The more one reflects on the narrative of the wise men (Matthew 2:1–12), the better one realizes that many purposes and methods of the Incarnation are capsulized by this remarkable pilgrimage.

First note that the visit of the wise men did not coincide with the shepherds’ visit; they found Jesus in a house (v. 11), not in a stable. And we are not told how many men made the journey. The number three is merely a tradition, probably based upon the mention of three different gifts. Moreover, the Scripture does not say that they were kings or even chieftains. This doesn’t mean that we have to do away with much of our traditional Christmas pageantry and the well-known carol; it does remind us, however, to guard against the common practice of thinking the Scriptures say something that they really do not say.

The “magi” as Matthew calls them (using the same word from which we get “magic”) were probably what would now be termed astrologers, an occupation that is still an important adjunct to the decision-making processes in many Asian countries. Although in the Western world astrologers are not publicly consulted by the civil authorities, the practice of astrology is an extremely lucrative one. Newspaper editors quickly find out how popular astrology is when they omit horoscopes. Key tenets of what we regard as astrology were and are forbidden to the people of God (e.g., Jeremiah 10:2), but even as God could reach and then work through the adulterous woman at the well in Samaria, so he can teach us from this crucial incident in the wise men’s lives without implying approval of all they did.

What was the “star” (the word can mean any heavenly phenomenon) that started the wise men on their journey (v. 2) and was not seen again until they were on their way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (v. 9)? It was almost certainly not some spectacular object, such as a comet or super nova, because Herod had to ask the magi when it had first appeared (v. 7). This suggests that the phenomenon was one that astrologers would have noticed because of their constant study of the regular movements of heavenly bodies but that ordinary people would not have noticed.

Saturn was the planet that the astrologers thought influenced Jews, and astronomers report that during the few months shortly before Christ was born, Jupiter crossed Saturn three times, back and forth. Such a conjunction happens every 125 years, but this time it occurred in the constellation Pisces, which astrologers believed was of particular importance for Jews. Then a few months later, a conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn occurred; this happens only every 805 years. Soon thereafter Jupiter and Saturn were grouped with Venus, the brightest object in the heavens after the sun and moon.

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These regular planetary motions and the exact calculations that only astrologers would derive from them may not have made up the phenomenon of the “star.” However, if astrological observations were involved, the passage shows that God is willing to communicate with people by using means that are within their religious and cultural traditions. Throughout the history of the Church, missionaries have sought to find points of contact with the prevailing religion to use as a basis for directing people to faith in Christ.

In any case, the precise nature of the object is not Matthew’s main point. What he wants to make clear is that the coming of Christ is significant for all people, not just for Israel. At a time when many professing Christians argue that converts to Christ should not be sought among the great religions of the East, it is good to have this reminder at the beginning of the New Testament that worship of the Lord Jesus Christ is due from all men, not just from the Jews or from Westerners.

The wise men apparently had knowledge of the Old Testament prophetic writings about the Messiah, and the heavenly object that they saw fit their interpretation of the timing of some of the prophecies. The Scriptures must have made a tremendous impression upon them to cause them to undertake such an arduous journey from a far land. Naturally they headed for Jerusalem, the Jewish capital, but they were eventually directed to the small town of Bethlehem. They came to a simple house in which a craftsman was the head of the household. So great was their faith that they were not deterred by the lack of royal trappings; upon seeing the child Jesus, they fell down and worshiped him. Ever since the coming of Christ, countless men have said that they do not honor him because he and his people do not fit their preconceived ideas of what God should be like and how he should act. The wise men demonstrate from the beginning that preconceptions need not stand in the way of those who are sincerely seeking to do the will of God.

Finally, a word about the gifts. They have been made to symbolize all sorts of things. What is certain is that they were gifts worthy of a king, each very precious. In all probability the holy family used them to finance their exile to Egypt. Frankincense and myrrh were used extensively in religious rites, one as an incense, the other usually as an unguent. Both also had aromatic properties and a wide variety of medicinal uses. Their worship cost the wise men a great deal in effort and funds for which they gained nothing tangible in return at the time. (Of course, we can certainly hope to meet them in heaven.)

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Even today in much of the world it is very costly to honor Christ. Persecution, ostracism, long imprisonment, and death can be the lot of those who name Christ as Saviour and Lord. Yet in the light of the teaching of Christ and of his work on the cross, we know that in reality we bring nothing to him. It is he who does everything for us. When the wise men came to Christ “they rejoiced with exceeding great joy (v. 10). Christ is still, nearly 2,000 years later, bringing such joy to those who come to him.

