One Christmastime, Dad surprised the family with a new Nativity scene. The set featured a stylized cherry-wood stable and a host of beautiful porcelain figurines. There was the angel with golden wings and a trumpet held aloft, Mary clad in lavender and blue as she kneeled over Baby Jesus, surrounded by animals galore.
But my favorites were the three wise men. It wasn’t very theological of me, but I couldn’t help thinking they were the loveliest of the bunch, dressed in vibrant robes and exotic headdresses. Even their camel was decked out with colorful tassels.
Perhaps it has to do with efforts to dispel myths about the Magi and the star they followed (I know my pastor gets annoyed by these misconceptions), but I don’t actually hear much about these guys in Christmas sermons. I do hear about the shepherds. They were a lowly group—they probably smelled terrible and likely didn’t receive extensive educations. The Magi were the exact opposite: wealthy, educated, and foreign. No doubt they were among the intellectual elites of their culture. I think we miss out on some important insights when we overlook the Magi.
The story of the Magi says something about the value of intellectual pursuits to personal faith. In an article on the Christmas star, RTB astronomer Hugh Ross notes that it’s likely the Magi were influenced by the teachings of Daniel, the only Old Testament prophet to predict the timing of the Messiah’s arrival.
So these guys were paying attention when the “star” appeared. Hugh points out that the Christmas star is not recorded anywhere outside the Bible—it was just noticeable enough to alert the wise men, but no one else it seems. No one else was paying attention.
According to Matthew 2, when the wise men showed up in Jerusalem, they caused quite a stir by asking, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
Based on the reactions of King Herod and his people, it seems that this information took everyone by surprise even though they had access to all the Messianic prophecies within their own Scriptures. The wise men were Gentiles, yet they were prepared, and they knew what they were looking for. They had done their homework.
To me, the Magi serve as a subtle reminder to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’” It’s a struggle sometimes to love God as Jesus commanded and as the wise men demonstrated. The loving-God-with-all-our-minds part seems especially neglected. We overemphasize emotional intimacy in our worship services or poke fun at those stodgy old theologians or just don’t bother studying Scripture for more than a “verse of the day.” I say “we” because I struggle with this all the time. But, as the story of the Magi illustrates, the rewards of preparing ourselves intellectually are ample.
Hugh concludes his Christmas star article,
What strikes me as the most important point of the story is its illustration of the hope the magi placed in the promised Messiah. When I consider the magnitude of their commitment of time, energy, and treasure to seeking him out in order to bow before him, I pray that my response and yours will match theirs.
As we continue moving forward into the twenty-first century, with all its cultural challenges, I hope with Hugh that we will be more and more like the wise men: attentive and prepared and eager to respond when God calls on us.
Resources: Check out RTB’s Christmas star page for blogs, podcasts, and video clips addressing this mysterious celestial phenomenon.