Why did the 'kings' of the Orient bring gold to the Christ-child? Because He is our King of Kings. Why did they bring frankincense? Because He is our great High Priest. Why did they bring myrrh? Because He is our suffering Savior who would redeem manking through His blood. These are the gifts of the Magi . . . what gift will you bring Jesus this holiday season?
Additional messages in this series are available here: The Myths, Messengers and Mysteries of Christmas
Part One: Selected Scripture
Without a doubt, one of things I love about this season is the music.
Certainly, the music about Christ’s incarnation could be sung year-round, but there’s nothing wrong with reserving it for special times. What makes it special is that it is reserved for this season.
It’s not a bad idea to save things for special seasons.
Think about it, if you had candle-light at every meal, you’d be excited about eating by light-bulb. Your kids would say, “wow, isn’t this great . . . we can see what we’re eating!”
If you drank eggnog in the evenings, year round, you’d be thrilled with finally having a cup of coffee instead, or a glass of ice-tea, right?
My father, who grew up on a farm, told me how excited he was when he was finally able to eat store bought bread. No more of that crummy hand kneaded, slow baking, home-made bread. Who wants that?! Sunbeam was special.
Only because it was different.
Now, there are well-meaning believers who think we shouldn’t celebrate at all, given the pagan origins of many of the things related to Christmas.
That’s certainly true. The Romans decorated their temples and their pagan altars with greenery and candles. In fact, when the Romans conquered the British Isles they found Druids who were using mistletoe in their pagan worship ceremonies. They also found pagan worshippers using holly and ivy for decor in their pagan ceremonies.
And, by the 5th century, all of these trappings had become a part of the church’s celebration of Christmas.
The Puritans tried to stamp it out any observance of Christmas. They passed a law in England in 1644 that made Christmas Day an official working day. In fact, for a while in England, it was literally illegal to cook special desserts like plum pudding and mince pie in December.
In early American history the Puritans deliberately worked on December 25th to show their disdain for such observances.
John MacArthur, God With Us (Zondervan, 1989), p. 25
The Apostle Paul though made it clear in Romans 14, “One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord.”
In other words, no day is any more special than another. But if you choose to make one day, or one season special, make the most of it for the glory of God.
But give it redemptive meaning.
You want holly and ivy and a Christmas tree? Can you make it reflect the message of Christmas?
Like Martin Luther the reformer who many believe was the first to come up with the idea of taking lighted globes and attaching them to his Christmas tree . . . signifying the birth of the Light of the World.
He took something pagan and gave it redemptive purpose.
The fact that we observe Christmas is not the issue. How we observe it and why we observe it is!
And by the way, if you decide not to observe something because it has worldly associations or even origins, you’d better not study too much history or ancient civilizations.
In fact, in a few weeks, don’t refer to the new year or write out the month of January. You’ll be associating your schedule and writing out the name of the Roman god with two faces; one in front looking ahead to the new year and one face in back, reflecting on the old year which is now in the past.
And don’t drive a car or truck manufactured by Mazda – that company name came from the conquering god of the ancient Persians. The name of their supreme god was Mazda.
And while you’re at it, you might as well take the fish symbol off your bumper.
That symbol was in use long before the church adapted it to their own purpose. It was the symbol associated with several pagan goddesses.
The symbol could be a fish when drawn sideways, or vertically to represent the womb of the goddess.
In China, the great mother goddess Kwan-yin was often portrayed in the likeness of a fish.
In Egypt, Isis the mother goddess was called the Great Fish of the Abyss.
In Greece, the fish goddess, Aphrodite Salacia was worshipped by her followers on Friday. And on that day, the faithful followers ate fish in her honor.
So there’s another one – don’t eat fish on Friday because that’s when the pagan worshiper’s of Aphrodite ate fish in honor of their fish goddess.
In fact, don’t even say the name Friday – it’s a transliteration of another goddess named Freya – or Friday. And Friday became of day designated for worship and feasting.
