How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7)
Some kinds of news have the power to change our lives overnight — the birth of a baby, the diagnosis of cancer, the closing of a factory. The news of the end of a war or toppling of an evil government can mean new life for millions. We remember with great joy the end of World War II, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and even the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein. People who had lived in fear of torture and murder for decades said that they felt like they had been “reborn.” It was as if a nightmare was suddenly over and a new day had come.
Interestingly, the Hebrew word besorah, which we translate to “good news,” has exactly that connotation. It is news of national importance: a victory in war, or the rise of a powerful new king. The word was used in relation to the end of the exile (Isaiah 52:7) and the coming of the messianic King (Isaiah 60:1). Often it is news that means enormous life change for the hearer.
In Greek, there is an equivalent word, euaggelion, which we also translate as “good news, glad tidings, or gospel.” It also describes historic news of national importance. One place where this term is used is in the story of the angels who bring the news about the birth of Christ:
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)
This announcement has a fascinating context. In Jesus’ time, there was a yearly announcement of the birthday of Caesar as “the euaggelion to the whole world.” The Roman Empire considered it great news to remind people of the ascendancy of this king and his reign over the known world. In the light of this, we see that the angels were doing the same thing, but in a much greater way — making an official proclamation to the all the nations about the birth of the true King of Kings, and the arrival of a new kingdom on earth.
When we learn that the word “evangelize” comes from euaggelizo (related to euaggelion), we can see the true power of the “good news” of the coming of Christ. Victory has been won in the war against Satan; and Christ, the true King, has come into power. This new King has come to extend an invitation to enter his kingdom and live under his reign. Like any regime change, the word “good” is far too bland to express the impact of this news that brings eternal life to its hearers. May the news of this King spread everywhere on earth!
Many of us struggle with Christmas. It doesn’t really feel right to hunt for yet another expensive toy to give to already spoiled kids (or adults) on our list. Some have decided not to celebrate the holiday at all, because of the non-biblical traditions that are a part of it. Yet God redeemed us Gentiles from our pagan roots, and his gracious policy over the ages has been to transform rather than to cast aside.1 Instead of throwing out Christmas, perhaps we should ask how we can make our celebrations of the coming of our Messiah truly reflective of his love.
How can we bring more glory to Messiah Jesus at this time of year? Jesus’ Jewish culture asked a related question from the following verse:
The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. (Exodus 15:2)
From this line, rabbinic thinkers saw the words “I will exalt him,” and asked the question, “How can mere mortals hope to exalt God, the Creator of the entire universe?” In the same way we could ask, how can we bring more glory to someone as infinitely wonderful as God’s own son, the Christ?
Beautifying His Commands
The rabbis had a wonderful answer. They said humans can bring more glory to God, who had all the glory in the heavens, by doing his will on earth in the absolute best and beautiful way possible. They called this hiddur mitzvah, meaning to beautify God’s commands. In the same way, we can do what Jesus commands in the absolute best way possible.
Christians may be surprised that the word mitzvah, meaning “command” or “commandment,” is positive rather than negative in Jewish culture. The word is found in many verses, like the following: “Keep my commands (mitzvot, pl.) and follow them. I am the LORD” (Lev. 22:31).
We tend to assume it refers to burdensome regulations, but the usual Jewish usage of mitzvah is that it is an opportunity to do something good God told you to do. People say things like, “I had a chance to do a mitzvah today when the elderly woman asked for my help.” The word is always used in a positive way, suggesting that doing what God has asked is a joy and a spiritual opportunity, not a burden.2
The idea of hiddur mitzvah (beautifying the command) goes even beyond this — that if God tells us to do something, we shouldn’t just do the minimum, but to perform it in the best way possible, sparing no expense or trouble. When one poor Jewish man was asked why he spent $50 for a citron, a lemon-like fruit required for the Feast of Sukkot, he replied, “Why would we worship God with anything less than the very best?” Using our resources sacrificially to do God’s will is a way of showing great love for God.
We can also see Jesus describing this behavior of hiddur mitzvah, going far beyond the minimum, in his story about the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan man obeyed God’s command to love his neighbor by personally caring for the wounded traveler, carrying him to the inn on his own donkey, and investing a large sum of his own money to care for him. As a Samaritan in Israel he even risked his own life, because as an enemy of the Jews, he could have been accused of being the attacker (Luke 10:33-35).
