Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Shocking Worship

(1) Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king,magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, (2) "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him." (3) When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. (4) Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. (5) They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: (6) 'AND YOU, BETHLEHEM, LAND OF JUDAH, ARE BY NO MEANS LEAST AMONG THE LEADERS OF JUDAH; FOR OUT OF YOU SHALL COME FORTH A RULER WHO WILL SHEPHERD MY PEOPLE ISRAEL.'" (7) Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. (8) And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him." (9) After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. (10) When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. (11) After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (12) And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:1-12 NASB)

Matthew obviously wasn't writing to impress anyone.

By all accounts the most Jewish of the Gospels and likely written for a group of Jewish Christians, Matthew had nothing to gain, and much to lose, by reminding his audience of the pagan Gentile magicians who traveled far to worship Jesus. Coming as it does on the heels of the shocking genealogy of chapter 1, Matthew's worship emphasis flies in the face of Jewish notions of the day.: Hold those Gentiles who do keep the Law and become "God-fearers" at a distance. No closer than the Court of the Gentiles - that was the practice. Never mind that the Law prescribed that the Gentile who adopted fully the religion of Israel fell under the same religious laws as Israel (see for example Leviticus 17:8) and that Solomon had asked God to hear their prayers (1 Kings 8:41-43). First century Jewish religious leaders excluded Gentiles. Matthew gives them a special place in his Gospel.

The parallels between the magi's authentic worship and Herod's selfish request to worship are obvious. What's less obvious is how shocking the magi's visit really must have sounded on first century ears. Writing to believers who were still learning how to be the church, what it meant to have Jew and Gentile together in one body, Matthew tells us something significant about worship - something shocking.

Look at Matthew's story again. First, the magi were, well, magi. They were basically astrologers. They observed the stars and in this case, saw something unique. Second, the magi hadn't studied the Scriptures closely - they were "in the neighborhood", going to the capital city of Jerusalem, but didn't know that the prophecy for Messiah was that he would be born in Bethlehem. Finally, they don't have offerings that would normally be considered acceptable - no grain, no animals, no blood. They weren't even priests! They would likely not be allowed even in the Court of the Gentiles and would never see the holy of holies.

What they had was an earnest desire to see Jesus. Look again at the only words recorded from their lips, in verse 2: "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him."

This is worship?

Oh, absolutely. And this is where Matthew has much to teach us. He uses the more liturgical term for worship here - proskyneo. It's the Greek word used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) for "worship" or "bow down" - the formal worship in the temple, the bowing down before visible majesty. Interestingly, this word is rarely used in the New Testament. Only in the Gospels (where Jesus was physically present), Revelation (where the throne of God is present), Acts (where the temple was still a place of "worship"), and only twice in the epistles, both referencing the presence and power of God. The New Testament favors the word latreuo for worship - a word meaning serve, perhaps seen most clearly in Romans 12:1: "Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship."

Why the change in emphasis? John Piper fleshes this out beautifully in the revised edition of Let the Nations be Glad (a must-read for missions enthusiasts). He draws from John 4 to show that "in the New Testament worship is significantly de-institutionalized, de-localized, de-exernalized." He summarizes:
In Himself He would fulfill everything the temple stood for, especially the "place" where believers meet God. He diverted attention away from worship as a localized activity with outward forms and pointed toward a personal, spiritual experience with Himself at the center. Worship does not have to have a building, a priesthood, and a sacrificial system. It has to have the risen Jesus. (p. 217)
The magi didn't know much, but they knew they were looking for Jesus. Matthew uses the formal word for worship,  as they bow down before His visible presence, but the heart and soul of Jesus' later teaching to the Samaritan woman is pictured here with these magi: their shocking worship was just what He came to bring about. He came to create worshippers from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people group.

None of this is to diminish the role of Scripture and sound doctrine. Regular readers of this blog know how much I emphasize in-depth study of God's Word. Even the magi were sent in the specific right direction (to Bethlehem) by God's Word, not their astrological readings. But I believe we can learn from Matthew that God will meet people where they are, and when they sincerely are seeking Jesus, He will make sure to get them to Him. And He will welcome their worship with open arms as they continue to learn more about Him.

We often treat worship like a task, salvation as a transaction. Matthew's story of the magi reminds us that at the heart of worship lies a heart that seeks to find Jesus - nothing else matters. And Matthew lays the groundwork here for a salvation that is a lifestyle - a process that starts, grows, and bears fruit as we continually are drawn to "Him who has been born King of the Jews".

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