Saturday, December 24, 2016

Some Thoughts on the Magi at Christmas Time

For much of my life I thought the account of the Magi who visited Jesus when He was a child was a nice story—a true story, but I did not think much about its significance. The mysterious travelers crossed my mind when we sang “We Three Kings,” put up our nativity set, or when I watched the TV special, Little Drummer Boy.

But according to Matthew 2, the account of the Magi has important kingdom implications. According to Matthew’s gospel, certain “magi from the east” arrived in Jerusalem (2:1) declaring, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him” (2:2).

Most scholars think the “magi” belonged to a priestly caste of astrologers from Persia. Many automatically think there were three of them, mostly because they brought three specific gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But we are not told their number. By the third century some in the Christian tradition believed they were kings. And in the sixth century names were attributed to them—Bithisarea, Melichior, and Gathaspa.

There are many questions about this mysterious group. They appear in the seventh century as a tribe within the Median nation. Daniel 4:9 and 5:11 appear to link the prophet Daniel with this group which may indicate how the Magi had knowledge of Israel’s coming King. As John MacArthur notes, “Because of Daniel’s high position and great respect among them, it seems certain that the magi learned much from that prophet about the one true God, the God of Israel, and about His will and plans for His people through the coming glorious King.” 

As they traveled to find Jesus, the Magi most probably journeyed with Oriental pomp and escort that could hardly be missed by those who crossed their path. But significantly, Gentiles from a faraway country were determined to travel a great distance and worship the One who would be King of Israel. This was not just some great wise man or philosopher they were seeking. They were coming to worship a King.

From a theological perspective, this was an early and important indicator that Jesus’ mission would extend beyond Israel to Gentiles and that people from faraway lands could find salvation in Him. This King of Israel will also be King of the entire world (see Zech 14:9), including this band of astrologers from Persia. This truth would challenge many Jews who were resistant to God’s kingdom extending to Gentiles (see Matt. 8:10-11). These Gentile astrologers from afar grasped what many inside Israel refused to see.

The Magi’s quest for the King intersected with another ruler, Herod, who viewed himself as king of the Jews. Their arrival in Jerusalem indicated that they expected to find the King in the city of David. When Herod heard of the Magi’s quest he was disturbed (2:3) and inquired more information from the chief priests and scribes. Relying quite literally on the OT prophet, Micah, we are told:

They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:
and you, Bethlehem, land of Judah are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; for our of you shall come forth a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (2:5–6).

The religious leaders of Israel viewed the coming King as a “ruler” over “Israel.” Herod certainly had this understanding, viewing the child-king as a threat to his political position. The religious leaders understood that the kingdom of Messiah would involve a political rule over Israel. No indication exists that the Jewish religious leaders were wrong in their understanding. The perception that the Messiah would be a political ruler over Israel is correct. Isaiah 9:6 predicted this: “the government will rest on His shoulders.” Of course, Jesus would be more than a political ruler. He would also be a Savior from sin. But these two concepts are not mutually exclusive. A savior from sin can also be a political ruler over nations. From our standpoint in history, Jesus became a spiritual Savior to all who believed on Him with His first coming, but a political rule awaits His second coming (Rev 19:15).

Herod expected the Magi to return back to him after visiting Jesus. After their encounter with Herod the Magi left and were guided by a star that took them directly to where Jesus resided (Matt. 2:9). They “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy,” and entered the house. They then saw Mary and fell to the ground to worship the child Jesus. Then the Magi presented Jesus the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt. 2:10-11). Significantly, when Jesus rules in His future millennial kingdom, the gifts of gold and frankincense also will be brought by the nations (see Isa. 60:6).

Unlike the wicked Herod, these Gentile travelers welcomed the King of Israel. After being warned by God in a dream, the Magi did not return to Herod but went back to their own country by a different way (Matt. 2:12). So not only did they come to worship the King, they obeyed God in protecting Him from harm.

The account of the Magi is an important reminder that the Messiah of Israel will bring blessings to all who will worship Him, including those outside of Israel. Many within Israel would miss their Messiah but this traveling band from the East did not.

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