Today on Summit Life, J.D. Greer gives some historical context to the first Christmas. Our favorite Christmas carols completely romanticize and misconstrue the night of his birth, making it seem like some genteel, precious moments event, rather than the chaotic, inconvenient, she's having the baby right now and we don't have a place even to to check in for the night moment that it actually was. Welcome to Summit Life with pastor, author, and theologian, J.D.
Greer. I'm your host, Molly Vidovitch. We all know the popular Christmas carol, We Three Kings. In fact, I bet you're humming it right now, aren't you? But we all know that the three wise men didn't receive a birth announcement in the mail from Mary. Today we'll find out how these three pagan philosophers were among the first to worship Jesus. We're in a series called Upside Down Christmas and pastor J.D. titled today's message, The Gospel According to the Wise Men. This is a story that many of us know. It probably strikes you.
You probably thought of it as a quaint little cute Christmas bedtime story. But this story is absolutely loaded with profound, counterintuitive truth that reveals to you the essence of the gospel. And it is going to address some of life's absolute deepest questions. Things like, how can we believe there is a loving God when the world seems like it's in such a chaotic mess? Or perhaps this question, if Christianity is really true, why don't all the smart people in our world automatically agree on it? You ever have that question? If Christianity is really true, if God is really the author of it, why isn't it that all the smart people get it?
Why does my college professor ridicule it and make me feel like an idiot for believing it? Or how about this, what about all the people in the world who are not Christians? What does God say about them? How does God feel about them? You ever have some of those questions?
I do. And there have been times in my life where those questions provided a real stumbling block, something that really troubled my faith. The answers to all of those questions, or at least the beginnings of those answers, are in this story.
This quaint little Christmas bedtime story. Matthew chapter 2 verse 1. Now after Jesus had been born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he who has been born the king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose, and we have come to worship him.
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all of Jerusalem with him. Now first of all, we got several wrong assumptions about the birth story of Jesus that I feel like it would be helpful for us to clear up as we get into this story. First of all, our favorite Christmas carols completely romanticize and misconstrue the night of his birth, making it seem like some genteel, precious moments event, rather than the chaotic, inconvenient, oh my God, she's having the baby right now, and we don't have a place even to check in for the night moment that it actually was. For example, one of our favorite Christmas carols, Silent Night, Holy Night, All is Calm, All is Bright, have you ever been present for the birth of a baby?
I've been present for the birth of four of them, all of them were mine, and I can promise you not one of them was a silent night, all was not calm, all was not bright, even after the epidural, all was not calm and all was not bright. Or how about this one, Away in a Manger, Away in a Manger, No Crib for a Bed. Think about this line, the cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.
If on the first night of your newborn baby's life, he wakes up next to a cow that is staring at him mooing, do you honestly think, no crying he makes? All right, second, and I really do hate to mess up your nativity sets, but the wise men were not present at the manger scene. They started traveling, this story tells us, when Jesus was born, and we knew it took several months after he was born for them to arrive, so to that end, I have taken the wise men pieces, out of our manger scenes around my house, and I have put them across the room to signify that on the night of Jesus' birthday we're traveling, this totally annoys my wife, but it's accurate, and I'm the spiritual leader, so there you go. If you really want to be accurate, by the way, then bring these pieces back out in June, because that's probably about the time that they showed up at Jesus' event, so bring them back out for like a Christmas part two event. Third, we always assumed that there were three wise men, probably based on the fact that there were three gifts given, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but it never says that there were three.
In fact, a school of traveling astrologers likely would have included at least a dozen or so astrologers. This was a caravan that most likely included these guys, their wives, their servants, their kids, their donkeys, and a whole slew of people. Plus, it says in verse three that they troubled the whole city. A group of three guys on camels aren't going to get the attention of a city like Jerusalem, so it's probably a huge group. There's an ancient tradition that says that these three guys were named Gaspar, Melchior, and Baltazar, but there is absolutely no verification on that. We don't know their names. I did hear about one little boy who was the third wise man in one of the Christmas plays, and so, you know, the first wise man came on with his gift and says, this is gold. The second wise man came on and said, this is myrrh, and the third wise man, this little boy, walked on and said, Frank sent this, which, so one of them might have been named Frank, but we don't know.
All right, so those are your misconceptions. Now that I've cleared that up, who exactly were these guys? Who were they? Well, it's obvious that they were astrologers, but don't just think kooky stargazing club. Their title indicates that they were part of the Persian priestly ruling class. Well, how did they put all this together, that, you know, the star indicated a king and that sort of thing? Short answer is, of course, God revealed it to them, but let me postulate, if I could, just a little bit further for you.
