The Wise Men: The Gospel is Better Than Religion

Series: Preacher: Date: December 23, 2018 Scripture Reference: Matthew 2:1-12

1 – After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 

2 – and asked, “Where is the One Who has been born King of the Jews? We saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.”

3 – When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 

4 – When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.

5 – “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

6 – “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a Ruler Who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

7 – Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 

8 – He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child. As soon as you find Him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship Him.”

9 – After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the Child was. 

10 – When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 

11 – On coming to the house, they saw the Child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

12 – And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

One of my favorite things in life—is to hear a fellow Christian tell how they met Jesus.

A couple weeks back Lydie Kanda told me how she met our Lord and she’s given me permission to share it with you this morning. Lydie says:

I am from Congo, Africa. I was born in a Christian home. My father was a Christian, God-fearing man and my mother is a virtuous Christian woman of God.  They taught the Word of God to me and my three brothers and my six sisters since our childhood.  We grew up praying at home and going to church almost everyday day of the week. My parents were both deacons and had many jobs in the church.

My childhood was pretty normal. My dad taught me that the most important values were spiritual, moral and intellectual. So, that is where my life activities were mostly focused on.

I accepted Jesus as my Savior while in the youth group from church when I was in high school. I went to a Christian college.

But, the turning point in my spiritual life happened one day when I was forcibly taken from college by a group of soldiers. This group of armed soldiers attacked us during class. I was taken away with other students until I was rescued by the college’s dean who was a pastor. I spent the night outside and separated from my family. It was a scary night. The sky was red because of the gunshots and many people lost their lives. I prayed all night and asked God to protect and reunite me with my family.

Thanks to the dean, the next day I went safely home, but I was traumatized and couldn’t go outside for a month. I prayed with my grandmother and she helped me heal through prayers and taught me lots of hymns. After that I went back to school and was also called to teach in Sunday school. In this way I had the opportunity to teach the children of same soldiers who had taken me. This is how I had a personal experience with God and was able to grow my faith and be used by God to bless others.

After college, I came to America and met my husband Coco. God blessed us with our three children. And we are teaching them the same values we received from our parents.”

Isn’t that powerful—moving!?

I’d love to hear your story—your testimony of how, like Lydie, you met Jesus. And I would remind you that the thing that makes our testimonies—our faith stories—so powerful is the fact that they are not about our RELIGION—but rather our RELATIONSHIP with God—how that relationship began—how we met and decided to follow Jesus.

This morning we are studying a chapter of the Christmas Story that tells how some men from the East met our Lord. Let’s begin our study of their “faith story” by taking A CLOSE LOOK at these wise men. Now, you probably noted that our text from Matthew’s gospel gives us almost no details about them.

On top of that, most popular beliefs about these guys are misleading. I mean—it is doubtful that they were anything like the camel-riding travelers we usually see portrayed on Christmas cards and in Christmas pageants. In fact, they probably rode Arabian stallions, not camels. Even the old Christmas Carol, We Three Kings of Orient Are, is wrong on several counts.

  • First of all, nothing in the Bible says that these men were kings.
  • And, we have no evidence that there were THREE of them, other than the scriptural record that they brought three GIFTS to our Lord.

As a matter of fact, some traditions say there were as many as a DOZEN wise men.

  • The Bible also says nothing about them being from the Orient.

Most of the information we can glean from history infers that they came from the land of the Medes and the Persians, which is known today as Iran.

I remember touring the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem a few years ago. It’s built above the cave where Jesus was born—and our guide told us that one reason the invading Persians did not destroy this church in 614 A.D, as they did all other churches—was because they saw the golden mosaic over the doorway depicting the wise men in Persian head dress. This confirms what I said—that the wise men who traveled to Bethlehem that night probably came from that part of the world.

Here’s something else—these Persian seekers—were indeed wise—or at least knowledgeable, because they were the SCHOLARS of their time. Their teachings became known as the law of the Medes and the Persians—and both Magi and their laws are referred to in the Old Testament books of Esther and Daniel. (Esther 1:19, Daniel 6:8) You may remember from your study of these two books that these laws of the magi were seen in Persia as the highest unalterable legal code. That’s why Daniel was stuck in the Lions den even though the king didn’t want to put him there. It’s why Xerxes couldn’t undo the law to exterminate the Jews that Haman had tricked him into signing.

By the way, our word “MAGISTRATE” comes from the word “magi” —which means we have our own Magi here at Redland in the form of our Magistrate Judge—CC DAY!