The early Christians borrowed this pagan symbol and gave it a new meaning – as well as a symbol to mark their meeting places. Because the symbol was so common, nobody took any notice.
The point is, if you don’t want any correlation to pagan icons or symbols of ancient ungodly practices, you might want to move to some cave somewhere and live.
But then again, living in a cave to escape evil has pagan origins too.
Imagine it – you’re in your Mazda, with a new fish symbol stuck on your bumper; it’s Friday, you’re at the drive through window of Burger King, picking up your fish sandwich combo, heading home to hang the lights on your tree.
You’re in deep trouble.
Or maybe we’ve missed the point.
The truth is, if you observe the months of the year and the days of the week, and eat that fish sandwich on Friday, and drive a Mazda and have a fish symbol on your bumper, and celebrate with holly and ivy and lights and candles, that doesn’t mean you’re less a Christian than another.
Why we observe this season and what the symbols mean to us are the distinguishing marks of the believer.
I happen to believe that Christmas time is a fantastic opportunity for us to exalt Jesus Christ in our community. I recommend we take full advantage of it.
There will be hundreds of people on this campus in 2 weeks that we won’t see again until Easter.
We’ll take advantage of what is, to them, simply a holiday where you . They’re coming to check us out . . . they want to know if it’s more than symbols!
That’s why we’ll make sure the music is timely and message is clear so that they know why we celebrate and why they should too.
Let’s make sure we separate the myth from the message.
And there are plenty of them even within the church, as it relates to what we call the Christmas story.
So much is lost on the church because of the watered down, trivialized message pawned off on the church during this season.
The Christmas story is actually a brutal scene, a lonely, desperate set of circumstances that takes the reader on an emotional roller-coaster. The story begins with intrigue and ends with murder.
I want to spend the next few Sundays, uncovering this scene, delivering three messages along the theme, the Myths, Messengers and Mystery of Christmas.
I invite your attention to the Gospel by Matthew and to some of the most mythologized participants in the usual Christmas play. That would be the wise men.
Turn to Matthew, chapter 2 and verse 1.
We’ll look at several scenes today . . . first,
The arrival of the Magi
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 2. Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” 3. When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
I’ll bet they were!
These weren’t three old guys carrying a few gift boxes.
These were Babylonian king makers.
And of all the things they could have said to upset Herod and the Jewish people, for different reasons, it would have been this question, “Where is He who has been born, king of the Jews.”
Not, “will be born one day . . .” but, “has been born,” In other words, ‘it’s already happened and there’s nothing you can do about it!”
And then they add this shocking title to the newborn, “King of the Jews!”
Let me hit the pause button and shift the camera behind the scenes for a moment, focusing on Herod.
This second scene could be called the apprehension of Herod
If you could re-enter this scene and watch Herod, you would probably see His face flush crimson . . . and he have been biting his tongue to keep from saying what he wanted to say.
This was Herod, the Great! Appointed by his father to rule the prefect of Galilee. His father had been appointed by none other than Julius Caesar to rule Judea.
Everyone knew he was king.
By the time we meet Herod in Matthew chapter 2, he is 70 years old. And He has become insanely jealous of his power and his throne.
One of Herod’s 10 wives, Miriamne, had a brother, Aristobulus, who was the Jewish high priest. Herod became so fearful of the popularity of Aristobulus that he had him drowned, after which he financed a huge funeral where he pretended to weep. Then Herod killed Miriamne and her mother.
In his final 2 years of life, his paranoia became so great that murdered his two oldest sons. Five days before his death he executed his next eldest son, determined that he would have no rival to his throne.
Josephus, the 1st century Jewish historian wrote this about Herod and his rule, “He did not permit the citizens, either to meet together, or to walk, or to eat together, but watched everything they did, exhorting them to always be at work. He had spies everywhere . . . he would often put on the clothing of an ordinary citizen and mix among the multitude at night, asking them what they thought about Herod and his government. When they answered with criticism, they were punished severely, or even brought to the citadel Hyrcania, both openly and secretly and were there put to death.