This is a highly educated but deeply accurate guess that I'm about to give you, so just hear me out. Persia is where many of the children of Israel have been sent into exile. Right, we know that from the books of Daniel and Jeremiah and those kind of things. We know from the book of Daniel that some of the greatest men of God, some of his prophets, were numbered among the wise men, like Daniel.
Daniel, you know Daniel in the Lion's Den guy? He was, if you recall, part of the tribe of the wise men. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, which were the three guys with the fiery furnace. They were part of the wise man, the wise men. There is absolutely no doubt that they shared the writings of Moses and the prophets with these guys. Well, the writings of Moses and the prophets are chock full of prophecies about the Messiah.
In fact, there is one that these guys were very likely to have known that I think is particularly relevant to this event. It's from the story of Balaam that's recorded in Numbers, chapter 23, and that story, if you're unfamiliar with it, goes something like this. There's an enemy king of Israel, a guy named Balak, who wants to curse the children of Israel, so he goes out and he hires a hot prophet named Balaam and pays him a lot of money to curse the children of Israel. Well, Balaam, who is evidently not a very conscientious prophet, agrees to this really high price, and so he gets on his donkey to travel to overlook the children of Israel from the top of this mountain peak so he can get them all at one time and throw down a curse on him. All right, well, God didn't want that to happen, so while Balaam is on his way on this journey, God puts an angel who has a sword drawn standing in the way of this donkey. And so God then opens the eyes of this donkey who sees this angel with the sword drawn, and so he turns, he veers off to the side. Well, Balaam is pretty ticked about this, so he beats the donkey. After a couple minutes, the angel moves, and so the donkey gets back on the road and he goes. This time, the angel reappears, but now he is in the middle of a road that's between two walls on either side, so that the donkey can't veer off, so the donkey just tries to go over to the side to get around him, because you remember what happened last time when he went too far off, and he scrapes Balaam s foot, so Balaam curses and beats the donkey again.
Here's Numbers 23, 26. Then the angel of the Lord went ahead and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she laid down under Balaam, and Balaam's anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff.
At this point, he is just flat fed up. He just goes Old Testament on that donkey. All right, verse 28. Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times? And Balaam said to the donkey, Because you have made a fool out of me. Not, mind you, excuse me, why are you talking, but you made a fool out of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you. This part is great right here. And the donkey said to Balaam, Am I not your donkey, that you have ridden on all of your life long to this day?
Is it my habit to treat you this way? And Balaam said, No. And then God opens up Balaam's eyes to see the angel, and he realizes that his ass had saved his life. And so, instead of cursing Israel, Balaam prophesies a blessing over Israel, and part of that prophecy of blessing that he gave was this. Listen, a star will come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.
Numbers 24, 17. Which meant that a king would rise up who would rule the whole world and bring blessing to all the nations on earth. Now, I have to think that these wise men from Persia might have been familiar with that prophecy for them left 400 years before by Daniel. And when God causes this unusual heavenly activity, these wise men who were the descendants of the wise men that had been friends with Daniel very likely might have said, That's it. That's what we've been hearing about right there. So, let's go to Judah and see what actually is unfolding here.
All right. That's the wise man. Now, let me give you a little background, if I could, on Herod because understanding Herod will help you make sense out of the story. Herod was one of the absolute worst tyrant kings that Israel had ever had. He was Jewish, but he was a Roman puppet.
A few very annoying things about him. First, he was very ostentatious. He built everything he could. He built big showy places, palaces, and temples, and plastered his name on them. For example, there was an ancient tradition that said that when King David was trying to escape Saul, that he climbed up onto the top of this little mountain peak in a place called Masada, and he'd hid out in the cave there. And so, Herod thought, well, if the mightiest king in Israel hid out in the cave of Masada, I'm going to one-up him by building a big palace there. And he built one of the most immense palaces known in the ancient world. I've actually been there and seen the ruins of it.
It's unbelievable. He built these storerooms that would preserve food because in case he was under siege or something, he figured out a way to pack and preserve dates and figs that would preserve them for hundreds of years. A group of archaeologists in the 1940s were excavating this area, and they found one of Herod's old storerooms still filled with food that he had stored 2,000 years ago. Still preserved.
In fact, the account I read said that some of the archaeologists actually unwrapped a few of these dates and figs and ate them. But then they had to quickly look for Herod's bathroom. So that's just how he went.
Everything was impressive. Second, he was psychotically paranoid about losing power. Psychotic. He had his wife killed because he thought she was conspiring against him. And just for good measure, he went ahead and killed her brother and her mother. A few years later, he had all three of his sons killed because he suspected them of wanting his throne.
