Isaiah 60:1-9 * Eph. 3:1-12 * Matt. 2: 1-12
By Robert Hart
Special to Virtueonline
January 6, 2013
The most radical line to be uttered in the ancient world must have been the first of the Ten Commandments. "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me." It was completely out of the ordinary in the days when the peoples of the earth were expected to worship the local deities; in fact, for Israel to believe that their God was the only true God, and all others were vain, was as out of place amid the pagans of antiquity as a fervent expression of Nationalism would be out of place on the floor of the United Nations. To what degree any of the ancient pagans may have thought themselves to be refined and sensitive, the Israelites must have come across as ill mannered. And, since the Law and the prophets of Israel denounced the practices of some of the religions, such as child sacrifice, it was very clear that the Jews simply were not willing to change with the times, and that they were intolerant.
Furthermore, not only was the God of Israel considered to be the one and only true God to His own people, but the only true God at all. The phrase that is translated "before Me" is quite significant. The Hebrew expression isal peni, and it means "in front of my face." That might not be so bad for a local god that stayed within his boundaries; but this God had been in Chaldea with Abraham, called him into Canaan, went with the family of Israel into Egypt, and took them back to Canaan. Everywhere He went He was the ruler, showing no regard for the customs and religions of the people, and treating their idea of divinity as vain and silly. He judged the gods of Egypt in the plagues, even by putting out the light of their supreme deity, the sun. So, to have no other gods before Him, that is, in front of His face, the face of the God who is everywhere, is to make the judgment that only the people of Israel, believing in the One God who made Heaven and Earth, have the truth.
Syncretism was expected in the ancient world, a polite recognition of the various gods of the different places where nations settled. If nothing else, it was just bad manners to treat any religion as false, any god as a mere idol, and any practice as an abomination. Of course, when it became necessary to save mankind from the worst kind of paganism, the better kind came to the rescue; the Romans defeated the Carthaginian Hannibal whose army fought to spread the madness of child sacrifice everywhere. And, nowhere does this receive treatment that has better insight than in The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton.
But, even the Romans fell short of the Israelite standard, the worship of one and only one God, the maker of all things and judge of all men. They allowed the Jews to worship the God of their fathers only because He was the God of their fathers. They tolerated Jewish intolerance out of respect for its antiquity. But, they persecuted the Christians, using the excuse that they were rejecting the gods of their fathers and, more importantly, the worship of Caesar. And, even during the early days of the Christian Church, as recorded in the Book of Acts, the Emperor Claudius sought to banish all Jews from the City of Rome itself. The idea of any religion that could not take an equal place among the devotions to the various gods of the peoples was completely strange to ancient peoples everywhere.
Yet, what we know that the pagans of antiquity did not know, is that the revelation of God to man was a gift and the offer of salvation. Jewish monotheism was intolerant of the gods for the same reason that men of medicine are intolerant of folk remedies. The real trouble with all people everywhere is that two-sided coin of sin and death; so the intolerance of Judaism for idolatry was a necessary first step toward what would become the benevolent mission of the Church. Inherent in the first commandment of the Law of Moses is the Great Commission of the Risen Christ. "Thou shalt have no other gods in my presence-before my face" is echoed in the words, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. (Matt. 28: 19, 20)." It is expressed in the words of Saint Peter, "Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12)." Emmanuel, "in ancient times did give the Law, in cloud and majesty and awe," and now He stood risen from the dead to authorize the Church to go with His presence to all nations, going everywhere among fallen mankind and with all their gods before His face, to root up, pull down and destroy, and to build and to plant. Jesus Christ, after dying on the cross for the sins of the whole world, gave us our commission. He is the only salvation revealed by the only true God, Whom to know is eternal life (John 17:3).
This is the meaning of the wise men coming from afar to worship Him in His infancy. Any other kind of writing would have told us all about these men; where they came from, how large their company really was, and details about the route they took, and alternative route by which they returned. But, sacred scripture was composed by the Holy Ghost, and the focus in the Gospel of Matthew is on Jesus Himself. Therefore, all these interesting details about the Magi have become the study of modern historians and archeologists uncovering a mystery, because the Gospel had no space to give to such minor issues. It focuses attention on the salvation of God in the person of Jesus, and it tells His story. The Holy family's flight into Egypt and return to Galilee is given the space that follows, and the wise men - or Magi - simply disappear back to the place from which they came. But, their significance is not lost.
Their significance is taken up by Saint Paul in the Epistle we have heard today, about the Jews and Gentiles being made one new man in Christ, the middle wall of division broken down. We, that is those of us whose ancestry is from the Gentiles, are one with the people of Israel through faith in Jesus Christ. A gentile- that is, anybody who is not of Jewish descent- becomes grafted into the heritage of the people of God, made a child of Abraham by faith in Jesus Christ. The truth revealed to the apostles and prophets, as taught in today's Epistle is this: No Christian is a Gentile. When you were baptized you were taken out of your wild Gentile tree, and grafted into the cultivated tree of Israel.
It is a basic understanding of salvation itself, as Isaiah prophesied that the Root of Israel would grow and blossom and fill the earth, the same earth that is to be "filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isa. 27:6, Hab. 2:14)" that upon being made part of the Church, one becomes a part of the Israel of God. By faith Abraham is our father, the Lord is our God, and there is salvation in none other than His Son (Rom. 4:11, Acts 4:12). All of our beliefs are based firmly upon revelation, and not based on even the best speculations of the wisest of men.
The difference between revelation and imagination is the difference between the true God and every idol. Even the invisible idols of the mind, housed in the Arian speculations of Muslims and Unitarians of an unrevealed and lonely brand of monotheism, one that cannot possess the eternal attribute of love because it is alone, is an idol. A god who cannot be seen, touched, heard and even tasted, is the new kind of idol; for, "the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth (John 1:14)." Apart from this revelation of the Wholly Other uncreated God taking our time and space world into His Person; apart from the revelation of this invisible deity found in fashion as a man whose glory is beheld; apart from this unknowable God made known in the Person of the Incarnate Word, there is no salvation. There is no salvation in all of the other gods that men worship before His Face.
We have the Great Commission to spread the knowledge of the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent. Thou shalt have no other gods in front of His face, for neither is there salvation in any other. The name of Jesus is given under heaven among men, whereby we must be saved. Each of you, as a member of Christ's Body the Church, are called to take your part of this great work that Christ gave to His Church from the beginning, of which the prophets had spoken from the dawn of history.
Robert Hart is the rector of St. Benedict's Anglican Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, NC, a contributing editor of "Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity", and a frequent contributor to The Continuum blog.
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