After [the Magi] had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.
This is a very common story, one that we revisit every Christmas with depictions of the Nativity of our Lord in front of churches, homes, and even perhaps on our own coffee tables. The irony of this is that in the story’s utter familiarity to us, the richness of the symbolism may be lost. There are a number of stark contrasts here that draw our attention to the significance of the scene beyond merely providing material for colorful Christmas decorations. First, we see that some foreigners have traveled a long distance to see a mere baby. Further, they’ve come not just to see, but to pay homage to, to worship, this baby. Finally, and perhaps most startling of all, they are Gentiles coming to pay homage to a Jewish baby.
All of these details are quite important, because in them Matthew is making a profound point. This Jesus is no ordinary baby. For starters, the larger narrative is steeped in royal language. He is born in Bethlehem, the ancient birthplace of King David. The gifts of gold and frankincense were common gifts to royalty in the ancient world. The presence of a star reminds us of Balaam’s prophecy in the book of Numbers that a “royal star” would rise out of Judah. The arrival of the Magi themselves remind us of the great royal dignitaries who paid homage to Kings David and Solomon. Even King Herod feigns a desire to pay homage to this “king of the Jews.” Are you hearing the message here? This Jesus is a king.
But he is not just a normal king. Looming large in this passage is the identity of the ones paying homage to this new king. They are not Jews. They are Gentiles. Representatives of the nations are here at the very beginning of Jesus’ life as a profound symbol of the global implications of the new kingdom he represents. So profound, so glorious, is his arrival on earth that even the heavens testify to it. And the nations cannot therefore help but bow down in adoration. He is no simple king of the Jews. He is the king of the entire human race.
We are subjects of a truly awesome King. He comes as a tiny baby into our world, and even in such a state, the nations bow down in worship. He is born to a humble family with humble means, and yet the prominent of the nations lay down their wealth before him. He visits us from a people small and with little repute, and yet the whole world owes him its allegiance. This is what Matthew is telling us with this familiar tale.
Why do we engage in the work of mission? Do we do it to share platitudes about our own religious experiences? Do we do it to try and convert people to our way of thinking about reality? Or do we do it even just simply to accept people for who they are? Not quite. We engage in that labor as heralds of humanity’s true king. We do it as ambassadors of this world’s rightful ruler. And we do it to bring all people into the glorious riches of his kingdom not just as subjects, but as friends of this Heavenly King. What kind of earthly power can compare with this? What kind of Kingdom is this? It is one that can produce only one righteous response from the world. We do the work of mission, in short, to invite all the nations to come and swear their allegiance to him, by bowing down and worshiping him.
Look for Part 3 of this series, entitled “Nunc Dimittis”, soon. For the original setting of these devotionals, see my introduction to the first post in the series here.