In this post Phil draws our Christmas blog series to a close with a look at the arrival of the Magi. Jesus, the Light of the World, is shining in the darkness so that mankind can see.
The Light of the World
(Matthew 2:1-12) Phil Clarke
Jesus is a little older now, even starting to try his feet. In Bethlehem, Mary still treasures the events surrounding his birth – but God has more surprises in store. Not far away, in Jerusalem, a hubbub erupts at the unexpected arrival of a delegation of foreign dignitaries. Bystanders gawp at their splendid robes and exotic headdresses as they proceed on fine Persian horses towards the palace of Herod the Great. They have camels, too, for their baggage, and an armed escort.
These are Magi, hereditary priests of the faith of Zoroaster, and custodians of the secret lore of the stars, of alchemy and the interpretation of dreams. Their scholarship dates back to ancient Babylon itself and has been guarded through the succeeding kingdoms of Medes and Persians to what is now the Parthian Empire – the only power on Earth to rival Rome. They form a civil service to the Parthian Shahan Shah (king of kings), who cannot rule without their support. Only they have the expertise to interpret the signs in the heavens; signs that foretell the rise and fall of kings by divine will. And their arrival strikes fear into the heart of the man who sits on the throne of Judaea.
Herod’s last days
Herod the Great is seriously ill with a horrendous disease that devours him from inside (seen by many as a fitting divine judgement). His prestige building projects, even rebuilding the Second Temple, have failed to win him the approval of a people he feels have never accepted him, with his Arab blood, as one of their own. He has been forced to raise taxes and pays hand over fist trying to maintain Roman favour and placate all the factions around him. He is depressed and paranoid and snuffs out the first sign of any resistance with brutal force. His army of bodyguards is only outnumbered by his spies and secret police. He sees the end of his life approaching and at the same time the threads of his hard-won legacy are already starting to unravel.
Talk of Messiahs is in the air and now what? Magi – Parthian king-makers – seeking an audience? Unlike many of his peers, Herod is well-versed in astrology, and takes their talk of a star-anointed ruler very seriously indeed.
An expanding theme
Why does Matthew alone of the Gospel-writers include this story? Why admit these strange pagans into the mix? Hasn’t he read the condemnations of astrology in the Torah? What is he trying to say? He starts his gospel in respectable Jewish fashion, with a genealogy outlining Jesus’ Messianic credentials. But, unusually, it contains four women. And not obvious Jewish heroines, but Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, considered non-Israelites. From the outset, then, he hints that God’s plan is bigger than Israel alone. His ongoing account is studded with surprising encounters with Gentiles who, like the Centurion in Mt 8, show greater faith in the God of Israel than the Israelites themselves. And his gospel’s finale? Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples of all nations.
We three kings?
Back in Herod’s court, the Gentile Magi are having a gap in their education filled by an oracle from the prophet Micah, directing them to seek the new king in David’s hometown, Bethlehem (see Micah 5:2). Herod hatches his murderous scheme but, in God’s providence, we know it won’t hit its target. Space doesn’t allow me to survey the constellation of theories attempting to explain the Star of Bethlehem but whether by an incredible celestial conjunction or something more obviously supernatural, the sages’ long journey finds its end in worship and the offering of royal gifts. Matthew was steeped in the Messianic promise of Isaiah and the Psalms, and knew well the echoes those gifts would stir in his readers:
‘…the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you.
Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn…
… to you the riches of the nations will come.
Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and frankincense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.’
‘The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him;
the kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts.
All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him.’
No wonder, then, that Christians from the earliest times have seen in the majestic figures of the Magi a foreshadowing of God’s amazing plan to expand His rule from Israel to the whole world: the kings of the nations bowing before God’s Messiah, the true King of Kings. And were they so misguided to do so? Matthew didn’t live to see it, but just a few centuries on, the mighty Roman Emperors, rulers of the world, would also come to kneel before this child.
The Light of the World had come. And nothing could put it out.
In the Nativity accounts we’ve seen that the Light of the World was foretold centuries beforehand by God’s prophets but only recognised by unlikely people – a mute priest, a pregnant virgin, a group of shepherds, an elderly prophet and prophetess, some foreign astrologers. Why do you think that is the case? What does it mean for you to have seen the Light of the World, and how can you share the Light with others this year?
Song: Thy Nativity
For more about the song please go to this blog post.
XplosionTV Bitesize: a video for children and the young at heart
A craft activity is available for the whole blog series. Please download the star instructions