Edited from Ivor Powell, Matthew’s Majestic Gospel (Kregel Publications, 1986), p. 36
One of the last things Herod did before he died was imprison many distinguished Jews on trumped up charges. He gave the order that these men and women were to be executed the very moment he died, in order to ensure that there would be weeping in Jerusalem. Even if they weren’t weeping for him, the days following his death would be filled with mourning.
This man was a cold-hearted, vain, corrupt, paranoid killer.
I want you to know something else about Herod. As an older man, having gained the favor of Roman emperor, the Roman senate granted him his wish and gave him the title, “King of the Jews.”
He was the King of the Jews. That was his title and his throne!
Now it was during these last 2 years when Herod was killing every threat to his throne that a group of Babylonian dignitaries showed up and said, “Where is he who has been born, King of the Jews?”
Verse three, “And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled.”
The word means agitated, visibly shaken.
Someone has dared to take my throne and my title.
Ladies and Gentlemen, our world is filled with Herods. Not in so far as going around murdering people, but claiming the right to be king.
They alone will inhabit the throne-room of their life and heart.
Nobody has the right to interfere with their career, their position, their power, their ambition, their plans, their lifestyle.
God With Us, p. 71
They are not about to let anybody else be king of their lives.
Tell someone that Jesus Christ deserves to be their master and king and watch as they become visibly shaken.
Tell them they must bow and surrender to Christ’s reign and watch as they turn red with anger and bite their tongue to keep from saying what they are thinking. Or maybe they’ll say it.
I don’t need saving . . . I alone am king . . . I am the master of my fate!
Now don’t misunderstand; Christ is okay for a little Christmas caroling once a year, but He’s best left in the manger . . . or on the cross, right? Our religious world likes Him there too. They prefer Him only at His birth or at His death.
But don’t talk about the sovereign ascended Lord. Don’t talk about surrendered priorities and plans and morals and lifestyle.
You’re ruining my Christmas spirit!
Ladies and Gentlemen, this season our world will once again say, “Jesus works for me at the Christmas Eve party, but I’d rather not have Him at my New Years Eve party.”
Ah, let’s just leave Him in the manger, shall we?
And Herod . . . Herod will have nothing of that thought either.
He’s just discovered his worst nightmare. Somebody else has a claim on the title, “King of the Jews.”
And it isn’t just anybody who’s delivered the news.
Go back to verse 1b, “Behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem.”
You can’t imagine how devastating this was to Herod.
Magi comes from the Greek word magoi. It gives us our word magic, magician and magistrate.
This verse tells us that these men were from the east. Literally translated, they came from “the rising” – a reference to the rising of the sun.
They were from the Kingdom of the Medes and Persians.
Herodotus, the ancient Greek Historian, informs us that these men were a special caste of men, highly trained in the arts and sciences. They were the High priests, university professors, and political movers and shakers all rolled up into one.
They were the leaders of the Persian religion, which was still in full force when Jesus was born.
The religion was called Zoroastrianism. I know, it sounds like the worship of Zoro. Everyone wore black masks and carried swords.
Actually, the priests wore white robes and tall hats.
The principle element in their worship was fire. They had an altar with fire which they kept burning. They believed it had originally been given to them from heaven. They practiced animal sacrifice, and believed in only one god whose name was Mazda. There’s that automobile thing again.
Historians also tell us that no Persian was ever able to become king without mastering the scientific and religious disciplines of the magi. Only then was the heir to the throne approved and crowned by magi.
Adapted from John MacArthur, Matthew (Moody Press, 1985), p. 27
The magi were known as King makers, and Herod knew it!
In fact, all of Jerusalem knew it too, and they were just as troubled, although for different reasons.
By the way, Matthew doesn’t tell us how many magi arrived. Early church tradition said there were 12, but the number was later reduced to 3. Probably because you can’t get 12 wise men into the Christmas play.
