December 25 2012

The Message of the Magi

The Magi, (or as they are more commonly known, the Wise Men) are mentioned only once in the whole Bible. Their brief story is found in the first 12 verses of the 2nd chapter of Matthew’s gospel…

 

1After 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 Messiah 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. 10 When they saw the star, they 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.

nativity_set

Despite this story being quite short, the Wise Men have become a staple part of the Christmas nativity scene, inspiring one of my favourite Christmas carols, “We Three Kings”. Sadly however, this carol is a perfect example of how we so easily re-shape Christmas into something that suits our fairy tale version of the Bible, rather than reading and responding to what the gospel record actually says. Here are just a few ways we get the story of the Magi completely wrong:

MISTAKE #1: They weren’t kings.

The Magi are never referred to as kings. The concept of kings coming to see Jesus and pay homage is one that makes a wonderfully powerful statement about the authority of Christ over all human rulers. It just has no basis in the original story. I have even heard it said that God ensured that both the poor (represented by the shepherds) and the rich (represented by the “kings”) were present so that we knew that Jesus came for people of every demographic. But no, the Magi were not royalty. They weren’t even necessarily wise (To me, “Wise Men” gives them a sort of ancient guru-like feel). All the text tells us about the Magi is that they came from the East. That doesn’t even tell us much. Were they Magi from the far, far east? Were they gentiles? Were they Jews? Who knows? Read the text above again. Remember, that’s all we really have to go on.

Now, the term “Magi” is mentioned in several other cultures. Some Ancient Greek sources refer to a specific tribe of people  in Ancient Iran (then known as Media), but it also is used as a generic word for any sacred sect or mystical order. This is how we get the generic word “magician” (a “magi” person). Ancient Persian sources refer to the Magi being the religious sect that Zoroaster was born into, and some time before 6 BC, in the eastern parts of Ancient Iran, his teachings became the foundation of the religion, Zoroastrianism, also known as “Magianism”. This religion was alive and kicking at the time that the biblical story is set and this has led some to argue that the Magi were Zoroastrians (or at least converts from Zoroastrianism). If that is true, then they were just some religious guys who were seeking the Jewish Messiah. Now, I don’t want to downplay that. In fact we shouldn’t downplay that. It’s awesome! There’s no need to stretch the story to make them kings or even particularly wise (other than the wisdom they showed in seeking Jesus, but then we should equally call the shepherds “wise men”!)

 

MISTAKE #2: There weren’t only three. 

All the pictures, movies, nativity sets and carols about “We Three Kings”, suggest that the Magi were a small band of men riding camels, making a lonely trek across the sand dunes and joining the quiet and solemn scene, almost just slipping in at the back unnoticed. Over the year’s we’ve even invented names for them – Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. But read the story again and you’ll find the only reference to the number three is the fact that they brought three different types of gifts (“Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.”  Matthew 2:11). Also, the implication from the text is that it wasn’t just three gifts, but multiple amounts of gold and incense and myrrh as it was taken from their “treasures”.

The biggest clue that the Magi included more than three men, is found in the first 3 verses of the story. Verses 1 and 2 describe the Magi arriving at Jerusalem and asking where the Messiah was. If they were three religious men on camels, this arrival wouldn’t have made anyone take notice. Jerusalem was a huge city and it had a constant traffic of visitors from a variety of nations. But when the Magi arrive, what do we read in verse 3? “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” 

The arrival of the Magi caused a disturbance across all Jerusalem which even reached King Herod himself, enough to make him fearful of losing his own royal position. How many people must have been part of the Magi’s procession for their arrival to have such an epic impact? It sounds more like there could have been hundreds of Magi! There could have been a massive pilgrimage of seekers with horses and elephants and musicians and an entourage of servants carrying loads of treasures for “the one who has been born king of the Jews“! Who knows? There is absolutely no description of the number of Magi who had come from the east or what their group was like. The only thing that can guide us, is the disturbing effect they had on the great city of Jerusalem and the security of Herod the King. Does that sound like three guys? Not likely.

