Over the next month or so, I shall be reflecting on the Gospel of Matthew and ‘pondering Jesus’ – thinking about who He is, and what that means for us. In so doing, I hope to delight more in my Saviour; and if I am able to help you (reader) to do so too, then even better!
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, 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.” […]
After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:1-2, 9-12 ESV)
One of the most mysterious parts of the narrative of Jesus’ birth has to be the visit of the wise men. The record of their visit can only be found in Matthew’s gospel account (and not in the other three), adding to the mystery. Who were they? Some clues can be gathered from the text itself:
- They were ‘wise men from the East’ (v1), thus were not likely to be Jews.
- They were astrologers of some sort – they ‘saw his [Jesus’] star when it rose’ (v2), that being the sign they had been looking for. Furthermore, they followed the star until it ‘came to rest over the place where the child was’ (v9).
- The footnote informs us that ‘wise men’ is magi in Greek. According to the ESV Study Bible, in earlier times, ‘wise men’ (Greek magi) referred to priests and experts in mysteries in Persia and Babylon, but by this time it applied to a wide range of people whose practices included astrology, dream interpretation, study of sacred writings, the pursuit of wisdom, and magic.
So, in short, these wise men could be easily be described as pagan* sorcerers!
Yet, why did they come? Simply put, they came to worship ‘he who has been born King of the Jews’ (v2). When they saw the child, ‘they fell down and worshipped him’ (v11). And they brought Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Indeed, when they saw that the star had guided them to their destination (i.e. the house where Jesus was), they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. They were so happy to be able to find and worship the King of the Jews.
The account of the wise men bears much reflection. Might it be too simplistic to say that God, in His grace, reveals His salvation to those who seem to be so far removed from him – even pagan sorcerers? Perhaps. We see nothing in the text to suggest that they recognised Jesus to be the son of God; indeed ‘it is doubtful that these quasi-pagan religious men understood Jesus’ divine nature’ (ESV Study Bible). Besides, it is also perhaps unhelpful to ask whether these wise men were “saved” (cf Rom 10:9f).
However, at the very least we can see that God, in His mercy, and through His creation (the star), points lost people in the direction of His salvation. In other words:
For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they [all men] are without excuse. (Rom 1:20)
Indeed, we see many examples on this theme even today. I have friends for whom the Christian ideas of sacrificial, other-person-focused love resonates so strongly within them – yet they cannot accept that such sacrificial love for others found its paradigmatic expression in Jesus on the cross. I have friends who are amazed by the wonders of creation in their scientific research – but will refuse to look beyond the creation to the creator. These are friends who, like Herod in Matthew 2, decide instead to reject Jesus’ kingly rule.
Two points of application by way of conclusion.
- Praise God for His great mercy, in pointing us in His direction, through his creation (i.e. general revelation), and definitively saving us through His Son (i.e. special revelation).
- Let’s continue to pray that many who may be far from God now — “pagan sorcerers” of our day — will see and recognise Jesus, for He is ever looking to draw them into His fold.
* For the sake of clarity, the word “pagan” here loosely refers to a follower of any of various religions that are based on the worship of nature or the Earth. The usage here is not intended to be pejorative.