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“Literary whiplash,” the sudden shock of plot twist, seems an appropriate description for the gospel record of the wise men visiting the Christ child after His birth.
Perhaps our familiarity with the story, recorded in Matthew 2:1–12, blunts the remarkable nature of this visit from these eastern wise men. It appears in the gospel account designed by a Jew primarily to convince Jewish readers to believe in the Jew named Jesus as Messiah, an account that is filled with Jewish linguistic and logistic structure. Therefore, it is startling when a cadre of Gentiles steps into the narrative as sincere and extravagant worshipers. Why did this Hebrew author include this Gentile parenthesis in the written record? The most obvious answer is simple: Matthew recorded it because it happened. The narrative is history, not an author’s fabrication. But God’s “providential conspiracy” to usher these Gentile journeymen onto the Biblical stage has some weighty lessons for both Jewish and Gentile readers of Matthew’s account.
Matthew teaches that this Child is the King of all the cosmos. The fabric of creation reacted to Jesus, as witnessed by the star at His birth (Matt. 2:2), and by the darkness and the earthquake at His death (Matt. 27:45, 51). God’s creation could not stand idly by as its Creator advanced His redemptive plan. Whether it was His birth or His crucifixion, time and space sent up flares and threw down markers.
The star is called “His star” by the Gentile seekers in Matt. 2:2. In other words, they believed the star had an owner! They were more accurate than perhaps they even realized, for Jeremiah 31:35 says, “Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for a light by day, the ordinances of the moon and the stars for a light by night.” And Psalm 147:4 records, “He counts the number of the stars; He calls them all by name.”
Here we are at least reminded that Christ’s work is not only redemptively reformational, but cosmically transformational. Various prophets painted pictures of massive cosmic upheaval that would accompany the intrusion of God’s kingdom upon this misshapen planet: Deserts would flow with rivers and plush gardens would explode where drought once seared all before it. Due to the devastation of the Fall, the coming of Christ’s kingdom impacts nature itself with dramatic import. Ultimately, Christ’s work will remove every cosmic mark of the Fall. Paul said that as creation waits to be “delivered from the bondage of corruption,” it “groans and labors with birth pangs together until now” (Rom. 8:21–22). We should even expect stars, sunlight, and the earth’s stability to act outside normal laws of nature because He has come! He is redeeming His people, and creation is showing signs of kingdom alteration and transfer. When the Lawgiver, the star namer, the cosmos Creator acts in history to be the wretch Redeemer, the wrath receiver, and the Savior of His people, creation pulses with the “office memo.”
Your worship this Advent season is of a Savior who won the ultimate victory, in the ultimate battle, for the ultimate kingdom’s coming. Even a star heralded the King’s arrival, like a troubadour of a greater parade of providence to come. When you were regenerated by God, you joined the ultimate renewal. Mediocre response to this is trespass in itself. Listen to Matthew 2:10: “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.” Bland, insipid, and pedestrian worship had no place in the Magi’s practice. It should have no place in our hearts either.
Matthew teaches that Jesus is the King of all cultures. The arrival of wise men, Magi or astronomers from the East, is a small taste of Christ’s cross-cultural drawing of people from “every tribe and tongue” to Himself in sovereign, electing power. Christ’s kingdom will take down every man-made and sin-made barrier between cultures until a new humanity assembles in Christ-glorifying wonder before Him, including all cultures and transcending them. Even at His birth, this promise of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12:3) begins to find fulfillment as the nations are drawn to the Son.
Matthew ends his narrative with Christ’s commission to take the Gospel to all the nations (Matt. 28:18–20), but it begins with the drawing of the nations to the King’s birth. God wants Christmas to remind us that He comes for the outsider, the ones we might not expect Him to call to Himself. It must not be missed that Christ draws the apparent outsiders with natural or general revelation (the star) and with special revelation (the Word of God quoted to the wise men in Jerusalem, Matt. 2:6). He uses both instruments to turn outsiders into Christ adorers. God conspires behind the details of His world and His Word to pursue the people no one would have thought He would or could transform.
Is it not thrilling to see God’s divine design behind star and statements, world and Word, natural laws and supernatural revelation, to capture the hearts and minds of these unexpected guests? Is He conspiring behind the details of your life and language of His Word to call you, even now? Perhaps the same transforming grace that invaded the cosmic laws of stars and the cultural laws of “the East” is invading the “laws” of your life. May it be so!
In his gospel record, Matthew discloses two kinds of hearts. First, there are those who seem logistically near to Him, but who are spiritually numb to His grace (Herod). Second, there are those who seem logistically far from Him, but are spiritually filled with faith in Him (the Magi). The contrast is another cause for “literary whiplash.”
The near-but-numb heart of Herod had access to the high priests, scholars, and prophets of God. But his was a heart aimed at murdering Christ. Proximity to truth is no guarantee of yieldedness to truth. By contrast, the far but “faith-filled” hearts of the Magi had no Biblical priests, scholars, or prophets of God. They probably had a culture of idolatrous adversaries to this truth. But their hearts were aimed at magnificently worshiping Christ. Spiritual distance and folly can be utterly shattered by the invasive grace of the King of hearts.
Here’s an Advent test. Do you want to remove His presence or revere His presence? Attack Him or adore Him?
Matthew teaches that Jesus is the King, worthy of extravagant worship. From their composure, or lack of it (v. 10, “exceedingly great joy”); to their posture, or the lack of it (v. 11, “They fell to the ground,” NASB); to their practice (v. 11, “and [they] worshiped Him”); to their presentation (v. 11, “They presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh”), the Magi were extravagant in their worship. Their behavior was far beyond perfunctory or routine. It was emotionally joyful, humble in posture, honoring in practice, and beautiful in presentation.
How few supportive worship appendices with which we are so familiar were present. There was no organ, choir, worship leader, or hymns—just the blessed incarnate Son of God and some “awestruck” Gentiles who obviously thought He was “worth it” because of the quality of their extravagant worship. Here’s a key to spiritually vital worship: When the inner person is astonished at the worth of the Savior, extravagance of emotion, posture, practice, and presentation is the result. Perhaps the real “worship war,” as the ecclesiastical pundits call it, is a fight for the worth of the Savior to be known among His people so they are astonished by Him. Not style, not music, but Him.
The word worship is the conflation of the old English greeting “worth-ship,” given to the highly respected like “lordship.” I am told that it indicates the worth of the one greeted. Apparently the Magi truly worshiped due to their grasp of His “worth-ship.” They knew Him as the cosmic King, the culture King, the heart King, and thus they immediately “downloaded” all that had worth to them, for He alone is worthy to be worshiped.
George MacDonald, the Scottish novelist and poet of the late 1800s and early 1900s, wrote of how this worth of Christ should move our response:
When I no more can stir my soul to move,
And life is but the ashes of a fire;
When I can but remember that my heart
Once used to live and love, long and aspire—
Oh, be Thou then the first,
The One Thou art;
Be Thou the calling, before all answering love,
And in me wake hope, fear, boundless desire.
This advent, remember that He is “the One . . . the calling, before all answering love.” If you do, you will find Him waking “hope, fear, boundless desire” within you. Then join the Magi and “rejoice exceedingly with great joy.” For the King of the cosmos has become King of your culture and your heart.
Rev. Joseph Novenson is the pastor of Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church in Lookout Mountain, Tenn.