Recently, God has been fulfilling Matthew 2:1-12 before my eyes, leading me to experience the “exceeding great joy” the Magi felt when they came to the infant Jesus for worship. The Lord has also made me long for peace among nations and for a glory beyond what my heart can conceive. Perhaps sharing my story can spread some joy, peace, longing and praise.
The most recent “wise [people] from the East” (Matt. 2:1) I have met have come from Iran. Several have become members of our congregation, and their professions of faith and baptisms have inspired all who witnessed them. Through encounters with small Christian communities in Iran and by reading the Bible secretly there, they experienced the love of Jesus in dramatic ways. Although they come from an ancient and brilliant culture in Persia, their current government in Iran opposes their conversions with threats of arrest, torture and death. So God has led them to Canada, and studying the Bible with them here has made the Scriptures come alive for me.
For example, in a Bible study we call our “Farsi Fellowship,” we looked at Mark 13 in preparation for the first Sunday of Advent. What an encouragement it was for us to hear Jesus refer to international conflicts as “but the beginning of the birth pangs” for a new creation (Mark 13:8). When we read Jesus’ instructions about facing trials without worrying beforehand and instead trusting that the Holy Spirit would speak, my new friend Ali cried out, “That’s for me!” (Mark 13:11). And a couple days later, he experienced that passage fulfilled at his immigration hearing. For me, as I prepared to preach Mark’s apocalyptic passage on Sunday, it strengthened my faith to hear Jesus, as the Son of Man, promise that “he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the heavens” (Mark 13:27). Truly the Son of Man is at work “with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26) already now.
To experience these fulfillments of Bible passages fits a larger story of my relationship with the Scriptures as a whole and with Matthew’s story of the Magi in particular. Like many people, as a child I sang, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” and that song, along with Christmas pageants and nativity sets gave me a certain mental picture of Jesus’ birth. I have warm memories of a Sunday School teacher carrying a paper star at the end of a bamboo pole and leading some little wise people from one end of the chancel to the other. In our pageants, we participated in a long tradition of Christmas “bathrobe dramas.” We never brought in any live camels for our three kings, but I could picture them clearly in my mind.
Later in my student days, when I read more advanced Bible scholars, I came to understand that the mental images from my childhood did not exactly fit the biblical or extra-biblical data related to the Gospels’ infancy narratives. For example, it is hard to harmonize temporally the Magi from Matthew’s infancy narrative with the shepherds from Luke’s. Also, Matthew does not speak of kings when he depicts the Magi; nor does he speak of three persons when he depicts the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matt. 2:11). All these items from the pageants come from imaginative developments in the Christian tradition. Regarding extra-biblical factors, I learned that Bethlehem stands only about five kilometers from Jerusalem, so it was not clear to me how a star could indicate exactly “the place where the child was” (Matt. 2:9). I learned that I should not equate Matthew’s choice of genre with the Christmas skit genre I encountered as a child. I also learned that the infancy narratives had a richer message to offer than I had realized.
The Magi Gentiles
Far from causing me to lose faith in the Gospel narratives, scholarly studies into the human side of the divinely inspired stories made God’s message all the more intriguing. Kenneth Bailey’s cultural insights helped me to hear God speaking through Jesus and the Magi in relation to social and political matters in both the ancient world and today. Bailey also makes an overwhelming case for the hospitality of the people in Bethlehem as opposed to the mean old innkeeper from the skits. And his Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes has helped me preach the birth of Jesus as good news for all generations in all nations.
The other scholar who has helped and inspired me regarding the story of the Magi is Gerhard Lohfink in his superb book, No Irrelevant Jesus. After describing his own journey in regard to understanding the infancy narratives, Lohfink offers further insights into the Magi as representing the Gentiles – all nations – coming to the Lord. Lohfink shows how, beginning at Isaiah 2, with its marvellous promise of nations beating their swords into plowshares, and going through Isaiah 60 and beyond, God speaks a transformational Gospel promise about peace for people from all nations. Exegeting both Isaiah 60 and Matthew 2, Lohfink observes that, when the Gentiles come to God in Christ, they are “motivated by pure fascination,” and they share their treasures in terms bringing of the best they have to offer from “their philosophy, their ethics, their art” (307). So through the Magi as embodying the theme of God gathering all nations to himself, the infancy story in Matthew calls the church to embody the glorious and fascinating international society that God desires.
C.S. Lewis reflects on such matters in both a novel, That Hideous Strength, and his most popular apologetic book, Mere Christianity. In That Hideous Strength, Lewis describes the nation of England passing through a 20th century chapter in the perennial story of King Arthur. In the novel, England enters a time in which its best impulses clash with its worst. The nation of Shakespeare and other exquisite writers is also the nation of arrogant colonialism, and the vocation of the novel’s characters is to uphold the nation’s God-given treasures against temptations to dehumanize others. Such a struggle and calling applies to all people in all nations, and I certainly experience it as an American living in Canada. I long for both these nations, which I love, to fulfill Isaiah 60 by developing their gifts into treasures for the glory of God. I pray for all nations to follow the Magi in bringing their gifts and worship to Jesus.
And as I long for God’s people from all nations to gather peacefully in praise of the Lamb (Rev. 7), I can have a foretaste of that glory by gathering with our newest members from Iran, along with our charter members from the Netherlands and everybody in between. Not just each nation but each individual has “peculiar treasures” that reflect the glory of the Lord. As C.S. Lewis writes toward the end of Mere Christianity, “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints” (190). The Magi I first encountered as a child in a bathrobe are gloriously different from the Magi I encountered through mature study of the Bible. I experience them anew in the gathering of saints from all nations for worship each Sunday. And for that foretaste of glory beyond imagining, I praise God now.