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2022 Christmas Eve. The Wise Men, Matthew Chapter 2:1-12
I think it is significant that even people who do not trust Jesus are affected by Christmas. In Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, the six weeks or so before Christmas are noticeably different from the rest of the year. This is true in a lot of South American countries, also. South Korea is less than thirty percent Christian, but the whole population is aware of the Christmas season. We celebrated Christmas in Papua New Guinea, too. It wasn’t really like Christmas in North America, but there was something different about the season.
When I think about the record of the Wise Men, I’m reminded that Christmas is indeed for the whole world. Now, to be honest with you, if I was God, inspiring people to write the Bible, I would either keep the wise men out of the gospel of Matthew, or I would explain more about them.
Only two out of the four gospels tell us much about the birth of Jesus in the first place – Matthew and Luke. Matthew leaves out the shepherds; Luke leaves out the wise men. In the first six chapters of his gospel, Matthew takes great care to point out how the birth and early life of Jesus fulfilled various prophecies about the Messiah from the Old Testament. In fact, in the first two chapters, Matthew points out four specific instances where prophecies were fulfilled. Surely, if there was a prophecy in the Old Testament about these visitors from the east, Matthew would have mentioned it. But he doesn’t.
Not only does this incident have nothing to do with prophecy, at first blush it seems to have nothing to do with Biblical Christianity or even Orthodox Judaism. The term translated “Wise men” or “Magi” usually refers to a sort of Babylonian priest or scholar who was especially acquainted with the study and interpretation of the stars, and of dreams and things like that. In different times or places they might have been called Shamans, or Druids, or Seers, or even Magicians. That’s right. The Babylonian or Arabian Magi held roughly the same position in their society as Druids did in Celtic society. Do you understand? – we are talking about pagan priests coming to see Jesus.
Not only are these people pagan priests, but somehow, they have learned about Jesus’ birth – through astrology. It was the behavior of the stars which told them that someone very important and significant was born. The stars even told them generally where in the world to look for the child. As far as we know, it was not because they searched the scriptures, or listened to a Jewish preacher, or anything else. The wise men don’t really fit into my typical way of looking at world. Pagan priests are drawn to Jesus through astrology?! I think what bothers me most is this question: does this mean that all religions really do lead to the same God?
First, I want to point out that this is another one of those passages that seems to confirm the authenticity of the New Testament. If we are honest, we must admit that it raises troubling questions and ideas. If the New Testament were made up, or if the stories about Jesus were extensively edited and changed, this story would have been one of the first to be cut. In other words, there seems to be no reason to have this here unless it really happened, and God wants us to learn something from it.
I want to briefly set up the historical timeline here. Matthew makes it clear this occurs after Jesus was born (2:1). Herod asks the Magi when the star appeared. When the Magi find Jesus, he is living with his parents in a house (not a stable). Later, based upon what the Magi told him, Herod thinks that Jesus might be up to two years old (2:16). So, while it is very picturesque to imagine the wise-men standing in the stable with the shepherds and donkeys on the night of Jesus’ birth, that is probably not how it actually happened.
So, what does the Lord want to say to us through this little section of scripture? First, and probably most importantly, the message is this: This little baby, born in Bethlehem, in accordance with the prophecies for the Jewish Messiah, is for all people. His life, death and resurrection and his teaching also, are not intended only for the Jews and the small nation of Israel. From birth, his influence and significance are there for the whole world. The wise men were not Jews by religion nor by birth. But Jesus was for them too. We call Christmas a “Christian” Holiday. But God calls it a gift for the whole world; a gift for all people – including pagan priests. Even today, it affects millions of people who are not themselves Christians. Even today, anyone who desires to can receive Jesus in faith, no matter what they have done, no matter where they are from, or what religion they were born into.
