Behind the Peaceful Scenes of Christmas

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By Berit Kjos

“…another sign appeared in heaven: …And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child as soon as it was born. She bore a male Child…” Revelation 12:3-6

“He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God…” John 1:12

Nothing about the birth of Jesus was normal. How can human logic explain the virgin birth, the precise fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and the angels’ joyful announcement to some poor shepherds? How can science explain the mysterious “star”[1] over Bethlehem that drew scholarly Magi from the East to a temporary “house” for a heavenly King? It doesn’t make earthly sense!

God’s ways continue to amaze me! The strangest and most inexplicable events are part of His wise, sovereign plan. And if I don’t understand, He doesn’t owe me an explanation. He just calls me to trust and follow Him.

That’s what the Magi [2] chose to do! God had obviously prepared their hearts. In their distant land, they were given “sight” to see the miraculous light hovering over the manger of Jesus! It may have taken them a year or more to reach their goal, but for those who serve Him, such timing is simply part of God’s plan. As David wrote in Psalm 31:15, “My times are in Your hand!”

So, who were those  “wise men” or “Magi” from the East?

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The Bible doesn’t give us specific answers, but their response to God’s guiding light demonstrates their faith in our God. And the gifts they chose for the precious King point to positions of wealth and influence.

They were probably among the elite scholars, astrologers and astronomers in the Parthian empire (247 BC – 224 AD). At the time, it included both Media and Persia. If that indeed was their home, the Magi might easily have studied the Old Testament prophecies. Jewish scribes and scholars had brought those treasured Scriptures to Babylon during the exile that followed Israel’s slide into idolatry about six centuries earlier.

By this time, the wisdom and goodness of God had already been demonstrated among His exiled people — through the lives of Ruth, Nehemiah, Daniel[3] and many others. Since Biblical records were treasured in those days, they would have been carefully preserved even through the turmoil of wars and changing national borders. Therefore, the God of Israel was no stranger to Persian scholars at the momentous time when Christ was born.

Today, most Christians know that God communicated His long-awaited news to the Magi in the East through a bright supernatural light that would lead them to a small town in the West. (In fact, they may have been the only people who saw it.[4])  What a joyful moment! God’s silent message had truly reached their hearts! Soon afterwards they began their journey to worship their King.

They may have traveled for a year or more, which explains why they found Jesus in a house, not in a manger. The challenges they faced when they neared their destination offer some clues to the dark forces that targeted God’s Son from the time of his birth:

“Now after Jesus was 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 King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” Matthew 2:1-2

Were they surprised when no one could answer their question? Did they wonder why the people in Jerusalem were so ignorant of this long-expected event? Why would such a King not be honored in His own homeland?

 

We could ask similar questions about America. Why do so few delight in God’s Word? Why has our government banned the Ten Commandments and other vital truths from our schools and public places? Why does it promote immorality and censor Christianity? Why do people despise His moral guidelines and malign His name?

 

But we shouldn’t be surprised. Human nature — “under the sway of the evil one” (1 John 5:19) — continues to tempt, distract and corrupt people in the West as well as in contemporary Israel. Yet, through the ages, that spiritual war has raged most fiercely in the latter.

 

Two thousand years ago, most Israelites were blind to the glorious birth of the newborn King. The Bible only mentions a few celebrants: some poor shepherds out in the field and Anna and Simeon, two old, expectant believers. Apparently, the rest of Jerusalem didn’t know or care!

 

That is, except for the paranoid and depraved King Herod. Born in Edom (an unfriendly nation south of Israel), he had been appointed king by the Roman rulers. To him, the Magi‘s quest was shocking news!

“When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled…. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.'” Matthew 2:2-7

Herod lied! He had no intention of worshipping any rival to his throne. So God intervened. Once again He provided a guiding light that “went before them” — straight to Jesus:

“When the [wise men] heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.” Matthew 2:9

Read that again! Some believe that the starry light was a comet rather than a star. But comets are not equipped with the intelligence needed to lead the way to Bethlehem and then stop directly above the right house! This had to be an act of God, not nature!

Perhaps that moving beacon of light reminds you of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt. Remember, “the Lord went before [the Israelites]…by night with a pillar of fire.” Exodus 13:21

Nehemiah, who was exiled along with Daniel and others, describes the same event centuries later and adds this phrase: “…to give them light on the road which they should travel.” (9:12) Nothing is impossible for our wonderful King!

When they finally reached their destination, God provided new supernatural instructions: life-saving warnings to Joseph as well as to the Magi:

“And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. …they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.

“Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt…  for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.” Matthew 2:9-13

The young family’s obeyed God and fled to Egypt — a journey that may well have been financed through the valuable gifts from the Magi. The sovereign God who directed their paths would also meet all their needs!

 

Their flight was followed by was Herod’s murderous attacks on little children. That tragic bloodbath illustrates the heartlessness of the demonic forces behind the visible world. Its cruelty (but not its numbers) matches Hitler’s mass killing of Jews in Europe and Stalin’s unthinkable cruelties in the Soviet Union. It’s comparable to the deadly violence raging in much of the Middle East and in other parts of the world.

“Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.” Matthew 2:16

Today’s Spiritual War

 

Now, as in ages past, Satan targets Jews and Christians. Both continue to face inordinate onslaughts from the evil one, “the great dragon…that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world…” Revelation 12:9

 

As the chart shows, when people trust God and follow His guidelines, nations are blessed with His presence and protection. When they become proud and prosperous, forget His guidelines and embrace corruption, He withdraws His protection and allows enemy forces to bring destruction.

