The Magi Rejoiced

(Please read Matthew 2:1-12 in your Bible.  I have used the NIV to prepare the following remarks.)

MESSAGE: The joy of the Magi resulted in worship and giving. May we follow their example.

Headline: “President Of European Parliament: Christians Most Persecuted Group, Not Safe In Europe”

By Taylor Tyler | Dec 04, 2015 11:57 AM EST

Christians are “clearly the most persecuted group” in the world, and Europe cannot afford to continue ignoring the breach of their fundamental rights, the President of the European Parliament (EP) said Wednesday in a high-level meeting on religious persecution in Brussels.

EP President and German MEP Martin Schulz said the persecution of Christians is “undervalued,” does not receive enough attention, and “hasn’t been properly addressed,” according to Breitbart.

“I can assure you that Parliament will make its contribution wherever it can to protect Christians,” Schulz said, according to Church Times. “Persecution is happening outside the EU, but we can’t afford to ignore it. All of us, particularly in the EP, are aware that dialogue and mutual respect are needed. Fundamental rights are under great threat today and persecution of a religion.”

EP Vice President Antonio Tajani, an Italian MEP in the Parliament’s European People’s Party (Christian Democrats), echoed the concerns of Schulz, warning that Europe sometimes “falls into the temptation of thinking we can ignore” the task of protecting persecuted Christians.

Tajani cited a new report from Open Doors that found that “Islamic extremism is by far the most significant persecution engine” of Christians and that “40 of the 50 countries on the World Watch List are affected by this kind of persecution.”

“Every month at least 200 churches or places of worship are attacked. Every day, in every region of our planet, we register new cases of systemic violence and persecution against Christians. No other religious community is faced with such hatred, violence, and aggression as is the Christian community,” Tajani said.

He claimed that more than 70 percent of Christians have fled Iraq since 2003 due to Islamic persecution, with another 700,000 Christians being displaced in Syria since the start of the civil war.

“The West must break the silence on the persecution of Christians in the world,” said Tajani, and Europe must establish “a model of society in opposition to religious radicalism and brutal and criminal projects, such as creating an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria and then extending its tentacles into to Libya,” reported Breitbart.

“It should shake us up, that on our continent, Christians are not safe,” Schulz said.

Tajani also said that he was convinced that the battle against religious extremism can only be won with the help of religion. “No one may, in fact, forget that in all the great monotheistic religions life, a gift of God the Creator, has sacred value. In the name of religion, we have an obligation to condemn all those who show contempt for life and kill in the name of God. Who shoots in the name of God, shoot against God,” he said, according to EU News.

Copyright @ Headlines & Global News.

(Retrieved from http://www.hngn.com/articles/157094/20151204/president-european-parliament-christians-persecuted-group-safe-europe.htm on 12/11/15.)

In today’s post we’ll see how people from the East travelled to see the infant Jesus.  It’s a sad irony of our time that same region of the world is a focus of persecution of followers of Jesus Christ, as the article above proves.  While we actively protect ourselves and our fellow believers, one thing we must guard is our joy.  Joy that comes from God is terror-proof.

  1. The Magi volunteered (1-8).

They volunteered to seek out the newborn King (vs. 1-2).  Notice that they don’t ask IF a king has been born, but WHERE the newborn king is.  These men were confident enough about their prediction to undertake a long and dangerous journey and come to find out the details.

There’s been lots of speculation on who the Magi were.  What the text tells us for certain is that they were astronomers; “WE SAW HIS STAR IN THE EAST” (v. 2).  The timing of the visit of the Magi can be a little confusing.  The STAR appeared on the day of Jesus’ birth.  A trip from anywhere considered EAST would have taken several weeks.  So the STAR started them on their journey but they completed the trip with their arrival in Bethlehem up to 2 years after Jesus’ birth (this based on Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents” in Matthew 2:16-18).

However, the STAR did not guide them to Jerusalem; logic did.  If you’re looking for a new king, the logical place to start looking is in the capitol city.  Ancient Roman historians tell us that people from many different cultures were looking for a king to appear among the Jews.  It was a question to which many learned men had devoted study. This came about as Jews travelled and lived in places across the Roman Empire and took their expectation of a Messiah with them, sharing that with their neighbors.  In Roman culture, heavenly phenomena always accompanied the birth or death of a king.  They believed, for example, that a comet appeared at the time of the death of Julius Caesar.  Stars and other heavenly phenomena were widely believed to both reveal and influence human events, similar to people’s belief in astrology today.

