The Magi Don’t Belong in This Story

A blog for Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, which occurs twelve days after Christmas on January 6th

The mystifying magi appear in just one Gospel, Matthew, Chapter 2. That doesn’t give us a lot to work with, and much of what we may believe about these sages is myth or conjecture. For example, Scripture says nothing about camels or the number of magi. Did you know they followed the star sign for two whole years, finding baby Jesus in a house, not a stable? And they were not kings. Because I have a habit of trying to see myself in all the characters of Scripture, I want to look at the little we know about these shadowy figures and what they might tell me about myself.

The magi were gentile astrologers, foreigners in possession of great material wealth. The word “magus” can mean wise man, magician, advisor or even wizard and comes from the Persian language. These mystery men traveled a long way to bring their inappropriate gifts to an anonymous child in a backwater village. There is no specific prophecy of these messianic visitors in the Bible nor even of the star which brought them. The magi don’t belong in this story. And neither do I.  

The magi were rich, and this story is about the poor.

Whether Christ’s visitors used their own resources or worked for a rich benefactor, they possessed the means to leave their homes for over two years on a romantic quest and then return again. They (or their unmentioned pack animals and servants) brought rare and valuable gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In the Christmas story no one and nothing else lives in a world of wealth. Mary delivered her Son in an animal stall. Joseph was a common carpenter who offered a poor man’s gift at Jesus’s consecration in the Temple (Luke 2:24). Christ came to earth on a mission to and among the poor (see Luke 4:18, II Cor. 8:9, etc.). The magi don’t belong in this story because they were rich.

The magi were gentiles, and this story is about Israel.

The wise men were not Israelites. They implied their non-Jewishness when asking Herod about, “the king of the Jews,” and their profession was outside the usual range of Jewish vocations. They were visitors from a far country and a foreign culture, outsiders to the story they were helping to write. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, the long-awaited savior of God’s conquered but chosen people. Jesus Himself proclaimed his responsibility to “the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). Even if they happened to be Jewish converts, these magicians were not of the house of Israel. The magi don’t belong in this story because they were gentiles.

The magi were influential, and this story is about the powerless.

As well-resourced astronomers or astrologers (the two studies were often one discipline in the ancient world), the wise men served as advisors to the powerful. They held influence over important decision-makers. While they did not, apparently, seek out King Herod, news of their mission carried to him, and he took it very seriously. The words of a common tourist would not have aroused so much concern. The magi were connected. But Jesus did not come to the powerful. He invited shepherds to His birthday party. He touched lepers and consoled prostitutes. Jesus came to the poor, the oppressed, the humble, the outcasts. The magi don’t belong in this story because they were powerful.

I don’t belong in God’s story for the same reasons.

Anyone living in a western country today, even in the bottom 5%, “is richer than 68 percent of the world’s inhabitants,” according to Forbes. I can rightly say that compared to everyone in the world now, as well as those who lived in Biblical times, I am rich. It is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for me to be saved. I am also a gentile. As far as I know there is no Jewish blood in my veins. God’s story is not the story of my people. And I am connected, even powerful. There is the fact that I am white, which unfairly advantages me, giving me social power I do not earn or even understand. My American passport, the technology I wield, the political and vocational connections I could muster, all give me more influence than most in the world possess.

Like the magi, there is no reason I should know anything about Christ, that He should get my attention or I should get His. I don’t belong in His story. And yet, according to God’s great mercy, He mysteriously chose me out of nowhere, guided me to His Son and bids me worship Him. I don’t want to be like ‘the three kings’ because they were rich, powerful gentiles. I want to be like them because they were willing to risk their privileges and step outside their heritage for something much more important. Against all odds, they were chosen to worship King Jesus, and “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matt. 2:10).


Related material:

The Mysterious Magi
We Three Kings
Crowded, Dirty, Humble, Holy

The Mother-Love of God

When my grandfather was a grown man, he experienced a toothache so painful that he tried to climb into his mother’s lap. While that wouldn’t have made the pain go away, he knew that it would bring him another sort of comfort. It seems we never completely lose the desire to be embraced by a mother’s love.

My grandfather had grown too big for climbing into laps. Sometimes, we have the same problem seeking comfort from God. Our thoughts concern our problems – how to fix them or avoid them. Psalm 131 can teach us another way.

It bears King David’s name, and we know him as a man of action but not in this poem. This psalm appears in the middle of the Psalms of Ascent, the songs of a long pilgrimage toward Zion. In the midst of the journey, we may need to stop and rest as David did. We could imagine him alone in the wilderness, done with fighting and fleeing, seeking only the peace of God’s company.  To that end he writes of a return to dependence, a return to stillness, a return to childhood.

