Learning from the Magi
Advent is a special season in which we are encouraged to refocus our attention on the instructive nature of the birth narratives of the Savior. Among the parts of the birth narrative of Jesus, the Scriptural record of the Magi coming from a distant land to seek, find, and worship the infant Christ, is far and away one of the most spiritually rich. The details surrounding it--though seemingly meager--are full of lessons that serve to build God's people up in faith, while encouraging those who have never trusted in Him to do so.
We don't know much about the background of the wisemen. They were almost certainly astrologers from Mesopotamia or some other part of the Eastern world--most likely part of the group of astrologers to which Zoroaster belonged. Many scholars conclude that this group of wise men were coming out of modern-day Iraq or Iran. In any case, they were far from the people of God, and far from the promises of God. Nevertheless, God had chosen them and was calling them to come to the newborn Christ. They were, in some respects, the first-fruits of the Gentiles, for whose salvation Christ had come into the world.
These wisemen had very little revelation about Christ. We can conclude that they have received some form of revelation. We do not know whether it was oral revelation or an immediate revelation from God. It might have been a mixture of the two. Jonathan Edwards, in his sermon, Seeking After Christ, speculates--on good grounds--that the magi had learned Messianic prophecies that had been passed down from the Hebrews' time of captivity in Babylon. He explained,
"'Tis most probable that those wise men that came from the east were some that had received instruction from the holy writing of the Jews that had been carried into the east, first to Babylon, which was many hundred miles to the east of Judea, and afterwards to Shushan in Persia, which was yet a great deal further to the east. There was Daniel, that great prophet exalted to great dignity, and there was Nehemiah, and there was Elisha and Mordecai; and these had the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning Christ with them. And Daniel himself, who was set over the wise men of the east as their master, was himself a great prophet and wrote one of those books of Old Testament prophecy— whose prophecy of Christ is in some respects more particular than [that] of any other prophets— and probably wrote it in Persia when he was in great dignity there, and doubtless left instructions among the great and wise men of that eastern part of the world, whose master he was, concerning Christ, and probably might leave his own prophecy and the other prophecies of Scripture concerning the Messiah in their hands."
Additionally, Edwards surmised that they very well might have been recipients of the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24. He observed,
"They were probably instructed [in] one of the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning the star that should arise out of Jacob. This they probably had from Balaam's prophecy. Numbers 24:17, “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a star out of Jacob, and a scepter shall arise out of Israel, that shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.”
Balaam himself, who prophesied thus, came out of the east and, it may be, from the same country that those wise men came from, and there might leave his prophecy."
By way of contrast, the chief priests and scribes had much revelation about Christ. In fact, they had the entire Old Testament revelation. When the wise men asked Herod--the non-Hebrew king of Israel, where the Christ was to be born, the priests and scribes immediately pointed to the Bethlehem prophecy in Micah 5:2. The faith of the wise men is set in stark contrast to the unbelief of the religious leaders in Israel. The Christ had come into the world and the religious leaders were unmoved and undesirous of seeking for Him. In fact, Herod was enraged by the threat that it possed to His power and rule. The religious leaders knew exactly where they were to find Him but did not exert one ounce of energy in doing so. The Magi, however, spent much of their own time, money, and efforts in finding the Savior of the world. This contrast teaches us several important points.
First, it teaches that someone can know the Scriptures--even those specific Scriptures about the birth of the Messiah, while having no gracious working in their souls. J.C. Ryle explained, "there may be knowledge of Scripture in the head, while there is no grace in the heart." These leaders of the Old Covenant church knew the Scriptures but had no interest in the Savior.
Second, the Magi were examples of those who had great saving faith. Ryle again observed,
"They saw no miracles to convince them...They beheld no signs of divinity and greatness to overawe them. They saw nothing but a new-born infant, helpless and weak...And yet when they saw that infant, they believed that they saw the divine Savior of the world.
Then he noted,
"They believed in Christ when they had never seen Him...They believed in Him when the Scribes and Pharisees were unbelieving...They believed in Him when they saw Him a little infant on Mary’s knee, and worshipped Him as a king."
Third, these wealthy and learned pagan astrologers were joyfully humbled themselves and worshiped the infant Jesus--who appeared to be nothing other than a poor beggar baby. They were eager to present Him with costly gifts they had brought from distant lands. In this, they teach us that when we have saving faith in Christ we will readily and generously give of our resources in the service of the King--even when accompanied by unspectacular circumstances. Many are willing to give to things that have an outward show and appearance. True faith moves believers to give themselves and their resources to the advancement of His kingdom regardless of outward pomp.
As we consider anew the divine activity in the lives of the wisemen, we are met with the reality of God's sovereign grace to those who were once far off from God. We are reminded of the way in which God chooses and calls pagans to trust in His Son. We are warned that we can have a deep knowledge of the Scriptures yet no grace in our hearts. We are motivated to believe in Christ despite any visible miracles or outward displays of glory. We are taught to trust in Jesus even when others around us show deep disinterest. And we are encouraged to give of our time, possessions, and persons to the King of Kings and the advancement of His kingdom--especially when the work of His kingdom seems to be lacking in outward impressiveness. May we learn from the Magi during this season of Advent, and may we like them seek, find, and worship the Christ!