You know…when I think of all the intelligent people who have ever lived, one of the first names that pops into my head is that of ALBERT EINSTEIN. He may have originated the concept of a bad hair day but no one will argue the fact that he was an intelligent person!
A few years ago I read of a true incident from Einstein’s life that occurred while he was on a lecture tour of our nation’s universities where he would present his theory of relativity. Now, Einstein didn’t have a driver’s license, so he had a chauffeur who drove him to and from each campus. As they were driving along one day, a couple of months into this lecture tour, the chauffeur said to the brilliant scientist, You know, I’ve heard this lecture so many times now that I could give it myself. Well, Einstein accepted the challenge and said, Let’s try it. The people at the next university have never seen me, so they won’t know who I am. You put on my clothes and I’ll wear your uniform and cap. When we get there, you introduce me as your chauffeur and I will introduce you as Dr. Einstein. Everything went according to plan. The chauffeur delivered the speech on relativity flawlessly. And Einstein, sitting at the back of the lecture hall, enjoyed it immensely. But, then something happened that the two had not considered. The moderator of the lecture said, We have fifteen more minutes, just enough time for some of you to ask Dr. Einstein a question. A professor in the audience asked a very complicated, technical question involving higher mathematical formulas and language that the chauffeur of course did not understand. But, the chauffeur was quick on his feet and he said, Sir, the solution to that problem is so simple that I am really surprised you would even ask it. Anybody can answer a question that simple. To prove it, I am going to have my chauffeur come up and answer it!
Well, Einstein may have been intelligent — but his chauffeur was obviously a wise man! And you know, all of us want to be wise. Every day we face complex decisions that require on the spot thinking and we wish we had the wisdom of Solomon so we would instantly know what to do.
Now, don’t get me wrong, we DO have knowledge….lots of it! Each year thanks to the labors of researchers across the globe we greatly multiply mankind’s knowledge, but KNOWLEDGE is not the same thing as WISDOM. Knowledge is just information that usually leads us from the SIMPLE to the COMPLEX. Wisdom is a PRACTICAL thing. In fact, it usually leads us from the COMPLEX to the SIMPLE. I like Charles Swindoll’s definition. He says, Wisdom is the God-given ability to see life with rare objectivity and to handle life with rare stability.
One of the wisest men I have ever known was my Grandfather Adams. He was a farmer in the deep south….never even graduated from high school…but in my opinion, he was a truly wise man. He ALWAYS knew what to do! I remember when I was a teen on vacation with my family I’d sit under the cedar trees in Grandad’s front yard for hours each afternoon with the rest of the men. I would listen as they talked about everything that was going on in the world and I always admired my Grandad’s perspective on things. His words made much more sense than any news analyst I had heard on TV.
Well, we need wisdom in our day and age. People like my Grandad are scarce. As Will Rogers said, Common sense isn’t as common as it used to be. This leads us to the final installment in our study of the gifts of Christmas. James 1:5 says, If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, Who GIVES generously to all without finding fault, and it-WISDOM-will be GIVEN to him. In the 2nd chapter of Matthew, we come across some men who God’s must have blessed with this gift because they have had the reputation of being wise for nearly 2,000 years. And, I think that if we examine their involvement in this chapter of the Christmas story we will learn a great deal about the kind of wisdom God gives. So take your Bibles and turn to Matthew’s gospel and follow along as I read the first 12 verses.
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 in the east 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 Christ 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 be the shepherd of 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 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.
9 – 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.
10 – When they saw the star, the 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 and of incense and of myrrh.
12 – And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Okay let’s begin by taking A CLOSE LOOK at these wise men so we can understand exactly who these strange travelers from the east were. Now, you probably noted that Matthew’s gospel gives us almost no details about them. On top of that, most popular beliefs about the wise men are misleading. I mean…it is doubtful that these guys 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 that is 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 others, was because they saw the golden mosaic over the doorway depicting the wise men in Persian head dress. So the wise men who traveled to Bethlehem that night probably came from Persia.
And, these wise men or MAGI from Persia 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 ) These laws of the magi were seen in Persia as the highest unalterable legal code. Our word MAGISTRATE comes from the word magi. So to summarize, these magi were learned men: 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.
