I asked a few days ago why we give presents to people at Christmas whose birthday it definitely is not. And the fingers pointed to the wise men. It’s their fault, you said. So, let’s talk about that.
The word translated “wisemen” or “magi” in the book of Matthew (the only book that mentions them) is translated elsewhere in scripture as “sorcerer.” These guys were not Yaweh followers. They weren’t worshippers of the one true God. They were gentiles, which means non-Jews. And they were from the East – most stuff I’ve read thinks probably from Persia, which formerly ruled over the Jews (in that space between Malachi and Matthew). There’s no evidence I’ve seen or heard of that these guys believed Jesus was the Messiah or God in the flesh before arriving at Jesus’ house when he was a toddler. At this time in history the Jews themselves didn’t all agree that there would even be a Messiah and exactly what form he would take (human or spirit), or when, or where or even why. So we don’t know what these guys were thinking exactly as they made the trek to Jesus’ house.
We don’t know much about these guys at all really – how many there were, what their names were…But we know they brought three gifts. Some folks put a lot of symbolism into these gifts nowadays. Gold is theorized to be a gift that acknowledged Jesus as king. Frankincense was used in temple worship so some say it represents Jesus’ priestly role, mediating between God and man. And myrrh was used in embalming and is said to have foreshadowed his death. But I’m not buying it. I certainly don’t know why those gifts in particular were given – the bible doesn’t say – but I don’t think these guys knew about Jesus’ role as priest or about his coming death. His own people the Jews didn’t get this yet and they had the light of scripture to guide them! All these gentiles had was the light of a star – no words from a prophet or God that we’re told of. But let’s look at what we do know from the bible and history – maybe there’s some insight into the meaning of these gifts there.
These guys see a light and believe it will lead them to the King of the Jews. When they get to the land of the Jews they go see Herod and ask him if he knows where the King of the Jews is. Now, this is fascinating to me. Herod had two official titles: Governor of Galilee and King of the Jews. He married the daughter of the high priest and built a fancy new temple in Jerusalem all in an effort to align himself with the Jews. He did the hard work of a politician aiming to win over those he ruled. And suddenly these foreigners show up asking the King of the Jews if he knows where the King of the Jews has been born? That’s just plain funny, humbling for poor old Herod, and meaningful I think.
Also, Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience and his main point, throughout his book, is that Jesus is King. In the beginning of his book, for instance, he lists Jesus’ family tree and the way he does it in Hebrew forms an acrostic that spells DAVID over and over again. David, as in KING David. He’s really driving the point home time after time that Jesus is King of the Jews – the one they’ve waited for.
Putting all this together, is it possible that the reason Matthew – and only Matthew – wrote about the pagan sorcerers from Persia bowing down before Jesus the toddler, isn’t to urge us to buy our kids a Webkin or a Wii but to paint Jesus as King. And not just any king but a King who will be worshipped by all nations, who will bring long-promised respect and honor to the Jews. He’s the King of Jews, of governors and of gentiles everywhere.
But what kind of worship does this King want?
When Matthew says the sorcerers worshipped Jesus the Greek word proskuneo is used. It doesn’t mean to sing. It means to kiss the hand of one in power, symbolically to fully submit to them. It evolved from combining two older words that mean “toward” (pros) and “dog” (kuon). If this word for worship were a picture it would be the image of a Master reaching for his pet and getting a big lick on the hand. These smart guys who lived in one of the most powerful nations of the ancient world, showed up and humbled themselves, they licked the Master’s hand. Could it be that the giving of gifts to Jesus that day, if symbolic of anything, was symbolic of submission – the submission of all nations to Christ the King? And is it possible that if there’s any implied commandment in this story it’s not a command to give stuff to people but to give ourselves to God?
This, according to Jesus, is the kind of worship God wants. He uses the word proskuneo in John 4:23-24: …a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.
That first part could read like this then: …the time has come when true subjects of the king will submit themselves to the Father…
Hey, honestly, I wish Jesus was looking for worshippers willing to give me an iPhone or a new guitar. But I think he’d rather have worshippers willing to give up themselves. Am I wrong? What do you think?