Christians from some traditions may worry about doing “works” — good things for others — thinking that it is a way of denying that we are saved by grace. It’s very important to remember that we are redeemed by faith in Christ, not because we’ve earned it. We can learn the correct attitude from Paul’s statement about works:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph. 2:8-10)
Paul says that salvation does not come from earning it through works, but it is a free gift from God through faith in the one he has sent. Surprisingly, though, the very next thing he says is that doing good works is the very purpose for which we were created! It is not that obeying God is the way we earn his love; rather it is that God, out of love, created us to serve him this way in the first place. Paul says something very similar to the rabbis:
For three things the world is sustained: For the study of scriptures (torah), for worshipping and serving God (avodah), and for deeds of lovingkindness (gemilut hesed).3
What this means is that for three great reasons God created humanity and allows the world to even keep existing: for humans to discover God’s great love through his Word; to worship him and want to serve him because of it; and then to show God’s love to those around us. Paul also says that we were created for this purpose, to bring God glory by doing loving acts that he even planned ahead of time. All of this comes back to the first question: how can humans increase God’s (and therefore Christ’s) glory? By glorifying God by reflecting his love.
One of the most beautiful concepts from Jesus’ culture is that of gemilut hesed (gem-i-LOOT HES-ed), acts of lovingkindness. In Jesus’ time, attention was given to giving money to the poor, and Jesus himself emphasized it.
As good as it was to give to the poor, gemilut hesed was considered even better. It is easy to hand a $10 bill to a poor man to give him money for a meal, but to invite him into your home and share a meal shows God’s love, and causes you to grow in love as well. Because of this, some Jews make a point to use some of their “giving dollars” to do gemilut hesed with their own hands.4 I know of a woman in Jerusalem who loved to read, so she invested in a library of books and then regularly found ways of loaning or even giving them to others. Certainly a Christian could do even more by buying and sharing good devotional books or Bible studies with others.
Considering how much money we spend on entertainment from movies, cable TV, etc, wouldn’t a wonderful Christian alternative be to “entertain” ourselves with gemilut hesed? To make a “hobby” out of a particular form of kindness to others? One Christian couple I know invested in a truck to use during snowstorms, to go up and down their country road pulling people out who had slid off the road. Another friend makes a habit of stopping to help or offer a cell phone to anyone stranded with road trouble. Yet another woman, who teaches classes on job hunting, enjoys helping friends find jobs if they need one or want one that suits them better.
What about making a practice of being kind to waitresses and tipping them generously? Or inviting single or elderly people home for Sunday dinner after church? As well as, of course, to share your faith in Christ? All these kind acts have the effect of showing God’s love to others in small and great ways. They likely will have an even bigger impact on ourselves and our families, as we see God’s love transform our hearts in the process.
During Christmas time, we celebrate God’s loving act of gemilut chesed, of coming to dwell among his people on earth. He went far beyond the minimum to display his love by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and showing mercy to the leper and outcast, and finally by dying to save his people from their sins. What better way to celebrate his coming than to spare no expense to obey his commands in the best possible way, in order to show his tremendous love to the world.
3 Verse 1:2 of Pirke Avot, (Sayings of the Fathers), a collection of rabbinic sayings written about 200 AD in the Mishnah. Many of these saying were attributed to rabbis who lived in Jesus’ time and even before, and many relate to things Jesus said as well. This saying is attributed to Simon the Righteous, who was said to live at the time of Ezra.
4 For many wonderful stories of the practice of Gemilut Hesed, see the outstanding book, The Book of Jewish Values, by Joseph Telushkin, (c) 2000, Bell Tower, New York
One of the stories of Christmas that seems to be most cryptic is that of the wise men. Who were they? Where did they come from? Why did they give Jesus the gifts they did? Why are they called magi and what does the word magi mean? Why do we sometimes call them kings? What is the significance of this story, and what does it say about Jesus?
