This is a slight revision of a sermon given at Thornapple Covenant Church, Grand Rapids, MI, on December 27, 2009. With thanks and apologies to Mark Allan Powell and Dale Allison, neither of whom should be blamed for what ensues.
Everyone loves the story about the star and the three wise men. “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” and all that. All the Christmas pageants with bathrobes and fake beards—those are happy memories, right? And gold, frankincense, and myrrh for baby Jesus turn into Christmas presents for everyone. So what’s to complain about?
Well, how can we get at this . . .
Do you remember 2 Timothy 3:16? “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Or remember what Paul says about certain biblical episodes in 1 Corinthians 10:11? “All these things happened to them by way of example, and they were written down to warn and instruct us.”
Both of these statements are talking about the Old Testament, because that’s what Paul and the other New Testament writers had for scripture. But for us, the New Testament is also scripture, so we do well to apply these same thoughts to the New Testament. And we could find other texts, Old Testament and New Testament, that tell us what the Word of God is and can do. Not a single one of them says, “Thou shalt use these Holy Scriptures to concoct weird science.”
I have heard and read a fair amount of speculation about the star of Bethlehem. It was a supernova, or it was a comet, or somebody has discovered ancient Egyptian or Chinese astronomical records that prove exactly when the star appeared. You could pile up the books and articles in grocery-store magazines and even in serious journals that take that sort of line, and none of it ever did the least bit of “teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” None of it ever did anything to “equip God’s people for every good work.” I suggest to you that the Holy Spirit did not inspire the account of Noah’s flood in order to prompt 21st-century Christians like you and me, with no advanced training in geology, to make ourselves look silly by pretending to know more geology than the geologists; and the Holy Spirit did not inspire the account of the star of Bethlehem in order to prompt 21st-century Christians to make themselves look silly by offering up pseudoastronomical “facts.” The Word of God is not fragile or vulnerable and does not need that kind of “help” from us. More importantly, this kind of speculation seems to show we aren’t paying careful attention to what Scripture is actually trying to do. Scripture sets out to form us in humility, not to lead us into false pride. So if we approach the star with the wrong attitude, the star can lead us astray. Where should the star really lead us?
We’ll get back to that.
But for now: the magi. We often hear them referred to as the "three kings" or the "three wise men." Here again, there are problems.
First of all, if we’re going to read the text carefully, as we should, where does it say there are three of them? It doesn’t say that. It lists three kinds of gifts, but the one-to-one correspondence between gifts and givers is only an assumption. Later tradition even gave names to the three—Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar—and a cathedral in Germany even claims to have their bones. Some later writers saw them as representatives of the three major divisions of humanity: Asians, Africans, and Europeans. All well and good, but it’s not in Matthew—it’s the product of later imagination. But let’s suppose there were three of them. Three what? Three kings? Three wise men?
What about “kings”? On one level I guess it’s somehow impressive and encouraging if three mighty kings from the ancient orient show up to worship baby Jesus, but on another level, it doesn’t do much for me. I am not mighty and powerful! I do not rule over peoples and lands. If you do—great! Follow the three kings and bow down before Jesus! But I cannot identify with these three kings, so it’s hard for them to teach or instruct me. Maybe that’s just my problem. But here’s what’s not just my problem: Matthew doesn’t say they are kings! So why all the songs and paintings about three kings? A New Testament scholar named Mark Allan Powell became interested in that question and read all the early interpretations of this story, and he found something quite interesting. Prior to the fourth century, nobody read this story and saw three kings. It wasn’t until the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine became a Christian, that Christian preachers started talking about the magi as kings. Before that, kings and rulers had persecuted Christians or at best been indifferent to Christ. But now, with Constantine, suddenly the king of the whole Mediterranean world is a Christ-worshiper and wants to take a hand in helping Christians settle their differences and unite, because if the whole empire can unite under one religion that will make it easier for him to govern. When a pagan king, a worshiper of pagan gods with no roots in Jewish scripture or religion and no Christian background, suddenly said, “I saw a sign in the heavens! I’m a Christian now, and I’ll help you sort out what Christians should believe and how they should relate to each other,” there were Christian teachers ready and willing to open their New Testament and say, “Whoa, look here! Right at the beginning of the gospel we find the example of three pagan kings who saw a sign in the heavens and came to worship Jesus! The only hitch is that Matthew doesn’t say anything about three kings.”
