Two Lessons From the Magi
The story of the Magi travelling to see baby Jesus has gripped the hearts and imaginations of believers for centuries. (See Matt. 2:1-12.) Who were these visitors from the east? What does it mean that they saw the star of the king of the Jews? What moved these adults to travel such a long distance to worship a child? And, what in the world is a “Magi”? Though scholars have helped us answer many of these questions, much of this story remains shrouded in mystery.Two lessons, however, are clearly taught by the account of the Magis’ journey. We learn here about the breadth of God’s love and the depth of our need.
1) The breadth of God’s love.
The story of the Magi teaches us that God’s redeeming love reaches to the entire world, to “persons from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). God’s love is not limited to any one nation or ethnic group. God’s plan is to reach the entire planet with the redeeming love of his Son.
The book of Matthew is often considered the most Hebrew of the four gospels. Matthew quotes from the Old Testament over forty times and presents Jesus as the Hebrew Messiah, indicating that he probably wrote primarily for a Jewish audience. Yet, isn’t it amazing that in Matthew’s gospel the first people to bow to worship Jesus are Gentiles? Not only are they Gentiles, the word “magi” indicates that they were likely astrologers, followers of a pagan practice forbidden by Jewish law (Deut. 18:9, 12, 14).
Imagine the surprise felt by Matthew’s original readers when they heard that the first people called by God to worship his Son were Gentile sorcerers? A God who would go to the trouble of directing the movement of heavenly bodies simply to reveal his salvation to pagans must surely love the entire world.
God’s love for the world is confirmed, not only by the way Matthew’s gospel begins, but also by the way it ends – with Jesus commissioning his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). God’s choice of the Hebrews as his special people, and God’s decision to send his Son as a Jew, should not be seen as restrictions on divine compassion. From the moment God first called Abraham, God’s intention was for his blessing to extend to “all peoples on earth” (Gen. 12:1-3).
The wideness of God’s mercy is a truth sometimes overlooked by American Christians today. Sadly, we hear of followers of Christ who gloat with joy when travelers from the land of the Magi are banned from visiting our country. We hear of others protesting with anger at the suggestion that asylum seekers should be welcomed at our borders. Though there may be sound reasons for policies that restrict admittance to our country, and though it is not wrong for Christians to support these policies, we would expect any person touched by God’s love to grieve (not rejoice) when doors are closed to the world, even if they feel such closing is necessary. More than this, we would expect anyone who worships God, the same God who loved and called the Magi, to burn with a passionate love for their neighbors and their world. Sadly, for many of us, this world-embracing love is often lacking.
2) The depth of our need.
The story of the Magi also reveals the depth of our need for grace. When the visitors from the east reached Jerusalem, they asked “Where is the one who was born the king of the Jews?” Their inquiry must have been known to the public, for we read that “all Jerusalem” was disturbed at what they heard the Magi saying (Mt. 2:3). People were astonished to hear that, perhaps, the long-awaited Messiah had finally been born. Yet, after learning from the scholars where to find the Christ child, we do not read of any of the residents of Jerusalem bothering to go see him.
What caused this deadness in the hearts of God’s people? Why, after centuries of longing for the Messiah, could they not be troubled to travel the six miles to Bethlehem to welcome him? The cause of their dullness of heart is the same thing that produces dullness in ours. Without the life-giving grace of God, we are “dead in [our] transgressions and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Without the work of the Holy Spirit we cannot accept or even understand elemental truths about God (1 Cor. 2:14). Our need for a Savior is so great that we need a Savior even to know we need a Savior.
The knowledge of our natural indifference toward God should cause anyone who has come to know God to tremble with gratitude. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). If the Lord never opens our hearts to his love, like the residents of ancient Jerusalem, we will forever sit within reach of the Savior and never rise to seek him. But thanks be to God! God constantly sends his Spirit to rouse people from their spiritual slumber and draw them to his Son. Those of us for whom this has already happened have great reason to rejoice.
So, what do we learn from the Magi? We learn that God loves the world. We learn that we do not deserve this love. And we learn that the same God who once called pagan sorcerers still leads sinners to his Son today.