In Greek culture, the word MAGI was either an insult, referring to frauds who used illusions to convince superstitious folk they had “powers” (that is how Luke used it) or to learned men who were trained in astrology and other arcane subjects, advisors to kings on supernatural matters (that is how Matthew used it).  It doesn’t really matter which these men were because Matthew’s emphasis is on the Holy Birth, not these messengers.  He offers their visit as evidence that Jesus fulfilled Scripture and was recognized as the KING OF THE JEWS; just not by His own people.  Their identity as MAGI, their origin in the EAST, and their superficial familiarity with Old Testament prophecy are clues that these Magi were not Jews.

The motive they gave for their search: “WE HAVE COME TO WORSHIP HIM” (v. 2).  This is the honest truth.  We know this because that’s exactly what they did when they found the newborn King (v. 11).  But I wonder what else motivated them.  It seems like a lot of trouble to satisfy some intellectual curiosity.  Did they hope to gain influence in the court of the new king?  Did they misunderstand the sign and think BORN meant coronated?  In some ancient cultures, a king’s “birthday” was his coronation day.

Their arrival turned Jerusalem upside down (vs. 3-8).  WHEN KING HEROD HEARD THIS HE WAS DISTURBED, AND ALL JERUSALEM WITH HIM (v. 3).  Why?

– Herod ruthlessly guarded his power. He would have been DISTURBED because this news would’ve been seen as a threat to his rule.

– He had been on the throne for more than 30 years by this time and history shows that his reign would not last much longer.

– As seen by his senseless slaughter of all the ale children of Bethlehem later in this chapter, Herod willingly resorted to any steps that removed rivals to his throne.

OK, that’s easy enough to see. But why was ALL JERSUALEM disturbed along with Herod?

– The people might’ve joined Herod in his worry because of a variation on the old saying, “If the king ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Herod was bloodthirsty and widely feared.

– They were excited to think that the promise of the Messiah would finally be fulfilled.

– They might have been afraid because every change of authority brought bloodshed and turmoil; Herod’s especially.

– The appearance of such a caravan of distinguished persons, even in a city, would cause a sensation of gossip. The MAGI may’ve started asking the minute they arrived at the city gates and from there word would’ve spread rapidly.

In response to this growing “threat,” Herod put together a staff to answer the magi’s question and they way he conducted this matter demonstrated political savvy (vs. 4-8).  Herod was vicious, but he was also capable of some subtlety.  We see this in v. 4 where he asks the religious leaders where the CHRIST would be born, not the KING OF THE JEWS.  He was trying to make this look like a religious symposium, not a political investigation.  Herod realized the CHRIST and the KING OF THE JEWS would be the same person, though this may have been a popular belief.

This group was not the ruling members of the Jews, but an “invitation-only” assembly of scholars and students of Scripture.  They arrive at the correct answer: BETHLEHEM IN JUDEA. Interestingly, their quotation of Micah 5:2 is not correct.  It’s a melding of Micah 5:2 and 2 Samuel 5:2.  If we assume the Jewish scholars are at fault and not Matthew, then it raises the interesting question of why they misquoted it.  This may indicate their use of a different translation than the ones that survived to our day, or that they deliberately misquoted it.  If they are deliberately misquoting it, I assume they are doing so out of fear of Herod.  This was one king you didn’t make angry, for fear of your life.

We see more of Herod’s careful political maneuvering in vs. 7+8.  He did not put the Magi and the scholars together, but kept them apart, so that neither side would know what the others were doing.  The word SECRETLY is an important clue, evidence of Herod giving both sides the “mushroom treatment.”

Herod questioned the Magi first, looking for exact information about the STAR (v. 7).

This was not necessary to answer their question, for he already had the answer in hand, but was expedient for his later violent actions. Their information was useful for determining the age of the newborn KING OF THE JEWS.

This is a way of throwing academics off the scent of your real purpose; get them started talking about their favorite subject and they become wrapped up in the sound of their own voice and forget all else.  Herod got information and allayed suspicions.

After this one-sided exchange of information, Herod ordered them to go to Bethlehem, search out the child, and then report back to him.  In that way, he used the magi as unwitting spies to protect his throne (v. 8).  Bethlehem was just 6 miles from Jerusalem.  Being so close, Herod had to tread lightly or give away his plan to assassinate the newborn King.  That is part of the reason he deceived the Magi and used them as proxy spies.

