James Merritt - Expecting Christmas
We're going to look at the story called the Three Wise Men. As a matter of fact, it gave rise to the popular carol, We Three Kings. But here's a question we're going to ask of every story we're going to look at over the next three weeks. As a matter of fact, this is a really great question to ask about every story you read in the Bible. And here's the question: Why is this story in the Bible? Keep in mind, of the four gospel writers, Mark and John don't even mention the birth of Jesus. They don't say a word about the birth of Jesus. Only Matthew and Luke even talk about it and even they knew there was only so much they could put in the books that they wrote, so when you come to Matthew, you've got to ask a question.
Why would a story about some star gazers from hundreds of miles away, who came to look for some child and then when they found Him, gave Him the most impractical gifts in the history of the world you would ever give a child. Why in the world would that even make it into any gospel? Because let me tell you the cold hard truth. Let's imagine this story's not in the Bible. We don't read about magi, we don't read about a star. We don't read about gifts. This story's not even in the Bible. We would still have all we need to know about Christmas. We would still have the Christmas story. As a matter of fact, it's really kind of worse than that. Let me let you in on a little secret. What we're going to read today is not even a Christmas story. It is a post-Christmas story. Because Jesus has already been born.
As a matter of fact, He may have been already up to two years old and I believe it is because of the things we're going to learn today about what these men did that will help us celebrate Christmas in the way Christmas ought to be celebrated. So, if you're with me and you're saying, okay, would you tell me what they did that you think we ought to do, if we're going to celebrate Christmas the right way, I'll be glad to do it. Three things I'm going to share with you real quickly. Number one, believe the word of God. That's the first step to celebrating Christmas the right way. Believe the word of God. Now, the first two versus tell us this is a post-Christmas story.
All right, we pick up in verse 1, "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea during the time of King Herod, magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asking, 'Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw His star when it rose and we have come to worship Him.'" Now, I'll tell you something interesting. That's the only words these guys say in the whole story. We don't hear what they say to Joseph, Mary, and the child. The only words they say is what they say to this king and by the way, immediately, I want to correct some misconceptions that we've got about these men who came to Jesus and the reason why we've got these misconceptions is because instead of reading what the Bible says about them, we read what the song said about them.
Remember we three kings of Orient are. Well, even the song doesn't get it right. Reason number one, we don't know how many of these magi there were. There could have been 3, could have been 10, could have been 30. We don't know. Tradition says, well, they gave three gifts, so there must have been three men. Well, duh. There's no law that says one man can only give one gift. Maybe one man gave three gifts and the other guys watched. Or maybe one man gave three gifts and everybody else was cheap. I mean, I don't know what it was. But we don't know. There could've been three, could've been ten. We don't know how many there were. Furthermore, they were not kings. They were star gazers.
As a matter of fact, they were called magi. Guess what word we get from that word? Somebody tell me. Magic, magician, right? Why were they called magi? Well, you have to go all the way back to the seventh century B.C. to find out where these magi originated from and they actually originated from what we would call today Iraq, which back in the day was called Babylon. And what happened was these men were skilled in two disciplines: Astronomy, which is the study of the laws and movements of the stars and astrology, which is the study of the message of the movement of the stars. Now, today, we separate those two disciplines, right? I believe in astronomy, I believe in the study of the stars. I don't believe in astrology. So, you know, I don't know what my sign is and I don't care what my sign is, okay?
So, if you have a bad sign, that's all I know, but here's my point. Back in the day, they combined those two. They were both astronomers and they were also astrologers and kings and common people believed that they had this supernatural ability to study the stars and read the stars and get messages from the stars and guidance from the stars and that's why they were called wise men. They weren't kings. We don't know how many there were and finally, they didn't come from the Orient. You know, we three kings of Orient. The Orient's the far east. They didn't come from the far east. They came from modern-day Iraq, which was about 300 miles away. But now, let's go back to the story.
You can imagine the attention that these men had. They ride in on their camels, they're probably bedecked out in these beautiful clothes and their shining jewels and you just didn't see foreigners come just every day to Jerusalem. And they come riding in and they immediately ask a question that went viral. It went everywhere. It was on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, it was all over the place and the question they were asking was, "Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews"? Now, let's hold their horses for a moment because even before we answer that question, I've got a question for these wise men. First of all, why are you even following a star to begin with? If I'd have met these men and they me their story, I'd say, "Wait a minute, why are you even following a star to begin with? What's up with that"?
