The Bible presents the coming of Christ into this world as the Son of God, and His reception from men as it truly is.
In the first place, we may say that His coming into the world was the fulfillment of the gospel promise, which was first of all revealed by God in paradise, afterwards proclaimed through patriarchs and prophets, portrayed through sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law, and finally fulfilled in His well-beloved Son.
Matthew presents this “becoming” of Christ in this world as the salvation which is out of the Jews, from Abraham to David, from David to the Babylonian captivity, and from the Babylonian captivity to the birth of Christ. Christ came forth from the sawed-off trunk of Jesse. A virgin conceived and bore a Son, and they called His Name JESUS. He is IMMANUEL, God-with-us.
What is strikingly told us by Matthew in his Gospel, the second chapter, is the twofold attitude revealed: the attitude of faith and of unbelief in the Christ of God. This is a noteworthy fact already in Bethlehem, the city of David where Christ is born. On the one hand there were the shepherds, keeping watch over their flock by night. They are filled with joy and proclaim the tidings far and wide that the Savior is born unto them, who is Christ the Lord. On the other hand there is unbelief which allows no room for Him, and upon whom comes the terrible judgment of the slaughter of their sons from two years old and under. When we turn to Jerusalem, the city of the great King, we also find this twofold attitude revealed. There were the aged Simeon and Anna in the temple waiting for the consolation of Israel on the one hand, and on the other we have Jerusalem, which is spiritually Sodom and Egypt, caring less about the Christ in the same measure that they are assured that the Christ has come.
But there is possibly still another contrast. Is there not a great contrast between the heathen wise men who come from afar and the Idumean Herod, that true son of Esau, who feigns interest in this Child, while he conspires to slay Him? What a contrast between these wise men from the east who come with their treasures—gold, frankincense, myrrh, and their humble and believing adoration—and the attitude of evil Herod.
How simple and wondrous is the account of Matthew: “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold them came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, where is he that is born king of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. . . . And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child and Mary his mother, and fell down and worshipped him and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, frankincense and myrrh.” Matt. 2:1-11.
It is of importance to answer, first of all, the question who these wise men were. The Greek text calls themMagi from the east.
We should then notice that the text does not say that there were “three wise men.” This is the traditional view and the popular one. It is not supported in the actual wording of the text. That there were three is merely an inference made from the threefold gifts presented to Christ: gold, frankincense and myrrh. However, as far as the text is concerned it could have been but two men, or ten or twenty. Nor does the text say that these men were kings. The song which goes “We three kings of Orient are” speaks indeed of kings; however, the text itself says nothing concerning the fact that they were kings. Neither of these two presentations rests upon solid exegesis of the text. And, again I must insist that these wise men were not in Jerusalem and in Bethlehem on the night of the nativity of Christ. Such we might gather from the free artistry on certain Christmas cards which we receive in the mail. Fact is, that the text gives reasonable assurance that Jesus was already two years old when the Magi arrived in Bethlehem. For Jesus had already been circumcised on the eighth day, and presented by Mary and Joseph on the fortieth day according to the law of Moses prior to the coming of the Magi. For Christ is taken immediately after the appearance of the Magi to Egypt upon direction of an angel of the Lord in a dream to Joseph.
So much for what we believe the text does not tell us concerning the Magi and their visit to Bethlehem.
It seems quite certain from the text that these men were Magi. They were not simply astronomers, men who studied the stars, but they were evidently astrologers; they were men who were pagans in background, steeped in the study of the meaning of the constellation of the stars and their omens and meaning for history and special events. Fundamentally they were no different than those who are engaged in the dark cult of idolatry, the mysterious crafts of Satan, the so-called “secrets” of the Orient, the Mysteries of Lodgism and all “secret” societies. Was not Abraham called from beyond the river, a Hebrew, from the idolatry of his father’s house?
Furthermore, they came from the east, or, as the Greek text has it, “from the risings of the sun.” They may have come from Babylon, Persia, Media. No definite land is indicated. Evidently, it was not important that we should know this exact detail. I like to think that they came from the midst of the “dispersed Jews,” the eastern Dispersion, from the home of Ezekiel and Daniel who prophesied in that strange country, when the pious did hang their harps upon the willows at the streams of Babylon, and wept! They were men who somehow must have come into contact with the “oracles of God” which spoke of the Christ which was to be born, the Son which was to be given, upon whose shoulders would be the government, whose Name is Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of peace! They must have known about the seventy weeks of the vision of Daniel and concerning the Christ which was to come, “King of the Jews.”
