Today we jump back into the Gospel of Matthew to look at his most famous Christmas story: the coming of the Wise Men/Kings/Magi. We’ll take on the first section of this story today (up to their arrival in Bethlehem) and try to unravel the mystery of their identity. And as usual, we’ll consider the implications of the story with regard to both the hopes of ancient Israel and for our participation in God’s work today.
Daily Reading: Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 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.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘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.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
#1: The “Wise Men” are bad guys.
There’s all sorts of confusion about who these visitors from the East are. Are they “wise men”, “kings” or “magi”? In short, they were astrologers, diviners or sorcerers (the Greek here is magos, like mage in English) who served the kingdoms and empires who oppressed Israel. Therefore, magi is the most helpful translation, as these are not just guys who gave good advice and certainly not kings themselves. These are pagan magicians, and if you were a devout Jew who lived anytime from the fall of Jerusalem until the coming of Jesus you would have known that the “magi” were the bad guys. They were akin to the Egyptian magicians who opposed Moses (Exodus 7:11) in the exodus story, and in more recent history they were the guys who did all they could to get Daniel killed when he was living in exile in Babylon (see Daniel chapters 3 and 6). And they served the kings of Babylon, who destroyed Jerusalem and exiled the Israelites. So . . . what on earth are they doing coming and bowing down to Jesus?! We’ll come back to this in a bit!
#2: Nativity time-warp.
This is a small point, but I have to make it: the Magi are not at Jesus’ birth. They do look cool in the nativity scenes, but they didn’t quite make it in time. Also, there is no reason to believe there were only three of them . . . people just think that because there were three gifts named by Matthew.
#3: Watching and Hoping?
It is striking that three pagan sorcerers/astrologers were watching for Jesus’ birth, yet his own people missed it. Note this point: the priests and scribes were aware of the prophecies, they are the ones who tell the Magi, but they didn’t see the star which pointed to their fulfillment. Perhaps they weren’t looking for fulfillment of the prophecies! This reminds me of Zechariah, in that they were still faithfully holding their posts but they didn’t actually expect God to act, and so they were unprepared to respond when he did. They were doing their duties perhaps, but had lost their hope. Again, God is faithful to his promises, and the characters are given the chance to respond. Whether they respond well or not appears to depend on whether they retained their hope in God.
#4: Mission Accomplished.
The Magi are a model, or a preview, of what God will accomplish through Jesus and the Apostles. They are people who would be considered well beyond the boundaries of God’s people, whose eyes were opened by the sign they saw (the star). They responded in faith to this sign, and were ultimately led to Jesus. When they arrived they recognized Jesus as king, and bowed down before him. This led to them being sent home by a different route, which is perhaps a symbol of a new life for them and definitely a rejection of the false king Herod. (Note the social and political nature of their repentance; they run a risk by spurning Herod!). In this brief story we see God’s work through Jesus in a nutshell. Note also that this story hints that Israel will be reconciled to its foreign opponents not by defeating them, but by their being called to join into God’s work!
#5: God’s work defies expectations!
We’ve been down this road before! If we step back for a second, and set aside our familiarity with this story it should surprise us. The Magi, who are enemies of the people of Israel, violators of the Mosaic law (the whole sorcery thing), pagan worshipers and astrologers, are the first people in the Gospel of Matthew who recognize Jesus as king and faithfully offer their service to him! That’s crazy! And theoretically they traveled a heck of a long way to get there, which was again, expensive and dangerous. And please note that they don’t repent of being Magi before they get to Jesus; they arrive still very much outside the boundaries of respectability!
This story should really give us pause. It should challenge any snap judgments that we make about who God can or will use, whose life God is working in, who can worship God properly, and who we ought to listen to. God is no respecter of our boundaries when it comes to who he will work in, through and with. This raises a question for us: how quick are we to determine whose life God is at work in? How do we make this judgment?
My challenge for us today is stop making these judgments altogether. This story suggests that God can be at work in anyone’s life even if it doesn’t appear to us on the surface. So, at least for the rest of this Advent season, let’s start assuming that we’re not qualified to make this determination, and instead ask God to show us how he’s at work in the lives of the people that he puts in front of us to love and serve!