“The First Coming of the Nations”
Matthew 2:1-12, Micah 4:1-4, Revelation 15:3-4
January 1, 2017
The journey of the wise men is a small preview of things to come.
I. The Promise of Nations (Genesis 22:15-18, Micah 4:1-4)
II. The First Coming of the Nations (Matthew 2:1-12)
III. The Promise Fulfilled (Matthew 24:14, Revelation 15:3-4)
How do you illustrate something that has never happened, even by analogy. C. S. Lewis once famously said “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” I might amend that to say that if we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in our current experience can satisfy, we are probably looking forward to a future experience. I think it’s that way with the coming together of the nations. From the Roman Empire to the Han Dynasty to the U.N., there has been a consistent longing that all nations would come together in peace, harmony and voluntary unity, not unity imposed by a dictatorship or a government, but a unity achieved by willing hearts minds and lives.
And this has never happened. Every alliance of nations that you can think of, even the colonies in the Revolutionary era or the allies in World War Two, has been characterized by bickering, leadership struggles and unwilling cooperation. The same thing happens almost inevitably on any scale you care to mention, whether in church or civic organizations or even something as benign as the Olympics. Yet we long for it. We long at Christmas for peace on earth, unity and community in our homes and our families, peace in our relationships.
Scripture shares this longing. More times than we can even consider today the Bible describes all nations coming together. In Old and New Testament prophecy, the coming together is toward Jesus, in submission to his kingship. But the prophecies and hints, and even the account of the Wise Men point not only to a fulfillment we long for, but one we can start to experience now.
So let’s begin with just two Old Testament prophecies, one familiar from our study of God’s big story, and one new. The familiar one is the promise to Abraham, Genesis 22:15-18 And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
We’ve seen this promise before: I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky or the sand on the seashore. That’s obviously many offspring, but then “your offspring,” singular, will possess the gates of his enemies, and in that offspring “all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” That’s Jesus.
In Jesus all the nations of the world will be blessed. And that blessing looks like what we long for. It is a gathering of the nations before him, a voluntary submission of the nations to him. We saw hints of this in Isaiah and Jeremiah and even in the Psalms as we looked at God’s Big Story in the Old Testament, but there are other prophecies that make it very clear, and one of my favorites is Micah 4:1-4 It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, 2and many nations shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 3He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide for strong nations far away; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; 4but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
Micah is looking forward, past Christmas, past Easter, to the second coming of the Messiah. In verse 1 the mountain and the hills around it stands for Jerusalem and the cities of the world. So in those last days “the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains.” Jerusalem and Israel will be the chief city and nation of the world. “It shall be lifted up above the hills and peoples shall flow to it.” A prophecy of Jerusalem and Judea as the focal point of the nations.
But this exaltation is a voluntary one. Verse 2, “many nations shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” The nations voluntarily align themselves with God because they are seeking his law and his word, that they might walk in his ways. This is something that we can’t imagine. Try to picture Iraq or Syria or North Korea, or for that matter the United States or Western Europe turning to Israel and seeking the wisdom, guidance and rule of Israel’s God. The divisions between Islam and God’s word, between communism and God’s Word, and between materialism and God’s word are way too great for us to even imagine this kind of turning.
But in Micah’s vision this voluntary turning to God leads to peace. “He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide for strong nations; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore;”
This, in one sentence, captures what people in every war-torn or oppressed or ravaged land have always longed for, where the weapons of war are reformed into tools of peace and prosperity. Even the United Nations was formed with this hope. It’s flag bears an olive branch, a symbol of peace, and in the north courtyard of the U.N. headquarters in New York is an epic statue called “They Shall Beat their Swords into Plowshares.” But the promise has not come true and can never come through a human organization. The U.N has proven a place of conflict and no sure deterrent to war and oppression. It is only when men make God’s word the center of the world that peace will begin to reign.
Verse 4: “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” This is one of the great Biblical images of peace: every person from all these nations is able to sit without fear in the security of their own fruitful place. Why? How? Because the Word of the Lord makes it so. This verse was quoted often by George Washington. Even while leading the Revolutionary Army he longed for the day when he could return to Mount Vernon and sit, figuratively, under his vine and under his fig tree. On some level he hoped, I think, that this verse would come true as a result of the Revolutionary War. But that was always a vain hope, for the true revolution has to take place in people’s hearts.
Nevertheless, it’s a great vision. Swords into plowshares. Studying war no more. Every person secure and free from fear. It’s a vision that appeals to us. It’s a vision that has to appeal to the ravaged people of South Sudan or Syria or Iraq, or wherever in the world there is war and fighting. It’s a vision that continued to inspire people in every generation, including, I think, the Magi. Their appearance in Gospel of Matthew has all kind of significance, and part of it is what I call the first coming of the nations to submit to Jesus.