And then what I would have said, and "Why and how did you know about the birth of a Jewish King"? Good question. Well, the answer to both of those questions is very simple. It's going to shock you. Do you know why they were following a star? Do you know why they were looking for the King of the Jews? Because they believed God's word. You say, "Now, where in the world do you get that idea"? Are you ready? The first time that wise men are every mentioned in the Bible is not in the book of Matthew. The first time wise men are ever mentioned in the Bible is in the book of Daniel.
Now, who is Daniel? Daniel was a Jewish exile who'd been taken captive by the Babylonians. He was a very very devout Jew and Daniel 2 tells us that Daniel was elevated to second in command in the government and as a matter of fact, he was placed in charge over all of the guess who? Magi. All of the wise men in Babylon reported to Daniel. Well Daniel was a devout Bible scholar. He had the first five books of the Old Testament. He loved God and there's no question that Daniel most likely taught these men about God's plan to send a messiah to the Jewish nation. And by the way, not only was Daniel deported to Babylon, many devout Jews had been deported to Babylon after the nation was conquered and they carried with them the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.
And so, evidently, these men, just like their fathers and grandfathers and great-great grandfathers before them, they had heard about some of this in scripture and remember they're star gazers. They take their cues about life and death and the present and the future from the stars. So, evidently there's a verse in the book of Numbers that obviously would have gotten their attention. Listen to this verse, Numbers 24, "I see Him, but not now. I behold Him but not near. A star will come out of Jacob," that's another word for Israel. "A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel".
Now, these astrologers were reading this and they've been taught this and evidently what they saw in the sky, this star, and they connected it to what they read in the Jewish scriptures. So, they're thinking, okay wait a minute. The star's been prophesied, and now this star evidently this star really stuck out from all other stars, now this star has come and then they talk about a scepter, well, who holds a scepter? A king. So, somehow, they got it in their mind and say, "Wait a minute, wow, we get it. There's a star that's going to announce and herald a birth of a king". But the star had only brought them as far as Jerusalem. They get to Jerusalem and now they're stuck. They don't know what to do. They don't know where to go.
And so, they come to Jerusalem and they say, "Hey, we're looking for this Jewish King, can you tell us where He is? We've got almost the puzzle complete but there's one piece missing and we don't know how to find it". Well, Herod calls all of these Bible scholars together. "Hey, do you guys know anything about a Jewish King? I mean, I'm kind of worried about this because I'm the king and I don't need any other king on the scene here. Can some of you guys help me and tell me". And they said, "Oh, yeah, we can tell you all about it".
So, we keep reading. When King Herod heard this, he was disturbed and all of Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priest and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. In Bethlehem in Judea they replied. For this is what the prophet has written. What prophet? The prophet Micah. Now, most likely these wise men had never seen this book. They didn't know anything about the prophet Micah. All they had probably was the first five books of the Old Testament. Because remember, they're not Israelites. You're going to assume they're Gentiles. This is what the prophet has written. But you, Bethlehem and the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rules of Judah, for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd My people, Israel.
Now, the magi didn't have all the Old Testament. They didn't have this particular passage and I promise you, this is the first time they had ever heard about this prophesy. And now they're going, "Wow, we're almost there. You mean this is where we need to go"? And here's what I want you to see. This is so important. See, when we read this story we think, well, isn't that neat? The star led these men to Jesus. No, the star didn't lead the men to Jesus. The star led these men to Jerusalem. It was the scripture that led them to Bethlehem.
Now, listen carefully. You need more than a star to get to Jesus. You need this to get to Jesus. You need the Word of God to get to Jesus. This is the book that leads us to Jesus. See, the star was enough to get them to Jerusalem, but it took scripture to get them to Jesus. The world tells us there's a God. The word tells us who this God is. The word tells us this God loves us. The words tell us this God has a plan for us. The word tells us we can know this God. This God loves us. This God cares for us. This God had a plan for us. And so, that's why I want to encourage you to do something today. If you're not a believer, I just like to encourage you, just read the Bible anyway.
You say, I don't believe it. I don't care. Well, I don't even think it's true. Well, it's still a good read. Great stories. Read the Bible and by the way, if it is true, it can lead you to the One who can change your life forever. So, the first thing you have to do if you want to celebrate Christmas the right way, you gotta do what they did. You gotta believe the word of God. Here's the second thing we need to do. We need to follow the will of God. We believe the word of God, we need to follow the will of God.
