(Please read Matthew 2:1-12 in your favorite Bible. I have used the NIV for these remarks.)
You may have heard the phrase “hostile witness” in a TV courtroom drama. The practice of designating someone a “hostile witness” is quite rare in actual courtrooms; or so I’ve read.
Witnesses for the opposing side are always treated as “hostile” in the sense that they’re going to testify against you. And normally, witnesses for your own side are “friendly” in the sense that their testimony will help you make your case.
Without complicating the matter, asking the judge to declare one of your own witnesses as “hostile” allows the attorney to ask more leading questions of the witness. Instead of questions that must be answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” the lawyer can ask questions where the answer is more complex and the answer is implied or included in the way the question is worded.
<Researched at http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/business-career/legal/hostile-witnesses? on 12/8/16.>
The thing about hostile witnesses on which I want to focus is that they’re generally believed to be more objective about an issue because their bias would be contrary to the case at hand. Take the Magi, or wise men, as an example. They were not Jews. They were not Christians, because that term had not been coined yet; the Founder of our Faith was still learning to talk and perhaps be potty trained!
These were not people who would lie or exaggerate to make a case for Jesus as the Son of God, let alone as the King of the Jews. Their actions were directed by their pagan beliefs and superstitions, not by faith or any philosophy supportive of the Jews and their God.
As we will see, an exciting part of this account is that these non-Jewish men recognized Jesus as the rightful King of the Jews nearly three decades before any Jewish folk came to that discovery. Their recognition of the Christ-child is something God accomplished – in part – outside His usual means of revelation. He used people who were not His people to confirm that He had indeed kept His promises.
Here we are at the “Three Kings,” or the “Wise Men,” as they have been called over the ages. Here is the part of the Christmas story that has the most effect on the cultural celebration of Christmas. The tradition of giving gifts at Christmas flows from the gifts of the magi to baby Jesus. Just think of economic impact if they had composed poetry in His honor instead? How would the American retail sector survive without the annual influx of cash in December?
Forgive me that skepticism. What matters here is that the Magi witnessed to the true identity of the Baby in Bethlehem.
- The magi provided a pagan witness to Jesus’ identity.
Who they were: astrologers and court magicians who gave advice to kings. Their beliefs bear a resemblance to the beliefs of a number of modern Americans: henotheism.
Wikipedia defines “henotheism” as the belief in and worship of a single god while accepting the existence or possible existence of other deities. Ancient peoples were extremely territorial and they believed that the gods were too; the popular superstition was that all gods existed and competed for worshipers and space on earth through the nations that they patronized.
This is the religious flipside of the modern politically correct view of “tolerance” set in a religious context. While people of those cultures were competitive about their beliefs, they weren’t at all concerned about disproving the existence of anyone else’s gods. These men were not Jews and they did not start out as believers in Jesus in any sense that would be familiar to us.
In this context, men like the MAGI were schooled in the beliefs and practices of many religions and sought to learn from them all. They wanted to use their knowledge to divine the future and thereby establish their usefulness to the governing powers of their time.
As superstitious people do even in our own time, the MAGI believe that there was a cause and effect relationship between the movement of the stars and the actions of people. Astrology was one of the tools they used to try to divine the future.
What they did is more important to our study: they came from Persia looking for a king. They were seeking a KING OF THE JEWS, a political figure. We might conjecture they were seeking knowledge or political influence; we aren’t told whether their motives were selfish or not. It seems more likely to me that they spotted this star, reported it to their king or nobleman and that person sent them on a quest to find the king and open relations with them. In this case, their motive is primarily duty. This would have been an extension of their job.
There are three clues the text gives us to measure the status of the MAGI and the effect of their visit.
– Verse three shows they were taken so seriously that the question they asked DISTURBED King Herod and the entire city of Jerusalem.
– In verse four we read the king called together ALL THE CHIEF PRIESTS AND TEACHERS OF THE LAW to research the answer to the Magi’s question. The key word here is ALL. The Magi were given VIP treatment!
– In verse eight, Herod attempted to use them to flush out the child-king. Once exposed, he undoubtedly planned to have the child killed, which is how Herod dealt with all threats to his throne. This implies Herod’s respect for the Magi in the sense that he was to some degree certain they would succeed in their mission. If they found the newborn king, you can be Herod wanted to be first in line right behind them!
- The magi set an example for us to follow.
They are an example of seeking. The MAGI undertook such a long and difficult journey, so we can safely say they were highly motivated. Further, they were motivated enough to leave their homeland with only a general destination in mind; they knew they had to go to Judea. As Jerusalem was the capital of Judea, they likely went their first. As they were court officials they knew how to behave around a king and may have carried papers that officially introduced them. It’s logical to assume they went to Herod first.
