Propitiation. What a great word. It has such a great sound to it. But what does it mean? Many have never heard the word, much less be familiar with its meaning. This is especially true if the translation you use is NRSV or NIV, both of which use the word "sacrifice" instead of “propitiation.” This is unfortunate since the words sacrifice and propitiation do not mean the same thing. These words are not synonymous. Though their definitions are closely related, they both convey separate and distinct truths regarding the cross of Christ and what was accomplished at Calvary.
On February 23, 1836, 187 Texans defended the Alamo mission in San Antonio, Texas for 15 days against nearly 3000 Mexican soldiers. At one point during the bloody siege Col. William Barrett Travis drew a line in the dirt with his saber and said, "Any man who chooses to stay and fight should step across the line. Any man that does not step across the line will not be thought a coward." All but one man stepped across that line. All but one man thought the price of freedom was worth that much. And all but one was slaughtered. But those 15 days bought valuable time for General Sam Houston to prepare his newly organized Texas army. As a result, on April 21, 1836, Gen. Sam Houston and his Texas army were able to defeat the Mexican army at the battle of San Jacinto, and force Gen. Santa Ana to sign a treaty, thus establishing the Republic of Texas. To this day if you visit the Alamo, you will see a phrase that Texans are quite proud of plastered on just about everything imaginable: "The Alamo: The Price of Freedom". One-hundred-eighty-seven men were willing to give their lives, and the rest of Texas was willing to let them, because their freedom was worth that much to them. Their freedom had that much value to them.
*The 11th century theologian Anselm once wrote, “All defective views of the atonement have this one thing in common—they have not yet considered how grievous a thing sin is.” In many evangelical churches today and among many evangelical Christians there is a defective view of the atonement. If the average Christian was asked to explain the purpose of the cross of Christ, many would likely say, ‘To provide salvation’, which is correct. And if asked what the cross achieved? Many would say, ‘forgiveness’, which is also correct. However, if the average Christian was asked whether or not the cross was historically necessary, I fear that many would agree with the 13th century theologian Duns Scotus who held that not only was the cross not historically necessary, but neither was the death of Christ. In other words, God could have provided salvation through any means. God could have allowed an animal to die in the place of sinners or could have just forgiven people of their sins without requiring a sacrifice of any kind. God provided salvation through Christ simply because He chose to do so. Let’s remember the words of Anselm: “All defective views of the atonement have this one thing in common—they have not yet considered how grievous a thing sin is.”
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." When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: "'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.'" Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And 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." After 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. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going 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. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:1-12)
Jesus is likely between the ages of 6 months and 2 years. We know this for several reasons. First, we read that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem.” Jesus has already been born. Matthew does not record the actual birth but rather tells us what happened after Jesus’ birth. These wise men would have traveled about 900 miles, which according to Ezra 7:9 was a journey of about 5 months. We also read that Mary and Joseph are no longer in a stable, but in a house (v.11), and then we are told that Herod orders every child, aged 2 and under, to be killed (v.16). Herod believed Jesus could be near two years old.
But who are these “wise men”? We know the wise men from the east were astrologers/scientists from the region of Babylon who at the time were well known for their scientific advancements in being able to read the stars, interpret dreams, and practice sorcery. For this reason, “Magi” (NASB, NIV) would be the better term and not “wise men” since the underlying Greek word is magos. The phrase “wise men” comes from older translations like the King James Version because in the year 1611 scholars were not sure what or who magi were. We also don’t know how many Magi there were. Traditionally, the scene is always depicted with three, but that is because three gifts were offered. The story never mentions how many magi traveled to Jerusalem.
Why then were these pagan sorcerers following this star and why were they looking for the king of the Jews? During the Babylonian captivity large numbers of Jews were exported to Babylon some 500 years before the birth of Christ. After the Babylonian captivity, when the Jews were allowed to return to the land of Israel, many of them stayed in Babylon. These well-read Magi would have been familiar with the many stories that circulated throughout the entire region and the biblical prophecies about a Jewish Messiah who would come from the line of David, from the tribe of Judah, and was to be born king of the Jews. The prophecies they almost certainly are referring to are Numbers 24:17 and 2 Samuel 7:12-16.
But why travel so far to worship this king if they aren’t devout Jewish believers? Why travel to Jerusalem? In biblical times it was not uncommon for Magi, nobility, and aristocrats to travel great distances to pay homage to the birth of a king in an effort to get in the king’s good graces should he grow up to be a powerful ruler. And in their minds, it would have made sense that a ruler would be born in Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel.
Hence, the Magi come before Jesus and kneel before him and worship him. They are paying homage to the one they believe will be the next political ruler of Israel, the descendant of David, the king of the Jews. This is apparent from the gifts they bring. All very costly gifts. Gold, of course, makes sense, a gift befitting a king. Frankincense was an expensive incense used in religious worship but was also used by the wealthy to fragrance their homes. Myrrh was an expensive liquid perfume used to fragrance one’s clothing or furniture, or to the dip burial cloths in to diminish the stench of decaying bodies. But what is interesting about this scene is that the Gentiles are the first to recognize what the Jews failed to see—Jesus is the king of the Jews prophesied about in the Old Testament, and as such is deserving of worship. The Magi worship Jesus, the newborn king, and offer him royal gifts.
Today is not a day primarily about getting, but about giving--about giving Christ the worship, praise, honor, and obedience he deserves. Today is about celebrating and exalting the birth of the King of kings and Lord of lords, about celebrating the day light dawned, the day salvation stepped into our world, the day God’s righteous arm of deliverance reached out to humanity. Christmas is about Christ.
“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’” (Luke 2:8-14)
God breaks into time, space, and history in the birth of Jesus Christ, and we see angels announcing this momentous occasion by appearing to shepherds watching their flocks throughout the night. It’s interesting that God chooses to make this announcement to shepherds, not to kings or princes, not to the religious leaders, not even to middle class citizens, but to the lowest social class among Jews. Shepherds were very much looked down upon. They were not trusted. They were viewed as thieves and liars. In New Testament times their testimony was not admissible in a court of law because they were thought to be unreliable. Yet, the angel first appears to shepherds. This is one of the paradoxes of God. The King of kings and Lord of lords often reveals himself and chooses to use the lowest of men to do his bidding. If you were going to share some internationally important news, would you not share that information with the heads of state, major news networks, the most powerful people in the world? Not God. He chooses to announce the birth of the Messiah to shepherds.
Announcing the birth of the Messiah to shepherds does two things. First, it shows that the greatest gift to humanity has been given to the lowest of men. In Luke 5:31 Jesus will say, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” God did not come for the rich and powerful; he came for those who recognize their need for a savior. Second, revealing this news to shepherds shows that God does not need the rich and powerful to accomplish his will. This announcement is first made to lowly shepherds and within one-hundred years it will spread throughout the Mediterranean world. By the end of the 4th century, Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire and spreads across Europe. And it all starts with shepherds in a field watching their sheep by night.
The angel then says, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The angel announces that Jesus is the Christ (Greek for Messiah, which means “anointed one”). Jesus is the Anointed One, the long-awaited Messiah, the son of David, prophesied about one-thousand years earlier who would establish a kingdom forever. And this promise has been fulfilled this night in the town of Bethlehem and these shepherds are the first to be given the news. They probably thought to themselves ‘why us?’ Why is this being revealed to us, shepherds, the one group of people no one is ever going to believe? God wanted to make clear that no one is beyond the love and grace of God. It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter where you come from. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. It doesn’t matter if you are the lowest of the low. This gift is for you. This gift is for all people. This gift is for all the world.
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