I love nativity scenes. My family has several, from a porcelain “Avon” series to a colorful “Cracker Barrel” collection, to an unbreakable “Little People” set made for little hands. None of it is fine art, but it wouldn’t feel quite like Christmas without it.
At our house, we usually put the wise men across the room—“traveling.” Contrary to tradition, we don’t know that there were three of them, that they were kings, or even that they were astrologers. We do know that they weren’t at the manger, alongside shepherds. In fact, they (and the star) didn’t arrive to Bethlehem for another year or two. Sorry.
We don’t know that there were three of them, that they were kings, or even that they were astrologers
The gifts of the wise men attract our attention (Matthew 2:11). They were lavish gifts, probably providing the funds needed for the flight from Herod that the magi’s coming eventually required. The gifts were apparently symbolic, as well. The church has generally interpreted the gold as a sign of Jesus’ majesty, the incense a sign of His deity, and the myrrh as a prediction of His death. If that’s the case, the myrrh at the beginning of His life serves as a “bookend” along with the lavish ointment poured on Jesus at the end of His life, both preparing for His burial (John 12:1-8). Powerful thought!
A similar “bookend” motif is Matthew’s record that Jesus was sought by the magi as “the king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2). We won’t hear that title again until the end of Jesus’ life, where it is prominent in the crucifixion narrative (Matthew 27:11, 29, 37).
The contrast between the Gentile worshipers and the Jewish leaders is jarring
Most compelling to me is the fact that the wise men were Gentiles. The contrast between the Gentile worshipers and the Jewish leaders is jarring:
- The Gentile magi traveled something like 800 miles to worship Jesus; Jewish leaders couldn’t be troubled to travel the 6 miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
- The wise men came from the east, perhaps from Persia. We don’t know precisely where they were from, but “the east” was home to Israel’s enemies, from Egypt, to Assyria, to Babylon.
- Whereas wise men from cities like Nineveh or Babylon (Scripture’s symbolic “city of man”) came to worship Jesus, Jerusalem (Scripture’s unmistakable “city of God”) was hostile to Jesus, from His birth to His death.
- Herod, whom Matthew repeatedly calls “the king” (in contrast to “the king of the Jews”, Matthew 2:1, 3, 9), was positively Pharaoh-like. He built huge monuments like the Jerusalem temple, the Herodion, Caesarea Maritima, and Masada on the backs of the Jews (cp. Exodus 1:11-14). And he murdered Jewish baby boys, just like the Jews’ ancient Egyptian oppressors (Matthew 2:16-18; Exodus 1:15-16).
- If that irony weren’t enough, Joseph is instructed to take Mary and the young Jesus to Egypt to protect them from the murderous Herod (Matthew 2:13-15). To EGYPT! By the time of Christ, Jerusalem was more treacherous than Egypt. How terrible!
Truly, and tragically, “he came unto his own, and his own received him not” (John 1:11 KJV).
God has always planned for all nations to come and worship Christ
While the juxtaposition of the Gentile wise men with the Jewish leaders is tragic, there is also grace displayed here. God has always planned for all nations to come and worship Christ. Genesis 22:18 promises that a son of Abraham would be a blessing to all the nations of the world. And Isaiah 19:22-25 predicts a time when Egypt and Assyria would unite with Israel in worshiping the one true God. The coming of the magi gives us the first taste of this in the time of Christ. And in yet another “bookend” motif, Matthew opens with Gentiles coming to Jesus and ends with the command for disciples to be made all over the world (Matthew 28:19). Jesus saves Gentiles!
This Christmas I urge you to rejoice again at the coming of the Savior. Rejoice that He came to shepherds—humble nobodies, like us. Rejoice that He came to wise men—Gentiles, like most of us. And above all, He came to sinners, like all of us. Hallelujah!
Artwork by Chris Koelle