Questions and Answers About the Nativity Event

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Title: Questions and Answers About the Nativity Event

 

Text: Matthew 2:1-6

 

Time: December 3rd, 2013

 

 

It’s now after Thanksgiving, so we’re into the Christmas season for 2013. I have plans for reviewing some of the best Christmas hymns and looking at the Bible passages that inspired them, but I’ll get to that later, in other messages this season. Today, I’d like to jump into the Christmas season by raising a few questions about the accounts of the birth of Jesus from the Bible, and then answering these questions as best I can. We’re all so familiar with Christmas that we know the Nativity story by heart. But that doesn’t mean we’ve thought about everything mentioned, or reflected on the meaning of everything included in the account. It’s one thing to know the basic story, but it’s another to delve deep into the words and symbols used to describe the birth of Jesus in order to get a richer meaning of it. That’s what I’d like to do today – raise some questions, and then answer them.  The questions I have today center around the magi. First, why would the magi come into the land of Israel to worship a Jewish-born king? After all, they weren’t Jewish, so why would they bother to go through all the effort of traveling so far just to honor a Jewish king? Second, in following the star to Bethlehem, why did they refer to it as “his star,” or in reference to the newborn King of the Jews, Jesus? What was in their thinking to so identify it with the Jewish baby-king? Third, when the magi came to Jerusalem to find out where the Christ child was born, the Jewish Bible scholars seemed to know where the king would be born, but they weren’t excited or inspired to inquire about it personally. Why not? There are more curious and odd things about the Nativity account that I’ll cover at another time, but for today, let’s think about these three questions in order to give us a better understanding of what took place over two thousand years ago. We think we know the story of Christmas, but we can learn a lot more about it by thinking deeply about the details of the account. Of course, one of the strangest parts of the story of Jesus’ birth is the activity of the magi. That these figures are even in the story of the birth of Jesus is strange. They aren’t Jews. They don’t live in the land of Israel. They probably were part of a different religion. Yet, they seemed to know things that even the Jews didn’t know, and they seemed to care more about the Jewish Messiah king more than the Jews themselves.  Very strange. So let’s try to understand them a little better today as we look closely at what they experienced so long ago. Their activity is so much a part of our faith that we take it for granted. But we really need to not take anything for granted, but instead think about it deeply in order to strengthen our own faith today. Matthew 2:1-12 (read).

 

 

First, why would the magi come into the land of Israel to worship a Jewish-born king? Matthew 2:1-2, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’” Now the obvious question arises, “Why would these foreigners care about the birth of a Jewish king anyway?” What interests did they have in Jewish affairs? What angle did they have in the matter? If we take a skeptical or sinister angle on the whole thing, we might ask, “What was their motive for coming into the land of the Jews?” I’m sure Herod, the so-called king of the Jews during the time, probably did see them as up to something. Were they spies? What was their plan? What was their real agenda? They say they simply want to see and worship a Jewish-born baby king, but what were they really up to? It’s not an easy question to answer because we don’t know very much about the magi – the Bible itself doesn’t explain very much about them, so we are left to speculate or even guess who they were and what were their motives. We know that they came from “the East,” so they probably came from Persia or some similar location. From history we know a little bit about people called magi. They are traditionally known for magic – the name comes from magus or magi. They are also known for astrology and astronomy. They are known as counselors or wise men, used by royalty for advice. They’re known for learning and science. So we get a little bit of a picture of these men. They were probably educated, literate, thinkers, philosophers, theologians, experimenters and scientists – in other words, intelligent and with standing in the community. We probably can’t go so far as to call them “wizards,” but they did delve into secret knowledge and magical arts, and so got the reputation of being mysterious or strange. Now why would this kind of person visit Jesus in Bethlehem? Why would God the Father include such people in the Christmas story? After thinking about these questions, I conclude that they come to honor and worship the baby Jesus, the Christ child, the Messiah of Israel, because of what they read into the significance of the star they saw in the night sky. In observing the sky, they noticed a strange astronomical object suddenly appear. Because they also attached significance to celestial bodies corresponding to events on earth, they concluded that the star meant a king was born. Then, because of the position of the star, in a particular constellation, that it was a Jewish king born. This, I believe, is what brought them to Bethlehem. Their interest was in confirming their theory, to verify if they were correct or not. This is what set them on their great adventure; it inspired them to travel so far, spend so much resources, and risk the danger of coming to Israel. Now that was why the magi came, but God had them come for another reason – and that was to show that the non-Jewish world had interests in Jesus as Savior. He wasn’t just the Jewish savior; he is the Gentile savior as well. The magi are symbols of the salvation of the Gentiles by Jesus. Aren’t you glad Jesus is savior of more than Jewish believers? Today, most Christians are non-Jewish, so the Gentile world’s salvation has come to play a predominant role in history.

 

 

