Do you believe that a hidden individual or clique is secretly running the world, or at least plotting to take control? If so, who do you think it is? With global politics as hard to understand as they seem right now, there’s never any shortage of conspiracy theories to explain what is really going on and who is really in charge.
- One perennial favourite is the U.F.O. conspiracy – the idea that the world’s governments are secretly taking orders from alien beings.
- One of the most popular and bizarre theories, with literally hundreds of dedicated websites, is that the world is controlled by the British royal family who are, it is sometimes alleged, intelligent lizards in disguise.
- And the theory that’s currently undergoing a global renaissance – courtesy of the blockbuster novel and movie “Angels and Demons” – is that the world is controlled by a shadowy cabal of financiers and scientists known as the Illuminati.
However, compared to the real truth, these crazy theories are surprisingly mundane. The shocking fact is that the world does have a hidden ruler, one whom most people know nothing about. He has extraordinary powers. The world isn’t the way he wants it (yet), but he’s gradually unveiling his plans for world domination, and he demands the total allegiance of everyone on the planet. Science fiction? No, the Bible.
The Hidden Ruler's name is Jesus, and his kingly rule is unveiled in the Christmas story as set out in Matthew’s Gospel.
We must understand who these men were, if we’re to make sense of the passage. The Bible doesn’t refer to them as kings whatever the old carol may say, and they are believed by many archaeologists to have been astrologer-priests from Persia. In the culture of the time that would have made them top royal advisors on national and international affairs. If you want modern parallels, think of the top diplomats of recent histroy like Henry Kissinger or Condoleezza Rice.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.
These tough-minded, unsentimental, highly informed political mandarins clearly knew that something extraordinary was about to happen in Palestine, something that would turn the world upside down. And so they came to King Herod's palace in Jerusalem asking,
Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.
I want to pause for a moment to reflect on how remarkable this is. Mostly, of course, it’s remarkable that what drove these tough, practical men was not just curiosity or the need for intelligence on a possible security threat, but the urge to pay him homage – in a sense to worship him. But I’ll come back to that point, because the other remarkable thing I want to point out is that for centuries leading up to these events the world had been waiting with bated breath for just this moment. The Jewish prophets had foretold Jesus coming hundreds of years beforehand, right down to the place of his birth. By the time Jesus was born, Jewish society was feverish with messianic expectations, and the promised Messiah even figured in the reckoning of those mysterious visitors from the east.
In fact, the only informed person of the day who seems to have been living in ignorance of these expectations was the Saddam Hussein of first century Palestine, King Herod. And how did he respond?
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
We really do have to stop again here to ask the question, Who on earth is this Jesus? What was so special about the Messiah that a party of top ranking foreign officials was prepared to travel half way across the civilised world just to see him as a baby? And who was this baby that King Herod, who despite his status as a puppet ruler was still one of the most ruthless and feared tyrants in history, should fear him? What did they expect Jesus to do, these wise men and this one foolish man?
The Bible itself gives us a clue, and shows us how the two factions respond to the bombshell. When Herod sends his minions to find out where the baby is to be born, they come up with an Old Testament prophecy that tells us something dramatic about Jesus:
They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
These final words, “a ruler who will shepherd my people” summarise the meaning of messiahship with unmatched power and economy of words. While the living Jesus actually far outstripped any pre-Christian understanding of what the Messiah would do, these few words are all we need to answer every one of the questions I asked a moment ago: Who is this baby? What will he do? Why do the wise men pay him homage? Why are Herod and all his cronies so frightened?
Firstly, this prophecy points to the fact that Jesus will rule as king; and not any ordinary king but God’s special king: the King whose birth in Bethlehem was promised hundreds of years beforehand. And that means that Jesus is in charge. His will will be done, whatever the world thinks. He is the standard against which all other authorities are to be judged and sentenced. And so his birth in Bethlehem sounds a dire warning to those who exercise power in selfish, oppressive ways. It was the writing on the wall for Herod, but it also spells out the fate of oppressive rulers today – whether dictators, drug barons, or simply ordinary people who oppress others through selfish choices in their everyday life. And not just people but families, organisations and national governments. The very idea of kingdom has been redrawn in the light of Jesus’ life and work.
No wonder foolish men like Herod still try to hunt Jesus down and eliminate him. We can see it in China today, where the authorities are bitterly persecuting infant churches. They cannot win, because God is moving in those tiny bodies of young Christians the same way he was moving in the baby Jesus. Even as an infant, Jesus rules as king. No rival throne can stand up to him. Herod knows that, and quakes. The wise men know better – they kneel at Jesus’ feet and offer him the best they have to give.
