December 20, 2015
This coming Friday will be Christmas Day. It is a holiday that is open to everyone who wants to participate. If you are an atheist or Jewish or Buddhist and you want to have a Christmas tree and put up decorations and give gifts, you are welcome to do it. It’s Christmas.
Now of course, Christmas is a Christian observance focused on the birth of Christ. But the holiday has become largely secular and so all can participate in the fun. But there is something important for us as Christians to emphasize. Last week we said that Jesus came for the lowly, for those on the bottom of society. But he did not come only for the lowly. Jesus came for all who will have him. This morning I want to point out from the story of the wise men that Jesus has come for those who are worldly-wise.
I. MANY WORLDLY-WISE PEOPLE SEE LITTLE NEED FOR JESUS. Mt.2:1-8
It is interesting to me to see how quickly the coming of Jesus into the world becomes a problem for people. We are familiar with how problematic Jesus was for people during his public ministry, but here in Matthew we see that no sooner is Jesus born and already he is a stumbling block for people.
The wise men from the east see the star and conclude that a King of the Jews has been born. He is not an appointed king; he is a king by birth. They travel to Israel and upon their arrival to Jerusalem they pay a visit to King Herod and ask where they can find this new king. Obviously they thought Herod would already know about the new king.
Herod was quite a ruler. After capturing Jerusalem he reigned for 34 years. He was known as Herod the Great mainly because he brought order to the nation and was an amazing builder. He rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem as well as numerous palaces and forts. But Herod was ruthless. He banished his first wife, Doris along with their son, in order to marry Mariamne for political purposes to secure his appointment to the throne. And later he had Mariamne executed along with several other members of his family. Herod’s parents had converted to Judaism, and while Herod was not ethnically Jewish, he identified with the Jewish faith. But his commitment was in name only. He had many rabbis killed. Scholars suggest that Herod suffered from depression and paranoia.
So we can imagine what Herod thought when the wise men came inquiring about a new king of the Jews who had been born. Herod assembled the chief priests and scribes and he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. In other words, Herod was knowledgeable concerning the Jewish belief that a Messiah, a king of the Jews was prophesied in the Scriptures.
When the chief priests and scribes assembled they already knew the answer. They had been studying the scriptures for a long time and they were fully aware of the prophecy in Micah 5. The messiah was to be born in Bethlehem of Judea.
Now I would suggest to you that both Herod and the chief priests and scribes are examples of worldly-wise people who see little personal need for Christ. Even though the priests and scribes were well studied in the Scriptures and knew the prophecies regarding the Messiah, they seemed to have very little interest in pursuing the new information about a king of the Jews who had been born. Why is that? Well, I would say it is because they were very busy running the machinery of Judaism in Israel. They were not particularly looking for the Messiah and didn’t feel any real need for the Messiah. And while what I am saying is somewhat conjectural, I believe it is a reasonable conjecture because over the years of Jewish history, the people largely practiced their religion while ignoring God. Many of the chief priests and scribes were more concerned about holding onto their status, power, and influence in Israel then they were concerned about the Messiah. We know this because when Jesus began his public ministry there was increasing hostility against him from the chief priests and scribes. They were threatened and jealous. They wanted to hold onto what they had.
When we consider Herod we quickly realize that while he self-identified as a Jew, he had very little to do with Judaism. Herod was all about himself. He was all about securing his wealth, power and prestige in this world. Herod saw the birth of Jesus, the king of the Jews, as a threat to his throne. He did not care about a messiah who would save his people from their sins. And he was surely not concerned about his sins, which were many. And while he told the wise men that he too wanted to worship this new king, we see from vrs.16-18 that Herod really intended to kill this new king. There was no way that Herod would ever bring himself to worship the baby king. Herod worshipped power.
Now men and women, the reality is every person who has ever lived and who is living today seeks to be worldly wise. What do I mean by “worldly-wise”? Well, I am referring to people who seek to manage their lives solely from the perspective and thinking of this world. These are people who seek to be wise and clever according to the standards of this world. In this world it is important to try to make a name for yourself through education, achievement, and accomplishment. Worldly-wise people are people who have learned to negotiate their way in the world. They have learned to use the world’s resources and people for their own ends. Worldly-wise people often seek to present themselves as people who are compassionate and generous in order to enhance their standing before others.
And this means that there are many wonderful worldly-wise people. They are bearers of the image of God and have been blessed by God with many gifts of knowledge and skill. Many have been taught to live by the principles found in the Ten Commandments and the golden rule. However, at the core of every person is a serious condition of selfishness and a desire for personal autonomy. The Bible refers to this as sin. It is ultimately rebellion against God. Many of these wonderful people see no real need for Jesus. They think they are doing fine just as they are.
You might be a worldly-wise person. At the core of your being you don’t really think you need Jesus because you are pretty decent all the way around. Do not be deceived by your decency because your decency will not cleanse you of your sins. Your decency will not give you life in the good kingdom of God. You need the Savior, Jesus Christ.
