Stick to the text, dummy.

I wrote what I thought, and think, is a good sermon, but on going back to my source text (Matthew 2:1-12), I realized that it’s based on a premise that isn’t stated, but is rather implied, in the text. (I’m aware that that sentence is full of commas. I like them.) The premise is that none of the Jerusalemites went to check out Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, even though the Magi (a world-renowned and feared caste of king-makers) rode in to find him and worship him, and Bethlehem is only six miles away.

I think it’s a good study of what’s underneath the text, but it doesn’t deal with the text as a whole. I haven’t hit the star yet, or verse 10 – why did they “rejoice exceedingly with great joy”? If you’re going to preach, preach primarily what’s there. So, back to the drawing board.

We can see a pattern emerging – it began with a list of wicked men, then a just man, and now some wise men. And remembering the lesson of chapter 1, which was that everyone in the chapter deserved hell, even the man called “righteous,” let’s not be too quick to assume that “wise” means what we think it means. Or at least, that their wisdom comes from themselves.

Keeping in mind Ecclesiastes 7:20 and Romans 3:10, which quotes it (“There is not a man on earth who is righteous, who does what is right and never sins.”), let me give you some background on the wise men.

The actual Greek is not “wise men,” it’s magos – magi.

[HISTORY – Who were the magi?]

So the Magi come, the most respected and feared group of guys in the world, and they want to see the King of the Jews. Why? To approve his kingship, right? No. They already know he’s a king. They want to worship him. Even stronger is Matthew’s language: “we have come to worship him.” They came for that purpose; God sent them, maybe half-wittingly, to worship this baby.

It’s insulting that they’re Gentiles, and they’re the first to recognize. It’s even more insulting of Matthew, that all of Jerusalem heard that the Magi thought he was the King of the Jews, and nobody went to investigate. The chief priests even knew exactly where he was going to be born. It was six miles away, in a tiny village! It’d be impossible not to find Jesus.

And they didn’t go. Why? I don’t think it was lack of curiosity. When John the Baptist starts his ministry, eating bugs and sugar and yelling at people, they’re right on the spot. The Pharisees went down to check out what was going on. They had to, in fact. Even if John was criticizing them, they had to show up, because everyone else was going, and they had to represent their constituents. They had to keep tabs on the pulse of the nation.

And that’s odd, too, because the whole nation saw the Magi roll in and set up camp, and these guys are international superstars. What they do, everyone wants to do. But they don’t go. Nobody goes.

Were they afraid of the Romans? Possibly… if word got out that the Jews were rallying around a new king, Rome might crack down. There would doubtlessly be serious consequences for even a whiff of insurrection.

But I don’t think that’s entirely it either. I think this is foremost and finally God. He has his hand over all of history. Everything. Good and bad, it’s all his. A lot of you were here for Esther, so we should be getting good at seeing God work where he’s not mentioned by name.

And that’s an interesting thing about the New Testament, as well… have you ever realized that Yahweh really doesn’t appear at all? The Old Testament is all about Yahweh, or Elohim, right up until the last book, Malachi. And then you get to Matthew, and it all changes to Jesus and the Holy Spirit. In language, that is. It’s just another technique that Matthew uses to prove Jesus is God… where the predominant, speaking voice of authority in the Old Testament is the Father; in the New Testament it’s the Son.

You do get a few occasions where the Father shows up and speaks, like Jesus’ baptism in Matthew 3. But that’s ahead of ourselves.

So here in Matthew 2, God is still quiet. We’re still in the long period of silence between Malachi and John the Baptist. Nobody is out there saying “God says this!” But that doesn’t mean God isn’t moving; isn’t working. In John 5:17 Jesus tells the Pharisees that God the Father is always working; Psalm 121 tells us that God never sleeps, but is always watching over his people. And that cuts both ways.

Here he’s brought Gentiles, idol worshippers from one of the most spiritually dark corners of the world, Persia. These guys are probably Zoroastrians, which means they worship fire. And he’s brought them to worship him!

And Jerusalem, which is supposed to be the city of God, his “city on a hill” that gives light to the world, and God is blinding them! That’s why they don’t go see Jesus and worship at his feet like the magi do. He’s already begun the process! Don’t think that Israel rejected Jesus when they heard his words, or even when he began criticizing some important people, or when the Romans started to get involved – Jesus’ rejection started when he was born! And it was all the work of God. God sent his Son so that he could be rejected. This is staggering.

Paul, in Romans 11, says that Israel’s disobedience is what gives the Gentiles salvation. What a claim! Instead of crediting salvation to Christ’s work on the cross, he credits it to Israel’s disobedience! This is what he says (v. 30): “For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience; so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy.”

Listen to that language! The claim is, the Jews “have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy.” Paul implies that they are purposely being made to be disobedient. And he says it plainly, in fact, in verse 25: “a partial hardening has come upon Israel….”

And there is no question, after reading Romans 9-11, and especially the prior verses about God grafting in and cutting of branches, who’s doing the hardening.

