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The Story of the Magi (Matthew 2)

“Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?” the Magi asked, as they searched intently for Jesus. Which prophecy or event did they base their pursuit on? Was it the prediction of a messianic “star” arising out of Jacob (Numbers 24:17)? Did they fulfill Isaiah’s vision that “A multitude of camels … all those from Sheba shall come … bring[ing] gold and frankincense, and … good news, the praises of the LORD” (Isaiah 60:6)? Was it astrological constellations they had observed and somehow connected to a royal birth? The biblical text does not conclusively settle these intriguing questions. What we do know is that the Magi had prepared gifts to give to this newborn king: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And while they may have acted on the basis of written records and/or signs in the sky, they did so in a way that was ultimately beyond their ability to understand. As the first non-Jews to seek after and respond to the Messiah, they paid homage to the King of the Universe, our Savior, as they were directed providentially by a sovereign God.

As they arrived in Jerusalem after their long journey west from their distant eastern land (Babylon?), these Magi were summoned by Herod the Great, the father of Herod Antipas who later reigned in Galilee at the time Jesus was crucified. Herod deceptively tried to ascertain from the Magi at what time the star had appeared, eager to protect his own interests in fear another rival ruler would arise. After responding to the king’s feigned interest, the Magi continued on their way as the star directed them. With a measure of wisdom and fortitude they maneuvered the spiritual distractions that threatened to delay or detract from their pursuit of him. They were part of a conflict between two kingdoms as the kingdom of God invaded and asserted its claim on “lost humanity … [while] the kingdom of this world …  [fought] tooth and nail to stop it” (Kӧstenberger and Stewart, The First Days of Jesus, p. 50). They were led by God, a star, and an inner drive to offer fitting homage to this newborn king.

When, having travelled about 5 miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, they saw the star come to rest over the house “where Jesus was with his mother Mary,” “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” They were overwhelmed with immeasurable joy at the sign of his coming and at the fulfillment of the long-awaited sight and opportunity to worship him. For these foreign visitors, this was no academic, detached or distant experience. It was the consummation of much research, travel, and travail and likely an intense spiritual experience: “And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother and they fell down and worshipped him.” “Then … they offered him gifts.”

Who were these Magi commonly known as Wise Men, and how do we relate to them today? For one thing, there were not necessarily three of them. There were three gifts, but no mention is made as to their number. They were almost certainly not kings, and probably not even “wise” men. More likely, they were astrologers or magicians. What we do know is that they were “non-Jewish people who pledged their allegiance to Jesus as a King” through their worship and gifts and pursuit of him. In fact, the main point that is made in this narrative is that the scope of “the kingdom of this king was not going to be limited to Palestine” (Köstenberger and Stewart, The First Days of Jesus, p. 50). And we are invited to identify with the Magi and confronted with the question as to whether we will respond with worship and allegiance as the Magi did or with hostility and opposition like Herod, fearing the loss of our own “kingdom.” Or will we respond with apathy, as the Jewish leaders did (Carson, Matthew, EBC, rev. ed., p. 112)?

How will you respond: like the Magi, like Herod, or like the Jewish leaders?

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