Have you ever thought what it might have been like to live in the time of kings and queens and knights? We know little of what it is like to live under a monarchy or "rule of a king" except through history books, novels, and popular movies. We do know that the king was absolute ruler and that appropriate "pomp and circumstance" followed him wherever he went.
Imagine for a moment that you are living in a small village during the rule of a wise and beneficent king. One day it is announced that the king is coming to visit your small village. What preparations would need to be made? We can only imagine that all the villagers would work together to ensure that the city was spic-and-span and that everyone was prepared for a visit with royalty.
Let me bring the picture to a more recent event with royalty. I had the privilege of doing my graduate study in Cambridge University. My supervisor was Professor C.F.D. Moule who had a major role in the New English Translation. I once asked him if he had ever met the Queen in person. He smiled and recounted his invitation to the palace soon after the release of the New English Bible. He was told what to wear, how to bow, where to stand, and how to greet the Queen. After all, she was royalty.
Christmas is about the advent of the King of kings. We have so sentimentalized Christmas that we often fail to remember that at Christmas we celebrate the entry of the one true King. It is appropriate that the advent of the King was heralded by an angelic chorus. But we are surprised both by the accommodations prepared for the ruling King and some of those who welcomed His arrival.
The Prophetic Promise
Babylonian captivity had been a devastating blow to Jewish pride. Jerusalem had been sacked and the temple, the visible earthly representation of God's presence among His people, had been reduced to rubble. God inspired Ezekiel the prophet to put these historic events into divine perspective.
Ezekiel explains the devastation in terms of Israel's disobedience. The people called by God's name had profaned His holy name (36:20). Yet, we begin to hear a word of hope. God declares that He is prepared to bring restoration for the sake of His own name. He plans to vindicate His name among the nations by proving Himself holy among His people in the sight of the nations. If you read the remainder of chapter 36, you will find promises of revival and restoration that are concluded with the promise of renewed fruitfulness. But the promised restoration has in view convincing the nations of the one true Lord (chapter 38).
The good news of future restoration is continued in the story of the valley of dry bones (chapter 37). Chapters 40-48 contain plans for the restoration of God's people, including the plans for the rebuilding of the temple. We can forego the detailed measurements and focus on the final promise in Ezekiel's prophecy: and the name of the city from that day on will be: Yahweh Is There. (48:35). "Yahweh is There" is the name Jehovah Shammah. The uniqueness of Israel's religion was that God was present with them at all times and all places (see Exodus 33:13-16). It is therefore critical to note that the last name of God in the Old Testament speaks of God's presence.1
The Promise Fulfilled in Person
The New Testament begins with the story of a birth. Not just any birth, mind you, but the birth of one who will be called Jesus (Matthew 1:18-23). Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name "Joshua" which means "Jehovah is salvation." The name points to the birth of the Messiah (King) from the lineage of David. He will be the King who will deliver His people and purify them for judgment.
This declaration in verses 18-23 was anticipated by the genealogy which opens Matthew's Gospel. The lineage is laid out in three groups of fourteen generations indicating that the time of preparation is complete and the time of Messianic fulfillment is at hand. Tracing the lineage of Jesus through the royal line of Judah verifies His status as King of the Jews. Furthermore, it establishes Him as the "son of David."
You may recall that King David had planned to build a house for God's name. God informed David that he would not be allowed to build the temple during his earthly reign. However, God gave David a promise that exceeded all expectations. When your time comes and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up after you your descendant, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He will build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he will be a son to Me (2 Samuel 7:12-14a).
The promise to David that one of his descendants would establish a kingdom that would last forever could never be fulfilled in a mere earthly king.
Matthew further clarifies the role and identity of Jesus by linking His birth to another prophecy from Isaiah 7:14. See, the virgin will be with child and give birth to a son, and they will name Him Immanuel, which is translated "God is with us" (Matthew 1:23).
It is at this point that we begin to see the connection with Ezekiel's prophecy. The Old Testament ended with the promise that when the restoration occurred, "Yahweh is there" — Jehovah Shammah. Now the New Testament begins with the word of fulfillment, "God is here" — Immanuel. Jesus is the one who fulfills the promise of Jehovah Shammah. God is not present on earth in a physical temple but in His Son.
You may recall that at the Passover and the cleansing of the temple Jesus referred to His body as the temple. Jesus answered, "Destroy this sanctuary, and I will raise it up in three days" (John 2:19). The Jews respond that it took forty-six years to build the temple, and yet Jesus claimed He could raise it up in three days. The temple where "God is here" is the body of His Son not the stones of an earthly temple.
The abiding presence of Holy God is now made possible by a personal relationship with His Son!
Wise Men Understand
The story of the visit of the Magi is unique to Matthew's Gospel and fortifies the claim of Jesus to be the rightful King of the Jews and more. As you read Matthew 2:1-12 you will notice the contrast with the unworthy King Herod. Herod may claim to be the King of the Jews, but Matthew makes it clear through the Magi that the true King of the Jews has been born. Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? (2:2). Because the wise men are Gentiles, they have limited knowledge of the Jewish promise and thus seek detailed information.
Further, the introduction of the wise men from the east indicates that Jesus is not simply the King of the Jews; He is the King of all nations. This theme was clearly and regularly articulated in the Old Testament but had been largely ignored by the Jewish people.
The entire episode of the wise men bearing exotic gifts to the King of the Jews may have called to mind the visit of the Queen of Sheba to the throne of Solomon bearing rich gifts. She was prompted by the reports of Solomon's fame connected with the name of the Lord and came to test him with difficult questions (1 Kings 10:1). As the queen presented the gifts, she blessed the Lord God who set Solomon on the throne of Israel.
Much attention has been given to the gifts borne by the Magi. Some interpreters argue that they represented their stock in trade, and therefore indicate that these men are laying down their lives for the true King. Others see them in relationship to the life and death of Jesus.
In either case, it is clear that they are gifts fit for a king and that is the primary message we should hear. These men and their gifts would call to mind prophesies like those in Psalm 72:10-15 and Isaiah 60:11-15 which promise that foreign kings will bow before the King of kings. May the kings of Tarshish and the coasts and islands bring tribute, the kings of Sheba and Seba offer gifts. And let all kings bow down to him, all nations serve him (Psalm 72:10-11).
An Appropriate Response in the Presence of the King
Matthew's telling of the Christmas story is immediately followed by the preaching of John the Baptist who announces that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand (Matthew 3:1-2). The King has come and thus His Kingdom is advancing. We are now prepared for the first words of the Sermon on the Mount — Blessed are the poor in spirit, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs (Matthew 5:3).
Several of the Kingdom parables, such as the parable of the farmer and the field with the buried treasure and the story of the pearl merchant and the priceless pearl, point to an obvious conclusion. If one discovers the King, he or she will sell all to follow Him.
Do you know the King in personal relationship? If so have you laid your life and resources at His feet in worship? Are you committed to taking His message to the nations so that every tribe and every people group may have the privilege of worshipping their rightful King?
1 If you want to read more about the name Jehovah Shammah see Ken Hemphill, The Names of God (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2001), Chapter 13.
Kenneth S. Hemphill is a member of First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina, and is the SBC national EKG strategist.