GAINING WISDOM FROM THE WISE MEN
Have you ever embarked on a difficult journey? Perhaps it challenged you physically, financially, mentally, or emotionally. Maybe there were some risks involved and you had no way of knowing in advance just how it would turn out. It may have been a journey to a particular location. Maybe it was a strenuous activity, like six months of training for a marathon, or several years of intense studying to earn an advanced academic degree. It could be a step of obedience to God in which He called you to do something that really pushed you out of your comfort zone. There are lots of journeys we undertake in life, and some of them are very challenging.
When I was a university student, I took a year off from my studies and journeyed to Bolivia to work with a missionary family in Cochabamba. I had never been to Bolivia before; in fact, I hadn’t travelled internationally before. I didn’t know anyone in Bolivia, including the family I would work with. I didn’t speak a word of Spanish. I didn’t know where I would live. Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, so I had to do without some of the comforts I was used to. I had to raise financial support from family and friends, and then hope that they would honor their financial commitments throughout the year I was there. Most did honor their commitments but not all did.
Why did I undertake this year-long journey? Well, of course I sensed God wanted me to do it. But in addition to that, I did it because I was convinced it had value, that no matter the difficulty and risks involved, it would be worth it. There would be things that I would gain from the experience and hopefully others would also benefit from my being there. I set out on the journey because regardless of the challenges and sacrifices, I believed it would be worth it.
And that is why any of us are willing to undertake a journey that poses some challenges to us. We believe that somehow it will be worth it, that there is something to be gained. We may grow as a person. We may experience things we could never experience otherwise or see things we’ve never seen before. We may simply enjoy a sense of accomplishment in having successfully completed a difficult task. We may gain knowledge or develop new relationships. It may lead to a new career. It may deepen our faith or lead to a fresh experience with God. It could be any number of things. But in the end, we undertake a difficult journey because we believe that somehow in some way it will be worth it.
In Scripture we encounter a group of men who undertook a difficult and dangerous journey. They were, of course, the wise men, or the magi. We read about them and their journey in Mt. 2:1-12.
After 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 Christ 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. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 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.
Just who were these men? Well, we really don’t know very much about them. “Magi” means astrologers or magicians. They came from the east, probably Persia – the region of present-day Iran, but again we don’t know specifically where they came from. Tradition says that there were three because they gave three gifts to the Christ child, although Scripture never says how many there actually were.
Whoever and however many of these Magi there were, they set off on a difficult journey into the unknown. They followed a star – not surprising for astrologers.
That raises an interesting question for us. The Bible condemns astrology. For instance, we read in Is. 47:12-15 how some of the ancient Israelites were looking to astrologers for guidance. Isaiah warned of the judgment coming to these astrologers, for in looking to the stars for guidance and meaning, astrology invites us to place our trust in something other than God and the guidance He offers us for our lives. So, astrology then becomes a kind of false god. And yet these magi were most likely astrologers and it was a star that indicated to them that a king of the Jewish people had been born. Why would God condemn astrology on the one hand yet at the same time reach out to these astrologers and guide them by means of a star to honor and worship the Christ child?
Well, perhaps this simply illustrates that God takes us wherever we are. We don’t have to first change, or meet some moral or religious standard of behavior before God will accept us. No, if we turn to God, God accepts us just the way we are for God is a God of grace.
Now, that is not the end of the matter. As we grow in our relationship with God there will be changes to make along the way. There will things we need to let go of – sin, selfish attitudes, behaviors that are hurtful to others. And there will be other things to embrace – a willingness to obey God, a desire to be transformed into the character of Christ, a love for God and for others.
Only then can we experience the fullness of life God offers us and be Christ’s representatives in the world. That’s all part of the journey of following Christ.
But we don’t have to change first in order that God will accept us. Even the apostle Paul, who was a narrow-minded, legalistic Pharisee intent on destroying the church, did not have to change before being accepted and called by God. No, God accepted Paul just as he was as Christ appeared to Paul even while Paul was on his way to arrest Christian believers, and then the changes followed. That is the same pattern for us.
