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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Preached At:Langley Canadian Reformed Church
 Langley, B.C.
 
Title:God's revelation in the visit of the Magi.
Text:Matthew 2:1-12 (View)
Occasion:Christmas Day
Topic:The Incarnation
 
Preached:2007
Added:2007-12-27
Updated:2009-12-24
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 17:1-6
Hymn 7:9 (after the law)
Hymn 12:1-4
Hymn 16:1-4
Psalm 130:1-4

Reading: Malachi 1
Text: Matthew 2:1-12
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of Christ,

 

The wise men or magi have captured the popular imagination for centuries.  Tradition has it that there were three.  Tradition also tells us their names, but then you have to decide which tradition you’re going to adopt.  The Syrian church says that they were Hormizdah, Yazdegerd, and Perozadh.  The Ethiopian church says their names were Hor, Basanater, and Karsudan.  And the most-well known Western tradition says that their names were Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar.  We’re also told by tradition that they were kings and a well-known Christmas carol, “We Three Kings,” builds on that.  However, all of that comes from tradition – none of it comes from the Bible itself.  The Bible doesn’t say how many magi came to Bethlehem, neither are we told that they were kings and we certainly don’t know their names. 


The biblical account doesn’t focus on those sorts of trivialities.  Instead, the Scriptures give us an account meant to draw our attention to what God is doing and what God is revealing.  The account of the magi here in Matthew is intended to draw our eyes and hearts upward.  So, on this Christmas morning, I preach to you God’s Word as we consider his revelation in the visit of the wise men. 

 

We will consider:

 

  1. The mercied ones
  2. The judged ones
  3. The worshipped One.

 

Our text begins with the birth of our Saviour, something which was described briefly at the end of chapter 1 when we’re told about Joseph that “he had no union with her [Mary] until she gave birth to a son.  And he gave him the name Jesus.”  This, of course, happened in Bethlehem and, Matthew adds, it happened during the time of King Herod.  The mention of King Herod here is important and we’re going to come back to him in a few moments.  Right now, the focus is on someone else: Magi coming from the east. 

 

Traditionally, the Magi have been called “the wise men.”  But what are Magi, really?  “Wise men” makes us think that perhaps they would have been philosophers or academics.  They might have been that, but magi were actually more like astrologers or magicians and when we say magicians we don’t mean people who practice sleight of hand magic tricks, but rather those involved with the occult and the so-called dark arts. 

 

Now Magi are mentioned in the Bible in other places besides Matthew 2.  In the Old Testament, for instance.  In Numbers 22-24, we read about Balaam.  Balaam had been hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the people of Israel.  Balaam is not explicitly called a Magi in this text, but he fits the picture.  He’s someone who practices divination and he comes from the area of the Euphrates River.  And while he becomes God’s instrument to bless the people of Israel (against the intentions of Balak), we find out in Numbers 31 that he later advised the Midianites on how to turn Israel away from the LORD.  Consequently, he was put to death by the Israelites.  Elsewhere in the Bible we find that among the people of Israel astrologers, magicians, and those who dabble in the occult were to be put to death.  So, in the Old Testament, magi and people like them don’t come off looking very good. 

 

This continues in the New Testament.  In Acts 8 we read of a man named Simon who was also a magi (the same word is used), or a sorcerer.  This man is not portrayed in a positive light.  Then in Acts 13, we come across a magi named Bar-Jesus – he too opposes and undermines the gospel.  Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, says “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right!” 

 

So now when we read about Magi, we have to put away our romantic notions of “We Three Kings” and try to understand how a Jewish person in the first century would react to this.  Magi are not good, upstanding, righteous people in the Jewish context – in fact, God’s law said that they were to be put to death.  In Matthew’s account, these were the first ones to come looking for Jesus Christ. 

 

They came to Jerusalem from the east, likely from Persia or Bablyon and they came with a question:  “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?”  They said that they’d seen his star in the east.  In the Ancient Near East, there was a rumour floating around that a world-ruler would be born from among the Jews.  Statements to that effect are even found in the writings of pagan Roman historians.  And it’s well documented that various astronomic phenomena (including comets) were considered to be omens or indicators of a royal birth somewhere in the world.  So, the magi put two and two together and are led towards Jerusalem.  Now note that the star doesn’t lead them to Jerusalem – later it leads them to Bethlehem, but not to Jerusalem.  They go there because they knew that a star of this nature meant something significant had happened and they knew that there was an expectation for a Jewish world-ruler.  These things were put in place by God to guide them to where they needed to go.

 

But why would they come looking for him?  After all, the magi of the Ancient Near East were not the paparazzi of their day, looking to scoop a story on the latest world ruler.  Well, they say why they came:  “we have come to worship him.”  They came because they knew that this king was unlike any other.  This king was not only worthy of respect as royalty, he also deserved worship as God.  That’s why these magi traveled so far and exerted so much time and energy.  They were drawn to worship. 

