Who is Jesus? Perhaps that is an easier question to answer than “Who were the magi?” They seem to be misfits to the story of the birth of Jesus. Their late arrival on the Jerusalem and Bethlehem scene doesn’t place them either in the birth story or at the manger.
“After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route” (Matthew 2: 9-12).
Scholars do not know who these magi were. Some believe they traveled from as far as India. Others suggest Persia (Iran). Many believe that they were from Yemen or Saudi Arabia. Still others are convinced that they were Nabateans from the area of Petra in Jordan. Their place of origin is for the curious to ponder. Their place in the story is both perplexing and significant.
It is perplexing that Matthew is the only writer to note their appearance. Matthew’s primary audience was the Jewish community. The magi were not Jewish.
The magi were astronomers or astrologers. Believers might find it disconcerting for astrologers to show up in the birth story of Jesus. We shouldn’t be concerned. Our God is the maker of heaven and earth. He set the stars in place, the planets in their orbits, and ordered the constellations. In Genesis 49, Jacob’s blessing on his sons use language of the constellations. The mosaics on ancient synagogue floors included depictions of stars, planets, and constellations. God is Lord of all creation.
We do not know the belief system of the magi. Ancient people believed that heavenly signs marked great events, including the birth of kings, times of coronation, and victories in battle. Roman emperors were said to time their coronations with events like an eclipse as a sign to the people of their deity.
While we do not know these magi or even how many there were, we do know this. They traveled a great distance. They came because God’s handiwork revealed to them that the King of kings was born. And regardless of their belief system, they showed up to worship the newborn king.
We know this too. The magi were gentiles. And that is significant!
It took a long time for the followers of Jesus to come to grips with the place of gentiles among them. Peter saw a vision and figured it out. Paul argued with the Council of Jerusalem as to whether gentiles had to be circumcised and become practicing Jews.
It is both perplexing and understandable that Jews had a gentile problem. It is understandable, because God chose a people and gave them the Torah to live by. It is understandable that Jewish believers were troubled by the thought of non-Jews not becoming Torah observant.
It is also perplexing. The largest court of the Temple itself was the Gentile Court. It was the area from which Jesus expelled the money changers and declared with the words from Isaiah, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
During his ministry, Jesus fed five thousand in the land of the chosen people and four thousand in the land of the gentiles.
The question was never, “Can gentiles be among the people of God?” The question was, “Do gentiles have to believe and practice Judaism to be included in the family of God?”
Among the people in the birth story are the chosen people in Bethlehem, the poor and outcast nomadic shepherds, and the gentile magi. It is quite a diverse collection of people. They are symbolic of God’s plan. The Savior was born into the world.
Who is Jesus to the Magi? He is God’s Son. He is Messiah for all people of the world. It doesn’t matter what background the Magi came from, because they came to the Savior, were welcomed there, worshipped, and left believing.
We are called to lead. “Make disciples,” he said. Don’t judge the credential and backgrounds of those who are seeking him. Welcome them and lead them to the Messiah, where they may choose to believe.
Devotionals are written by Jeff Blamer, Vice President of Member Services