When the Gospel writer Matthew introduces us to the Christmas story, he builds it around five successive vignettes. Each carries its own unique message, and the collective of all five then broadcasts an even larger set of themes. The first vignette is built around the genealogy of Jesus (I did a pair of blogs on that here and here). The second vignette is built around the importance of the virgin birth (here).
The third vignette represents what seems like a big shift for Matthew (and from a personal standpoint, is the most intriguing Christmas image of all). The first two themes from chapter 1 are both familiar within the Christmas narrative: the importance of inclusion; the centrality of grace; the incarnation of Christ; and the love of God. But in this third vignette Matthew moves into really interesting territory. As we turn the page to chapter 2, Matthew appears to head in a new direction with his telling of the Christmas tory. It begins with an introduction of the “Magi” (or the group that is often referred to as the “wise men”). This is the only place in the Bible where we learn of their role in the Christmas narrative:
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’” (Matthew 2.1-2)
A big part of Matthew’s purpose in the writing of his Gospel account is to show his fellow Hebrews how Jesus fits into the larger historical frame of the Jewish story. The Christmas narrative is a huge part of that. It begins with a historical genealogy in chapter 1, and now chapter 2 opens with some very specific, historical details.
First, we see the specific time and place: Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod
Second, we are told about these unusual visitors: Magi from the east came to Jerusalem
Third, we see they are on a very specific mission: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?”
Finally, they had a very specific marker for how to find Jesus: “We saw his star.”
One of the ways we try to instill learning within the kids at our church is by encouraging them to ask, “I wonder” questions when they hear a Bible story. This would be a good practice for adults when it comes to this text.
Here are some good “I wonder” questions for this account:
- Why is it so important to Matthew that these Magi came from the east to find Jesus?
- Who were they, and where were they from?
- How did they know that Jesus was destined to be the King of Jews?
- How did they know to recognize this star, and to use that to chart his destination?
I’ve asked these questions for years as I’ve studied this particular account, and I think its safe to say that there are only one of two options as to why this group came for and ultimately found baby Jesus:
Option 1: God directly revealed himself to the Magi. God told them the significance of the birth of Christ, and then gave them specific instructions for how to locate him.
This is absolutely possible. There are other places in the Christmas story where humans receive divine instruction, and that may have happened here. There is nothing in Matthew’s account to suggest that they heard from God, but it’s certainly one of the potential explanations.
Option 2: Matthew wants us to see how God’s hand has been over all of human history. This option requires a tad bit of speculation, but it’s the interpretation I strongly lean towards. Let me show you what I think Matthew is hoping we see.
Let’s start with this word “Magi.” The Greek word is ‘mάgoi,’ and it’s where we get our English word magic. The term “Magi” was used to describe a class of Persian wise men (and possibly priests) that were highly educated, and trained to be interpreters of special signs (particularly in astrology). Magi were already assumed to be from the Persian Empire, but Matthew’s inclusion of the detail that they were from “the east” would have completely solidified this to those that were originally reading or hearing Matthew’s account.
Most of us jump right over the fact that Matthew describes a visit from the Magi. At most, we probably picture a Nativity scene with some generic Wise Men. But this would have been a surprising, and likely even troubling detail for the Jewish listeners. Why?
Because the Persian Empire represented the darkest era of Jewish history.
Though it was referred to as the Persian Empire by the time Matthew’s account was written, the Jews all knew what military superpower had been there before: Babylon.
Almost 600 years before Matthew’s account, the Babylonians sacked both Judeah and Jerusalem and took the survivors captive. Nebuchadnezzar – who was one of the most ruthless and feared kings in OT history – then marched the Jewish people 900 miles to Babylon where they were placed in exile. There they remained for many years. And most of them never came back.
So it should come as no surprise that the Babylonians were seen as the bad guys in Jewish history. In fact, for most Jews, there was almost nothing good to be found in this part of the story. The exile in Babylon was a dark and painful time. There was loss of life, loss of culture, loss of honor, and loss of dignity. In every way it seemed that the bad guys had won, and that God was absent.
