The Lord's Day Morning
December 30, 2007
Nine Lessons and Carols
The Eighth Lesson
Born by the Book
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Matthew 2:1-12. We are working our way through the “Nine Lessons and Carols” of the King's College Christmas Service. We are at the Eighth Lesson today, which deals with the coming of the wise men to worship Jesus. His birth has been some time before, and they have now made their way a far distance from the East to seek out this new king of the Jews. And Matthew records the story here.
You may have heard that the Archbishop of Canterbury got himself in a bit of trouble before Christmas by granting an interview to a newspaper editor who was asking questions about this passage. In the course of discussing this passage and some of the legends that have grown up around it, the Archbishop managed to give the impression that he thought that this story was a legend. And there was a great deal of outcry in England over it. He later clarified his thoughts. But what is absolutely clear is that Matthew is not simply recording a legend. Matthew has no intention of simply passing on a legend. He has a very specific agenda in what he tells us here, and that agenda is both theological and historical. Matthew is very concerned that we learn certain truths about Jesus Christ from the story that he records, but Matthew is also absolutely confident that if the story that he tells is not true, then the truths he is trying to convey are not true. And so for Matthew there is both a concern to tell you important truth about Jesus that is rooted in historical reality and fact.
Matthew is telling you a true story. He is recording for you history which is shot through with theological significance, and very important practically for your life. And so Matthew, along with all the Gospel writers, records the history they record under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for very specific purposes. For instance, as Derek worked us through part of Luke 2, and as we saw that elaborated as Brad worked through the remainder of Luke 2, one of the things that Luke wants you to understand in Luke 2 is that Jesus is the promised Son of God who was the son of David, according to God's promise to David in II Samuel 7:14ff. It's very important to Luke for you to understand that in Jesus all the promises of God to David have been fulfilled. And so in the first instance, the ascription of the title “Son of God”, though it certainly does indicate Jesus’ divinity…. in fact, in the passage right before the passage we are studying today, Jesus’ God-ness, His deity, His divinity, is very explicitly stressed by Matthew when he says that He will be called Emmanuel, which is God with us. Though that is true, that title “Son of God” also harkens back to II Samuel 7 and a promise that God had made to David about there always being a king on David's throne.
So all the Gospel writers have specific truths that they want you to learn about Jesus from history, and Matthew is no different. In fact, as we look at this passage today, I want to draw your attention to three particular things. Keep your eyes open for these, because Matthew is highlighting them.
First of all, Matthew wants you to see this surprising — in fact, this ironic — concealing and revealing of Jesus. You see it in verses 1-4, and you see it in verses 9-11. Jesus is concealed from Israel. Jesus is concealed from the religious leaders in Israel, but He is revealed to pagan wise men. Matthew has a point that he wants to make by drawing your attention to that fact, and we’ll talk about that this morning.
Secondly (you’ll see this especially in verses 2 and 11), Matthew wants you to see that this Jesus who has been born king of the Jews, whom the wise men have traveled far to visit and worship, is to be worshiped. Three times in this passage, Matthew mentions the worship of Jesus (verse 2; verse 8; and verse 11). Especially in verses 2 and 11, Matthew has a point to make, and we’ll talk about that point as we work through the passage together today. So keep an eye out for what Matthew has to say to you about the worship of Christ.
And then, third and finally, Matthew wants you to see that Jesus was born by the book. That is, His birth was in direct, and detailed, and explicit fulfillment of Bible prophecy. He's going to quote from a passage in Micah to show that Jesus’ birth fulfilled the prophecy made by that minor prophet hundreds of years before, but he's also in this story of the wise men going to allude to a much older prophecy…a prophecy that was 1400 years old…a prophecy given by a pagan unbeliever and recorded in the Bible. Do you remember where? We’ll tell you later on today! But look out for those three things: First of all, Matthew's emphasis on the concealing and revealing of Christ; second, Matthew's emphasis on worship; and, third, Matthew's emphasis on Jesus’ being born by the book.
Let's pray before we read God's word.
Heavenly Father, this is Your word, and we ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful truth in it. In Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of God:
“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him, and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
For from you shall come a ruler
Who shall shepherd my people Israel.’
“Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.’ After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
Matthew has at least three things that he wants you to understand as a believer, three things that are vital for every person in the world to understand if they are to fellowship with the living God. I'd like to look at those with you today. Matthew is concerned to highlight these three things. He is concerned to highlight the way that Jesus is concealed and revealed in His coming into this world. He is concerned to highlight that Jesus is an object of worship. He is to be worshiped. He is to be valued above everything else. And, he's concerned to show you that Jesus is born by the book. Here's why.
I. First of all, Matthew highlights the concealment of Christ to Israel and the revealment of Christ to the Gentiles in this amazing story.