Obviously, Herod had no interest in worshiping the child.  His intent was to secretly send a squad of soldiers to assassinate the newborn after the MAGI had departed and also out of the knowledge of the people.  This is nothing new or out of character for Herod; ancient historians tell us that he invited his own son, Aristobolus, to the palace for a meal and had him drown in the royal bath afterward.  To the world, he feigned grief at the awful “accident.”

  1. The Magi rejoiced (v. 9-11).

They were OVERJOYED to see the star again and it led them to the newborn King (vs. 9-10).  Following the directions from Herod , they set out from Jerusalem and headed south. However, after they left the city, the Magi got their direction by following the star.  By its guidance, they found THE PLACE WHERE THE CHILD WAS.  There have been lots of attempts over the years to explain this star.  That’s OK, but clearly this STAR is not something astronomy can explain.  The fact that it led them to the very place WHERE THE CHILD WAS is important.  I cannot imagine any natural heavenly body being that specific. It’s a miracle.  Period.

The fact that they followed a STAR means that they travelled to Bethlehem at night.  This would be advantageous for Herod, who wanted to keep the whole thing as secret as he could.  Maybe he “suggested” it.

The point is found in the words THEY SAW.  These Magi had a personal experience of the Christ.  Likewise, our faith has to be a personal experience, not just intellectual agreement with theological particulars.

Their reaction?  They were OVERJOYED.  Again, the Greek word is more emotional than the English; this could be translated, “they joyed a great joy, very much.”  This is great excitement, not cool satisfaction.  When was the last time you got that excited about anything?

There are three demonstrations of the Magi’s joy in v. 11: they BOWED DOWN…WORSHIPED HIM…PRESENTED HIM WITH GIFTS.  In the shepherds, baby Jesus was recognized and honored by His own people, the Jews.  In the Magi, honor was bestowed by Gentiles.

They worshiped Him and gave Him gifts (v. 11).  Did they worship Him as a king or as God?  It is safe to assume the MAGI did not WORSHIP Jesus in the same way as we do or for the same reasons.  They looked for a KING, not a Messiah.  In this situation, what they’re likely talking about is show respect; paying homage to a king in the way typical to their cultures.

Was there any particular reason for these gifts?  The FRANKINCENSE and MYRRH were luxury items that originated in eastern countries.  These gifts may be another clue that they came from the EAST.  Lots of people have tried to see symbolism in these gifts but there’s simply nothing in the text to support that kind of interpretation.  They are simply expensive gifts – TREASURES – that would be appropriate to give to a king.

  1. The Magi responded to God’s warning (12).

God warned them in a dream.  He had to; these “wise men” did not see through Herod’s subterfuge on their own.  To these men, dreams would carry the same weight of evidence as the portent of the star.  This isn’t reliable evidence that the MAGI found faith in God, for God also spoke to unbelievers in their dreams.  Had they travelled to Bethlehem at night, as we have supposed, then it naturally follows that when the Magi left the Holy Family they retired for the night before going any further.

Risking Herod’s wrath, they went home another way.  We must give the Magi credit for being obedient to the revealed will of God.  Defying Herod and risking his wrath was no small risk to ask them to take.  God took care of these devout Gentiles and sent them on a way that avoided the peril of Jerusalem.  Even if they were “kings” as some suppose, we can’t be sure that Herod wouldn’t have them killed to eliminate witnesses.

The Magi are our latest example of JOY.  When they saw the star the rejoiced and when it lead them to Jesus, they rejoiced again and presented him with gifts appropriate to a king.

People will tell you “You can’t be happy all the time.”  I don’t believe it.  Why?  Because the Bible says, “Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS,” (Philippians 4:4).  And, in case they didn’t really believe him, Paul repeated himself in that verse, “I will say it again: Rejoice!”

God will not command you to do something He knows you cannot do.  SO – what we should more accurately assert is that joy will not come naturally or easily in all circumstances.  Some seasons of life will push us in the opposite direction.  But we can find, if we look with the eyes of faith, reasons for joy even in the most sorrowful trials.

Shut Your “I”

(Please read Philippians 4:10-20.  My remarks are based on the NIV.)

As we all know, even gifts and other forms of support can be a double-edged sword. It can create some awkward and even bad situations.

1 = A common awkward situation (more common here in the Midwest) is when people argue about who is going to pay a bill. Most of the time these are friendly exchanges, but they are an example of how being on the receiving end of a gift is something we try to avoid.

2 = It becomes awkward when gifts are not appreciated or taken for granted. Being careful to be thankful is important tho’ neglected in our culture.

