The story of the Magi is actually kind of strange and disturbing when you think about it. Pagan Shamans were led to Jesus through astrology. What can we learn from this?

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Matthew #3 . Chapter 2:1-12

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.

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. Now are you interested?

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 on TV 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, 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 Christmas night, that is almost certainly 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.

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 them 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.

Professional Level Prayer?


Too many Christians pray out loud in ways that are downright silly. We use fancy words. We repeat ourselves like idiots. Jesus told us not to do that. He taught us to pray simply and directly.

Next week, I’ll preach a real sermon again. This week we did some work-shopping in church about sermon from last time. So for the blog, I’ll post some thoughts I’ve been chewing on lately.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time lately, thinking about how people pray publicly. It’s a bad habit I have. What strikes is me is how common it is for Christians to ignore what Jesus said about public prayer. And the worst offenders are usually the “very holy and mature” believers. This often makes other Christians feel unworthy and second class, because they can’t pray like these believers who really know how to “pray up a storm.”

I recently took a Sunday off and attended a different church. They had a guest speaker who was very inspiring and entertaining. Afterwards, he invited people up for prayer and ministry. He had them stand in a group, and he prayed over them through the microphone. He probably prayed for five or ten minutes. His prayer was powerful – at least externally. His prayer was full of emotion. His prayer was full of words. His prayer wore me out, and I wasn’t even one of the people who went up for ministry.

I am continually struck by the widespread ignorance among “mature” Christians concerning Jesus’ own words about prayer, and about Jesus’ own actions when it came to bringing healing and deliverance.

Here’s what Jesus said:

1 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 6:1)

5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:5-8. Followed by the Lord’s Prayer)

Let me tell you, I’ve heard a lot of people pray in a way that seems aimed at showing others that they are good at it. I’ve heard an awful lot of empty phrases and extra words heaped up over the years. I have several thoughts about this.

First, I wonder this: do these people even know that Jesus said these things? These words of Jesus come from one of the best known portions of scripture: The Sermon on the Mount. Specifically, Jesus spoke them right before “the Lord’s prayer” in Matthew chapter six. So these people who pray such impressive sounding prayers may actually be very young in the faith and even ignorant of the bible. If you hear someone praying in a way that seems designed to impress others, you should understand, that is not the prayer of a mature believer. If you hear someone heaping up words and fine-sounding phrases, that person still has a lot of growing to do. Don’t be intimidated by them. PLEASE, don’t feel like you have to copy them.

Now, I have no doubt that some of these professional-level creators of empty phrases know what Jesus said. If so, then they are being disobedient. They are like Moses, who didn’t believe it was enough to simply speak to the rock, but also had to put on a show, striking the rock twice and acting out in front of the Israelites (Numbers 20:1-12). Jesus said, do not be like them. Do not be like the people who think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like the people who heap up empty phrases when they pray. And yet so many Christians – even leaders of churches and ministries – are exactly like this when they pray.

Another question is raised in my mind. What kind of relationship do these folks have with Jesus that they talk to him in this way? Jesus invites us into an intimate, real, loving daily relationship with himself. He came explicitly to remove the barriers between us and God. Yet when people heap up these empty phrases and pray impressively in front of others, it doesn’t sound like they are particularly close to him. I have never, not even when I was very young, gone to my human father and spoken like this:

“Father, Oh Father who gave birth to me; Father you have provided for me, father; Father, I just want you, father, to reach out, father, and touch me father, and just give me a peanut butter sandwich. Because, father, you are the king of peanut butter sandwiches. As far as I know, you invented peanut butter. As far as I know, you invented bread. You are the one who feeds me, you are the one who makes the money, and then you take the money and deposit it in the bank, O father, because you are wise. And then father, you take your debit card, and you are the one who goes to the store, you are the one who buys the bread and the peanut butter. You might buy Jiffy, or Peter Pan or even the generic store brand father, but you are the one who does it. And then you take it home in our 2005 Buick, father, because in your wisdom, that is the car you chose to purchase. And then father, you are the one who takes the bread, and the knife and the peanut butter and creates the sandwich, all for me. Even though I don’t deserve it father, because I failed to clean my room this morning. From my birth you have been giving me these delicious sandwiches, father, and I want you now father, to give me another one. Peanut Butter. Oh I ask you for peanut butter. I yearn for peanut butter, father. Peanut butter; peanut butter; peanut butter.”

If I did speak to my earthly father in this way, what would it say about the kind of relationship I have with him? Unless I was joking around with him, it would reveal that our relationship is strange and twisted; almost certainly unhealthy. This kind of talk shows that I

don’t interact at a very intimate level with my father. In fact, it strongly suggests that I am very uncomfortable relating to him. I am speaking to him in a way that I would never use to speak to a close friend. It unveils a belief that I think I must use a lot of words and a lot of inane flattery to get him to do what almost any other father would do if his child simply said, “Dad, could you make me a peanut butter sandwich?” Jesus said much the same thing:


11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? (Luke 11:11-12).

