More Good News of our Call


What is our call to? What does the call of some early disciples teach us about our call from God?


We will learn that our call is first and foremost to a change of heart, to believe.


We will look at Mark 1:14-20 and the call of Simon, Andrew, James and John.

The Gospel of Mark

Early writers, who were closest to the source, claim that Mark one of the seventy Apostles, wrote down this work. So wrote Papias, who spoke with many disciples of the Apostles, Irenæus, Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius, the unknown author of the Muratorian Fragment, Tertullian, Jerome and Tatian. They record that Mark was written before Peter’s death. Some modern scholars are doubters and do not believe the witness of early church fathers. Internal evidence is consistent with and confirms the traditional view. Anciently, chronology was not as important as the lesson structure and so like much ancient literature, some parts of Mark may be out of time order. Mark is the shortest of the gospels. It moves at high speed with a sense of urgency. It is not an urgency of fear, but of the immanence of the reign of God.

The Gospel

Lutheran author Brian Stoffregen writes that the Gospel is: 1) Victory — anciently, victory in war. A messenger would shout, "We won!" The Gospel is the victory of Jesus Christ. Christians see the cross as victory not defeat. 2) Shouted — The Gospel is proclaimed (Mark 1:14; 13:10; 14:9; 16:15). It is more of a declaration, a shout than a doctrine or teaching. It is like fans shouting at a sports match. 3) Believed — The Gospel is to be believed (Mark 1:15). We declare that God forgives all our wrongs. 4) Life-changing — The Gospel motivates our lives (Mark 8:35; 10:29). It makes a difference in how we live. Our actions are evidence of our belief. Francis of Assisi said to preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary use words.

The Reign of God

In Mark 1:15 Jesus said that the kingdom of God has come near. The word reign is sometimes preferred to kingdom, not just to bow to gender sensitivities or other possibly suspect motives, but for good reasons. The word kingdom carries with it connotations of a small elite class that abuses and makes capital of the majority. Such “royalty” is totally foreign to the sovereignty of God. Words like reign or dominion help us understand that the kingdom of God is not necessarily understood by this world’s political terms. Others prefer to use the original Greek word basileia but using specialized jargon is useless for helping the average person understand God’s government. We enter that reign of God when we do God’s will (Matthew 7:21). It grows as more people submit to God’s dominion now and for eternity.

The Reign of God is Now

In Mark’s version of Jesus’ ministry, the first public words out of his mouth were, “The time has come!” (Mark 1:15) Some translations render that as the time is fulfilled or simply put, “Time’s up!” (the Message). This goes against the idea that the kingdom of heaven is entirely future, after this life is over. The fact is that the time for God’s rule is both now and in the future. Parables such as the mustard seed and leaven indicate a reign of God that grows. If it grows, it exists now as well as in the future. The words repent and believe are said in a sense that something is present with us now, not to come over 2,000 years later. In response to that kingdom call, the disciples immediately left their nets. The time has come!

Call to Radical Decision

In the New International Commentary on the New Testament, William Lane describes Jesus' message at the start of his ministry as a call "to radical decision." Mark 1:15 shows Jesus preaching in effect that the time is now, the sovereign authority of God is near, have a radical change of heart and mind and believe the good news. The description of the kingdom being near is not completely clear. We do learn later that Jesus is the door and the king of that wonderful kingdom. Throughout his ministry Jesus constantly confronted people with the nature of a kingdom decision. It was a life-altering vote between this world with its empty promises and vain pursuits and the next with its promise of an exciting eternal life. Let us too make a radical decision because the sovereign authority of God is near.


Like us, Jonah was called by God to do a job, but he ran away (Jonah 3:1-5, 10). He refused his divine calling. After being half-drowned and gulped down by a big fish, Jonah promised to fulfill his calling. Given a second chance to answer God’s call, Jonah to the message of repentance to the great city of Nineveh, modern day Mosul in Northern Iraq. Unlike many of our stubborn, modern nations, this ancient Assyrian city repented. They even fasted. God saw their repentance and changed his mind about punishing them. Jonah had issues over God forgiving enemies that may have committed atrocities such as Assyria was known for. God changes his mind about judgment and he has that right. Are we willing to forgive as God does? Are we willing to repent as Nineveh did (Mark 1:15)?

