By around the fourth century, the Christian church began commemorating (around January 6) the visit to Jesus by the wise men recorded in Matthew 2:1–12. The festival was called Epiphany (Greek, “revelation”), since it is in this text that we see Christ’s glory revealed to the world. Despite Luther’s attempt to retain the festival—to emphasize Christ’s baptism (and Christian baptism in general), Epiphany faded from a greatly pared-down Protestant church calendar by the end of the sixteenth century. Regardless whether we pair the story of the Epiphany with a church holiday early Christians were right to find it significant.
To understand the story, we need to know that Matthew wrote his gospel of Jesus to a mainly Jewish audience. His genealogy traces Jesus’ lineage from Joseph through David to Abraham, demonstrating that Jesus is the Seed of blessing God pledged to the fathers (Gal. 3:15–18), the Son of David who would always sit on his throne (Ps. 132:11). Jesus’ birth fulfilled Old Testament prophesies: “‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us’” (Matt. 1.23; Is. 7:14). In very brisk and sparse prose, Matthew confirms that Jesus is the promised Savior of God’s special people, so the sudden intrusion of gentile scholars into this Jewish story is deliberately jarring.
The Greek text calls them magi (NAS; NIV), eastern scholars who specialized in astrology and astronomy. Persia, Babylon, or Arabia are commonly suggested as their homeland. Daniel frequently refers to the Magi of the Babylonian Empire (1:20; 2:2; 4:7; 5:7); his word is alternately translated as enchanters, conjurers, sorcerers, or astrologers.[i] In Matthew’s account Jesus’ first worshippers were Gentiles, not Jews. But, rather than spoil the story, the Magi’s surprising visit confirms God’s old plan: through Abraham’s Seed “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3; 22:18), advances God’s story of world-wide flourishing and can shape how we worship Jesus today.
The Story of the Magi’s Visit
When Jesus was born, Israel was ruled by Herod the Great, a selfish and paranoid king who killed his favorite wife and two sons to protect his reign. As in the days of Moses, God’s people groaned under the weight of personal and systemic unrighteousness. Christ came in “the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4);” when God’s people seemed most to need deliverance.
Into Matthew’s very Jewish story enter “wise men from the East” (v. 1). Matthew doesn’t specify when the Magi visited. Some speculate that it must have been at least a year after Jesus’ birth, since Herod later killed every male child under two years old in an effort to destroy the new king. Perhaps he was simply being extra cautious, not knowing how much time had elapsed from Jesus’ birth to the Magi’s visit. Either way, it is safe to say that the Magi visited a very young Jesus, perhaps a newborn.[ii]
But why were foreign scholars interested in a baby Jewish King? The Magi studied the stars. But they were probably also acquainted with Jewish prophesy—in the eighth century B.C., Israel was carried away northeast to Assyria (2 Kings 17:6). Later Nebuchadnezzar deported many Israelites to Babylon, again, east of Israel (Dan. 1:1-4). The Jews carried into the East records like Balaam’s prophecy that “a Star shall come out of Jacob” (Num. 24:17). It is also likely that, as God visited the Magi in a dream after meeting Jesus, he told them beforehand about Jesus’ birth.
The star that led the Magi to Jerusalem has provoked much speculation. Calvin suggested that the star—perhaps more like a comet—was a unique supernatural phenomenon. Others, using modern astronomy software have proposed that peculiar but explainable alignments of planets and stars might have guided the Magi. The star prompted the travelers west but then became temporarily obscured. They headed to Jerusalem to seek insight from those who could give them more precise directions.
News of the Magi’s quest eventually came to Herod. He had probably already heard rumors of Jesus’ birth from the shepherd’s testimony (Luke 2:20). The problem was that the Jews already had a king—him. So, he plotted to eliminate the child (Matt. 2:16) and consulted “All the chief priests and scribes of the people” (v. 4). They agreed that the Christ was to be born “In Bethlehem of Judea” (v. 6; Micah 5:2). To pinpoint Jesus’ location, Herod charged the Magi: “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also. … they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the east went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was” (Matt. 2:9). When they found the child they “fell down and worshiped Him” (v. 11), fulfilling Psalm 72:10–11. “The Kings…will brings presents; the kings…will offer gifts. Yes, all kings shall fall down before Him.”[iii] The Lord revealed to the Magi Herod’s evil plan and they returned home another way.