During the middle ages, the number of wise men was reduced and many traditions and myths expanded. The church claimed that the 3 men were named Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. They were representatives of the three sons of Noah. Supposedly their skulls were miraculously preserved and discovered in the 12th century by the Bishop of Cologne. The great cathedral of Cologne still exhibits these skulls, encased in a jewel studded glass encasement.
The questions remain though from the plain text of scripture.
Why make a trip across the continent, in a journey that took at least a year. And what would make the magi assume that when they arrived in Jerusalem, people would automatically know where the Messiah was living, which the text implies?
Why would they be willing to slip in the front door of Israel and slip out the back door into oblivion?
Powell, p. 35
And most importantly, why would they be interested in a Jewish Messiah?
To begin to answer those questions, you have to travel back several centuries, to a time when Jews were taken captive by the Kingdom of the east – Babylon.
Among the deported Jews were several Jewish teenagers who were handed over to the Magi to be trained in the University.
You know several of them by the names, Daniel, Shadrach and Meshach and Abednego.
Daniel, especially, had such a profound affect on Nebuchadnezzar that he promoted Daniel to be the chief leader over all the magi in the Kingdom of Babylon (Daniel 2:48).
So respected and powerful was he, when Darius the Persian King conquered Babylon, he retained the leadership of Daniel.
You may remember that the other Persian politicians created a plot to have him thrown to the lions. You might want to know that the magi were not a part of that plot. They evidently had tremendous respect for Daniel.
It would be the 70 years of godly influence by the life and, evidently teaching, of Daniel that would not only bring 2 kings to faith in Daniel’s God, but many of the magi as well.
But how would the magi, living hundreds of years after Daniel, be prompted by a star to come and meet the Messiah.
What did they mean in Matthew verse 2, “For we have seen His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”
First of all, this text reveals that the magi who traveled to Jerusalem were already believers. They were ready to worship the Savior. They already believed the scriptures. They knew the Messiah had been born.
In fact, as soon as Herod had the chance, he gathered the religious leaders and asked them (v. 4) where the Messiah was supposed to be born.
The magi said in effect, “We’ve come to worship the Christ . . . literally, the Messiah.”
Here they are, descendants of Daniel’s magi converts, prompted to begin a journey that would take them nearly a year to finish.
In a large caravan, no doubt. With servants to cook and keep their herds they would need for food for this long journey. With a large division of soldiers as well to protect them as they journeyed through foreign kingdoms. The soldiers also protected the costly gifts the magi had with them.
Rewrite the picture you might have in your mind. These were Persian dignitaries who were renowned for their power and privilege.
And they were in a long line of Gentile believers, which stretched back to Daniel, their leading wise man.
There’s still the question . . . why would an astral sign prompt their journey? How would they have connected a star with the Messiah.
Daniel evidently had at his disposal the Torah, the law of Moses. And he, and no doubt other godly Jews living in captivity had evidently taught them of the coming Messiah.
Listen to one verse that I could only imagine Daniel explaining to his magi friends. From the Book of Moses, Numbers 24:16. This is the oracle of him who hears the words of God, and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty . . . I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come forth from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise from Israel.
Here in this Old Testament passage, the Messiah is called a star.
Or perhaps Daniel taught them from Isaiah’s prophecy that said, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you . . . and nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” (Isaiah 60:1-4)
Same expression . . . same idea of a star rising in brightness.
In Revelation 22:16, Jesus Christ is referred to as the bright and morning star.
You need to understand that the magi didn’t see just any star. This wasn’t some meteor, or comet, or alignment of the planets.
This was a Messianic sign.
It was star like, but it was, in fact, the light of God’s presence – His shekinah glory.
The Greek word for star (aster) can be understood to mean ‘brilliance or radiance’.
This was the light that guided the people of Israel as they journeyed through the wilderness (Exodus 13:21)
This was light that made the face of Moses to glow after he had met with God (Exodus 34:30).
