A Festival of 9 Lessons & Carols
The Lord's Day Morning
December 25, 2005
“Wise Men From the East”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Matthew, chapter two, as we come to the eighth of nine studies in the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols that we've been looking at all December long.
Let me just remind you before we read chapter two, the first twelve verses, of the Gospel of Matthew, of what Matthew has told us in chapter one. Matthew starts his Gospel in a way that all Southerners will recognize, with a genealogy, and he does that for a number of reasons–just two in particular I want to draw to your attention.
He's not only a descendant of kings, He's a descendant of the king, King David. This Boy's bloodline is remarkable and ties Him back to an age-old expectation of His people.
First of all, he wants you to understand…even if his own people don't understand, he wants you to understand it: This Boy who has been placed in a feeding trough immediately upon His birth is in fact a descendant of kings. And Matthew wants you to remember that because he's going to tell you something shocking. He's going to tell you that nobody in Israel knows this about this Boy.
The second thing he wants you to see (because he takes you right back to Abraham in the first verse of his Gospel) is that this Boy is part of a promise that was first given to Adam in Genesis 3 and repeated to Abraham: that God was doing something great. He was bringing a seed of the woman, He was bringing a son of Abraham and Sarah into this world who was going to be anointed; He was going to be the Messiah, He was going to undertake for His people, He was going to be a Savior to them. He was coming with great power and glory to be the Mediator, the Messiah of His people, and Matthew wants you to know about that even if everyone around Jesus in Israel…or at least, most people around Jesus in Israel don't seem to know that.
Now let's look to God's word, and let's look to Him in prayer before we do.
Lord, it is uniquely appropriate that we pray to You before we even read Your word because we need Your Spirit to understand, to embrace, to believe the truth of Your word. We would be blind, did not Your Spirit open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your word, so we ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is the word of God.
“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him.’ And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he began to inquire of them where the Christ was to be born. And they said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet,
‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; For out of you shall come forth a Ruler, who will shepherd My people Israel.’’
“Then Herod secretly called the magi, and ascertained from them the time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, ‘Go and make careful search for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, that I too may come and worship Him.’ And having heard the king, they went their way; and lo, the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshiped Him; and opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their own country by another way.”
Amen. Thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
There is so much to say from this great passage, but to constrain my enthusiasm I want to focus with you for a few moments on just four particulars. I want you to see in this great story of the wise men coming to visit Bethlehem, to visit the King who has been born, to worship Him, I want you to see first of all the concealment of Christ in Israel amongst His own people and the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles, and the worship of Christ by the Gentiles, and the significance of the birth of Christ for the gospel. Those four things...let's start with the concealment of Christ in Israel. You’ll see it in verses 1-4.
I. God must reveal Christ to us if we are going to seek Him.
Matthew is showing you how neither Herod, the secular leader of His people, nor the scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders of Israel, nor even the people in Jerusalem had a right understanding of the significance of the birth of this Child in Bethlehem. He's reminding us here that God must reveal Christ to us if we are going to seek Him.
It's striking, isn't it? You are told in verse 1 that magi, wise men from the East — Gentiles — are coming to Jerusalem to inquire ‘Where's your new King? We are here to do Him honor. We are here to show Him homage. We’re here to worship Him.’ And yet in Jerusalem there are no such preparations.
Herod is not preparing for a pilgrimage to Bethlehem; he knows about the prophecy of the Messiah; he immediately knows that he needs to ask his religious leaders where to find about this prophecy and where it says that the Christ the Messiah will be born, but he is making no preparation to go there to worship. (Oh, he will lie that he is later, but he only wants to know so that he can kill the little Boy!)
And the religious leaders–they know where to look in their Bibles to find about the prophecy of the Messiah, but they clearly don't understand it or they too would be preparing to go to Bethlehem to worship Him. They know their Bibles, they know where the prophecy of the Messiah is, but they’re not preparing to worship Him.
And then the people, the people of Jerusalem, they’re troubled with Herod! They think ‘Oh, no! the Messiah! That means trouble with the Romans! That could mean war, that could mean strife, that could mean people being killed, that could mean children dying, that could mean a disruption to our way of life.’ They too have the Scriptures — their Rabbis read them to them every Saturday — but they’re not preparing to worship the Messiah King.