Second, let’s look at those wise men. By the way, the Bible does not actually tell us how many of them there are, or what their names were. All of that is folk legend. Probably, the idea of three wise men came about because three kinds of gifts were presented: gold, frankincense and myrrh. We only know that there was more than one (the Greek word for Magi is plural), and it is reasonable to suppose that it wasn’t an extremely large group either. In any case, we can be reasonably sure that not every pagan priest in the region came to see Jesus. Presumably, other pagan priests also studied the stars. They saw what the traveling wise men saw. But why did only these particular men come to see Jesus?
I think the answer is this. These men saw Jesus in the stars because in their hearts, they were honestly seeking the truth and they were hungering for God. When they made it to Jerusalem, they told Herod they were there to worship the child revealed in the stars. When they actually found Jesus, that is exactly what they did – they worshiped him. You see, I don’t think this is an affirmation of pagan religion. Instead, it is an affirmation of honest seeking. These pagans didn’t know any of the Bible. They had never heard of the Messiah. But in their hearts, they hungered for God, and they pursued him honestly and diligently. And even though they were looking in the wrong places, they really were looking. Since there were no other means available, God used the stars to direct them to him.
This is in contrast to Herod and the Jewish leaders. Herod wasn’t a Jew, but he was surrounded by Jews and easily could have learned about God if he chose. The Jewish leaders studied the scriptures. They knew that Messiah was supposed to be born in Bethlehem. In fact, Matthew lists the scripture here, allowing us to see yet another way in Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. But the Jewish leaders at that time weren’t seeking God. Instead, it was pagan priests, completely ignorant of the Bible, who found God when he came into the world. Jeremiah 29:13-14 says this:
If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord.
Jesus says it like this:
Keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8)
The wise men were seeking. And in accordance with the promises listed above, when they looked wholeheartedly, they found the true God. It wasn’t their pagan religion that led them to “the same God worshiped by all religions.” Instead, it was that their seeking, hungering hearts led them to true faith in Jesus Christ. Other pagans didn’t come to Bethlehem, even though they had the same information. Those men didn’t have the same hearts. Herod didn’t come, and neither did the Jewish leaders – even after they heard what the Magi had to say. They didn’t have seeking hearts as the Magi.
The wise men who saw Jesus didn’t go to Bethlehem and then perform pagan worship rituals. They went to Bethlehem, put their faith in Jesus, and worshiped Him, specifically. To express it another way, the moment they worshiped Jesus, they were no longer pagans, but Christians.
That may answer the question about other religions. I think the idea is sort of this: a true seeker will not remain in a false religion, but that false religion may be the initial point from which a true seeker eventually comes to know Jesus. The wise men didn’t receive eternal life through pagan religion – they received it through faith in Jesus. A Hindu won’t get to heaven by being a good Hindu. But suppose something in Hinduism leads him to find out about Jesus. Suppose he eventually puts his faith in Jesus – then he would have eternal life. It would not be Hinduism that saved him, but Jesus. By and large, Hinduism does not point to Jesus; but God could certainly use some aspect of it to draw a true seeker to the truth and salvation found only in Jesus Christ. That is very much like what he did for the Magi.
What initially drew the Magi to study the stars was only a shadow of the reality found in Jesus, who is called the Bright Morning Star (Numbers 24:17; Revelation 22:16). The Christmas tree is a pagan symbol too. But maybe the pagan imagery of tree worship, like that of astrology, is just a memory of the real thing, which goes farther back still, all the way to the Garden and the tree of life. The real thing is what those pagan priests sought.
So, with these strange pagan shamans in mind, I think there is a question worth considering: What are you seeking these days? Are you interested in finding the truth? Do you really want God himself, or do you just want God to do something for you? Maybe, like Herod or the Jewish leaders, your biggest concern is how Jesus might affect the plans and ambitions you have for your life.
What has led you to this place? Family, friends or your horoscope? The hope of a day’s comfort? Whatever it might be, let go of the shadow, and see the true reality that the Magi saw – the little toddler, invested with all the fullness of God. True hope. True life. True love. With the wise men, fall down, and exchange the empty shadows for the truth. Worship him. Receive him.