Phil Cox

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Coxy's Christmas Message 2011

Wise Men?

24th December 2011

Matthew 21v1-12
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him."
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written: "‘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 be the shepherd of my people Israel.’"
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him."
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Where did the Magi come from? We don't really know. The Bible says they were from the east but that's a bit vague. I've read a number of scholarly books which discuss this. Some seem very confident that the Magi are from Babylonia. Or Persia. Or Arabia. (of course, it's hard to sell books in large numbers if you admit that you don't know very much). But some commentators are humble enough to admit that they don't know. I certainly don't. For what it's worth, my best guess is that they were from Arabia, but I'm really not sure.

And who were the Magi? Again, we don't really know. A lot of words have been used up defending one theory or another, but these theories depend in part on where we think the Magi came from, which we don't know, and it depends in part on what the word "Magi" means, but it seems to have several different meanings. What we do know is that:

  • The Greek Bible calls them "magoi", from which we get the word "magician";
  • Acts 13v8 translates the same word as "sorcerer";
  • The Bible never calls them "kings"
  • The Bible never tells us how many of them there were, except that "magoi" is plural
  • The were wealthy - enough to offer gold, incense and myrrh as gifts
  • They were astrologers. We know this because they saw the star and read some human significance into its appearing

In all probability, then, they were wealthy, educated gentiles.

In those days there was little division, if any, between philosophy, astrology and science. Now, of course, we look back and laugh at their scientific thinking. (In fact, we can find the science of just one or two hundred years ago laughable. This makes me wonder what future generations will think of the science we believe today. How many scientific "laws" that we're taught will be proved false in the next two hundred years? By its very nature, science develops. And the scientists of one generation can achieve prominence by proving the scientists of a previous generation to have been wrong.) But these philosophers / scientists / astrologers looked at the star, and they looked at their textbooks, and they found that, according to their science, a king of the Jews had been born. We don't know how they reached that conclusion, but they did, and it was true.

What does this say to us? I think it says that, no matter how far away a person is from understanding the Bible, no matter how far away he is from the church, no matter how crackpot his philosophy / science is, if he really wants to know the truth, God will find a way to get the truth to him:

Matthew 7v7-8
"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

Starting from where you are, there is a way to find the truth.

For the shepherds, who were Israelites, that way was by the angel chorus (Luke Chapter 2). But for the magi, educated gentiles, it was through faulty philosophy, through bad science, by the star that they thought they understood but really didn't. Even in their misunderstanding, God's grace met them and brought them to Christ, because they wanted to know the truth, and to live in accordance with it.

Every one of us is far too spiritually blind to find the truth for ourselves, but God reveals the truth to everyone who really seeks it - even if they're seeking it in a really silly place. Working with what people do understand, or what they think they understand, God can get them out of the east and into Bethlehem, to gaze on the Christ and worship Him.