The Bible simply calls them "Magi from the east," nothing more. Elsewhere in Scripture, the category of persons they represent is consistently condemned. Not so in this text. Why? The answer must lie in the underlying theme of Matthew's Gospel: Jesus is the King! He is the One whom the prophets foretold, the Restorer of His people, and the rightful Ruler of all the nations as well.
The coming of the magi, therefore, underscores a recurrent theme of redemptive history. The birth of Jesus the Messiah is a profound missionary event. God's global redemptive plan includes the gathering of the nations at the feet of His Anointed. The coming of the Magi is also a missionary event -- God's grace reaching out to the nations and drawing them to Himself through His Son. That the Gentiles, without first becoming Jewish proselytes, are included in the commonwealth of the redeemed is a mystery not yet revealed in the Old Testament (Eph. 3:2-6). The inauguration of that missionary expansion would await the events recorded in the New Testament book of Acts, but the anticipation of it is represented already in Matthew's nativity narrative by the coming of the magi.
We know very little about these magi. Many legends have grown up around them, but the biblical records tell us, or apparently imply, only a very few facts. Those facts must be important to our understanding of their role in the nativity story, recorded for us only in Matthew's Gospel. Matthew's narrative, set as it is within the larger framework of the Old Testament prophecies, silhouettes for us the mysterious visitors from a distant land.
First, the magi quite evidently were Gentiles who were apparently (and not surprisingly) unfamiliar with the full Jewish canon of Scripture. The chief priests and teachers of the law had to provide them with the missing clue to their search: the prophecy of Micah 5:2, which locates Messiah's birthplace in humble Bethlehem. Most likely they were from either Babylon or Persia, centers of their craft for millenia and the probable origin of the term "magi" itself.
Second, they were apparently persons of some wealth and status, indicated both by the costliness of their gifts to the Christ child and by their reception in Jerusalem. They merited an immediate and cordial audience with King Herod, the half-Edomite usurper king of Judea, whose reign the Jewish historian Josephus chronicles. Herod's genealogy, in contrast with Jesus' own, disqualified him from legitimate kingship over Israel, according to Mosaic law (Deut 17:14-15). Hardly surprising, therefore, is Matthew's statement that Herod was "disturbed" by their inquiry concerning "the one who is born [legitimate] King of the Jews." Given Herod's well-documented propensity for cruelty on a vast scale, we can well understand why "all Jerusalem [was disturbed] with him" (Matt 2:3).
Third, the profession of the magi involved them in searching for answers to ultimate human questions: purpose, meaning, and destiny of human history, as well as the relationship between human existence and the divine. They were, in a real sense, philosophers and theologians, probably highly educated, who were groping after God, but who knew that, without divine revelation, they were at a loss to discern His purposes. Augurers, soothsayers, and astrologers down through the ages have vainly sought to decipher the ways of God without a Word from God. Such humanly contrived approaches to divining the future were roundly condemned by Moses and the Hebrew prophets.
Yet, in contrast to the many idolaters and charlatans who practiced their craft, only these magi are treated with respect in the Scriptures. Why? Is there no connection, after all, between God's prophetic revelation in the Scriptures and His revelation of Himself through signs in the heavens and through dreams to these Gentile seekers, who then sought the Christ child in an attitude of worship?
Clearly, the Gospel record depicts the magi as searching intently for a particular sign in the heavens from the God of Heaven. Where did they learn of such a sign? Many pagan astrologers also looked for signs, but what they looked for led them away from God and into further idolatry (Jer 10:6-8). How then did these magi discern the true sign, so that they recognized it when they discovered it and could understand correctly its meaning? Their whole order did not converge on Jerusalem -- only they. They were likely a radical little band, a dissenting splinter group, whose way of thinking ran counter to the prevailing ethos of their guild.
We are not given an explicit answer to that question. Matthew, however, does leave us several possible hints. Those hints, in turn, take on a definite missionary direction.
