[January 3, 2010] Four weeks ago we spoke on John chapter 1 about the Personhood of God: that God exists face-to-face with God yet each “Face” coinheres (dwells) in the Other, that the essence of the divine nature is this “personal” coinherence, that creation comes into existence as its expression, and that God is personally free to coinhere in the creation and to make the essence of creation His/Her own. Thus God exists also as the “Word” of God and this Word could become flesh, and did so, so that the Face of God face-to-face with God is now also the face of creation in a human being. The telos (or end or goal) of creation takes place in Him. This telos is the divinization of created nature (its glorification), that is, its full participation in the divine nature without change or confusion yet without separation or division. This is the full salvation that the Gospel is all about.
Three weeks ago we spoke of how this came about in Mary. Humanity has manufactured an alternative world that attempts to be alive without God (which cannot happen). Humanity lives in this delusion in rebellion against God. Yet God’s grace still works in humanity. This is evidenced by the fact that some people—particularly in the world’s wisdom traditions—bear witness to the divine essence. Moreover, God’s grace has also worked in the creation by raising up a particular witness to Himself in the people of Israel (and their cult and history) by means of the prophetic witness to the Word (i.e., the eternal Word). The work of this grace issued in the consent of Mary to the will of God. When she thus surrendered herself, God made Himself human with her flesh and she became the mother of God in God’s human nature. Mary spoke on behalf of redeemed humanity, that is, she was the personal face of the whole creation inviting and thus allowing—by God’s grace—the deification of creation to take place out of her own genetic substance (an ovum of her own) within the flesh of her own womb. Thus “the Word became flesh.”
Two weeks ago we spoke of how Joseph consented to adopt the Child in Mary’s womb that the Child might enter the lineage of King David and become heir to the throne of David. Thus He became the fulfillment of Israel’s hope, a hope that was formed by the work of God’s grace in Israel, the witness borne within Israel to the personal Word of God. As Emmanuel (God-with-us), this Child was the coming of God foreseen by the prophets and foreshadowed in the cult and history of Israel. The Child in Mary’s womb, in other words, while completely “new” in one way, was not a foreigner but rather was the “original face” of creation. He is the One who had formed His own witness within the creation, and ultimately it is through Him that all things came into being. The witness of the Old Testament and the people of Israel to this day (the Jews) is essential to Jesus’ human identity. Jesus cannot be separated from these people and the prophetic witness of their Scriptures. It is in this particular and concrete humanity that Jesus encounters, confronts and calls us. To know Jesus in our own concrete and particular humanity is to know Him with this human face. Any other Jesus (and there are many) is not the revelation of God to us.
Then last week we spoke of His birth. He came into creation in the most difficult of circumstances. But He came into the fallenness of creation, in human hardship and poverty and in close association with the animal world. He came to save not an abstract “humanity” but the humanity of our actual lives in this world and the humanity of our earthy bodies and even the animal world which welcomed Him into the creation. The reality of His Person was hidden in His earthiness, and yet it is in its very earthiness that the reality was (and is) revealed. For invisible reality became momentarily visible when the window of heaven opened to some poor shepherds who were taking care of animals in the field. In that moment when heaven was opened to them, the angel told the shepherds that the “sign” of the divine reality of the Savior was the utterly dependent baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a feeding-trough in a stable for animals.
The Gentiles Seek Him (Matthew 2:1-12)
Joseph and Mary got a lodging in Bethlehem (see verse 11) and were raising the infant there when the magi arrived in Jerusalem looking for Him. The magi were from Persia or Mesopotamia and were learned scribes (hence “Wise Men”) who studied the “sciences” of the day, including astrology, which in those days was inseparable from astronomy, the interpretation of dreams, and magic. Almost certainly Matthew wants us to assume that they are pagans (though there were stars on the veil of the Temple, synagogues sometimes had the sign of the Zodiac, and an astrological treatise showed up in a cave in Qumran). Matthew’s literary intentions have to do with justifying the church’s mission to the pagan Gentiles. Nevertheless, the magi must have been familiar with Jewish learning, for the rabbis associated the coming of the Messiah with a star that would “come forth out of Jacob” as the pagan prophet Balaam had said (Numbers 24:17). This would not be strange since the majority of Jews remained in Babylon after the end of the exile.
Isaiah 60:3 says, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising,” and passages such as Psalm 68:29; 72:10-15 and Isaiah 60:6 speak of Gentile kings bearing gifts and coming to worship. This is where the notion of the magi being kings come from. Their number being three is inferred from the fact that they had three kinds of gifts. Other traditions settled on a different number of magi.
The star is interesting because it symbolizes the light that God gives to the Gentiles to lead them to Christ, which is what we see happening in the mission of the church. The church, of course, was Jewish and in the beginning it was assumed that the only way Gentiles could become fully part of the church was to first become Jews (by circumcision in the case of males). When the Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentiles while Peter preached the Gospel to them, Peter opened the door to them (see Acts 10-11). After that, the church in Antioch and in particular Paul and Barnabas and the other coworkers of Paul in their apostolic work approached Gentiles directly instead of only approaching Gentiles who already attended the synagogue as “God-fearers.” This was strongly objected to, and many “zealous” Jews reacted with violence against the church because of this. It was in this setting that Matthew wrote his gospel (I figure he completed his scroll about the year 52, around the time Paul returned from his second missionary journey).