In distressing circumstances adults tend to cast about anxiously for a solution or look for someone else to blame. Psalm 131:1 teaches us to set aside these prideful thoughts, acknowledging that solutions are beyond us and that we are as fallen as the next sinner. A child is content to simply be held. A “weaned child,” as described in verse 2, might be three or four years old, still small but also independent. Such a child would no longer cry and look for milk from her mother’s breast, but she would be satisfied with the warmth of her arms and the protection of her presence as she sings her baby to sleep. That is the aspect of God which David wants us to experience, the encircling, restful and gentle mother-love of God.

We can only experience that stillness if we deliberately set aside the cares of the day and our attempts to fix them. We can only do that in a quiet space where nothing else intrudes. We can only do that when God alone is all we want, not the things He might give us. The Lord of the universe gave us birth and nurture and sustenance. He proved His incredible love for us once and for all on the cross. He has all the time in the world to sit and hold us in His arms. Let us not wait until pain finally drives us there. Climb up into His lap in humble dependence and enjoy His love today.


Questions:

  1. What present circumstance makes you most long for a mother’s loving comfort?
  2. Take five minutes right now to meditate on this psalm. Try to sit quietly in God’s lap, resting in His arms and His love. If you find yourself climbing down again, don’t be frustrated; just notice it, and go back to sit with Him a little longer.

This post was first published in 2013.

Christ Died for Our Mistakes

Our mistakes haunt us. The mom who was late to the game where her child got hurt, the grandfather who lost thousands to a swindle, the teen who glanced down and wrecked his father’s car. These unhappy people live with the guilt of their unintentional mistakes. We are limited and fallible as well as sinful. Christ died for all our imperfections. Some of you who love theology (and I do) may be tut-tutting right now. “No, indeed!” you say, “Christ died for our SINS, the very essence of the Gospel,” but today I want to reflect upon this: He also died for our mistakes.

Deliberate Sin

I’m reading through the Bible this year, and from my current perch in Deuteronomy, it has become clear to me that there were no Old Testament sacrifices for deliberate sins. There were only punishments. Knock out your neighbor’s tooth? No goat released into the wilderness for you – pony up your own tooth (Lev. 24:20)! Steal your neighbor’s ox? No dove divided for your sins – you give your neighbor five replacements (Ex. 22:1). Disrespect your parents? No lamb on the altar for you – you die (Lev. 20:9)! Severe, yes. Deserved, yes. A low view of my own sin causes me to think of Christ as an animal sacrifice, making symbolic atonement. Not so. Whenever I sin deliberately, Christ is not the lamb being slaughtered in my place, He is the MAN being slaughtered in my place.

Unintentional Sin

If deliberate sin deserved a punishment rather than a sacrifice, what was all that gore in the Tabernacle about? The answer is that those sacrifices were for our MISTAKES. (Some of them were also for our so-called ‘good deeds,’ for our worship, our fellowship, our blessings.) All those sin offerings were for “unintentional sins,” failures that turned up as regrets, ignorance that resulted in harm, blunders that were revealed after the fact (see, for example, Lev. 4:1-3, Num. 15:22-29). Those sacrifices atoned for our fallenness, not for our evil.

Uncleanness

As human beings, not one part of us is clean enough to stand before a holy God. Anything which makes us less than whole, less than His perfection, things like sickness and death, weakness and mistakes, requires a sacrifice of cleansing. Indeed, all that constitutes our finest offering, all our righteousness, is like a filthy garment in the presence of God (Is. 64:6). To this end, Christ makes continual – and effective – intercession for us (Heb. 7:23-25). Can you accept it?

Christ Died for Our Mistakes

As I counsel Christian clients, I find most of them are eventually willing to release the guilt of intentional sin at the foot of the cross. It seems harder to release our mistakes. The “what if’s” and “only if’s” and the self-accusations of stupidity, carelessness or worthlessness seem to stick harder for some people than true evil. Perhaps it is because we seldom hear that Christ died for these things. And yet, Christ is signified by every bull, goat, lamb or dove which ever burned on the blood-spattered altar of the Tabernacle (see Hebrews 9). Christ died for our mistakes every bit as much as He died for our sins.

Redemption

If you are carrying guilt or regret over mistakes from your past, you are carrying something which does not belong to you. You don’t get a do-over, much as you crave it, nor does your self-punishment relieve you of your burden. But the death of Christ out-weighs every mistake ever made by all God’s children. Our mistakes can be redeemed. Our fallenness can be cleansed. When you cast it off at the foot of the cross, God releases you from the burden of that mistake, promises to use it for good, and gives you the freedom, even the obligation, to forgive yourself. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). Not for your sins – and not for your mistakes.


If you have a mistake you are trying to release, try this prayer:

Heavenly Father, forgive me for the mistake I made when __________________. Thank you for sending Jesus to offer the perfect sacrifice for everything that I am, including this. Help me believe that He is enough to redeem it all. Please use my mistake somehow for good in Your kingdom, and help me release it into Christ’s waiting hands. Amen.