Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Star Trek Sages

The Magi's journey of faith.

By Pastor Larry DeBruyn

Though they are becoming an endangered species in public places, manger scenes can still be viewed on Christmas cards and on wrapping paper. Recently, on one newscast, I saw where a man erected a manger scene on the bed of his pick-up truck, drove it to the town square, and displayed it there. Government authorities were unable to remove the scene from public view because the truck was considered private property. So there the manger scene sat in a public place, and the government could do nothing about it because it rested upon the bed of a man's truck, his private property!

Bethlehem, sometime between 7 and 4 B.C. A stable. A manger. A feeding trough for animals, wherein lies the Christ Child wrapped in swaddling clothes. Mary, the Virgin Mother. Her espoused husband, Joseph, looking on. Shepherds from a nearby field standing by. Three Magi from the East, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and their camels. The nativity scene. In this way, the images of the manger scene have for decades, if not centuries, conditioned our Christian remembrance of the first Christmas. Manger scenes usually include biblical characters and persons as they reenact the initial Bethlehem drama. Would it shock you too much to be told that the Gospel narratives indicate that, in all likelihood, the Magi were not in Bethlehem at the manger to observe the first Christmas?

In relating their story, Matthew says that Magi arrived in Jerusalem from the East "after Jesus was born in Bethlehem" (Matthew 2:1, NASB). While it is not known how long after His birth that the Magi came to see Jesus, it is assumed to have been at least several months, perhaps even more than a year, later. Several lines of evidence suggest this. First, from the moment that the star announced Jesus' birth, it would have taken some preparation and travel time until the Magi arrived in Jerusalem. Second, by the time they got there, the "baby" [brephos] had grown to become a "child" [paidion] (Compare Luke 2:12 and 16, to Matthew 2:11.). The word "child" suggests that Jesus was then a toddler. Third, in contrast to the shepherds' visit, by the time the Magi arrived, the "first family" had upgraded their accommodations from a stable to a "house" (Matthew 2:11). And fourth, Herod's executive order to kill all infant males under two years old indicates that Jesus was perhaps nearer to that age than a newborn baby (Matthew 2:16). The likelihood that the wise men were not present at the Bethlehem stable when Jesus was first born does not, however, subtract from the drama of their story.

Like Abraham, who trekked by faith from the East two thousand years before them, the Magi left a pagan environment (See Joshua 24:2.). "Magi" is a word from which we get our word magician. Presuming their home to have been ancient Persia, they would have been devotees of the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, an occultist and satanic religion based on astrology, superstition, and fear. One historian notes,

"By an austere and monogamous life, by a thousand precise observances of sacred ritual and ceremonial cleanliness, by abstention from flesh food, and by simple and unpretentious dress, the Magi acquired, even among the Greeks, a high reputation for wisdom, and among their own people an almost boundless influence. The Persian kings themselves became their pupils, and took no step of consequence without consulting them. The higher ranks among them were sages, the lower were diviners and sorcerers, readers of stars and interpreters of dreams; the very word magic is taken from their name."

The Magi were, in effect, ancient devotees of what we know today as New Age religion!

By their notice of Christ's birth star, God called these men, students of the skies, to worship "the Child." God gives to all people's ample testimony about Himself in nature (See Psalm 19:1-2; Romans 1:20.). These men looked at the heavens and acknowledged the God of creation. How many other Magi had studied the night skies, observed that special star, but could not bring themselves to make a trek of faith to find the Messiah? After having observed the heavens for years, the witness of God's special star beckoned this group of Magi to commence their journey of faith.

Their travel from Persia to Bethlehem must have involved both personal peril and physical hardship. For months, perhaps even a year or more, these Magi journeyed over dusty and dry deserts by day, and slept beneath the stars during frigid nights. Yet they were unrelenting in their pursuit of the truth. Faith needs feet, and these men braved a most hazardous journey to find the one who was born King of the Jews.

In fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12:3), their journey of faith saw them as the earliest Gentile converts to the person of Jesus. From their astronomical calculations, reading of the Hebrew prophets, and the appearance of a special star that may be compared to the Shekinah light that led Israel during her wilderness wanderings, God guided these ancient wise men from paganism to faith in "the Child" of Israel.

As with the trial of the magi's faith, God may call us to leave our comfort zone and lead us to undertake a hazardous journey. If He does, He will guide and protect us. Upon their arrival in Jerusalem, the word of the Scriptures confirmed to them that God had led them. Through the word of Micah the prophet, God confirmed their faith in His leading (Micah 5:2; Romans 10:9-10). It stood "written" that the "King of the Jews" would be born in Bethlehem. In spite of the nativity myth that has developed around them for over two thousand years, those men who traveled from the East to worship the Christ Child do teach us an important spiritual lesson, and it is this: The "just shall live (and journey!) by faith."

With five miles to go, the star reappeared and guided the Magi to the worship of the Savior. Drawing attention to Jesus, Matthew calls him "the Child" (Matthew 2:11). No other youngster in history deserved to be worshipped like the Christ Child. Imagine the sight of it: Adult men prostrating themselves on the ground before the toddler! It makes no sense at all. Unless in fact, the little boy was the Christ. Men from another land, Gentiles, worshipped Jesus in Bethlehem, while those in Jerusalem ignored him.

The irony of that confirmation was that those "chief priests and scribes" knew where to find the prophecy though they themselves did not bother to walk the five miles to Bethlehem to see the promised Messiah who had been born in their own backyard! That indifference portended things to come. The religionists, who ignored Christ's birth, also antagonized him during His life and reviled Him during his crucifixion. J.C. Ryle wrote:

"How often the very persons who live nearest to the means of grace are those who neglect them the most! There is only too much truth to the proverb, 'The nearer the church the further from God.' Familiarity with sacred things has an awful tendency to make men despise them. There are many, who from residence and convenience ought to be the first and foremost in the worship of God, and yet they are always last."[2]

There is a Christmas saying that goes, "Wise men still seek Him." In America, we must admit, we have been born close to Christianity. Every Christmas and Easter season testifies to this fact. The question then becomes, Are we too close to care? Or, will we like the Magi of old, wisely seek Him?

The Truth:

"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given" and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace." (Isaiah 9:6)

[1] Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage, The Story of Civilization, Volume 1, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954) 372.
[2] John Charles Ryle,
St. Matthew, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels (London: James Clarke & Co., 1956) 10.

Reprinted with permission of author, with minor modification for blog posting. Original article posted here.