Once Herod directed them toward Bethlehem, verse nine tells us the STAR took over and somehow directed them to the exact place in the village where Jesus and His family resided. In spite of the way the scene is depicted on Christmas cards and in crèches, the MAGI did not appear on the same night as the shepherds (see Luke 2:1-20). Based on the next passage (2:16), we think the MAGI arrived two years after Jesus’ birth. This does not mean their search took them two years.
The point is this: they completed their quest. They were OVERJOYED at seeing the STAR and having it guide them on the last leg of their journey to the new Jewish king. (In fact, the original language is redundant, bordering on gushing; “thy rejoiced with a great joy exceedingly.”)
They did what they were commanded to do back in Persia: find and open relations with the new king. They BOWED DOWN AND WORSHIPED HIM. Normally, this phrase refers to the respect given royalty but it does not rule out the devotion offered to divinity. The MAGI gave expensive gifts to the baby Jesus; gifts befitting a king.
In this, the MAGI accomplished their mission. But I believe they must have immediately sensed there was more to this child than had been revealed to them by the STAR and Herod’s religious researchers. As we will learn next week, the three gifts served a practical purpose. Joseph was commanded to take Mary and Jesus to safety in Egypt. The GOLD, FRANKINCENSE, and MYRRH could be sold/traded/spent there to provide the small family with the resources they needed to survive. This was Providence at work.
Have you ever wondered why they followed through in this way? Why weren’t they surprised to find a “king” in a peasant’s house? Why didn’t they assume they’d made a mistake and turn for home? My guess it was the STAR. It was the STAR that had started them on this journey and it was the STAR that lead them to the end.
I wonder how highly motivated we are? The availability of information and the abundance of churches can make finding Jesus pretty easy. Or is that the case? Have we complicated matters with our endless options and minute variations? Are we compromised by worldliness? Has our culture put blinders on us so we see only what is directly ahead and have only a partial conception of the bigger world and our even-bigger God?
They are an example of obedience to God. In verse twelve, the MAGI received a message from God in much the same way Joseph had back in 1:20; IN A DREAM. There is no mention of an ANGEL appearing in their dream and it is a warning, not a command.
Think about two things here: One, how seriously these superstitious men would have taken a dream. Interpreting dreams was part of their daily work, so the dream was, like the STAR, a very effective way for God to get their attention. Two, we see God’s grace in sparing them from Herod’s violence. Don’t doubt for a moment that a violent, sinister man like Herod would hesitate to use torture to extract the information about the child’s exact whereabouts from them if they returned to Jerusalem. We’ll talk more about Herod next Sunday, but he was paranoid and very near the end of his life at this time. He would have had no hesitation to hurt and kill the MAGI in order to get at the new-born KING OF THE JEWS.
Also in verse twelve, we see the MAGI taking seriously the warning they were given as they RETURNED TO THEIR COUNTRY BY ANOTHER ROUTE. Remember, back in v. 8 King Herod had specifically commanded them to come back to Jerusalem and report their findings to him. To not do so was to risk his wrath, and thereby risk their lives. This is no small decision.
Ruthless and powerful, King Herod was a very real threat; but they chose to give more heed to a dream they all had shared. Not everybody would be wise enough to heed God more than the king. Do you suppose that’s why we call them “the wise men?”
Years later, when the baby Jesus had become a man He said in MTW 10:28, “DO NOT BE AFRAID OF THOSE WHO KILL THE BODY BUT CANNOT KILL THE SOUL. RATHER, BE AFRAID OF THE ONE WHO CAN DESTROY BOTH BODY AND SOUL IN HELL.” I would say that the MAGI are an example of someone who possessed this wisdom.
In his sermon entitled, “The Wise Men Worship The King” Pastor David Anderson made the following observations about the MAGI and their unique place in the NT story of Jesus.
- These Magi are not identified with perfect precision.
- Educated speculation says that they were likely the priestly caste of the Medes and Persians.
- Daniel refers to the “magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and the Chaldeans be summoned to tell the king his dreams”
- These Magi are called “wise men” because they were people of learning. Think of these folks as a mixture of being the elite, the intellectuals, and the religious priests of their culture.
- They were like science-math-literature-priests.
- They were astronomers/astrologers.
- Star-gazing book worms.
- And they were Gentiles.
- There is no indication they were kings.
- And there is no indication that there were only three of them. There were three gifts, but this doesn’t prove a thing.
- Sorry to ruin the Christmas song, “We Three Kings from Orient Are.”
So what do we take away from the account of the Magi’s visit to the Christ-child? What can we learn from these events and how can we put it to work in our lives?
We can follow the example of zeal and dedication in following God that the Magi showed in seeking the newborn king of the Jews. They set out on a long and difficult journey to a foreign land with very little to guide them.
We, on the other hand, have all the information we need and don’t need to move an inch to find Jesus. What’s required from us is faith.
The Magi recognized Jesus as King and responded appropriately: they worshiped Him and immediately obeyed His command.
(If you’d like the video version of this message, look up EBCSF on YouTube.)