One of my most vivid memories of Christmas as a child was
the live nativity scene sponsored by the Methodist church in
my hometown. I remember the live animals, the child and
the Magi or wise men and their gifts. At that time I had no clue as to the
significance of the scene and what it said about the coming of Christ.
In Matthew’s Gospel and his presentation of the infancy narratives he alone includes the visit of the Magi. In chapter two he presents four vignettes or snapshots that are representative of human nature. In the Magi we see humanity under the power of grace. In Herod we see humanity under the power of sin. In the religious leaders we see humanity under the power of the law. In the child we see representative humanity, the second Adam and the new Israel. Matthew’s inclusion of the Magi story was a bombshell. He takes great pains to show the international, inclusive nature of the kingdom of heaven and some shocking surprises about who is in and who is out. Let’s consider these four snapshots and see what they reveal about the nature of humanity.
The Magi depict humanity under the power of grace. Are they good people or bad people? Good insofar as they retain remnants of the image of God and bad insofar as the corruption of original sin extends to every dimension of their being. Here we see the Gospel irony—pagans responding more favorably to the birth of Christ than the religious leaders. The Magi are not only evil gentiles and outsiders, but idolaters and astrologers. However in this narrative they are walking illustrations of God’s amazing grace. This is how we know Matthew’s Gospel is authentic and not just a propaganda document. If Matthew was writing propaganda for his Jewish audience he would never have included the story of the Magi.
Note how the story reveals God’s use of both general (natural) and special revelation (Scripture). The star, natural revelation, leads them to Jerusalem to the scribes, special revelation to Bethlehem and saving revelation. Nature brought them to the Hebrew Scriptures, which led them to Christ. God’s uses of the natural world and our experience to convict us of our need, awaken longings within us to seek for truth and sends us to His Word to show us the glory of Christ. The Magi had a Persian worldview and at its root was a study of the stars. Their core belief was that the microcosm of humanity is in a magnetic, symbiotic relationship with the macrocosm of heavenly bodies. They studied the laws and movements of the stars. They were called wise men because they observed the movement of the stars and discerned their meaning. Then they could apply the message to earthly life. From Israel’s point of view the Magi were idolaters, despised, and the least deserving guest at the birthday party of Christ. Matthew, a tax collector, is delighted to see the invitation of the Magi because it indicates the deep and wide mercy of God. The most degraded kinds of people who fancied themselves wise but were actually fools were God’s
first guests at the unveiling of His incarnate Son. Do not despise “New Agers”, cult members and other “fringe” groups. God may use their idolatries to lead them to His Word, where Christ is on every page. The Gospel irony is the pagans responded while those who were steeped in divine revelation did not. When the Magi arrived they worshiped, gave gifts and were warned of impending danger of persecution. Here is your first church.
King Herod is a prototype of humanity under the power of sin. He is the poster child for original sin—a graphic representation of what all of us are underneath. Fallen humanity fights with a passion to retain authority, self sovereignty and self will. The first reaction of raw, fallen humanity to Christ is threat and then rebellion. Herod is not merely a Gospel villain , he is in some sense every man. Paul in Romans 1:18-32 tells us this is all of us. There is no one righteous, no one who seeks, no one who understands, no one who does good, no not one. Herod is what I am deep down inside under the thralldom of sin. Though original sin is covered and pardoned by God’s grace in justification and wrestled and struggled with in the Christian life it is still there within us. Luther said, “Man is not by nature able to let God be God. Indeed he wants himself to be God and does not want God to be his God.” Let God be God was his cry. Our basic inclination is toward self deification. We are curved in upon ourselves and bent away from the living God. Herod shows us our plight and need.
Those who begin by hating the child end up hurting His children. His ungodliness was the root of his inhumanity. Herod is a warning of what happens when we despise His grace. The only way we can ever come to terms with our sin is to accept Scripture’s revelation over our fallen human reason. The discovery that one is a sinner is an act of faith. We habitually underestimate the seriousness of our sin.
In the religious leaders we see humanity under the power of the law. They depict the religious use of the law. They depict the religious use of the law to ascend to God through their performance. Therefore they had no interest in going to Bethlehem to see the Christ because they had no need of Christ. It was a three-hour walk to see Him. They had dead orthodoxy, i.e. they knew the promise. They just didn’t believe the promise. They had propositional knowledge of the Messiah but no desire to pursue Him. They know just enough truth to inoculate themselves from their desperate need for Jesus. Their indifference and blindness is telling. They have many relatives among us today.
The final snapshot in Matthew’s account is the Christ child. He represents true humanity, the true Israel. Jesus’ life even as an infant retraces the career of Israel in the Old Testament. Jesus goes from the promised land (Bethlehem) and flees to the classic land of escape (Egypt) and like a second Moses in a second exodus returns to Israel. This is no mere coincidence but absolutely intentional. Christ is the mediator of the New Covenant as Israel was of the Old Covenant. Israel’s history was one of failure due to infidelity. Christ is the new Israel who is successful because of His faithfulness. He did what Israel was supposed to do, He fulfilled all righteousness. He is what true humanity was created to be and can be by faith alone in Him. So in the opening chapters of Matthew we see a picture of humanity under the power of grace, sin and law. Which power are you under?