MISTAKE #3: They weren’t even at the Nativity scene. 

That’s right! Every children’s Christmas pageant and that beloved family Nativity set that sits on your mantlepiece has got it wrong! The Magi were not there alongside the shepherds and the cattle by the manger. They weren’t even present at the event of the first Christmas! They came along possibly years later, after Jesus and Mary have moved out of the temporary emergency maternity ward mentioned in Luke 2:7 and moved into a house somewhere in Bethlehem (possibly staying with relatives, as Joseph had to go to Bethlehem for the census due to his family line. See Luke 2:4).

You can read where the Magi actually visited the child in Matthew 2:11-12: “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. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” It clearly states that they came to a house, not the barn, stable or cave mentioned in Luke 2:7.

But is that the only reason why I think they were not there at Christmas? Not at all. The biggest clue is not emphatic, but it does make sense. This is the next part of the story found in Matthew 2:13-16…

13 When they [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.

Okay, if you’re getting confused, this is how the story of the Magi has gone: Around the time Jesus is born the Magi see a star appear and they somehow get the idea that this signifies that the Jewish Messiah has been born. The story doesn’t elaborate on how they learned this, but they at some point decide to make the journey from where they live to Jerusalem. When they eventually get to Jerusalem, they meet with King Herod who asks them exactly when they first saw the star. They then leave, following the star to the house where Mary, Joseph and Jesus are now living. They respond to Jesus as a king – bowing down to him, worshipping him, and paying homage to him with their treasures.

Now, they were supposed to report back to King Herod, but God warns them to go back to their home in the east without telling the King anything. The King is furious because he wanted to know exactly where Jesus is living so he can find him and kill him. He only knows two things: 1. Where Jesus is approximately (somewhere in or around Bethlehem), and 2. How old Jesus is approximately at this stage.

He works out Jesus’ age by how long it’s been since the star originally appeared (marking when Jesus was born). We aren’t told exactly when this is, but we are told that Herod orders the death of all the children in and around Bethlehem ages two years old and under. This means that Jesus is not a new born any more. In fact, Jesus could be up to two years old according to King Herod’s logic. Maybe Jesus was only one year old and King Herod ruthlessly wanted to just make sure that he got Jesus by killing children older than he needed to, just in case.

Now, this horrible story, traditionally entitled, “The Massacre of the Innocents” really deserves its own contemplation (my brother wrote a thoughtful blog on it which you can read here), but for the purpose of this blog, it points out that the whole story of the Magi and the star is not set at Christmas at all. Jesus is not a newborn baby lying in a manger when the Magi follow visit, he’s a one or two year old child and they visit Jesus at the house he is living in.

But so what? What’s the problem with tweaking the stories of the Bible so that they fit better into carols and nativity sets? Who cares if the Magi actually aren’t a part of Christmas? Who cares if the “We 3 Kings” were actually “We 300 Zoroastrians”?

Well, I think that’s the problem. We don’t care to read what the Bible actually says. Like in the video above, spoken by the Mayor of Orlando, we are happy to “celebrate the biblical story of the three kings”, without really caring if such a “biblical” story even exists. Although it’s still positive and a quasi-endorsement of the Bible, it’s actually promoting a way of changing the Bible to suit ourselves, rather than grappling the Bible as it stands to let it change us.

The best analogy I can think of to explain why this is an issue, is the Quentin Tarantino movie, “Inglourious Basterds”. You may not have seen the movie, but it’s sort of a fantasy re-telling of the events of World War 2, where a group of US soldiers plan to assassinate Hitler – and they succeed! Now, if you know you history, Hitler wasn’t assassinated by American soldiers, he committed suicide. Of course, one of the things that makes the movie, “Inglourious Basterds” such a clever movie is that this fact is known and so Tarantino can make this film as a sort  of “wouldn’t it have been cool if” sort of movie.