Repentance not Penance

Jesus preached repentance (Mark 1:15). Louw and Nida define it as the “result of a complete change of thought and attitude with regard to sin and righteousness.” Friberg explains that it means to “change ones mind.” UBS calls it a “change of heart.” Repentance is not penance. Penance is restitution. A desire to set things right is good but no deeds can pay for our sins. The word penance and modern definitions of repentance which have been derived from it such as claiming that repentance is a “change of direction” do injustice to the concept of grace. Even John the baptizer recognized that any such change of life was not repentance itself but rather fruits of it (Matthew 3:8). We don’t perform to earn grace, but we do good deeds in gratitude for grace freely given by God. (Louw-Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. 1988. United Bible Societies. Friberg.; Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. 2005. Trafford Publishing. Newman, Barclay.; UBS Greek New Testament. 1966. United Bible Societies.;

Redefining Religion

A fad today claims that religion and Jesus’ teachings are two different things. It defines religion differently than the Bible does (James 1:26-27) where it is simply a translation of a word meaning worship or ceremony. It is a neutral word which needs more explanation in a sentence to separate good from bad religion. Defining all religion as against Jesus is ignorance of the word’s meaning. It is part of a modern fad of interpreting the Bible by human whim rather than serious study, blaming the Holy Spirit for fanciful modern inspiration and ignoring his inspiration throughout Christian history. When Jesus announced that the reign of God is at hand (Mark 1:15), he was not speaking of a kingdom of this world, but ‘the nature of true religion, here termed by our Lord, "the kingdom of God."’ (Wesley, John. ed. by Thomas Jackson. Sermons on Several Occasions, The Way to the Kingdom, Sermon 7. 1872. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library)

The Religion of Jesus Christ

Religion and Jesus’ teachings are not two different things as some falsely claim. The religion of Jesus Christ and that taught by human tradition may sometimes be two different things (Galatians 1:13-14). Jesus taught “true religion,” not “mere outside religion” but “religion of the heart.” His religion is a “participation of the divine nature.” That is where repentance finds its root, in a change of heart which results in outward good works. When hearts are void of repentance, then any ceremonies become empty religion. Ceremonies are not wrong. Jesus instituted the bread and wine, which are very important ceremonies of his religion. However, even that is empty religion if not accompanied by a change of heart. That is why the first words from Jesus in regard to the realm of God were for people to repent (Mark 1:15). (Wesley, John. ed. by Thomas Jackson. Sermons on Several Occasions, Preface, First Series, Consisting of Fifty-Three Discourses and Sermon 3, Awake, Thou That Sleepest. 1872. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library)

Repentance as Positive Change

Is repentance negative or positive? Jesus did not use it in the negative sense of turning away from sin or changing our ways, but positively in turning to the Gospel. Sinners repent but the negative phrase “repent of sins” is not to be found in the Gospels. Repentance comes from two Greek words, “meta” meaning after or beyond or even outside, and “nous” meaning thought or reason. So “metanoia” or repentance is a life-changing afterthought, rethinking after we have sinned. Thinking outside the box and thinking outside of one’s self are akin to repentance. What did Jesus ask us to think about? He did not say “repent of sins.” Rather, he asked us to “REPENT AND BELIEVE” the Gospel, to change our minds and think in a positive direction. That positive direction is belief in the Gospel (Mark 1:15).