These long, repetitive, wordy prayers are either mere show for others, or they reveal a distant, impoverished relationship with God that is completely unlike the one that Jesus came to give us.

Now, I have had conversations with people who make the point that sometimes we are praying not just to God for ourselves, but to God on behalf of others and in front of others. Therefore, the way we pray out loud can be used to encourage those around us. I agree with this entirely. Jesus prayed out loud to encourage his followers in their faith. Here is one example:

“Father, I thank You that You heard Me. 42 I know that You always hear Me, but because of the crowd standing here I said this, so they may believe You sent Me.” 43 After He said this, He shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out! ”

This doesn’t sound much like most of the public prayers I hear in churches and prayer meetings. It’s simple. “Father, I am praying this out loud so others can hear and believe that you are working through my prayer.” Then the ministry time, the altar call for all who need a resurrection in their life. It consists of three words. Three.

You see, if we are praying out loud to encourage others to put their trust in Jesus and to get closer to him, we should consider if our words actually do that or not. A long prayer with a lot of empty and fine sounding phrases – what does that communicate to those who listen? I think it gives listeners these kinds of ideas:

Prayer is a skill. It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of repetition. We can’t just ask for what we need – we must set it in a context, we must use holy words and phrases, we must prove our earnestness by making it long. We need to keep talking to make God show up and do something.

In fact, Jesus didn’t pray that way, and he didn’t teach us to pray that way either. To repeat:

Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

So if you are praying out loud to benefit others (which I agree is a good thing) remember – it does NOT benefit others if you are praying like a pagan with a lot of fancy words and fine phrases. It doesn’t benefit others to make prayer sound like a professional-level skill.

We often make the same mistakes in prayer and altar ministry. I am continually struck by the fact that when I offer to pray for others, either God will show up, or he won’t. For example, I’ve prayed for many people to receive the gift of tongues. Many times, the Lord has given the person I’m praying for that gift. Sometimes, he has not given it. Whether it happens or not, I always pray basically the same prayer: “Lord, please give (name) the gift of tongues right now. Amen.” Our Father knows if the person needs the gift or not. I don’t have to stand there thinking up words to say while God makes up his mind. If he wants to do it, he does. If he doesn’t, my long winded prayers won’t change his mind.

Look at the way Jesus did ministry:

“Lazarus, come out.” (resurrection ministry)

“Get up and walk” (healing ministry)

“Little girl, get up” (resurrection ministry)

“Thank you father for the food. Please bless it” (providence ministry for five thousand)

“Come out of him,” (deliverance ministry)

“Receive the Holy Spirit (baptism in the Holy Spirit)

In these examples, Jesus uses an average of eight words. I have to admit, I made up the prayer about the feeding of the five thousand – it could have been a lot longer. Or a lot shorter. But the others are verbatim quotes from the gospels. Jesus is simple and direct.

You see, I think we, like Moses, are afraid to leave it that simple. If we keep talking, maybe God will show up just to make us quit. Or, if we keep talking, maybe we can cover up the fact that no one is getting healed tonight.

Thus, our ministry times often reflect a confusing contradictory message. The overall gist of it goes like this: “God has a gift he wants to give you now. He wants to give it to you, so come up to receive it. Now, once you come up to receive it you can’t just receive it. We have to work hard and pray long so that you can get it.”

Jesus never did ministry that way. The disciples after Pentecost never did ministry that way. And the fact that so many churches do engage in ministry that way sends the wrong message to people about prayer and about Jesus himself.

I think two of the biggest causes for this kind of praying and ministry are fear and self-reliance. If we keep it short and simple, will God really do it? Maybe if we pray long and hard, we can kind of motivate God to do what we ask. We are afraid to simply say, “Jesus come and do this please,” because what if he doesn’t? The reason that scares us is because we have forgotten that this is all about him, not us. We will end up looking silly if we speak less than fifteen words during our ministry time and nothing happens. But it isn’t supposed to be about how we look. It is supposed to be about what Jesus wants to do.

And so we buy into the idea that a longer, better-sounding prayer is in fact a better prayer. Because that gives us a measure of control. We start to believe we can make it happen if only we pray correctly. We want to believe that we can do something to make God show up. Because doing something is easier than waiting quietly in faith.

Most of the people I know who pray and do ministry with heaps of empty words are good-hearted people. I believe that many of them have a much closer relationship with Jesus than their prayers would lead you to suspect. But I think they are sincerely misled in this matter. Maybe you have been too. It isn’t complicated. Jesus made it quite clear in his teachings and in his examples: Keep it short and simple and trust God to do what you are asking.