During the Christmas season, Christians across the world think of the Nativity, with its Holy Family, angels, shepherds, manger, and Wise Men. Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and the shepherds were Jews; unimportant and even unnoticed in their society. The Wise Men were probably Gentiles from the land of Parthia, formerly Persia, in the East. Most likely they were sent on an official diplomatic mission by the Parthian government to find this long promised ruler. Their caravan was probably large, rich, and well-guarded. The Wise Men were among the wealthiest, most educated and most respected men in their society, and they sought Jesus.
Christians understand that Jesus was a Man. He is also God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Jesus Christ gave everything to His followers, and He demands everything from them in return. Christianity has long been a religion of the poor and the outcast. Paul wrote that not many believers in Corinth were considered the wise, mighty or noble of their society (1 Corinthians 1:25-27). Jesus taught that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:23-25). Nonetheless, these wise, rich and noble men from Persia sought Jesus. Why?
There is a plethora of cards, bumper stickers and mugs in the modern world that say “Wise men still seek Him”. While it is true that those with genuine wisdom, as revealed in Proverbs 4, still seek Him, many people considered wise, noble or rich in modern society do not seek Him. Why not?
We cannot conclusively know why the ancient Wise Men sought Jesus because we know so little about them. They may have been Jews from Sheba, modern Yemen. We don’t even know how many there were. However, Matthew’s account provides some useful hints about why these ancient Magi sought Jesus, and modern wise men do not.
Seeking a Man
First, the Wise Men sought a Man. The Parthian leadership was weak, and these magi were on an important mission. Thus they spared neither expense nor hardship in their quest. Parthia needed a mighty king to inspire her people, to structure the nation, and to protect them from enemies. They knew that no man would be perfect, yet only a man could do what needed to be done.
However, leaders can be problematic in modern democratic society. The great man makes us wonder why we are not great. He expects people to be their better selves, something that most of us don’t seriously want to do. His very existence calls into question our belief that all men are essentially equal. Our pride makes it hateful to us to submit to any man. Like the Christian recording artist Randy Stonehill sings in The Dying Breed, we “cheer while we hope that he will fall.” Leaders are demanding. The greater they are, the more they give to and require from their followers. As the greatest man in history, Jesus is the most demanding of all.
Developing men is difficult. Education often fails to make people change their behavior, even when such behavior change is in their long term best interest. Virtuous character is even harder to build. It takes mentoring, self-sacrifice and years of life to raise a few children to maturity, and even then a few may depart from their upbringing. The only real way to develop a person is one on one, as families do and as apprenticeships did long ago. Twenty-first century man has little patience for such a process.
In the modern world, we seek methods more than men. We develop machines, processes and procedures to handle every possible contingency and expect people to use and follow them. We design jobs and pick people to fill them. Workers are pieces in a puzzle rather than team members creatively accomplishing a shared mission. Since people sometimes crash cars, we develop cars that drive themselves. As machines did in the Industrial Revolution and Frederick Taylor did with Scientific Management, we handle organizations as machines and men as parts.
Governments try to engineer risk and hardship out of the lives of citizens with layer upon layer of restrictions and regulations. They attempt to guarantee not only equal opportunity but equal outcomes for people, irrespective of individual desire, capability, effort, or character. Personal freedom, which is harder to measure, is sacrificed on the altar of equality and efficiency, which is easier to measure. Making sugary drinks illegal, regardless of individual preference or use, is a classic example. Having given up trying to make individuals better, we use the law to limit their freedom.
Though there are advantages to such “process thinking”, it often results in a “process focus”. The process, the efficiency of the system, or the eventual profits become the focus, instead of the people affected by the process. Thus factories are judged by the number of items produced and profit gained rather than by the well-being of workers, customers, and society. Hospitals rate themselves on how many patients they treat rather than how well their patients live.
Clinical practice guidelines (CPGs) are a good example of how process thinking can devolve into process focus. CPGs provide steps and algorithms to guide clinicians on how to care for a patient with a certain complaint, such a chronic low back pain. They are written by experts in their field who have systematically examined the latest medical evidence. As such CPGs can reliably guide how a busy primary care provider handles an uncomplicated patient.
However, CPGs are geared to the “average” person with a given complaint and therefore cannot take into account variations and needs in individual patients. As long as these guidelines remain guidelines, allowing each physician to modify the care he or she gives to suit the person, CPGs are good. When insurers refuse to pay for services outside those recommended by the CPG, when lawyers sue clinicians because they departed from the CPG, and when the government refuses to permit deviation from the CPG, these “guidelines” become rules. Health care providers lose the freedom to tailor treatment to their patients and families. People suffer.
Christians cannot make this mistake. No matter how hard it is to develop men and women, we must do it. Processes and machines can and should get better, but not at the expense of people. Men, not nations, live forever. It is in men, not things, that we must put our resources. The Savior made no inventions and wrote no procedures. Instead He spent three years with twelve men and about 100 other followers.