Thoughtfully Believe the Gospel

Jesus encouraged people to believe (Mark 1:15). Some bigots think that is mindless belief. In the original language belief is not a mindless activity engaged in by intellectually inferior, uneducated people. It is an intellectual evaluation. It means to be persuaded of and have confidence in the Gospel. It is a religious faith. It is a saving faith. It is not divorced from intellect. Contrary to many prejudices against those who believe in Jesus, his Great Commandment includes loving God with our minds. Belief can be either unthinking or thoughtful. The kind of belief that Jesus encouraged was to be thought through deeply not just rushed into without using the mind. Because none of us has access to all knowledge, all human belief is faith based upon best available knowledge. Belief in the Gospel is a reasonable, intellectual conclusion. (Friberg. Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. 2005. Trafford Publishing.

Why Fishing

An Old Testament metaphor of God fishing for people pictured his call to divine judgment for society's evils. In Mark 1:17 Jesus called professional fishermen Simon and Andrew to become fishers of men, and later James and John. This must be seen in the context of the ancient metaphor and Jesus' own call to repentance. We have all done wrongs. The call to repentance is a call to a change of heart about how we treat each other and our relationship with God. Our decision is either for salvation or judgment. The exaggerated nature of the professional fishermen's response is indicative of their sense of urgency. Not all of us are called to missionary work. However, the lesson still applies. All other responsibilities pale into insignificance in comparison to the decision to allow God and his kingdom into our lives.


Are those fish bumper stickers, used by Christians, pagan? Let us not listen to fictitious urban legends which claim silly things. Let us learn to know what we are talking about. We have all believed false ideas masquerading as truth. It’s time we learn the truth about the fish. Christians call this the ichthys from the Greek word for fish. It simply means that we are one of the fish caught by the fishers of men as Jesus commanded Simon and Andrew in Mark 1:17. It also symbolizes the good fish who will be chosen for eternity with God from the parable in Matthew 13. Ichthus is also a string of Greek abbreviations: Ι (from the Greek word for Jesus) + Χ (Christ) + Θ (God) + Ϋ (Son) + Σ (Savior). The fish symbol is one of Christianity's oldest.


Like early disciples we are called to a change of attitude to belief in the kingdom of God which is already here reigning in the hearts of the people of God.

Good News of God's Call


When God called us we had an epiphany, a theophany, a revelation, an appearing of our Savior in our daily lives. It may have been as simple as a manifestation of God in our conscience or as great as a vision from God. In some way God revealed himself to us. That was just the beginning.


Let us understand a little of how God reveals himself to us.


We will look at the call of Philip and Nathaniel in John 1:43-51 and compare that to our call.

Poetic Summary

Philip, Peter and Andrew from Bethsaida
Each came to Jesus, our Provider
Philip found Nathanael and told him
We found the one of whom it’s written

Jesus of Nazareth I declare
Can anything good come from there!
Philip said to just come and see
Jesus saw in Nate no hypocrisy

He saw Nate sitting under a tree
Nate saw in Jesus divinity
A man of faith and great devotion
Who would soon see heaven open


Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee. He witnessed John the Baptist call Jesus the Lamb of God. A day after Peter was called, Jesus called Philip who invited Nathaniel to come and see (John 1:43-51). Philip’s name is included in the three lists of Apostles (Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:14-19; Luke 6:13-16). John records three incidents involving Philip (John 6:5-7; 12:21-23; 14:8-9), one regarding the insufficiency of bread to feed the multitude, a second reporting some gentiles’ wish to see Jesus, and third in his desire to see the Father. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes Philip as “a naïve, somewhat shy, sober-minded man.” He is mentioned in Acts 1:13 as part of the eleven remaining Apostles. He possibly preached in places from Greece to Syria.


Nathaniel was one of the first disciples of Jesus. He was born at Cana in Galilee, where Jesus turned the water into wine. He was invited to see Jesus by his friend Philip (John 1:43-51). Most scholars believe that Nathanael is the first name of the Apostle Bartholomew of Matthew, Mark and Luke. They do not mention Nathaniel, but include Bartholomew among the twelve. Bartholomew means in Aramaic Bar-Talmay (son of Talmay) and was thus probably Nathaniel’s family name or his father’s occupation, a plowman. The world’s oldest national church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, claims Bartholomew and Thaddeus as its co-founders. Bartholomew is believed to have been martyred in Armenia, crucified upside down and decapitated. Ancient histories also record him preaching in parts of India, Arabia, Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, Lycaonia, Phrygia and on the shores of the Black Sea.

