The Christmas story is culturally familiar to most Americans. Nativity scenes abound on American front lawns. Theology-packed hymns are played on secular radio. Despite all of the rhetoric on the secular war on Christmas, in many parts of America Christmas seems to be doing just fine.
At least, it seems to be doing just fine on the surface. I am concerned that this cultural familiarity gives people the false impression that they actually know and understand the meaning of the Christmas story when they actually do not. When we extract biblical characters out of the context of the gospels and turn them into cultural icons, we miss out on the beauty of Christmas.
Case in point: the story of the magi in Matthew 2:1-12. The story is well-known to both Christians and non-Christians alike, or at least the modern embellished version of the story is. As the story goes, three kings come visit baby Jesus in the manger presenting gifts.
But not only is this version Scripturally inaccurate, but it completely overlooks the central point of the story. And it is that central point of Matthew 2:1-12 that I want to bring to light.
But first, let’s talk about context. We’ll be talking about the semantic range of the word magi, as well as the placement of the story in the Matthew narrative.
The first question I want to address is, “Who were the magi?” Matthew 2:1 reads in the ESV, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem.” Who were these people? The phrase wise men is understandable to English readers but not quite accurate. Other translations (cf. NIV, NASB) translate the word as magi. This can be unhelpful though because the word magi is almost never used in any other context in all of American culture, so there is no framework for most people to understand the word.
The original Greek word is magoi (the plural version of the singular noun magos). This word popped up in Greek literature several hundred years before Jesus’ birth, and it originally (and interestingly) referred to a class of Zoroastrian priests in Persia. Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion in what we now call the Middle East, and their magoi were priests who were known for their wisdom, astrology, and interpretation of dreams. Magoi were often consulted by kings because of their wisdom and supposed abilities to interpret omens and read the signs in the stars.
So were these magoi in Matthew 2 Zoroastrian priests? It’s possible. After all, in Jesus’ day, there was a great empire east of Jerusalem called the Parthian Empire (at its peak it controlled all the land between Palestine and India), and the dominant religion of the Parthians was Zoroastrianism. There’s evidence that the Parthian Empire had a sizable Jewish population, so it’s possible that these Zoroastrian priests were familiar with Jewish prophecies of a Messiah. Perhaps they saw this sign in the sky—whether it was a comet, a supernova, an alignment of planets, or something else—and they concluded that there was a royal Jewish birth.
But we can’t say for sure, because although the original meaning of magoi was Zoroastrian priests, like many words throughout history, it evolved as time went on. By the time Matthew was written, we see in Greek literature that the meaning of the word came to include all people who practiced magic, regardless of their culture, class, or trade. Magoi could include people who consulted with spirits, people who could predict the future, people who could curse enemies, and so on. But by and large magicians were seen as wise, powerful, and crafty people.
So the short answer is that we don’t know who these visitors were. However, we do know that they weren’t just generic wise men. They were specifically magoi. And this is important because magoi were largely looked down upon in Jewish culture. Regardless of whether these magoi in Matthew 2 were Zoroastrian priests or generic magicians, their appearance as Jesus-worshippers would have been startling to Jewish readers, because traditionally magoi of all kinds were not the types of people Jews associated with.
Throughout the Bible, magic, sorcery, and witchcraft were seen as negative. They were linked with idolatry and demonic spirits. They were condemned in the Mosaic Law, and the few magicians we see in the New Testament, like Elymas and Simon Magus, are depicted as crafty and greedy (interestingly, Elymas is the only other person in the New Testament who is described as a magos, and in those scenarios English translations use the words magician or sorcerer).
And that identity is important to keep in mind in our exploration of the narrative.
The second question I want to ask is, “How does this story fit into the narrative of Matthew?”
In Matthew 1, the author gives a long genealogy of Jesus, and this is meant to show that Jesus is the descendant of the faithful patriarch Abraham and the legendary king David. Then Matthew introduces to us Joseph and Mary. An angel appears and tells them that even though they are not married yet, Mary will have a son named Jesus. And then Matthew writes that “all this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” (Matthew 1:23).
What is the point of Matthew 1? I believe that the author’s point in Matthew 1 is that Jesus is the promised Jewish Messiah. He has the right Jewish lineage, and his birth fulfills Old Testament prophecy.
Given the context of Matthew 1 then, the most startling thing in the opening lines of Matthew 2 is that it is Gentile magi, not the Jewish leaders, who are worshiping the Jewish Messiah.
Hear the irony in the opening lines of Matthew 2, “1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”
The unnamed magi come with joy and excitement to worship the king of the Jews. Meanwhile, King Herod and “all Jerusalem with him” are “troubled” by the news of this Jewish Messiah.
For the first time in human history, God has humbled himself to become a human being. Yet Herod and the Jews do not rejoice, worship, or celebrate. For how could Herod be king of the Jews if there is another king to rival his throne?
The great irony of the Christmas story is that those who seemed to be the least likely to embrace Jesus do, and those who seemed to be the most likely to embrace Jesus do not.
In Matthew 2:13-15, this irony is compounded when King Herod furiously tries to kill Jesus, and Jesus’ family flees to Egypt. The Jewish Messiah is not only rejected by but also persecuted by the Jews, and he is forced to take refuge in a Gentile land. While Jerusalem is troubled, and while Herod is furious, Gentile magoi worship Jesus, and Gentile lands shelter Jesus.
Implications for Today
There are two major implications for the church today. Firstly, it is worth noting that God intentionally embedded within the Christmas story a glimpse of his call to global mission. Perhaps the thesis statement of Matthew 2 is that Jesus is the king not only of the Jews, but also of the Gentiles. Jesus came to be the savior not only of those in the Jewish faith, but also of those in all faiths. As Paul writes, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (Titus 2:11).
The Christmas story is the reminder that all people are invited to come to Jesus. Regardless of what country you’re from, regardless of what culture you have, regardless of what religion you practice, God invites you to come and worship Jesus.
Secondly, it is worth considering whether the irony of Matthew 2 continues in the church today. When God shows up, and when the gospel is preached, sometimes the people who resist it the most are the churched folks. They have their systems, their traditions, their structures, and their status quo. They don’t want to stop being the king.
But there are others who aren’t yet in the church. They are on a journey looking for God. Maybe they’ve tried other religions. Maybe they’re searching and searching, but they haven’t found what they’re looking for. And when God shows up, and when the gospel is preached, sometimes they say, “That is exactly what I’ve been looking for all this time.” And they are the ones who joyfully come and worship.
The King of the Gentiles
There’s a fascinating exchange in John 19 that takes place at Jesus’ crucifixion.
19 Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 20 Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. 21 So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” 22 Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”
In another display of irony, the Gentile Pontius Pilate labels Jesus the King of the Jews, while the Jewish leaders refuse to recognize that label and request a change. However, Pilate refuses to budge.
But Pontius Pilate was only half-right. As the rest of the Scriptures show, and as church history shows, Jesus was not only the king of the Jews. Jesus also was—and is—the king of the Gentiles.