Now, the story continues in a very fascinating way. We're in verse 7: "Then Herod called the magi secretly and he found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, 'Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me so that I, too, may go and worship Him.' And after they had heard the king, they went on their way and the star they had seen, went it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was and when they saw the star, they were overjoyed".
Now, I want to show you something I guarantee you've never seen. I did not see this until I really dug into this passage. Here's what had happened. There's something different about the star in these versus than there was in the star at the beginning of the story. Do you remember that Matthew says that when they first saw the star, they saw the star in its rising? In other words, here's what it means. When they first saw the star, this star was way off in the distance. It was way out in the western hemisphere and it was stationary. It was already over Jerusalem. They didn't know that. They just knew there was a star out there and it's out there in the west and so every day they would get up, they'd say, "We've got one job, guys. Follow that star". And every day, day after day and week after week and month after month, they'd get up, one job. Follow that star.
Now we're being told the star led them to Bethlehem. Now, watch this. This is so cool. The start hovered over Jerusalem. The star waiting on them. I'm waiting on you guys, here I am, just come on, come on. That's all they got. Now the star isn't just out in front of them, the star is moving in front of them. The star is leading them. Because listen, had you been in the desert and you'd been watching these men make that travel at the beginning of the journey, you would have never known they were following a star. You just thought they were on a journey. Every day they were following a star, but from the outward appearance you would have never known that because the star was stationary. They were just getting up, following the star, and they were moving. But more than just following a star, they were following God. Because it was the Word of God that led them to do the will of God.
I guarantee you, those magi never dreamed that one day they would spend weeks and months and maybe even years of their life following a star. I want to share with you why these magi are so relevant to you and me. I want to share with you why there's one thing that's true about them that is true about every one of us whether you are a believer or you're not a believer. There is one thing that was true of those wise men that are true about you and me. You ready? Here it is. Every single day God wants to lead you to Jesus. Every day. God wants to lead you to Jesus. You were put on this earth to seek Jesus. You were put on this earth to find Jesus. You were put on this earth to love Jesus. You were put on this earth to follow Jesus and where God wanted to lead these magi is where God wants to lead you and God wants to lead me.
By the way, there's something else real interesting about how this star led them to Bethlehem. You would not know this unless you're into astronomy. Now, some of you into astronomy may want to figure this out. So, be quiet, don't spoil it, okay. This is one of the most amazing parts of the story. Up until they get to Jerusalem the star never moves. It's over the city of Jerusalem, they don't know it until they get there. But the star never moves. Day after day, week after week, month after month. The star rises like we see the sun rise. The star would rise, it would stay stationary and they would follow that star. Now, the star's moving. Well, not only is that unusual, there's something else more unusual. If you know anything about astronomy, you know this. If you ever see stars moving, what direction to they go in? East to west. Why? Because that's the way the earth rotates.
You know where Bethlehem is from Jerusalem, you know. It's south. The star wasn't moving east to west. It was move north to south. And what you won't read in the story was these wise men, their jaws must have dropped. They said, "Wait a minute, we've never seen this in our life. This is astronomically impossible. The stars not moving east to west, the star is moving north to south". So, it wasn't just that the star was moving that was amazing, it was the direction that the star was moving in. Here's what I want you to understand: They didn't need the star to lead them to Bethlehem. They didn't need the star for that because they already knew that's where the child would be from scripture. But they didn't know which part of Bethlehem. They didn't know exactly where the child was because it is not the will of God that you get in the general vicinity of Jesus. It is the will of God that you get directly to Jesus. And here's the last thing: You give your worship to God. You give your worship to God.
Now, what they magi do next, it's illogical. It's unprecedented. It's breathtaking, it's confusing, and some would say kind of weird because here's what we read in verse 11, "On coming to the house, they saw the Child with His mother Mary". Now, you don't expect to read the next thing. "And they bowed down and worshipped him". When I bow down to Connor, I'm changing dirty diapers, I'm not worshipping him. They bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold frankincense and myrrh. Now, this is amazing. This is the first time in scripture where we're told that Jesus was worshipped. And here's what so incredible. They worshipped the Child. As a matter of fact, I'll bet you didn't notice this. Matthew goes to great lengths to emphasize this is a child.
