Summary: A Christmas Message.
THE UNWISE WISE MEN
INTRO: One of the real dangers of the Christmas season is that we lose sight of reality in the midst of all the traditions we observe. There is nothing inherently wrong with Christmas lights, gifts, trees, and even Santa Claus. The value of each custom depends on the meaning we incorporate into it. However, we must continually remind ourselves what the reality is as opposed to the myth which surrounds it.
This is particularly true of the traditional way we view the Wise Men. Perhaps the carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are” best summarizes our tradition. While there is nothing wrong with the carol, we should remind ourselves that it is not historically or scripturally accurate.
I. THE MYTH.
Let us separate fact from myth on just a few points. First, the Bible does not say how many Wise Men were present. The traditional number of three arose because of the three gifts. This may or may not have been the case.
Second, the Wise Men were certainly not kings. The Greek word magi is the same root word from which our word “magician” is derived. The magi were probably a group of Medians who lost a bid for power and became a priestly tribe in Persia. Their particular interests included philosophy, medicine, and astrology. As astrologists, they heard the story of Jesus’ coming birth.
Third, the magi were not from the Orient, at least in the modern conception of the Orient. They were from the east, more accurately the northeast, but we must be careful not to place them too far east.
Fourth (vv. 9-10), the magi did not actually follow the star westward as the carol states. Being astrologers, the magi searched the heavens for unusual formations and phenomenon. One day they saw such a phenomenon “rising in the east.”
Having already heard rumors of an expected birth of a king in Israel, they naturally assumed a connection. They proceeded west as fast as they could. According to Scripture, they did not see the star again until they left Jerusalem and their fateful meeting with Herod.
Fifth (v. 11), the magi probably did not arrive on the scene until Jesus was six months to a year old. This becomes obvious when the accounts in Matthew and Luke are considered together.
So our manger scene with shepherds, magi, and animals viewing the newborn baby is quiet inaccurate. I must hasten to add that presenting the traditional scene is not wrong as long as we keep in mind what actually happened. The traditional scene allows us to condense the story for greater impact. The meaning of the story is not altered by the timing.
II. THE UNWISE WISE MEN.
The term: “Wise Men” is inaccurate. On several points the magi demonstrated anything but wisdom.
First, consider their belief in astrology. Guiding one’s life by the stars was big business then and now. However, the Bible frowns on the practice (Isaiah 47:13; Jeremiah 10:2) and modern science has proved the practice without merit. Thus, we must be careful in making the magi wise because we run the risk of raising astrology to an acceptable practice.
Second, we find mention of magi paying tribute to Nero. They were no doubt following the stars. This time, however, the stars led them astray. Because God used the stars in this one instance does not legitimize astrology. God often works at our level of understanding in order to raise us to His.
Third, the magi demonstrated their lack of wisdom by visiting Herod. Because of their mistake, many children died. Herod’s violent jealousy and protectiveness were a matter of public record. A few carefully chosen questions of some knowledgeable Israelites could have prevented the whole mess. A wise man would surely have foreseen the possibility of a jealous king.
To compound the error the Wise Men were planning to return to the king and report Jesus’ whereabouts. They couldn’t see through Herod’s ploy. God had to intervene with His first personal revelation to the Wise Men in order to prevent disaster.
III. POSITIVE CHARACTERISTICS.
The Wise Men were not all that wise. They made mistakes. These mistakes, however, were not the result of character flaws or evil intentions. As we separate myth from fact, we realize that the Wise Men were no more or less wise than we are.
So, why do we continue to keep them in our tradition of Christmas? Because they exercised two character traits which are worthy of inclusion in our lives.
First, they searched for a sign. Perhaps they searched in the wrong place, but at least they searched. God rewarded their effort. According to a modern myth, when a person becomes blind, his hearing ability increases. The fact is that the person has no more ability to hear than before. That person simply develops or concentrates more fully on that ability. The sense of hearing becomes more sensitive because the mind is less distracted.