Those Gifts of the Wise Men
December 22nd, 1985 @ 10:50 AM
THOSE GIFTS OF THE WISE MEN
Dr. W. A. Criswell
12-22-85 10:50 a.m.
This is the pastor bringing the message entitled Those Gifts of the Wise Men. It is an expounding of the story in the second chapter of the First Gospel, the Gospel of Matthew:
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem… in the days of Herod the king, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem,
Saying, Where is He that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen His star in the East, and are come to worship Him.
[Matthew 2:1, 2]
These wise men came, possibly, between a year and two years after the birth of our Lord. In a nativity scene, you will always see the shepherds and the wise men together in the stable, which is dramatically and fancifully appealing. Actually, when the shepherds came upon the birth of the Lord, the little family was in a stable, and the little Baby was in a manger [Luke 2:8-16]. But these men from afar, they saw the star, a message from God in heaven to them [Matthew 2:10-11]. And the journey was long and arduous. It took them much time to go from the East, in Persia, to the western part of the continent, in Judea.
We also would know that from the eleventh verse: “And when they were come into the house” [Matthew 2:11], the little Child is no longer in a stable and the little Baby is not lying in a manger. They are living in a house in Bethlehem. And the next clause says: “And when they saw the little Child” [Matthew 2:11], He is no longer a baby, He is a young child.
And one other: when Herod heard of the announcement of the wise men [Matthew 2:3-8], why, he being cruel, he killed all of his family; being cruel, he gave a decree that all the children in Bethlehem were to be slain from two years old and under [Matthew 2:16], another indication that the Child had grown from babyhood to be a little boy, possibly two years of age.
Who are these wise men? [Matthew 2:1] They’re called “magi.” And the Magi were Parsi Zoroastrian priests, and they hailed from the Medes and the Persians. They were a ruling priestly caste in that ancient civilization, back there in the Medo-Persian culture.
One of the things that I turn over in my mind often: how God speaks to people who don’t know the name of our Lord. And it lies open a vista into which my limited understanding cannot enter. I just see it. I often think of God as He spoke to the Greeks. If you have ever studied Greek philosophy, some of those marvelous men, like Plato and Aristotle, and their playwrights, like Sophocles and Aristides—I just wonder the revelation of truth that came to their hearts, though they never knew the true God.
Here is an instance of it in the life of the Magi. They studied the heavens, being Zoroastrians, and God spoke to them in the language that they knew, God spoke to them in a star. But it lies in the purview of the almighty, omniscient Lord. I just pray God will be merciful to those ancient Greek philosophers, as He has been merciful to these Magi, those Zoroastrian kingly priests of the Medo-Persians. So they make the long journey from the East to Judea, and when they arrive at the place over which the star shines, they open their treasures and present unto Him gifts [Matthew 2:9-11].
That is a primeval and innate response to the Lord God from the beginning. And it’s an unusual thing that characterizes us today, as it did our ancestors back and back and back to the beginning of creation. If you have a Hebrew Bible, and will look at it, in the fourth chapter of Genesis is the beginning of family life, with Cain and Abel. And the Holy Scriptures say that Cain was a tiller of the soil, and Abel was a keeper of the flocks. And in your King James Version it says that Cain took of the fruit of the ground and brought it an offering to the Lord. And that Abel took of the firstlings of his flock and brought it an offering to the Lord [Genesis 4:2-4], which is beautiful, fine.
But the Hebrew word is minchah. And minchah is the Hebrew word for “gift.” In the beginning, primevally, Cain brought to God, from the fruit of his hands and the fruit of the ground, a gift to the Lord; and Abel did the same from the firstlings of his flock. And that story of the response of the human heart to God with a gift has been characteristic of the human family throughout all the generations.
I say it’s an unusual response, because God doesn’t need anything we have. In the fiftieth Psalm He says: “If I were hungry, I would not tell thee [Psalm 50:12]. For the cattle on a thousand hills are Mine. The beasts of the forest are Mine [Psalm 50:10]. The gold and the silver are Mine” [Haggai 2:8]. God doesn’t need anything that I could offer unto Him, and yet I have it in my heart, as you, as all humanity, to bring a gift, a minchah, to the Lord.
Four hundred years before the Mosaic code, when Melchizedek met Abraham, Abraham gave to the priest of the Most High God a tenth of everything that he possessed [Genesis 14:18-20]. It’s a response of the soul. It’s in you.
The beautiful story of Mary of Bethany, who broke over the head of our Lord an alabaster box of precious ointment [Matthew 26:7; John 12:1-3], that’s a natural response. When the Lord died, crucified [John 19:16-30], Joseph of Arimathea offered to the weeping disciples a tomb wherein never man was laid. And Nicodemus wrapped His body in linen cloths and poured in one hundred pounds of spices [John 19:38-41]; a gift for God.