Second, in following the star to Bethlehem, why did they refer to it as “his star,” or in reference to the newborn King of the Jews, Jesus? Matthew 2:1-2, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’” How did the magi know that the star was “his” star, or with so much detail, predict that it was a Jewish newborn king that the star symbolized? Now to understand how they could get so detailed in their understanding of the star, going so far as to call it “his star,” or in other words, the star of the newborn Jewish king, we have to understand astrology. There’s a difference between astrology and astronomy, although in the early days of astronomy, there wasn’t much of a difference. Astrology has been around for thousands and thousands of years, and the assumption is that there is a correspondence between what is in the sky and what is on earth. The sky, day or night, but usually the night sky because it’s easier to see, it reflects what’s happening on earth, and earth reflects what’s happening in the sky. That’s astrology. Astronomy, what we practice today, what you can get a degree in and in which people work as professionals, in a profession, is different in that it doesn’t assume there is a correspondence between the objects in space and events on earth. Astronomers study objects in the sky as objects only, without any metaphysical or spiritual significance. But in ancient times, men like the magi would study the sky, observe the stars, planets, moons, comets, and so forth, and not only study their positions and movements, but also attach significance to them and interpreted what they meant to life on earth. That’s what the magi were doing with the star of Bethlehem. They followed the star from the east, like I said, probably from Persia, to Israel because they believed it signified the birth of a king, and not only a king, but a special king, one that produced a new star in the sky. Was the star the brightest object in the night sky? That’s hard to say. The Bible doesn’t actually say it was the brightest object in the sky, or that it was even the brightest star in the sky. As we all know, there are planets we can see at night, like Venus and Mars, and these can be pretty bright. Then there are stars that are bright, like the North Star associated with the Big Dipper. But was the star of Bethlehem the brightest? We don’t know. What we do know is that it was a special star, maybe because it was a new object in the sky, or because it acted different in its course. What led the magi to get so detailed in their knowledge of the star? It could have involved a zodiac alignment with a planet or star alignment correspondence. Does this validate astrology? No. It just shows that God can use anything to work his will on earth. Even if the whole zodiac and astrology superstition is false, it got these men where God wanted them to be. In their ignorance, God worked out his plan for the Savior’s birth. Strange, but true.

 

 

Third, when the magi came to Jerusalem to find out where the Christ child was born, the Jewish Bible scholars seemed to know where the king would be born, but they weren’t excited or inspired enough to inquire about it personally. Why not? Matthew 2:3-6, “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written – But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’” The Jewish Bible scholars, priests, and religious leaders in Jerusalem knew where the Messiah would be born. They could quote the exact Bible passage. But they were either so skeptical or unbelieving that they didn’t even bother checking it out after the magi raised the question. Now what are we to make of this? Could it be that there was so much speculation about the Messiah coming that, like the boy who cried wolf so often and the skeptical towns people’s reaction, these religious men were used to dismissing them as bogus? From history we know that there were many would-be Messiahs coming and going. Messianic fever would break out at times, only to die down. Maybe the Jewish leaders were weary of any talk of Messiah based on the past failed so-called Messiahs. Or maybe they were so hard-hearted that they were more political than spiritual. Just because these men were religious didn’t mean they were truly committed in heart to the teachings of the Bible. There are, for example, many Bible scholars today who teach in colleges and universities and seminaries who know the Bible backwards and forwards, yet don’t believe a word of it. They are intellectuals who are challenged by the many textual and literary theories about the Bible, but who don’t personally believe the spiritual content of the Bible. It’s sad but true. So too in ancient days there were those who were religious, but it wasn’t a heart-felt religion, but only an intellectual, theoretical faith. These priests and scholars knew all the right Bible answers, knew correctly where the Messiah would be born, but evidently didn’t believe it enough to even follow up on the words of the magi. This is a great lesson and warning to us today, as Christians. Are you so familiar with the teachings of Christianity that they no longer excite, inspire and motivate you? Do you take a blasé attitude about the Bible, about prayer, about church? Maybe you are becoming like these Jews who knew things, but didn’t live the truth out in life.

 

 

The magi, the non-Jewish outsiders were more excited, inspired and motivated to visit the Messiah than the Jews themselves. What this shows is that sometimes God uses supposedly spiritual outsiders to shame and correct the so-called believing community. It’s got to be embarrassing for Jews to see that Gentile travelers were more spiritual than the best Jewish leaders of the time. For whatever reasons, the Jews didn’t respond to the Messiah, while the Gentile outsiders did. Again, that’s a symbol of what happened historically with Jesus the Messiah. The overwhelming response to Jesus as Lord and Savior came from the Gentile populations of the world, while the Jewish community mostly rejected Jesus as Messiah, and still does. Did Jews historically reject Jesus because the Gentiles accepted him? No, not necessarily, because Jews were presented with the gospel first and they rejected it mostly, even before the great missionary outreach to the Gentiles later. No. The Jews overwhelmingly rejected Jesus on their own terms, not as a reaction against Gentile conversions. Now, Jewish identity is heavily attached to the notion that they don’t accept Jesus as Messiah, because the Gentiles do accept him, but it wasn’t always that way. Today, they often define themselves over and against Christians, but again, in the early days it wasn’t so. The account of the Magis is rich in symbolism and a glimpse into the providential working of God. It demonstrates that God will work with anybody, any people, not just his own historical so-called “chosen people.” He’ll work with anybody and any people who have faith. The Magis had enough faith to follow the star and appear before the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, while the Jews of the time lacked the faith to even make the small journey to Bethlehem. Of course, we know that some Jews did make the journey, for example, the shepherds were Jewish and they visited Jesus. And that too is symbolic. Only a small percent of Jews respond to the message of the gospel, while most do not. Out of that small percentage of Jews the early Christian community began. From there it became mostly a Gentile faith, as more and more non-Jews accepted it, and as more and more Jews rejected it. Do you have faith in Jesus this Christmas? If you do, thank God for that faith, because most of the world doesn’t believe it. Like the Jews, most people on planet earth either haven’t heard the gospel enough to accept it, or have rejected it after hearing it. But if you believe, or even have any inkling to believe, do so today, grasp what faith you have and use it to believe. We don’t know God’s timetable of history, but the second coming of Jesus could be close. Will Christ come to find you with faith, a solid faith? Or when Christ returns will you be mixed together with the unbelieving, skeptical or unfaithful crowd? Why not commit yourself whole-heartedly to Christ today? Why not confess and repent of your sins now? Don’t be like the stubborn unbelievers throughout history. Take the leap of faith and trust Jesus now, before it’s too late.

 

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