Matthew does mention two kings, though! One is Herod the King. This Herod is a client king, propped up by the Romans as king of the Jews. For convenience, he poses as a Jew, but he’s not really a Jew, and his subjects know it: he’s Idumean, a descendant not of Jacob, much less Judah and David, but of Esau. So in terms of the classical Israelite theology of kingship, he is not a legitimate king, and he knows it. So he’s insecure. He’s also brutal and immoral. When he hears of the birth of a “king of the Jews” in the lineage of David, he thinks only one thing: Must kill!
Now let’s try a little word-association game. I’ll say a word, and you say the first thing that pops into your head. OK? Sounds easy? But there are two complications. The first is that you aren’t you. You have to pretend you’re Matthew’s first readers. That is, you are Greek-speaking Jewish and Gentile Jesus-followers living in Syrian Antioch in about AD 85. That’s our best guess as to where this gospel was written and first read. The second complication: the word I am going to say is not in English; it’s in Greek. The word is basileus. I’ll help you out a little: this word basileus is the normal Greek word for “king,” and it’s what Matthew calls Herod. But it’s also the normal Greek word for the the Roman emperor.
Now we’re ready to play. I say: basileus. Without pausing to think, without batting an eye, you say back: Domitianos. Domitian, the current emperor, the persecutor who has or soon will exile the presbyter John the island of Patmos. And you think: Titus, Domitian’s older brother, who commanded the armies that entered Jerusalem and leveled it to the ground. And you think: Nero, the vicious madman under whose regime so many Christians were lit up like torches at Rome, whose agents crucified Peter and beheaded Paul. That’s what will pop into the heads of Matthew’s readers when he says basileus. He is saying: you call that a king? Domitian? That’s not a king. That’s like the insecure pseudo-king Herod, quaking in his boots at Jerusalem, and soon to be swept off the stage of history.
Thus it ever was and ever shall be with wicked rulers, whether called king or emperor or premier or president or chancellor or some other title; whether called Pharaoh or Herod or Nero or Titus or Domitian. Those who would grind God’s children under their heel may prevail for a season and inflict great harm, but they will in the end find themselves fatally outmatched by the overruling providence of the one who wills his people’s vindication and liberation and salvation. I believe the Spirit of God wishes the people of God in situations of oppression and persecution in our own day to draw similar comfort and assurance from scripture. Their exile is grim, but their liberator is born, and nothing can stop him. And I believe the Spirit of God wishes us who are not oppressed and persecuted to take care that we do not find ourselves sitting on the throne of Herod.
Three kings? No. Matthew gives us a story of two kings, or rather of the anti-king and of the true king. The one true king, emperor, lord, leader of Judeans, Galileans, and gentiles, is the son of David, and he is nothing like the earthly tyrants. He is above all kingdoms, above all powers. He deserves our worship, our precious gifts, our all.
So much for “kings.” What about “wise men”? Some English translations use this wording. But Matthew does not. The same scholar who traced the history of the “three kings” idea also traced the history of the “wise men.” The magi become “wise men” in the writings of Renaissance and Enlightenment scholars who wanted to argue that secular learning is valuable. They wanted to study sciences like astronomy without interference from bishops and theologians. So they presented the magi as ancient near eastern scientists, scholars who read the book of nature and find that it points to Christ. “Oh, look!" they say, “Right here at the beginning of the gospel we find secular higher education accepted and endorsed!”
Some of these Enlightenment scholars were committed to following Christ; others, not so much. Either way it might be easy for those of us who believe that all truth is God’s truth to endorse their aims. To the wise, the scholars, the scientists, philosophers, and intellectuals in our midst or beyond our walls, we certainly want to say: Come with the magi to Christ, kneel down, offer your precious gifts to him.
But is that what Matthew meant? Is it what his first readers and hearers understood him to be saying?
Time for another word-association game! Again it’s a Greek word: magos. In English we use the Latin forms: singular magus, plural magi. When Matthew’s Jewish and Gentile Jesus-followers in late-first-century Syrian Antioch hear this word, what pops into their head? This is more difficult than the basileus. It’s ambiguous. In the Greco-Roman world of their day, many, perhaps most, people did believe that the stars either controlled events on earth or at least could predict them. It was normal for the biography of a great person to begin with signs in the stars or other supernatural omens. People who believed in such things might treat experts like magi with respect. On the other hand, some Greco-Roman writers were just as dismissive of astrology and other forms of exotic superstition as a modern scientist might be. So while it’s hard to say what gentiles among Matthew’s readers would have thought when he said magi, at any rate they would not have thought the magi represented the state of the art in secular learning.
