Today we celebrate Epiphany, the day we remember the coming of the wise men to the baby Jesus. Travel wasn’t easy in those days, and the rich and powerful preferred to send representatives rather than go on the road themselves. The rich and famous often gave presents to their equals, but giving homage was reserved for their superiors. You wouldn’t expect rich folks like these to bow before someone who was born in a stable rather than a palace. These visitors were looking for the king of the Jews, and they weren’t even Jewish. They used King Herod to ask directions, the same way we might stop at a gas station to ask for advice, but when they found the baby, they greeted him with joy and reverence.
And so the kings, the Magi, come to worship the infant Jesus. Just to test to see how well you pay attention to the scripture story (Matthew 2:1-12), how many kings were there? Do you think there were three kings? … Do you have no clue at all how many kings there actually were? … You are correct. The scriptures tell us how many gifts were brought, but not how many people brought them. The tradition of three kings, each with their own names and stories, didn’t appear until hundreds of years after the birth itself.
The gifts themselves, of course, are highly symbolic. Gold is for the royal crown of the royal son of David. Incense was used in worship in the temple, and honored the divine nature in this child. In Jesus’s time, myrrh was a fragrance used to anoint bodies for burial, and it connects the baby at the beginning of his life with his coming sacrificial death. But myrrh is also the first ingredient in the sacred anointing oil that Moses was commanded to use, to consecrate the first priests of Israel. With these gifts, the Magi covered all the bases—royalty, divinity, holiness, and sacred sacrifice.
But who were these Magi anyway? As best we know, they were members of a group that most likely started among the Chaldeans or the Assyrians. They spread from Chaldea to Assyria and then to the area around Media, and finally come into Persia, where they became quite prominent. They’re mentioned several times in the Old Testament, and not favorably. Jeremiah says that one of the men sitting with Nebuchadnezzar when Jerusalem fell to Babylon was identified in ancient inscriptions as Rab-mag, head of the Magi.
After the time of Daniel the Magi came to Persia, where they grew under the leadership of Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra. They were recognized as experts in astronomy, astrology, and natural sciences, and they were highly respected for their learning. When they come into the story of the birth of Jesus, the Magi represent the best that the outside world has to offer.
Yes, the Romans were in charge in those days, but these men’s order were counselors for the ancient enemies of Israel’s history. They were rich and educated, from the group that guided the conquerors of Israel’s past. When they came, they came on behalf of the nations, on behalf of the powerful Gentiles who had caused Israel so much grief. They followed a light in the sky to find the light that was coming into the world, a light that they had no reason to expect or understand.
At the birth of Jesus, the shepherds represented the people of the neighborhood, the people of Israel. The Magi represented the rest of the world. The prophecy of Isaiah says,
“Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Isaiah 60:3)”
The wise men are the representatives of the nations at the birth of the child, and they’re also the first non-Jews to know that the Messiah arrived. They bow before him. They offer their tribute. With their gifts, they acknowledge that he’s their king as well. They’re overjoyed to learn that the real king of all kings is born, and they’re the very first to demonstrate that they’re his loyal subjects. These kings are the first Gentiles to recognize Jesus, and thankfully they’re only the first of many.