Here we have these pagan wise men from somewhere in the East, outside of Israel, outside of the bounds of the people of God who have been given God's written revelation in the Old Testament, outside the bounds of those who would have heard Moses preach, or who would have read Moses, or who would have heard Moses read; outside of the reach of those who had heard the prophets of the Old Testament preached. Somewhere in far and distant lands, these pagans are coming to worship Jesus Christ. But when they get to Israel, nobody knows what they’re talking about! When they go to the leaders of Israel, the leaders of Israel are flummoxed! They’re befuddled by this word from these pagans about the king of the Jews who has just been born. Herod is troubled. The chief priests and scribes, those who were responsible for conducting the religious worship of Israel and for teaching Moses’ law to the people were all baffled by this question from the wise men.
This king (Herod) was half Edomite and half Arabian, but he was ruling over the shards of Israel, a petty client-state to Rome of what was left of David's great kingdom, and he is deeply troubled when he hears this word that the king of the Jews has been born. In fact, he's so deeply troubled by this he will massacre all the young boys in the city of Bethlehem in the following weeks, in order to try and stamp out this potential rival to his rule. He's deeply troubled.
On the other hand, the chief priests and scribes, though they know exactly where to look in the Old Testament in answer to the question, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?” they are not looking for the Messiah. They are not expecting the Messiah. They’re not on the way to make a pilgrimage to the birthplace of the Messiah. These pagan magi, these pagan magicians, these pagan wise men are.
And the people? Well, they, too, Matthew tells us, tremble, are afraid, are troubled by news brought by these Gentiles. They’re afraid perhaps of official reprisals. They’re troubled; perhaps they are afraid that Herod will have some sort of terrible reaction. But Matthew paints an ironic picture, doesn't he? You would think that the people who had the book that told them about the coming Messiah would have been looking for that Messiah, and would have themselves been on a pilgrimage to go worship Him. But that is not what you find. Israel is completely caught off guard. The birth of the Messiah is concealed to the very people to whom God had sent the Messiah from and to in this world.
Now that's a very amazing thing, isn't it? And Matthew has a point about that. Matthew's point is simply this: that there is a real possibility that religious people who possess divine revelation — true revelation, inerrant, infallible revelation — can be spiritually blind. They can have the truth in their hands, they can hear the truth read and proclaimed, they can read the truth for themselves, and yet not see it. Why? That is one of the great mysteries, isn't it, of those who have been given the privilege of hearing the very word of God and yet never savingly trust in Jesus Christ. And Matthew actually will explain to you part of the reason for that, because if you don't understand your need, you won't be looking for your Savior. And if you don't understand your need, you won't highly value your Savior. And it is very apparent that Herod is concerned with other things.
And the chief priests and the scribes? They too were concerned with other things, and they valued other things more highly than they should have, and they did not see their need. And, consequently, they did not appreciate the provision of the Savior, and they did not highly value the coming of the Savior. So you have this ironic concealing of the Christ who comes from Israel to Israel, for Israel, for their redemption — and they’re not waiting for Him. And they’re not looking for Him. And they are blind to His appearance in the world.
And then on the other hand, you have these magi! You have these wise men from the East. They’re pagans, they’re Gentiles, and they’re coming all the way from distant lands to come and worship the king of the Jews.
It's an amazing irony, isn't it? Whereas Herod the king and the priests and the people are unaware of Christ, these pagan Gentiles are searching for Him at great effort from a great distance. What's Matthew's point? Well, Matthew's point is just this: Christ is not just the Savior of the Jews, He's the Savior of the world. He will bring the Gentiles from the corners of the earth to His presence. And those who rest and trust in Him for salvation as He is offered in the gospel, from every corner of the world, from every tribe, tongue, people and nation — men and women and boys and girls will come to Him, for He is the Savior of the world. And when Matthew impresses that point upon you, he's not being the least bit theologically creative! He is simply stating a fact which the Old Testament prophets had already made known.
As we've worked through these Nine Lessons and Carols, do you remember when we came to that glorious passage in Isaiah in which he says that “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea”? Do you know what that great picture is designed to impress upon you? That there is going to be a day in which all the nations know the glory of the living God through His Messiah King. It doesn't mean that every man, woman, boy and girl is saved; it means that Jesus is the only Savior available to every man, woman, boy and girl. And that men and women and boys and girls from every tribe and tongue and people and nation will trust in Him, so that He is the God who saves not only His believing Jewish people, but He is the God who saves those Gentiles who rest on Christ alone for salvation. And Matthew is highlighting the fact that Christ is the Savior of the world.
This has important missionary ramifications for us. You remember in Matthew's day…in fact, for many years, for many decades in the early church there were Christians, Jewish Christians, who weren't so certain that Gentile Christians were on the same par with them, and they were uncertain about the mission to the Gentiles. You remember some of them dogged the Apostle Paul for going to the Gentiles. Well, Matthew is telling you up front it's a no-brainer! Of course we go to the Gentiles, because at the very outset when Jesus came into this world, God brought the Gentiles to Him. There's no question, then, that we go to the Gentiles with the gospel.