3 = When a gift results in either the giver or the gifted incurring a sense of obligation or entitlement, the relationship can become tense.

– The worst form of response is when support creates a sense of total obligation. This is what underlies someone complaining and saying, “I pay your salary!” This becomes a parody of a “master/slave” kind of relationship. That attitude is wrong & won’t work.

– An “employer/employee” relationship is good, but not ideal, especially when one party or both feels entitlement they don’t deserve and complain when they don’t receive it. Both employers and employees need to remember they share responsibility and the success of their work depends on a mutual respect.

– A “partnership” is the best for all parties. Because it involves a shared responsibility, combines the strengths of group members, and spreads out the joy of accomplishment, this is the best way for supporters and supported to see each other.

When it works is when givers and receivers of support see themselves as Paul saw the Philippians – as partners.

MESSAGE: Godly living requires our total attention be fixed upon God.

CONTEXT: Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is a celebration of ministry. The key word is joy, which is repeated several times in the text. There are a number of parallels between this passage and chapter one, suggesting Paul is “bookending” his letter. The themes are repeated at beginning and end to make sure they’re communicated

1. Paul could have depended on his own strength and/or the support of the Philippians.

Verse 10 = Paul “rejoiced greatly” because the Philippians had RENEWED their CONCERN for Paul. The source of his joy was not the cash or any other material things that were part of their gift. His joy was much more personal – He was made happy by this demonstration of their love for him. The feeling the gift occasioned was more important to him than the gift.

He already knew the Philippian Christians cared for him: YOU HAVE BEEN CONCERNED. It was a matter of timing and circumstances; they had not yet had OPPORTUNITY TO SHOW IT. Paul understood & was patient. That kind of patience flows from the kind of contentment Paul described in v. 11-12. Discontented people are more likely to be impatient people. People who are content have less reason to fly into impatience. This is human nature.

In verses 14-16 Paul commends their sharing as good. Other Macedonian churches had not shared with Paul, but he did not condemn them for it. Their apathy merely highlights the Philippians’ generosity. Paul had a godly love in his heart for this church. In 1:3-8 he wrote about their PARTNERSHIP IN THE GOSPEL. What’s behind this comment is a first century Greco-Roman social structure of friendship and patronage that is too complicated to even highlight here. For our purpose, it’s sufficient to say that Paul did not want there to be any sense of obligation between him and the Philippian church members, that duty and honor had been given and received both ways. Instead, he wanted them to see themselves as his partners in ministry, with the mutual responsibility to love and support each other in all ways; materially, spiritually, and socially with loyalty.

IT WAS GOOD OF YOU TO SHARE IN MY TROUBLES (14) is another very personal statement. While the material support was needed & appreciated, it was the love behind the gift that gave Paul the deepest reason for joy.

Verses 17-18 are Paul’s statement of intent: he wanted to give credit where it was due. He wanted them to know he was aware of their generosity. FULL PAYMENT AND EVEN MORE… AMPLY SUPPLIED both convey a fullness of provision. While there may have been room for more or better, the fact was, all Paul’s needs were met by their generous gift. Thanks to them, Paul did not want.

But more to the point, all credit is due to God, who supplies everything, including our acts of generosity. Paul is directing attention back to God; what all disciples are to do. He described their gift in terms of God’s perspective:

– A FRAGRANT OFFERING: Like incense

– AN ACCEPTABLE SACRIFICE = or the smoke of a burnt offering,

– PLEASING TO GOD = acts of love and worship rise up to God like a pleasing aroma.

This also implies that gifts to a Gospel ministry are, in reality, gifts to God. (Similarly, gifts withheld are an act of disobedience against God.)

  1. Instead, Paul chose to depend on God.

In vs. 11 and 12, Paul made a tremendous claim, that he had learned to be CONTENT. I AM NOT SAYING THIS BECAUSE I AM IN NEED is Paul’s verification of the statement. He is not writing this thank you note as a hint for more support. The principle being demonstrated here is one of the key truths of this passage. Our sense of well-being is based on who God is, not on what’s going on around us. Paul’s joy was not based on the necessity of the gift or its’ timely arrival.

I HAVE LEARNED TO BE CONTENT…I HAVE LEARNED THE SECRET OF BEING CONTENT. The important word here is LEARNED. It’s safe to assume Paul learned this by experience, and from all he experienced. Paul not only attended the “school of hard knocks,” he was it’s president (see 2 Corinthians 11:16-33)!