Let’s take a look at the text:
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 in the east 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 Christ 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 be the shepherd of my people Israel.’” … 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 and of frankincense and of myrrh. (Matt. 2:1-6, 11)
Expecting a king
The first question that we should ask is, why are they expecting a king, and why is Herod concerned? The answer comes from looking back at some promises from the scriptures. In Micah 4, the prophet told of a messianic age when God would set everything right. Micah said that a king would arise from Bethlehem, the city where David had been born several hundred years before:
“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too little to be among the clans of Judah, From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity.” … He will arise and shepherd His flock In the strength of the LORD, In the majesty of the name of the LORD His God. (Micah 5:2, 4)
This king that would come would be a descendent of David. This comes from a very important promise that God had made to King David, who had displayed great faith and love for God:
“‘I declare to you that the LORD will build a house for you: When your days are over and you go to be with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. I will never take my love away from him, as I took it away from your predecessor. I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever.’” (1 Chron. 17:10b-14)
This is the one who Herod feared, this great king that God himself would bring into power.
Prophecies about this king
When a powerful king arises in a country, other kings would give him gifts to form alliances and show friendliness toward that nation. David and Solomon, Israel’s most powerful kings, formed many alliances with the nations around them. One story from Solomon’s life is even reminiscent of the story of the wise men:
When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relation to the name of the LORD, she came to test him with hard questions. Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan — with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones — she came to Solomon and talked with him about all that she had on her mind. … And she gave the king 120 talents of gold, large quantities of spices, and precious stones. Never again were so many spices brought in as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon. (1 Kings 10:1-2, 10)
Interestingly, other prophecies describe this same thing occurring when the messianic age would come. In Isaiah 60 it says:
“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. … The wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and frankincense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD. (Is 60:1-4, 6)
Psalm 72 prophesies a similar thing about the messianic king:
He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; he will crush the oppressor. He will endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through all generations. … He will rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. The desert tribes will bow before him and his enemies will lick the dust. The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him; the kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts. All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him. For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight. Long may he live! May gold from Sheba be given him. (Ps. 72: 4-5, 8-15)
Gifts from Sheba
In all three of these stories, royalty from Sheba would come bearing gifts, including gold, precious stones, and spices including frankincense. Where is Sheba? It is at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula, where Yemen is today. It was known in ancient times as possessing great wealth — gold, jewels and spices.
Spices don’t seem very precious to us, but in ancient times, some spices and aromatic oils were worth more than their weight in diamonds because of their rarity and use as perfumes, incense and medicine. Herod gained much of his fantastic wealth by trading in spices and regulating the trading routes.
To transport them over 1,800 miles through the dangerously dry, barren Arabian desert, camels were the only animals that could be used. From these Old Testament prophecies we can get some reason of why the tradition was that royalty would come from the east, and that they would be on camels.
Who are the magi?
In different text translations the travelers are called wise men, magi or astrologers. The term “wise men,” hakamim, is often used in the Old Testament to describe a pagan king’s counselors that are schooled in the magical arts, and are often mentioned with magicians and diviners.
Pagan kings like the Pharaoh in Egypt had magicians who interpreted dreams and imitated Moses’ miracles. Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, had wise men and magicians as well. These “spiritual advisors” were respected counselors and probably also acted as ambassadors. When they learned by some kind of divination that a great king had arisen in Israel, most likely the pagan kings had sent them with riches to deliver to this powerful new ruler, to pay homage for their countries.
We are unsure of what type of celestial event the star was or how the wise men interpreted it, but through some spiritual means they learned that a great king had been born in Israel. This says something about the impact the coming of Christ had on the spiritual world. We hear about angels rejoicing, but the news of Jesus’ coming shook the rest of the unseen world as well!
In the scriptures we see other places where God reveals his plans to foreign diviners. In a strange parallel to this story, Balaam, another pagan magician, prophesied about the rise of a king in Israel, and even associates him with a star:
“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star rises from Jacob; a scepter comes forth from Israel… Edom will be conquered; Seir, his enemy, will be conquered, but Israel will grow strong. Numbers 24:17-18
Perhaps the reason Herod feared Jesus is he knew this prophecy said that he, an Edomite, would fall to the true king of the Jews.
What are the Frankincense and Myrrh for?