 

The violent downside of this historical cycle is bringing hopelessness and despair to millions in the post-Christian West. We shouldn’t be surprised.

 

It’s no secret that references to our God are banned from America’s schools and public places. The former school and community celebration that brought believers together in thanksgiving and joy have been either censored, maligned or transformed into a mockery of God’s Word. All too often, Jesus is either forgotten or maligned.

Let’s look again at the unseen forces of evil. If we don’t understand the nature of our spiritual enemy, we won’t be prepared to “stand against the wiles of the devil” and follow our Lord!

“…another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great, fiery red dragon….And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child as soon as it was born.” Revelation 12:3-5

The “male Child,” of course, was Jesus, our King! He would face Satan’s full onslaught about thirty years later, when He hung on the cross, paying an excruciating price for our sins that we can’t even fathom.

The “woman” in this story is the mother of Jesus. But she may also represent all the Jewish believers who have put their faith in Christ. That group would include His first century disciples and apostles, most of whom faced torturous death for sharing the gospel. It would also include the Jews who were “born again” by His Spirit during the first Pentecost (Acts 2). They helped spread His gospel far and wide in the years that followed.

Though I don’t share that special Jewish heritage, I am one with all who love and follow our King. Like the faithful Magi, we all share a common desire to worship His majesty, obey His Word, follow His guidance, spread His Truth and share His love with all He puts in our path.

“You will show me the path of life;
In Your presence is fullness of joy;
At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Psalm 16:11

Those pleasures may not be the delights the world seeks these days. Like the pagan world that surrounded the Magi and the distracted world of old Jerusalem, so the world that surrounds us is blind to the far greater joy that God gives His people. How blessed we are to belong to Him at a time such as this!

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment [as seen from God’s eternity], is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. “ 2 Corinthians 4:16-17


Insights from helpful sources:

1. Star: “Both the Hebrew (kôkāb) and the Greek (astēr) words for star were also used figuratively to represent any great brilliance or radiance. Very early in the Old Testament the Messiah is spoken of as a ‘star [that] shall come forth from Jacob’ (Num. 24:17), and at the end of the New Testament He refers to Himself as ‘the bright morning star’ (Rev. 22:16). It was surely the glory of God, blazing as if it were an extremely bright star — visible only to the eyes for whom it was intended to be seen — that appeared to the Magi in the east and later guided them to Bethlehem. It was a brilliant manifestation of “the sign of the Son of Man” (see Matt. 24:29–30; Rev. 1:7). The Shekinah glory of God stood over Bethlehem just as, centuries before, it had stood over the Tabernacle in the wilderness. And just as the pillar of cloud gave light to Israel but darkness to Egypt (Ex. 14:20), only the eyes of the Magi were opened to see God’s great light over Bethlehem.
“That the Magi were not following the star is clear from the fact that they had to inquire about where Jesus was born. They saw His star in the east, but there is no evidence that it continued to shine or that it led them to Jerusalem. It was not until they were told of the prophesied birthplace of the Messiah that the star reappeared and then guided them not only to Bethlehem but to the exact place ‘where the Child was.'” [MacArthur, J., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press), 1989, Matt 2:7-10]

2. Magi: “[magos /mag·os/] a magus. 1a. the name given by the Babylonians (Chaldeans), Medes, Persians, and others, to the wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augers, soothsayers, sorcerers etc. 1b the oriental wise men (astrologers) who, having discovered by the rising of a remarkable star that the Messiah had just been born, came to Jerusalem to worship him.” [Strong, J. The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, 1996] “Magos…is used, for example, in Matthew 2:1 to describe the wise men who visited the infant Jesus and His family. The term originally referred to the hereditary priestly tribe within the Median nation. They were well-versed in astronomy and astrology, agriculture, mathematics, and history.” [MacArthur, New Testament Commentary, Chicago: Moody, 1985, 26–28] “The Magi from the east who came to see Jesus were of a completely different sort. Not only were they true Magi, but they surely had been strongly influenced by Judaism, quite possibly even by some of the prophetic writings, especially that of Daniel. They appear to be among the many God-fearing Gentiles who lived at the time of Christ, a number of whom — such as Cornelius and Lydia…are mentioned in the New Testament.” [MacArthur, J., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press), 1989, Acts 10:1-2, 16:14]

3. Daniel: “After the Persian conquest of Babylon, Daniel held the office of the first of the ‘three presidents’ of the empire under the reign of Darius the Mede, and was thus practically at the head of state affairs, with the ability to influence the prospects of the captive Jews (Daniel 9), whom he had at last the happiness of seeing restored to their own land; although he did not return with them, but remained still in Babylon.
“Daniel’s fidelity to God exposed him to persecution by jealous rivals within the king’s administration. The fact that he had just interpreted the emperors’ dream had resulted in his promotion and that of his companions. Being favored by the King, Darius the Mede, he was untouchable….Daniel would years later be cast into a den of lions (for continuing to practice his faith in YHWH), but was miraculously delivered; after which Darius issued a decree enjoining reverence for ‘the God of Daniel’ (Daniel 6:26). He ‘prospered in the reign of Darius, and in the reign of Cyrus the Great,’ whom he probably greatly influenced in the decree which put an end to the Jewish Captivity (BC 536).” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel

4. Star: Compare this passage in Acts with the Magi’s experience in Jerusalem, when he again saw the beacon of light:

As [Saul , who was renamed Paul after his conversion] journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”
And he said, ‘Who are You, Lord?”
Then the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting….”
So he, trembling and astonished, said, ‘Lord, what do You want me to do?”
Then the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one. Then Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one. But they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.”
Acts 9:3-9

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