Here at the beginning of a new year, we find ourselves in the season of Epiphany wherein we celebrate God revealing himself to us, and to all the world, in human form, through his Son, the Messiah. When cartoonists draw a character having an “epiphany,” or bright idea, they often place a light bulb above the person’s head. That’s actually quite fitting, as the meaning of the Greek “epi-phanos” is “to shine a light on” something. With that in mind, I’d like to “shine a light” on the event that begins the Epiphany season and specifically on the fascinating central characters of that story. We think of them as the “wise men,” and sing of them as “we three kings.” They show up in our Christmas pageants, adding an extra measure of pomp and awe to the scene at the manger. However, truth be told, they didn’t arrive in Bethlehem until perhaps a year or more after Jesus was born. Who were these mysterious visitors? How and why did they make their way to Bethlehem, and what was the point of their visit? What did Matthew hope to communicate to us by including them in his Gospel? Sadly, our over-familiarity with the story may blind us to the genuinely radical nature of the encouraging yet challenging message it contains. At its heart is the powerful mission heart of God.
We can quickly recount the story:
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.”Matthew 2:1-2
Herod, who later would unleash his paranoia in a wave of horrifying genocide, instructs them to go to Bethlehem. Arriving there, “they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him…they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11)
Maybe these men were “kings,” and maybe they were three in number, but Matthew doesn’t tell us that. He does tell us that they were magi from the east. They were priestly scholars of Persia or Babylon who searched for meaning in the movement of stars, but also in ancient texts. We may be puzzled by or even skeptical of their methods but, in the end, they found their way to Jesus. And somehow, they knew things of this miraculous baby, bringing him gifts that acknowledged his royalty, his divinity, and the death that he would eventually suffer. These foreigners saw what the Jewish political and religious leaders of that time missed. They were the first-fruits of the Gentiles who would come to see the Christ, God’s “light” to the nations! (Isaiah 49:6; 60:3)
Theirs was a divinely arranged visit. However well-guided or mis-guided they may have been, they were searching for the truth and God met them. God got through to them. Just as God sent Jesus to the world, so he draws the world – all the world – to Jesus. He has a plan to do just that! It very well may be that he began that plan for these magi centuries before, when he enabled his prophet Daniel to become the “chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon.” (Daniel 2:48) It’s entirely possible that these magi had studied ancient Messianic prophecies that God had given them through Daniel!
As the old hymn says, God does indeed “move in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.” Even in ways we can’t fully comprehend, God orchestrates the movement of nations! He is not a God for the Jews alone. Nor is Jesus a Savior for the Jews alone, but for all people everywhere. These magi from the east were unlikely characters to show up in Bethlehem. In fact, for the Jews of Matthew’s day, they were unwanted characters, superstitious foreigners who, in their minds, had no place among God’s covenant people. And yet, there they were. Worshipping the Christ child. Guided by God to be there. And then guided again by God, this time in a vision, to return to their home, where, no doubt, they shared with their countrymen all that they had seen and experienced. Yes, the nations would know that the King of kings had come!
Just as God did for the magi, he wants to communicate with us. He wants to reach us. He wants to reveal himself to us, and to all peoples, all nations. He draws us to Jesus and then sends us out, out to make him known, to “make disciples of all nations,” as Matthew emphasizes at the end of his Gospel. Jesus is Good News for all people, including us, in our own obscurity and unworthiness. The Light of the world has come to us, and he is for us the “light of life.” (John 8:12) It is time now for us to shine a light on Jesus, to make him known among the nations, even among those we may somehow find it difficult to understand or relate to. This is the awesome task God has given us to do, not just during Epiphany, but all year long!