In Matthew 2, verse 1 ends by saying that wise men from the east came to Jerusalem.
The ESV says wise men. The Greek word that it comes from is magi, if you’ve ever heard that term.
They’re basically astrologers and astrology was respected in the ancient Roman world.
The text says that they came from the east. That’s probably referring to either Persia, or Arabia, or Babylon.
These wise men came from somewhere where they clearly had some familiarity with Jewish beliefs and Messianic expectations.
But, and this matters, they themselves are not Jewish.
Also – for the record – the Bible never says that there were three of them.
It seems most likely that the number comes from the three gifts they bring of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The text says that the wise men came to Jerusalem. That makes sense. That would be an obvious starting palace if you’re looking for the Jewish messiah. Jerusalem had been the capital of the promised land.
Before they leave Jerusalem in search of Bethlehem, Herod requests that they let him know when they find the young Jesus.
7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”
When I read the story and Herod tells the wise men to let him know when they locate Jesus so that he too may worship him, I imagine the music in the soundtrack turning more sinister. Herod has no desire to worship Jesus. It’s a ruse.
I think of the big bad wolf dressing up as the grandmother of Little Red Riding Hood. I think of Ursula the Sea Witch pretending to care about Ariel in the Little Mermaid.
Herod is lying.
So the wise men depart for Bethlehem.
9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.
Keep in mind that the wise men are not Jewish.
They’re pagan astrologers.
And with that, let’s zoom out of the story for a moment.
The wise men in Matthew
When we read any Biblical account that’s associated with Christmas, there are different aspects of the story that are embedded in our culture.
It’s part of the story that the baby was born at an inn and laid in a manger, and that the wise men followed a star and came to him.
And with the idea of the wise men, it’s so embedded into our understanding of the Christmas story, it’s such a normal part of the story to us that I don’t think we consider how utterly bizarre it truly is.
You have pagan mystics who are the first ones to seek out newborn Jesus.
Matthew tells us about the wise men. And we see them nowhere else in the New Testament.
It’s not like when Jesus does his first miracle, there are wise men who are led to that place. It’s not like when Jesus is at the cross, there are wise men in the crowd. It’s not like when the disciples find the empty tomb on the first easter, that a star leads wise men from the east to the tomb.
But they’re the first ones on the scene when Jesus is a newborn?
Astrology is pretty clearly forbidden in the Old Testament.
Deuteronomy 4:19 says: And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.
Deuteronomy 18:10-12: anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer 11 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, 12 for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you.
Yet, here we have wise men on the scene.
Why does Matthew say there were wise men?
Couple of reasons.
First, given that astrology is so strongly forbidden in the Old Testament, and continues to be frowned upon in the New Testament, I think that Matthew mentions the appearance of the wise men because it really happened.
Why on earth would you make that up?
But there’s another very important reason for the wise men in the story.
The wise men and the mission of God
The first people Matthew records seeking Jesus, finding Jesus, giving reverence to Jesus are non-Jewish pagans.
We take the idea of the three wise men. We see it depicted in nativity scenes. It’s a quaint Christmas image.
But what Matthew is once again doing is showing that Jesus is for the whole world. The gospel that Jesus brings is for the whole world. The light that Jesus gives is given to the whole world.
Even for pagans who don’t come from Israel and who have practices that would be looked at as sinful. Jesus is for them too.
There will be Jewish people we get to in this section who are oblivious, apathetic, or even hostile to Jesus coming into the world. They’re the ones you’d expect to recognize their coming king and Messiah. But instead, it’s the outsiders.
This will also foreshadow two things: Jesus being rejected by Jewish leaders when he is sent to the cross, and Jesus’s global mission when he sends his followers into the world to fulfill the Great Commission.
And that’s important because what matters is that they’ve come to seek Jesus. And a person can always seek Jesus just as they are. You don’t clean yourself up and then go in pursuit of Jesus. You don’t get all of your moral ducks in a row and then go and look for Jesus.
Jesus meets us as we are. And we to come to him, to know him, to love him, and to believe in him. And when a person does come to know Jesus, it is such a dramatic and impactful relationship that the person who truly knows him is changed by him and can never be the same.
We see the reverence they have for Jesus at the end of the passage.
11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.
Again, probably different than how we think of worship. It’s probably more along the lines of prostrating themselves before a royal figure, but they give that homage to Jesus.
The gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh might seem like od gifts to bring to a baby.
My wife and I just had a baby. Those weren’t on our registry.
But think of them as less gifts for a baby and more gifts for a king. When heads of state visit today, it’s customary to bring gifts.
Gold is universally valued. Frankincense and myrrh are resins which can be used in perfumes.
Those were the gifts the wise men brought to Jesus.
The gift that Jesus reciprocated with is the gift of eternal life.
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