Wise Pagans? These Are Not the Magi You Are Looking For

…The heavenly Father chose to appoint the star and the Magi as our guides, to lead directly to his Son: while he stripped him of all earthly splendor, for the purpose of informing us that his kingdom is spiritual. This history conveys profitable instruction, not only because God brought the Magi to his Son, as the first-fruits of the Gentiles, but also because he appointed the kingdom of his Son to receive their commendation, and that of the star,  for the confirmation of our faith; that the wicked and malignant contempt of his nation might not render him less estimable in our eyes…

The first inquiry here is: Was this star one of those which the Lord created in the beginning (Genesis 1:1,16) to “garnish the heavens?” (Job 26:13.) Secondly, Were the magi led by their acquaintance with astrology to conclude that it pointed out the birth of Christ? On these points, there is no necessity for angry disputation: but it may be inferred from the words of Matthew, that it was not a natural, but an extraordinary star. It was not agreeable to the order of nature, that it should disappear for a certain period, and afterwards should suddenly become bright; nor that it should pursue a straight course towards Bethlehem, and at length remain stationary above the house where Christ was. Not one of these things belongs to natural stars. It is more probable that it resembled a comet, and was seen, not in the heaven, but in the air. Yet there is no impropriety in Matthew, who uses popular language, calling it incorrectly a star.

This almost decides likewise the second question: for since astrology is undoubtedly confined within the limits of nature, its guidance alone could not have conducted the Magi to Christ; so that they must have been aided by a secret revelation of the Spirit. I do not go so far as to say, that they derived no assistance whatever from the art: but I affirm, that this would have been of no practical advantage, if they had not been aided by a new and extraordinary revelation…

The reason why the star had been exhibited was, to draw the Magi into Judea, that they might be witnesses and heralds of the new King. So far as respects themselves, they had not come to render to Christ such pious worship, as is due to the Son of God, but intended to salute him, according to the Persian custom, as a very eminent King. For their views, with regard to him, probably went no farther, than that his power and exalted rank would be so extraordinary as to impress all nations with just admiration and reverence. It is even possible, that they wished to gain his favor beforehand, that he might treat them favorably and kindly, if he should afterwards happen to possess dominion in the east.

via Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke – Volume 1 – Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

It has been the custom of many to think of the Magi as pagans. Calvin tended this way. Though as he remarks their views… probably, admitting his ignorance of their spiritual state. He then jumps off into speculation of their heart motives. Why not take the meaning of worship at face value? This sign they had seen, which could not have been natural, and also must have been attended by supernatural revelation, was made manifest by the same Spirit of revelation by which all believers follow The Star. We might wonder if the shepherds had again seen this same star when the Magi did upon leaving Jerusalem. The appearance to the shepherds was accompanied by revealing angels declaring the birth of the Savior of God’s people. Could it have been the same for the Magi? Did anyone else see and hear?

As I pointed out, Balaam was one who found an intercessor in the Angel of the Lord.  As a prophet of God, he gave us the first revelation of The Star. There are those in Scripture who are of gentile stock who seemingly know more about messianic prophecy than many who were native to Israel, it appears. Despite our prejudices, Balaam’s vision of the Lord finds its uniqueness among only true prophets of God. Regardless of the many denunciations of his actions in Scripture, his oracles are rich Immanuel Christology.

One of the most curious events in the OT, the revelation of salvation through a shear act of grace in the revival of Nineveh, leaves little doubt that God does save some outside Israel prior to the gentile revelation. Should God not care about so many people who cannot tell their right hand from their left? Jonah’s rebuke is well remembered for the ethnocentric bigotry it was. (We see that rebuke in Jesus’ critical reference, “And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”) Do we just set aside the salvation of a whole gentile city and say that since they weren’t of Israel they remained pagans and not privy to the revelation of the salvation of the Lord? What is to be said about those gentiles which Jesus encountered in his ministry who he says had more faith than many in Israel? I suppose even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.

Abraham himself came from the same eastern lands as the Magi and had his own familial pantheon. He was, as disrespectful as it may seem, a gentile. He was the progenitor of Jacob who was the father of Judah, but he was not a Jew. And if what we mean by pagan was that he was confused at first about just what and who he was to solely worship, then a pagan he was. However, we don’t view him as such. We acknowledge him from his first mention as the father of the faithful. Though, he was by no means the first. So also, even though the Magi came from a cultural setting which we find distasteful, even though theirs might have been an infantile faith and mixed perhaps with other cultural trappings, it doesn’t mean that God hadn’t worked faith in them as he did in Abraham. So, when they appear they in truth worship Jesus as king who is God with his people. What I find delicious is that God in a way said to them, “Leave your home and go to a land I will show you.” And being Magi, they might have well been aware of much of Jewish Scripture.

Taking a look back at Balaam’s prophecy we find this interesting sounding herald:  “The LORD their God is with them,  and the shout of a king is among them.” When was there a king in Israel? Who is this king among them? When Israel rejects a king, the Lord tells Samuel it was he. Later prophets will tell of the king named Immanuel who is God with them. Long before that we have Balaam saying exactly that. We will not tarry much longer on Balaam, but in his oracles, which we must take to be under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we find his plea when Balaam proclaims his solidarity with Israel to be in very much like another unfaithful prophet, David: “Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!” Who can deny the richness of the Messianic nature of Balaam’s prophecies even in that.

If it is true, as I speculated before, that these Magi were aware of Balaam’s prophecy, and who are we to say they were not, or that as Calvin says, they were given supernatural revelation, it may mean that they knew that Christ the Savior was born. That he was the Star rising out of Jacob, that he was the king who is God with his people, the long-awaited Immanuel. If I choose to believe these men not pagans but believers, there is far more Scriptural testimony to possibility that their knowledge was that of true wise men than just that of some wise guys from the east.

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