Churchill And His Tryst

In their sixty-fifth year most men are thinking about retirement and leisure. Not so Winston Churchill, the centenary of whose birth fell on November 30. He had had a very varied career as soldier, journalist, and politician, but he was too much of an individualist to reach the top. Then came World War II and what Churchill regarded as his tryst with destiny (in discussing personal religious faith he was no more articulate than the average person).

When France fell in 1940 and Britain stood alone against a seemingly invincible foe, the new premier’s aim was breathtaking in its audacity: “Victory—victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be.” He had long warned against the menace of international Communism, but when Germany made the supreme blunder of invading Russia his policy was wholly expedient: if Hitler invaded hell he (Churchill) would feel constrained to say a good word for the devil.

There were disappointments and defeats and dark days, but Churchill’s stirring broadcasts put new life not only into his own people but into the enslaved millions of occupied Europe who heard his words clandestinely. The New World came to the rescue of the Old, as he knew it would, and ultimately the fight was won. None had contributed more than the septuagenarian bulldog figure who had become the emblem of the free world. In his famous Fulton, Missouri, speech in 1946 Churchill again warned of the threat from Soviet policies. It is one of the ironies of our times that the wartime leader so providentially used at a crisis in Western world history should have been so largely disregarded when it came to consolidating the peace.

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Witchcraft P.R.

A recent Associated Press story reported that witches, who may be of either sex, wish to defend themselves against “misunderstandings” caused by the allegedly erroneous association of witchcraft with Satan and Satanism. According to self-styled good witch Morning Glory (Mrs. Tim) Zell of St. Louis, Missouri, “witches worship nature—paganism [witchcraft, according to Mrs. Zell, is pagan] is essentially a pantheistic religion.… We are not Satanists.”

Mrs. Zell may be right in claiming that there is such a thing as a pantheistic witchcraft that has no acknowledged connection with Satan. She is not right in suggesting that either pantheism or witchcraft in any form can be good, or even merely innocuous. Pantheism, the view that the Universe or the All is God, is a vigorous and insidious opponent of biblical religion, which emphasizes God’s personhood and human individuality and responsibility.

As the noted French Baptist theologian Henri Blocher has pointed out, it is no longer possible for modern man to go back to the humble nature worship of ancient paganism, for the Gospel has taught almost everyone that nature is not divine, and modern science has stripped nature of much of its mystery. There are elements of nature worship in modern intellectual trends, including a strong strain in the ecological movement, but fundamentally it is no longer possible for modern man to worship nature as the ancients did. Consequently, the modern attempt to revive paganism results in the worship of, to use Mrs. Zell’s expression, “the god in each one of us,” i.e., in self-worship. And, as both Professor R. C. Zaehner and Dr. Kurt Koch point out in different ways, the infatuation with the “divinity” of nature as a beneficent or neutral power may quickly lead to involvement with the demonic.

Witches are fundamentally anti-Christian, even if, to all appearances, they avoid entanglement with Satan and limit themselves to “pantheism.” To worship any power other than the true God who reveals himself in the Bible is idolatry.

How Bad Is Sin?

The anti-church mood in the world today often expresses itself in the charge that Christians are interested “only” in saving souls. This is an indictment of the Church, for Christians are admonished to minister to the temporal as well as the spiritual needs of their fellow human beings. What is even more distressing, however, is that so much of the world seems to regard salvation as a minor matter, very low on the list of human priorities. This attitude is seen in the frequent criticism that evangelicals are concerned “merely” with personal redemption, as if there were much more important things to worry about.

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Perhaps the cause for this sentiment too can be traced back to the Church and what it has been communicating to the world—or failing to communicate. Anyone who can view individual redemption as a matter of small significance has little idea of the awfulness of sin in the sight of God. It looks as if the Church should start stressing just how bad sin really is.

Parents’ Rights

Recently the school board of Prince George’s County, Maryland, voted to prohibit the use in its schools of an educational film based on a short story entitled “The Lottery.” The question, according to one board member who voted for the action, was not whether the film has merit—“The Lottery” is considered a minor classic among American short stories—but whether the film and material based on it tended to manipulate the thinking of pupils on ethical issues. A number of spokesmen for teachers’ and educational groups have vigorously protested the prohibition as “censorship.”