And, my friends, today aren't you thankful that the Lord did that? Because this room is filled almost exclusively with Gentile Christians. Our ancestors were running around in the woods of North Europe naked when this was happening! And God in His mercy sent His Son into this world to Gentiles like us. Now, we have some Jewish believers here as well, and God has been faithful there too. But here in this congregation today you are seeing the fulfillment of this missionary impulse that Matthew describes here in Matthew 2:1-12.
Well, there's the first thing: the concealment of Christ to Israel; the revealment of Christ to the Gentiles. This ironic concealing and revealing of Christ to the people who ought to have been responding to Him because they knew the book, but didn't, and those who you wonder “How in the world did they know to do this?”–but did.
The second thing I want you to see, though, is the worship that is given to Christ by these magi. And Matthew is concerned to press this home for a very important reason. Matthew has already made it clear in Matthew 1 that Jesus is a king and that He fulfilled the prophecies of the Messiah. Luke makes that same point in Luke 2: Jesus is king; He fulfills the prophecy of the Messiah.
II. Jesus deserves to be worshiped.
But Matthew is concerned that you understand that Jesus is more than that. He's more than the Messiah; He's more than the king: He is God in the flesh. He is the very Son of God, and He deserves to be worshiped. And how does he press that home? He tells you about these Gentiles (verse 2) that come looking for the king of the Jews because they want to worship Him. Then he even tells you that when Herod was trying to ingratiate himself to the magi in order to get information out of them that he claimed falsely to want to worship Jesus. And the very reason that he falsely claimed to want to worship Jesus was because it was very clear to him that these magi were dead serious about worshiping Jesus. And finally, in verse 11, you see that when the magi get there, what do they do? They worship Jesus.
Now Matthew is making a very important point here. Matthew knew that every Hebrew person hearing him knew the first two principles of Hebrew theology. The first principle of Hebrew theology is ‘There is a God, and you’re not Him.’ The second principle of Hebrew theology is 'Don't worship anything or anyone that's not the one true God.' So when Matthew tells you that Jesus is to be worshiped, what is he telling you about Jesus? Jesus is divine. Jesus is deity. Jesus is God. He deserves to be worshiped. And even these Gentiles know it. And they come and they offer their worship to Jesus.
Matthew is pressing home a vital truth: that the Christ-child is not simply the occasion of our sentiment or our admiration; He is to be the object of worship. And he does it in a most striking way. He doesn't tell us who these magi are. He doesn't tell us exactly where they’re from. He doesn't tell us how many there were. (Oh, I know! You've been singing We Three Kings of Orient Are for a long time, but it doesn't say how many kings there were.) It doesn't even say that they were kings. It just says that magi came. There was more than one, but there could have been ten or twelve or fourteen or two. They brought three gifts, but one could have given all three gifts, or all of them could have gone in together on the three gifts. We don't know! Matthew doesn't tell you! Matthew doesn't tell you how they were dressed; he doesn't tell you what their names were. (Oh, I know! You’re been singing “Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar” for many years, but he doesn't tell you what their names are.) He doesn't tell 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 the exact nature of the star that they were following. He doesn't tell you what kind of a luminary it was. He doesn't tell you whether it was a conjunction of the planets or a unique heavenly body created by God just for this purpose. The one important thing that he tells you is that they worshiped Jesus. Why? Because that's the point he wants to drive home: Jesus is to be worshiped.
Do you worship Jesus? Do you value Him more than anything else? Does it vex your soul for Him not to be worshiped? Is it the passion of your life that the nations would worship Him? Is it your heartbeat? Or are there things in this world that you love more than Jesus? Are there other things in this life that you worship more than Jesus? This is a question that Matthew is pressing home to us today, because Christians worship Jesus. That doesn't mean that we simply gather together Lord's Day after Lord's Day and publicly sing songs to Him and about Him, and lift up prayers by Him, and hear His word read and proclaimed to us, and respond in faith to His gospel. It means that we live out a life of worship to the Lord Jesus Christ; that in our lives and our actions, in our words and our thoughts, and our use of our money, our time, and our energy, we evidence that Jesus is the one that we value more than anyone else. We exalt Jesus in our actions, in our choices, in our attitudes, in our words, with all of our energy. Do we worship Jesus?
Does it bother us when He's not worshiped? Some of you like to read missionary biographies (and if you don't, I'd encourage you to try them). One of the great missionaries of the nineteenth century, the 1800's, was the Anglican missionary Henry Martyn. If you've never read about Henry Martyn, you've really missed a spiritual encouragement. I encourage you to go learn something about Henry Martyn, perhaps this afternoon.