These particular magi were looking for the "King of the Jews." Note that Matthew stresses the legitimate genealogy of Jesus by placing it at the very beginning of his Gospel. Jesus is presented as the descendant of Abraham (through whom God had promised to bless all the nations, cf. Gen 12:3), then of Judah (the scepter-bearing tribe, cf. Gen 49:10), and finally of David, Israel's greatest king of old (cf. Amos 9:11- 12). Matthew's Gospel concludes with the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. At His crucifixion, the sign written by Pilate summarizes the real reason for Jesus' conviction and death sentence: "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews" (Matt 27:37). Matthew actually ends his Gospel with the words of the risen, reigning Christ: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto me . . ." (Matt. 28:19).
Matthew clearly depicts the magi as the recipients of God's revelation through a sign in the heavens and, later, through a dream. Where else in Scripture do we find examples of God dealing so with Gentiles, and is there any connection with a "sure word of prophecy?"
In Matthew's narrative, Jesus' customary self-designation is "the Son of Man," a clearly messianic term, especially as used by the prophet Daniel. As the great moment of His substitutionary atonement for His people draws near, Jesus gives His "Olivet discourse" to His disciples, in which He reassures them of His continued sovereign control over history. In that discourse, Jesus Himself refers explicitly to "Daniel the prophet (Matt 24:15)." At his trial, the Sanhedrin convicts Jesus based upon His identification with "the Son of Man, coming on the clouds of heaven" (Matt 26:63-64). The reference clearly comes from Daniel's prophecy (Dan 7:13-14, 27).
A careful reading of the Old Testament book of Daniel reveals that Daniel, a Hebrew captive of noble blood, was taken to Babylon, where he had a long and distinguished life of public service under Babylonian and later Persian kings. He was also a faithful servant of Israel's God. Intriguingly, the Bible records that he was also appointed, perhaps unwillingly, to be in charge of all Babylon's wise men (Dan 2:48), apparently as the unwelcome head of their recently discredited order. The reluctant leader would never have been popular among the pagan pretenders who populated the guild. His name would have been slandered and effaced, insofar as they were able, by his idolatrous successors.
But it is not unlikely that his writings were preserved among at least a few archivists, as was their custom. A significant Jewish community still lived in Babylon in the First Century, in which case the inquiring magi may have had access, not only to the Aramaic (Chaldee) section of Daniel's prophetic writings, but to the Hebrew section as well. The recorded visions of God's accredited prophet, ignored by the guild he once titularly headed, could quite plausibly have been read--and believed--by the magi of Matthew's narrative. If so, we have no warrant to find in the account of the magi a missiological license to equate folk religions with alternative ways of finding Christ. Quite the opposite: Scripture, the written Word of God, is essential to the communication of the Gospel in the missionary task of the Church (John 20:21; Rom 10:12-17).
The gathering of the Gentiles to the feet of Messiah is a recurrent theme in the Old Testament (Isa 11:10, Zeph 3:9; Zech 2:11, 8:22-23 and 14:9; and Ps 72:8 & 17). "All kings will bow down to him, and all nations will serve him" (Ps 72:11). The ingathering of the nations is the destiny and mission of Jesus Christ (Isa 49:6), powerfully initiated at Pentecost (Acts 2). Matthew underscores that same theme, at the beginning of his Gospel, through the representatives of the wealth and wisdom of the nations: the magi.
At this season, as we remember the birth of our Lord, may we in our worship and response also recall that His coming is a missionary event. We need to let our neighbors next door, and in the next continent, know about it. That's why He came.
The magi could scarcely have suspected that the little King, at whose feet they knelt a year or more after His birth, would one day be executed as a state criminal. How much they eventually understood is not told us. But whether or not they knew, we certainly do. Jesus poured out His innocent life to pay the penalty of His people's sin. As an innocent man, He could be our substitute. As infinite God, He could fully satisfy the demands of God's justice. Raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of the Father, He reigns over history until He brings it to consummation. Through faith in Him, we are forgiven and are accepted into God's forever family, clothed in His righteousness alone.
That's good news. It absolutely must be shared. After all, if magi are welcome at the feet of Jesus, then so are we-- and so are those around us. Today, Christ still welcomes strange visitors, whoever they may be and wherever they come from. The Good News was never meant to be hoarded, any more than the gifts those wise men adoringly offered the Child of Bethlehem.
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Last updated 12-23-98.