I see it in the courting of young people. The first thing that a boy will do in response to a love is to give the girl a gift. That’s what happened here. These Magi, these Parsi kingly priests from Persia, come and offered unto the Lord gifts [Matthew 2:11]. And they are beautifully named. And each one of them has a marvelous connotation then, and a prophetic revelation for all the days that lie before us.
They offered unto Him gold [Matthew 2:11]. When I read that, I think of the provision of God for all of us. The family was very, very poor. “How do you know that, pastor?” Well, when I read of the purification by law, by the Mosaic law, of the mother; if a male opened the womb, if a male child was born, the first child, the child had to be redeemed, because of the story of the Passover in Egypt. The firstborn that was saved of the people of God belonged to the Lord [Exodus 13:2]. All the rest of them in the land of Egypt were taken away. And in order for the child to be kept in the family, the child must be redeemed [Numbers 18:15]. And the mother must be purified [Leviticus 12:1-8]. Well, in the provision of the Mosaic law they were to offer a lamb [Leviticus 12:6]. Well, what if the family was so poor they couldn’t afford to offer a lamb? Then the poor family could offer a pigeon or a turtledove [Leviticus 12:8]. And this family offered a pigeon or a turtledove [Luke 2:21-24]. They were very, very poor. And God provided for their need because He said to them: “This wicked Herod, he is an Edomite. He is an Idumean. And he is cruel and he will seek the life of the young Child to destroy it. And you flee to Egypt” [Matthew 2:12-13].
Well, they must have God’s providing, generous care if they are to make the journey and to live and sojourn in that foreign land. So God gave it to them, provided it for them, in the gift of gold from the generous heart of these Magi priests [Matthew 2:11].
Now may I speak of that for us today? I feel that way and you do too. I would like to bring a gift to the Lord. The Magi could have given gifts to one another, and possibly they did. But the big thing that moved them in soul was to give a gift to the Christ-Child, the newborn King. Now we feel that way. But where do I find Him? Where is this Lord Christ to whom my heart is moved in response, to bring a gift to Him? Where would I find Him? The Scriptures have revealed to us a marvelous, wonderful thing. Our Lord is identified with His people. He and they are the same.
Do you remember in the ninth chapter of the Book of Acts, when the Lord, glorified, appeared to Saul on the way to Damascus, there to hale into prison those who called upon His name? [Acts 9:1-2] When the Lord stood in the way, He said: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?” And Saul was aghast, as you and I would have been: “Who art Thou, Lord, that I persecute You?” And then the Lord repeated it: “I am Jesus of Nazareth whom thou persecutest” [Acts 9:3-5; 22:8]. “When you touch them, you touch Me. When you persecute them, you persecute Me. When you harm them, you harm Me, for they are I, and I am they.” He identifies Himself with His people.
That’s not unique. It’s through all of the Book. “Verily, I say unto you”—in the twenty-fifth chapter of the Book of Matthew, at the great judgment of Almighty God—“Verily, I say unto you, Inasmuch as you did it unto one of the least of these My brethren, you did it unto Me” [Matthew 25:40].
“But, Lord, I never saw You hungry. And I never saw You thirsty. And I never saw You naked. And I never saw You imprisoned. And I never saw You sick.”
“Yes, you did. Because these are I, and I am they” [Matthew 25:34-40]. He identifies Himself with His people.
In the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel of John, when the Lord says to Simon: “Simon, son of Jonah, lovest thou Me?”
And when Peter avows: “Lord, You know I love You.”
And the Lord says to him: “Take care of My little ones. Feed My lambs. Shepherd My sheep” [John 21:15-17].
Not only that, but in the fifth chapter of the Book of Ephesians, the Lord, by revelation and inspiration, says in the Holy Scriptures that we are His bones, and His flesh, and His body [Ephesians 5:30]. We belong to the Lord, a part of His very life. And the Lord is a part of us. Therefore, when I give to His people, and when I support the many-faceted, beautiful ministries of the dear church, the body of Christ, I am making my gift to Him.
And I think of this wonderful, wonderful congregation, our twenty-five missions scattered throughout this vast metroplex. And I think of our great foreign mission enterprise. And I think of our many-faceted ministries here in the church to our babies, to our children, to our teenagers, to our young marrieds, to our aged and older; O Lord, I praise God! Beside our schools, beside our pastoral ministries, beside our care for these who face sorrow, tragedy; Lord, Lord, the response is as it was in the heart of these Magi: a gift, Lord, for Thee [Matthew 2:11].
Gold and frankincense [Matthew 2:11]; in all biblical literature, frankincense is an emblem of prayers, intercessions, appeals rising up before God. In the thirtieth chapter of the Book of Exodus, when God gave to Moses the pattern from heaven for His tabernacle, in it was a golden altar of incense to be placed before the veil, before the Holy of Holies. And there did the priest enter to offer frankincense unto God [Exodus 30:1, 6, 7, 8].
