Pastor’s Perspective – January 2018
The entire city was alight with the news of their coming. An invading army from the East had arrived at the gates of Jerusalem. Magi, emissaries of an ancient religious sect of magicians and astrologers had come to the city accompanied by a complete military attachment and with a cryptic message concerning a new born King of Jews. This was unwelcomed news to the current ruler of Jerusalem, King Herod the Great. King Herod, who was not Jewish but Idumean, was not pleased that these Parthian magi had spoken of a naturally born Jewish King, he was even less pleased that they spoke of a Messiah.
What was he to do with these men? Rome had been engaged in a war with the Parthians for nearly fifty years, and while every other border and strong hold fell to the superior strength of Rome, Parthia had yet to be conquered. Rome had relied on the fact that the Parthian seemed content to rule their own region, but what if this friendly visit heralded a future invasion through the claims of this new born king of Israel.
Herod found himself in an unfamiliar place. He could not rely upon his unique relationship with Rome to intimidate these Persians. These men would not be cowed by the threat of Roman force. Neither could he rely upon the great knowledge of his own wise men; his priests could barely answer the simplest of questions regarding the prophesied location of the coming Messiah. Why had his own priests not seen the star in the sky, or known of the signs of this new born King? How did the Parthians know more about the Jewish prophecies than his own priests and magistrates?
The answer to Herod’s questions could be found in the unique relationship that the Persians and their predecessors had with a Jewish prophet by the name of Daniel. Daniel was one of the Jewish royal princes who were taken captive by the Babylonians and removed from Jerusalem by force. Daniel was a man of great wisdom and character, who quickly rose in esteem and rank amongst the magistrates of Babylon. Daniel rose to prominence when the King had a dream that no one in the entire line of magistrates could interpret. The King’s fury was set against the magi and they all faced execution. The magi were saved when Daniel prayed to the God of the Jews and received the answer to the King’s dream. Daniel was elevated to the highest places of power in Babylon, and when Babylon fell to the Medes and then the Persians, Daniel maintained his place of authority by showing a supernatural ability to impress his rulers and survive palace intrigue.
By the time Daniel’s life was over he had become the leader of all the magi in the East. His words and prophecies were remembered and followed in the generations after his death. His prophecy of the coming King of Israel led the magi to pay attention to the dates and the stars, and when they all aligned, it was the magi (the disciples of Daniel) who knew what the star portended. It was not only the star that led them to Jerusalem in the time of King Herod the Great, it was also the words of their great leader; the Jewish prophet Daniel.
King Herod followed the best course possible. Delay and obfuscation. He attempted to use the magi for his own purposes. He allowed them access to the city of Bethlehem with the condition that they report back to him what they had found. This would give Herod all the information he needed to isolate and destroy the threat of the new born King of the Jews. That is why King Herod the Great allowed the magi entry into the heartland of Israel without as much as a spy in their midst.
The gospel of Matthew tells us that magi travelled to the house that Jesus lived. Unlike our traditional crèches, the gospel of Matthew does not tell us that the magi showed up at the manger to see a baby. In fact, they arrive at a house and visit a toddler who may have been as old as two. While the gifts were three in number, the number of magi is not determined by the text. We only know that there were more than one.
Like Herod our curiosity and our interests can prompt us to ask the wrong questions or emphasize the wrong concerns. We desire to know about the men and women whom we consider to be heroes of the story. The gospels however only consider One person to be the hero of the story. The gospels are not concerned with the biographies of the magi. The gospel writers want us to pay attention to Jesus. The writer of the gospel of Matthew puts more emphasis into the gifts than to those who would give them because Matthew sees Jesus as the one deserving our attention and praise. The story is about Him and the gifts that the magi bring are important because they tell us something about Jesus. It is the gifts that illuminate the prophecy that the magi are pursuing. It is the gifts that tell us what the magi see in this Messiah and what kind of King that they believe He was born to become.
It is the gifts that they bring to Jesus; gold, frankincense and myrrh, that tell us of His life and ministry. The gold is a fitting gift for a King. The frankincense a fitting gift for a priest. These are important recognitions from the magi that Jesus is both a King and a priest. Jesus is both an heir of King David and from the priestly family of his mother Mary. But why give the new born King myrrh? Myrrh is a balm used to anoint bodies after death. The magi seem to know something that even the disciples would try to deny. This new born Messiah would be both a priest and a King, but He would also be known as one who will die prematurely. They understood this from the words of their leader Daniel, who shared with them a prophecy of Seventy Weeks in which they were told that “After the sixty two weeks, the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing.” (Daniel 9: 26). They seemed to know that while Jesus was born to rule, His rule would be cut short by death. Rome may not have been able to conquer Parthia, but the power of Rome will someday cut off this new born Messiah.
Yet the story of the magi is not a gloomy or negative one. They live in the joyful promise that God has brought salvation to the world through His Anointed One. The story of the magi is a beautiful promise for those who find themselves dwelling outside of the people of God. There are many paths that claim to bring us to salvation and God’s glory, but few of us attempt to follow them. Few of us are truly looking for salvation, but the story of the magi tells us that those with their eyes on the stars and their hearts seeking God will hear God’s voice.
The magi are some of the most intriguing characters in the New Testament. They show up out of nowhere and then disappear into history just as fast. They are clearly believers in God, yet they are also pagan astrologers and sorcerers. They hear the word of God directly, yet they fade into the pagan world without another mention. The story of the magi reminds us that God is at work in places that we see as hostile to the gospel. The story of the magi tells us that God speaks to those whom God wants to speak to, regardless of whether they fit into out categories of faithfulness. The story of the magi tells us that God has a plan that exists outside of the people of God alone. God is indeed in charge of the entire world, not just the world that we control.
Our God is bigger than the Kingdoms that we control. Our God is at work to bring the whole of the earth to God’s grace and mercy. We must remember, like the priests in Herod’s court, that God does not need our permission to act and to save. Our job is to simply follow the word of God in our world today. To do the incredibly important small things that change the world around us. To be the powerful and nameless actors of God’s will in the world. To be the ambassadors of a new and curious Kingdom sent to call all people to follow God’s word and hear God’s voice. To be a new generation of Magi sent to bear witness to God’s presence and then fade into history leaving only the gifts that we share to remind the world of our presence.
Now let’s follow the North Star of Jesus Christ and make 2018 the year of our Lord.