Some time after Jesus’ birth, 1-2 years possibly, a star or comet appeared in the sky; interpreting it as the birth of a king, pagan astrologers followed it from the east until they came to Jerusalem where they inquired “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”
Considering the political tension permeating Jerusalem, the notion these magi raised was troubling for Herod “and all Jerusalem”. When Herod inquired of Messiah’s birthplace, the chief priests and scribes cited Micah’s prophecy: “And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; for out of you shall come forth a ruler who will shepherd My people Israel”.
The unmistakable Davidic imagery of ruler and shepherd are at the heart of the promised Messiah, and were the very concepts startling those hearing the magi’s inquiry. As a toddler, Jesus was no threat; but as an idea, he was like gasoline on a great fire. The incarnation was an incendiary idea; it still is. Consider the reactions we observe in the text.
Upon learning of Messiah’s birth, King Herod the Great is alarmed, presuming he could soon be deposed. Paranoid and provoked by such an idea, his response was to conspire and manipulate the magi, telling them to return and report to him once they had located the child so he, too, could worship him. When they did not return, however, having been warned by God in a dream, we later learn Herod vented his rage and fear with horrific hubris, ordering all Bethlehem males two and under to be mass slaughtered. The ruler/shepherd idea stoked his fear, pricked his pride, and suffering flowed.
When the chief priests and scribes heard Messiah may have just been born, their reaction seems practically nothing. If they were included in Matthew’s v4 comment of how all Jerusalem was troubled with Herod, they also would be stunned. If these chief priests were members of the Sadducees, they would have considered the Messiah role metaphorical; the birth of an actual child would therefore trouble their minds. The most Matthew mentions of them is providing Herod with the Scripture text referencing Messiah’s birth, but overall the text reveals no eagerness on the Jewish leaders’ part to search out this Chosen One for whom the Jews have spent much of their lives prayerfully waiting. While this text portrays them as fairly neutral, we know from Matthew’s later texts, however, the Jewish leaders switched out of neutral and chose to react to Jesus similar to how Herod once violently did. Eventually there is no neutrality when reacting to Jesus.
The reaction of the magi is perhaps the most interesting. These are Gentile pagans with no covenant relationship to the LORD, studying their zodiacs and scanning the sky; and while a lofty idea has captured their attention, they are allowed to see there is so much more to this idea, and this is what sets the magi apart from the others. “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
The magi were not satisfied with the idea of Jesus; they needed to pursue that star until they encountered Jesus. Finally beholding boy Jesus as he actually was, their idea of him took on flesh.
One of our most common struggles in the faith concerns Jesus as idea versus Jesus as person. With Jesus as idea we can dissect him, rationalize, shrug him off, mold him in our image, use him as a good luck charm. With Jesus as person we have to deal with him as he actually is. We prefer Jesus as idea because we can control it. Jesus as person we have to follow. Jesus himself is like an incarnate crossroad who calls us to choose.
Like the chief priests and scribes, we can seem interested, speak “Christianese” or project a generalized spirituality, but ultimately go silent, until, that is, the person of Jesus becomes unavoidable.
Like Herod, misconceptions or hard-heartedness may cause us to perceive Jesus as a threat and reject him outright with hostility and derision or snubbing.
Or like the magi, wonder and contemplation fills our imaginations to overflow in a faith that will follow after the person Jesus.
Wonder and worship. This is how the pursuit of Jesus starts and is sustained. It captures our attention, inviting us to step off the sidelines to participate in how God’s salvation plays out in the person of Jesus. Wonder and worship calm our reactionary rage to receive him who gives what is far greater than what we were trying to keep for ourselves. As Matthew reveals how God’s salvation is beginning to bring in the Gentiles, these magi teach us something important about how discipleship plays out: wonder brings us to Jesus, and worship forms Jesus in us. As these magi returned to their eastern lands, salvation as person went with them.