Dec 22, 2019
The Christmas Story
Wise Men & Innocents
By Louie Marsh 12-29-2019
Christ is born, the shepherds have returned to their flocks and Joseph and Mary have moved into a home in Bethlehem. All seems well yet the final act of the Christmas story remains to be played out.
It’s was late at night on the night when Christ was born and in the nation of Persia an old man was doing what he almost always did, watching the sky. He was part of an ancient order known as the Magi, the word from which our word magician comes. They were of noble birth, educated, wealthy, and influential. They were philosophers, the counselors of rulers, learned in all the wisdom of the ancient East. The magi were not Jews but they were upright men of integrity.
1) God works in the LEAST EXPECTED ways.
… behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?
The Old Testament prophet Daniel was not only a part of the Magi, but actually the head of it and called the Rab-Mag.
48 Then the king gave Daniel high honors and many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon. Daniel 2:48 (ESV)
3 Then all the officials of the king of Babylon came and sat in the middle gate: Nergal-sar-ezer of Samgar, Nebu-sar-sekim the Rab-saris, Nergal-sar-ezer the Rab-mag... Jeremiah 39:3 (ESV)
So over the centuries the Magi studied many religions including Judaism. In particular, the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament must have claimed their attention, and among these they found the words of Balaam: “A Star shall come out of Jacob; a Scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17). They certainly were acquainted with the prophecy of Micah: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel” (Micah 5:2).
Something new was in the sky that night. We don’t know exactly what the star of Bethlehem was, but the Magi knew it was real. Tradition has named these men Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior although we have no idea what their real names were or how many of them there actually were.
They knew from their study of Scripture that Balaam wasn’t a Jew either and probably made that prophecy on the Mountains of Moab, outside of Israel. Could it be that this savior was for the entire world and not just the Jews? If so then they simply must go to see him.
1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Matthew 2:1-2 (ESV)
And so, after many days of preparation, these middle eastern potentates set off for Israel. It probably took them at least two months and perhaps longer to make the journey. At the border of the Roman Empire they would have had to receive permission to continue. The Romans almost certainly would have given them a cavalry escort to protect these noble men. So when they finally arrived in Jerusalem their huge caravan set the whole town talking.
2) In this world I must always be prepared to face EVIL.
3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” Matthew 2:3-6 (ESV)
They were quickly escorted to see Herod.
Herod was not a Jew either but had been appointed by Caesar to rule over a part of Israel. He had been ruling for around 34 years by this time. He had always been a cruel tyrant but now he was even worse as he suffered through his final illness. His illness—sometimes named "Herod's Evil"—was excruciating. Based on Josephus' descriptions, one medical expert has diagnosed Herod's cause of death as chronic kidney disease complicated by Fournier's gangrene. Similar symptoms accompanied the death of his grandson Agrippa I in 44 AD. Herod’s pain was so bad that he attempted to stab himself to death but was stopped by a cousin.
Josephus says that Herod murdered a vast number of people, and was so cruel to those he didn't kill that the living considered the dead to be fortunate. This included his family. Mariamne (Mari-AM-NEE) Herod’s favorite wife, was executed when he was convinced by his sister she was planning to poison him. Later he had two of her sons, Alexander and Aristobulus put on trial for treason before Augustus Caesar, who allowed Herod to convene a court. They were found them guilty, and put to death by strangulation.
Thus the truth behind the emperor Augustus’ oft repeated quip, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than son.”
7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. Matthew 2:7-9 (ESV)
After a long discussion Herod and his advisors told the Magi to visit this new king and be sure to come back and report on their visit as he wished to see him at well. The paranoid ruler knew as he spoke he had other plans for this baby king if he really was alive.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. Matthew 2:10-11 (ESV)
The Magi arrived in Bethlehem and found the house were Mary and Joseph were with their baby son. They bowed and worshipped and presented their gifts with all the pomp required on such a momentous occasion. Gold as a gift for a King, Frankincense which was used in worship in the Temple, and Myrrh, which was used to embalm before a funeral. All three gifts were not just appropriate but prophetic of the life, purpose and identity of Jesus.
3) God provides a way of ESCAPE or...
12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. Matthew 2:12 (ESV)
13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. 1 Corinthians 10:13 (ESV)
God was still at work and so the Magi were warned in a dream to not return to Herod. They left for Persia by a different route. The next night Joseph had another angelic appearance in a dream who said to him,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Matthew 2:13 (ESV)
Egypt was a logical place to find refuge, as it was outside the dominions of King Herod, and both Egypt and Judah were part of the Roman Empire and were linked together by China's 2,500 year old ancient "silk road," which made travel to Egypt easy and relatively safe.
Thus they were safe from Herod’s bloodthirsty insanity. When he was sure the Magi had avoided him he ordered all male children aged two and under in Bethlehem to be killed. This way he felt sure the baby king could not threaten his rule.
4) … is WITH ME in my suffering.
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” Matthew 2:16-18 (ESV)
34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” Luke 2:34-35 (ESV)
18 The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Psalm 34:18 (ESV)
Many scholars doubt this story because the only record of it is in the Bible. But why should this be a surprise given how many atrocities Herod committed? Josephus (a famous Jewish historian who worked for the Romans) stated that Herod was so concerned that no one would mourn his death, that he commanded a large group of distinguished men to come to Jericho, and he gave an order that they should be killed at the time of his death so that the displays of grief that he craved would take place. Fortunately for them, Herod's son Archelaus and sister Salome did not carry out this wish.
How many boys aged two and under could there have been in and around the tiny town of Bethlehem? Five? Ten? Matthew does not give a number. I wonder whether Herod - who had his own sons assassinated remember- could have hired men privately to slaughter those innocents and that it was not connected to him until his death?
Either way the Holy Family stayed in Egypt until an Angel told them of Herod’s death. They returned home to Galilee. The Christmas story was done, the prelude of the greatest story ever told would soon give way to the ministry and mission of Jesus, which would take him all the way around Israel, through a tomb and in with His resurrection and ascension into heaven.