Why Those Wise Men Shouldn’t Be in Your Nativity

And what this says about how we read the Bible

We all have one in our homes this time of year—a cute, cuddly nativity scene. There’s baby Jesus, of course, right in the middle, flanked by Mary and Joseph, a collection of donkeys and sheep, a few shepherds, perhaps an angel above, and, last but not least, the three wise men.

Let’s talk about those wise men. See, the thing is, if your nativity scene has wise men in it, it’s wrong.

Let’s revisit the story.

Revisiting the Christmas Story

Mary, fully pregnant and ready to give birth, finds herself riding a donkey beside her faithful husband, Joseph, as they make their way to Bethlehem in Jerusalem. After arriving in Bethlehem, they find there’s no room for them in the local inn, but there is a manger, or stable, that has some room.

Having nowhere else to go, Mary and Joseph cozy up in the manger alongside what would surely have been a variety of animals. Once inside, Mary gives birth to her firstborn, a son. But not just any son. This was the very Son of God. They name him Jesus after having received earlier instructions to do so.

Shortly after, angels appear to nearby shepherds and announce the good news that the Savior of the world has just been born. A choir of angels then appears and explodes into song, singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” Then, just as quickly as they came, the angels disappeared.

Understandably curious and awe-struck, the shepherds head off to Bethlehem to see this newborn boy. Once they arrive, they find the boy lying in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes.

Then, the wise men see a bright, shining star and start heading east, following it towards Jerus—not so fast.

The Case of the Missing Wise Men

This is where things go wrong. We assume the wise men were there at the manger because their story directly follows the birth narrative of Jesus in chapter 2 of Matthew’s Gospel. But our assumption leads us astray because the Bible never says the wise men were present at the birth. Instead, it says they visited Jesus when he was about two-years-old.

We know this from the tragic and gruesome details of Herod’s slaughter of young boys in Matthew 2. The wise men, in an epically unwise move, go to King Herod in Jerusalem to ask where the baby boy who is the new “King of the Jews” has been born.

Immediately sensing the threat to his throne and an opportunity to snuff out this newcomer, Herod plays along with the wise men. He tells them to go to Bethlehem and find this new King, then report his location so he could come and worship kill him. The wise men did find the baby boy, and, indeed, they brought him gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. But they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they went home a different way.

Herod, realizing he’s been duped by the wise men, then does what all dictators do when things don’t go their way—he starts killing people. Since he didn’t know which little boy to have killed, he orders every boy two-years-old and under to be killed.

This is how we know when the wise men came to visit Jesus: Herod ascertained the time when the star the wise men had been following appeared, then calculated how old the baby King would be. The answer was two-years-old, perhaps a bit younger.

See for yourself:

“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.” – Matt. 2:16

Okay, so now you know your nativity is wrong. At the end of the day, I’m not really concerned with whether or not you have the magi in your manger.

What I am concerned about is what this error reveals about how we read the Bible. In particular, it reveals three common problems with how we approach Scripture: we don’t read it for ourselves, we assume other people have read it for themselves, and we don’t see what we read.

We Don’t Read the Bible for Ourselves

Bible engagement is, to put it bluntly, abysmal, even within the church. You might even call it an epidemic. In my American culture where unfettered access to the Bible exists in a variety of formats, more than half of Americans have read little or none of the Bible. LifeWay Research, after their recent study of Bible reading, concluded Americans are fond of the Bible but don’t actually read it.

Scott McConnell, Executive Director of LifeWay Research, highlights the problem, saying, “Even among worship attendees less than half read the Bible daily. The only time most Americans hear from the Bible is when someone else is reading it.” In my experience, “when someone else is reading it” means when they hear a few verses read aloud as part of a weekend sermon.

The reason most of us think the wise men were at the manger is that most of us haven’t read the Bible for ourselves. We haven’t exposed ourselves to the text first-hand, let alone examined it. Most Americans seem content to live in Old Testament times where God’s Word had to come through the mouth of a prophet. Remarking on this trend, Francis Chan writes,

“A mentor of mine lives in India. Last year, he called me on the phone crying, distraught over the state of the church in America. ‘It seems like the people in America would be content to take a selfie with Moses. Don’t they know they can go up the mountain themselves? Why don’t they want to go up the mountain?’”

One of the reasons we don’t want to go up the mountain is because we assume the people we hear the Bible from went up themselves, which leads us to our second problem.

We Assume Other People Have Read the Bible for Themselves

Millions of people missing a small detail of the manger scene is only possible when those people assume others have read the Bible closely and will tell them what they need to know. Perhaps this is why “good Bible teaching” is most important to American churchgoers—we need good Bible teaching or we won’t get any Bible for the week.

Whether it’s teaching in a weekend service, small group, or Bible study, we assume the people talking the most have read the Bible for themselves. That assumption leads us to believe we can trust what they say about it. And even when they say something that sounds off, we haven’t read enough of the Bible to know where to check their understanding.