But it it’s a little easier to tell what magi would have suggested to Jews because we have both Jewish scriptures and commentary from that age. The Greek Old Testament uses the word magos for the people that Nebuchadnezzar called in to interpret his dream. They were unable to interpret it, and Daniel had to supply the true interpretation, which God revealed to him. We know that Jewish commentary on the story of Moses used this word in connection with Pharaoh’s magicians, who tried to discredit Moses and Aaron by duplicating their miracles. Their partial successes only make them look foolish. We know that when Acts 13 refers to Elymas as a magos, that’s not a good thing. In the ancient Jewish and Christian tradition in general, the magical arts, including astrology, are in the same boat with the pagan gods. Definitely it is forbidden to pursue them. And most of the time they are seen as ridiculous. In short, it’s not at all clear that to Matthew’s readers a magus is a “wise man.” Maybe he’s a fool.
Here, then, we come closer to something useful for our instruction if we do not regard ourselves and being powerful and learned and wise. After all, a few chapters later, Matthew himself tells us that Jesus prayed to the father: “I thank you that you have not revealed these things to the wise.” That would be a strange thing for Matthew to report if he knew that the very first people to whom God revealed the identity of the Christ were three wise men! No, Matthew is on the same page as the apostle Paul, who had earlier written to the Corinthians that there were not many wise, not many powerful among them, because God has chosen the foolish and weak things of the world to confound the wisdom of the wise.
We can throw in at this point that even if the magi are fools, there are bona fide wise men in this story: scholars steeped in the scriptures of Israel. They have studied every line and remember every detail. When Herod asks them where the Messiah is to be born, they do not hesitate: he is to be born in Bethlehem. Herod does not despise the scholars, and neither do the magi. They both learn from them. But do you see the strange thing about these wise men, these scribes? They know where the Christ is to be born, but they don’t care! The magi are intent on finding the Christ child so that they can worship him, and Herod is intent on finding the Christ child so that he can kill him, but the scribes don’t want to find him at all. They simply answer the question and go back to their books. In Matthew’s view, they are the wise, who have studied much and know many wonderful things, but who have not received the revelation of the one thing most worth knowing. This paradox stands as a challenge and a warning to all who pursue biblical and theological study. Book learning is necessary—but not sufficient.
So where are we? We have completely mucked up our sermon text! The three kings are not kings, and Herod, who is a king, is an enemy. The three wise men are not wise, and the priests and scribes, who are wise, are not interested. We seem to be blundering about in darkness! We need a star to shed some light!
Once more we look back to the magi. If Matthew’s first audience would not have seen them as kings or wise, what would they have thought of them? They would have picked up parallels with another story they knew. Just as surely as a gong sounds when you hit it with a mallet, this other story will ring in their ears when Matthew evokes it with his king and magoi and star, and it will tell them what Matthew’s story means. This other story featured another righteous man named Joseph, a dreamer of dreams and interpreter of dreams. It had a powerful king, and descendants of this king who became persecutors and oppressors of the people of God. It had a baby who was born to save God’s people and lead them out of bondage. It told how this baby escaped the wicked king’s plot to kill all Hebrew babies. This is of course the story of Moses.
Matthew’s readers would also recall that when Moses had led the people of Israel out of Egypt, they encountered another wicked king: Balak, king of Moab. Like Herod, Balak feared for his own position of power. There was something different and frightening about this migrating horde, so he sent to the east for a pagan soothsayer, one who could read the omens and the portents. Matthew’s readers might call a person like this a magos. That’s exactly what a Greek-speaking Jewish commentator of their day named Philo called him. This magos, named Bil’am, is a formidable hired gun. He needs no horses or spears. He has the power of utterance, he is in league with gods and demons, and if he utters his curse, the weak and vulnerable people of Israel will wither and die and be no more a threat. That’s what Balak hopes!
But Matthew’s readers know that wicked King Balak’s summons to Bil’am was intercepted by a higher power, and that the God of Israel sternly instructed this soothsayer to say nothing against his people. He sent a mighty angelic warrior to block his path, but the so-called seer couldn’t even see the angel, although his donkey could. Philo says he was stupider than a donkey! When the hired wizard reaches the scene, King Balak stands him up three times and commands him curse the Israelites, and three times the God of Israel pours words of blessing through him instead. The mighty sorcerer is reduced to a holy fool! Yet a fourth time King Balak commands Bil’am to curse, and this fourth time Bil’am doesn’t even try. He knows what the Lord God wants. He yields and falls flat, and the word of God enters him; his mouth opens, and words spill out:
[Voice of James Earl Jones on crack:]
Ne’um Bila’am bino Beor . . .