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!
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. They must have been an imposing sight! Furthermore, Herod’s own small army was off on duty with the Roman census. This was no time for a well-armed band of foreign king-makers to show up. You see, Herod was the king of the jews….a title given to him by Caesar Augustus himself.
Another point to consider…Herod was in a difficult spot geographically. His region 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 kingdom. 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!
Okay, enough background on these men. What was it about them that made them worthy of the title of WISE MEN in scripture? What can we learn about God’s gift of wisdom from the magi? Well, first of all, in this chapter of the Christmas story we see that a wise man….
1. …knows that GOD is the only source of true wisdom.
Billy Graham once said, Knowledge is horizontal. Wisdom is vertical….it comes down from above. And these men were wise because their source of knowledge was not limited to what man knows. They also considered information that God provided. They made the most important journey of their lives based on prophecies they had read in the word of God, specifically the prophecies concerning the coming Messiah. Now how did it come about that these men from Persia would know the messianic prophecies of scripture in the first place? Well, to answer that we must look back at the Old Testament. Magi are mentioned there in the accounts concerning Israel’s dealings with the Babylonian Empire.
Remember Nebuchadnezzar was the Babylonian king who destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple and took the Jewish nation into captivity in 587 B.C. Scripture teaches that he hand-picked certain young Hebrew men of extraordinary wisdom to serve him, including Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. In a sense they became rivals of Nebuchadnezzar’s Magi. Ironically, Daniel made an early favorable impression on Nebuchadnezzar by doing what the Magi were supposed to be able to do but could not, that is, interpret the king’s dreams. Daniel prayed for God’s gift of wisdom and as a result was able to interpret the dream and the king rewarded him by making Daniel master of the Magi. As their leader he would have had great influence on their studies. Knowing what we know of Daniel’s character and zeal for God, we can be certain that he would have taken advantage of this opportunity to instruct the magi about the One true God. It stands to reason that in this way they would have gained a great deal of familiarity with Jewish scripture, including all the prophecy regarding the coming Messiah.
We don’t know how the Magi knew the Messianic prophecies had been fulfilled, but obviously God revealed it to them in some way. And the sight of the star would have confirmed it for them, especially if they had studied the Old Testament.
By the way, what about this star? What exactly was it? Astronomers have made all kinds of theories. In last week’s Parade magazine David Levy wrote an article in which he theorized that in 2B.C. there was a lining up of Jupiter and the star, Regulus, which could have gotten the Wise Men on their journey. But Scripture doesn’t tell us this and I for one believe it was a special star, created for this purpose. After all, Verse 2 says it was His star…the star of Him that is born King of the Jews. I take this to mean that this star was designed specifically for this purpose just as that fish that swallowed Jonah was custom made for the job of humbling a prideful prophet. God created this star for this specific task. It certainly behaved differently than other stars, guiding these wise men to a specific house, appearing and disappearing.
And it shouldn’t take too much faith for us to believe this. Astronomers tell us that our universe consists of at least twelve quadrillion galaxies each containing billions of stars. If God could create so many stars, why could He not create one more? After all, one of the first recorded sayings of God is, Let there be light! Unlike sinful mankind, inanimate nature always responds to God’s will. Psalm 19,1 says, The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork. So it is really no stretch of belief to say that God custom-made this unique star to declare the glory of His Son’s birth.
We should also note that the Magi did not arrive on the night of Jesus’ birth but many months…maybe as much as two years later. I say this for two reasons. First of all, Matthew 2:7 says that Herod ascertained from the Magi when the star appeared and became enraged and ordered all male babies 2 years old and younger to be killed. Secondly, this text says that the wise men found Jesus’ not in a stable but in a house. Obviously Joseph and Mary had decided to settle in Bethlehem.
Well, in any case, thanks to the influence of Daniel these wise men who visited Jesus had probably read Numbers 24:17 which says. A star shall come forth from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise from Israel. This by the way is the only verse in the O.T. that talks about a star being any kind of a sign. And the word, scepter would suggest a coming kingship.