Secondly, these words - from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people – tell us something about the kind of ruler Jesus will be. He does not rule like a human king, lording it over people, using them to satisfy his capricious whims, e.g. sending them to the front line to die in his service (as even David, the most godly king in history once did). Jesus rules as king in the way a shepherd rules the flock – firmly but gently, defending them against predators, searching out the missing, making sure there is always food, water and a healing touch. And as Jesus himself explained, the perfect shepherd will lay down his life so that his precious flock may live. This passage thus points to the main reason Jesus was born – not just to teach and embody kingdom values, but to die an undeserved criminal’s death. And in so doing so he would take the punishment deserved by every other person who has every lived, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. That is Jesus’ idea of ruling as king.
We take up the story again as the wise men arrive at the place where the infant Messiah is staying:
When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
No wonder wise men and women, like those visitors from the east, still make the journey to kneel at Jesus feet, pay him homage, and lay the best they have to offer as gifts at his feet. I wish I had the space to unpack the symbolism of each of those three gifts – the gold, the myrrh, the frankincense – but it’s better if I concentrate on explaining how the fact of Jesus ruling as king affects each one of us:
Firstly, it’s fashionable today to dismiss the supernatural element of the Bible. Well, I am a great lover and respecter of science, but here is an anomaly to remind anyone who thinks science has all the answers that the world is still a pretty mysterious place. There is no serious question that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. And as to the prophecy concerning Bethlehem, there is no doubt that it was written several hundred years earlier. Now, that inconvenient truth may seem either miraculous or just plain unbelievable to someone brought up in today’s secular culture. To a believer, however, this point is not particularly striking – it’s just one more tiny strand in the enormous body of evidence that there is a real God acting in human history and moving it towards an unimaginable climax. And there’s no doubt in my mind that the birth of Jesus is the pivotal moment in human history – the start of the long final chapter which will end with Jesus ruling visibly and irresistibly over the whole universe as king. And I find it really reassuring in these confusing and troubled times to know that there is a God who plans ahead, a God who tells his people what is going on, and who says to the hardened unbelievers, See, I am here, and there is plenty of evidence around if you are just willing to look at it with an open mind.
Secondly, there’s a timely message for anyone reading this who has not yet made a firm decision to follow Jesus. Because this story shows the two possible ways of responding to the fact of his kingship. I say two ways, because the supposed third way of simply ignoring him just doesn’t work:
- You can be like Herod: you can attack Jesus, attack the church, attack faith in general. You can do all in your power to maintain the illusion of being in control just as Herod did. You can even pass laws like the UK’s impending Equality Act which effectively make it illegal to follow your religious conscience.
- You can be like the Wise Men. You can make the journey to Jesus, kneel at his feet, and submit to his rule as shepherd and king.
Christmas is a classic time for people to reassess their own feelings about Jesus. Even after 35 years, I’ll never forget the unbelievable euphoria of the first Christmas at which Christ himself was real to me. And it doesn’t take much of a prophetic gift to know that there are people reading this for whom this Christmas could have that same heart-filling excitement in store.
If you feel Christ is calling you to let him take centre-stage this Christmas, there’s a very easy first step you can take. Below is a prayer that could be prayed by anyone who wants to accept Christ as king for the very first time. If you pray these words, however quietly, God will hear you. And Jesus promised time and time again that if you accept him as king, he will become a loving friend with the power to transform your life.
The wise men from the east went on their way overwhelmed with joy. It’s my prayer that everyone who reads these words will have a real encounter with King Jesus this Christmas, whether for the first time or the thousandth, that will bring joy throughout the season and for all the years ahead……….
Heavenly Father, thank you for sending Jesus. I’m sorry I’ve spent so long without recognising him as my rightful king. I no longer want to be like King Herod, ignorant of Jesus’ kingship or resenting his challenge to my own rule. I want to be wise like those Wise Men from the East. I ask you to give me the humility to kneel before him. And all the good gifts you have given me I lay at his feet. Lastly, Father, I know now that Jesus died so that I can be forgiven of all my sins. Wash me clean now in the power of his shed blood, and fill me with the spirit of Jesus so that under his royal authority I can live as a new person…..
If you prayed that prayer, however simple a step it may seem, it really is a turning point in your life. But please don’t leave it at that. Track down a trustworthy Christian to help you find the next step forward in faith. And please let me know so that I can give thanks and pray for you.