Formations 01.01.2023: Look Who’s Coming to Jesus

A. Golovin, Masquerade (1917), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Matthew 2:1-15

The Gospels’ tendency to upset people’s sense of propriety begins early in Matthew. If we can soldier through the scandalous women in Jesus’ genealogy (1:1-17), we finally come to chapter 2 and the arrival of “magi from the east” who seek the one born king of the Jews.

Traditionally, we call these magi “wise men.” The Greek text says “magi” (magoi), or “magus” in the singular.

What, then, is a magus? The word came into Greek from Persian, where it originally described a member of a particular learned or priestly caste. But by the time it came into Greek, and then Latin, the word had taken on a broader meaning that we can deduce quite easily with a moment’s thought: a magus is a magician.

If you’re inclined to pearl-clutching, feel free to clutch them now.

Matthew is arguably the most “Jewish” of the four Gospels. It certainly draws attention to its appeal to the Hebrew Bible, peppering its account with comments like, “This took place to fulfill what is written in the prophets.” So we can imagine that the author of Matthew—and the Gospel’s first readers—would have known that Deuteronomy 18:9-12 says:

When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the LORD…

“Abhorrent.” Other translations say these practices are an “abomination.” In the Bible, some of the first people to seek out Jesus and worship him are people that others would condemn as abhorrent.

The passage subverts expectations. The chief priests recognize the Messiah’s birth but have no desire to go worship him—and Israel’s king is already plotting to have him killed! Meanwhile, these Gentile magicians—astrologers, soothsayers, casters of spells, practitioners of strange and arcane rituals—are eager to go and pay him homage.

The Gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus’ disciples going into the world, but it begins with the world coming to Jesus in the person of the magi. They come to him earnestly, expectantly. They come in all their messy and off-putting diversity.

Will Jesus receive them?

Will we?


• How many ways do you see God directing the characters in this story?
• What can we learn from this passage about the ways that God unexpectedly guides and protects God’s people?
• What does it reveal about God that “abhorrent” magi would find welcome in this story?
• How does this story challenge our attitudes toward people who are “foreign” or “different”?

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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