Charges turned out to be totally false, but that's just how he was. And probably the craziest thing, when he was on his deathbed, he ordered dozens of other noblemen to be executed at the moment of his death because he wanted the land to mourn his passing. And he figured nobody would actually mourn his passing, so if he could create hardship throughout the countryside, then people would cry when he died, even if it wasn't for him.
The Emperor Augustus, Caesar Augustus, said it would be better to have been Herod's sow than one of his sons. So he was brutal. And finally, he was just a terrible ruler who exploited everybody for his own selfish ends. He had one agenda that he wanted, and it was his exaltation. One time, when he was short on money, he had the 45 wealthiest citizens executed on trumped-up charges and seized their estates. That's how he avoided his fiscal cliff. I mean, he really stuck it to the 1%, all right?
But not just them, by the way. Half of everything that the common man made was taken for Herod, and another 12.5% was taken for Caesar, and then another portion of that was taken for a tax collector. If, for example, you were a fisherman, then when you brought your harvest back into land, there would literally be a tax collector standing there, like Zacchaeus, who would take 50% for Herod, 12.5% off of your boat for Caesar, and then take an unspecified amount for himself. They say by the time it was all said and done, you would have paid, the average person paid as much as 75% in taxes.
It was like living in France. By the way, Jesus told this group they should always pay their taxes, even in that ridiculous system. At one point, under Herod's reign, the Sanhedrin sent a delegation to appeal to Caesar, saying that Herod had reduced Israel to a land of helpless beggars.
So that's Herod, all right? Let's go back to verse 4. And so, assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. Now, this next verse is absolutely amazing. They told him in Bethlehem of Judea, for so it's written by the prophet, Micah 5 2, and you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, you are by no means least among the rulers of Judah, for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel. Now, you'd expect the next verse to be something like this.
And so, all the scribes and all the religious leaders, man, they packed up their stuff and they hided, tailed it over to Bethlehem to get a glimpse of Jesus, the promised Messiah. Look at your next verse. Is that what it says? Nope. Nothing. Unfathomable indifference.
We'll discuss that next weekend. Verse 7, then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem saying, go and search diligently for the child. And when you have found him, bring me word that I too may come and worship him. Now, does he really want to worship him?
Oh, no. That's why I told you all that stuff about Herod. He pretends worship, but he intends murder. Verse 9, after listening to the king, they went on their way and behold the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother and they fell down and they worshiped him. Then opening their treasures, they offered him gifts and gold and frankincense and myrrh.
Next week, we'll talk about specifically what those three gifts mean. But here, verse 12, being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. Let's stop right there for our first three observations about the gospel that are embedded in this, what many of us consider to be children's story.
Listen to this, number one. Number one, the gospels for the nations. This might be, by the way, the main point of this story. You see, each of the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, each of the four gospels is written for an intended audience, different audiences. In the gospel of Matthew, the intended audience is the Jews and he's trying to show the Jews that Jesus was the promised Messiah and King. But interestingly, when you consider the fact that it's written for the Jews, the first people who come to worship Jesus and Matthew are not Jews, they are pagan philosophers.
That is no accident. Matthew's last words in his gospel are the Great Commission, go into all the Gentile nations and preach the gospel. So in other words, Matthew bookends a gospel written for the Jews with a focus on the nations. He begins his gospel by showing the nations coming to see the Messiah. He ends his gospel by telling the church to go to the nations and tell them about the Messiah. Because you see, the core of the gospel message is that Jesus came for the nations. Jesus was not a Jewish savior or an American savior or a Middle Eastern savior. Jesus was the only savior.
There is no hope for forgiveness of sins and healing from the curse apart from him. And the task of the church is not complete until people from every nation have come to kneel at his feet like these wise men and worship him. So we cannot read this story without reflecting on the fact that there are still what we call 6,000 or so unreached people groups around the world. An unreached people group is defined as a group of 10,000 people or more united by a common language that have little to no access of the gospel. 1.48 billion people have no access to the gospel at all, which means it's just not in their language. 3 billion, 3.06 billion have little access to it. In the country that I used to live in, Indonesia, there are 76,000 villages.
50,000 of those villages are without a church. And our job as a church is not complete until they know, until they've had a chance to hear. So we will not as a church ever be content to play church while they do not know. We will keep giving. We will keep going until absolutely everyone has heard. That's why when people say to me, like, oh, man, you've accomplished this, and you've done this, and what about this?
So you don't even know. The mission of God is not the building of a church that we're all comfortable in. So we'll never get to a point where we build everything we want to build and we sit back because there are still all these people groups filled with wise men like this all around the world who have never heard. That is the mission of the church, which leads me to a question I'd love to ask you about your life.