I KNOW WHAT IT IS TO BE IN NEED, AND I KNOW WHAT IT IS TO HAVE PLENTY…WELL FED OR HUNGRY. Part of Paul’s learning was in prison! At this time, prisoners were completely dependent on outside sources for survival. The jailer did not feed or clothe his prisoners. So the support he received was essential for survival, not just paying ministry expenses. I believe it needs to be added that contentment persists in all kinds of emotional states as well – even though Paul refers only to material states here. He adds the emotional element in Galatians 6:9.

The phrases WHATEVER THE CIRCUMSTANCES…IN EACH AND EVERY SITUATION reveal that true contentment is not based on satisfaction of needs but exists regardless of one’s circumstance. This is similar to peace not being merely the absence of conflict, but a sense of well-being that exists regardless of one’s surroundings.

Various religions and worldly philosophies attempt to achieve contentment by withdrawing from struggles, avoiding desire, detaching from relationships, and/or not engaging with life in its fullness. God’s standard is higher: be fully involved and fully content.

In verse 13 Paul reported that he had been strengthened for all contests of faith. This verse is lifted out of context almost as often as John 3:16. Remember, Paul is writing here about contentment. Paul is saying that the SECRET of contentment is in being focused on Jesus. Philippians 4:13 should never be quoted without quoting verse 12 first.

The other mistake we typically make in this verse is to focus on the word “I.” The purpose of the verse is to focus on HIM. Jesus is the source of our strength, the fountain of contentment that wells up in our lives to the degree that we truly focus on HIM. Contentment with ALL THINGS is possible because of HIM, not because of self. This is the “I” we need to “shut.” This is the truth behind the title of this message. We need to stop putting first person singular in the center of our vision and focus attention on Jesus. Take a look at 2 Corinthians 12:9. The word SUFFICIENT you’ll find there is a similar Greek word to the word “contentment” here.

In verse 19 Paul promised that his God WILL meet ALL the NEEDS of the Philippian Christians (and by extension, all of His people). True sacrifice is never the leftovers, but the first-fruits of our labors. Our human nature rebels against this, because our nature tends to put self 1st. So Paul writes to assure them that acts of sacrificial giving may appear to involve risk, may seem to require deprivation, but the fact is that God’s SUPPLY is so much greater than our gifts, that we are always much better off. This means we can always afford to be generous, we can always courageously err on the side of grace, because God is trustworthy.

Hear and act upon Paul’s reassuring words: MY GOD WILL MEET ALL YOUR NEEDS. This verse is essentially saying the same thing as v. 13. ALL THINGS can be done in the Lord’s STRENGTH because He meets ALL our NEEDS!

The phrase HIS GLORIOUS RICHES directs our attention to heaven. There is no chance of god failing to notice our NEEDS, no chance of Him failing to meet our NEEDS. Relax. God has got this.

In conclusion, verse 20 direct our attention where it should be, noting that OUR GOD is worthy of worship. While you’re relaxed, in a trusting and content state, remember the ONE who got you there. Worship the ONE who made this possible His great grace. Here too, the temptation is to allow our focus to shift to self and congratulate ourselves and think that we’ve “earned” this somehow. DTY 8 ought to remove any lingering trace of that foolishness! Instead, we ought to follow the example of the Apostle Paul who, after reflecting on all these things, paused to praise because God is worthy of worship.

Material things consume our waking hours. We busy ourselves with activity at an unsustainable pace. We must PLAN to PAUSE to PRAISE God.

Now that we have discussed what this passage means, let me tell you what it does NOT mean. to do this, I want to share with you some very apt words by Dr. Lynn Cohick, who wrote a commentary on Philippians:

“Paul does not imply that God promises health and wealth, as though God is a great vending machine that dumps out blessings if we put in a few coins. This (admittedly crass) description of God’s character has been called the ‘health and wealth gospel’ or ‘the prosperity gospel,’ which I believe is one of the greatest dangers to the Christian faith today. This ‘gospel’ holds that God will bless his followers with wealth and health as they give payments of tithes and offerings. Because it promotes that every believer should be healthy and wealthy, if a believer is not, then one of two options is left: either God has failed them, or they have failed God. Yet God never fails to love us, and we can never fall so far that God cannot reach us, (RMS 8:31-39), for his love operates now and extends into eternity.” (The Story of God Bible Commentary, Philippians, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2013, p. 255, emphasis hers.)

I agree.  If we understand that gifting is not supposed to create an obligation but a partnership in HUMAN relationships, then it makes sense to know that it will not create a partnership in our DIVINE relationship either!!