[Better switch to English, but keep the high drama going:]
Utterance of Bil’am the son of Beor,
Utterance of the man of the open eye
Utterance of the hearer of divine sayings
who knows the knowledge of the Most High,
who sees a vision from Shaddai.
I lie flat on the ground, but my eyes are uncovered!
I see it! —but not now.
I behold it! —but not soon.
I see—a star! And it is coming forth from Jacob.
I see a scepter! And it is coming from Israel.
And one from Jacob rules.
When Matthew’s first audience hears of magi from the east who follow a star to the Christ child, they understand. This is the star that Bil’am saw. For Bil’am it was “not now”—but Matthew’s readers know it has come. For Bil’am it was “not soon”—but Matthew’s readers know it is already! They will understand that these magi did not find out the truth by their own powers of observation any more than Bil’am did. They will not think: look! astrology works! No. They will think, with Jesus: Thank you, Father, that you have not revealed yourself to the wise! God broke into their world and showed them something they were not expecting. God graciously used their language—the broken signage of astrological superstition—to point them to a truth beyond all magic. This star that they followed was not a flaming ball of gases lightyears away; it was a flaming messenger of the Most High aimed precisely at them. No astronomical star can travel first northwest out of Mesopotamia, then southwest to Jerusalem, then disappear, then reappear heading south to Bethlehem, then stop and stand directly over a little house. The ancients knew that as well as we do! What the magi see as a “star” behaves for all the world like an angel, a supernatural messenger from the most high. (The gospels scholar Dale Allison has pointed this out and traced the early history of this interpretation.) They do not chart its course with disinterested scientific precision; they are captivated by it and led to a destination they never would have set for themselves. Whatever power and wisdom and learning and skill they may have in their own pagan sphere of learning dissipates as bleak darkness in the light of the shining of this star. It is all grace, all gift. They are gentiles chosen by God and made witnesses of the coming of the Jewish messiah who will be a light to the nations. The star in the sky, it turns out, is only a weak pointer to the true star that is a human child, the child who will wield the only scepter that will never rust and crumble. When the magi kneel before the Christ child, we do not see proud human power (kings!) and wisdom (wise men!) kneeling before a helpless baby so much as we see the exhausted and tattered but called, redeemed, and blessed remnants of all human weakness and foolishness bowing down to adore the one who is, as Paul tells us, the wisdom of God and the power of God. When they offer their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they are giving all they have as a symbolic giving of themselves.
The star still shines. Do not look for this star in astronomy textbooks or ancient historical chronicles. Look for it in the sky of your own darkest night. This is the first lesson of the magi: they were attentive, they were hoping for something beyond themselves. When a transcendent light glimmered in the distance, they dropped everything and pursued it. Lesson 1: Be ready to follow!
Lesson 2 from the magi: The light from the star was not enough. They had to seek help from those learned in the scriptures. They were able to learn something essential from the scribes even though the scribes themselves remained spiritually untaught. God can use diverse means to guide, but the scriptures remain indispensable. Lesson 2: Be ready to seek and accept instruction!
Lesson 3 from the magi: When the star stops above one particular house in a little Judean town, the magi rejoice. Matthew says not just echaresan, “they rejoiced,” but echaresan charan, “they rejoiced a rejoicing”—an emphatic construction; but he adds another word: echaresan charan megalen, “they rejoiced a great rejoicing”; but that still doesn’t cover it, so he adds yet one more word: echaresan charan megalen sphodra, “they rejoiced a great rejoicing very much indeed!” They did not think that the journey itself was everything. They knew that the destination was everything. They were not offended or disappointed when the star stopped over one particular and no doubt unimpressive house in one little Judean village. Lesson 3: Be prepared for the star that leads you to stop in a particular place, and free your heart to rejoice greatly when it does.
Lesson 4 from the magi: When they went in and saw the child, they bowed down to worship. It does no good to find the Christ the power and wisdom of God unless you are ready to bow down and give yourself in worship. The giving of the gifts is an external expression and sign of this inward offering of the self to God in thanksgiving and praise. Lesson 4: the whole point of the journey is to give yourself unreservedly to the one to whom you owe everything. The magi didn’t say, “How fascinating!” or “Aw, how cute!” They fell down and worshiped, and their worship meant both the end and the fulfillment of everything they had tried to accomplish through their own arts and skills.
May God shine his light on us, leading us to our savior, and give us grace to follow and learn, rejoice, and worship.