But imagine if that movie became the staple history of World War 2? What if all other historical records were ignored and that’s just how the Mayor of Orlando referred to the death of Hitler? What if sermons and songs were written about this fictional history, teaching us about the might of American soldiers and how they were even able to kill Hitler! Not only would this be a lie about America, it would also be an insult to the German resistance, who actually came the closest to assassinating Hitler on the 20th July 1944 with “Operation Valkyrie”. This is actually something I think Quentin Tarantino would hate to have happen, as the power of the fantasy of his film relies on the backdrop of the truthful history being known.

Likewise, when a false version of the Bible is told and re-enforced, it promotes the Bible, not as history, but as mythology and fairy tale. But I believe, more than any other religion, Christianity proclaims the Bible (and especially the gospels) as a record of actual, historical events that are real and true and have effected the history of the world. As Peter, the close friend and follower of Jesus wrote, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16)

The message of the Magi is one of non-Jews (like most of the people reading this blog) seeking the promised Jewish Messiah. Their message is to bow down and worship Jesus like they did. It is a message worth listening to and following.

But the message of the Magi is also that if we are to really grapple with who Jesus really is and respond to him as he truly is – rather than how we would like him to be – we must not simply listen to the carols and the Christmas Day TV special. We must go back to the source material. Read the Bible for yourself! Don’t trust what I say about it in these blogs. Pick it up and read the actual words that are on the page. It’s hard to throw out the baggage and the expectations you may have about Jesus, but I encourage you to try to do so.

If in the end, you choose to follow Jesus, I want you to follow the real Jesus.

If in the end, you choose to reject Jesus, I want you to reject the real Jesus.

Because in the end, you’ll be standing before the real Jesus, and I’d hate for you to get a shock.

 

To leave you on a lighter note, I’ll finish this will my all-time favourite example of how we like to design our own Jesus. This scene is from the pretty lame movie, “Talladega Nights”, but it includes a very relevant line for this discussion, especially at this time of year. Will Ferrel’s character, Ricky Bobby says, “I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I’m saying grace. When you say grace you can say it to grown up Jesus or teenager Jesus or bearded Jesus or whoever you want.”

Enjoy and have a wonderful Christmas!

 

(6624)

Share Button
October 5 2011

1 John Chapter 5 – Tricky passage explanation

This is a resource I wrote up for my Bible Study. We have been studying 1 John for the last few weeks and on the summary week (tonight) I took on the task of getting my head around some of the tricky verses that come up in chapter 5. If you don’t know the first letter of John, I highly recommend you read it and the following blog entry might not make much sense until you do.

For the sake of reference, here is 1 John chapter 5:

1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. 2 This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. 3 This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, 4 for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.

6 This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. 7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.9 We accept man’s testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. 10 Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. 11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. 13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.

16 If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.

18 We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him. 19 We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. 20 We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true—even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. 21 Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.

 

There are lots of tricky concepts in chapter 5 of 1 John (and indeed throughout the whole letter) but from this last chapter I want to offer some explanation for two of the most trickiest. 

  1. The testimony of the water, the blood & the Spirit. (5:6-12)
  2. The sin that leads to death. (5:16-17)

 

 The testimony of the water, the blood and the Spirit. (5:6-12)

 This passage gets us asking a few questions:

  • What is the “water” and the “blood”?
  • Why is it important that Jesus didn’t just come by water?
  • How do the water the blood and the Spirit testify about Jesus?
  • Why is it important that there are three that testify?

 The first and most important thing to say about this passage is that although all this talk about water and blood is interesting, it isn’t actually the point of the passage. It’s easy to get distracted by the part of the passage that is the most confusing (and therefore the most interesting), but the most important thing is to see where John is going in all this. This will not only help us avoid getting distracted by peripheral issues, but it will also give us the context to help us understand why he is using such odd language.

 John states his main point in verse 13:
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.

