Magi: The Riddle of Reality and the Mystery Men from the East

Photo by skeeze

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.
Lift up your eyes all around, and see;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from afar,
and your daughters shall be carried on the hip.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and exult,
because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you . . .
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord.
(Isaiah 60:1-6)

We celebrate it every Christmas, but the arrival of the Magi is one of the most strange, mysterious, and prophetically fraught events in the birth narrative of Jesus Christ.

There’s so much Matthew never explains about these men: he calls them “magoi” in Greek, Magi or wise men as it’s sometimes translated. They were Gentiles “from the east,” who claimed they had seen a star rise that announced the birth of the king of the Jews, and they had come to worship him.

On every possible level, this is a strange story. Like everything else in Matthew, its surface simplicity lies over a reality full of riddles: this is layered, and the deeper we go, the stranger and more wonderful and revelatory the story becomes.

Although tradition has turned these men into “kings” and brought them from various parts of the world, historically the Magi seem to be members of the ancient priestly caste of the Medes and Persians — a group that came into power prior to the Babylonian empire and remained in power throughout the empires to come.

They are seen in the book of Daniel serving as his fellow “magicians” and very possibly learned to watch for the “king of Jews,” the Messiah, from him.

They were politically powerful monotheistic priests, astronomers, astrologers, and — perhaps most importantly for this story — kingmakers.

With his genealogy, Matthew places Jesus squarely at the center of Jewish history, from the blessing of Abraham to the everlasting throne of David and through the exile to the prophesied time of renewal. But the blessing of Abraham had always been intended to extend to all nations, and the throne of David would one day rule over all the world.

The prophets who warned Israel of the coming exile also promised them an influence that would extend to all nations as the Gentiles flocked to them, to learn of God and worship him.

And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign [a banner or standard; literally a sign, a thing lifted up] of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11:10, KJV)

Somehow, someway, these men — however many there actually were — saw what the rest of the world could not yet see: that the Jewish child born in a stable in Bethlehem was a king for the world and a God to be worshiped.

They brought him the wealth of the nations: gold, frankincense, myrrh. And they foreshadowed the millennia to come, in which multitudes of Gentiles would see in the Jewish Messiah their king, their Savior, their Lord.

Photo by Wonderlane

To me, the Magi are a reminder that much of reality is a riddle, that the truth is something deeper and more wonderful than we can necessarily see on the surface.

They remind me that to understand what is in front of me, I need more than the sight of my eyes. I need divine revelation and guidance, imperfect though my understanding of it may be, the kind that comes from Daniel, the kind that comes from following a star.

The infant in Bethlehem did not look like a king when the Magi found him, yet they recognized him for what he was. Today the King still chooses to cloak himself, to remain hidden and gentle so that people may seek him, find him, come to him. We too need divine sight to see who he truly is.

They remind me as well that God’s plans are greater, more generous, and more far-reaching than I tend to believe. My own mind-set tries to narrow God down, to wrestle him into a shape that makes sense to me.

But the King of Israel was in fact the King of the World. The one whose people once tried to crown him king of the Jews was visited first by the kingmakers of the Medes and Persians — by pagan astrologers.

This one visit reveals that God had been at work for centuries among people outside the pale; that the web of his weaving extended far beyond Israel just as it extends far beyond my church, my denomination, my limited understanding. The seeds he planted with Daniel did not die; they were not forgotten; they grew.

And I’m humbled by the faith of men who laid riches down at the feet of an infant. Who recognized in such offensively humble beginnings the source of blessing and prosperity for the whole world.

The Magi cause me to worship a God who is greater and more mysterious than I know and to ask that the Lord will open my eyes to the riddles that lie before me, written on the pages of the Bible, riding in the sky, incarnate in the human beings indwelt by God with whom I live and interact every day.

Life is a divine riddle cloaked in humble, ordinary, and unexpected things.

Now and again, the answer to the riddle is revealed to be astonishing.

It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and it shall be lifted up above the hills;
and peoples shall flow to it,
and many nations shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
(Micah 4:1-2, ESV)

(Micah 4:1-2, ESV)







One response to “Magi: The Riddle of Reality and the Mystery Men from the East”

  1. Bill Tuck Jr Avatar

    WOW is This Dripping With Christian Mysticism!! I Love it!

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