Who were the “Wise Men” who visited baby Jesus?

Who were the “Wise Men” who visited baby Jesus?

In Matthew’s account of the life of Jesus we read the familiar account of wise men or magi visiting Jesus and his parents in a home in Bethlehem.

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 when it rose 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 Messiah 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 shepherd 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 search carefully 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 when it rose 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, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Matthew 2:1-12

The Magi were most probably Zoroastrian astrologers who were advisers to the rulers of the Parthian Empire (Iran and Iraq), Rome’s rival to the east at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ. These highly educated men believed in a cosmic struggle of good and evil and that a savior would eventually come to restore the world by getting rid of the evil one. Their founder, Zoroaster, may have been a contemporary of Daniel and the other Jewish scholars who were held in captivity in Babylon, almost 600 years earlier. Zoroaster, and his followers in succeeding centuries, would have known about Judaism and would have studied its sacred texts.

Therefore, when an alignment of stars led them to believe that they were seeing a sign that indicated the birth of a Jewish King, some (we don’t know how many but probably many more than three) traveled to Jerusalem to pay tribute to the newborn royalty. Since Herod, the current King, didn’t have a baby and was very worried that a usurper was in his land, he asked his own priests about a future King of the Jews and learned that the scriptures said he was to be been born in Bethlehem, a town six miles from the palace in Jerusalem.

Rather than stir up trouble with his Iranian guests, Herod sent them to Bethlehem to find the “baby king” and report back to him, ostensibly to go and worship this child. When the Magi didn’t return, Herod, who had nearly lost his life and family to Parthians 30 years earlier, did not pursue the Magi and demand the information he wanted. He didn’t order their capture and punishment for their disobedience despite his proclivity for killing anyone who challenged his authority. He took it upon himself to handle the “problem” of having a new king in his land.

Herod ordered the murder of all the baby boys under two years of age, who lived in and around Bethlehem. Since Jesus and his parents must have still been in Bethlehem when the decree was announced because they were warned by an angel to immediately leave for Egypt. There they remained refugees for months or maybe years before returning to Joseph’s home town of Nazareth, almost 100 miles north of Bethlehem.

We read nothing more of the “kings” from Parthia, but will never forget their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the King of Kings.

Should the birth of Jesus be celebrated in December?

Should the birth of Jesus be celebrated in December?

The winter celebration of the birth of Christ dates first appears on a Roman calendar in 336 AD, centuries after the event took place. Scholars believe that there may have been an attempt to co-opt an existing pagan festival that marked the coming of the light after the shortest day of the year. Clues in the Bible suggest another time of year because shepherds would not likely be in the fields with sheep during the cold winter. Some scholars suggest a spring birth when lambs would have been in the fields with their mothers. Others identify fall, perhaps September as the likely month of birth. If the latter, the celebration on December 25th could mark the moment that light entered the world when God entered Mary’s womb.

When we celebrate is not nearly as important as why we celebrate. Since the beginning of time, God created mankind in his image so that he could commune with them, to let them enjoy a perfect world communicating with the creator of everything. When man and woman broke the covenant with God, the perfect world fell apart as evil reared its head and brought death and destruction to all that had been right.

A penalty had to be paid for the violation of God, and He knew that only a perfect sacrifice could atone for the great injustice of all men and women–past, present and future. God knew that the only perfect sacrifice would be himself, in the form of his son, Jesus, who was born to die. We celebrate the coming of God to be our savior and redeemer.

The baby in the manger grew up to be the sacrificial lamb for all of humankind. He died in our place that we may be pardoned and be returned to a right relationship with God. Therefore, while we celebrate the arrival of a baby born of a virgin, the true celebration is that of the birth of a savior who would provide the gateway for us to be restored to a right relationship with the almighty God of the universe.

If you would like to learn more about how you can enter into a relationship with the eternal God, we encourage you to read our blog post: How does one become a Christian?

Why was Jesus born out of wedlock?

Why was Jesus born out of wedlock?

The Bible explains what is known as the “virgin birth”. Mary, the mother of Jesus, became pregnant not through a man, but through a supernatural act of God. The story is related in the account of the life of Jesus written by Matthew, one of his disciples. Matthew’s book is written specifically to tell the Jewish people how Jesus was the Messiah promised in their scriptures.