At about the same time the Kanawha County School Board in West Virginia decided to restore to classroom use a number of materials—some of them respected literary works, others of a more questionable nature—to which county residents, incited by a number of conservative Christians, had violently objected. Following tumultuous protests, the materials had been withdrawn, but after the protests died down, their use was once again approved. Some new protests have subsequently taken place. Because the West Virginia protests were inspired by “fundamentalists” identified as such, one of the few remaining minority groups that are targets for ridicule, and because the protesters object not only to material that has to be recognized as blasphemous and insulting to their religious views but also to many other things that elsewhere are considered normal and representative literature, it has been even easier for observers to label the Kanawha County protests as blatant attempts at censorship by a group of religious fanatics. In doing so, such observers fail to grapple with issues deserving closer scrutiny.

The fundamental problem lies in the power that the taxpayer-supported public school system has to impose on the students subject matter and educational materials that run contrary to the values of individual parents or even, in some cases, those of society at large. The fact that we oppose censorship and book-burning does not mean we must therefore submit to having educational materials that violate community standards or grossly offend deeply held beliefs, even those of a minority, purchased at public expense and imposed as part of the public school curriculum. The situation is becoming more serious, for more and more educational materials are deliberately designed not merely to teach content but to provoke students to a desired reaction: e.g., the repudiation of “prejudices.” The difficulty is that some educational materials and some educators seem to look on Christian faith and ethical values as forms of “prejudice” that it is not merely their right but their duty to overcome.

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If it is true that the schools are moving more and more into the area of conscious teaching about values, and especially of attempting to influence students to reject certain values and adopt others, then it is both natural and right for parents to object to this as educational manipulation. However, many of the means chosen in West Virginia are wrong and probably counterproductive. The use of violence to protest dirty books is wrong.

The courts have done a rather thorough job of eliminating from the public schools not only the once accepted promotion of traditional Judaeo-Christian values but even the observance of familiar festivals if they have any religious connotation. If this type of censorship must be accepted in the name of fairness in a pluralistic society, the least that Christians and others can do is to try to keep their children from being subjected to increasingly sophisticated techniques of educational manipulation in the interests of anti-Christian values.

Focus On Evangelism

The Christian and Missionary Alliance has traditionally been known for its vast overseas missionary program. Under the Reverend Leslie W. Pippert, its evangelistic emphasis in North America began to grow by leaps and bounds. Pippert died last year at the age of fifty-nine, “almost literally of exhaustion,” according to one who knew him well. In his memory an annual lectureship in evangelism was established this fall at the new Alliance School of Theology and Missions in Nyack, New York. The initial series was funded by the CMA Division of North American Ministries, the old “Home Department” that Pippert headed for fourteen years. Subsequent lectures will be underwritten by memorial gifts and CMA supplements.

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CMA president Nathan Bailey introduced the series by noting that “it was at the Berlin Congress on Evangelism in 1966 that Mr. Pippert seemed to receive what was almost a prophetic insight as to the church’s need to recover both the concept and practice of biblical evangelism. For the remainder of his ministry he urged and exhorted both clergy and laymen to break out the walls of isolation and boldly proclaim the gospel of redemption to modern men everywhere.”

Iowa-educated Dr. Robert E. Coleman, the “Good News” United Methodist who heads Asbury Seminary’s evangelism program, was the lead-off speaker for the lecture series in memory of the Iowa-born Pippert. Dr. Jack F. Shepherd, vice-president of the school and coordinator of the series, hopes in future years to bring to the lecture a broad spectrum of ministers who have contributed significantly to New Testament evangelism.

To Moscow Via Jerusalem?

The World Council of Churches took a belated step forward this fall by sponsoring a consultation on human rights, held in St. Poelten, Austria. Among proposals made there to the WCC was one calling upon it to denounce violations “where appropriate” but “especially in situations where the local churches or regional bodies are prevented from doing so.” At about the same time, interestingly enough, the noted Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov was demanding that the WCC do just that in behalf of the Ukranian Baptist, Georgi Vins, who was facing trial in Kiev.

Sakharov also issued an appeal in behalf of six Lithuanian Catholics awaiting court action. He addressed that appeal to the Synod of Bishops, which was meeting in Rome at the time. Both the Synod and the WCC were asked “to speak out in defense of the people who have been arrested for their religious beliefs.” A remarkable aspect of Sakharov’s appeal is that he is himself an atheist. What a rebuke to the Church that an atheist is more sensitive to the oppression of Christians than some of their fellow believers!

Columnist William F. Buckley, Jr., rightly laments that the persecution of Georgi Vins and his fellow Christians “causes not a ripple in the Christian world.” Buckley’s solution is to enlist the aid of Jewish groups: “It is they and only they who have the conscience left to protest.… I say this quite sincerely: This is an appeal to American Jews to put pressure on American Christians to help Russian Christians.”

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