What Should We Do with This Story?
Scripture presents the gift of God’s Son as a historic fact that demands a response. The coming of the Magi fulfilled ancient prophesies: “The Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Is. 60:3). Matthew’s record of their interaction with Herod the Great roots the birth narrative in secular history. The second Person of the Trinity has surely come to earth as a complete Savior of his people.
The text contrasts several responses to that reality: Herod embodies the basic human craving for an imagined autonomy that has no room for Jesus. The cunning and powerful Jewish king had been ruling on behalf of Rome for nearly forty years by the time the Magi visited. He was not prepared to cede his rule to a competitor. That’s a common response to Jesus—”I don’t want a king; I already have one: me!” When Jesus confronts our “ambition, covetousness, pride, misplaced confidence, hypocrisy, and deceit”[iv] we have a choice. Herod chose power and prestige and provoked an unbeatable war against the King of the universe.
The chief priests and scribes illustrate the sort of intellectual faith that haughtily dismisses the gift of a Savior. The Magi came to Jerusalem to seek the religious experts’ knowledge of the coming Messiah. Herod assembled a dream-team of theological professionals who knew the Bible from front to back. But their hearts were closed. They studied Christ but missed his glory (cf. John 5:39–40). Religious training does not ensure salvation or even spiritual wisdom. Knowledge of Scripture is damning if not combined with a love for God and his will. “The Magi will be like the men of Nineveh who will rise up in judgment and condemn those who, despite their privilege of much greater light, did not receive the promised Messiah and bow to his reign (12:41–42).”[v]
The Magi represent people who worship Jesus because their hearts have been changed by the Spirit. Calvin called the Magi “the first-fruits of the Gentiles” who would come to God’s Son. The wise men came to Christ not because they were astronomers but because God revealed to them Jesus’ beauty. They traveled a great distance, bearing expensive gifts, only to meet two poor people and their ordinary-looking kid. They came not to a palace but a rented room. Why didn’t they lose heart? “God had fortified the minds of the Magi by his Spirit”[vi] so that they could receive him as Ruler and Shepherd (v. 6; Micah 6:2; 2 Sam. 5:2). The Magi saw in the Christ-child what all believers see in him. Because “he will one day be different from what he now appears, they are not at all ashamed to render to him the honours of royalty.”[vii]
These Gentiles believed what the angel had said about the King of the Jews. Jesus’ coming is good news for all people (Luke 2:10), including outsiders to God’s early relationship with Israel (Eph. 2:11–13). This little King grew in wisdom and stature as our sin-bearer. And at his death a Gentile ruler made this announcement: “This is Jesus the King of the Jews” (Matt. 27:37). He was raised up so that “whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:14–15). When Christ the King returns there will be no question of his majesty. The Herods and the chief priests and scribes of this age will tremble before him. But wise men, women, and children will be crowned by Christ with glory and honor. In the meantime, let this revelation of the Savior to Gentiles encourage our love, worship, and service in his name.
[i] D.A. Carson, Matthew, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: The Zondervan Corporation, 1984), 85.
[ii] Jakob Van Bruggen demonstrates that the Magi came before Jesus’ fortieth day on which he was presented at the temple. Christ on Earth: The Gospel Narratives as History (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 114–116.
[iii] This verse gave rise to the tradition that the Magi were kings. That they presented to Jesus three gifts invited the tradition that there were three Magi. The Christmas carol “We Three Kings” should simply be called “We Magi.”
[iv] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Company, 1989), 133.
[v] Carson, Matthew, 83.
[vi] Calvin, Commentary, 136.
[vii] Calvin, Commentary, 137.