A lot has been made of the wise men who visited Jesus very early in his life, and it seems that most folks are interested in knowing who they are or where they came from, why they brought gifts, what the star they followed actually was, etc. These are all interesting questions, but I want to look at something else. (By the way, fast facts on the wise men: we don’t know how many, we don’t know from where, and there’s nothing which says they were kings.)
I want to focus on the fact that they were not Israelites. What in the world were they doing there? Why did Matthew include them in his gospel? Most of Jesus’ interactions in this gospel were with other Jews, so it seems important when these foreigners are mentioned so prominently.
The presence of the wise men reminds us that the inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s plan was not an afterthought; it was there all along. Consider that in the story of the Tower of Babel, found in Genesis 11, God divided up the peoples into different groups. And in the very next chapter we read of the call of Abraham, in whom God says all peoples will be blessed. The very people God disinherited in chapter 11 will be re-inherited according to the promise we find in chapter 12:
I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.Genesis 12.2-3
An unpopular idea
However, many Jews in the time of Jesus considered the idea of the Gentiles having having a seat at the table with Jews to be crazy talk. Consider this passage from Isaiah:
Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks; foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers; but you shall be called the priests of the LORD; they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God; you shall eat the wealth of the nations, and in their glory you shall boast.Isaiah 61.5-6
See the pecking order? The children of Israel are at the top of the heap, and everyone else is a servant. There are a number of passages like this in the Old Testament; put enough of them together and you can see how the Jews of Jesus’ day would view a Gentile: second-class citizen. This is what makes Paul’s claims so scandalous.
This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.Ephesians 3.6
And this passage as well:
And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.Galatians 3.8-9
This affects how we operate as a church. There are no tiers of Christians.
On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.1 Corinthians 12.22-24
Now back to the wise men. How are we to understand this story? Recognizing a literary device known as a chiasm is helpful. A chiasm is a literary form used in narrative, where certain ideas and even words are repeated in reverse order, to emphasize key points, to make the narrative easier to remember, and to enhance its literary beauty.
We identify a chiasm by giving each idea or phrase a letter starting with “A” until we get to the crux, then we reverse the letters back to “A”.
Chiasms are commonly used in both the Old and New Testaments. Here is an example from Mt 6.24:
A: No one can serve two masters,
B: for either he will hate the one and love the other,
B: or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.
A: You cannot serve God and money.
When you look at a chiasm, you can see the major point the author wants you to understand, and the secondary point is in the beginning and ending. Third-tier points are in the other steps.
Matthew has a ton of chiasms, and there is one which covers the whole book! Its major inflection point is Matthew 12.14-21, where the Pharisees conspire to kill him and he reveals that the Gentiles are recipients of the good news. It shows a rejection of Jesus by his own people, and a turning to the Gentiles.
This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”Matthew 12.17-21
That the gospel of Matthew, which is universally described as a very Jewish gospel, should have the Gentiles in focus is not something we should overlook. I think we tend not to consider this, though, because Christianity is such a Gentile religion now. Back when Matthew was writing, though, things were much different, and Matthew was trying to make just this point with his gospel.
In Matthew 2.10, we read that the wise men rejoiced with “great joy.” The phrase “great joy” is only seen again in Matthew 28.8 to describe the women at the tomb, when they are told about the risen Jesus by an angel. Note the similarities: supernatural means of communication (star and angel), both parties worship Jesus, both parties served Jesus, they saw the place where he lay, he’s not in the first place they look, they are second-class citizens (Gentiles and women). This is on purpose: Matthew is bookending his gospel with this phrase (Luke does the same thing; check it out). He’s telling us that great joy is to be found in the story of Jesus, and it’s not just for the children of Israel. There are no second-class citizens in the kingdom of God.