Do you believe in the absolute sovereignty of God? We throw it around as a spiritual catchphrase, but to actually fill it up with all of its confounding, jaw-dropping implications is another matter.

God is saying directly to us, through Paul and Matthew, that he hardens peoples’ hearts. Collectively and individually. Romans 9:18 “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” God sends people to hell, and all protest against that fact can never shout down the justice of it.

If God’s justice in sending humanity to hell were to collectively offend us, and we were to gather together in one giant protest against our Creator, and he were to allow all six billion of us to scream our lungs out and curse the name of God, that protest would not diminish one atom of the glory of his justice. The louder we shout, the more we curse, the greater the justice. His justice is made perfect in burning sin in eternal fire.

That’s the God we worship. Completely self-substantial. Perfect without us, perfect with us. If we were to all be destroyed, his glory would be as great as it’s ever been.

Many lost people reject God because they can’t accept that justice. They don’t want to believe a loving God punishes his people eternally. And a lot of Christians are going that route now because they don’t want to believe in it either.

But if we don’t get that, we don’t get Jesus. Jesus talked about hell more than anyone else. He was the greatest fire and brimstone preacher that ever walked the earth. Nobody even comes close. He went up to the Billy Grahams and the Joel Osteens of his day and told them they were Satan’s offspring. He went up to Barack Obama and E Myung Bak and said that he was the source of their power. He told them all they were going to suffer eternally in hell if they didn’t turn their lives around.

Jesus is going to go straight for the jugular of these Pharisees in Matthew 23, and much of Matthew the 20 chapters preceding it builds up to that climactic scene, where he condemns them to hell.

And this is what he says: “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore, I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.” (Matthew 23:36)

Look at that text and find the turning point. It’s therefore. The premise is the rhetorical question, “How will they escape hell?” in other words “You’re going to hell.” He’s judging them, right there, as God. And the therefore is amazing because of what follows it. “You’re going to hell, therefore, I’m sending you prophets, wise men and scribes.” You’re damned to hell for all eternity, so let me give you a chance to repent. That in itself is unbelievable.

The Jews in Jerusalem were being condemned to hell; most of them would not be saved. And this was happening even before Jesus was born, with the Pharisees and their made-up religion leading the whole country astray. So when Jesus shows up, and the Magi arrive to confirm his kingship and worship him as God, the Jews don’t go to Bethlehem. Why? It would be a spiritual impossibility for them to go, because God is hardening their hearts. He is condemning them to hell.

But God gives them a chance to repent! He sends them prophets, wise men, and scribes. People who speak, write, and interpret the Word so that they can understand. This is a complete mercy. Why? Because it’s not just that they do not understand, they will not understand.

So why send them anybody at all? Even if mercy is in itself a beautiful thing, if it accomplishes nothing then it’s worthless. And it certainly invalidates God’s promise that his word will “never return empty, but will accomplish what he desires and achieve the purpose for which he sends it” (Isaiah 55:11).

This is why. The Scripture continues. They will crucify, flog, persecute, kill the prophets “so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth….” So they are judged for shedding the blood of every single Old Testament justified man and woman. Abel, Joseph, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, John the Baptist. It is God’s will that the nation of Israel, and especially its leaders of that generation, be punished beyond condemnation to hell, for rejecting all of the people that God sent. They were already condemned before Jesus showed up! And Jesus came for two reasons: to take his chosen people’s sins on himself, and to warn the unchosen people that their sins were not being taken on himself.

Once again, blood is all over this book. It’s painted in the genealogy, forever imprinted at the front of the New Testament, for all eyes to see. Joseph is saved from it by the miracle of God coming, to grow up as a human sacrifice and take Joseph’s upon himself.

And blood looms here, over this little suburb. That’ll change the Christmas song for you. “O little town of Bethlehem, how sweet we see thee lie / above thy sweet and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by” – what a tragedy! They should have flocked to Bethlehem by the hundreds of thousands! They should have come from every corner of the empire to see their king, if only to see if it was true! And instead they stayed home, and slept, and the blood was just gathering over their heads.

And when Jesus shows up, they don’t believe him, because they didn’t remember his birth in Bethlehem. In John 7:42 the people are arguing about the Messiah, and they say “Is the Christ to come from Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from… Bethlehem, the village where David was?” The Magi riding through Israel, declaring that they found the King of Israel had to be one of the defining events of their generation, and thirty years later, they’d completely forgotten.

Their blood was already on their heads. They’re going to confirm it in Matthew 27. They’re screaming at the Romans to crucify Jesus, and Pilate washes his hands and lets them crucify him, and this is what they say: “His blood be on us and on our children” (v 25).

So they were condemned before Jesus came, and when he comes, he’s going to send his prophets, wise men and scribes out so that in addition to individual punishment in hell, they’re going to get a preview of hell, in the destruction of their temple, and their city, in A.D. 70.

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~ by bradybush on September 2, 2009.

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