The Magnificent Magi and the True Meaning of Christmas: Worship
When the Legend Becomes Fact, Print the Legend
“And Jesus having been born in Beth-Lehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the king, lo, mages from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who was born king of the Jews? for we saw his star in the east, and we came to bow to him.’ And Herod the king having heard, was stirred, and all Jerusalem with him, and having gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he was inquiring from them where the Christ is born. And they said to him, ‘In Beth-Lehem of Judea, for thus it hath been written through the prophet,” Matthew 2:1-5 (Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible)
“. . . . .and having come to the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and having fallen down they bowed to him, and having opened their treasures, they presented to him gifts, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.” Matthew 2:10-11 (Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible)
I loved what the reporter in the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance said. Jimmy Stewart asked “are you going to use my story Mr. Scott?” He replied “No sir. This is the West. When legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Well, this is the western church. And when the legend of tradition grows bigger than the facts, teach the legend.
Thus it is with Christmas. Soon I’ll have a Christmas quiz for everyone. But this week I want to continue on with what the Magi has taught me about worship. We’ve got to get around the legend that has grown up which obscures the real purpose of the visit of the Magi. The real purpose of the visit of the Magi is the real meaning of Christmas. Each one has to find the Christ and worship Him.
What is a Legend?
A legend is a story based on historical facts that gets retold and embellished to where it looses it’s original meaning. A legend that doesn’t square with the facts is what many “manger scenes” depict: three magi kneeling at the feeding trough with mother Mary on the night of Jesus’ birth. When in fact we don’t know how many magi visited, when they visit occurred and they didn’t stay kneeling. The magi did not visit the baby Jesus on the night of His birth, it was several months later. We don’t know how many magi actually made the trip, the Bible just records wise men from the east. Most importantly, when they got there, they didn’t just kneel, but, in truth, they worshiped. Worship in the East is prostrate on the ground. This is the truth we need to learn from this legendary visit.
We may never know how many and when they arrived. We may never know their real names or what what home within Bethlehem they found the Baby. We many never find out the composition of the “star” they followed. But the example they set for us today is something we rarely do in churches in North America. They set the example of true worship.
The Magi worshiped in two distinct ways. First, they brought an offering. Second, they prostrated themselves before the king of kings. In my opinion, true worship involves the two distinct acts the Magi demonstrated that is so often lost in western churches.
Worship gets confused with praise in western churches. We list church times as “Sunday School at 9am and praise and worship at 10:30am.” We talk about a gifted singer or musician joining the worship team. But in reality, what we really promote on Sunday morning is praise. Praise is a mandatory part of our adoration toward God, but it is not the same as worship. For growth of churches and Christians a distinction needs to be made. Praise is the lifting up of hands with joy, exaltation, extolling and thankfulness. Worship literally means to be prostrate, to kiss the ground.
Worship here is the word “proskuneo.” This word occurs 60 times in the New Testament, 57 times in the Gospels.
- Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ Matthew 4:10
- A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Matthew 8:2
- When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. Mark 5:6
- When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God. Luke 24:50-53
Another word is latreuo which means to worship through service. Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’” Luke 4:8 The third word is sebo which means to worship as “God-fearing or religious.” Mark 7:6-7, Acts 13:43, 45-50.
Our modern legend is wrong. We depict kneeling or standing Magi. The fact is the Magi demonstrated true worship by prostrating themselves before the King of Kings and bringing an offering, not a gift.
What is Then True Worship?
Theopedia has a great definition:
Worship is an active response to the character, words and actions of God, initiated by His revelation and enabled by His redemption, whereby the mind is transformed (e.g. belief, repentance), the heart is renewed (e.g. love, trust), and actions are surrendered (e.g. obedience, service), all in accordance with His will and in order to declare His infinite worthiness.
In both Hebrew and Greek, there are two categories of words for worship. The first is about body language that demonstrates respect and submission; to bow down, to kneel, to prostrate oneself. The second is about doing something for God that demonstrates sacrifice and obedience; to offer, to serve.
First, the Magi prostrated themselves before the Lord Jesus. The precursor to this action is the word pesontes. They knelt. A connotation of the word here is “to fall under as in condemnation.” They didn’t kneel long. They felt convicted. They knew they were in the presence of the King of Kings, and the Lord of Lords even in His infancy. We rarely even on an individual basis, do this in church today. I have been to thousands of church services and don’t remember one pastor inviting people to prostrate themselves. I on occasion have invited people to get on their knees, but, I don’t remember encouraging people to fall on their face before God. How different a church service would be if we did!
Second, their offering denoted worship. The magi presented “gifts” of gold frankincense and myrrh. The legend says they were just “gifts.” However, taken in context the “gifts” were in fact “offerings.” There is a big difference. You see that proskuneo word shows up again in the word “they offered.” That is porsphero which means “to make an offering.” Eastern worshipers always brought an offering before their king. In the Old Covenant, you brought an offering to God even if it was flour or a turtledove. You didn’t go empty-handed. This makes the word doron not something that is owed, but something that is “a spontaneous sacrifice, something uncaused.” In the western church we would say that it is something not connected to our tithe or even a “special offering,” but given freely out of respect. Many Christmas gifts today are not given out of obligation, not spontaneously.
Gold, frankincense and myrrh are yes, according to legend representative of the Lord’s offices as King (gold), Priest (incense from the temple) and Messiah (myrrh used at embalming), but these together were used in worship in the temple, also. So, even the offerings are that of worship. They anointed the Tabernacle with oil made with frankincense and myrrh, along with the priests and instruments of worship. And they brought these things to the priest on a gold platter. (Exodus 30)
So lets put this together.
They fell on their knees (pesontes, to fall under as in condemnation), they worshiped (proskuneo, fall on the ground, to kiss), they offered (prosphero, to offer) gifts (doron, free, uncoerced, spontaneous offering). Doesn’t sound like they did much kneeling or praising.
But this type of worship, that proskuneo worship, is what we are going to do in heaven. I am going to start practicing now. I have a long way to go, just as the Magi did. The fact is – not the legend – worship is the true meaning of Christmas.
“The four living creatures said, ‘Amen,’ and the elders fell down and worshiped.” Revelation 5:14