Nathaniel's Epiphany

When Philip invited Nathaniel to come and see Jesus (John 1:43-51), his encounter was a life-changing epiphany. Jesus revealed something simple about his previous activity and immediately Nathaniel realized that he was talking to the Son of God, the king of Israel. Those illuminating moments of the divine are magnificent. Many people encounter God in everyday events, but quickly pick themselves up, dust themselves off and move on as if nothing happened. However, God-moments are important experiences not to be so easily dismissed. It is precisely at those times that we realize what are the deeper, important things of life, and the nature of reality beyond what our physical senses perceive. An epiphany is like when the background noise of this world’s distractions suddenly fades to nothing and the only sound left is the still, quiet voice of God.

Find Jesus

When Philip told Nathanael that they had found the one Moses wrote about in the law (John 1:43-51), Nathaniel’s initial reaction was disbelief. We may react in similar fashion today. Can anything good come out of Mexico, Maine or Mumbai? Our prejudices blind us to finding Jesus. It may not be geographical prejudice. It may be linguistic, someone with a different accent or grammar. It may be racial, someone of a different ethnic group or skin color. It may be denominational, someone of a different church background. It may be educational, someone of a different educational level or field. Bigotry is not logical, but it is built within all of us, and it prevents us from finding Jesus. Mother Teresa once said that the dying, the cripple, the mental, the unwanted, the unloved they are Jesus in disguise. []

Follow Me

When Jesus found Philip he had a simple message (John 1:43-51), “Follow me!” That is the same message that Jesus gives to us today. The Christian journey is filled with mixed messages: “Follow a man! Follow a woman! Follow the rules! Follow the traditions! Follow the discipline! Follow the confession! Follow the whims! Follow the fads!” Yet none of those things defines Christianity. When we find Jesus, we are not satisfied with following him. So, we invent rules that neither Jesus nor the Apostles did and we ignore the things that Jesus taught. We follow our egos and worship our own ideas instead of the Christianity of Jesus. This passage contains one of the simplest and most profound definitions of what Christianity is all about. Let’s remember those important words that Jesus said when he found Philip, “Follow me!”

Not Finding Jesus

When Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses, God was very angry with them (Numbers 12:1-9). Blinded by their criticisms, they failed to find God behind his servant. When David had the opportunity to avenge himself against Saul’s persecution, he refused because he found God in the picture. He said that he would not lift his hand against God’s anointed (1 Samuel 26:22-24). When Ananias and Sapphira lied to church leaders about their offering, they only saw people (Acts 5:1-10). They did not find Jesus in the picture. When people killed Jesus and the prophets, they did not acknowledge the presence of God (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16). Philip found Jesus (John 1:43-51) and became a true disciple. Like Nathanial, have we found the Son of God, the king of Israel, or have we only found faulty people?

Come and See Jesus

When Philip found Jesus (John 1:43-51) he told Nathanael who initially scoffed. Philip then invited him to come and see. When we tell people about our faith they sometimes scoff. Philip set a good example. He did not try to argue with Nathanael, but simply invited him to come and see for himself. That’s a great way to handle scoffers. Ultimately people must see Jesus to come to faith. Our local church has strengths. We are a praying, compassionate and giving church. We put on great pot luck meals. But, ultimately unless people find Jesus among us, they have not found the purpose behind it all. Like Nathanael, when people come and see Jesus in our midst, then they find faith. That’s the same invitation that Jesus also made to two disciples of John the baptizer, come and see.

