(Continuing in our pre-Christmas series through Matthew chapters 1 and 2, focusing on the Old Testament background. Read Matt 2:1-12.)
This is a very familiar story – the Magi coming to worship the infant Jesus, bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. An overly familiar story. To the point where we often gloss over some of the questions it raises.
What are astrologers doing as the ‘good guys’ in a Bible story?
The first question that comes up for me is, what are astrologers doing as the good guys in a Bible story? We kind of avoid the issue by using the term ‘Magi’ or ‘wise men from the East’. They were astrologers – they read the stars! They were probably from Persia, then the astrology capital of the world, and were in the tradition of those diviners mentioned in the book Daniel. They probably had their own columns in Babylon’s TV Week, advising that this week will be an exciting time for Scorpios, with new love on the horizon, but beware of a stampeding herd of camels that may ruin your day.
How did a star tell them about Jesus? We don’t have an answer to that. Since Daniel’s time the Persian magicians had come into contact with Jews, which continued after the return from exile – so that’s probably how they heard about the promised King of the Jews.
There are various theories about the star – a comet, a supernova, UFOs… who knows? What does seem to be the case, even though it may challenge our view how God works, is that without condoning it, God graciously allowed the Magi to be led to Jesus through their astrology. It’s similar to the way God used the dreams of a pagan like Nebuchadnezzar to communicate with them – meeting people where they are.
Why did Matthew use the story of the Magi?
The question is, though, why did Matthew put the story of the Magi in, whereas Luke left it out? The answer seems to lie with the fact that the Magi were Gentiles.
You may have wondered why the Magi became ‘we three kings’ – it’s because early on in Christian tradition, the Magi became associated with OT prophecies such as Ps 72, a psalm about the David’s son Solomon, and ultimately about the Son of David, Jesus the Messiah: (v10-11):The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him; the kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts. All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him.
Combine this with Isa 60:6 and it sounds very Magi-like:all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.
The Magi very early on became associated with OT passages like this talking about kings and nations serving the Messiah, bringing their gifts.
This continues: every year, the British monarch (or these days, her sergeant-at-arms) symbolically offers gold, frankincense and myrrh at the altar of St. James’ palace – supposedly as a reminder that all kings and kingdoms are subject to Christ.
There has been a history of European monarchs depicting themselves as the Magi, the three kings. This painting (left) by Botticelli was commissioned by Lorenzo Medici in the fifteenth century to paint the Medici family as the three kings. But Botticelli couldn’t resist putting himself in the picture, as one of the crowd.
While this seems – and probably is – egotistical, in doing this they seem to have captured the point of the story. We are the Magi. We are ‘all the nations’ to whom salvation has been given, and who have been called to worship Jesus.
There are two reasons it is significant for Matthew’s readers, and for us. Firstly, the OT spoke of the days when salvation would come to the Gentiles, and they would worship God. It’s to show the legitimacy – from an OT point of view – of the Christian church being made up of people from all nations. This church is the true people of God. Secondly, as the true people of God it’s our task to bring in the nations. The climax of Matthew’s gospel, after all these little hints of the Gentiles finding God, is the great commission: therefore go and make disciples of all nations.
Why did the Magi bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh?
Do you get the feeling that the Magi weren’t all that experienced in buying baby-presents? That maybe their wives weren’t involved in the process, and they left it until the 7-eleven on the outskirts of Bethlehem to buy something?
And how about the idea that myrrh, used for embalming, prefigured the crucifixion – ‘Hi Mary, Joseph, congratulations on your new baby boy, we’d like to give you this little reminder of his impending death.’
In fact, myrrh in the OT most commonly symbolised joy – Ps 45:8:All your robes are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia; from palaces adorned with ivory the music of the strings makes you glad.
All three gifts were ‘fit for a king’ – that’s the point of them. The Magi came to acknowledge Jesus as king. Representing ‘the nations’, they brought tributes to King Jesus.
This is the message to Matthew’s readers, and to us: Jesus is King, and should be acknowledged as King by everyone. Once again, we are the Magi. We are called to acknowledge Jesus as King – to bring him tribute.
This Christmas do we – like the British monarch – need a reminder about acknowledging Jesus as King? Do we need to place ourselves with the Magi in bowing before Jesus? And what tribute are we to bring? What gifts can we give to show that Jesus is our King?
The answer is us – our whole self. Will you commit yourself again to follow Jesus wholeheartedly this coming year? To offer every part of your life to him? In whatever you do, to seek to glorify him?
To think about
What are some practical ways in which we can give ourselves completely to Jesus? I want to challenge you to with one suggestion, in the area of how we think about our time. It’s something that I find helpful – those times I actually manage to think this way, because it’s hard.
This year, try not to think of your time as yours – not, here’s 100% of my time as a big pie chart, I divide it up, and work out how much I can afford to give to God. Try thinking about it the other way around – that you’ve already given yourself completely to God, and that includes your time. Start off with 100% as belonging to God, and view every bit you spend as borrowing it back from him.