While Luke’s gospel records the birth and immediate arrival of the shepherds, Matthew’s is a little different. There is a delay of some sorts. Most estimate that, by the time the magi arrived, Jesus was somewhere between the age of 1 and 2 years old.
These noble magi had travelled all the way from the east, maybe as far as what we now call China. In those days, travel was done by foot and/or upon domesticated animal. By the time they saw the star, hit the road westward and arrived to the town of Bethlehem, months upon months would have passed. Not to mention that, in Matt 2:16, we read that Herod wanted all baby boys two years and under put to death. Hence, the expectation that Jesus was a bit older at this point.
Even more, underneath this whole account, written by a Jew (Matthew) to a mainly Jewish audience, we find specific undertones to tell us this is the Christ, the Messiah-King, foretold by the prophets.
1) The gifts
We know of the 3 gifts. We normally associate 3 gifts with 3 wise men/magi (the song, We Three Kings). But it’s more likely that, even if there were only 3 magi, there would have been an entourage of people travelling with these dignitaries.
Still, noting the specific gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (the last 2 being exotic spices mixed at times into an incense for worship), this would have reminded the Jews of a story of long ago. David’s first kingly son, Solomon, was visited by a great dignitary, the Queen of Sheba (see 1 Kings 10:1-10). And what did she bring – large quantities of gold, spices and precious stones. I mean large quantities.
But here was David’s even greater son, Jesus the Christ. And here were dignitaries bringing very similar gifts.
2) The star
There was a prophet of old whom we read about in the first books of the Bible, one who was not so good. His name was Balaam. Interestingly enough, he had come from the east (near the Euphrates River) and he prophesied that a star will come out of Jacob, a sceptre will rise out of Israel (Num 24:17-19).
One from the east telling of a star. Magi from the east following a star. The Jews would have caught this parallel.
3) The babies
A deliverer once arose amongst God’s people long ago. We know him as Moses. In that day, king Pharaoh had ordered that all baby boys be put to death.
A new Moses was now arising who would lead a new exodus for the people of God. King Herod was peeved to know a new king of the Jews was here, since that was his own title. He would have none of it. This boy must be put to death, so let’s take them all out just to make sure.
Jews reading the account would have been drawn in. It would have struck a chord with them.
God always communicates within a historical framework. He does not speak so abstractly. When God revealed himself to the Hebrew-Jewish people, he did so within their context. And when Christ comes, he comes within that same framework. Of course, God is not bound to this. But he chooses to make himself known in such a way. In a sense, it’s incarnational.
It’s interesting to note that, those who should have properly responded to the arrival of Christ, did not. You’ve even got the chief priests and teachers of the law able to tell us where the Messiah was to be born – in Bethlehem, according to Micah 5:2. But where were they?
Rather, we have crazy astrologers and smelly shepherds who respond. Those outside the club find themselves in amazement and worship of the Christ child. Matthew is quite scandalous for pointing this out – remember, he’s a Jew mainly writing to Jews.
And we find these magi giving some of the greatest gifts of their day. As some kind of dignitaries, it’s interesting to see them bowing before the child. We already see a remarkable reversal of the world’s values, showing us the true ways of the kingdom of God.
Now, these noble magi would have had such expensive gifts at their disposal. But the point is what has been communicated even deeper. Most of us have not gold and exotic spices of such extravagant price. But what we do have, we are called to offer unto Christ. What he calls for even more is that of ourselves. The Father is seeking those who worship from deep spirit and out of truth. We are called to present ourselves as living sacrifices. We might claim we have little, but we do have ourselves – will, mind, heart, body, soul.
It’s not to over-spiritualise the account. They actually gave gifts. We, at times, render gifts unto the Lord. But, in the end, bulls and goats he does not require. He calls for a broken and contrite heart from his people.
And, so, this Christmas season, we are reminded to give the gift of ourselves unto Christ. Does he need us? Not in the sense of being insecure without us. But we have been created for him, by him and unto him. He is true Lord and King over all. And kings deserve the best. We are the best gift to render.