Prophecy & Pageantry in Christmas
“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, saying, ‘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.’” — Matthew 2:1-2
A Long Time Ago, Far Away
Imagine a story where the most powerful, ruthless villain — someone responsible for the murder of billions — is finally challenged in battle. What would such a clash of titans look like? Is it a thunderstorm of lightning and earthquakes atop Mt. Olympus? Who would dare face a diabolical force from another world, one powerful enough to wield iron-fisted control over an entire world? Mind you, this villain is real. He’s more than a cartoon tyrant. He is bloodthirsty and terrible. Giant in stature, cunning in mind, ruthless to the core. He is nearly all powerful. He is a god.
Think how the stories go. Do you assemble an army? Do you look for mighty heroes with bulging muscles and magic swords; men who ride dragons and breathe fire? How do you imagine the type of hero powerful enough to challenge this evil one — a star of good to overcome the star of evil? Surely it will take an even greater giant, an even more powerful force. Yes, of course! But that’s a bit obvious, isn’t it? Such a victory, achieved in the climactic clash of power, would, in part, validate the power of the hated foe, would it not? A great battle might conquer a great foe, but it also honors his strength. So what could make the story truly humiliating for the demon god? Oh yes! That’s it. Let’s let him be crushed by . . .
Perfect. But wait, let’s make it more embarrassing still. Let’s prophecy the coming of that baby for thousands of years. Let’s telegraph it and proclaim it over and over. Let’s give this tyrant god every chance to stop him.
Can’t do it. The baby will be born, regardless of every considerable effort the enemy makes to prevent it. In every way, the most powerful, deviant evil in history is proven powerless. Look! He can’t even stop a baby being born.
And so begins the most humiliating, embarrassing defeat in the history of ever. Satan, mighty lord of death . . . mocked by a newborn baby’s wet-lunged first, fragile gasp of air. That sound, like a trumpet blast, is the beginning of his end.
And all happened one night long ago in Bethlehem.
The Rising Star
We live in days of desperate celebrity. More than ever, people aspire to fame and stardom. They want their name in lights! But who among us has ever had a cosmic sign in the heavens — a literal star — attend their birth?
Over the last few months, we have talked a lot about the Christ, His mission and His ekklesia. However, at Christmas time, we rightly tend to focus on the more personal side of redemption. Jesus came for us. You, me. The individual. Born helpless, born a babe in a manger, Jesus experienced the various trials and weakness of our human frame in deeply personal ways that He might fully qualify as our substitution. These profound truths rightly form the basis of countless Christmas sermons and Advent meditations, yet more than ever, we need to keep the grandeur and urgency of The Cosmic Plan in view, as well. While Jesus identified with humans in every respect, He did not just come for us, He came for all. He did not come just to save humans, but to complete the human story. Nations still await His full lordship.
In this Christmas edition of Ekklesia Nation, let’s pause and remember the babe who put stars in motion, who brings down kings and raises paupers, who establishes covenant, rescues the poor and broken, and ransoms rebels. Literally, the Wise Men followed the star of heaven, only to find out it wasn’t a light in the sky.
The Star of Heaven was a little baby.
Wise Men Still Seek Him
Who were these men? First, nothing in Scripture indicates their number was three. Far more likely, they had a large retinue, a caravan. Not only would their journey have required weeks of supplies, but being laden with costly gifts, a smaller party would have been vulnerable to raiders, so larger numbers assured safety. Furthermore, a journey of 800-1000 miles under the guidance of a star might have required travel by night. If so, a normal three week trek could have extended to perhaps as long as 40 days. Quite a trip for an unknown baby’s birth, born to impoverished parents in a relatively remote and insignificant territory of the Roman Empire.
Ethnically, the wise men (also translated as ‘magi’) were almost certainly Persian; perhaps more specifically, the priestly class of the Medes. What is today known as Zoroastrianism was likely the religion of the wise men who came to worship the new-born Messiah at Bethlehem. In fact, there are many references in ancient literature to magi visiting kings and emperors. For example, Tiridates, king of Armenia, led a procession of magi to pay homage to Nero in Rome in AD 66. Josephus records that magi also visited Herod.