The Wise Men of the Bible sought Jesus because they needed a man, not a policy or a procedure, to solve their problems. Modern wise men do not seek Jesus because they seek a machine or a process to solve their problems.
Seeking the Creator behind the creation
Second, the Wise Men looked to nature to find evidence of Him. They did not ignore the natural world and were not anti-intellectual. Rather they were experts in the arts of astronomy, history and prophecy. In their time, they were second to none in admiration of the world around them. As much as they learned from and enjoyed nature, however, they did not end their inquiries with the natural world. The Magi scoured creation for evidence of the Creator. As is the case today, there were as many world views as people in the ancient world. Nevertheless most people included some idea of God in how they understood reality. Even into the 18th century, great men of science like Isaac Newton sought to know the Creator through His creation.
How differently do we do things in the 21st century? Not only do we ignore God in our inquiries, but we define science so as to intentionally exclude God. The natural world thus becomes an end in itself. Only the material world exists; there is no spiritual world. Nature does not reflect the glory of “something beyond” because in this mindset there is nothing beyond. The idea that the universe is entirely material is an assumption made on philosophical grounds. There is no scientific proof, nor can there ever be, because science is limited to the material.
Believers in the Lord must reject this assumption. The fact that the universe is bound by time (it had a beginning and will have an end) is proof that something exists outside the universe. That something is God. No matter how many Nobel Laureates and university philosophy chairs say that there is no God, they cannot prove that statement. Though skeptics refuse to see it, the heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1).
Paul Brand (1914-2003) was a Christian missionary, orthopedic surgeon, and pioneer in leprosy research in India. Having retired to Seattle, in 1996 he spoke to family medicine residents at the Madigan Army Medical Center. Though 82 at the time, Dr. Brand described his work with a lilt in his voice, a spring in his step and a twinkle in his eye. A few months earlier he had been walking along an uneven sidewalk, caught his foot on a crack and toppled over. As he fell he felt his opposite leg stiffen and his body rotate in the normal reflexive attempt to stay standing. Dr. Brand hit the ground, but could not help marveling at the beauty and complexity of the human body. Though in some pain, this elderly servant of Christ saw his Lord through the glory of what He had made. He loved the creation, and even more loved the Creator that he saw behind it.
The Wise Men of the Bible sought Jesus because they wanted to find the Creator behind His creation. Modern wise men do not seek Jesus because they refuse to believe that there is anything behind nature,
Seeking for the good of others and the glory of God
Third, the Wise Men sought Jesus to save their nation. Parthia was in turmoil, with a weak and aging king. Civil war was a real possibility. The Magi wanted to find the Child, worship Him, and possibly bring Him to their people. Meanwhile Herod wanted to find the child in order to murder Him. They had the interests of their nation at heart while he pursued his own interests. The Wise Men hoped to ensure the well-being of their countrymen, while Herod hoped to ensure the rule of his dynasty. The Magi sought peace while Herod wanted bloodshed.
Moderns, perhaps even more than our forebears, want peace, but we want it on our own terms. Peace that allows me to do my own thing in my own way is good, while peace that requires hardship is not. E-contributing money to a cause is as much as many will do. Most of us would not travel hundreds of miles over several months in a dusty and dangerous caravan, as the Wise Men did, to find peace. Many of us don’t trouble ourselves for others’ peace at all, even when people across the world or in our neighborhoods are sick, hungry, or being persecuted. Few of us are in a position to initiate slaughter as Herod was, and few of us would admit to being willing to do it if we had the chance. The good of others, much less the glory of God, barely appears on our radar screen.
Followers of Christ live for Him and for others; not for ourselves. Instead we consider others more important than ourselves and put their needs first (Philippians 2:3-5). We have been crucified with Christ, have His mind, and live in Him (Galatians 2:20).
Truly wise men and women have always sought Jesus for the glory of God and the good of their people. Wise men and women today do not seek Jesus because they are interested in their own glory and perceived good.
While men who are truly wise will seek Jesus, most men and women who are considered wise in modern society will not. Part of this is human nature; if you can “make it” on your own, why rely on someone else (Proverbs 30:7-9)? Yet another part of this is our modern culture. Despite the oft-heard lamentation of a lack of leadership in the world, moderns fear and despise strong leaders such as Jesus. We want machines and methods, not men, and certainly not a God-man, to make our lives better. We reject the Creator behind the creation for fear that He will judge our actions and make us do something that we don’t like. Finally, we do not seek Jesus because we want our own perceived good and glory, not the good of others and the glory of God. That is why “wise men” today don’t seek Him.
In fairness, “wise men” of the past did many of the same things, which makes the Magi of Matthew that much more remarkable. Enabled by the Holy Spirit, Christians can and must do better.