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)
Here’s a question: how do you know? More particularly, how do you know anything about God?
When you think about it, there can be no more vital question in Christianity. In fact, if the claims of Christianity are true, there can be no more vital question full stop. How do we know. How do we know anything about God, and how God wants us to live? Is it up to us to work it out, or does God tell us? If he does tell us, then how?
As we consider this, we would do well to follow the path of previous thinkers and divide knowledge of God into two broad categories. First of there is what we might call General Revelation, which simply means the things which God reveals to people in general. Think of Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1), or Acts 14:17: “Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness”. As the Apostle Paul puts it:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:19–20).
This general revelation reveals something of God, since creation is his handiwork. John Masefield, as he spoke of Herefordshire, illustrated the Apostle Paul’s point as he said “I know of no land more full of the beauty and bounty of God than these red ploughlands and these deep woodlands so full of yew trees, those apple orchards and lovely rivers and running brooks“. It is self-evident.
So what has this got to do with the three wise men, with gold, frankincense and myrrh?
Well, before you give up and turn to your coffee and toast notice this. It is this general revelation we see at work with the wise men. They had noticed something in the stars, and had drawn the conclusion that this meant something important. They had even gone as far as to deduce that this involved a king, and to be fair to these Magi they weren’t far wrong. They had read the signs of general revelation, and discerned that God was active.
The problem is, they only got so far. The ended up at Herod’s palace rather than the Bethlehem stable. You can understand their thinking: kings are supposed to be born in palaces. However, to be 90% correct is still to be wrong. This takes me to the second kind of revelation spoken of by the theologians: Special Revelation.
If general revelation is generally visible in the world around us, special revelation is the final 10% which helps us make sense of God. In the end we, as finite beings, can only have so much understanding of God who is infinite. We can tell from creation around us that there is a God, but we need God to tell us who he is. The great reformer John Calvin likens it to putting on a pair of glasses to read a book. Before, you can make out the vague shapes of the words, and with some effort work some of them out. After, you can read clearly and gain the author’s intention.
So, back to Herod’s palace to see how this plays out. Herod has received what is to him the alarming news that another king has been born. He knows the Magi, gentiles, do not have the whole picture and have come to the wrong place so he does what all sensible people would do in this circumstance: he calls for the Biblical scholars! He asks the “chief priests and scribes of the people” where the Messiah is to be born, and they point him to the fifth chapter of the Prophet Micah. Bethlehem, that’s where! So off toddle the Magi to Bethlehem, the star before them once more. Freshly informed by scripture they finally meet their king, and can do nothing else but fall down and worship him.
This is special revelation at work, since that particular kind of revelation is contained between the covers of the Bible. It is the final ten percent which separates the pagan from the Christian, the one with a vague sense of God from the one who can worship the living God. It is the means by which God makes himself known to his creation, which is why it has been hallowed throughout the generations.
There will always be those who try and make the final, 10% leap for themselves. Those who will put aside the Bible and attempt to understand God “for themselves”. They will create new understandings of God, and proclaim fresh truths.
The problem is that when you rely on your own understanding you don’t end up at the stable with Jesus. You end up face to face with Herod.