What did Herod tell them to do? Go and search carefully for the, say it out loud. Child. Where did the star stop? Over the place where the child was. On coming to the house, what did they see? They saw they Child. Matthew says, "I want you to get something in head. This is a child". Now you say, well, why is that so important? Go back 2000 years ago to a culture that's different from ours. See, today, we kind of put children up on a pedestal. Today, we dot on the children, right? Particularly if they're grandchildren, right? My motto, all my grandchildren know this, except Connor, who's not old enough. I have a little motto at my house. Anything I want at Pop's house, I can have it. That's their motto. They know that. If you're at Pop's house, anything you get, you can have it. You know? And the parents don't like it, I don't are, okay? So, they can have anything they want, right?
So, that's what we kind of do today. We put kids up on a pedestal. We almost all but worship children. Not back in that day. Back 2000 years ago, you could not have contrasted anything greater from a king or someone who is great than a child because back in that day, status was very very important and children were at the bottom of the ladder. As a matter of fact, do you know what the name for child in Latin and Greek mean literally? You know what the name child means? You ready for this? Don't talk. It's what it means. Not speaking. Not a bad name for little children, okay. Don't talk. In other words, this was a day child were to be seen, not heard and they were certainly not to be worshipped. So, whether you'd been a Jew or a Greek or a Roman, your mouth would have dropped and you'd say, "They worshipped a child"? And then Matthew said, oh, and just to make sure you don't misunderstand exactly what they did, notice the gifts they give to a child.
Now, this is kind of weird. PlayStation? X-box? Bat and ball? iPhone? iPad? Computer? First, they give Him gold. A child. They give Him gold? Why would they give Him gold? Gold was a gift fit for a king. King's wore crowns that were always made of gold. When they gave that little Child that gold, they were recognizing his royalty. What they were saying without any shame whatsoever was, "You know, a lot of people passing by think you're just a baby or a child in a mother's lap. We know better. You're not just a child in a mother's lap. You're a King on a thrown. We know exactly Who you are". Then they gave him frankincense. Why would they give him frankincense? Well, if you'd gone into the temple to worship, you'd have found the priest burning incense and frankincense. And who were they burning it to? They were burning it to God.
Frankincense was a symbol of worship. As a matter of fact, did you know that God even gave specific instructions that frankincense was to be reserved only for Him. In Exodus 30:37, God said, "Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves, consider it holy to the Lord". In other words, when they gave that little Boy frankincense, you know what they were saying, "You're not just a child, you're a King. We know exactly who you are and you know what, you're not just a human Child, you're a divine Child. You are God". Then they gave him myrrh. Now, you talk about a strange gift to give a little boy, they're supposed to be celebrating this Child's birth. Do you know what myrrh was used for? To embalm dead bodies. Look, if you ever want to get rid of me as your pastor, just tell me. Don't give me myrrh for Christmas, okay. I'll take a hint, right? I mean, they're giving this kid myrrh.
Why in the world would they do that? Somehow, they knew, you're not just a King on a throne, you're a Savior who's come to save His people. So, they gave him gold and frankincense and myrrh. They give Him their wealth as a King. They give Him their witness as a Savior. They give him their worship as God and notice how Matthew puts it. Listen to this, he says, "Then they opened their treasures". The Greek word for treasure gives us the English word thesaurus. The thesaurus is a treasure of words. This is how they worshipped Jesus. Listen to this. You know how they celebrated Christmas? Not by giving gifts to themselves. They celebrated Christmas by giving Jesus the best of everything they had. Do you know why? Christmas is about God giving us His best, His Son. So that in turn, we could give His Son our best, our wealth and our witness and our worship.
Now, let me just kind of wrap this up. Matthew loved these guys. And I'll tell you how I know he loved these guys. He loved this story. Number one, he's the only one that tells it. But here's what kind of interesting. When you go back and you read the story, and you compare it to the rest of the gospel, this is amazing, Matthew gives more square footage, he gives more acres of lines and text to this story than he gives to the entire birth narrative of Jesus. He never mentions mangers. He never mentions shepherd's fields. He never mentioned angels. But who gets top billing? The magi. Who gets the front page? Magi. Who gets the name in neon lights? The star seekers.
I have to ask myself again, Matthew, why in the world did you want to make sure we knew this story and it hit me like a ton of bricks. You know why? Because their story is our story. And today, what do I see? I see people looking everywhere but the Word of God for answers to life. I look out and what do I see? I see people doing everything except the will of God to find meaning in life. I look out and what do I see? I see people worshipping everything but the Son of God to find hope in life. But, when Christmas comes, when Christmas really comes, when you really appreciate and you really celebrate Christmas, then you believe the will of God. You do the will of God and you give your worship to God because that's what wise people do.