Henry Martyn went out from England to go and minister the gospel among Muslims. Now as you know, Muslims have a high regard for Jesus…as a prophet. But they do not accept that He is the very Son of God. In fact, Muslims consider the doctrine of the Trinity a heresy and polytheism, and they believe that Jesus was a prophet, but He wasn't the greatest of the prophets: Mohammed is the greatest and last of the prophets.
Well, a Muslim friend had invited Henry Martyn into his home, and had made him to be his guest at a meal. During the course of the dinner conversation this Muslim friend was recounting a story of a picture he had seen — a picture drawn by a Muslim artist in which Jesus was bowing to Mohammed. The Muslim friend saw a frown come across Henry Martyn's face, and his whole countenance fell, and he was deeply troubled. And Henry Martyn's friend said to him, “Why are you so troubled? What's wrong?” And Henry Martyn said to him, “I could not endure existence if Jesus Christ were not glorified. It would be hell to me if He were so dishonored as you have dishonored Him. This is blasphemy, to speak of Jesus bowing to another!” You see, Henry Martyn lived for the day when every knee would bow and every tongue would confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. And the thought of Jesus bowing to someone else, instead of all knees bowing to Him, deeply troubled his soul.
Should it not be that way with all of us? Should it not be our heart's desire that Jesus would be worshiped? To the ends of the earth? From every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, from men and women and boys and girls? That's why we go with the gospel! That's why we do evangelism! That's why we give to missions! Because we want Jesus to be worshiped, to be valued, to be delighted in, to be acknowledged to be the first and best. Matthew is making that point in this passage. Even these pagan Gentiles — bless their hearts! — knew that Jesus is to be worshiped. How much more ought we to know that and to do it.
III. The birth of Jesus fulfilled prophecy.
Well, there's a third and a final thing to see here, too, and that is that Matthew wants to press home that Jesus is born by the book, and so he quotes from Micah 6 and he reminds you that Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is in fulfillment of prophecy. But he not only points back to that prophecy that was over 500 years old, he also explicitly directs your attention to a much older prophecy. Do you remember who and where that prophecy is made and found in the Old Testament? Who made the prophecy about a star rising up out of Judah? Balaam. Yeah. We’re going to be studying that passage, in God's providence, next Sunday night as we work through Numbers. But if you don't believe me, go open your Bibles this afternoon and look at Numbers 24:17, and you’ll find that Balaam — the pagan, unbelieving prophet hired by Balak to curse Israel — makes the prophecy of a star rising out of Judah, that Matthew says that Jesus fulfills.
Isn't it amazing? You've got a pagan unbelieving prophet making a prophecy about the star that rises out of Judah, and then you've got pagans from the East who make their way to worship Jesus Christ the Lord. Matthew is pressing home this: God's word can be trusted, and He can use anyone to bring that word. Even Balaam.
Two, he is verifying for you Jesus’ identity. He is the star who is to arise out of Jacob. And, thirdly, he is identifying His mission. Just as Matthew has already said (in Matthew 1:18-25), Jesus is the Savior come into this world.
So why is it that the wise men understand that and follow the star and go to worship Him, but Herod and the chief priests and the scribes don't?
Because, my friends, you will be blind to the need and the glory of the Savior unless you understand your own need.
One irreverent person once said, “If Jesus is the answer, what's the question?” And the answer to that irreverent question is, “The question is ‘How can a person who worships himself and anything and everything else but the truth of God have everlasting fellowship with the true God?’ And the question is ‘How can people who have sinned against, and rebelled against and despised the one true God be forgiven by the one true God?’” And the answer, my friends, in one word, is “Jesus.” That's the question…those are the questions…to which He is the answer. But if you don't think that you’re an idolater, and if you don't think that you’re a sinner, you won't see your need and you won't see the glory of the provision of your need in Jesus, and you won't see the glory of the person of Jesus, and you won't worship Him. That means that you can have God's own word open in front of you, and if you don't see yourself and your sin and your need, you won't see your Savior and the glory of His person. May God grant that as you read your Bible and as you read the account of Jesus coming into this world, that you will see your sin and you will see your Savior, for your everlasting good and for God's glory.
Our heavenly Father, we acknowledge that Your word is true, but apart from Your regenerating Spirit we are blind to our own need and we are blind to the glory of the Savior. Open our eyes, O God. Grant that we would realize that we need to be forgiven, and that we can have no fellowship apart from Your Savior. And then, grant that we would see the beauty of the Savior and that we would trust Him and believe on Him, and put our faith in Him, and love Him and adore Him and worship Him forever. We ask this in the Savior's name. Amen.
Now, as you take you hymnals in hand, I want to encourage you not simply to sing about worshiping Christ, but to worship Christ as you sing and by your singing…218, Angels from the Realms of Glory.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.