 

Now look what’s happening here.  These Gentile magicians, these people who deserved capital punishment in Israel, are taking the place of Israel, just as it was prophesied in Malachi 1.  The Magi have more insight, more wisdom, more desire to worship the King of kings, than do the people of Israel who have received all the promises leading up to this momentous time.  And all of this isn’t because the Magi are such great people.  Rather, this is an illustration of God’s grace and mercy.

 

We have a saying that “God helps those who help themselves.”  Wrong.  That is not a biblical saying.  “God helps those who help themselves” is a modern reworking of the teaching of the medieval church that “God will not deny his grace to those who do what is in them.”  Loved ones, that is a false teaching.  According to that theology, God called the magi to Bethlehem because they were good.  However, the truth of the matter is that when the magi seek Christ and look for him, it’s because God’s grace and mercy, using external means, first went after the magi.  Think of what Paul says in Romans 9:16, “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”  The magi came with the desire to worship because of God’s mercy for sinners like them and like you and me.  Today, when we have the desire in our hearts to worship Christ, to worship the God of our salvation, recognize that this isn’t because we’ve got it all together.  This too is God’s mercy.  We don’t climb Jacob’s ladder.  God graciously comes down to us with everything for salvation.  He graciously pursues us and brings us to worship.          

 

So, the magi are the mercied ones, the ones through whom God reveals his mercy in this story.  But we too are there, because God didn’t stop with those Gentiles.  After the ascension of Christ, he continued to draw Gentiles in among his people and along the way, we’ve been pulled in too!  We too worship the Saviour and this is evidence of God’s grace and mercy in our lives – the fact that we celebrate Christ’s birth – that should make us even more grateful and full of love and praise for our gracious God.    

 

Continuing with our text, we come to King Herod and his hearing about the arrival of the magi.  Like with the magi, we need to consider for a few moments who this “Herod the king” really is.  He was known as Herod the Great.  He goes down in world history as capable, crafty, and cruel.  His journey to the throne had been a rough one and it had been stained with much blood.  Anyone who stood in Herod’s way would eventually end up dead, and this included his wife and children.  When it came to the Romans, who put him in power, he was a master manipulator.  He was obsessive about power and extremely deceitful. 

 

Now all of that is important to know about Herod, but the one thing that’s most important to know, the one thing that I want you to remember about Herod the Great, is the fact that he was not a Jew.  Though he had been crowned by Rome as “King of the Jews” he was not a Jew.  Rather, he was an Edomite.  That means his family was descended from Esau.  The same Esau whose descendants had always opposed the descendants of Jacob.  The same Esau whom God said that he hated and whom he cursed in Malachi 1.  As much as he tried to portray himself as a Jewish king, he could never get away from the fact that his family was not Jewish and he was only ruling over the Jews because he was a slick operator with blood on his hands. 

 

When Herod heard about the Magi he became very disturbed and all of Jerusalem with him.  What’s the problem, you ask?  Herod’s main title was “King of the Jews.”  Anyone who would resist him or try to undermine his power and influence was a major league threat, at least in his own mind.  And those in the know in Jerusalem knew that if Herod wasn’t happy, nobody’s happy.  This was going to turn out badly for someone. 

 

Herod called together the biblical experts from the Sanhedrin and asked them where the Christ was to be born.  Note that he doesn’t say “King of the Jews,” but Messiah.  He understands that something big is happening here, this is not just any king who is threatening his power. 

 

The biblical experts have no difficulty in answering Herod’s question.  Micah 5:2 was clear enough that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem.  They knew the answer.  But they don’t act on it.  You’d think that they would have been the first ones to head for Bethlehem upon realizing that the Christ had been born.  But they just go about their business in Jerusalem.  They could care less that the Christ had come into the world.  Look at the reversal taking place here.  The Gentiles are on their way to find the Saviour to worship him, but the covenant people of God are indifferent. 

 

When our Saviour came into the world the first time, he found a covenant people who were by and large asleep.  They had a “whatever” attitude about him.  There is a warning message in this for us, dear loved ones.  The message is that Christ came once into the world and we have God’s promise that he will come again.  And in that connection our Lord Jesus himself asked in Luke 18:8, “However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”  What is our attitude about his second coming?  Are we indifferent, do we have a “whatever” attitude?  The baby Jesus of Christmas time is not threatening and perhaps we would like to keep him there at that age, but the fact is that he is not a baby anymore.  Right now he is an adult man at the right hand of God, waiting.  When the time is up, the time only known to the Father, he is coming as the Judge of all the earth.  He is the Lion of Judah and he will carry out judgment.  If you’re found indifferent towards him, and you’ve grown up with the promises of the covenant, Christ himself says that it will be more tolerable for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment.  In other words, there is a sin worse than sodomy, and it is receiving the covenant promises of God for salvation in Christ and being indifferent to those promises and refusing to believe them.  Brothers and sisters, hear the warning God reveals and heed it.  Don’t be indifferent, don’t listen to this and say in your heart, “whatever.”  For the sake of your eternal salvation, embrace Christ by faith, keep on looking to him, eagerly and passionately look for and pray for his second coming.      

