On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Matthew 2:11 (NRSV)
As I read this whole episode in Matthew 2 about the magi who come from the East, I’m struck by the fact that they really have no reason to do this.
They are outside of Judea in some foreign land. By the practice of astrology, they see that a new king of the Jews is to be born. For some reason, this motivates them to come and pay homage. They are “overwhelmed with joy” when they find the birthplace (2:10). And they have brought rich gifts.
On our side of these events, this doesn’t raise much of a question. Of course the birth of Jesus is the biggest deal there is. Why wouldn’t people from other nations show up? We wonder why there aren’t more, and the absence of a large, powerful audience is marked up to the humility of Christ’s birth.
But if you think about it from a historical angle, a better question might be why anyone showed up at all. Do these magi just go around visiting kings? We know what the big deal of Jesus’ birth is to us, but what was it to them?
Part of that answer may be a theme that’s present in all the Gospels to some extent or another – the tendency of “outsiders” to recognize Jesus for who he is versus the tendency of his own people not to recognize this (or recognize it and get extremely upset). The Gospels are littered with these little stories about sinners, Gentiles, lepers, and even Roman soldiers recognizing and believing in who Jesus is and what he’s trying to do – all the while the vast majority of Israel is wildly unpredictable when it comes to this.
Another part of that answer might be political prudence. For instance, when the Maccabean revolt in 164 BCE threw off the Seleucids, some of them just kept right on fighting, expanding their territory into Perea in the East. Perhaps these magi from the East recognized that this king of the Jews could be capable of doing something similar. Perhaps they saw a second Maccabean-like revolt coming, and they wanted to be on good terms with this coming king, just in case. As we’ve seen, they showed up at the palace in Jerusalem, apparently unaware that being born “king of the Jews” meant anything other than what it said on the tin.
But thinking about why these foreign emissaries would even care about Jesus’ birth leads me to consider why anyone, including myself, should have cared outside first century Jews longing for the restoration of Israel.
As we deal with this question, we need to be aware that we’ve also inherited something our Greco-Roman theological forefathers did: discard all the Jewish theology, history, and concerns and make the story about something more relevant to a non-Jewish world: a cosmic clash between good and evil / God and Satan, the eternal destination of my immortal soul – themes that transcend the historical particulars of the Gospels. If you do this, both I and the magi have a reason to care because the story of Jesus isn’t about the deliverance and restoration of Israel; it’s about the spiritual welfare of all mankind and/or the victory of Good in the cosmos.
But in doing that, they may have left behind some important truths that need dusting off. Those narratives given to us by those early Hellenistic theologians are narratives that came sort of late in the game compared to the history of interpretation that came before them. The New Testament portrays even the inclusion of the Gentiles as a radical, new period in the history of God’s people, so it’s hard to say that Jesus’ immediate significance to Matthew at the time would have had such abstract, far reaching borders.
And yet, the magi come and pay homage. And yet, the Roman solider asks for healing. And yet, the Samaritan woman tells everyone the Messiah has come. Why do they do this? Why should I do this?
In the Old Testament, the restoration of Israel is good news for everybody. It is Israel’s mission to be a blessing to the Gentiles as well as guides leading them to worship of the God who made the heavens and the earth. The end of the Old Testament views the ideal situation for the world being Israel under a faithful king ruling the rest of the nations in benevolence. The nations get to enjoy good lives under a good kingdom in a peaceful world, and they are reconciled to the true God from whom they have been separated for so long.
As we look at these errant outsiders in the Gospels, they have different reasons to hope for this future, but they are all united in the sense that they all get something out of it. Jesus completing the messianic and eschatological hopes for Israel means something good for them, whether it is the end of their persecution by Israel’s persecutors (or Israel, herself), the chance for true worship of the true God, healing for their families, the end of war – whatever it is.
But the radically new innovation that comes about specifically because of Jesus Christ is that the dividing lines between Jew and Gentile are torn down as far as God is concerned. Gentiles in Acts receive the same promised Holy Spirit that Jews receive, even though the Holy Spirit was never promised to them, much to the astonishment of the Jewish apostles. Gentiles prophesy in YHVH’s name. Gentiles naturally start doing the things the Torah requires even though they have never heard a single verse of the Torah. Gentiles become heirs of the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And why is this? Because the dividing wall of commands and ordinances has been torn down in the death of Jesus to make one nation out of the two (Eph. 2:11-16).
What does this mean? It means that Jesus reconciles both Jews and Gentiles to a God they have strayed from. It means that both inherit the promises, mission, and destiny God gave our forefathers in the desert. It means that the new creation is for all of us, and the great gospel to the Gentiles in the first century was: if you will forfeit your allegiance to the powers that God opposes and ally yourself to king Jesus, you will escape the judgment coming on those very powers. You will be treated as the oppressed, not the oppressors. You will be delivered, vindicated, and rewarded regardless of your past actions. Everything the kingdom of God has to offer is yours, even though you have come to it so late.
And this is why I care about the birth of Jesus. Because of him, I can be reconciled to a God that my forefathers left (or possibly never knew) millennia ago. Because of him, the promises are for me. Because of him, I am part of God’s great dream for the world – to fill it with His image. Because of him, I can wait for the new creation with joy even as I work to present that new creation now in my present circumstances.
I don’t need to make Jesus’ story be about me. I can find my story in his.
- If “going to Hell” were no longer a factor, would you still follow Jesus? What would Jesus mean to you without the threat of Hell?
- What does it mean for you, personally, and your church, corporately, to be the inheritors of Israel’s mission in the world? What are the ways you can be a blessing and a light to the world around you?