Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Magi

Matt 2:1–12

The Magi

Historical Record

I suppose most of us have watched three little kids walk down the aisles in their bathrobes and paper crowns often enough that we don’t even wonder at this story of eastern sages visiting the Christ child after following a star. But the whole story ought to give us a bit of a pause. These guys weren’t prophets following the voice of God, they were eastern court advisers following a star.

Records of Jesus’ time abound with notes of messianic hope, and eastern sages were roaming the region examining these messianic mysteries, and mostly coming up with a lot of baloney. On the one hand, Jewish historian Josephus wrote that “one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 6.5.4). On the other hand, the Roman poet Virgil wrote his “Messianic Eclogue,” but this praised Caesar Augustus as “Savior of the World.” The first century a.d. Roman historian Tacitus wrote, “There was a firm persuasion… that at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers coming from Judea were to acquire a universal empire” (Tacitus, Histories, 5.13). The second century a.d. Roman biographer Suetonius wrote, “There had spread all over the Orient and old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judea to rule the world” (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian, 4.5).

That had sent the eastern magi on the prowl Seneca noted that magi had journeyed as far as Athens to sacrifice to the memory of the philosopher Plato (Seneca, Epistles, 58.31). Tiridates, King of Armenia, visited Nero in Rome and brought his magi along (Suetonius, Life of Nero, 13.1). So it should have been no real surprise that eastern astrologers might have their ears to the ground on this—or their eyes to the skies. They were expecting to hear of the birth of the world’s king.

But it is surprising to read in the New Testament that God helped them along. These magi were probably astrologers, which would normally lead us to identify them as charlatans at the least, and as occult agents at the worst. As court envoys from the east they would certainly have been trained not only in diplomatic protocol, but also in the occult studies that were in vogue in courts from Persia to Parthia. Extrabiblical tradition says they were from Persia, and Marco Polo named them as Baldassar, Gaspar, and Melchior and claimed to have seen the place where they were buried, “all three entire with their beards and hair.” So much for the historical record outside the Bible.

The Magi’s Worship

What is the significance of the magi in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth? They represent the kingdoms of this earth coming at the Nativity to pay homage to the Lord’s Messiah. They were paying fealty to “the king of the Jews” (Matt 2:2a), whom some thought would be the King of kings. These magis crossed Herod’s borders asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” Since Herod hadn’t brought his wife home from the maternity ward of Mount Sinai Medical Center, he quite naturally found this question a bit upsetting. These magi claimed, “We saw his star as it rose” (2:2b). Efforts to identify this astronomic phenomenon have all failed to develop a solid answer. Haley’s comet came through in 11 b.c., about five years too early. Besides, it would take some quick-stepping camels to follow that streak across the sky. Some refer to a brilliant convergence of Jupiter and Saturn around 7 b.c., which is a year or two early and would not have moved in such as way as to guide anyone anywhere. From 5 through 2 b.c. Serius, the dog star, kept showing up, but there’s no way to connect that with the magi either.

The magi may have bowed and scraped their way into Herod’s throne-room, but they said, “We have come to worship him”—not you (2:2b).

Herod’s Plot

The paranoid “King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this” (2:3). The very report of magi arriving from the east could have meant dangerous things afoot in the political realm. And these magi brought news of a potential rival to the throne of Judea. Was this some sort of intrigue against him that the Parthians were cooking up—after all, they were the Roman’s chief rivals for power in the region at that time. Maybe they were planning to throw their weight behind this “newborn king of the Jews”?

So Herod made some inquiries with his advisers, who pointed out that if there were any newborns who might claim the throne, they would have to come from David’s royal home town, as the prophet had foretold (2:4–6; see Mic 5:2). Herod ascertained the time that this birth must have occurred, and told him to go find that child and then report back to him so we could go and worship him too (2:7–8). Any wise men who believed that should have lost their “wise man” credentials.

The magi went on their way and stopped where the star indicated, in Bethlehem (2:9–11). They entered the palace where the holy family was living and “bowed down and worshiped” Jesus (2:11a). “Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts” (2:11b). Some gifts were gold, perhaps pointing to the royalty of this son of David. Some were incense, perhaps pointing to the divinity of this Son of God. And some were myrrh, perhaps point to the passion of the Lamb of God. Certainly all this fulfilled the psalmist’s promise: “The eastern kings of Sheba and Seba will bring him gifts. All kings will bow before him, and all nations will serve him” (Ps 72:10b–11).

Dreams and angelic visits were such a part of the Nativity story. “When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod,” although this certainly would have violated the normal diplomatic protocol (2:12).

What do we make of this? Two points come to mind:

God brought these pagans to the Messiah. 

God used what we would consider highly suspect means. He used a star. A Jew or an eastern sage could have seen this, but the magi would have interpreted it through the framework of pagan astrological omens. Notice that God also used an Old Testament prophecy, even though it was interpreted through the scholarly lens of degenerating Judaism. Matthew starts with this international tone and ends with the Great Commission to all nations (28:18). The story begins with a recrod of a Lord Jesus who is for all. Simple shepherds come to the birth site guided by angelic message; the religious elite who know by exegesis where the birth is won’t come. Pagan astrologers come to the birth site guided by their own astrological interpretation and borrowed Scripture interpretation; the religious elite who know by exegesis where the birth will be don’t come.

At the same time, Jesus was coming to his own but not being received. 

Today, much of the world is showing a new receptivity to the Word of God. At Jesus’ coming, the Scriptures were heard by two audiences, Jewish Scripture readers and pagan star readers. Ironically, it was the pagans who eagerly followed the Word once someone told them about it.

This story doesn’t teach us that God will meet the sincere seeker, no matter what their convictions might be. Some say, “God helps those who help themselves.” We will do better at understanding this story if we acknowledge that the magi sought Jesus Christ because God had already sought the magi. One commentator says, “The star, the people of God in Jerusalem, and their Holy Scriptures are the external means of grace used by God in bringing the magi to Christ” (F. D. Bruner). We should realize that anyone coming to Jesus Christ is coming at God’s bidding, whatever the means that God might use.

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • Note how useless the orthodox understanding of Scripture is if your heart isn’t prepared to respond to it in obedience and worship.
  • How will you reactd to the demands of the Messiah for worship. Will you set out an orthodox representation of those demands and then ignore them, or will you fumble your way to a flawed but sincerely stance of worship—will you be a disciple?
  • What will you do at the foot of the Christ-child this Christmas season? Will you truly celebrate Christmas by worshiping Jesus Christ; or will you profane it with mere celebration while you remain at the helm of your own fate. Will you bow the knew in obeisance to the King of kings and Lord of lords?

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