One of the big takeaways from LifeWay’s recent study was that “people who really like the Bible don’t necessarily really read the Bible.” If the statistics are true—and if we care deeply about our eternity—we would be wise not to assume people talking about the Bible have actually read it.

But what about those of us who do read the Bible? How have we read the birth narratives in Matthew 2 and Luke 2 without noticing the time gap between the shepherds and wise men? Because even when we read the Bible, we don’t see what we read.

We Don’t See What We Read

Of the small percentage of Americans who read the Bible, an even smaller percentage actually know how. Literacy—knowing how to read—is not the only skill needed to read a thousands-year-old collection of books written in ancient cultures by people from a world that looked vastly different than ours. Hermeneutics, or the science of interpreting ancient documents, is necessary for people in America in 2017 to read a book written in Rome or Israel thousands of years earlier, even if it doesn’t go by that name.

At a basic level, everyone in the church should have access to other, more mature believers who can show them how to rightly handle the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). The value in teaching something like hermeneutics is in helping Christians properly interpret what they’re reading in the Scriptures. The real goal, though, of hermeneutics is to train people to see the Bible.

Most of us read things at such a speed that we don’t notice much of what’s there. We miss context, innuendo, previous references, etc. We see so little because we don’t give ourselves time to look. We read through our passage so we can check the box on our reading plan, or swipe right in our Bible app.

If we want to learn to read the Bible, we must learn to see the Bible.

A Way Forward

Do you need to throw away your nativity if it has wise men? No. But you might need to chart a way forward with your own Bible reading habit. There are a few ways to get started.

First, read the Bible. Just read it. You won’t learn to love the Bible until you learn to read the Bible. So, tolle lege—take up and read!

Next, find someone to teach you how to read it well. If that’s not an option, make use of one of the great online resources available, like David Platt’s Secret Church on How to Study the Bible, or Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s class on Interpreting and Teaching the Bible.

Finally, pray for God to give you a hunger for the Bible. Ultimately, we don’t read the Bible because we don’t delight in reading it. Pray for that delight as you continue to immerse yourself in the wonders of the Word.

Please, don’t put your eternity in someone else’s hands. Read the Bible for yourself.

How do you know the Bible is true?

How do you know that God is good? That He’s trustworthy? How do you know the Bible is true? Many times we’re told we just have to believe these things by knowing and accepting them.

In my life, these questions required much more than acquiring knowledge. Coming to answers involved knowing about God, yes, but also experiencing God.

Read the rest of my article at Gospel-Centered Discipleship.

Why You Don’t Read Your Bible

Over and over again, studies show that the most important thing for spiritual growth is reading the Bible. Yet it’s the one thing most people in the church aren’t doing.

Only 45% of those who regularly attend church read the Bible more than once a week. For each church attender who does read their Bible every day, there’s someone else who doesn’t read it at all. Biblical illiteracy really is an epidemic.

I say this not simply as someone who is researching the topic, but as a pastor who talks to people every week inside and outside the church who have next to no biblical knowledge. The most concerning thing is that there doesn’t seem to be a distinction between those who are new to the faith and those who have been a Christian for several years, sometimes even ten or more.

Why is it that despite the evidence, despite our sincere longing to grow spiritually, that we aren’t doing the one thing most capable of producing that growth?

In my experience, there are two main reasons people don’t read their Bible. The first is that people honestly don’t understand that the Bible holds transformational power. They may think so intellectually, but they don’t believe it. And second, they don’t read the Bible because they don’t know how to find delight in reading it. Both of these are worth understanding in more detail.

Understanding the transforming power of God’s Word

Why do people always tell you that you should be reading your Bible more? Seriously, why do pastors and writers and bloggers go on and on about being in the Bible each and every day?

Besides the overwhelming research indicating Bible engagement is crucial to spiritual growth, it’s because the Bible itself tells us that the Word of God is the only thing powerful enough to transform the human heart.

Nowhere is this seen in more vivid detail than the prophet Ezekiel’s vision from God of the valley of bones:

“The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.” (Ezekiel 37:1-4 ESV)

Ezekiel knows he’s helpless to bring this bunch of skeletons to life. He says, “God, I don’t know, but you do.” Good answer.

God then tells him what it takes to bring the bones to life — His own words. Ezekiel then speaks the Word of God over those dry bones and the unthinkable happens:

“And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.” (Ezekiel 37:8-10 ESV)

God spoke and enfleshed these piles of bones and then breathed into them the breath of life. All through the power of His Word.

The power of His Word

And that’s not all. The book of Hebrews tells us that all things are held together by the power of His Word.

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power… (Hebrews 1:3 ESV)

That same life-giving, universe-sustaining power is still wielded through the Word of the Lord. But these days, we don’t have to hear from prophets or judges or priests. The opening of the book of Hebrews tells us,

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son… (Hebrews 1:1-2 ESV)

The Son (Jesus), then, is how we hear the Word of God today. And where are his teachings and commandments recorded? In the Bible.

