Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Christmas is hard to envision without thinking of the Magi. In early catacomb art about Jesus’ birth, the most frequent painting-motif was the Magi.
When my children were small, we had a Nativity Set with three wise men. John and Rebekah would have the Magi kiss baby Jesus over and over again. We still have the set. The wise men’s faces are worn, having little paint left on them.
Our custom of giving Christmas gifts is due to the Magi. Confident they would find the baby King, they came to worship Him, and brought gifts for Him.
The crowning idea of Christmas is to celebrate Jesus by making others happy. He came to make us glad. We thank Him by doing the same for others.
Matt. 2:3 (Holman) When King Herod heard this, he was deeply disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.
Before the Magi found the real King of the Jews, they had to get past one major roadblock, a man who considered himself King of the Jews: King Herod.
Herod was demonic. Vice had crushed all virtue in him. He was irrational, paranoid, violently suspicious. Every time a thundercloud formed on Herod’s brow, a thunderstorm exploded in Jerusalem.
The people had long weathered his moody tantrums. They knew the Magi’s news would mean trouble. They had no doubt Herod’s reaction would be severe.
To Herod, savage violence was a solution to every problem. The first of his ten wives was Doris. Her son Antipas, Herod’s eldest son, was his whole life heir apparent to the throne. Herod, five days before his own death, executed Antipas.
Herod’s favorite wife was Mariamne. He drowned her grandfather the High Priest, murdered her mother and brother, and killed the two sons he begat by her.
Caesar Augustus said it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son. In a fit of jealous rage, Herod ordered the death of his beloved Mariamne. Legend says he immediately regretted it, and took her body to his bed until she began to rot.
Herod knew he was universally and unanimously hated. Shortly before his death he imprisoned many leading citizens of Jerusalem. Knowing no one would mourn his death, he ordered that these prisoners be executed the moment he died. This guaranteed that when he died, there was crying, not rejoicing, in Jerusalem.
This abbreviated summary of Herod’s cruelty–he may have executed as many as 7,000 people–helps us understand the people’s fear. Herod was infuriated at what the Magi told him. To unrepentant sinners, Jesus is always bad news.
Matt. 2:4-6 So he assembled all the chief priests and scribes of the people and asked them where the Messiah would be born. “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they told him, “because this is what was written by the prophet: And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah: because out of you will come a leader who will shepherd My people Israel.”
The religious leaders pointed Herod to a passage the prophet Micah (5:2) had written 700 years earlier. He predicted that Bethlehem, the small-town birthplace of King David, would also be the birthplace of the Messiah.
Herod received input from the right book, the Bible, but had a wrong frame of mind. Many honor the Bible with their lips, but don’t live it. They treat it like a magic charm, something to receive good luck from, but not as the Book to obey.
Herod approached the Bible as if it were a heathen oracle. His conduct was little better than looking into a crystal ball, reading palm lines, or consulting tea leaves and a horoscope. These and other attempts at reading the future are popular because they supposedly provide information, but require no moral responsibility.
Herod missed the point of Scripture because his spirit was wrong. The Magi, though, were rightly led by Scripture because their spirit was right.
Don’t miss the honor God placed on His Word here. God gave the Magi a star to help them find their way to Christ, but made sure even they could not complete their pilgrimage to Jesus without going through His Word, the Bible.
No one can be saved apart from the Bible. Many things can play a key role in starting the salvation process–tracts, a verbal witness, TV preachers, billboards, sermons, missions–but the road to Jesus at some point has to go through the Bible.
Matt. 2:7-8 Then Herod secretly summoned the wise men and asked them the exact time the star appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you find Him, report back to me so that I too can go and worship Him.”
Herod enlisted the Magi to serve as his detectives, to help him find the baby King. He also wanted to determine the age of the child. This would make it easier for him to know what children to target for slaughter later.
Like many sinners, Herod believed he could outwit God’s plan as laid out in God’s book. Evil people, confident the Bible is not true, often fly in the face of it. Thinking they can thwart it, they crash themselves against life-destroying rocks.
On the outside, Herod wore the mask of confidence and devotion, but underneath he was so terrified that he had to resort to lying. Heed not the bluster of unbelievers. Many who appear strong and bold on the outside hide inner fears.
This dramatic encounter between King Herod and the Magi is the stuff legends are made of. But this story is not folklore. It is history, actual events.
One reason believing in Jesus is a step, not a leap, of faith is because the Christian faith is rooted primarily not in philosophy or apologetics, but in history.
At the very outset of his Gospel, Luke the beloved Physician wrote, “Many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed them down to us. It also seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in orderly sequence” (LK 1:1-3a).
To analyze our faith, study history. It is based on events that actually took place. Micah foretold Bethlehem 700 years in advance. No one ever disputed Jesus was born there. The Messiah had to be a descendant of David. Jesus was.
The Bible predicted Messiah would appear after the public ministry of a forerunner. History has recorded the work and achievements of John the Baptist.
A virgin conceived. Elizabeth’s child leaped in her womb when he heard Mary’s voice. Joseph had pivotal dreams at critical moments. Magi saw a star.
Jesus healed the sick, preached repentance, died on a cross, rose from the dead. In essence, every detail of Christianity hinges on a historical question, did Jesus rise from death? If Jesus rose, all of Christianity is true; if He rose not, none of our faith is valid. Paul bluntly said, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). We believe the historicity of His resurrection was proved by the willingness of twelve eyewitnesses to die for it.
The issue in Christianity is not any pie-in-the-sky bye-and-bye speculative mumbo jumbo, nor is it about a warm fuzzy feeling, or about gathering around the campfire to sing Kumbayah. Christianity rises or falls on the verdict of history.
Christianity is Heaven entering Earth, God becoming man, timelessness occupying time, eternity invading history. Actual, recorded, verifiable events are irrefutable. In Jesus many of them combine to form a glorious wreath of evidence.