But—to summarize, these were learned men indeed: scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, doctors, as well as the legal authorities in their land.  And, because of their great knowledge, these magi rose to places of prominence in the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, and Greek empires. They acted as advisors to kings, interpreting dreams and things like that.

Now—in the year of Jesus’ birth the Magi were still very powerful in the same basic territory which by then was known as the Parthian empire.  And we should note one other thing. One of the Magi’s main duties was choosing kings in Parthia — which is why their arrival in Jerusalem would have upset King Herod. He knew these men were king-makers and here they were going around town asking for the One who had been born King of the Jews! I mean, that was HIS job title—given to him by Caesar himself.

Imagine the scene. These men arrived in Jerusalem no doubt with a great deal of pomp all decked out in their magi outfits, riding Arabian horses, accompanied with a small army for their protection. There would have been countless pack animals and servants—wagons full of all the equipment and food needed for a long journey. They would have made a lot of racket as they entered the city. Think of a first century version of “Rolling Thunder” and you get the idea—EVERYONE noticed them arrive.

One more thing we must remember is that King Herod’s own small army was off on duty with the Roman census. So—this was no time for a well-armed band of foreign king-makers to show up. I’m sure their arrival made him feel threatened on numerous levels.

Another point to consider is the fact that Herod was in a difficult spot geographically. You see, his kingdom formed a very small buffer between the rival Roman and Parthian empires. It had already been a battleground in several wars between these two world powers. So, he no doubt saw the magi as a serious threat to the stability of his realm.

All this helps us understand what Matthew 2:3 means when it says that he was troubled at their arrival. This word literally means shaken or agitated like the heavy-duty cycle of a washing machine. In other words, to quote a popular Elvis lyric, Herod was all shook up!

Now—WHEN did they arrive in Bethlehem? Well, it wasn’t the night of Jesus’ birth. And I say that for a couple reasons. First, Matthew says when they got there they saw “the young child” not “the newborn babe.” And, our text says that Mary and Joseph were in a house—not a stable or cave—which tells us they had decided to settle in Bethlehem—at least temporarily.

Many think the Magi arrived as much as two years after Jesus’ birth—because when Herod issued his decree based on when the wise men told him they had seen the star, he ordered all infants 2 years old and younger to be killed. Another tradition says they arrived on the sixth day of January—12 days after the birth of Jesus—which is why the ancient church celebrated the 12 Days of Christmas.

In any case, these men were experts in religion—but their journey as seekers—helped them to discover that the Gospel According to Christmas is not just another religion. No—the good news of Christmas says that God can be met—known personally—just as Adam and Eve knew Him.

Because of Jesus’ coming, we can get back what mankind lost when Adam and Eve sinned—a personal, day-by-day relationship with our Creator.Okay—with all that in mind, what does the experience of these Magi’s teach us about this relationship with God that all people want?

(1) First, it tells us that God REVEALS Himself to people who SEEK Him.

Now, there are many reasons that these men may have journeyed to pay homage to God’s newborn Son.

  • They may have actually started seeking Him because of political motivations. Perhaps they thought this new King would help the Parthians defeat Rome. Maybe they were even looking for a new king to unify the two empires.
  • They may have just been curious about the long-prophesied Jewish Messiah they had studied—perhaps in the writings of another “wise man” who had lived in that part of the world: Daniel.

But I for one think they set out on this huge road trip because they were genuinely seeking God. I believe these scholars realized how empty the world’s knowledge is—how pointless the world’s religions are—and so with hungry souls they set out to meet the One true God.  And just as God promises, they found Him—met Him—as a result of their sincere seeking. When they did, Matthew tells us they fell down and worshiped Him—because in His grace God opened the eyes of these pagan men so they could see that Jesus was God in human form.  I take it from their response that they were converted and thus became the earliest Gentile believers in Christ. Scripture is silent on this—but tradition says that Thomas, the doubting disciple, spent his life after Jesus’ ascension as a missionary in that part of the world—and that in his travels he met the original magi and baptized them.  I don’t know about that, but I do know that God warned them about Herod’s machinations in a dream and the Bible says they departed to their country ANOTHER WAY.

Now, this phrase can have a double meaning.  It could mean, they went back a different way—or route—AND it could ALSO mean THEY went back a different way.  In other words, they left as followers of another way in the spiritual sense—THE WAY—they were changed men after they met Jesus. They realized that He was the ONLY way to satisfy the spiritual hunger—the longing we all have to know God. I don’t know this for sure—but I like to think BOTH meanings applied to the magi.