How to get started understanding the power of the Bible

If we want to be brought back to life, if we want to see a new heart made of flesh beating in our chest instead of the cold, hard one we have now, then we will be students of the living, breathing, active Word of God (Heb. 4:12).

If you’ve never understood that, don’t stop until you do. Many people have never been walked through the truths of Scripture about the power of the Word in a way that made them see the importance of Bible reading. Don’t feel bad. Just get started.

If you’re not sure where to look, start by reading this chapter of Multiply, a discipleship curriculum. It will help you understand why we should be studying the Bible in very clear language. (This chapter is in part 3 of the book, which is all about how to study the Bible. It’s well worth the time. In fact, the whole book is great. And free! The site linked to has all the material, and it’s also available as a free app.)

The goal of using any of these resources is for you to see the transformational power of the Bible. I’m reminded of these words from Rick Warren:

“Reading the Bible generates life, it produces change, it heals hurts, it builds character, it transforms circumstances, it imparts joy, it overcomes adversity, it defeats temptation, it infuses hope, it releases power, it cleanses the mind.”

May you and I know those things to be true through our own experience with God’s Word.

Finding delight in reading the Bible

An even more common reason for not reading the Bible than not understanding the power of it is not knowing how to find delight in reading it.

Try to imagine yourself sitting down to a table with fresh white linens draped over top. Several pristine utensils sit before you. The napkin is folded into some beautiful but unknown geometric shape. It sits just above a clean, white plate. And on that plate is a big, black leather Bible.

As you look down at that Bible, does it look like the desert you can’t wait to dig into, or does it look more like the brussel sprouts you shove aside so you can get to the good part?

The answer to that question means everything.

Too many of us look down and see a strange, foreign book that we want to love, but just don’t know quite what to do with it. It’s just never tasted good, so we move it around on the plate and pretend to enjoy it.

That is not what God intended.

The majesty of the God’s Word

Look at the majesty of what God’s Word should be like to us from Psalm 19:

The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. (Psalm 19:7-11 ESV)

In just five verses, we’re told that the Word of God is perfect, trustworthy, good, clear, eternal, true, and sweet. Is that how you feel about the Bible?

If those stats mentioned earlier are true, probably not. So what do you do?

How to start finding delight in reading the Bible

Well, for starters, you don’t find delight in reading the Bible until you start reading the Bible. Like any other discipline or practice, the more you do it, the more natural it becomes and the more you’ll start to enjoy it.

If you’ve never really given daily Bible reading a shot, of course it’s difficult in the beginning. Of course it’s hard to do and hard to understand. But that doesn’t mean you should stop; it just means you’ve got work to do.

The best way to jump in is to pick a yearly reading plan through the free YouVersion app, one of the many websites, or, my current favorite, the Read Scripture plan. It’s available as a free app or PDF that has helpful videos to better understand each book and major theme of the Bible. There’s also a weekly podcast with Francis Chan where he talks through the week’s readings and helps you better understand and apply it.

Those are some good options, but which plan you choose is really not the point. It matters less how you’re reading through the Bible, and more that you’re actually doing it.

What to do if you hit a road block

If you’ve tried to build a daily habit and failed miserably (like I did many times), or you just can’t seem to get into it, there is something that will help. First, pray for the God to give you a heart for the Bible. If you’re seeking His truth, He will answer you.

But second, talk to someone or listen to someone who loves God’s Word. Nothing has been more catalytic in my own delight in God’s Word than this. If you’ve never really seen someone who loves God’s Word, then you have no picture of how it can transform your life and bring joy to the core of your being.

If that’s you, then I’d suggest listening to or watching this series of videos on how to study the Bible (and following along with the notes they have). It’s a big investment, but so, so worth it. The teacher, David Platt, loves God’s Word, and it’s evident in his voice and demeanor. I’m in seminary, so believe me when I say that what he takes you through is a seminary-level education for the everyday person. And it’s all free, like the other resources mentioned here.

Don’t put this off

At the end of your life, you will give an account to God for how you spent your time (Rom. 14:12). At that time, all the ways you wasted time on Netflix, Facebook, or whatever else will be abundantly clear. Please, see the reality of what’s at stake now. Don’t put this off until later.

God has revealed Himself to us. He has told us how to live and work and think and act. And it’s all the Bible. You probably own 2 or more if you’re reading this. Or you probably have a smartphone and can download a free Bible app right now. In many parts of the world today, we have no excuse for not reading the Bible because it’s so widely available.

The most precious gift I can give you or anyone else is encouragement to build a lifelong passion for studying God’s Word. My prayer for you is that these words from Martin Luther would be true of you:

“The Bible is alive, it speaks to me, it has feet, it runs after me, it has hands, it lays hold [of] me.”