In our house, we are pretty traditional when it comes to the timings of what happens at Christmas. Decorations don’t go up until Christmas Eve and they don’t come down until 6 January. This is the traditional date for ‘Epiphany’ – the end of Christmas (the ‘Twelfth Night’). Christmas is left behind with Matthew’s final story of the Gospel infancy narratives – the coming of the Magi from the east to pay homage to new-born King Jesus. That Herod sets out to kill young children up to the age of two (Matthew 2.16) shows that this event may have happened at some distance in time from Jesus’ birth.
It is well known that the Magi weren’t kings and that there weren’t three of them. In some of the churches closest to where they came from (what we now call Iraq), there are traditionally twelve Magi. There were three gifts, of course. Despite the opening line, the carol We Three Kings is right on the mark with its rendering of the significance of those three gifts. Three verses of the carol (one for each ‘king’) nail it with the brevity that sometimes only poetry can manage: ‘Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain/Gold I bring to crown him again/King forever…’; ‘Incense owns a deity nigh… Worship Him God most High’; ‘Myrrh… bitter perfume/Breathes a life of gathering gloom/Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying/Sealed in the stone cold tomb’. The three gifts correspond perfectly to the titles of Jesus in the infancy stories: Messiah – the Anointed King (Matthew 1.18; 2.2, 6); Emmanuel – God with us (Matthew 1.23); and Jesus – ‘God saves’ (Matthew 1.21, 25).
Three gifts then, not three gift-bearers. And not kings but ‘magi’, a word hard enough to translate that it’s probably wise not to bother. It’s close to our word ‘magic’ and some translations unhelpfully render it ‘astrologers’. Today ‘astrology’ summons up images of a smiling face from the tabloids or online of some dispenser of vaguely zodiac-based fortune-cookie folk wisdom. ‘Your destiny is in the stars.’ Sometimes astrology means something much darker. The story of the Magi is no endorsement of modern ‘astrology’ in any of its forms.
The line between astrology and astronomy was narrower in the ancient world. For thousands of years until TV and light pollution blotted out most of it for most of us most of the time, the great revolving light show in the sky provided a night-time canvass of wonders for all to see. The careful centuries-long Babylonian records of celestial observations were key to the development of modern astronomy. The Magi simply assumed that what happened in the heavens was related to what happens on earth. They watched the stars. They saw a rising star (a phrase we still use). They sought out its meaning. They made the journey. They made enquiries. They made their way to Jesus. And they made off quietly.
But the story of the Magi is really part of an important Old Testament theme that I have hardly ever heard even mentioned at Christmas. I have never heard it preached on or sung about at a carol service. Never ever. Maybe it’s just the circles that I move in.
That biblical theme is usually called the Pilgrimage of the Nations. It is a ‘return from exile’ theme scattered across the prophets. The details vary in different texts but the core idea is always the same: when God saves his people, not only will he gather Israel, he will vindicate her in sight of all nations. He will glorify his people and exalt Jerusalem, then the nations of the earth will come and offer their worship to the creator of the world, to the God of Israel in Jerusalem. It is not always really clear when nations and rulers come in pilgrimage whether they are converting, submitting, enquiring or just admiring God and his people. But they benefit, and God is exalted.
Here are two examples: Zechariah 8 says that after God has given Israel the joy of returning to Jerusalem: ‘Peoples shall yet come… inhabitants of many cities… Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem… ten men from the nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying: ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard God is with you’.
More famous is Isaiah 2: ‘In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many people shall come and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the House of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’
The coming of the Magi is a partial fulfilment of this ‘inclusion of the nations’ in the destiny of God’s people. And since the word ‘nations’ can also be translated ‘gentiles’ – it points forward to the inclusion of people from every tribe and language in the salvation that God offers in Jesus.
It is most obvious that this is the central point of the Magi story when we read in Isaiah 60.1-6: ‘Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you… his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn… the wealth of the nations shall come to you… they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.’ With this prophecy from Isaiah of kings coming and the bringing of gold and frankincense we can see where the kings pop up in place of the Magi in Christmas carols (it’s not such a silly mistake after all!).
When the Magi come it is precisely not to a city (Jerusalem) but to a person – Jesus. It is the Lord Jesus that they come to, and his glory that they acknowledge, and him that they worship. The Magi model our own bending of the knee to Jesus as Saviour and Lord and we see in them the model of God’s promise that the gentiles will come to the Light when it shines. We see in them a model of our own bending of the knee to Jesus as Saviour and Lord.
Matthew’s Gospel is mainly focussed on the ministry and mission of Jesus as Messiah to Israel (See Matthew 10.5, 23). But both here at the beginning with the Magi, and then with the Great Commission at the end (Matthew 28.19), the benefit to all nations of what God has done in Jesus is signposted. And you and I are the beneficiaries of that extraordinary revelation.