The Story We Only Think We Know
At Christmas, our gifts should be to God, not to Cousin Earl. The absolute insanity of people rushing from their Thanksgiving family time to stampede through the aisles at Target offends God, has nothing whatsoever to do with Him, yet is being done in His name. If we give gifts at Christmas, if we are using these Magi as our biblical model, those gifts should be to God, not to us, not to our kids. And those gifts should have meaning. They should reveal truth.
The birth of Jesus has significance to us and for us only in
terms of its fulfillment of biblical prophecy. The empirical and
theological evidence available to us suggests God’s intention
was not to create for us an idol in Jesus—a static worship of a
person or events—but a transactional and transformational
relationship through the risen and living Savior. In other
words, so much focus on His birth, commemorating the event and
even celebrating Him, while seemingly appropriate, is not what
God had in mind. Imagine God giving us a shiny new car, and all
we do is commemorate the day of its arrival. We leave it parked
in the driveway as we seal off both ends of the street, marking
the spot as holy ground because that’s where the Cadillac was
delivered. This is the flawed and misguided product of a
mythologized Christianity, a religion embraced as a cultural
artifact as opposed to a relationship with a living Christ. God
did not give us a car so we could let it rust away in our
driveways. He did not intend to start a religion. He gave us the
car that we might get in and drive, that we might go places and
perform acts and build things. More than just being God, Jesus
serves a specific function. In doctrinal terms, Jesus occupies a
specific office or work of the trilogy. His role is
transactional, connecting us to God. A static Christ-idol, Whom
we celebrate and commemorate, limits His functionality and
therefore is an ineffectual embrace of a much greater truth.
Which isn’t to say celebrating Jesus’ birth is a sin, it
certainly is not. But, that, if honoring Jesus is your
intention, you need to go beyond some distant observation of Who
He is. You need to get in and drive.
What we know of the so-called Three Kings or Three Wise Men was that they were not Christians. They were likely Babylonians from Persia, or modern-day Iran. These men came not to embrace the fulfillment of Jewish scripture, not to be transformed by the Savior. They did not remain and follow Him. They gave him traditional tokens such ambassadors routinely presented to kings. They came to observe a phenomena. Celebrating these men—the number of whom the bible does not articulate as three—is wrongheaded. It is part of the Christian myth, the story we think we know because we’ve never done even reasonable research into it.
The term Magi refers to the caste of Zoroastrianism, a pagan religion and philosophy based on the teachings of prophet Zoroaster and formerly among the world's largest religions, serving as the state religion of Iran for many centuries. These three Wise Men are not to be admired, emulated, praised or somehow beatified as saints. Their religious practices and use of astrology caused derivatives of the term Magi to be applied to the occult in general and led to the English term magic. Translated in the King James Version as wise men, the same translation is applied to the wise men led by Daniel of earlier Hebrew Scriptures (Daniel 2:48). The same word is given as sorcerer and sorcery when describing "Elymas the sorcerer" in Acts 13:6–11, and Simon Magus, considered a heretic by the early Church, in Acts 8:9–13. Our romanticization of the Three Wise Men has absolutely no biblical foundation. There is no record of their conversion to Christianity; they came to honor the King of the Jews, reportedly following a star—which is unlikely as stars do not move.
These men presented their gifts to God, not to each other, not to friends and families. They didn’t stop by Walmart or camp outside Best Buy and stampede, pushing and shoving, for the latest flatscreen. The Magi presented the Christ child with three biblically and doctrinally significant gifts: gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense (an incense) as a symbol of priestship, and myrrh (an embalming oil) as a symbol of death (or suffering). At Christmas, our gifts should be to God, not to Cousin Earl. The absolute insanity of people rushing from their Thanksgiving family time to stampede through the aisles at Target offends God, has nothing whatsoever to do with Him, yet is being done in His name. If we give gifts at Christmas, if we are using these Magi as our biblical model, those gifts should be to God, not to us, not to our kids. And those gifts should have meaning. They should reveal truth.
The Magi's Inquiry
The larger purpose of the Magi’s visit was the fulfillment of
prophecy. Jesus came from Nazareth, a village in Galilee where
no prophet had ever come [John 7:52]. The Jewish Messiah was
prophesied, by the prophet Micah, to arise out of Bethlehem
[Micah 5:2: “But thou, Beth-lehem Ephrathah, which art little to
be among the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall one come
forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth
are from of old, from everlasting.”] What was not widely known
was Jesus was actually born in the city of Bethlehem, about five
miles outside of Judea, where His parents had come to
participate in the Jewish census. This is where the Magi found
Him, not in the stable (manger) where He was born, but in a
house [Matthew 2:11]. We may speculate some kind person, seeing
this very young mother and newborn baby housed among horses,
took them in. Herod, a self-absorbed and insecure governor
installed by the Romans, had ruled Jerusalem for thirty-four
years. Arriving in the city, the Magi consulted the king,
inquiring of the location of the Christ-child, the prophesied
king of the Jews, whom the Magi had learned of by studying the
Kevin Cauley, of the Southwest church of Christ, wrote:
While many returned from the Babylonian captivity under Ezra and Nehemiah’s leadership, many also stayed behind. As a result, a large Jewish community developed in the east to the extent that by the time of Jesus’ birth, Babylon was as much a center of Jewish learning as was Jerusalem. The Babylonian Talmud still stands today as an impressive reminder of the extent of Jewish influence in that region. While we cannot speak for certainly on who these individuals were, the likelihood is that they were Jewish.
The Magi’s inquiry, wherein they refer to the Christ child as the “King of The Jews,” provoked Herod to extremes of paranoia, fearing a Jewish uprising around a new, prophetic political leader. He became obsessed with finding and destroying this child, but he had no idea where to look. The Magi, following a star, discovered the Child and paid homage to Him, but they left by another direction in order to not lead Herod to Him. Jesus’ parents subsequently fled to Egypt and hid Jesus from Herod, who subsequently ordered the death of every infant child in Jerusalem in a misguided effort to kill Jesus [Matthew 2]. After this, Jesus’ family returned, quietly, to Nazareth. This, in sum and substance, is the functionality of the Three Kings in our belief system. These men came to observe prophecy come to life, and to perhaps honor a political figure. Functionally, they commemorated and worshipped the Christ-idol without actually embracing Christ, much the same way people do worldwide this Christmas season, pushing and shoving and stresing themselves into heart attacks and strokes. They came to see the newly-delivered Cadillac and gifted it with Armor All and antifreeze. And then they left. There observance was an external act. There is no evidence these men ever followed Jesus or ever became Christians.
Our takeaway from the story of the Magi should be, (a) they studied their bible, rather than simply skating along on whatever they done heard from mama ‘nem, (b) they acted upon that knowledge, putting their faith and belief into action, (d) they presented gifts to God, not to each other, (e) those gifts had purpose, significance and meaning, which honored God more than our thoughtless check-writing to the church. Supporting the church is important, but we must push beyond that, offering God gifts that have true meaning. Finally, (f) the Magi obeyed God. Deliberately misleading Herod could have gotten them all killed, but they obeyed God. They went out of their way—something few of us ever do—to honor and please God.
This model, putting faith into action, is the truer and more productive lesson of Christmas.