Both frankincense and myrrh are purified from aromatic tree saps into either powders or oils. They would have been gifts more precious than the gold, because of their rarity and the tremendous expense in transporting them: but why were they appropriate for Jesus, this newborn king they had come to worship?
Remember that in biblical times, a king was not “crowned” in a coronation ceremony, he was anointed with oil. This was olive oil blended with myrrh and some other of the most expensive fragrances known, and would be like liquid diamonds in terms of expense.The anointed king would have an aroma that would say that he was the one chosen by God. Kings would wear fragrances other times after they were anointed to show their kingliness. Psalm 45, about King David, says:
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you With the oil of joy above your fellows. All Your garments are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia; Kings’ daughters are among your noble ladies; At your right hand stands the queen in gold from Ophir. (Ps 45:7-9)
And about King Solomon it says:
What is this coming up from the wilderness Like columns of smoke, Perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, With all scented powders of the merchant? Behold, it is the carriage of Solomon. (Songs 3:6)
So, perhaps the wise men had brought these precious oils to anoint the king, the prophesied son of David. What is most interesting is that the Hebrew word for anointed is Moshiach, “Messiah.” In Greek, the same word is Christ. So every time we say Jesus Christ, we are calling Jesus the “Anointed King.” So the wise men were proclaiming Jesus as the “anointed one,” the Messiah, the Christ, the King of Kings!
“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Philippians 4:11-13
Right now as we are in the season of Christmas, as we are doing our pre-Christmas and post-Christmas shopping, it is easy to focus on new things we wish we could have. We live in a culture where TV shows and commercials revolve around having more “stuff,” where our status is based on money, and we are expected to dedicate all our time to achieving financial success. Our culture’s god is Mammon, and at Christmas, we are bombarded by messages to bow down to this god, when we should be worshipping the God who cared so little for money that he came to earth to lay in a watering trough.
This is a good time to reflect on a wonderful saying of the rabbis. They asked the simple question, “Who is rich?” And, they answered it with a profound, yet simple answer: “He who is satisfied with what he has.”
Certainly there are many in need, but many more of us don’t see the amazing prosperity that we do have. For much of the world’s people, and much of human history, people have known regular hunger, have had only one or two changes of clothes, and have worked hard to just make ends meet with little or no safety net of savings. Nowadays people have large retirement savings, buy pricey vacations and entertainment items, and grow obese eating in restaurants. If we saw our homes as palaces that even kings and queens of former generations would feel comfortable in, we certainly would feel satisfied with what we have.
As we celebrate God’s great gift to us this year in Christ, may we seek first his Kingdom, rather than worrying about the things we have or don’t have. And may we learn to be content in every circumstance, knowing that God abundantly supplies all our needs. Then we will see how rich we really are.
When we read the Christmas story, we focus on the idea that in Jesus Christ, God came to dwell with us, and we see it as a miracle that for a short time God would come so close to lowly humanity. But if we examine the rest of the Scriptures, it becomes evident that this has been God’s goal from the very beginning, and will finally be reached in Revelation.
When God first made man and woman, they dwelled with him in the Garden of Eden; after they sinned, they were cast out of God’s presence. This is the fundamental consequence of sin – the breach of intimacy with God. But God immediately began to repair the breach by making a covenant with Abraham, and later with Israel. When the covenant with Israel was first made and before it was broken, seventy elders could enter God’s presence and not suffer harm (Exodus 24:9-14). God had begun to mend the relationship between mankind and himself, so that a few people could enter his presence once again, even if only temporarily.
God then gave the the Israelites instructions to make a tabernacle, saying “Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8). Interestingly, his goal is not to dwell in it, but to dwell among them. His goal was to have intimacy with his people, for them to live in his presence. This points ahead to God’s final goal of his presence among his people in Revelation:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and he will dwell among them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be among them, and he will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” (Revelation. 21:3-4)
Christ’s coming to dwell on earth is both a picture of God’s ultimate goal and God’s means of accomplishing that goal. In Christ, God walked, talked, laughed and cried with his people, and showed them his great love for them. By dying for their sins, God took on the worst of human of experiences, and was intimately with his people in the depths of life’s sorrows. But through the atonement that this provided, he has opened the door for us to live forever in his presence as well. In this sense, God has most fully achieved his goal of dwelling forever among His people.