Here’s something I want you to hear.

God WANTS us to seek Him.  He wants us to MEET Him—come to know Him. Like the Father of the Prodigal Son He waits for us to return to Him. I say this because He uses stars—and dreams—and nature—all kinds of things to catch people’s attention—and draw them to Him.

He even wants to use you and me in this way. He wants those of us who, like the Wise Men have met Jesus and follow Him to live in such a way that we catch people’s attention and point them to God. In a sense God wants each of us to be a “STAR OF BETHLEHEM.” Do you remember how Paul puts it in Philippians 2:14–15: “Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation—in which you shine like stars in the universe.”

See, God intends for you to be a “star of Bethlehem” in our crooked and depraved generation. He wants our light to catch people’s attention in this dark and fallen world. Let’s do a little self-examination.  Ask yourself this question: “How brightly am I shining these days? Do I catch people’s attention?  Or do I just meld into the background?”

I read this week about a new kind of suit. It’s called an “opposuit.”  Here’s how one vendor describes them: “Some will say we make crazy suits — others might say we make funny suits.

We, however, like to say we make different suits. Suits that are the exact opposite of boring business suits. Our products represent people who don’t take themselves too seriously, but still want to maintain a sense of style.”

Here’s a few examples of an “opposuit.” They definitely stand out don’t they!  But what is the purpose of their doing that? What is the message they convey by wearing an opposuit? “I’m special. I’m different. I have no taste. I don’t care if I look like a fool.”

Well—we are to stand out—but in in a way that proclaims the message that God can be known. Here’s something else—inside their hearts ALL people want to KNOW God. They want to meet Him. This is WHY they read their horoscopes and watch talk shows and buy self-help books. This is why they try meditation.

A family member told me this week a distant relative sent this message to her kids: “The Heart-Warmer tool opens your heart for more effective interaction with others.

Step 1: As you breathe, pretend to breathe in and out through your heart.

Step 2: Now, imagine sending a feeling of warmth and appreciation to a person, pet or something you sincerely care about. Do this until you truly feel the care.

This tool awakens heart feelings which are required for genuine connections.”

The “connection” people like this are seeking is a connection with God. They’re looking everywhere—in all the wrong places.  What people need is US—we’re to be this light shining in the dark place, so that when people follow us they find Christ.  Here’s a second thing we can learn about this aspect of the Gospel According to Christmas from the Wise Men.

(2) God is HEARD by those who LISTEN.

Our God—the one TRUE God—speaks—communicates—He always has. Adam and Eve “heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” God spoke to Noah and Abram and Jacob. God spoke to Moses through a bush that wouldn’t stop burning.

God spoke to Balaam through his donkey. God communicated with Joshua and Gideon and Samuel. In the New Testament it was Zechariah and Mary and Joseph. God spoke with the Magi through the star and then through a dream. As someone has put it,  “Through all history, God has communicated, and He still is at it today. The issue isn’t whether or not God is speaking; it’s whether we will have ears to hear what He says.”

And—here’s something interesting. Many times the people least in possession of the truth—are the best listeners. They are the ones who are most passionate to hear—and then obey. I mean, the religious leaders who worked for Herod knew where the Christ child was to be born. They didn’t even have to go and search their books to answer King Herod’s question. It was common knowledge for them. Jesus would be born in Bethlehem. But they weren’t “listening” were they?

They had become so attuned to RELIGION that they had become DEAF to God. They are the people Jesus described in Matthew 13:13 when He said, “seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” But the Magi—these pagan men—were so hungry to hear from God—that they DID. In fact, they were so EXCITED to near the end of their journey—that they entered Jerusalem with kind of a childlike excitement and naivety. They’re asking everyone, “Hey, where’s the King that was to be born? We want to see Him and worship Him. Do you know where He is?” They’re so excited—they’re kind of giddy. They just assume the Jewish people—the people whose prophets foretold this birth are as interested as finding the newborn King as they are. They think the people who have cherished the hope of the Messiah for centuries are actually going to be excited that this birth has finally happened. But they entered a city of people who were deaf to the voice of God.