A Non-Threatening Invitation

The invitation to come and see (John 1:43-51) is non-threatening. It is not an argument. It is not applying pressure or any kind of manipulation. Why are so many of us afraid to offer such a simple invitation? When people are tired of this world and its false advertising, let’s invite them to come and see Jesus. When people are weary and heavily laden with the consequences of wrong decisions, let’s invite them to come and see Jesus. When people are beset with every kind of worry and anxiety, let’s invite them to come and see Jesus. When people are tired of false religion, let’s invite them to come and see Jesus. Not once did Jesus’ disciples ask if others had given their heart to the Lord or where they would spend eternity. They simply made a non-threatening invitation.

Jesus Made No Altar Calls

Jesus and his disciples did not make altar calls. Charles Finney popularized them in the 1800’s. In Defense of the Altar Call Steve Deneff quoted Charles Spurgeon, who did not use altar calls. He criticized churches which no longer have altar calls as watering down the Gospel. Does he promote human techniques and also criticize Jesus? Deneff claims that altar calls build an accountable community via testimony and confession. Are we more righteous than Jesus? Why not follow Jesus’ example? Altar calls are not a condition of salvation. They can cause false confessions manipulated by hype. They can be misused to promote a preacher more than Jesus. They are something seen, but faith is the evidence of things not seen. What did Jesus' disciples do? They often issued a simple invitation to come and see Jesus (John 1:43-51).


Jesus’ Second Coming will be an epiphany, just as his first coming was. Jesus also comes to us every day. He is the needy person we feed, the stranger we invite, the sick we visit, the widow and orphan we help. Pure religion is about learning to experience him and respond to his call everyday.

Good News of the Holy Spirit


Why did Jesus get baptized when he had never sinned? Why did the Holy Spirit come upon him when he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and filled with the Holy Spirit from conception?


I want us to see the role of the Holy Spirit in history and in our lives.


We will look at Mark 1:4-11 and see Jesus’ baptism and the importance of the Holy Spirit’s role.

Why the Holy Spirit Descended on Jesus

If Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit why did he descend again on Jesus at his baptism (Mark 1:4-11)? Like the curtain of the temple is later torn apart, here the heavens are torn apart and the Holy Spirit descends. Jesus was God in the flesh, so the coming of the Holy Spirit to him was a confirmation of what he had. The difference between Jesus’ baptism and John’s was that John baptized for repentance. Christian baptism is for receiving the power of the Holy Spirit. God also says of Jesus that he is well-pleased with him, not in the sense of what he has done but who he is. In the same way God loves us, not for what we have done, which is not worth bragging about, but that God loves us for who we are.

As Jesus Arose from the Water

At what moment did the Holy Spirit come upon Jesus? Ancient paintings show Jesus standing knee deep in the Jordan with water poured over him from a sea shell. Another picture is of his head coming out of the water. The second picture is one by those who assume that the words “as Jesus was coming up out of the water” mean that he was immersed. A particular mode of baptism is not mandated anywhere. The original Greek is clearer, coming from a word often translated as to mount. The mode of his baptism is obscure. God must see it as unimportant. Otherwise he would have inspired greater clarity. What the wording does seem to show is that Jesus began to mount the riverbank, thus arising out of the water. It seems that then the Holy Spirit came upon him.

History of the Holy Spirit

At the beginning, in the creation account, the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters (Genesis 1:2). Later, Bezalel was filled with the Spirit of God in order to build the tabernacle (Exodus 31:2-4; 35:30-32). Old Testament prophets prophesied as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). Mary became pregnant by the creative action of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18-20; Luke 1:41). At his baptism (Mark 1:4-11) Jesus’ who was filled by the Holy Spirit his whole life was confirmed by the Holy Spirit descending from heaven like a dove. Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit to be tested (Luke 4:1). The Holy Spirit came as a gift to the baptized Christians and now He empowers the church to speak the word boldly (Acts 2:38; 4:31).