No, if we're to worship the Messiah, if we're to see Christ, God must reveal Him to us. But these Gentiles who have not the Scriptures–and very frankly, we know not how God has given to them the fullness of this revelation; we know He's shown them this star and it's compelled them on their way to Israel, to Jerusalem, and eventually to Bethlehem. But God shines His light on these Gentiles and they come seeking for His Son the King. God is able to reveal the Christ even to the Gentiles.
And what lessons do we learn from this? Surely we at least learn this lesson: It is possible for religious people who possess divine revelation, the Holy Scriptures, to be spiritually blind.
Herod knew at least to ask of the Scriptures about the Messiah. The religious leaders knew where to go, chapter and verse; but they were spiritually blind to the significance of the birth of this Boy. God Himself must reveal Christ to us if we're going to go seeking Him. And the irony of ironies, He reveals Christ to these Gentiles, and whereas no one in Jerusalem is preparing to go up to worship Him in Bethlehem, these Gentiles are because God has revealed to them Christ, and so they seek to worship Him. Is there not a message for us today? We in this congregation who have benefited from faithful reading and preaching of God's word for 170 years as a people, whether we were down on North State and Yazoo in the old two churches or whether we were here on 1390 North State — when the people of God have gathered here, for 170 years God's word has been read and proclaimed. God's gospel has been heralded forth. What a privilege that is! There's no place in the world that I'd rather be worshiping the Lord God than with you here.
And yet, oh, friends–it is possible without the Spirit of God for that word to be read, to be proclaimed with power, and for it to fall on hard hearts that do not hear it, that do not realize the glory of Christ, the glory of the gospel; and surely that reminds us never to go to the word without prayer to God that He would help, that He would open our eyes. Why do we pray that God would illumine us before we read the Scriptures every Lord's Day? Because we recognize that it is not by the power of our rationality that we go to this word and find it the word of life. We’re acknowledging that God the Spirit must open our eyes to behold the glories of Scripture, the truth of the gospel; and that means we need to be praying for one another that God would open our eyes and that we would respond in faith to the truth of His word.
It's possible, you see, to be religious people in possession of divine revelation and yet to be spiritually blind. We need God by His Spirit to open our eyes that we would see the Messiah; that we would trust in the Messiah; that we would believe in the Messiah, and we would respond in worship and love and faith to the Messiah. Surely that's one of the great lessons of this story.
II. God has appointed Christ as the one true Savior for the whole world.
But there's a second thing I want you to see, and that's the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles, and you see it not only in verses 1 and 2 but also in verses 9 to 12. You see, Matthew's reminding us here that God has appointed Christ as the one true Savior for the world. He's not just a Savior for Israel; He's not just a Savior for the ethnic descendants of Abraham gathered in the nation/state of Israel: He's the Savior of the world, and God has revealed Him even to the Gentiles.
Isn't it striking, these words: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod…magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem.”? They say to the people of Jerusalem, “…We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” We’re told again that after hearing the king “…they went their way…and they saw the star, which they had seen in the east, and it went on before them until it came and stood over the place the Child was.”
It's ironic, isn't it? Herod is unaware that the King of the Jews has been born. Religious leaders are unaware that the King of the Jews has been born. The people in Jerusalem are unaware that the King of the Jews has been born, but people from Iran and Iraq have arrived to worship Him! God has a sense of humor. It's no different today than it was then. It was just a couple of weeks ago the President of Iran declared to us that the Holocaust never happened. But let me tell you, “if it had” he would have been very glad! He hates the Jews! He wants them to move to Europe! The Persians have felt about the Jewish people like that for a long time, and yet here are Persians looking to worship the Jewish King!
What's Matthew telling you? He's not just the Savior of the Jews, He's the Savior of the world! Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female from every tribe and tongue and people and nation–He's the Savior of the world. And these wise men, these magi coming from Persia are just a testimony of the nations streaming to Him to worship Him as the one Savior of the world.
