The Significance of the Story
If you want to understand the Bible you can’t treat it as a dogmatic handbook. It isn’t a bullet point list of “do’s” and “don’ts”. There are certainly times when the Bible is explicit about what you should believe about God, and life, and justice and so on and so forth. But the Bible isn’t a cold unfeeling list. Rather, the Bible, as Gerhard Vos said, is a historical book full of dramatic interest, and you have to read the scriptures with an eye towards that dramatic interest.
If you read the story of the Wise Men looking for a bullet point list of what to do and not to do here’s what you end up with:
- Look for new stars in the sky.
- Search for God like the Wise Men.
- Worship God like the Wise Men.
- Give to God like the Wise Men.
- Don’t kill babies like Herod did.
All of those points could be argued from the text, but none of those capture the essence of Matthew’s message. None of that list conveys the mystery and wonder that Matthew wants you to see. You have to read the scriptures as a drama unfolding with plot, and turn, and foils and resolution. That’s the only way you will appreciate its significance.
And you find that significance in two words: irony and joy. To understand this story you have to see the irony in it, and you have to see the joy in it.
Irony- Think back to the story– A caravan of Magi, having read the scriptures of Israel and expecting a King, along with their families and a small army, are traveling over 1,000 miles across the Arabian peninsula to find the one born king of the Jews. Meanwhile the Jewish king and all his chief priests and scribes are oblivious. Isn’t that ironic. Herod is five miles down the road from the greatest gift in human history. The chief priests, men who should have known the prophecies and known the stars, have no clue.
What is Matthew showing us? Matthew is showing us that the good news of the Christ child isn’t just good news for one privileged nation, or ethnic group, or social class. The gospel isn’t just for those who are on the in; those who have a Bible on the shelf, those who come to church. Remember who visited Jesus- shepherds and Magi. Matthew tells us that the gospel destroys every conceivable barrier you and I throw up against it. It always challenges the social circles we are comfortable with. God invites people we would never imagine.
Salvation is found in Christ alone– but all people are welcome to come to him. He came to rescue shepherds and philosophers, and school teachers, and small business owners, and those on welfare, and white collar alcoholics, and divorcées and pornographers and democrats and republicans and terrorists.
Don’t you see the irony of our situation? We spend so much time posturing to be in the right crowd and associated with the right groups while Jesus lived and died for all of them. The inclusion of the Magi—Pagan astrologers—is God’s way of saying don’t assume you know who I love and who I don’t love. And don’t you dare exclude those I am calling into my family.
It’s also ironic that these court officials in Persia traveled thousands of miles in order to pay homage to a toddler. That isn’t lost on Matthew. You have to create a mental picture of this. Imagine– a caravan of a few hundred people stop outside the small house of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem. As many as possible crowed in and start unloading boxes of gold, spices and oils. Then they worship a 12 month old. Why? I have an 18 month old who I love, but I promise you I don’t bow down to her. What would cause the most dignified men in Persia to bow down to a toddler? Well they understood exactly who this toddler was. And if you read the rest of Matthew you find out that this toddler grows into a man who has control over disease, demons, and even life and death. If you read the rest of the New Testament you see that the baby, lowly meek and mild, will one day return to this earth with sword in hand and a robe dipped in blood in order to judge the nations. While that may cause fear, Matthew also shows us joy. Though the Magi understood that this child would one day judge the nations they don’t respond with fear. Matthew tells us they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. Why?
Unlike earthly kings who oppress the poor, Jesus was born into a stable and called broken people into his Father’s family. You see, all of the kings in history were born into royalty, or they took it by bloodshed. In other words, if you were a ruler in the ancient world you were either detached from the common people due to your birth, or you ruled them with terror and fear. Jesus is a completely different kind of king.
The Son of God chose to give up his position of royalty, which belonged to him for eternity and was born into a poor family from Galilee. In doing this he was showing us what kind of people he would call to himself. Even the poorest of the poor is welcome. In fact, an ancient prophecy of the Messiah is found in Isaiah 43 and says, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” That prophecy tells us what we can expect from the savior king who God sent into the world. When bruised people approach this king he will not break their spirits. When those whose light is dwindling come to him he will not put them out.
Unlike earthly kings who kill their own family members, Jesus would die for his enemies. In this story Matthew contrasts the treachery of Herod against the compassion of Jesus. Herod executed members of his own family– Jesus forgave the very people who executed him. And I don’t mean Roman centurions or the ruling Jewish rulers. I mean us. The Bible plainly teaches that before Christ found us, we were his enemies. God created us and made us for his glory, and we denied him access to our life. We shut ourselves off from him and we broke his laws. Because we severed our relationship with him we deserved to be cut off. The wise men found supreme joy that there in a clay house in Bethlehem stood the one who would be cut off so that they could be brought in. My friends, until you realize that you are cut off from God, and Christ in love, chose to take your place you can’t understand joy.
How should we respond to such a king? Read part 3 of this series to find out.