Baptized with the Holy Spirit

Baptize literally means "to dip" but is used in the Bible in several nonliteral ways like passing through the Red Sea dry shod (1 Corinthians 10:2), washing dishes (Mark 7:4), overwhelmed with calamity like the cross (Mark 10:38-39), ceremonial washings by sprinkling (Hebrews 9:9-14), and an outpouring or large bestowal (Matthew 3:11). What do following Jesus and a life baptized in the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:4-11) mean? Could it include the "baptism" of suffering and death which Jesus experienced? The cross is as Christians understand it, good news indeed for God's anointed, the Son of God. If we want to follow Jesus, make sure we “look good on wood.” A commercialized Christmas hides the real cost of following the baby who would be born. Advent prepares the way that will lead to the cross.

Self-sacrifice is the Way

Being baptized with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:4-11) brings a different way of life, the way of the cross. Much of today’s politics is about selfishness. We don’t want to make sure the poor have health care because we are selfish. The super rich block any legislation that requires them to pay more in taxes, because they are selfish. We don’t want to be merciful towards illegal aliens because we are selfish. Countries with universal health care pay much less than Americans do for health care. We want abortion on demand because we are selfish.  On average more foreigners start businesses and create more jobs than native born citizens. In the 50’s-70’s requiring the super rich to pay more in taxes caused a resurgence of the middle class. We once defined blacks and natives as non human and now we define the unborn as non human purely for our selfish convenience. Selfishness hurts a nation. Jesus taught us that self-sacrifice benefits everyone. Living the way of the cross is good news.

The Nicene Creed on the Holy Spirit

The Nicene Creed reminds us that the Holy Spirit is 1) “the Lord” because God is Spirit (John 4:24) and holy (Psalm 99:9). The Holy Spirit is 2) “the… Giver of Life” (John 6:63). 3) “who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of the Son. The Father sends the Spirit (John 14:26) and Jesus sends the Holy Spirit from the Father (John 15:26). 4) “who… is worshipped and glorified.” We baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19), the third person of the Trinity (John 14:26). 5) “who Spoke through the Prophets.” (2 Peter 1:21). This reminds us that the Old and New Testaments are both inspired by God.

Benefits from the Holy Spirit

Thomas Aquinas wrote of five benefits of the Holy Spirit as 1) He cleanses us from our sins. How? He recreates the hearts of men, destroyed by sin (Psalm 103:30). 2) He enlightens the intellect. All that we know spiritually, because He teaches and reminds us of all things (John 14:26; 1 John 2:27). 3) He assists and compels us to love God and keep his word and move us to keep his commandments (John 14:23; Ezekiel 36:26-27). 4) He strengthens us in the hope of eternal life. He is a seal marking the pledge of our inheritance as adopted children of God (Ephesians 1:13; Romans 8:15-16; Galatians 4:6). 5) He counsels us when we are in doubt and teaches the churches the will of God (Revelation 2:7; Isaiah 50:4).


The Holy Spirit descends on us in loving embrace to let us know that God is also well pleased with us, pleased to call us his children and a special treasure forever.

