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We love the story! We depict it in our church pageants, we sing about it in our carols, and we love the image of the gathered crowd at the manger: shepherds, sheep, cattle, and, of course, three Wise Men.

The account of the “Wise Men,” or astrologers, is found only in the Gospel of Matthew. Luke seems not to have known about it, or to have simply chosen not to include it in the birth narrative found in that Gospel. And there is no further reference to those visitors anywhere else in the New Testament.

The timing of their arrival indicates that the birth had already occurred, and that the child and his parents were still in Bethlehem, though perhaps not still in the stable.

What does this story have to do with the coming of the Jewish Messiah, and what are we to make of the appearance of the Wise Men in Jerusalem?

There are a number of possible explanations for where these men originated. Some suggest they were from a land East of Jerusalem, maybe Parthia, a sworn enemy of Rome. We are told that they had observed some kind of heavenly event, perhaps an unusual star, at its rising.

It was not unusual for some people in that era to assume that an unusual formation in the heavens, an unexpected appearance of a star of some kind, would herald the birth of a significant person. For most of us, stars are seldom seen in the ambient light in our cities. And few of us could discern any difference in star formations we seldom see.

But there is something here that Matthew believes is significant. There is a stark contrast between the narrow focus of the genealogy of Jesus, depicting his fulfillment of the Messianic hopes of Israel, and the appearance of Gentile astrologers who are drawn to Jerusalem in search of the one believed to be born “King of the Jews.”

The appearance of the “magi” in Jerusalem would have been troubling to the power structures, and their questions must have aroused suspicion enough that they were eventually summoned to a secret meeting with Herod, the vassal king of the Jews, himself under the thumb of Rome. He was a despicable despot, violent to the extreme, having murdered some of his own family in order to secure his role as ruler.

But Matthew is a strategic writer. Here, in the very beginning of the story of Jesus, he lays the foundation for the final words of Jesus as they are conveyed in the closing of the Gospel of Matthew: Jesus came as the Messiah of the Jews not just for the Jews, but as redeemer for “all the nations” (all the peoples).

In telling the story of the birth of Jesus Matthew quickly engages us in the tension that arises when the “powers” react, resist, and seek to destroy any threat to their authority, while those simply hungry to follow God’s promptings, see, understand, and worship.

There is no hint that the magi had any depth of understanding of the Messianic expectations of the Jews. We do not know if any of them had some exposure to the Jewish scriptures. Were they “God-fearers,” like those described in the Book of Acts (Acts 8:26-27; 10:1-2) who, though Gentiles, sought to know and worship the God of the Jews? In the prayer of King Solomon at the dedication of the temple (I Kings 8:41-43) Solomon called upon God to hear the prayer of “the foreigner” who would come and pray “toward the temple.” How much greater might be the attention of God toward those who knelt before the infant Jesus, the embodiment of all that the Temple represented?

It is tempting to imagine a more developed understanding of the significance of the birth of Jesus on the part of the Wise Men than the scripture allows. We do know that, under the apparent initiative of God, something stirred an interest in these travelers from the east that prompted them to attempt a perilous journey into “enemy territory” to locate a child whose birth had been indicated by a shining star. We also know that they sought the counsel of citizens of Jerusalem as to where a child born to be “king of the Jews” might be found.

We also know that, even in this early stage in the Gospel of Matthew, the opposing interests of malevolent power and the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God are on stark display. We see the deceptive appeal of Herod thwarted by the intervention of a vision that prompted the Wise Men not to return to Herod, but to return home by another road.

What we know best of all is this: God interrupted the life of the Wise Men, sending them on a quest to find and give homage to the child born to be King of the Jews. How they knew we are not told. What we are told is that, in obedience to the promptings of the God of heaven and earth, they followed the star, worshipped the King, and returned home.

Were the Wise Men the first Christians? Perhaps the greater question is, what of us who claim the Name, worship the King, and bear His cross? Do we go as far, give as much, and worship with the passion and risk they demonstrated?

“O star of wonder, star of night . . .Guide us to thy perfect light.”

Jesse C. Middendorf  is Executive Director of the Center for Pastoral Leadership at Nazarene Theological Seminary. He served as a pastor and administrator in the Church, retiring from the post of General Superintendent in 2013. The Center for Pastoral Leadership can be found on Facebook.

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