One day, out of nowhere, well-dressed men wearing expensive suits and dark sunglasses get out of Mercedes limos in a massive motorcade. They walk up to you asking, “where is he? Show us where he is.”
This, recast in 2017 garb is the story of the Magi. We think we know what it’s all about. But sometimes familiarity is the enemy of understanding. Do we know what the story means? Or shall we keep putting it in Christmas programs without actually getting it?
Who were they?
The word, of course, is magi—magician or astrologer. Most of us recognize that we don’t how many of them came—three is only a guess based on the gifts and a lot of late tradition. More important than the number is to recognize this as a diplomatic entourage. It’s probably better to imagine an entire retinue, complete with servants, cooks, porters, supplies and more, rather than three individuals walking up by themselves.
That’s because the word refers to scholars / government rulers coming from the region of Persia or old Babylon. Think of the “Chaldeans, magicians, astrologers” etc. that keep on appearing in the book of Daniel (Dan 2:2; 3:8; 4:7; 5:11). That’s the kind of person you should imagine—someone on the upper crust of society; the proverbial talking-head expert on the evening news; a government advisor that sits on the President’s cabinet.
Are they star-gazers? Of course. But not just that. New sky-watching events happen from time to time, but it doesn’t usually make people leave their homelands and travel hundreds of miles searching for a child born as king. Something else is going on. They must have had some other kind of help—some kind of guidance to point them to Bethlehem and the grand prophecy. How would that have happened?
What is the point of the gifts?
There’s a long history of interpreting the gifts as symbolic—gold acknowledging Him as king, frankincense recognizing Him as divine, and myrrh anticipating His death.
But the truth is that we simply don’t know that and can’t prove it. Here’s what we can say. These gifts were expensive. They are extreme luxury items that tell us something about the wealth of status of the Magi. But more importantly it shows us how they view this child. They are on a diplomatic mission. He may be only a toddler, but they are convinced that He is a ruler more notable than Herod or Pontius Pilate.
And that points to something important. The Old Testament repeatedly tells us that Gentile kings will come from afar bringing gifts to the Messiah. “Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising. The wealth of nations shall come to you… they shall bring gold and frankincense” (Isa. 60:1-6; see also Psa. 72:10–12; 110:3). Even in the future, we read that “they will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations” (Rev. 21:24-26). In other words, the point of this is that it’s already starting! The promises about the Messiah have arrived because Gentile kings are bringing their treasures and laying them at His feet!
How did they know where to come?
But the most remarkable piece of the puzzle is asking why the Magi came to Palestine in the first place. The simplest answer is that they received a special revelation. But three passages stand out.
- The earliest is Numbers 24:17 from the mouth of another Gentile—Balaam. Looking down on Israel, he predicts that in the distant future “a star shall come out of Jacob,” a king who will rule over the world.
- Much later, Isaiah tells us that “the light has come” for Israel when the Lord will arise there “and nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isa. 60:1-3).
- And if a scholar-king was paying attention, it was possible to know the timing of Jesus’ coming. Daniel 9:24-27 gave a time frame, predicting the number of years until the Messiah would arrive.
But these were Gentiles. Is it plausible that they have access to these documents and are paying attention? Remember that a huge number of Jews were held as refugees in this very region of the world. Read the record of Daniel, Esther or most clearly Ezra 1:1-4, and you discover Gentiles quite aware of God’s words. You also discover faint hints that people came to know Israel’s God.
Which takes us to the last thing we should observe about this story—the irony of Gentiles accepting the Messiah while Herod and those around Him miss it. The Magi have come “to worship Him.”* They believe that this baby was “born as king of the Jews,” not forcing His way into it like Herod did. They even believe that this baby has his own star (Matt. 2:2).
Herod, meanwhile recognizes that this is all about the Messiah (his own words in v. 4) and the scribes can give the right answers from Scripture (born in Bethlehem). But only the wise men went to worship Him. Herod was more concerned about how to murder Him first.
And so the grand irony of the story is that the unexpected ones came to worship Him—Gentile aristocracy, coming against all odds, very possibly based on their careful attention to revelation given to the Jews. And the Jewish nation itself missed the obvious. “He came to what was rightfully belonged to Him, but His own people rejected Him” (John 1:11).
This Christmas season, lots of people will see nativities and hear the familiar stories, until once again the words carve a deep rut in our memories and traditions. But only the truly wise will get the point. The story of the magi calls all of us to be not only recipients, but faithful students and lovers of the truth. This year, read His words, come, bring rich gifts, and worship Him.
* I recognize that “worship Him” could simply refer to they’re acknowledging Him as king, such as in Matt 18:26. But there seems to be something much more significant going on. Did they do this for Herod? For Pilate? Was this really protocol for every king? The gifts, the “exceeding joy” in v. 10, the fact that they were looking for another king besides Herod, and the redundant verbs in v. 11 (first they “fell down;” then they “worshipped Him”) all point to something far more than just a strictly diplomatic mission.
Photo by Zach Dischner. Creative Commons 2.0 Generic license.