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Happy New Year’s Eve!  It’s almost Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas, January 6th.  It’s the day we remember the magi visiting Jesus in Matthew 2:1-12.  In our family we always celebrate this day with a piñata.

(Photo: Breaking a piñata, by Yavidaxiu. CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.)

(Photo: Breaking a piñata, by Yavidaxiu. CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.)

What’s a magi?

A magus (magi is plural) was the name for a member of the priestly caste in the Persian Empire.  Magi tried to understand the present and future in several ways, one of which was the study of astrology (which went hand-in-hand with astronomy in the ancient world).

Magi were not necessarily kings.  In fact, there is no indication in the Bible that the magi who visited Jesus were kings.  This is a later, non-biblical tradition.  Also, we have no idea how many of them visited Jesus.  You hear about 3 wise men because of how many gifts were brought.  They definitely rode camels though, right?

The Journey of the Magi, by James Tissot. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Journey of the Magi, by James Tissot. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Arrival of a Mighty Ruler

It wasn’t just 1st century Jews expecting the arrival of a mighty ruler from Judea (Ezekiel 34:23-31).

“Throughout the whole of the East there had spread an old and persistent belief: destiny had decreed that at that time men coming forth from Judea would seize power [and rule the world].”Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars: Vespasian, 5.

The Star in the East

Was it an actual star?  A comet?  An alignment of planets?

Probably it was the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn, which took place 3 times in 7 BC.  Because Jupiter was the king of the planets, and Saturn was thought to represent the Jews, the conclusion for the magi, those students of astrology, was obvious.  A new king was about to be born among the Jews.

Perhaps the Magi knew from the Jewish community in their land (descendants of those deported in the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles) about Balaam’s prophecy:

“A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.”Numbers 24:17

So they followed the star from their homeland, possibly Babylon, to Jerusalem.

The True King of the Jews (and the World)

In Jerusalem they visited King Herod and asked for directions.  Matthew makes it clear that King Herod is an imposter.  He has already killed various people he feared were trying to take his throne from him.  What’s a few more dead children to a crazy, paranoid tyrant?  His reign ends shortly after the birth of Jesus.

The arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem at the house where Jesus and his family live introduces us to the idea that while Jesus may be the king of the Jews, that doesn’t mean his rule is limited only to Jews.  The Magi are the first gentiles (non-Jews) Matthew has told us meet Jesus.  Thus we realize that Jesus is the king, the Messiah, whose reign had been predicted to bring about God’s justice and peace to the whole world (e.g. Psalm 72; Isaiah 11:1-10).

Working with God

Matthew ends his gospel with Jesus instructing his followers to go out and make disciples from every nation.  Jesus, the Messiah, the king of the world, chose to complete the work of rescuing creation through His followers.   He invites us to join with Him in meaningful labor working together to bring the reality of His kingdom to earth.

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Grace and peace.