The Christmas season comes to an end on Epiphany with the story of the wise men from the east. Matthew, who is the only evangelist to include this story, sees this episode as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 60:5-6. The wealth of the nations is coming to Israel’s messiah. As Isaiah prophesied, distant foreigners brought gold and frankincense. The arrival of the magi with their treasures foreshadows the universal reign of the messiah. The magi have come to prostrate themselves (proskuneō) before the newborn king.
Prostration could serve either a civil (“pay homage”) or a religious (“worship”) function (and in the ancient near east, these functions somewhat overlapped). While the magi came to pay the proper civil respect to a king, Matthew’s narrative makes it something more. Matthew and his readers know Jesus to be the resurrected and exalted one. He holds all authority in heaven and earth, and he is spiritually present with his church until the end of the age. He will come as the Son of Man who will come again to gather his chosen ones from across the earth. He is more than just a king like David (or Herod or Caesar).
One might expect that the arrival of the pagan Magi would be the start of a major emphasis on the inclusion of the Gentiles. Among the major New Testament authors, however, Matthew is perhaps least concerned with the Gentile problem. It is not until the final verses of Matthew’s gospel (i.e., the Great Commission) do we find Jesus showing much interest in the nations of the world. The visit of the magi and the giving of the Great Commission are the bookends on Matthew’s gospel. As Gentiles came to honor the messiah at his birth, so now the messiah’s disciples are to go into the Gentile world. The whole world may not have yet submitted itself to the messiah’s reign, but his world-wide church acclaims him as the one to whom all authority has been given.
The magi come. The messiah’s disciples go. As we move beyond the context of Matthew’s gospel, there are a couple of other moving pieces in the great gospel narrative that bear on the story of the magi.
In the sixth century BC, the people of Judea went into exile in Babylon. The communities that they established in the Chaldean empire – and later in the Persian empire – endured after the period of exile ended. Why would magi from the east have known or cared about Judean hopes for a king? Could it have been through contact with the Jewish diaspora in Persian lands? It’s easy to overlook the importance of diaspora Judaism. The simple faithfulness of God’s people draws the people of the world to him.
Finally, as the magi made their way from the east, perhaps they followed the same path that Abraham’s family traveled two millennia earlier. God called Abraham away from his idols and told him to go to the country he would show him. Thus began the story of salvation, with the journey of a family from Ur of the Chaldeans to the land of Canaan. In answering God’s call and retracing Abraham’s steps, the magi recapitulate Abraham’s journey from idolatry. From the beginning, God recruited idolaters into his mission to save the world. The story of the magi are a part of that tradition.