II. SOME WORLDLY-WISE PEOPLE EMBRACE JESUS AS THEIR SAVIOR-KING. Mt.2:9-12
Most think that the wise men who came from the east were from Babylon. They would have been men who were well versed in astronomy, astrology, dream interpretation, wisdom and magic. Since they studied ancient books, they very likely would have been familiar with the Old Testament since the Jews would have brought copies of the Old Testament scriptures with them when they were exiled in Babylon.
These men were worldly-wise. They were not Jewish, and they had no commitment to the Jewish Messiah. If they were religious they probably worshipped the false gods of their homeland. Their status in society would have come from their knowledge and wisdom of astrology and the ancient writings. Perhaps we could call them consultants for they claimed wisdom and knowledge of secret things.
So how did they come to the conclusion that a king of the Jews had been born? No one can say for sure, but it is very possible that because they had the Old Testament Scriptures they would have been familiar with the prophecy of Balaam, found in Numbers 24. In Num.24 Israel is on its way to the Promised Land and is camped on the plains of Moab. The king of Moab is afraid and asks a false prophet named Balaam to cast a curse on Israel. But every time Balaam tries to curse Israel, God puts words of blessing in his mouth. You should read it for yourself. In Num.24 we read about the 4th attempt of Balaam to curse Israel. Again, only words of blessing come out of his mouth. In v.17 Balaam says, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth.” Well, this has long been considered to be a prophecy about the Messiah to come. The wise men were very likely familiar with this prophecy.
In addition to this as they studied the stars, one night they discovered an unusual phenomenon. They saw an unusual star rise in the sky. In the December issue of Christianity Today magazine, there is an interview with Bible scholar, Colin R. Nicholl, who has taught at the University of Cambridge and was professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Massachusetts. The interview is very interesting. To summarize, Nicholl believes that the star was, in fact, a comet and he not only cites science but also Scripture. If you would like to read the article I have put some copies of it on the table in the back under the balcony. Nicholl has written a book about this and you may want to get the book. Let me read one paragraph from this interview.
“At the end of the Magi’s journey, the star stands over the place of Jesus’ birth, pinpointing a particular location. As New Testament scholar Craig Keener has pointed out, that’s something only a comet can do. Josephus mentions a comet that “stood over” Jerusalem in the run-up to the Judean War. Another Roman historian, Cassius Dio, mentions that another comet did something similar over Rome in 12 B.C. This is all very powerful evidence, and there is much more in the book.”
I’m sure that most of us realize that the wise men were not at the stable. It would have taken a good 3 months for them to reach Jerusalem. And from v.16 we can conclude that Jesus could have been 2 years old. So by the time the wise men arrived in Bethlehem it was some 2 years after the birth of Jesus. In v.11 it says that when they came to the house they saw the child and Mary his mother. It says that they fell down and worshiped him.
I do not want to read more into this than may be the case, but nor should we read less into it. They acknowledged and worshiped Jesus as king. Not only that, but they gave to Jesus expensive gifts fit for a king. In v.12 we learn that when they were preparing to return home, they were warned in a dream to not return to Herod. They obeyed that warning. Clearly they recognized that this child was destined to be great. They honored the Christ-child.
I would submit to you that the attitude of the wise men was far different from the self-centered mind and actions of Herod and the apathy found in the chief priests and scribes. While the wise men were worldly minded, it seems that their hearts were open to want to seek and find the Christ. They worshiped Jesus.
The longer I live, the more I am inclined to think that belief and unbelief is not just about being convinced of a truth in one’s mind. It also involves an act of one’s will. I can think of a number of friends over the years with whom I have shared Christ. What I have found is that many are just not all that interested. Even if you put before them the best arguments for the existence of God and the reality of Christ, they are not interested. In fact, they would prefer to not have to deal with Christ. So some laugh God and Jesus off as just so much nonsense. Others may say they believe in God and acknowledge Jesus Christ, but they are not inclined to worship him. Many people in the world fall into these categories. They have many excuses for their refusal to bow before God and Jesus Christ.
But every so often there are those who realize that they are running on empty. They recognize that they have little real meaning or peace in their lives. They experience guilt over things they have done. When they hear about Jesus they respond by bowing in humility and calling upon Jesus to deliver them. The wise men worshiped Jesus and returned home by a different route. Those who turn to Jesus begin walking a new route in life. They embrace a new king, Jesus Christ and begin to live life in the way of Jesus.
Do not assume that you have embraced Jesus because you attend church. There are many people who believe that their church attendance and participation is the means by which they will enter into heaven. But this kind of thinking is incorrect, at least as far as the Bible is concerned. Only Jesus can give you life in the kingdom of God. You must embrace Jesus, putting your confidence and trust in him for the forgiveness of your sins and eternal living in Him. The wise men worshiped Jesus. What about you? Are you as wise as they were? Amen