This was the heavenly brilliance of the resurrected Christ that knocked Saul of Tarsus off his horse and blinded him (Acts 9:3)
This was the vision of John the Apostle as he saw the light of Christ’s face shining like the sun (Revelation 1:16).
This was the same light that appeared to these Persian magi and led them.
How do you explain that it seemed to disappear when they arrived in Jerusalem? How do you explain that it suddenly seemed to reappear when they left Herod’s palace? How do you explain it literally standing over the very house where the Child was staying?
Only one way. They were being led by the light of God’s glory . . . and it seems that they were the only ones who saw it.
Which leads me to wonder, why would God bother with all this for eastern magi? What’s so important about Persians coming give Christ gifts?
The apathy of the Jewish leaders
I agree with one author who suggested that this revealed that the birth of Jesus had worldwide impact and influence. It also showed that the Messiah was coming through Israel as a gift from God to all nations, not just to the Jews. Adapted from Stuart Weber, The Holman New Testament Commentary (Broadman, 2000), p. 20
The Jewish leaders who told Herod where the Messiah was to be born, didn’t care enough to walk the 5 miles from Jerusalem to check it out; but Gentiles traveled across the continent.
Did you notice that they evidently had memorized the prophecy of Micah . . . they knew the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
You’d think some of the Jewish leaders would have immediately run down there to find out!
They knew the scriptures, but they missed the Savior.
The wise men, on the other hand traveled a great distance. Persia was located in modern day Iran – they traveled through Iran and then through the country of Iraq and down into the land of Palestine.
A journey of several thousand miles – it would have taken them months to travel the distance . . . with several weeks or even months to prepare for the journey once the light appeared.
So you need to understand that when they arrived in Bethlehem, they did not arrive at the stable . . .
Verse 11 says: And they came into the house and saw the child with Mary
They didn’t come to a stable, they entered a house. And they saw the child – not a brephos, the Greek word for baby; but paidion – the Greek word for little child.
By the time the magi had arrived, Jesus is anywhere from 1 to 2 years of age.
v. 11 When they entered the home, they saw the child with Mary, His mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him.
The final scene is the adoration of Jesus Christ
The expression that the magi fell down, means that they fell to their knees with their heads to the ground and then, in oriental fashion of their day, kissed his feet and even the ground.
Can you imagine? Little Jesus, probably holding on to his mother’s robe . . . wide-eyed, receiving worship from the King-makers of a Gentile empire.
Ah, but the king-makers brought gifts.
They gave Him gold – the gift for a king. Gold for the One who heir to the throne of David.
They gave Him Frankincense – a gummy substance from the Boswellia tree, used by the priests in the Old testament as part of their priestly service of intercession.
Powell, p. 42
Gold to the King . . . frankincense to the High Priest!
And they gave Him the strangest of gifts – Myrrh.
A sweet fragrance taken from a small thorn tree. Gum from its sap would be mixed with wine to form a narcotic, pain dulling drink. This would be the very drink offered to Christ on the cross and he would refuse it.
Myrrh was also a common substance used to form sweet smelling, sticky substance that they would use to wrap a corpse as they prepared to bury it. It would be enfolded in the shroud to keep the linen fabric in place.
So the Magi gave Him myrrh – the One who would die – and be wrapped with it in the tomb.
Three gifts: Gold for our King of Kings . . . Frankincense for our great High Priest . . . and myrrh for our suffering Savior who will redeem mankind from among every nation on planet earth.
You have in these few verses three ongoing responses of the world to the announcement of Christ’s birth – the message of Christmas.
From the first century to the 21st century, the cultures change, but the response of mankind does not change.
You have anger (from Herod). . . apathy (from the nation’s leaders) and adoration (from those who worship Him as their Messiah).
There are those who hate Him today; those who ignore Him today; and those who worship Him today . . . the One who is the Christ, the true and living savior of the world.
O come let us adore Him
O praise His name forever