Good News of a Shepherd Leader

What do the babylonian captivity of ancient Israel, a pagan religion and national politics have to do with the birth of Christ?
To show that we cannot limit God to our narrow vision of the world.
We will look at failed human leadership, an ancient foreign religion, the Magi and the gifts they brought to Christ.
The Herods
In Matthew 2:1 we are introduced to Herod. The name applied to a dynasty of foreign Edomite (i. e. Idumean) kings. As clients of Rome their rule included Galilee and Judea during the time of Christ. They were known for military expertise, cruelty and being lovers of luxury. As subcontractors to the Roman Emperor, they enforced Roman rule, took taxes in the form of money, food and merchandise, and kept order. While taking taxes for Rome, they were also free to take for themselves. The excessive tax burdens led to unbearable poverty which, along with the imposition of emperor worship, led to frequent revolts by zealots. It was a precarious position with threats all around. So, the kingdom of God, while not of this world, was understood as a political force by the disciples, Jewish leaders and the Romans.
Former Captors Celebrate Jesus
Jews were deported from their own land into Babylonian captivity during the 500’s BC. At that time the chief of the magi was Nergal-Sharezer. They were the wise men of Babylon, priests, physicians, alchemists and astrologers. Their influence was widespread throughout much of the middle east. They most likely came into contact with teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures during the Jewish Babylonian captivity and mixed them into their own religion. Many Jews did not return from exile in Babylon and may have had further influence on the religion of the magi. The particular magi who came to visit the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:1) could have come from virtually anywhere east of Jerusalem such as Persia, Babylon, Arabia, or India. It was 500 years later, a long time. National tragedy can be used by God to bring people to Jesus.
The Magi
Ever since we were children we have heard of the visit of the Magi after Jesus was born (Matthew 2:1). Who were they? The Greek term is magoi. Friberg defines this as wise men of the Magian religion, magicians or sorcerers. Louw and Nida prefer “men of wisdom who studied the stars.” An ancient historian, Herodotus of Halicarnassus called them interpreters of omens and dreams who perhaps still sacrificed to Persian gods. They were possibly baptized into the church many years later by the apostle Thomas while on his way to plant churches in India. Why did pagans show more belief than followers of God? Herod had access through the Jews who had even easier access, but most of them chose not to be interested. What is our reaction to the birth of Jesus?
Babylonian Captivity & Christmas
How does Israel’s Babylonian Captivity tie in with Christmas? What if our country was conquered by a foreign nation and large numbers of our population were exiled, taken captive for about 60 years? We have never experienced that, but historically native Americans and African Americans have. English history in Australia and the U.S. State of Georgia was begun by exiling prisoners to form a population base. During Israel’s captivity the current Babylonian Hebrew alphabet began. Jeremiah, 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Daniel and several deuterocanonical books recorded it. Many Jews never returned home. It was probably also their first major contact with the Magi, who were the sacred class in ancient Babylon. Their knowledge was a mixture of astrological superstition, semi-scientific alchemy, magic and early Zoroastrianism. It was descendants of this group who honored Jesus’ birth (Matthew 2:1).
The Worship
When the Magi inquired about Jesus in Matthew 2:2 they said that they had come to worship him. This upset Herod who plotted to kill Jesus. These wise men of the east did not come merely to honor Jesus, but to worship him. When Jesus was tempted by Satan he was told to bow down and worship the devil. But Jesus replied that worship is something reserved only for God (Matthew 4:10), and he told the devil to leave. In Greek, the same wording is used for when a leper, a synagogue leader, the disciples, a gentile woman and Zebedee’s wife also worshiped Jesus (Matthew 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20; 28:9, 17). Although it is popular for people to think of Jesus as merely a good man, he was God with us.
What is Worship?
The Magi came to worship Jesus (Matthew 2:2). Like all worship theirs was a call, an encounter and a response. Church worship services are also an encounter with God. We hear God’s Word and respond in various ways. We respond in thanksgiving, singing, prayers, offerings, reconciliation and peace. Like the early disciples are sent forth to spread that Word. Worship says to God “you are worthy” above all others. We get to know God and be known by him in every circumstance of life. We show honor to everything and everyone that God has created. We do not place our faith in governments or corporations or military might or money, but in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Worship should change us. Do we only focus on the visible or do we experience our invisible God and worship him?
Bringing Pagans to Christ
