You’ve probably seen those funny memes that say something like, “If three wise women had visited Jesus, they’d have brought more useful gifts like diapers, formula, and some casseroles for the family.”
These memes are admittedly funny (because they’re so true!). Those gifts would certainly have been more practical for the holy family.
The only problem is this: they would also have missed the point.
How do the Gentile magi fit into the bigger biblical story of salvation? Why did they bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh? And how does their story connect to Abraham, Moses, and Solomon?
To find out the answers, let’s ask some Old Testament prophets and poets.
Something New and Better
Let's note first that the magi or wise men were living proof that the age-old promise to Abraham was finally being fulfilled. When the Lord called Abraham, he said, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12:3). He repeated this later, at the near-sacrifice of Isaac, when he said, “In your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (22:18).
That seed of Abraham had arrived; he was born in Bethlehem and was quickly growing up. These Gentiles, in confessing and worshiping him, were giving testimony that Jesus is not just King of the Jews but King of the World.
But there’s more going on as well. As is often the case in the life of Jesus, he is presented as the “new and better” version of an Old Testament character. In this case, the visit of the magi shows us that Jesus is a new and better Moses, as well as a new and better Solomon.
Some early Jewish traditions, preserved in Josephus and the Jerusalem Targum, say that Pharaoh caught wind of the birth of Israel’s coming rescuer (i.e., Moses) through scribes or magicians. The Egyptian king, threatened by this one boy, decreed that all the baby Israelite boys be drowned in the Nile.
If Jewish hearers of Matthew’s Gospel were familiar with these traditions, they would likely have seen the story of Jesus in light of these events. The magi parallel the scribes/magicians, Herod parallels Pharaoh, and the slaughter of the boys in Bethlehem parallels the drowning of boys in Egypt. If so, as is clearly the case elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus would be presented as the new and better Moses.
If there’s a regal figure from the Old Testament who attracted Gentile visitors from far-flung lands, it was Solomon, the son of David. Most famously, the Queen of Sheba traveled to see him and hear his wisdom (1 Kings 10). We also read that “the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind. Every one of them brought his present, articles of silver and gold, garments, myrrh, spices, horses, and mules, so much year by year” (10:24-25).
These Gentile visitors showed up in Jerusalem to see Solomon, the son of David, and to offer him (among other things) gold, myrrh, and spices. Likewise, Gentile wise men arrived in Jerusalem looking for the true Son of David, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. As Jesus himself will say later, “The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here” (Matt. 12:42).
Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh
In bringing these rich presents of gold and incense to the Messiah, the wise men were also acting as individual representatives of a promise voiced by Hebrew prophets and poets, namely, that Gentiles would come from afar, bearing gifts for God, his people, and his house.
For instance, Psalm 72 describes the future reign of the messianic king. He will rule from sea to sea, from the Euphrates to the ends of the earth. The psalm adds, “May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!” (vv. 10-11).
The prophet Haggai says that God “will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory...The silver is mine, and the gold is mine” (2:7-8). Hebrews quotes this passage as fulfilled in the kingdom-shaking that the Messiah enacts (12:26-28). To the king of this kingdom, who is the temple incarnate, Gentiles bring gifts of gold.
And, most fitting of all, Isaiah says to Israel, “Arise, shine, for your light has come” (60:1). Think of the bright star that the magi saw in the East, shining over Israel. Isaiah, foreseeing this event, adds, “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (v. 3). The prophet goes on to describe how the Gentiles shall bring home the exiled of God’s people, and “the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord” (vv. 5-7).
What Isaiah foretold was beginning to happen when the wise men, laden with gifts, arrived in Jerusalem and then Bethlehem. Not only did they bring “gold and frankincense” but also “the praises of the Lord” as these Gentiles fell down and worshiped the King (Matt. 2:11).
Just like Israel had followed the pillar of fire from the land of the Gentiles to the promised land, so these Gentiles followed the bright “pillar” of a star to the promised Savior in the promised land.
Tomorrow, January 6, the church celebrates the Festival of the Epiphany and begins the short season of Epiphany. We give thanks to God for bringing these Gentiles from afar with their seemingly “impractical” gifts.
For this baby, diapers and casseroles and formula, as nice as they might have been, just wouldn’t do. He was part of the grand and overarching story that was finally coming to its fulfillment. More was needed.
Here was the promised Seed of Abraham.
Here was the new and better Moses.
Here was the new and better Solomon.
Here was the King to whom nations bring gifts.
Here is the Savior of the world—our Redeemer and Lord.
So we pray, “O God, by the leading of a star You made known Your only-begotten Son to the Gentiles. Lead us, who know You by faith, to enjoy in heaven the fullness of Your divine presence; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever” (Lutheran Service Book).