Whatever his argument is, the purpose of it is to help Christians have confidence in the truth of the fact that they have eternal life. In John 20:31, he writes that his purpose for writing the gospel record is so that people can HAVE life. In this letter, his audience is those who have now responded to the gospel and his purpose is that those that have life can KNOW that they have it. The next verse (v14) goes on to talk about the confidence we should have in prayer as a result of this “knowledge”, and the final verses of the letter (v18-20) are all about what we “know”. It even concludes with the purpose of Jesus coming is so that we may know him who is true (which is possibly why there is a final warning against idols – or “false” gods).

So the point of all these tricky verses is to give us confidence in the truth of who Jesus is and the truth of the life that he gives. Okay. So how does he get to that point?

Well, he sets up a picture of the Testimony of God (v9-10). The false teachers that John is refuting were teaching the idea that Jesus did not come in the flesh (see 1 John 4:2-3, 2 John 1:7). They believed that the flesh and everything physical was evil and so the Son of God could never have taken on a human body. They taught that Jesus only appeared to have a human body, but was really just a spirit. John believes this is completely anti-Christian (that’s why it’s the teaching of the antichrist) and throughout the letter uses lots of different arguments to show that it is false. 

In chapter 5 he sets up a picture of a courtroom, where the Testimony of God is given about the fact that Jesus is the Son of God and that life is found in the Son (v9-12). It’s not just John’s opinion, it’s God’s opinion and so we can have full confidence in it. In fact, John says in v10, if you don’t believe this testimony then you’re not calling John a liar, you’re calling God a liar.

So in this imaginary courtroom, John describes three witnesses who stand up and testify about this Testimony of God. The three are: the water, the blood and the Spirit.

Now, there are lots of theories about what the water and the blood mean. Some say it’s referring to the water and blood that spilled from Jesus side at the crucifixion (John 19:24), others say the water is his baptism and the blood is his death, still others try to argue that the water is the sacrament of baptism and the blood is the sacrament of communion (a big stretch if you ask me!).

For me, the best explanation is none of these. I think the best fit is the concept that the water is referring to Jesus’ physical birth and the blood is referring to his physical death.

Water is a common image used of birth and creation (think of the waters that the Spirit hovered over in Genesis 1:2) and in John’s gospel (3:5-6), John uses the concept of being “born of water” as a way of describing being physically born, or “born of the flesh”. In this passage, Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he has to experience two births in order to see thekingdomofGod. He has to have a physical birth (born of water) and he has to have a spiritual birth (born of the Spirit).

I think this is what John is meaning when he uses the same language in 1 John 5:6. Here he says that Jesus “came by water”, meaning Jesus had a physical birth. This is exactly the concept that the false teachers were denying, and John pushes the point by talking about “blood” – another fleshy concept that the false teachers would have hated. This is probably referring to Jesus’ physical death, a death that was proven when the blood flowed from his side. Blood is used throughout the New Testament as a reference to Jesus’ death (including in 1 John 1:7), and so we can safely say this is what John is meaning here.

It makes sense too. He is arguing that the Testimony of God is that Jesus came in the flesh and two of the witnesses are the physical birth of Jesus (the water) and the physical death of Jesus (the blood). But it’s not just historical events the witness to Jesus, but God himself proclaims this testimony about Jesus through his Spirit. This is why John says in 1 John 5:6-7 that the Spirit testifies along with the water and the blood. This could be referring to Jesus’ baptism (John 1:32-34) or more likely where Jesus says that he will send the Spirit of truth who will testify about him (John 15:26-27). Either way, John’s courtroom scene is completed with three witnesses – the water, the blood and the Spirit, and these three are in agreement (1 John 5:7).

But why is it important that there are three witnesses? Well for that we need to understand one of the most important Old Testament laws in regard to courtroom justice. In Deuteronomy 19:15 the law states that a truth was not able to be established if there is only one witness. There had to be two or three.

One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”

This law is re-enforced by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17 when he teaches about how we should respond when a brother sins against us, and Paul uses this principle when talking about proving his ministry (2 Corinthians 13:1-3) and also when bringing a charge against an elder (1 Timothy 5:19).