Matthew 2:1-12 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 6“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”
9After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11Going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
We’ve looked at this in detail before, so we’ll only highlight a few things today. The most significant at the moment is verse 1: “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem.” Who were these wise men? To call them kings is probably not accurate. “Magi,” on the other hand, is a transliteration of the Greek word magoi, which the Greeks had transliterated from a Persian word for a sect of priests. This priestly ruling class was probably the same group that Daniel the prophet headed way back in 550 B.C. Nebuchadnezzer appointed him ‘chief of the magicians’ or ‘chief of the magi’. Some have said that Daniel communicated to the magi the prophecies that they were now seeing fulfilled, especially Numbers 24:17 which says “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.” A rising scepter means a new king, and ‘out of Jacob’ and ‘out of Israel’ would give the magi their geographical reference.
This class of influential priests had survived several changes in dynasty, and for a time it was they who appointed the kings of Persia. At the time of Christ they were advisors to the Parthians, the last successor of the Medes and Persians. But the Parthians had backed Herod’s rivals in his struggle for power in Judea. So these magi, while not kings, were probably members of an influential priest class in an area of the world somewhat hostile to Herod’s interests. They had traveled 1000 to 1200 miles from Persia, a journey that could take close to a year. It’s no wonder that Herod was troubled to see them come for a visit.
But do you see the connections there? These were influential representatives of the very nations that had once ruled over God’s people. Now they were coming to do homage to the prophesied ruler from those people in a small preview of what the prophets had foretold. Verse 2 “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” One of the things we can’t do today is speculate about the origin of the star. It seems every year another good theory comes out. We can say that these Magi had seen a heavenly phenomenon of some kind, and it was linked in their minds to the promised king of the Jews. And we see in this text that the connection was strong enough that they would make an extended journey in pursuit of this truth. They were the first coming of the nations.
Verses 3 to 12 tell the rest of the familiar story. Herod was disturbed by this report, and when powerful and insane Herod was disturbed, everyone in Jerusalem cowered. Herod asked the scribes where the Messiah was to be born and they told him what the prophet Micah had said: in Bethlehem of Judea. We looked at that prophecy last week. Herod then sent the wise men to Bethlehem, with the deceitful assurance that he wanted to pay homage to this king as well. They magi, aided by the start which reappeared to show them the way, eventually found the child they had so long pursued. He may have been near two years old by this time. They paid homage to him and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, honoring him as king, priest and sacrifice. God did not allow them to fall into Herod’s trap and they departed to their own country by another way. But Herod vented his brutal jealousy anyway.
The key thing today is that when these wise men came to pay homage they (a) came with some knowledge of what God had promised; (b) while they may not have been kings, they were influential in their home country or countries; and (c) they came from a nation or nations that had been opposed to God, but now they came to pay homage to his promised ruler. So this is a mini or initial fulfillment of God’s promise that the nations will come up to serve Him.
But that, of course, is not the end of the story. When Jesus came, he ministered to the people of Israel and drew his disciples from the humble region of Galilee. But near the end of his ministry he began to cast a broader vision. He said “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” Then he went to the cross so that the Good News of the Gospel could begin to transform the hearts and lives of all nations. He paid the price for sin and for the sins which all peoples, all nations had willingly pursued. But he won the resurrection victory over sin and death, freeing those who put their trust in him from its bondage. Then he gave the disciples his famous command “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
One of the things we can celebrate in this New Year is the fact that many, though far from all, of the tribes, tongues, peoples and nations on our globe, the Good News of Jesus has been proclaimed. The job isn’t done yet, the command isn’t fulfilled, but by God’s grace and through the efforts of countless servants and missionaries, the Good News of the Kingdom is reaching more and more people. More and more nations have heard. This is not yet the nations flocking to Jerusalem, but it is good news reaching out to the nations, and every heart that embraces Him receives a down payment of Christ’s presence and peace.
And at some point, soon, we hope, the Son of Man will come, as he promised, with power and great glory to establishing his reign in Jerusalem. During that time the literal fulfillment of Micah 4 and so many other Scriptures will come. It is this, I believe, that is being celebrated in Revelation 15. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! 4Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed. Do you see it there? Just as in Micah 4 and many other Old Testament prophecies we didn’t get to look at, there is an expectation at the end that all nations will come and worship the messiah when he reigns as king of the nations.
And yet this promise is too big, I think, even for the millennium. It is fulfilled in heaven and it is fulfilled in eternity. In Revelation 7 I believe we see the worship of the raptured and rescued church before the throne of grace. After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” There they are – every nation, standing before the Lord and worshipping, even before the millennium.
And then, again, after the millennium, in the New Heavens and the New Earth, John says I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25and its gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there. 26They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. This is the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises, seen in tiny miniature in the journey of the Magi.
But like the Magi, we have opportunity to make that journey now. We can come to Jesus now, especially as we celebrate communion, and fall down and worship him as they did. We can learn his ways and walk in his paths and be transformed by his Word. We will know perfect peace and security in that day, but even in this day we can know his peace and perfect assurance in him, for nothing will separate us from the love of God.