You know, that message will get you into trouble today. Our tolerant society–oh, our ever-so-tolerant society!–is happy for Jesus to be your Savior as long as you don't insist that Jesus is the only Savior for everybody. And understand that the early Christians weren't confused about that point. You could say ‘Oh, Matthew…you see, Matthew wasn't enlightened like we are. Matthew had not been reared in a multi-cultural pluralistic society like ours.’ Au contraire, my friends! The Roman world of Matthew's day was just like our world in its relativism, in its pluralism, in its multi-culturalism. The Romans were quite happy for you to believe in the King of the Jews as long as you could add that God to their pantheon of gods, so that you can worship your God and they can worship theirs; but when you start saying, no, He's the King, the King of all kings, and your gods are no gods and He's the one Savior of the world, then you would get in trouble just like today.
But make no mistake about it, my friends; the early Christians were not confused about that fact. Jesus is the Savior of the world, and so Matthew shows you these Persians coming to worship. And so in this we see the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles, that He is the one true Savior for the world: Christ Jesus is the one and only Savior of the world.
III. Jesus is to be worshiped.
But there's a third thing I want you to see, and it's in large print, isn't it, in verses 2 and 8? These Persian wise men come having seen His star in the east, and twice Matthew tells us–what did they come to do? Worship Him.
Now, Matthew's a good Jewish boy and he knows the first rule of theology is don't ever worship anything that is not the one true God. And so when this good Jewish boy tells you that these wise men were coming to worship Him, he's telling you something extraordinary about that Baby who has been placed in the feeding trough: that He is the word made flesh, that He is very God of very God, begotten and not created, and He is to be worshiped!
And it's so striking what he doesn't tell you. He doesn't tell you who the magi are. He doesn't tell you how many they were, even though we sing We Three Kings. (We deduct that from the gifts: there were three gifts, so we think there were three kings–but hey! There could have been twelve kings and three gifts, or two kings and three gifts, or 39 kings and three gifts!) We don't know! Matthew doesn't tell you. They were just wise men from the east.
He doesn't tell you how they were dressed. He doesn't tell you their names. He doesn't give you their later history. He doesn't tell you the dates of their death; he doesn't tell you where they were buried. He doesn't tell you about the star that they saw, other than that they saw it, but it led them to the Christ. He doesn't tell you what it was. Was it the convergence of the planets? Was it a comet? Was it an astral body that God created just for this purpose? He doesn't go into that and you want to ask him those questions, but he does tell you this: when they got there, they worshiped Him! Because that's at the heart, at the center of the story of Christmas: that God is flesh, and He is to be worshiped. And at this time of year in this affluent culture where so often the world offers substitute objects of our affection, it offers things to us that are so delightful and so enticing that we are tempted to value them, to honor them, to place our affections on them, to worship them above everything else–here is Matthew saying there is only One who deserves to be worshiped, and He is greater than all.
And so he's reminding us that this Christ-child is not simply an occasion for sentiment or admiration, He is an object of worship. God expects His Son, the divine Savior, to be worshiped. Have you come to give Him worship today? Have you come to adore Him? Is there a growing delight in your heart for Him? That's the character of people who have been arrested by this gift of God to us that we have received by His grace. They’re preoccupied with Christ, they glory in Christ, they delight in Christ, they adore Him, they worship Him. He is first in their affections and their hearts. And Matthew is reminding us of that.
But not only the concealment of Christ to His people, the revelation of the Christ to the Gentiles, and the worship of Christ by these Gentiles, but one last thing I want you to see. You see it in verses 5 and 6 in the fulfillment of Micah's prophecy, but you also see it in the second half of verse 11:
IV. The gifts foreshadow the work that Jesus came to do.
In the very gifts that are given to Christ, there is prophecy, and in the birth of Christ we see not only the fulfillment of Scripture, but we see a clear witness to the gospel.
Matthew's reminding us here that God caused Christ first to be according to the prophecies of Scripture, but he's also telling us that Christ's birth, even in the gifts that He receives, foreshadows the work that He came to do.