The idea is that although one witness may be telling the truth, it can only be validated or established as true and reliable when “two or three” witness to it. This is possibly what Jesus is talking about when he says: “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them.” (Matthew 18:19-20)

In relation to John’s argument, it means that in the imaginary courtroom scene that he is describing “there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.” Do you see what he’s arguing? It’s John’s way of saying that the testimony that Jesus is the Son of God is reliable and is an established truth that we can have full confidence in.

And this in the end is his goal remember? He writes all of it, painting this elaborate courtroom scene, so that we can have confidence that God’s testimony about Jesus is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

 

The sin that leads to death. (5:16-17)

Like the “water and the blood”, there are a few suggestions as to what John is talking about when he talks of the sin that leads to death. Some say it’s the unforgiveable sin of “blasphemy against the Spirit” Jesus talks about in Matthew 12:31-32 (a tricky passage in itself) or the sin of “lying to the Holy Spirit” that instantly kills Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11, or even the sin of taking communion without acknowledging Jesus which seems to have been judged by God with sickness and death in 1 Corinthians 11:29-30.

These are all big stretches to squeeze into the context of 1 John and so the best and simplest way of understanding what John is talking about is to look at the letter itself.

Just before talking about the “sin that leads to death” John writes in v12, “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” This is the two distinct groups that he keeps going on about throughout the whole letter. There are two camps. In one camp is the Christ who gives life, and in the other camp there is the antichrist who gives death.

So what is the “sin that leads to death”? It is the sin that leads you away from Christ.

More specifically, it’s the sin that John keeps going on about – The sin of denying that the Son of God came in the flesh. This is the sin that leads people away from the truth of the gospel and so leads them to death.

Before talking about this sin, he encourages us to pray for a fellow believer who has sinned (v16). This fellow believer (or “brother”) believes the Testimony about God, has come to Jesus and has been given eternal life. This is a believer that John describes as being “born of God” (v18) and therefore will not continue sinning. John says that God will keep him safe and the evil one cannot harm him and earlier in the letter, John says that if a believer does sin then Jesus speaks on our defence and he atones for all of our sin by his death (1 John 2:1-2).

This is why, when we see a believer committing a sin, we are right to pray and ask God to give them life. God has promised to forgive them and give them life because all of their sin, past, present and future, has been dealt with by Jesus.

Then John makes a distinction. He refers to this sin that leads to death – this sin of rejecting Jesus consistently and deliberately – and he clarifies that he is not saying we should pray for that sin. Notice, he doesn’t exactly tell us we must not pray for that sin, but rather he clarifies, saying that the sins he is instructing us to pray for are specifically the sins of a believer. These are the sins we can have confidence God will forgive, and again remember, this is what this section of the letter is about – confidence in God.

That’s what John is referring to in the previous verses:

“This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.” (1 John 5:14-15)

John is saying, when we ask God to forgive the sins of a believer and give them life rather than death, we can have confidence that he will give us what we ask. This is true, not because we are special, but because we are asking “according to his will” (v14). It is God’s will that he gives life to those that believe in Jesus. It is God’s will that anyone born of God will not continue to sin.

This is the sin that we should pray to God about. There is lots of sin that leads to death around us. Everywhere we look we see people rejecting Jesus, and John is saying we can’t have confidence that God will give life to every sinner. Maybe we should pray that God forgives. Maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should pray that people repent and that God has mercy. This passage actually doesn’t answer that issue. The point of John’s concluding words in 1 John is to encourage us to pray for Christians having full confidence that God will give them life.

The most important thing is to test our hearts and see which camp we are actually in. Are we committing the sin that leads to death by rejecting Jesus, the Son of God who came in the flesh? Or are we in danger of following false teachers who preach a false gospel about a false God?

We need to always be diligent to keep ourselves from these paths that lead away from eternal life and lead straight to eternal death. This is probably why John finishes this letter in with such an encouragement and a warning:

 “We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true – even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:20-21)

(2137)

Share Button