For notice that these were men who had faith—saving faith, justifying faith; they had a faith that worked by love which was shed in their hearts by the Holy Spirit and which is worked by God through the preaching of the Gospel. Their faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For, mark you well, their faith was such that it combined spiritual things with spiritual, it combined the sign of the “star” with the fulfillment of the word of promise concerning the Messiah which was to come. For do these men not appear in Jerusalem with the certain confidence that the King of the Jews “is born,” and that He is born with the intent of becoming the renowned King, promised in the prophetic word? They say to Herod: Where is He that is born King of the Jews; for we have seen His star in the east and are come to worship Him! They are as certain of the fulfillment of prophecy as were the shepherds “that this thing had come to pass,” told them by the angels.
Besides, these Magi believe that this King of the Jews is worthy of worship. He is God. He is the mighty God; He is the true God and eternal life. Furthermore, there is not any doubt in their mind that Jerusalem ought to know about the birth of this long foretold King; that His birth has the birth of this long foretold King; that His birth has peculiar and unique meaning for this city of the great King.
And thus in faith these Magi are earnest seekers.
Small wonder that Matthew writes about the appearance of these men on the streets of Jerusalem, at such a time as Jesus’ birth. “Behold, there appear wise men from the East!” This was truly a unique phenomenon. It was the fulfillment of Scripture itself. For these do not come as captives of war behind the triumphal wagon in the procession of some worldly monarch and conqueror, but they come drawn by the inner compulsion of the love of God and faith wrought by the Holy Spirit. And they ask: Where is he that is born King of the Jews? They seek the Savior. This is not merely an intellectual quest, for they do not rest until they have seen the Lord’s Christ! They came toworship Him. What a longing, a hunger and a holy thirst of the soul. Is not this Christ the hope of Israel and the light of the nations?! All else has failed to satisfy the longing of their heart, the need of their souls. The secrets of heathen cults do not show them God; but here is the Mystery of God, hid in God before endless ages, but now manifest in the fullness of time! He is not a great teacher amongst other teachers; here lies in Bethlehem, in the arms of the blessed among women, the Redeemer, the God of Israel and of the Nations, who Abraham saw from afar, and of whom Baalam prophesied saying: I see Him but not now, behold! a star shall rise in Jacob. Here is the day-spring from on high!
Their hope is not put to shame.
Herod summons the scribes of the people and the priests. They find the passage in Micah 5:2. It is in Bethlehem-Ephratha. Here is born One whose going forth is from eternity. And they depart and wend their way toward Bethlehem. Here the angels had caroled on that wondrous night; here David had kept the sheep of his father, from which sheep-cote he had been fetched by God Himself, the man after God’s heart. Ah, here Ruth the Moabitess had gleaned in Boaz’ barley fields during the time of harvest, and he had become her Goel, here in the land of Immanuel!
See these Magi walk. And suddenly, “behold, the star that they had seen in the east went before them until it stood over the place where the young child was.”
What a joy of heart this afforded these earnest seekers!
After this long journey and the experiencing of the calloused indifference of the custodians of the Oracles, it must have pleased these Magi to no end that God confirms the reading of the prophecy with the appearance of His wondrous “Star,” prepared by Him! Had God’s face not gone before Israel in the desert, the cloud of His presence? Is this star not the symbol of the hope of the new day; is it not the harbinger of the eternal morning in the benighted life of these erstwhile pagans?
As they enter the house they see the Child and Mary His mother. And they open their treasures. There coffers are opened. And what a gift. They were gold, frankincense and myrrh. All of these were gifts which are associated with the altar of dedication in the Temple. Was not the altar overlaid with pure gold, and is frankincense not the symbol of the God-accepted sacrifice of the lips and prayers, and myrrh is that not which we associate with a King Divine?
And they worship!
It was not very long. They soon return to their own country. We never read of them again. They evidently returned to their own country. But now with Simeon they can depart in peace for their eyes have seen the Savior. Many generations desired to see this from Eve till now. But is was withheld from their eyes. And God suffered the heathen to walk in their own ways. But wondrous grace, here is the first fruits of the full harvest of the Gentile world, you and I. Were not my father’s fathers pagans; were we not ingrafter in, and did we not turn from Woden, that dumb idol, to worship of the living God in Christ, God-with-us, Immanuel?
And now we pour out our heartfelt joys before the throne: worthy is the Lamb!
It is the new song which the redeemed of the Lamb have learned to sing by grace.