Christians across the world celebrate Epiphany today.
This day, also known as “Three Kings’ Day,” is a time to remember and celebrate the coming of the Magi to see and pay homage to the Christ Child.
We are familiar with the traditional images of the Magi, seen in nativities and Christmas productions, but what do we really know about them?
An 8th-century manuscript exists – possibly copied from a 2nd- or 3rd-century text – that claims to be an eyewitness account of the Magi’s visit.
This document, called the “Revelations of the Magi,” offers interesting details about these men, but it is highly unlikely that it is historical.
Nevertheless, there are some things we have traditionally believed about the Magi that are certainly up for debate.
We do not know how many there were, from where they traveled, what the star was, how long it took them to arrive, and how old Jesus was at the time of their visit.
Matthew’s Gospel alone includes this story, so he must have had some purpose in telling this tale about these unexpected guests.
First, these are the first Gentiles to receive the news of Jesus’ birth. This says a great deal about what the author of Matthew believes about the scope of God’s love for the world.
Second, the stark difference between the Magi’s response to Jesus and that of Herod says something about Jesus as a polarizing figure even before he becomes an adult.
Third, the interaction of the Magi with Herod reveals what God thinks about those who seek places of power.
When these men arrive in Bethlehem, they visit first with King Herod instead of making their way to Jesus. This seems to me to be a strange twist in the story.
After all, if the star has led them this far, why does it not lead them directly to the place where Jesus is, without them having to stop by to visit King Herod?
Is Matthew perhaps saying something through this little narrative twist? What purpose does Matthew have in telling us that the Magi go to Herod before they find Jesus?
Herod was the appointed king of Judea whose rule over Judea was illegitimate in the eyes of many Jews.
From the narrator’s point of view, it seems that the Magi’s visit to Herod was more than to inquire into the whereabouts of Jesus.
By mentioning Jesus as one who is born king of the Jews, these Magi serve as mouthpieces for the narrator, who speaks from God’s point of view.
Their declaration to Herod, “king of the Jews,” is that his time on the throne is coming to an end.
One who is born as king is certainly a more legitimate king than one who has been appointed. Herod’s response is one of fear, and rightly so.
We should also notice that when the Magi come to Herod, Matthew twice calls Herod “king.”
After the prophecy about the ruler from Judah who will come from Bethlehem to shepherd God’s people is read, Matthew drops the title “king” from Herod’s name.
This switch in the way the narrator refers to Herod seems to be no accident.
These Magi are unexpected and unwelcomed guests in Herod’s palace who bring him news that his time as the ruler of the Jews is coming to an end, for the one they seek by the sign of the star is the born and legitimate king of the Jews.
Moreover, the prophecy speaks of a ruler who will shepherd God’s people, which should not be overlooked, as it carries with it rich meaning throughout the biblical narrative.
The longstanding command of God to those in leadership over God’s people was to be shepherds (see Ezekiel 34:10), which meant they were to lead and guide with compassion and justice.
It meant that rulers were charged with making sure to care for those on the margins of society.
The visit of the Magi reminds us that the rulers and powers of this world are not the true authorities over God’s cosmos.
This is particularly true for governments, kings, dictators and anyone who seeks to rule with illegitimate, unjust and oppressive power.
From Matthew’s perspective, Herod was the illegitimate king appointed by an illegitimate empire.
He failed to shepherd God’s people in choosing to rule through injustice and ruthless power – revealed through the story of Herod ordering the killing of all male children under the age of 2 (see Matthew 2:16-18).
These unexpected guests were the bearers not of good news but of doom for Herod and any ruler that does not rule with compassion and justice.
For Matthew, the Christ Child is the legitimate king of God’s people and will shepherd God’s flock. Those who would lead God’s people must follow his example.
Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. A longer version of this column first appeared on his blog, Wilderness Preacher, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @WildernesPreach.