Now, it’s likely that these magi knew something of the true God and His plan to send the Messiah into the world. For several centuries before, many Jews, including Daniel, had been captured and taken to the land of Babylon, which was later conquered by the Persians. The faith of Daniel and his fellow Jews became known to the Persians, so it’s likely that the magi knew of these teachings and traditions, and somehow connected the appearance of this star with the birth of the promised Messiah, this King of the Jews they spoke of to King Herod.
And so, these magi were led to the Christ child because they were seeking God. That doesn’t mean that God approved of their belief in or practice of astrology. It simply means that God took them where they were because their hearts were seeking after God. That’s why they set out on this long, dangerous journey to an unknown destination.
And it was a difficult journey that they undertook. It took at least several months, perhaps quite a bit more. They had to travel through difficult terrain, with the threat of robbers and bandits a constant companion. They had to deal with harsh weather conditions in traveling through a desert region. Perhaps there were blinding sandstorms along the way. They didn’t even know what their destination was. But in searching for the newborn Jewish king they were seeking after the true God, and so they knew that no matter the threats, inconveniences or obstacles, their journey would be worth it.
The fact that the magi were seeking after an encounter with the true God also tells us that they recognized something was missing in their lives. They were unsatisfied and desired something more, something deeper and more meaningful. They were not going to settle for anything less than an encounter with the true God. Only such a desire, a dream of something more, something of eternal meaning and value could have motivated them to set out on such a long and dangerous journey.
There are a number of things for us to learn from these wise men. The first is just what I’ve said. In journeying to Bethlehem, the magi were seeking after God because they recognized their need for God and no obstacle or hindrance was going to keep them from their goal. And so, we need to ask ourselves how we are doing on the most important journey we ever take, and that is our spiritual journey.
Like the magi, have we acknowledged that apart from God there will always be an emptiness to our lives? And, therefore, are we seeking after God first and foremost? What is the main goal of our lives? If it is anything other than a growing relationship with the living God it will leave us wanting for more. Ultimately nothing else can satisfy us.
So, we need clear vision so we will not be deceived by lesser goals. God promises us in Jer. 29:13: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” A passionate desire to seek after God is what characterized the magi, and that is what should characterize us as well.
Now sometimes our journey with Christ means overcoming challenges. It can be a difficult journey as was true for the magi. Instead of facing the challenges of a trek across the desert inhabited by robbers and bandits, for us the journey means dying to sin and selfishness. It means giving up certain habits that maybe we’ve come to really enjoy or find comfort in. It means being a servant of Christ and a servant to others. It may include suffering or persecution as we stand for Christ. There are challenges in our journey with Christ.
But on the other hand, it means being filled with a deep confidence in God’s love for us. It means experiencing the hope, peace and joy that only God can give. It means having our life rooted in the One who will never abandon us. It means being guided through life by the One whose wisdom is perfect. It means enjoying meaningful purpose for our lives – the purpose for which we were created. It means growing in character and service. It means the assurance of eternity in the presence of God.
There is so much for us to gain from this journey that no challenge or difficulty can compare to what God offers us. As we are promised in that passage from Jeremiah, when we seek God with all our hearts we will find Him, just as the Magi found the Christ-child. And that’s what really makes life worth living. So that’s the first thing we learn from the Magi – that our spiritual journey is the most important journey of our lives.
Second, the magi told those they met in Jerusalem that they had followed the star of the new born king that they might worship Him. That was the purpose of their journey, and that’s just what they did when they found the Christ child. It says in vs. 11 that when they came to the house where the infant Jesus was with Mary “they bowed down and worshiped him.”
The magi not only recognized that only the true God could fill the longing of their souls, they also understood that God is worthy of worship, and that somehow God was present in this baby boy. In fact, the wise men believed that God is so worthy of worship they were willing to embark on this long and dangerous journey to an unknown destination just so they could worship.
That obviously poses the question to us: How strong is our desire to worship God? Do we worship only when things are going well, or only when it’s convenient, or do we choose to worship even when things are not going so well and even when it involves sacrifice?