 

Let’s get back to Herod.  Verse 7 tells us that Herod secretly called the Magi – he called them secretly because he had a plan, remember Herod was very cunning.  And he found out from them the exact time the star appeared.  He didn’t come out and ask how old the magi thought the child might be, that would be too obvious.  “When did the star appear?” 

 

When he had his answer he sent them away to Bethlehem and gave them instructions to find the child and report back to him.  Then notice the reason he gives for his actions.  He says to the magi, “so that I too may go and worship him.”  Here again we see the deceitfulness of Herod.  Like sinners in all ages, Herod is not going to accept having Jesus as the King.  And by hook or by crook, he’s going to find him and destroy him.

 

The impostor King of the Jews wants to destroy the true King.  His apostasy is nearly complete and in God’s judgment, he has become completely obsessed with himself and his power, even to the point of planning the death of a baby.  The age-old rivalry between Jacob and Esau is being revived.  And there is an even more ancient rivalry here, that between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman.  When the seed of the woman is at his most helpless, when he is a little baby, the seed of the serpent comes after him to destroy him.  But the promise of God stands firm in every age and Satan and evil men cannot prevail against it.   

 

So, it happened that the magi heard the king and his instructions and then Matthew tells us that they followed the star until it stopped over the house where Jesus was staying.  In verse 10, the NIV understates what the magi felt at that moment.  The NIV says, “When they saw the star they were overjoyed.”  Literally, Matthew goes all out and says, “When they saw the star they rejoiced with an exceedingly great joy.”  This was a joy they had never had before in their lives, a joy of joys.  Their journey was over and they were about to meet this king.

 

They came to the house – notice that the family is now living in a house; this suggests that the visit of the magi is at least several months after Christ’s birth.  And when they come in the house, they fall down and worship the King.  And that’s what it’s all about isn’t it?  Worshipping the King!  That’s what today is about.  Worshipping the King who came for us, who took our flesh on himself, who did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself for us.  Our King, our brother, our friend.  What could those Magi really know about this Jesus?  He was a baby who had a lifetime of obedience and suffering before him.  He was a child who could not speak, who still had a lifetime of preaching, teaching, and healing before him.  And yet they worshipped him as the King who would rule the world.  And here we are, we know this King intimately from the Word.  The Word of God reveals Jesus Christ in all his beautiful perfections.  As we worship our Saviour this day and as we celebrate his birth, don’t leave him in the manger, don’t leave him in the house in Bethlehem either.  If you really want to worship him and praise him for what he came to do, and what he’s done for you, consider him in the fullness of who he is!  What a Saviour! 

 

And working with just what they knew, the magi recognized his greatness and so brought him gifts.  You could say this was the first Christmas gift exchange.  God gave the gift of his Son, and the magi brought their gifts of gold, incense (or frankincense) and myrhh.  Now each of these items has various uses, but it’s often been thought that the gold was because of Christ’s royalty, the incense because he was God incarnate, and the myrhh was because he was a man destined to die.  Gold was often associated with royalty.  Incense was offered to God in worship.  And myrhh was a special spice used for preparing bodies for burial.  There could be something to that.  At any rate, the gifts were expensive and they reflected the value that the magi placed on this King.  They worshipped him not only with word and actions, but also with their very expensive gifts.  They held back nothing from the King.  And all because they treasured and valued him.  So what about us?  Do we also treasure and value King Jesus?  That’s something to think about especially at this very materialistic time of year.  Remember the words of our Lord Jesus a few chapters further, in Matthew 6, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  And what could be more important than finding treasure in the person of Jesus Christ himself?  He is the pearl of great price!       

 

Our text concludes by telling us that the magi were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod.  God came to them in a special way and told them to stay away from the impostor King.  And they followed that instruction and went home a different way. 

 

As we celebrate our Lord’s birth today, let’s give thanks that he has shown mercy to the undeserving.  Let’s praise God that he sent Jesus Christ to take on our flesh, sent him to the path leading to the cross.  Let’s worship our Lord Jesus for his unending love, for his heartfelt compassion, for his wondrous salvation.  AMEN.

 

Let us pray and give thanks:

 

Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,

 

We thank you for the gift of your Son.  We thank you have shown mercy to those who ought to receive the opposite.  Father, you have been altogether good to us.  Lord Jesus, we also praise you for your kindness in coming to take on our human flesh.  Thank you for becoming one of us and setting out on the road of suffering, the road that would end at the cross.  We praise you for your love, for your compassion, and for your salvation.  Lord GOD, we thank you that we could again receive the service of your Word as we remember the birth of our Saviour.  Please continue to bless us as we celebrate this wonderful event of our salvation.  We pray in Christ, true God and true man.  AMEN.   

    




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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