Suppose Jehovah, the Great I AM, had asked you to serve on a committee to formulate the plans for the events surrounding the birth of the Messiah. What would you have come up with?
The most natural idea would be to coincide the birth of the Messiah with one of the feasts celebrated annually by the people of God, perhaps Passover or The Festival of Booths of the Day of Atonement. Of course, you would invite all the dignitaries you could think of: spiritual leaders, political figures, popular entertainers, etc. There would be some sort of ceremony commemorating the event. Security would be tight, and only those on the “A” list would get close to the first family.
Of course, the birth of the Messiah looked nothing like that.
The entire event, according to Matthew, took place under the watchful eye of Herod. Herod ruled as King of Judea from 40 BC to 4 BC. By most accounts, he was a good ruler; good enough to last several Roman Emperor regime changes. He was wealthy, politically gifted, loyal to Rome, and an excellent administrator. His building projects impressed even his enemies. The way he handled the famine during his reign was honorable. Of course, he loved power and oppressed the Jews with a very heavy tax burden, but we might expect that from a Roman King. However, by the end of his life, his paranoia and cruelty were rising. Threatened by those closest to him, he killed several associates, at least two of his sons, and his wife in the last few years of his life. This is the Herod to whom the Magi come calling in Matthew 2.
And, while we are talking about strange characters who should not be invited to the birth of the Messiah, let’s talk about the Magi. Though uncertain, the term refers to a broad category of people who were interested in interpreting dreams, studying heavenly bodies (astrology), magic, and forseeing the future through certain books. Popular opinion was that the Magi were charlatans and rogues whose honesty were definitely in question. While most nativity scenes picture them as humble rulers bowing at the feet of Christ child, a better image might be of the gypsies of South Carolina: curious to watch but keep both hands on your purse.
They arrive in Jerusalem to consult the “not quite right” King Herod only to be referred to the people’s priests and teachers of the law. This group of “un-invitables” are a few social levels above the other two groups, but not much. What we learn from them through the gospel accounts is less than flattering. They loved the attention of the people and being thought of as spiritual leaders, but their spirituality was nothing but show. All smoke and no fire. They found every loophole in the law so they could technically obey the rules but still enjoy their sin. They were judgmental, prideful, and wicked, and those were their good qualities.
But of course, the Lord loves irony. The heroes of his stories are Samaritans, and He prefers tax collectors over Pharisees.
Compare the reaction of the people’s priests and teachers of the law. They were called in to testify as to the birthplace of the Messiah. They knew exactly where the child was to be born. Any good student of the OT messianic texts knew that the child was to be born in Bethlehem (see Micah 5.2).
But with all their knowledge came very little passion. What wondrous events? After all, how many times have they been called to the palace of the King? How many gypsy wanderers from the east have come looking for the King of the Jews? Weren’t they the least bit curious? Why didn’t someone from their committee send a representative to Bethlehem which was only 5 miles away just to check out their story? Their reaction? Indifference.
Compare this reaction to Herod. The jealous, pathological ruler responds to the birth of the child by ordering the death of all baby boys, two and under, in Bethlehem. Judging by the size of the small town at the time, this might have been no more than a dozen children or so. Not much of a concern to a powerful king. So insignificant, it didn’t even show up in any extra-biblical historical documents.
However, the action of Herod demonstrates his desire to take drastic measures to oppose the kingship of this child.
Finally, look at the Magi. Why on earth did God announce the birth of the Messiah through a special, magical “star like” thing to a group of dishonorable outsiders like the Magi? The star stopped over the place where the child was, so we know this is not just coincidence. And, we know that the Lord forbade his people to practice astrology, studying the stars to discern the future. (see Deuteronomy 4.19 and 17.3 and Jeremiah 10.1-2). So, why would the Lord use a detestable method to communicate to a group of vagrants about the birth of the Messiah?
But, they did understand, somehow, that the star was leading them to the one born King of the Jews. They worshipped, or paid devotion and honor to, this child as King of the Jews. And, they offered Him valuable gifts. They welcomed Him into the world, but in ignorance of who He would be.
So, of the three, Jewish religious leaders, a political leader, and lost Gentile people searching in vain for truth, who gave the best reaction? Indifference, opposition, or genuine interest?
On some level, the Magi serve to shame not only the pagan rulers but also any who would respond to the birth of the Messiah with passing indifference. They traveled hundreds of miles to see a baby, one they would never see again. They brought gifts of value to them, and journeyed home on that arduous path. They put forth effort, and they met the Messiah.
We know Herod’s fate. He died. We know the fate of the people’s priests and teachers of the law. Most of them died disbelieving the Messiah. But we don’t know the fate of the Magi. Did they become followers of Jehovah through this wondrous event? The most unlikely are still the most likely to be open to truth.