So I’m saying that these men were wise because their based they life’s journeys on the only true source of wisdom, God Himself. And any one who wants to become wise will do the same. You see without an underlying belief in God all knowledge leads to a dead end.
In his book, CHRISTIAN BELIEF IN A POSTMODERN WORLD, Diogenese Allen writes, It has been taken for granted in the intellectual world that the idea of God is superfluous. ‘We do not need God to account for anything,’ is the common attitude. But, he goes on to say, Today there are fundamental developments in philosophy and cosmology that actually point to God. It is beyond those fields of inquiry to make a positive pronouncement on this matter. All they can say is that the order and existence of the universe pose real questions that they cannot answer and they recognize that God is the sort of reality that would answer them.
In other words what Allen is saying is this. In the intellectual climate of our post modern world, where it has been cool to just ignore God and to decide that we do not need Him to account for anything, there is a dramatic shift of change taking place. People with great knowledge are beginning to ask questions about existence and life and the universe — and the questions they are asking cannot be answered by their scientific disciplines.
So what has happened is this. We have produced a whole generation of people that are highly intelligent but are abysmally ignorant and foolish because they have intelligence without faith in God. They have rationalism without an acceptance of the One from whom all things come. This reminds me of I Corinthians 1:25 which says, The foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. In other words, our greatest knowledge is nothing compared to even God’s foolishness! True wisdom begins with a world view based on a fear of God…a respect for God as the only source of true wisdom. And we see this quality in all wise men including these strange gift-bearing travelers who made the journey of their life based on something God said.
A second identifying quality in people who have received God’s gift of wisdom is this. They know that…
2. …wisdom is more than KNOWLEDGE….it is ACTING on that knowledge.
Matthew tells us that the Wise Men came to Herod and asked for his help in locating the King of the Jews. And Herod responded by calling in all the Jewish experts….the religious leaders of Jerusalem. He asked them where the Christ was to be born. And they knew! They weren’t even surprised by the question! They had read the same Old Testament writings that the Wise men had read. So they looked at these writings from God and they reminded their king of the prophecy in Micah that pinpointed the Messiah’s exact birthplace in Bethlehem.
Now don’t miss this. These religious leaders of the day had all the knowledge necessary for locating the true King of Kings — but they DID NOTHING about it. Only these strangers from the east were wise enough to ACT on this knowledge. The Jewish theologians knew their Bibles and spoke truth to Herod but they didn’t join the magi on their journey of wisdom. Historical biblical truth did not make the slightest difference in they way their lived their lives. They were too engrossed in the study of theology and in the activities of temple ritual. So, tragically there were more people who saw the star and didn’t follow it than there were those who saw it and followed it as it led those men from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon once said, Wisdom is the right use of knowledge. To know is not to be wise. Many men know a great deal and are all the greater fools for it. To know how to USE knowledge is to have wisdom. And Spurgeon is right! It is foolish to amass great knowledge-even religious knowledge-without acting on it, without applying it to our lives. James 1:22 says, Do not merely listen to the word…DO what it says.
You know even today many people believe in Jesus but they do nothing about that belief. Every Christmas they celebrate the birth of God’s Son but they don’t repent of their sin and make Him Lord of their lives. They believe but they don’t do anything about that belief. Well, James 2:19 says that, even the demons believe and shudder! Knowledge is not enough. Wisdom is more than believing. It is more than knowing. It is DOING!
So, a wise man knows that God is the only source of true wisdom. He knows that wisdom is not just knowledge. It is acting on that knowledge. And then a third characteristic seen in someone who has received God’s gift os wisdom is this. He…
3. …follows God even when His GUIDING LIGHT cannot be seen.
Matthew tells us that these wise men saw the star in the east and then traveled in that direction even after it disappeared. Then the star re-appeared to guide them from Jerusalem to the specific house in Bethlehem where Mary and Joseph had set up their first home. So, contrary to pictures on Christmas cards, the Wise Men traveled long miles of their journey in the dark, without benefit of the glorious star.