“This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Matthew 1:18-19

As a follower of the law, Joseph could divorce his wife for any cause, but he couldn’t divorce someone to whom he was not married. Therefore we have to look more closely at the customs of the times and the meaning of the words used to describe this situation. Betrothal, translated here as “pledged to be married”, describes a legal agreement joining two people. This is quite different from what we today call an engagement because once betrothed, neither of the two could back out. A betrothal could only be broken by death or divorce. That they had “not come together” reflected a custom of the time that a pledged couple would remain apart for a period of time–often until a room is added to the home of the groom’s family to which the groom would ultimately bring his bride. That they did “not come together” also suggests that they were not intimate up until this time, that’s why the birth of Jesus is described as a virgin birth or a conception without the seed of a man.

Would Mary’s pregnancy cause her to be marginalized or even result in her being stoned for adultery? No. Not unless Joseph were to publicly proclaim that he was not the father of the child in her womb.

“But as he considered these things (Mary’s pregnancy), behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’”Matthew 1:20-21

This miraculous virgin birth of a savior would prove to be a pivotal turning point in the history of mankind. Joseph, would forever be known as a man who listened to God and was faithful to both his wife and the law.

“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.”Matthew 1:22-25

Are you prepared to have an encounter with God that will help you discover the truth of His existence? Click on our post: How does one become a Christian?

Has Thanksgiving lost its meaning?

Has Thanksgiving lost its meaning?

For many, Thanksgiving is a day for overeating and football followed by a mad dash for Black Friday specials. Stores are decorated for Christmas moments after the Halloween stuff comes down and Thanksgiving is mostly “celebrated” by on-air personalities who talk about the rising cost of Thanksgiving dinner and the number of people who will be traveling for the long holiday weekend. So, it may seem that Thanksgiving has lost its original meaning–a day set aside to thank God for America’s abundance and freedom.

The traditional First Thanksgiving was an acknowledgment by Pilgrims, who arrived on the Mayflower, that through God’s grace some of those travelers survived the first terrible winter of freezing and starvation. Those survivors were able to plant and harvest grains and vegetables that allowed the community to flourish. After their first harvest, they expressed thanks to God for His sustaining grace and for the help they received from nearby native communities.

Through the years, more and more English settlers arrived in the New World and harvest celebrations, like the ones they celebrated in the old country, became part of their annual rituals. Throughout New England, especially, an annual Thanksgiving was proclaimed. One hundred sixty-eight years after that first Thanksgiving feast along the shore of Cape Cod Bay, President George Washington, at the request of Congress called for Thursday, November 26th to be set aside as a day for prayer and giving thanks to God. Subsequent presidents, except for Thomas Jefferson, continued the tradition. Almost 75 years later, President Lincoln proclaimed Thursday, Nov. 26, 1863 as a National Thanksgiving Day. The 4th Thursday in November became the official date of Thanksgiving during the Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt.

So where does that leave Christians? Pagan harvest festivals predated and seem to form the basis for our Thanksgiving holiday. Christians don’t need a special day to thank God for his provisions, that is an everyday occurrence. They also shouldn’t give the day any more spiritual significance than any other day. But Thanksgiving does offer Christians an opportunity to reflect on God’s goodness to them in the death and resurrection of Jesus, their lord and savior. Likewise, it provides Christian moms and dads a time to retell the story of the First Thanksgiving and how God spared the Pilgrims and allowed them to enter a long period of friendship with natives who lived nearby. It also provides an opportunity to invite international students and recent immigrants into Christian homes to learn about this unique holiday.

So what are you thankful for? You don’t need to have a great job, or perfect family, or new car, or a big turkey dinner on Thanksgiving to realize that you probably have many reasons to be thankful. You might start by being thankful for what you have, instead of dwelling on what you don’t have.

Millions of people walk this earth with much less than you have, yet many of them enjoy contentment and are thankful for what they do have. Think about this.  If you live in America, you are already among the most blessed people on earth. And those blessings come directly or indirectly from God–the God who created everything, even you.  So take stock of your blessings and thank the God who has made them possible. Objects of your desire may fail you. People may let you down. But even if some things are not going your way right now, God still loves you, and He wants you to know contentment even in your suffering.