What are you doing with your life? Because the mission of the Bible is that there are wise men in every nation, some of them searching for truth in the stars, and we have to go tell them. I know that not everybody is, I know that not everybody is called to go overseas, but I would say that probably a lot more of us than are going are called. I would just, in fact, if that is the mission of God, the mission of God is to see the gospel taken all around the world, doesn't it make sense that the burden of proof should lie on you for staying than it would be for going? Again, I'm not telling you that all of you are called, I'm just saying that probably a lot more of you are called than are actually thinking about it. I would say that the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate why you are staying.
I don't mind at all. In fact, I'd love it for you to stay in Riley Durham here, but if you do so, I want to be because God has directed you to, and I think you need to be ready to stand before God and explain to him why you stayed in a place where, in the city of Durham alone, there were 418 Baptist churches, and where we could go downtown to the Durham Performing Arts Center and put on a gospel presentation, why you chose to stay in a place where there was so much opportunity and neglected places all around the world where there was absolutely no opportunity at all. This is the mission of the church, and so Matthew begins and ends his gospel by saying, the nations are coming. They're going to come and see, and I'm going to end this gospel by telling the church to go and tell. I'm not telling you, I'm not trying to play the Holy Spirit and tell you what you're called to, but I am very comfortable saying that if you choose to stay in a place where there is so much, you need to be ready to justify that when there are so many places that have almost nothing at all, because there are wise men in every nation who are searching for who are searching for truth in the stars.
The gospel is for the nations, number two. Number two, God commandeers the universe to accomplish his purposes. God commandeers the universe to accomplish his purposes. Matthew stamps his Christmas story with evidence of God's absolute control over everything. God caused Rome to tax the whole world so that he could move Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem where the prophecy said that he would be born.
Remember I pointed out to you the just the complete inefficiency of that? I mean, God could have whispered to Joseph to just take a trip to Bethlehem. He could do that, but instead he moved Rome to do a census of the whole world. That's just Matthew's way of showing you that God has no problem wielding an entire empire to accomplish the fulfillment of one little teeny tiny prophecy.
Here, Matthew shows you that God wants pagan sorcerers to be among the first to worship Jesus at his birthday party. Just to make a point, so he commandeers the constellations to bring them there. He controls the heavens. He speaks through donkeys.
He manipulates governments. There is not one square inch of the entire universe, including every decision made in Caesar's palace over which God does not have complete control. The book of Psalms says that he'll make even the unrighteous wrath of man bring praise to him. God has one overriding purpose for you as a believer and that is to reveal Jesus to you and to bring forth Jesus from you to others. That is the pursuit that he has been on every day in every second of your life is to bring you to a place where you would know and understand and love Jesus and where you would be in a position to be able to demonstrate his glory to the world. That's why the pain was in your life.
That's why the disappointment. It's all been about bringing forth Jesus from you. We are blessed without the gospel. The wise men and shepherds show you that you don't have to be the right kind of person.
You are accepted just as you are. A powerful message this Christmas from Pastor J.D. Greer. If you happen to tune in late or if you'd like to hear the previous messages in this series called Upside Down Christmas, you can find them all free of charge at jdgreer.com. And right now we have another resource that we'd like to get into your hands as well.
J.D. often talks about the importance of using our resources for God's glory and that includes our resource of time. Our team at Summit Life has created a brand new resource, the 2021 Summit Life Date Planner. As you use the monthly and weekly agendas, you're also going to notice Bible verses that remind you of the timely and important truth that God makes all things new. This planner will help you stay organized and it also includes a Bible reading plan to remind you to keep God at the center of every day. Ask for a copy when you support the ministry with a generous year in donation by calling 866-335-5220.
That's 866-335-5220. Or request the planner when you give online and make your first gift as a monthly gospel partner at jdgreer.com. While you're on the website, you can also sign up for our email list to get ministry updates, information about new resources, and Pastor J.D. 's latest blog posts delivered straight to your inbox.
It's a great way to stay connected with Summit Life. Sign up for the email list when you go to jdgreer.com. If it's easier, you can mail your donation and requests for the planner. Write to J.D. Greer Ministries, P.O.
Box 122-93, Durham, North Carolina, 277-09. And don't forget to connect with us on social media too. Pastor J.D. is active on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Visit jdgreer.com slash contact to get plugged in right now. I'm Molly Vitovich. Join us again tomorrow as we conclude this series called Upside Down Christmas. Pastor J.D. is showing us that this story of the wise men isn't just a bonus feature of the Christmas narrative.
It actually teaches some really powerful truths about the gospel. That's Thursday on Summit Life with J.D. Greer. Today's program was produced and sponsored by J.D. Greer Ministries.
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