This is true to life, isn’t it? We spend a lot of our journeys in the dark. God guides us to attend a certain college, and we go there, not knowing what lies ahead. He leads us to a specific career or a profession and we go in that direction, not knowing any more than that. Again and again in life, we have a moment of great luminosity, when everything becomes clear and we know that God has guided us in this direction; then the light gives way to stretches of darkness, with only the memory of the light to guide us. The star does not shine brightly at all times. When it doesn’t we must walk by faith, remembering it’s shining and hoping it will shine again. After all, Hebrews 11:1 says, …faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not SEEN. All Christians go through times when it seems like God is hidden…and when this happens WISE followers will remember that God is always there guiding us even when we can’t see His guiding light.
Job thought God had abandoned him but he discovered this was not true and that in fact more was going on in and around him than he could perceive. He learned that God was never MORE present than in those times of trial.
You know scientists tell us that in the natural world human beings only receive about 30 percent of the light spectrum. Honeybees and homing pigeons can detect ultraviolet light waves that are invisible to us. So a lot is going on around us in the physical world that we never see. In the supernatural world our vision is even more limited and we get only occasional glimpses of all that is going on. The prophet Daniel went through a time when it seemed that God was hidden….no longer guiding him through life. He prayed and received no answer to his prayer then one day Daniel got far more than he bargained for. A supernatural being, with eyes like flaming torches and a face like lightning, suddenly showed up on a river bank beside him. The heavenly visitor explained why there had been a delay in the answer to his prayer. He had been dispatched by God with the answer but had been delayed by a three-week standoff with the prince of the Persian kingdom…a powerful demon. Reinforcements in the form of the Archangel Michael arrived and he was finally able to continue.
We don’t have time to go into a discussion of spiritual warfare here but we should take note that in Daniel’s experience much was going on around him that he could not see. To him prayer may have seemed futile and God hidden but a glimpse behind the curtain revealed exactly the opposite. Well, wise men stubbornly cling to God in these times of darkness and hardship knowing that when they pray, more-much more-may be involved than they dream. They have the kind of faith that knows that God never abandons us no matter how distant He may seem.
And then one more quality of a wise man is this. A truly WISE MAN…
4. ….seeks GOD — and when he seeks Him — he always FINDS Him.
You know, 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. Possibly they were simply curious about the long-prophesied Jewish Messiah they had studied. But I for one think they set out on this huge road trip because they were genuinely seeking the true God. I believe they realized how empty the world’s knowledge is and so with hungry souls they set out to find the One true God. In Deuteronomy 4:29 God promised, If you seek Me with all your heart you will find me. Well, these men found God….I think…in answer to their sincere seeking. And when they found Him, Matthew tells us they fell down and worshiped Him.
God in His grace opened the eyes of these pagan men to something His own people did not 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 the far east 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 in a dream and they departed to their country ANOTHER WAY. And this phrase can have a double meaning. They went back a different way…or route…AND they went back a different way. They were followers of another way in the spiritual sense-THE WAY….they were changed men.
You know there are basically only two kinds of people in this world: wise people who accept Christ and foolish people who reject Him. Colossians 2:3 says, In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Like these wise men, whenever we seek God sincerely we find Him through Jesus Christ. God promised us this in Jeremiah 33:3, when He said, Call unto Me and I will answer you. And in Romans 10:13, where it says, Whosoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved….And in Matthew 6 where Jesus Himself said, Seek and you shall find…
Those first wise men were wise enough to follow where God was leading. We close our service to give you a chance to be just as wise. So I ask you, where is God leading you today?
Is He guiding you to a deeper walk with Him? Maybe you have a lot of biblical knowledge but you have not been acting on it. Perhaps you are a Christian and God is leading you to join this church or maybe for the first time today God has guided you as He did those wise men to the point that you have been confronted with the Savior of the world. And today you face a decision…to repent of your sin and accept Him as Lord of your life or to reject Him and walk another way. There is no better way to celebrate Christmas than to decide to accept God’s gift of salvation through His Son. Someone once said, Christmas comes to those who let the Son of God be born in them. Let God be born in you today. However God leads, we sing now to give you a chance to publicly follow.