Over the centuries, many have wondered what star they followed? More importantly, where did they learn of that star? In Numbers 24:17, Balaam gave the earliest account of a celestial connection to Messiah’s birth:
“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come forth from Jacob, a scepter shall rise from Israel…”
This is where Christmas really begins — not in a manger, not with Mary and Joseph. From whom did the magi learn to look for the Bethlehem star? Very likely, it began with a pagan astrologer glimpsing the heavenly token of a coming king. In fact, many scholars believe Balaam was a Chaldean, so the record of his prophecy might have been stored in the libraries of ancient Babylon. No wonder this same narrative emerges again in Babylon, centuries later, where a praying, exiled prophet receives the most panoramic overview of history among all Old Testament prophets. Daniel’s visions will anticipate the rise and fall of empires for centuries to come. But here’s the kicker: Daniel was appointed chief over all the astrologers, enchanters and magi in Babylon (Dan. 2:48, 5:7, 11). How did the wise men know to look for the star? Daniel trained them!
And so at last we come to Daniel’s vision of the coming of the Chosen One…
“As I looked, thrones were placed,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat . . .
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom, that all
peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him”
— Daniel 7:9a, 13-14a
The Center of History & Existence
Stay with me here. As Christians, we celebrate this glorious portrait of God’s sovereignty, but for Daniel, the context of his vision involved a sequence of terrifying powers rising again and again in an attempt to govern history and control humanity. It happened “in the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon” when Daniel “saw a dream and visions of his head as he lay in his bed” (7:1). What followed was a bizarre glimpse of four massive, terrible beasts, and Daniel being instructed that the “four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth.”
Chronologically, the four beasts have been interpreted as the rising empires of Babylon, Medo-Persia, and Greece, followed by a fourth, the Roman Empire, which would surpass the previous three in nearly every way. This also serves as a metaphorical lens for the coming Antichrist (whether he comes from the vestiges of the Roman Empire or not). The fourth beast had ten horns and “was different from all the rest, exceedingly terrifying”, but the tenth horn was the most boastful, arrogant and powerful of all.
The ESV Study Bible says, “As for the “little” horn (v. 8) who made war with the saints and prevailed over them (v. 21) and who shall wear out the saints (v. 25), many take this to represent the Antichrist, whom they expect in the end times…This king will blaspheme against God (Dan. 7:25), oppress the saints (vv. 21, 25), and try to abolish the calendar and the law (v. 25), which govern how God’s people worship. The saints will be handed over into his power for a time, times, and half a time (v. 25).”
In other words, while the final empire may seem to be a human enterprise, it will be deeply inspired and governed by demonic powers. A fusion of human and demon. And, in its day, it appears to be winning.
This setup is important. God permits Daniel this preliminary glimpse only to interrupt his vision (right at a point of possible confusion and despair) to reveal Himself and His Empire firmly at the center of the story. It is if God is saying, “Daniel, you cannot truly comprehend these things — you can’t see rightly all that I must show you — unless you see this fact, this deeper reality, in the middle of it all.”
So from the fearful spectacle of antichrist powers, Daniel’s gaze is jolted upward to a different picture altogether. Even as the world seems to be spinning out of control in wave after wave of terrible, evil foes, and with the worst of them even seeming to triumph against the saints for a time — wait! Look closer. There it is! A different narrative intrudes. A different reality takes over, towering above all that came before and over all that will follows after. A plumb line drops. History is not subject to the stratagems of empire.
Daniel’s eyes and heart behold the Court of the King.
The Heavenly Court
This — the Heavenly Courtroom! — is the highest and final government of Time and Creation. It is unshaken by the turmoil of competing human powers and spiritual authorities. Nothing can truly be understood apart from the Ancient of Days, His throne, and the Son of Man, who is clearly both celestial and mortal, the fusion of human and divine, to whom all dominion is given, and who in turn shares that dominion with other humans.
