Behold, there came wise men from the east
The wise men and the shepherds tend to get mixed up in our recollections of Christmas. But actually they couldn’t be more different. The shepherds were poor Jews. The wise men were rich foreigners. For the shepherds, the birth of Christ was a ‘bolt from the blue’ as they went about their ordinary business. For the wise men, Christ’s birth was a distant certainty that had directed their course for some time. For the shepherds, seeing Christ marks a beginning – they rejoice and spread the word. For the wise men, it marks an end to their long journey. Yet for both the low born and high born, for those with nothing to give and those with everything, for Jew and Gentile, for the expectant and the surprised, Christ’s birth proves to be the fulfilment of all their hopes.
In Jesus, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, learned and common, meet. And with the wise men especially, the whole incident proves that Christ is indeed the Desire of all nations. His birth is not a parochial event for the tribe of Judah. It is truly global. Here is a baby to unite, redeem and rule the world.
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1-2)
The word for ‘wise men’ in the Greek is Magi from which we get ‘Magicians’. Traditionally they are called ‘three kings’, but Matthew doesn’t tell us their number, nor whether they rule, (though they are clearly wealthy). The questions we want answered are: Where have they gotten the idea that a baby could be born King? How would they know that the King of the Jews demands universal worship? And what is their view of the created world such that stars preach to them the birth of a universal King?
Well the human race can trace itself back, not only to Adam but also to Noah. Humanity has a collective memory, not only of the first Adam and Noah, but also the promise of a second Adam, a second Noah – a Man Who Brings Rest. The Jews prophesied that their coming King would rule the nations (Genesis 49:10) and that the stars proclaimed His coming (Numbers 24:17). Even the nations knew that this Jewish God was Lord of all (Joshua 2:9-11). And when the Israelites went into exile, the Babylonians, Persians, Medes and Greeks came to hear about this Promised One (see, for instance, the book of Daniel).
It’s no surprise that wise men from the east would be eagerly awaiting this cosmic King. Listen to lines from the Roman poet Virgil. Writing around 40BC this Gentile, lost in pagan superstition still speaks of a new age dawning with the birth of a Boy to rule the world:
Now the last age by Cumae’s Sibyl sung
Has come and gone, and the majestic roll
Of circling centuries begins anew:
Justice returns, returns old Saturn’s reign,
With a new breed of men sent down from heaven.
Only do thou, at the boy’s birth in whom
The iron shall cease, the golden race arise,
Befriend him, chaste Lucina; ’tis thine own
Apollo reigns. And in thy consulate,
This glorious age, O Pollio, shall begin,
And the months enter on their mighty march.
Under thy guidance, whatso tracks remain
Of our old wickedness, once done away,
Shall free the earth from never-ceasing fear.
He shall receive the life of gods, and see
Heroes with gods commingling, and himself
Be seen of them, and with his father’s worth
Reign o’er a world at peace. For thee, O boy,
First shall the earth, untilled, pour freely forth
Her childish gifts…
…The serpent too shall die..
Begin to greet thy mother with a smile,
O baby-boy! ten months of weariness
For thee she bore: O baby-boy, begin!
For him, on whom his parents have not smiled,
Gods deem not worthy of their board or bed.
Co-mingled with confusion and darkness, the hope of a baby-boy gripped Gentile as well as Jew. The Son of his heavenly Father would bring a new age, a golden race and even the earth would pour forth its gifts for him. No wonder the Magi brought tribute!
Jesus came not simply as the Jewish Messiah. He was the Desire of all nations and hope of the ages.
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