with a baby born in Bethlehem. But they don’t have time to check Him out. They’re too busy – what with buying presents and visiting family and singing Yuletide carols and all that stuff. Who has time for a baby born as a King?
And maybe some of you here today are somewhat familiar with the truth of Christianity. You’ve heard the Christmas story. You’ve even heard the Easter story. And yet you go through the religious motions, all the while ignoring Jesus – indifferent to who He is and what He has done on your behalf. To you I would say, don’t miss the greatest gift of all this Christmas – the gift of knowing this baby who was born to take away the sin of the world – your sin. He came to graciously give you eternal life. Don’t be distracted by the trappings of Christmas – know the meaning of Christmas.
Which leads to the second response, that of Herod the Great – a response of hostility and rejection. When Herod heard that the Christ had been born, He wanted nothing to do with it. In fact, he wanted to oppose Him. So he sought Jesus out, intending to kill him. Unable to find Him, he had all the babies under the age of two put to death, hoping by such a brutal act, to eliminate the Messiah.
How might that response be mirrored in our world today? Certainly there are those around the world who just as violently oppose Christianity, persecuting and killing Christ’s followers. But is there a more subtle form of this response? I think so. You see, there are many today who, having heard of Jesus, want nothing to do with Him. Christianity is being actively dismissed. Lots of way to do that – in so-called progressive Christianity which denies the truths of Christianity. You know, we have to grow beyond the outdated, archaic teachings of the Bible. Further, I’m sure you may know, some today are labeling the Christian faith as a form of white supremacy. Many in Christian circles are denying the necessity of Jesus in the faith – who needs the baby to grow and be the Savior of the world if you can make it another way, without Him?
So why actively oppose the faith? Because they, like Herod, don’t want Jesus to take His rightful place in their lives. I want to live my life my way. Like Herod, to acknowledge Jesus as King is to acknowledge that they are not – they’ll have to remove themselves from the throne of their own hearts and allow Jesus to take control, and obey Him.
Maybe you’re here like that this morning. You want to suppress Jesus – you don’t want Him to take control of your life. You know that your life would have to change – you’d have to give up some things, and you don’t want to. My fervent prayer for you today is that you will trust your life to Jesus – that you will abdicate the throne of your life and give it to the rightful owner. I assure you, He can run your life better than you can anyway. You’re fooling yourself if you think that the life you have is better than the one He came to give you. He came that you might have a full and abundant life.
Which brings us to our final response, that of the magi. What was their response? It was one of worship. Worship here means simply to exalt, honor or pay homage to another. These magi exalted or honored this baby as their king. Hence, the gifts.
Look at verse 11 again, “After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” These gifts represented well who Jesus Christ was. I doubt if the magi knew the significance of their gifts, but we can see it today. The gold speaks of His royalty; the frankincense (which was commonly used in sacrificial offerings) speaks of His deity; the myrrh (which was used in the embalming of deceased bodies) points to His death and thus speaks of His priesthood for those who would believe. The magi came to worship.
And that, my friends, is the only possible response we can have to the birth of the divine King – He is worthy of our worship, of our very lives. Matthew here hints, at the very beginning of his gospel, that Jesus not only came to be the King of the Jews, but our King as well – don’t miss it, some of the first to worship Him were Gentiles. And Matthew will end his book with Jesus’ Great Commission, to go make disciples of all nations. Jesus is not only the King of the Jews, He’s the King of all people.
As we finish, I want you to see some things about this worship. Their worship took great sacrifice:
- First, it took a sacrifice of time. If my understanding of the timing is right, then it took up to two years before they arrived and found Jesus. And remember, they still had to take the trip back. This was no easy trip – it took great personal sacrifice.
- Secondly, their worship was a sacrifice of wealth. They came bearing not just ordinary gifts, but gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh – costly gifts. Certainly they gave out of what they had – but what they had, they gave.
- Thirdly, theirs was a sacrifice of humility. Here they were, obviously wealthy men, well respected men, powerful men. And they came and bowed down to a little boy – a toddler at best. It would have been one thing if they had bowed down to the son of Herod or the son of Caesar Augustus – but this was the son of a poor carpenter of an oppressed race. But they worshipped Him.
How about our worship of the Savior this Christmas? Are we willing to sacrifice our time, our treasures, indeed ourselves to humbly worship Him?
Three people or groups of people – three responses to the birth of the Savior of the world. In which group do you find yourself this morning? Maybe you’re in that first group, and you’ve been indifferent to the true meaning of Christmas. You’ve just enjoyed its festivities without ever dealing with this baby in a manger. Maybe you’re in that second group – you’ve been hostile to His claim on your life, not wanting to surrender control to Him. You like your life just fine, you like making the decisions, and you don’t want anyone interfering. I invite you, whoever you are, to accept the life He came to give – a gift of grace – the forgiveness of sins, the gift of eternal life.
And finally, for those of us who do know Jesus, in all the busyness of the season, let’s make sure we reserve the best for Him – and give Him our time, our treasures, our very selves to humbly worship Him.