Such a God Man, as Daniel describes Him, is clearly the pivotal figure of History itself. This is His Story, but because He will be the Son of Man, it is clearly ours, as well (Dan. 7:27).
All our hope lies in Him. Yet earth remains infested with evil under the sway of the evil one.
Thus I imagine the Bethlehem Star as God striking the hardened atmosphere of earth’s demonic oppression with thunderous blows of power and hidden wisdom. Like a hammer striking an anvil, sparks flew. Stars were born. But it was bait-and-switch. While the enemy braced for a dreadful assault, an invasion force or power play, God snuck a baby into a womb; so small a gesture as to go unnoticed. A baby has no importance! Satan can only think in terms of the intimidations of power. His armor is cruelty and pride. He is lord of death, lord of lies, lord of hate. So he braces for battle with his hated foe and in his folly, somehow thinks himself a match.
But through the crack in the canopy, God slips past. He overshadows a young, Jewish virgin, humble and powerless. A babe is born. This is the great battle plan of God. The invasion of earth is nothing less than the triumphant humility of love.
Oh, How the Mighty Have Fallen!
How humiliating for Satan and his hordes of darkness! How pitiful and powerless do all his works instantly become? All his scheming across nations, endless empires given to the pursuit of power and domination, all his lies and his corruptions, prove empty, bankrupt. In a single instant, Satan the Mighty becomes Lucifer the Laughable. Fallen star. One little word shall fell him.
Mary declared this when she agreed to carry the Promised One.
“He (God) has shown strength with his arm; He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.” — Luke 1:51-52
But the story doesn’t end there. No, the quality of the story — a child in a manger who will grow into a man and rise unto a cross — is streaked through with the manifold glories of heaven’s upside-down values . . . the sort of wondrous, luminous hope and truth that can set a darkened world right. This is why I think the most radical, faith-filled, countercultural act for young people who might otherwise be tempted to shrink in fear from the new, rising tide of global evil is instead to fall in love, become husband and wife, make love, and make babies. Repeat the triumph of that night over and over.
Redemptive history is vigorous and rich enough to fill our imagination with endless wonder and purpose, which is why we must guard against compressing the gospel so far down to the personal that we neglect the global and cosmic ramifications. Jesus is the triumphant Lamb who broke the grip of Satan upon humanity. He is the Lord of Hosts who grew from babe to man; who was slain, risen and is now ascended, and will one day come again to reclaim His rightful territory, earth. Christus Victor, who crushes the serpent’s head. No, this babe is no mere babe. He is a king — the very Son of God, who one day will judge nations.
Beloved, Christmas is a war story unlike any other. As the beginning of the total humiliation and defeat of Satan, it contains the full brilliance of God. The evil one will not succeed in possessing nations as he aspires to do. Instead, the government of Messiah will expand through you and me to challenge his false claims in every corner of the planet. By virtue of Christ’s Incarnation, the power and prestige of angels has been transferred in part to the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. The host of heaven is no longer populated only by heavenly beings, but also by redeemed mortals who share the dominion of the Son of Man, just as Daniel foresaw. This is what God wants! This is the point of the story!
As humans (to a lesser degree, also the fusion of human and divine), we are learning how to challenge the Powers rightly in the same spirit of humility and servanthood as the One we follow: in the authority of our intercession, and the power of love, by the blood of the Lamb. Don’t miss the point: stardom chooses the stable. God orders His kingdom differently than Satan, who cannot even contemplate such humility and love. “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot comprehend it.” (John 1:5). Thus, whoever chooses to become conformed to the character of Heaven’s only true Star will similarly shine in the dark days ahead.
So hear again the angel’s battle tune — “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men!” — but let your ears recognize that first sound of victory as a baby’s thin, weak cry, as if to say: I live! I’m here. Satan could not stop me! One day I will die! But then I will live forevermore, and so shall you live and reign with me forever! You are not my enemies. You are my friends! I love you!
And so it is. This is our life on earth till we see Him face to face. And what a wonderful life it is, to be part of this epic story. Merry Christmas, friends!