In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the east came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star in the east and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him, and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah, for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
Then Herod secretly called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out, and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen in the east, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
You’ve probably heard me say it before, but I think Epiphany is one of the most important holy days of the year. I’ve also called it one of the most under celebrated days in the mainline church. I’m not saying it’s never celebrated–churches across the country will observe it in their worship every year. But simply observing Epiphany as the liturgical Sunday in which we acknowledge the arrival of the Magi misses the point.
As the passage notes above, the Magi had an important role to fill in a couple of ways. First, the Magi are significant because they are a reminder of the Gentiles’ acknowledgement of Jesus’ Kingship. From locations as far as Persia, India, and Asia these wise scholars came because they saw an aberration in the sky. A bright shining star in the west appeared that hadn’t been there before. We don’t know how familiar these astrologers were with Jewish prophetic literature, but we do believe they knew the constellations. And, when something changed that significantly, they set out to investigate.
When they had reached King Herod’s region, they began asking where the child had been born. They didn’t have GPS coordinates, so they were likely eyeballing the location. When word got back to Herod that there were wise men from the East searching for a king that had been born, he hatched a plan. King Herod met with the Magi, to both gather information and to tell them to return with the child’s location so that he too might “worship” the child.
The Magi finally completed their task. They found the child and paid homage to Christ as a king. Their presence and presents were God’s way of marking Christ as king of the world, extending Christ’s reign beyond the house of Israel, ultimately including us in God’s salvation plan.
Second, God also used them to protect the infant Jesus. As the story goes, God warned them in a dream to return home through a different route so as to avoid Herod. They never went back to report anything to the king. Because Herod didn’t know where Jesus was, he was unable to target him. Then God also warned Joseph in his dream that he should take Mary and the child and flee to Egypt where they would find safety. Once again God spoke to humans in their dreams to accomplish his will. The Magi’s willingness to heed the message revealed to them in their dreams shouldn’t be overlooked. Because they were obedient, the child was saved from death. God’s provision and protection were realized through the Magi. In these two ways, we can see how critical the Magi were in the story of Christ’s birth.