First, look at verses 5 and 6. There, when Herod asks of the Jewish leaders ‘Where is it that the Messiah is supposed to be born?’ they know; they go right to Micah. They quote it, chapter and verse, just right. It's in Bethlehem, that's where He's to be born. And Matthew's telling you this because he wants you to understand that Christ's coming into the world is God's plan from before the foundation of the world, which He has already revealed through His prophets so that the fulfilled prophecies in Jesus’ birth serve to verify His identity to us. They serve to tell us about His nature, they tell us about our Savior–who He is, what He came to do, what He was like. Those prophecies from Micah and Isaiah, from Numbers, from Genesis, from Jeremiah–these prophecies fulfilled in the birth of Christ–His birth is prophetically foretold.
But not only that–even in the gifts that are given His ministry and His work are foretold. Look again at verse 11. They opened their treasures; they presented to Him gifts of gold, and frankincense and myrrh. Now, those are kingly gifts. Those are valuable gifts. How ironic that this Boy that's been laid in a feeding trough is receiving kingly gifts! It's a strange juxtaposition, but of course you remember that Matthew in chapter one has already shown you that Jesus deserves royal honor: He's descended from kings! He's descended from King David! He's the One who will sit on David's throne, and so here Matthew shows you Jesus receiving kingly honor–but from Gentiles.
But even the gifts, don't they speak of His life and ministry? His work? His death? “They presented to Him gifts of gold, and frankincense and myrrh.” Those gifts have long been a point of reflection to Christians.
One thousand eight hundred years ago a man in Alexandria Egypt reading his Bible and expounding it…a man named Origen…he lived right at the end of the second century and the beginning of the third century…he was reflecting on these verses and he said this:
“Gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to One who will die; incense, as to God.”
And some seventeen hundred years later Ursula Vaughn Williams would write a poem that her husband would include in his glorious Christmas oratorio (Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Hodie …means this day in Latin… Christmas Day…it's a wonderful Christmas musical). She would write these words:
“Gold from the veins of earth He brings,
Red gold, to crown the King of Kings.
Power and glory here behold,
Shut in a talisman of gold.”
She's saying that that golden gift was fit for a king, and so appropriate because He was the King of Kings. She goes on:
“Frankincense from those dark cans
Was gathered in Eastern sunrise lands;
Incense to burn both day and night,
To bear the prayers a priest will say.”
She understood that that incense foreshadowed Him as the Priest of His people who day and night with loud cries would pray for us — and He would be heard because of His piety, Hebrews 5:8 tells us. And then she goes on to say:
“Myrrh is a bitter gift for the dead.
Birth begins the path You tread;
Your way is short, Your days foretold
By myrrh, and frankincense, and gold.”
You see, the birth of this Christ not only fulfills the ancient prophecies, it bears witness to us as to who He is; that points to the gospel that this Babe who is Prophet, Priest, and King will die for His people.
My friends, it's so extraordinary, isn't it? Christmas can be a time of great isolation. It's a time of great family joy very often, but it can be a time of great isolation; even when the family is gathered, there can be isolation. Isn't it interesting that in God's divine rescue operation He does not sit in halls of glory and dispense decrees for angels to carry out in order to reclaim you, his people, and to bring you back into fellowship, into right relationship with Him? He comes down and gets inside your flesh to draw you near. That's what He does in the gospel. He sends His Son, His only Son, the Son of His love who takes on your flesh, your humanity, your human nature, who crawls inside of what we are and drags you back to His Father. In this birth it shows forth that that Son does this in dying for you.
So the gospel doesn't end at the sending of the Son into the world, it ends with the death and the resurrection and the ascension of Christ; and then, of course, in the embodied coming again of that Christ, that we might be with Him forever.
And what's our response? To believe. To believe that this Boy born of a virgin, laid in the feeding trough, is the word of the Father, is the Son of God, is the Savior of sinners, is our Savior. Don't you love the way that Paul says it in Galatians 2:20? It's that He loved me and gave Himself for me. I want you to focus on that word me. He loved me. It doesn't just say that He gave…He loved us; He loved me and gave Himself for me. You see how He's intimating to you His love for each and every one of His children. He knows your heart. He knows every inch of you, and He loves you. And He gave His Son for you. Believe.
Lord God, grant that we would believe in the One who is worshiped by the nations to the saving of our souls, to Your everlasting glory and His, and for our eternal good. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.