Thursday, December 19, 2019

When the Magi Became Wise Men

I wonder how jarring the second chapter of Matthew might have been for the Jews who first read this Gospel.  The first act of worship toward Jesus came from a group of gentile magicians.  The magi were not kings, nor were they "wise men."  Our word "magic" is related to the word, "magi."  Magi were practitioners of magic.  History has embellished their identities and tried to sanitize what they were.

These are not the only magoi mentioned in the Bible.  Looking at the other magoi helps to get a better picture of what manner of people they were and how they would have been viewed by the Jewish population.

There are two other magoi in the New Testament mentioned by name.  The first is Simon in Acts 8.  Simon the magician practiced the magic arts, and seemed to be interested in acquiring the ability to perform miracles by the Spirit so he could add that to his bag of tricks.  The second magos in the New Testament is a man named called "Bar-Jesus," who was struck blind for opposing the Gospel in Acts 13.  Both of these men were charlatans.

In the Old Testament, Nebuchadnezzar had magoi that served him in his court in Daniel 2.  Of course, they were impotent and ineffective.   Ancient Jewish literature identified several other as magoi in the Hebrew scriptures.  Balaam was classed among the magoi.  Jewish literature pokes fun at Balaam as thick headed and an idiot.  The story of Balaam and the talking donkey continues to be a source of amusement.  Pharaoh also had magoi in his court which Jewish literature pokes fun at in Exodus 7-9.  Even though the magicians were able to also produce snakes with their staves as Moses did, Moses' staff ate theirs.  When Moses struck the water of the Nile and it turned to blood, the response of Pharaoh's magicians was to also turn water into blood.  When Moses stretched out his hand over the waters and frogs came up and covered the land, the response of Pharaoh's magicians was to also produce frogs!  Instead of making them go away, the magicians added to the problem!

Sometimes, sorcerers were referred to as "wise men."  However, in that culture, a "wise man" often meant simply that a person was educated in some sort of trade or practice.  It was a way of referring to some sort of professional.  Therefore, one who had been educated in the art of magic or sorcery would have been referred to as a "wise man."  However, Jews never saw magoi as wise.  When it comes to magoi, ancient Jewish literature pointed out that although they were "educated," they were educated in nonsense. 

All of this demonstrates that magoi were never seen in a positive light among Jews.  They were idiots at best, and charlatans at worst.  Instead of thinking of people dressed in royal robes or scholar's gowns, we ought to think of the magi as being like those from a seedy side street who peer into crystal balls, or who deal with spells, incantations, and potions. 

How amazing that a group of magoi were the first to worship Jesus as King!  I have to wonder why this was included in Matthew, a Gospel which appears to have a Jewish audience in mind.  It is equally interesting that one of the last acknowledgements of Jesus also comes on the lips of a gentile when the Centurion exclaimed, "Surely, this was the Son of God!"

As I think about this, I am reminded of 1 Corinthians 1:30 that says that Jesus the Messiah has become our wisdom from God.  I am also reminded of Proverbs 4:7 which points out where the beginning of wisdom is.  The beginning of wisdom is this: Get Wisdom!  Wisdom doesn't just come without effort.  In Proverbs 2:7, the sage said that one must search for it as hidden treasure.

These gentile magicians went on a quest to find Jesus, who is our wisdom from God.  They found him and worshipped him as King.  If they accepted Jesus as Lord, then those who were formerly fools had become wise.  What a contrast to the Jews who rejected Jesus.  1 Corinthians 1:27 says that God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.  Is that what has happened here?

Perhaps it is appropriate for history to remember these magicians as "wise men" after all.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Government Can't Save You

Some people place all their hopes in government, political causes, and elections.  Someone once said that for some people, it seems as though politics is a religion.  This is nothing new.  I am reminded of how ancient Rome was a religion, complete with temples to worship Caesar.  At one point, even the calendar was reworked to begin with the birth of Caesar.   

The Priene Calendar Inscription gives the rationale for the resetting of the calendar to begin with the birth of Augustus, since it was he who ended the previous era and began a new one.  This inscription, dated to 9 BC, says,

"Since the Providence which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue [divine power] that he might benefit humanity, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since the Caesar through his appearance has exceeded the hopes of all former gospels, surpassing not only the benefactors who came before him, but also leaving no hope that anyone in the future would surpass him, and since for the world the birthday of the god was the beginning of the gospel that came by reason of him . . . "

According to this declaration, Augustus was sent as a "savior" to "end war" and "arrange all things."  His birth is called the "beginning of the gospel."  He has surpassed all other benefactors before and after him, according to this inscription.

The phrase, "beginning of the Gospel" reminds me of what was written a few decades later by Mark, in his Gospel, who started with, "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God…"  It is illuminating to contrast the "Gospel of Caesar Augustus" to the "Gospel of Jesus Christ."  What kind of "savior" was Caesar Augustus?  What kind of savior is Jesus Christ?

Whatever Caesar Augustus accomplished was short lived.  In 14 AD, death claimed him whom they declared as their "savior" and their "God."  He was no God and therefore died just like any other man.  To this day, he is still dead.  His kingdom is also dead.  His accomplishments rest on the ash heaps of history. The word, "Caesar" today makes one think of a salad rather than a God. 

