Seeing Ourselves in the Story of the Magi

Camels in the desert

It’s another Christmas season and another chance to revisit one of Advent’s most intriguing questions: who were the wise men? The Gospel of Matthew provides us no names. No background. Not even their country of origin. We know almost nothing about these mysterious magi.

It almost feels like Matthew is intentionally withholding information. He throws us one measly bone, the one concrete detail that everybody already knows: they saw a star in the East (Matt. 2:2).

It seems the magi were also a little foggy on some of the details about the birth of the child they had traveled so far to worship. Arriving in Jerusalem, they addressed their question to the city at large: “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?”

Where is he—they didn’t know where he was or who he was, this king they sought. But something about their blunt inquiry rattled the bones of Herod and the people living in a city that hadn’t had a true king in over five hundred years.

Grace in the Night Sky

Zechariah envisioned a day when “ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (Zech. 8:22–23 ESV). However, as the magi went throughout Jerusalem tugging coattails and asking for someone to show them the way to Immanuel, no one seemed eager to help. The chief priests managed to quote a verse to them about the Christ being born in Bethlehem, while King Herod hatched a plot to kill the child.

“The presence of magi in our nativities is a yearly reminder of the astonishing, attractive power of God’s grace.”

The good news of Christmas is that God’s grace would not be thwarted. Neither the murderous plot nor the startling disinterest of Jerusalem could blot out the shining light of that star. It was all the wise men had to go on, and it was all they needed. The glittering grace of God brought them all the way home. “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” (Matt. 2:9 ESV).

The presence of magi figurines in our nativities is a yearly reminder of the astonishing, attractive power of God’s grace. One star brought these men hundreds of miles to be present to celebrate the birth of Christ. At Christmas, can we doubt God will completely fulfill his promise to this infant Messiah: “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6 ESV)?

Vision of the Nations

As we look into the sky with the magi, we survey the same vast, twinkling canvas that Abram beheld thousands of years ago. “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. . . . So shall your offspring be” (Gen. 15:5 ESV). The Bright Morning Star that rose over the wise men shines in a celestial heavens that shall be filled with constellations and galaxies—a multitude of nations—bowing down and worshiping Jesus Christ.

“Our mission to reach the lost is founded upon the promise of Christmas: God is drawing the nations to Jesus. This is why we go. This is why we send.”

Matthew begins his story with the nations. It’s no accident that his gospel also ends with the nations: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19 ESV). Our return to Christmas every December brings us back to the heart of the Great Commission. The people Jesus has come to save from their sins aren’t of one nationality, color, tongue, or class. They’re those drawn by grace alone from among all nations to fall down and worship King Jesus.

Strangers Brought Near and Sent Out

I wonder if Matthew kept the magi nameless and featureless so that in their journey we could see ourselves. As Americans, we tend to think of the nations as being “out there.” Brothers and sisters, we are the nations—as far away from Christ as the magi off in the East. Paul calls us “strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” But at Christmas, a star rose, and “now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:12–13 ESV).

When old Jerusalem failed to shine a light to the nations, God sent a star. But now, Jesus sends us. “You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14 ESV). Our mission to reach the lost is founded upon the promise of Christmas. God is drawing the nations to Jesus.

This is why we go.

This is why we send.

This is why we give.

Because we trust that God’s grace is working through us to bring men and women to faith in our Savior.

This Christmas, whether in our local neighborhoods or among far away peoples, may we proclaim the good news: Jesus has come to save his people—a multitude of nations—from their sins (Matt. 1:21).

Chad Ashby is a pastor at College Street Baptist Church in Newberry, South Carolina, and writes regularly at After+Math. He is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Grove City College. You can find him on Twitter.