And you remember it was when Zacharias, of the course of Abijah [Luke 1:5], was given that unusual and delightful assignment, once in a lifetime, to enter into that holy place and to offer frankincense on the golden altar unto God [Luke 1:8-9]. It was there that the angel spoke to him and said he and his aged wife were to have a child, who would be forerunner of the great Messiah King [Luke 1:11-17]; the altar of incense.
In the fifth chapter of the Revelation and in the eighth chapter of the Revelation, the angel has a golden censer, and in it is frankincense [Revelation 5:8; 8:3-4]. And it rises up before the great God on His throne. And the Revelation says these are the prayers of God’s people [Revelation 5:8; 8:4]. Frankincense, always that: an emblem of the ascending intercessions of the Lord’s own people.
Could I take a minute to describe from the Holy Word the substance of that prayer? When Zacharias lifts his voice and prays to God, he has three things here for which he asks God’s petitionary remembrance. The first one is to guide our feet into the path of peace; to pray unto God to guide our feet into the path of peace [Luke 1:79].
It was just a few months after the close of the Second World War that we went through Germany. I stood in Hamburg, a city as large as Chicago; and from horizon to horizon, there was not one wall standing. I was in Hiroshima—Hiroshima they pronounce it there, and stood in the place where that first atomic bomb fell in the heart of the city. And I visited some of the people in the hospital who were destroyed by that atomic fission. And those were small firecrackers compared to the lethal weapons of hydrogen bombs in the arsenal of the nations of the world today. Who could but pray, “O God, that You would guide our nations into the way of peace.”
Look at the second petition: “to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” [Luke 1:79]. O God, the lost humanity of this earth—I think of the millions and the millions that are under the domination of communism, blatant atheism. I think of the millions and the millions that are under the domination of Islam: Mohammedism. And I think of the other millions and millions that live in the darkness of heathenism. Lord, Lord! I stood by the side of a missionary one day in Thailand, just outside Bangkok, and you could see the mountains, that central spine of Indonesia. With a sweep of his hand, like that, he said, “There are one hundred million people who have never heard the name of Jesus.” Lord God in heaven, help Thy witnessing people!
A third: to give knowledge of salvation unto us by the remission of our sins [Luke 1:77]. How can we be saved without a Savior? And how will they be saved without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they be called and sent? [Romans 10:14-15]. Lord God in heaven, hear the prayers of Your people! We need God’s intercessory, God-given, God-blessed directive strength in all of our work: little children, to be taught; teenagers, to be guided and encouraged in the way of the Lord; young families, being put together in the faith and kept in the grace of God; men and women, in manhood and womanhood, called to dedicate their strength to the Lord Jesus; and down to old age, to walk as a pilgrim in the love of Jesus and in the light of His grace. Frankincense: prayers ascending unto God [Revelation 5:8; 8:4].
Gold, and frankincense, and myrrh [Matthew 2:11]; myrrh; all of the ancient civilizations, all of them, looked upon myrrh as a type of a sacrificial life; myrrh, life poured out unto death. When Jesus was taken down from the cross, Nicodemus came and in the linen cloths in which he wrapped the body of our Lord, he poured myrrh and aloes [John 19:39-40], always an emblem of a life poured out in death—myrrh. And thus I think of the cost of our salvation, and the martyrdom of the witnessing people of God through all of these years and these centuries and these ages. And I am not hesitant to tell you that it sometimes brings a conflict in my thinking and in my mind and heart, because it is evident to me that there is blessing and prosperity and happiness when a man, a woman, will follow the Lord. God will help him in his business, if he’ll make God his partner: “Lord, it is You and I, however others may be involved. In my business, Lord, I ask Your wisdom and direction.”
And in the building of a home and of a house, there is blessing when God is invited to be a permanent guest in that domicile. And in the rearing of our children, there is a blessing from heaven in guiding them in the love and grace of the Lord Jesus. As the Book says: “training them in the love and admonition of the Lord” [Ephesians 6:4]. There is blessing in serving God. There is prosperity in it. There is wisdom in it. There is health and strength and deliverance in it. And yet, at the same time, when I read God’s Holy Word, and when I look in the world around me, there is always that cost of discipleship, the offering of a life unto death; myrrh.
In the eleventh chapter of the Book of Hebrews, in the roll call of the heroes of faith, they are described. They were tortured. Others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings; yea, moreover bonds and imprisonments. They were stoned. They were sawn asunder. They were tempted, they were slain with a sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins being destitute, afflicted, tormented, of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and in mountains and in dens and caves of the earth [Hebrews 11:35-38]. These are God’s people in the old dispensation.