All that is required for true joy is a relationship with our Creator (Ps. 37:14), who wants us to be happy and to bless us with everything we need (Phil. 4:19), even though we may not think so. When we have a good relationship with God (Prov. 10:3), like Paul, an apostle of Jesus, we will learn in whatever situation to be content (Phil. 4:11-12). We will find that the most important thing that God can give us is Himself (Eph. 2:8-9). Once we have our eyes set on God, everything else falls into place (Matt. 6:33). Thank God with your whole heart this week!

If you would like to learn more about how you can enter into a relationship with the eternal God to whom we give thanks, we encourage you to read our blog post: How does one become a Christian?

Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

All of Christianity hinges on the answer to this question. If there was no resurrection, there would be no Christianity. So what transformed 11 scared and dejected disciples into fearless ambassadors? It was Jesus’ return from the dead and subsequent ascension into heaven. There were over 500 witnesses to Jesus’ return to life after being crucified dead and buried.

Was he really dead? The Romans made no mistakes when they killed someone. They were experts at the art of death. So when a soldier wanted to hasten the death of a man who had already endured a terrible whipping and was bleeding from wounds in his hands and feet, an upward thrusting spear through a lung and into the heart would do the trick. So certain of his death were the soldiers that they didn’t break the legs of Jesus. That was the usual way Roman soldiers finished a crucifixion. They knew that once a man could no longer support himself with his legs, he would suffocate since he could no longer breathe. The soldiers also knew that Jesus wasn’t coming back to claim his robe, so they gambled to determine who would get it.

To ensure that Jesus would stay dead and that his disciples would not try to steal his body and claim he came back from the dead, the tomb was sealed and soldiers were tasked with guarding it. To fail in the task of guarding the tomb, the guards risked execution.

Yet, three days later, Jesus appeared to his disciples, to several women, to two men walking on the road to Emmaus, to a doubting Thomas and two others. Jesus was definitely dead and he was definitely resurrected.

His disciples witnessed his ascension into heaven. So yes, Jesus is definitely alive. It is his power and authority that holds every atom in the universe together. One day Jesus will return to earth just like he left it to rule and reign as King of kings. Given the events of these times, it could be soon. Are you ready? (see Matthew 25: 30-35)

What’s good about Good Friday?

What’s good about Good Friday?

There is nothing good about Good Friday until you see it from God’s perspective. Jesus didn’t have to give himself up to be crucified on a Roman cross. He didn’t have to die. However, he loved you and me so much that he chose to die in our place so that we would not have to suffer the punishment for our sins.

Throughout history, God sought to bring sinful mankind back into relationship with himself. That relationship had been broken by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden when they disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:1-24). So God established a plan for restoration, a restoration that began with the setting apart of Abraham’s family and concluded with the death and resurrection of Jesus and the sending of the Holy Spirit.

To understand the restoration process, we need to understand the concept of a blood sacrifice as atonement for sin. That goes back to the time when man rebelled against God and the perfect creation he made for human beings. This sacrifice was codified by God when he set apart the Israelites and provided them with guidelines for living. That law included a system of sacrifices to atone for different sins. Among the sacrifices were those of animals without blemish, signifying perfection. (Leviticus 22:20) These sacrifices had to be repeated over and over since people kept sinning against God.

Through the death of Jesus, God provided a once-for-all way, for the sins of men and women to be atoned. In the New Testament, we read that John the Baptist recognized Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) This is a reference to the perfect, sacrificial lamb that was called for in the Old Testament law.

Another John, the disciple of Jesus, who wrote an eyewitness account of the three years he spent with Jesus, explained the ultimate sacrifice that was made by Jesus, the Messiah. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17) This made Jesus the ultimate sacrifice —satisfying for all time the requirements of God’s justice.

The apostle Paul wrote that “Christ died for our sins, according to Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3) because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). This simple statement of fact reminds us that our personal sin, our rebellion from God, has us heading to judgment and eternal separation from God.

However, we do not have to suffer throughout all eternity.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

John 3:16

The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross shows the depths of God’s love for us. (Romans 5:6-8) But it is through his resurrection that we can see God’s triumph over death. When we acknowledge that we are sinners deserving of death and accept the gift of Jesus’s sacrifice on our behalf, we can be set free of the condemnation of sin and begin a journey that will culminate in everlasting life in the presence of God. Read more in the answer to the question: How does one become a Christian?