In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth story, details are slim except to say, “but [Joseph] knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.” (Mt 1:25). It’s no wonder that the fascinating report of the magi from the East gets lumped in with the shepherds in the nativity scene. The problem is that the magi don’t show up until long after Mary stopped using a manger for a bassinet. The reason for the mistaken inclusion of the magi is that their account follows in the storyline closely after the birth of Jesus, though the history required up to a couple of years to pass.
Now many people have noted the possible links with the wise men of Babylon (cf. 1 Kings 4:30), even the possibility of them being skilled in astronomy, resulting in their “star watching” (Mt 2:2). Even if we don’t know all the details about these men (likely more than three), we can see God’s promises fulfilled in their mission.
The messiah child, Jesus, was the new magnetic north for all people. The supernatural star shone a mysterious spotlight on Jesus’ residence. And the magi were drawn to the light like moths to a lightbulb.
Around 730 years before, Isaiah had prophesied about foreigners swearing allegiance to the God of Israel (19:18). And about 100 years later, Jeremiah spoke of people inquiring about how to get to Zion, in order to “join themselves to the Lord” (Jer 50.5). There was a prophetic magnetism that drew Gentiles toward the infant Jesus.
The magi were not only compelled by the starlight but by the enlightenment which God’s servant would give. In fact, the servant, capital “S”, would embody the new covenant with God, “I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations,” (Isa 42:6). For all of their wisdom, these magi could no longer remain in darkness, for they had seen a great light (cf. Isa 9:2). And long before Adam Smith used the phrase “the wealth of nations” to defend capitalism, Isaiah prophesied that “the wealth of nations” would flow toward the messiah’s kingdom (Isa 61:6). So the magi emptied their bank accounts and brought costly gold, frankincense, and myrrh to donate to the newborn king.
The most important thing which the magi did wasn’t their clever negotiations with Herod, nor their astronomical calculations. It was their response to Jesus when they came to the house where Jesus was being cared for by his loving mother Mary. What did they do? They fell down and worshipped Jesus (Matt 2:11).
When you see a nativity scene with three wise men looking on, don’t revert too quickly to correcting its timeline. Instead, remember that the magi were some of the first worshippers of Jesus Christ from among the Gentiles. As Paul said, “remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:12-13). This Christmas, let us remember that the magi were ‘brought near” as an example for all nations to follow in their footsteps (Rom 15:12).