How can we bring people of different religions to Christ? Over the years I’ve seen many different approaches all the way from outright insults to arguments showing them the “error of their ways” and numerous more tactful approaches. How about letting God bring them to Christ? That’s what happened to the Magi. How God did it is also interesting. Magi were astrologers among other things. How would God bring an astrologer to Christ? God has used many ways to reveal himself to people. In this case he used their own religion and revealed his purpose in a manner that they would understand, a star. There is nothing to be found of Old Testament language of condemnation for these pagans, but rather a gentle leading to the place of Christ’s birth even using elements of their own faith (Matthew 2:2).
The Politics
When the wise men from Babylon or Persia inquired about Jesus (Matthew 2:3) they had no idea of the politics involved. They only wanted to worship the Messiah and seem to have naively believed that others would too. However, there were a lot of power plays threatened by this news. Israel was ruled by a brutal foreign king, Herod, who was a client of the Roman Emperor. Herod was vulnerable. He had encountered trouble with Rome and Jewish zealots before and had brutally murdered many other potential rivals. Jewish leaders had made an uneasy peace with the devil by cooperating with Rome and its puppet king Herod. They had profited by this compromise and zealots rising up to free Judea were a threat to their arrangement. The kingdom of heaven and its Messiah were a political threat all around.
Jewish Influence on the Magi
Of about a million Jews living in Babylonian captivity only about 42,000 returned to Jerusalem. The rest remained in the Persian Empire. Unlike their relatives who had returned they had peace and protection for a thousand years. Over the next 1500 year history of the diaspora in Babylon, the head of the Jewish community was always a descendant of king David and had noble status in community life. It was here that the current Hebrew script was invented and the Babylonian Talmud was written. As Jews intermingled with Babylonian society and some possibly even intermarried, the Hebrew Scriptures would have eventually influenced local religions. Median Priests, the Magi, had great prestige in Babylon. Their political power included approving who would be king and they appointed judges. They believed in one god and were influenced by ideas of a Messiah.
The Gifts
The gifts given to Jesus in Matthew 2:11 were gold, frankincense and myrrh. The number of the wise men is taken from the three gifts, but they could have been as many as twelve people according to eastern tradition. Gold was a gift for royalty. Frankincense and myrrh are aromatic herbs with healing properties. Frankincense comes from the sap of Boswellia trees and used for incense, perfume and anointing oil (Exodus 30:32-34). As a gift it possibly symbolized Jesus' high priestly office. Myrrh comes from the sap of Commiphora trees, is bitter and another ingredient of anointing oil. As a preservative is was used to anoint the dead and thus foretold Jesus’ death on the cross. The gifts may have been seen as prophetic and symbolic of Christ as king, high priest and suffering savior.
A Gift to Bring
Some foreign dignitaries with a completely different religion recognized Christ and brought a gift. Herod did not. Instead he plotted to kill the Christ child. The powerful often do not seek to give others recognition but to remain in power. It’s something that we see in our western democracies and is the same story no matter the form of government down through history. The story of the wandering astrologers, the Magi tells us that things are about to change. Non-Jews would soon be embraced by God. Herod did not offer a gift. He feared change, feared that his position may be about to be taken away. When we hear of a change in God’s way of doing things, we can choose to fear and threaten or bring a gift to the Messiah. What gift do we bring (Matthew 2:11)?
What Gifts we Bring
As we think of the story of the Magi, it is natural to ask about what gifts we bring to the Christ. The Magi did not bring money, though that would have been a very useful gift for Jesus’ parents, but we do have other things that we can offer. One of the greatest gifts that we can bring to Jesus is our attendance in his presence every chance we get. We call this discipleship. As we listen to what he has to teach, we offer a gift by putting it into practice. He calls that being doers and not just hearers of the word. That means that we show love to God and neighbor, that we show compassion to others, that we forgive as he forgave, that we practice the way of self-sacrifice offering our whole selves to him.
Magi Facts and Fiction
The western tradition of three magi comes from the number of gifts that they gave. Eastern traditions suggests that there may have been twelve. While they were certainly high officials, it is a myth that they were kings. That idea possibly arose around the 8th century in trying to retrofit Psalm 72:11 which was not meant to be quite that time-specific in nature. The names Melchior (a Persian scholar or king), Caspar (an Indian) and Balthazar (an Arabian) are also probably also fictitious embellishments because they came from one country (Matthew 2:12). The Christmas Nativity Scene is often but not always a montage of two events, Jesus born in a stable and the magi visiting him later in a house. What is significant is that among the first to recognize Jesus as ruler of Israel were foreigners.

It should not be that members of pagan religions offer God greater honor than believers in the Bible. God can work through non-Christian religions to bring people to himself. We cannot limit God to our narrow vision of the world. If leaders of a pagan religion offered expensive gifts to Christ, how much more ought we who have the Bible bring!