However, the name of Jesus is still the name of above all names.  His accomplishments endure to this day and are still increasing.   Jesus also died.  However, he rose from the grave.  The Christian Gospel is not just that Jesus, who is God, came into the world, but that he died and rose from the dead.  His death was redemptive.  His resurrection is hope.  He also established his Kingdom which continues to thrive until this day.  His Kingdom will last from this world and into eternity.  He brings peace not through political stability, but through wiping out our sins, redeeming us to God, and reforming our heart. 

While Caesar's laws might regulate behavior depending on the presence of law enforcement, the Gospel of Christ is what transforms the heart and mind, something Caesar is powerless to do.  All attempts by the various kinds of Caesars of the world to establish a peaceful Utopia have failed miserably.  If history teaches us anything, then it is likely that our own country will one day lie in ruins as Rome does.  Those who put all of their hopes in the Caesars of today will wind up empty. 

I remember seeing the picture of a president on the front page of a magazine at his reelection.  The title was "Second Coming."  That title spoke so much of how there were those placing their hopes in this political leader.  The only "second coming" that will ultimately save us is the second coming of Christ.  Jesus is our savior, our King, and our Lord.  He brings true peace now in his Kingdom, which will continue once for all in the New Jerusalem.  Jesus saves!

Friday, October 25, 2019

What Does it Mean to Be "Spiritual?"

What does it mean to be "spiritual" but not "religious"?  Most people I talk to usually mean that they do not attend a religious institution and do not get bogged down in biblical dogma.  They have little if any focus on religious rules, command, practices, or principles found in scripture.  But is it possible to truly be spiritual without being religious?

It seems to me that if the Bible is God's word, then we need to refer to the Bible to tell us what it means to be spiritual.  After all, the scriptures were written by those who were "moved by the Spirit" to communicate God's word accurately and with authority (2 Pet 1:20-21). 

1 Corinthians 2:6-16 is one passage that describes true spirituality.  Read it carefully, and note the following about spirituality:

1) Spirituality brings godly wisdom not the wisdom of the world:   "…a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away" (1 Cor 2:6).  The theme of wisdom is actually introduced in chapter one, where it says, "Where is the wise man?  Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?   Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" (1 Cor 1:20).  In applying it to today, we could add, Where is the college professor?  Where is the celebrity?  Where is the politician?  Where is the news anchor?  Etc.  Our wisdom does not come from the world because we are " in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God" (1 Cor 1:29).  Jesus is our wisdom, which is not the wisdom of the world.

2) Spirituality is knowing God's thoughts, what he loves, what he hates, and what his will is:  "Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God.  Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God" (1 Cor 2:11-12).  One cannot be "spiritual" unless you know God.  This means knowing God, and not some caricature of God one may make up in his mind, which amounts to idolatry.

3) Spirituality is communicated with words from the mind of God:   "…which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words" (1 Cor 2:13).  This is why it is absolutely necessary to have the word of God in order to grow in spirituality.

4) Spirituality is what enables us to understand God's will as wisdom, and to see the world's way for what it is:  "But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things" (1 Cor 2:14-15).  Worldly wisdom and Godly Wisdom are an eternity apart.  To be spiritual means to apply God's wisdom in every circumstance.

After 1 Corinthians 1 introduces godly wisdom as a major theme, chapter 2 explicitly connects this wisdom to the Spirit.  Spirituality and godly wisdom go hand in hand.

Using this as a template to understand everything else in 1 Corinthians, it becomes evident that 1 Corinthians is a book about being "spiritual."  For each topic in 1 Corinthians, it is helpful to compare the "spiritual" way of thinking about and dealing with it to the "worldly way of thinking about and dealing with it." 

Here are some examples: 

In chapter 3, a spiritual person is humble and recognizes that he is one of many partners in doing the work of God.  The credit and recognition goes ultimately to God who causes the growth and was the one who laid the foundation.  Unspiritual godly wisdom would see personal ambition that calls attention to personal accomplishments as a good and worthy thing.  However, it will not withstand the test because the foundation would be on the teacher rather than on Christ.

In chapter 5, a spiritual person understands God's view on sin and how ongoing sin not only devastates a relationship with God.  He will not only mourn the sin, but take steps to motivate the brother to repent and keep the sin from spreading to others.  Unspiritual godly wisdom would pride itself on being enlightened rather than archaic and backwards.  It would brag about tolerance and acceptance.  However, the end result of this would be eternal condemnation not only for the one brother, but possibly others to whom the sin might spread.

In chapter 6, a spiritual person recognizes that Christians are the ones with godly wisdom that can help with a dispute between himself and a brother.  He will avoid going to worldly courts to try and arbitrate because they are of the world.  If it cannot be resolved with his brother, he will simply swallow the loss and move on. However, unspiritual worldly wisdom would say to take your brother to court, call a news conference, and fight for what is yours.  The former would seem like foolishness to the world, but to us it is a demonstration of the wisdom of God.

Spirituality according to the Bible looks very different than what many people call "spirituality."  That self-made religion amounts to idolatry.  Spirituality can only grow through regular meditation on the word of God with faithfulness and humility.  This creates the environment in the heart for the Spirit to lead and transform us into a true "spiritual" person.