You know—many times something happens in the hearts of people who know the truth. If they are not careful—they become arrogant and complacent. They stop seeking. They lose their eagerness. I mean, the Magi—they are steeped in paganism but they have a hunch and they are passionate to follow it through. They spent a fortune—and many months doing so. The religious leaders were steeped in truth but they did nothing about it. My point is this—God doesn’t so much reward the knowledge in our heads as He does the hunger in our hearts. God wants those who have come to faith in Him—those who KNOW Him—to continue on in the journey—to walk through life LISTENING to Him—faithfully obeying Him—passionately serving Him.

Let me ask—why are you reading the Bible? Why do you come to worship? Why do you come to beautiful concerts like we enjoyed last Sunday night? If we do that just to attain knowledge—but not to deepen our relationship with God—we have missed the point entirely.

Speaking of missing the point—these same religious leaders who worked for Herod may still have been alive when Jesus began His ministry.  Sure, they would have been 30 years older—but many of them could still have been alive. That’s very possible. Do you remember what Jesus said to those religious leaders 30 years later?

“You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me to have life.” (John 5:39–40).

Bible knowledge is fantastic, but if it isn’t getting you closer to Jesus—if it isn’t making you more attuned to His still, small voice—if it’s JUST A RELIGION—and religion without relationship is a waste. God speaks all the time—but He is only heard by those who listen.

Here’s a third lesson we can get from our study of the Magi.

(3) God LEADS those who FOLLOW.

The star led the wise men to Jesus—right to the house where His family was living. Those wise men didn’t have special glasses to enable them to see the star. It was right there for anyone to see. Think about that. It would be like only one house in an entire village had a star shining down on it—and no one but those pagans had the wisdom to follow it and investigate. Only they were willing to follow. Well, if we are willing to let God lead us through our days HE will.  He will guide every step—counsel you for every decision—He will lead you to abundance in life—but we miss out on all that if we are unwilling to follow.

I’m sure you’ll all agree that Herod was an evil man.  He was a GREAT builder—but an EVIL man. I mean, he was so worried about losing his power that he ended up murdering most of the members of that family, including:

  • his wife Mariamme,
  • their two sons,
  • his young brother-in-law,
  • his mother-in-law, and
  • Mariamme’s aged grandfather.

To show you how horrible his reputation was, when Herod had his two sons strangled, Caesar Augustus commented that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son, since Jews do not eat pork.

In his will, Herod left orders that when he died hundreds of wealthy family members were to be killed to insure that there would be weeping at his death. I mean, he was a bad guy—the kind of guy who would have all the babies in Bethlehem killed in order to eliminate a future rival. He was NOT going to share his throne with anyone.

But you know, we all have a little Herod in us. I mean, we’re not out to strangle our kids or murder babies—but we don’t like anyone other than us sitting on the throne of our life. We don’t want to follow—we want to lead. We want to live the way WE want to live—not the way God tells us to live. And I’m not being too extreme here. Jesus said, “No man can serve two masters.” And we can’t. But we try to don’t we? We tell God, “You can lead and I will follow as long as you lead me where I want to go.”

I’m saddened to think of examples of this. There are Christians who say, “Listen God, when it comes to my sexual behavior I’m leading here—not You.” Others think, “I know better how to handle my money than God does. There are things I want—and tithing will keep me from having them so—I’m not going there. I’m not going to follow God when it comes to how I handle my money.” Too many think, “I know Jesus said His kingdom is not of this world—but I’ve got to fix this world first. Instead of winning souls—I’m going to focus on winning votes. I’m following the flag—not the cross. The ends justify the means—we have to win this culture war!” These are examples of people who AREN’T following God. He’s not on the throne of their life.

Listen God only leads those who follow. The ones who acknowledge Him as Lord—they are the ones who enjoy the relationship with Him that we all long for. They are the ones who MEET God day in and day out. They are the ones who change the world.

So for all his depravity and malice and bitterness and paranoia—Herod got one thing right. He understood that you can’t be king—AND have Jesus as King. That doesn’t work. It has to be one or the other.

And here’s something else Herod got right. Do you remember what he told the Magi? It was actually great advice. He said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find Him, report, that I might go and worship as well.”

Now—of course he was lying.  He was not going to worship; sure he would go to where Jesus was—but with a dagger hidden in his cloak.  But—if you take the dagger out of the equation—it was good advice—and it still is. Go make a careful search for Christ.  If you’re a long-time worship and Bible Study attender but you’ve lost your passion for God—go and make a careful search. If you’re confused about spirituality and are following the world’s wisdom go and make a careful search. Everyone GO—SEEK GOD—if you do—you will find Him. You’ll find Him in Jesus Who was born that night of nights. When you do—tell others so they can worship Him too.


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