The visit of the magi to the Child-Messiah, recorded in Matthew 2:1-12, is one of the most familiar biblical scenes to most Christians.The perception of this event has been unfortunately marred by a large number of popular misconceptions. Some of these derive from the popular song, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” Consider the following list of erroneous assumptions about the magi:
All of these ideas compose what might be called the mythology of the magi. Some of the misconceptions can be corrected by simply reading Matthew 2:1-12. Others can be dispelled by a logical reading of the text giving attention to its Jewish background.
This essay was originally published on December 12, 2006.
The apostle Paul was under arrest, being transported to Rome by a military guard. Along the way, his ship put in at the Lycian port of Myra, where the Roman centurion found a different ship that was sailing to Italy (Acts 27:5-6). The book of Acts does not tell how long Paul was in Myra between ships.
Nobody knows when or how the Christian church was established in Myra. Paul had previously ministered in cities near Myra, so perhaps missionaries from one of those churches may have gone to that town. Or perhaps Paul himself was able to do some preaching while waiting for the centurion to locate a ship to take Paul to Italy.
What we do know is that the church in Myra survived until persecution came under the Emperor Diocletian. The Diocletian persecution was the most widespread and deadly harassment of Christians in Roman history. So systematic and thorough was the persecution that the emperor believed he had wiped out Christianity forever. He even minted a coin to commemorate the event.
Well into the Diocletian persecution, the church in Myra found itself without a pastor. Unable to locate a new shepherd (pastors were special targets of the emperor), the church sought counsel from neighboring pastors. These church leaders gathered in Myra to pray and to seek the Lord’s provision of a new bishop for the church. When they had exhausted every alternative, they gave themselves to a night of prayer. They asked God to send His choice as the first person to enter the church building in the morning.
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is one of my favorite Christmas carols. In Scripture, God not only permits us to be merry, He encourages it. Sadly, when Christians focus on some truths while ignoring others, joy and merriment often suffer.
It is true that Christmas is a man-derived holiday. Although the birth of Jesus was divinely enacted, celebrating that birth is nowhere commanded in Scripture. But neither is it forbidden.
It is also true that the Paul’s command to “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4) is not primarily about merriment, yet His command to focus on the good things of this life (Philippians 4:8) implies enjoying more than the spiritual.
Proverbs 15:15 tells us that, if our hearts are cheerful, life is like a party: “All the days of the afflicted are evil, but the cheerful of heart has a continual feast.”
Proverbs 17:22 says, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”
The Hebrew word for gladness or joy is simcha (pronounced with a hard ch, as in Bach). The word came to be used for a celebration, as Wikipedia states:
Jews often use simcha in its capacity as a Hebrew and Yiddish noun meaning festive occasion. The reason for it is that any celebration is a happy occasion. The term is used for any happy occasion, such as a wedding, Bar Mitzvah, Brit Milah [circumcision] or engagement.
Christmas and New Year’s are times of celebration, and during this season we need to enjoy each simcha that comes our way. But that is not always easy. Sometimes the “Ghosts of Christmas Past” get in our way.
Any Christian discussion of holidays must begin with the recognition that we observe them in the absence of any biblical requirement. Does this mean that it is wrong to celebrate holidays? Not as long as the holiday is simply a focused instance of something that Christians have a biblical obligation to do anyway. Christians ought to ponder the incarnation, so it is not wrong to have a day or even a season regularly set aside for that purpose. Christians ought to exult in Jesus’ resurrection, so it is not wrong to set aside a day to focus especially on that event. Observances such as Easter and Christmas are allowable as matters of circumstance, but they must never be treated as required elements of our worship.
What complicates the discussion is the large number of cultural and commercial accretions that tend to attach themselves to the holidays. Holidays can even become occasions of vice. Something like this has happened within American Christianity. Evidently, the liturgical calendar of modern America includes seven principal holidays, each of which is devoted to the pursuit of a deadly sin: Thanksgiving (gluttony), Christmas (greed), Valentine’s Day (lust), Easter (envy), Independence Day (pride), Labor Day (sloth), and Halloween (vengeance).
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CHAPTER 3: THE PURPOSES OF THE INCARNATION.
BY REV. G. CAMPBELL MORGAN, D. D., PASTOR OF WESTMINSTER CHAPEL, LONDON, ENGLAND.
The title of this meditation marks its limitation, and indicates its scope.
Here is no attempt at defense of the statement of the New Testament that “the Word was made flesh.” That is taken for granted as true.
Moreover, here is no attempt to explain the method of the Holy Mystery. That is recognized as Mystery: a fact revealed which is yet beyond human comprehension or explanation.
The scope is that of considering in broad outline the plain teaching of the New Testament as to the purposes of the Incarnation.
Its final limitation is that of its brevity. If, however, it serve to arouse a deeper sense of the wonder of the great central fact of our common Faith, and thus to inspire further meditation, its object will be gained.
The whole teaching of Holy Scripture places the Incarnation at the center of the methods of God with a sinning race.