How wonderful and intriguing is the Christmas story! And not least is that dramatic part of it which tells of the visit of the wise men (or Magi). This visit of the “wise men” is in actual fact probably a little post-Christmas; Matthew’s Gospel alone records the incident and there is no mention of a “stable” or a manger, and Mary and her baby appear to have been found by the magi in a “house”. Reflecting this, their visit is celebrated in the Anglican Church calendar two weeks after Christmas day. Hence this post-Christmas blog. I hasten to add, however, that it is a very happy act of traditional license which puts the whole narrative together, since none of the meaning of the story is lost and, providentially (it seems to me), the traditional story ministers beautifully to the faith and imagination of children. That is important because the Christmas story indelibly underlines the value of children to God. Jesus, in being “made man”, lived in a womb, was born a baby and grew up as a child. Bringing up a child, therefore, is a great and important calling; no child should be an “afterthought”, much less an intrusion! They deserve an introduction to Jesus in such a beautiful and appropriate way.
But there are, however, profound lessons for adults in the visit of the Magi. The main lesson stems from the fact that we have Magi (the number of them is not specified in Matthew, and neither is their precise status) who come “from the East” in order to worship this King who is to be born to the Jews. These men are not Jews; very clearly and significantly they are Gentiles. All the other participants in the Christmas story are Jews, even Jesus himself, and he is to be King of the Jews. The Magi have come to do homage to the king and to worship him. The true significance of this is that they are the forerunners of those who through the coming ages were to fulfil the great prophecy of Isaiah concerning his Messiah in which God said, “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). It resonates well with the remarkable account in Luke in which Jesus was brought into the Temple a month or so after his birth, and Simeon, full of the Holy Spirit and led by the Spirit, spoke prophetically over the child with very similar words, “my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light to lighten the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel” (Lk. 2:29-32). There is no doubt that this is exactly as Matthew understood the coming of the Magi; it was not just a gratuitous wonder story for the ignorant and illiterate, but a real event of great prophetic importance. These Magi were both fulfilling prophecy and also pointing prophetically to what the future would hold. He is saying to us in this story “Jesus is not simply Saviour to the Jews but to all mankind”. It is worth noting in this connection that Matthew not only begins his gospel with a focus on the Saviour and the “world”, but in his concluding chapter he leaves us with Jesus saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt28:18).
We are all familiar with the theme of the nativity of Jesus being attended by poverty and identification with the poor. Jesus was indeed a king but was not born in a palace, and his angelic heralds spoke to working shepherds not to royalty. But the Magi do not fit into this theme. Whether we can legitimately call them “kings” may be in doubt, but they were clearly men of very considerable substance, standing and wisdom, and professionally as astrologers would at the very least stand close to kings. They were important enough to stir the whole city when they arrived in Jerusalem asking where the King of the Jews was to be born, and Herod took them very seriously (Matt 1:3). Their exalted positon gives a further prophetic dimension; as they knelt before the child Jesus they represented the wisdom of the world submitting to the Christ of God, and they pointed to a fulfilment of Isaiah prophecy, “many nations will be amazed at Him, and kings will shut their mouths because of him” (Isaiah 52:15).
We need to recognise that we are very much in our own times a witness to the prophetic truth of this story. Some of us, for example, have lived long enough to see tens of millions of people from all over the world becoming Christians and kneeling before Jesus. We have, for example, seen China not only drawing level with the U.S.A. economically and militarily, but also in terms of its Christian population. A century ago that would have seemed an impossible development on all those fronts, and least of all in the spiritual dimension. More recently, despite all the carnage revolution and war in the Middle East we have seen thousands upon thousands of Arabs coming to Jesus. The striking feature of these huge waves of conversions has been that they have taken place not for political or economic gain (producing “rice Christians”), but against the strongest political and religious persecution. They have been the result of the “power of the Holy Spirit”. Looking at the world from our place in the West it is almost as though we are hearing those words coming across the globe saying again, “We have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him”! In addition the miraculous manifestations of visions and healings by which many of these modern “Gentiles” have come to Jesus are equally reminiscent of the manifestation of the star of the Magi. I have listened to such testimony at source and their authenticity is not in doubt.
There is one great difference between the story of the Magi and the story of Gentiles coming to faith in our own generation. The Magi were at the beginning of the process. We are at a point where the end seems to be coming into sight. As Christians, amid all the chaos and troubles of our time, we need to keep a clear grasp of the fact that the fulfilment of God’s purpose in bringing in the fullness of the Gentiles is moving at a pace we have never seen before. The world is currently a great harvest field and the reapers are very busy. Whatever else this year may bring forth, it will certainly bring widespread additions into God’s harvest. This is a fact which makes it possible to respond to the call to “Rejoice in the Lord!” whatever the outward circumstances. It should stimulate us to look for His Coming – the real Epiphany!
What about “Herod’s Men”, and the dark shadow they cast over the story of the “Wise Men”? It is certainly not something appropriate for children to linger over with its gruesome description of the destruction of children. None the less, it puts a focus on one of the most disturbing features of reality that we are all too often seeing on our screens and reading in the news. Commonly described in art and literature as the “Massacre of the Innocents” the murderous work of Herod’s men is disturbingly prophetic. It is as much a part of our modern world as is the ingathering of the Gentiles. Indeed it is part and parcel of the story of that ingathering throughout history. Herod’s men have always been around and are still very much with us!
Herod the Great was the archetypal autocrat; paranoiac and intensely jealous for his position, power and wealth. He was vicious, cruel, scheming, clever and utterly ruthless, and he had gained his power and maintained it by those means. Hearing of this new birth of a king from the magi, he immediately perceived a serious threat and so the child must be removed. If the child could not be identified every suspect child must go. But unhappily Herod is not just found in history. We can find a very considerable number of “Herods” in our modern world. Every day one or another of them is in the news. Some are petty tyrants, some rule very large countries. Like Herod of old they tangle with anything and anyone which has the true flavour of Jesus about them. Christians are an immediate threat to their pride and position, and to the reign of fear that alone keeps them in power. As creatures of darkness they hate the light of Christ. The sword is quickly out and the men that wield them move ruthlessly about their business of suppression. It was precisely in this way that Jesus himself died; though in his death the wrath of men was seen to work out the purposes of God, for no tyrant can suppress the Living God.
So today we see not only a world in which the Gentiles are coming to Jesus in their multitudes, but a world in which the “powers that be” are all too ready to respond with the sword. The story of the Wise Men is no fairyland fable. It is a hugely prophetic paradigm for our times. Our eyes need to be keenly focussed on working for the light to shine more and more on the Gentiles, and focussed on those who in our generation live and suffer under the shadow of Herod’s sword.
Bob Dunnett 04/01/18