Yet even in the middle of that dark era, God was at work in peculiar ways. A number of prophetic voices rose up and proclaimed a message that you might expect to hear if you were a group of people in exile. These wanna-be prophets promised the Israelites that God would break the back of the Babylonians and rescue them from exile. But instead of backing that promise, God instead condemned the messengers. This all happens in Jeremiah 28, and is worth reading as part of the backstory (you can check it all out here if you’d like).
God then lifted up Jeremiah with a very different prophetic message. It was challenging, but balanced. On one hand, it was filled with lament for the pain and loss (there is a whole book of the Bible dedicated to this called Lamentations). But in addition to the call for lament, Jeremiah had some additional instructions – instructions that the Israelites were unhappy about. God was calling the Jews to invest in the very city that had captured them. They were not to see themselves as victims — they were to see themselves as a people on mission. Jeremiah captured these instructions in this famous speech:
“This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29.4-7)
It was an incredible challenge. They were to embrace their captors, and pray for their prosperity. They were to collectively seek the shalom [peace] of this city, and invest in the people in a comprehensive way. They were to build houses and plant gardens and root families.
A new generation of families took on that mantle, and they became the Jeremiah 29 generation. Part of that next wave was a boy named Daniel, and his parents raised him as a shalom-seeker. His story is worth reading. The short version is this: Daniel showed incredible aptitude from early on, and was groomed to take on significant influence within the Kingdom of Babylon. He was incredibly culturally competent and spiritually grounded. He never once forsook his God, and stayed true to his Jewish roots at all times. And yet he was universally regarded within the highest levels of the Babylonian government, mastering the necessary skills at every level.
Here’s where it gets particularly interesting. In chapter 2 we continue to watch Daniel ascend, and in verse 48 it says this:
“Then the king placed Daniel in a high position and lavished many gifts on him. He made him ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men.”
Did you see that? Daniel didn’t just join the class of Magi – he became their leader! He was later given the title Rab-mag, which translated as “the Chief of the Magi.”
I get chills every time I think about that. I have to believe that Matthew is drawing a straight line, first from the Babylonian Exile to the call for shalom in Jeremiah 29. And then another one from those seminal words to the rise of Daniel as the fruit of the Jeremiah 29 generation. And then a final line from Daniel the Rab-mag (chief of the Magi) to the inclusion of the Magi in the Christmas story.
How did the Magi know to look for Jesus? How did they know he would be called King of the Jews? How did they know to be on the lookout for a particular star – a star that would lead them to their place of worship?
I believe Matthew is connecting 600 years of history in this moment. If Daniel was the leader of the Magi, then it went without saying that he was a master in astrology. That was what the Magi were most known for.
So is it much of a stretch to assume that Daniel had put this prophecy into the history books? That he told them of the God of the Hebrews, and the Messianic prophecies of a coming King? One that would come to save all people from their sins?
And how would the Magi know when the King of Kings had arrived? How else? By leaning into their astrological training. They would know exactly what star to look for, and they would skillfully follow it until they finally arrived to worship their King.
And with that, Matthew is showing just how far the sovereign hand of God reaches. Matthew shows us both the glory of the incarnation of Christ and the six-century reach of God… all at the same time.
600 years earlier the Jews had been marched 900 miles from their hometown into captivity in Babylon. Now, almost six centuries later, it was the Babylonians who were marching 900 miles from their hometown to Jerusalem.
But this time it was not to conquer, but to worship the King of the Jews. They had seen Jesus’ natal star that they had read about in Daniel’s commentary, and they were among the first to see Israel’s Messiah. What Jews had seen as the the dark years of their history was now having a new illumination. These Babylonian wise men came with gifts instead of guns, and presents instead of swords.
And with that, they all could see the majesty and power of the God who is over all of human history.
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