The strength of our desire to worship God will be determined by our view of God. If our picture of God is distorted so that we think of God as being rather remote, uncaring, unconcerned, unable or unwilling to impact our lives in a significant way, or if we think God is not all that essential to living a meaningful life, then we will not be inclined to worship God in any substantial way. If we think of God as being a harsh judge who piles on rule after rule so we can’t enjoy life too much we will not make worship a priority.
But if we see God truly, like the wise men we will spare no effort to worship God. If we see God as the One who is perfectly good, abounding in love, and utterly holy we will long to worship God. If we consider how God has demonstrated His love for us – sending His Son not only to be born in a manger but ultimately to die on the cross so we can be forgiven and live eternally with Him, our desire to worship will flourish. If we understand that in Christ God has defeated death and the evil one and that one day all evil will be forever banished, we will eagerly worship God.
The magi knew very little about God or how the baby before whom they bowed was God made flesh, yet they knew God is worthy of worship – even when their worship required a lot of sacrifice on their part. We know so much more of who God is and all God has done for us. How much more then, should we be ready and willing to make any sacrifice in order to worship God.
For worship is central to our journey with Christ. In worship we not only give God the glory and honor that He deserves, but we grow and our faith is renewed as we behold God’s greatness in worship. Our relationship with God is strengthened as we draw near to God in worship. We are equipped to live as followers of Christ as we open our hearts to the Spirit of God in worship. The progress we make in our journey with Christ will be in large part determined by the place we give worship in our lives.
And worship includes not only what we do here on Sunday mornings, or in a Home Fellowship Group, or even in our private devotions. Worship includes all of life, for in all of life we should seek to live in such a way that brings honor to God. As Rom. 12:1 states, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.” We offer our bodies, that is our whole lives to God; this is true worship.
Through our character, the nature of our relationships, our attitudes, the content of our conversations, our obedience to God, and so on, we should seek to honor God. That’s not simply about acting religious, or sprinkling our conversations with a lot of “Praise the Lords.” It means living by godly values, loving others as we love ourselves, considering the interests of others, a grateful heart, and then being willing to speak a word of authentic witness to our Lord as He gives us the opportunities to do so.
The Magi recognized that God is worthy of worship, and so they bowed before the Christ-child. We have the Bible that tells us how deeply God loves us, and that this Child grew up to later die on the cross for our forgiveness and so we could enjoy eternal life. In response, our whole lives should be lived as an act of worship, bringing honor to God.
Third, as an expression of their worship the wise men offered gifts to the Christ child. And the gifts were very significant. The gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh were all gifts of great value. They were costly gifts. The wise men held nothing back in their giving.
How about us? Do we give God our best? And by that I do not refer only to our financial giving, although that obviously is part of what we give to God. But we also can give God the gift of our time. In this regard do we give God only a few spare minutes here or there, or do we give God quality time? This would include not only the time we give in Bible study and prayer, but also the time we give in service here in the church or to others in the community.
When it comes to giving back to God we also need to include the talents and abilities God has given us. It may be teaching, serving, administration, compassion, music, or being a kind of handyman. As an act of worship, we need to give back to God with the best He has given us.
When we consider the greatness of who God is and all that God has done for our benefit, surely we will want to follow the example of the magi and give God our very best. For our journey with Christ includes not only learning more of Christ. It includes not only worship. It also involves giving our best to Christ to be used in His service.
There is no journey of more importance than our journey with Christ, a journey that takes us from the darkness of ignorance about God and His purpose for our lives, to the light of the knowledge of God and the opportunity to fulfill all we were created to be and do.
Christmas, which we have just celebrated this past week, is God’s invitation to us to begin the journey. Even as God used the star to beckon the wise men to come to Him, so through the coming of Christ God was telling us that we matter to Him and how He desires that we draw near to Him so we can experience life in all its fullness.
God drew nthisear to us in the coming of the Christ child, and through the Christ child He invites us to draw near to Him. As this Christmas season draws to a close, let me encourage you to allow the love of God in Christ to draw you deeper into the journey of knowing God and walking with God.
Seek after God with all your heart. Make worship a priority. Give your best in service to Christ. As you do, you’ll discover that this is definitely a journey worth taking!