Christmas. What a magic word. Believers and unbelievers alike have a little more happiness in their hearts and a bit more spring in their step. Around the world preachers are adjusting their typical sermon schedule and will spend several weeks telling the story from all angles they can find. In smaller churches children typically take on the role of Joseph and Mary for the annual Christmas play. Larger churches have older adults take on the roles of Joseph, Mary, the angels and others. Megachurches do their best to outdo one another for their annual Christmas play. One church has real animals, another has angels on wires flying through the stage, while another has the ultimate light and music show for the attendees.
We love it and for good reason. This is the beginning of the greatest story ever told. We learn about the humble beginnings of our Savior and the culture He grew up in. At least that is what we should be learning. Instead as time has progressed we have added to the Christmas story and brought into our Christmas plays words and actions that are not in Scripture. For a Biblically illiterate society this can be devastating.
Let’s look at some of the more commonly made mistakes in Christmas plays:
The 3 Wise Men
We do not know how many wise men came searching for the Christ Child. The Scripture says:
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Matthew 2:1
As we notice the Scripture does not give us a number. The Scripture mentions wise men, two or more. Typically if there was only two the Scripture might use the word “both” which indicates it was probably three or more. Why do we assume that there were three wise men? When we read of their gifts we discover that there was three recorded gifts given:
11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. Matthew 2:11
There could have been many more. These three were the most significant and that is why they are the only ones mentioned.
Another contributing factor concerning the number of wise men tradition says that there were three and that their names were Gaspar/Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar/Balthazar. Since the Bible does not say, in fact there is no mention of their names, there is no way of being certain if this true. Without any supporting documentation it would be wisest to keep with the Scripture.
When did they show up? All of our Christmas plays having them showing up the night of Christ’s birth typically a short while after the shepherds. Unfortunately this could not have been. The soonest the wise men could have arrived would have been the 9th day after Christ’s birth. If the wise men had shown up before then Joseph and Mary would have offered the incorrect redemption offering for Christ:
22 And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord;
23 (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;)
24 And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons. Luke 2:22-24
How is this evidence that the wise men had not made an appearance?
“The proper offering was a lamb for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or dove for a sin offering; but for the poor an alternative was allowed - instead of the more costly present of a lamb, a second pigeon or dove might be brought. The deep poverty of Mary and Joseph is shown in this offering. They would never have put the sanctuary off with the humbler had the richer gift been in their power.” The Pulpit Commentary
If the wise men had come to the family previously the offering would be more than two turtledoves, the offering of the poor. Joseph would have been required to offer a lamb as the wealth the wise men gave to the Christ child would necessitate a more appropriate offering.
Lastly we read in the Scripture in our aforementioned verse:
11 And going into the house…” Matthew 2:11a
Not the manger but a house. The family was out of the manger and in a house. It would be natural that they would move from the manger into a house, most likely a friend’s house, for the first few months of the baby’s life. The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary says:
“not the stable; for as soon as Bethlehem was emptied of its strangers, they would have no difficulty in finding a dwelling-house.”
The question I am asked often after relating these facts is, “what does it matter? Shouldn’t the overall theme be the important point? Not nitpicking the story to death.” While I agree theme of the story is very important it is paramount we understand the story with what is given and not add in our own suppositions and traditions. If we fail at this point to read our Bible carefully and dig out every gold nugget God has given us we will begin to fall for every fake gold nugget man creates. Read, study, learn and digest what the Bible gives us, not what man does.
But let us not end on such a note. Let us look at two great lessons (there are more) we find in the wise men.
(1) Gentiles looking for the Messiah. I love how God instructs Matthew, a Jew, to relate the story of the Gentiles finding Christ. While in Luke, the Gentile, we read the story of how the Jews were looking for Christ. By looking at both Gospels we discover both Jew and Gentile looking for something greater than what this world has to offer. (On a side note, Mark and John do not contain the birth narrative. I find many life-long church going Christians automatically assume all the gospels have the birth narrative.) We were once like the wise men. We too were searching for something greater than ourselves.
(2) The wise men were very humble. A widespread joke today goes: “The children of Israel wandered around the desert for 40 years led by two men. Even in biblical times, men wouldn’t ask for directions.” The wise men were exceptions. First they needed a star to guide them and then when they entered Jerusalem they needed the advice of others on where to go. They asked for directions. They did not rest in their superior intellect, their wealth, their prestige, to get them what they wanted. When they were in need they asked for help. Then when they arrived and found Mary and the Christ Child their first actions:
“…and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him.” Matthew 2:11b
They fell before a child and worshiped Him. Before they offered Him their gifts they gave Him their worship. They understood who He was and who they were.
I love this story and I love these men. They searched for the Messiah and we should all emulate searching for the Messiah in the Scripture. We should hunt down every nugget of information about our Messiah that the inspired authors wrote for us. When we discover new things about our Messiah it should cause us to fall down and worship Him even more for what He did for us and what He is doing for us.
This is the first of a series of articles concerning the Christmas story, what is Bible and what has been added by man. If you have a moment please share in the comments lessons that the wise men have taught you and any traditions that you grew up with concerning them. Thank you for reading.