In the dispensation in which we live, in this day of grace, Simon Peter was crucified upside down. He said he didn’t feel worthy to be crucified as was his Lord. He asked to be crucified with his head down. John was burned at the stake. All of the apostles suffered martyrdom. And the whole story of the Christian faith is written in red, crimson, human blood.
And as I think of this modern world in which we live, I stood in Serampore, on the banks of one of the branches of the Ganges. There William Carey poured his life. I looked at his tomb, and on his tomb are these words: “A poor, miserable, helpless worm. On Thy kind arms I fall.” I thought of the wealth of revelation in that inscription, the sorrow and the tears and the price of that long ministry as a missionary of God in India.
When I was a college student, I was a guest in the home of a family, and their daughter had died as a missionary nurse in Africa. And in the providence of God, the day came when I stood there over the grave of that young woman, with two other by her side. They died in an epidemic of yellow fever in the heart of Africa.
In the days past, I stood in Happy Valley in Hong Kong, and I read there the inscription over Henrietta Hall Shuck. She was the first missionary to China. And she died in her twenties. I read the story of her life: To Die So Young. And the book says that the hardships of the missionary assignment crushed her life, and she died in her twenties.
I said to the missionary at Kobe, Japan—there’s a big tall mountain that rises out of the bay at Kobe. And up there, on the side of that mountain, is a missionary home—and I said to God’s servant, “If you don’t mind, just let me be here by myself, seated on this porch.” And looking down the mountainside into Kobe, the bay at Kobe, in Japan, I relived the long devoted life of Lottie Moon. She died there in that bay, in that anchorage at Kobe. And by Japanese law, her body was cremated. And I visited her tomb in Virginia, where the ashes are buried; the pouring out of life unto death.
And Lord, is there to be no cost for me?
Is there to be no sacrifice on my part?
Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease?
While others fought
To win the prize
And sailed bloody seas?
[from “Am I A Soldier of the Cross,” Isaac Watts]
Is there not a concomitant, an inbound corollary in the Christian faith, of a devotion and a sacrifice unto death? Is there not? It’s a strange thing, the response of a human soul. It’s a call to commitment, and cost, and sacrifice that moves the heart toward God. It’s a strange thing.
I read where a denominational representative went before a group of college students and made appeal for the missionary field. And he described to the college students the affluence of their denomination: “Give your life to be a missionary. There will be a beautiful home for you, and there will be servants to be had at so small a price. And you’ll be taken care of all of your life and be given a gracious annuity.” And when he made the appeal for volunteers, there were two or three.
In that same place did I read that in that same school, there came a faith missionary who described the abject lostness of his people, and the violence that characterized their response to the missionary’s coming, but all the depths of the need. And when he made an appeal, facing darkness, and danger, and death, there were hundreds of those young men and women who responded with their lives.
That’s the strangest thing about humanity that I know: this is an easy way, and we’ll contemplate it, like you would joining a country club. But this is a way of sacrifice and cost, and there’s something in the human heart that rises to answer with life itself.
A poet one time wrote it like this:
So nigh is grandeur to our dust.
So near is God to man
When the Lord whispers,
“Lo, thou must.”
The youth replies, “I can.”
[Ralph Waldo Emerson]
And this is the incomparable story and message of our Lord at Christmastime: a call, a surrender, a commitment to discipleship, to followship, to servitude, to giving God the strength and the issue of our lives. And when we do, somehow life becomes pristine, glorious, wonderful, beautiful. It’s the answer to why the saints sang when they were being burned at the stake. It was the joyous triumph of their lives, giving ourselves to the Lord Jesus. May we bow our heads?
Our Lord in heaven, when we read these words from the sacred Book, what a call, what an invitation, what a commission, what a commandment, what a mandate from God in heaven Himself, that we also follow after.
They climb the steep ascent of heaven
Through peril, toil, and pain
O God, to us may grace be given
To follow in their train.
[from “The Son of God Goes Forth To War,” Reginald Heber ]
Dear God, we praise Thy name, that You matched our souls against such a time and hour. And may the Lord find us faithful unto death. Bless this dear church and its multi-faceted ministries. And bless our missionary appeal here and to the ends of God’s earth. And bless the preaching of the gospel this morning and the call of Christ in the human heart. And now, Lord, when we sing our hymn of appeal, may God bless it with a gracious harvest.
Somebody, “I take Jesus as my Savior this day” [Romans 10:8-13]. Somebody, “God has put in my heart to put my family and our whole circle and circumference of life in this congregation” [Hebrews 10:24-25]. Somebody, “I am answering God’s call to my soul, and here I stand.” Lord, give us a gracious response, a beautiful harvest for the glory of Jesus, and the blessing of Thy people, in Thy saving name, amen. Now while we stand and sing, as God shall place the appeal on your heart, answer with your life, “Here I come. Here I stand, pastor.” God bless you as you come, while we sing.