So the star represents the grace of God that works among the pagans that makes them receptive to the Gospel when they hear it. The magi left their homes to travel far in search of Christ even though He was still to them “the King of the Jews.” Paul speaks to the Gentiles of “what you worship without knowing” (Acts 17:23) and speaks of Gentiles seeking God, “if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, even though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and are” (verses 27-28).
The fact that these magi find the Savior of the world (John 4:42) when they seek the “King of the Jews” is interesting, for the prophets of Israel described the salvation of the Gentiles coming from the Jews (John 4:22) and in particular from Zion in association with the Son of David (since Zion refers to where the throne of David is). In Matthew’s gospel Jesus comes as the drawing near of the kingdom of the heavens (Matthew 4:17). In this sense, that is, as the kingdom of the heavens Himself, He is “the King,” and in relation to the people of Israel (His own people), He is their King, He who will fulfill their historic destiny, as the prophets foretold. Naturally the magi go to Jerusalem in search of the King, since that is the geographical location of Zion.
The prophecy from Micah 5:2, however, pointed them in the right direction. When they inquired of the Jewish Scriptures more accurately, the guidance of the star (perhaps symbolically, the inner light of the pagan) became clearer. This coinciding of the Scriptures and the star over Bethlehem—and thus the Scriptures and their inner light—caused them to “rejoice exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10). We might say that the Scriptures did not simply confirm the pagan’s light (their inner light), but brought it out. For the star had appeared only for a time (at the time of its rising, 2:2, 7) and then disappeared. They had acted in response to its momentary appearing. But when they heard the Scriptures and acted on the basis of its witness, the star reappeared (2:9) and led them straight to the place where the Child was. The Scriptures thus did not contradict their light but when they responded to the Scriptures, it caused their light to re-emerge and lead them.
So it was when we first heard the Gospel. Hearing about Jesus struck a chord in our hearts and we responded with faith, and the Scriptures—together with our own inner sense and desire for authenticity and reality—led us home to Christ. The light of the star is the light of Christ, even though it arises in the hearts of pagans, for it is the light of the pre-incarnate Word through whom all things came into being (and are sustained in being). The pagan heart does not find rest until it rests in the Beloved One, Christ our Lord. The One whom the Gentiles seek in Brahman (the Hindus), Sunyata (the Buddhists), and Wu Chi (the Taoists)—all of which refer to the pre-incarnate Word—is the Person of the Word who confronts us face-to-face, as a Person to our person, in the humanity of Jesus Christ.
When we say that there is salvation in no other name (Acts 4:12), we are affirming that God is one and that the God whom the Gentile seek, if it is the true God, is none other than the God whom we encounter in Jesus Christ, and that this God is revealed as Person in this human One. The non-dual essence of the divine nature—that the Gentile wisdom traditions seek—issues from the personal communion that is God, revealed in Jesus our Lord (who is now revealed in the Gospel).
The magi bring gifts that honor the infant King but that also symbolically reflect who He is. Gold speaks of the eternal nature of God; frankincense speaks of life that overcomes death; and myrh speaks of the death that He must suffer. Their offering is an act of praise, and praise is our reflecting back to the one whom we praise that which she or he is to us. Our truest worship is our fullest participation in all that Jesus is—our participation in His divine nature through our union with Him in the humanity with which He encounters us. In His humanity He laid down His soul in death so that in resurrection His humanity could be divinized. Through the Holy Spirit we have union with Christ in death and resurrection. Praise is when we reflect back to God that which God is to us in our union with Christ.
The False “Kingdom” Reacts against Him (2:13-18)
We have no time to elaborate on Herod’s reaction except to say that he foreshadows the reaction of the “world”—that entity with which humanity identifies in its rebellion against God. Herod is the “king of the Jews” but a false king, as the world is a false creation. The coming of Christ is an utter threat to him for the light of Christ threatens to unveil the lie of the world. Matthew brings out Herod’s reaction in order to foreshadow the rejection of Christ by Pilate and the Sadducean and priestly establishment in Jerusalem, and the rejection of the Gospel by the “zealous” Pharisees (those who rejected the Gentile mission). It also foreshadows the messianic pretensions of his grandson Agrippa I and his assault on the church in Acts 12 as he sought to curry favor with the Zealots.
Herod the Great acted like Pharaoh and in doing so revealed the Satanic nature of the attack, but he also acted like Saul in relation to David, symbolizing the existence of a false kingdom that counters that which is true, a kingdom which claims to be anointed by God and to represent God at the same time it rejects God. (The story of Saul and David is complicated, but the story in the text is that Saul originally was anointed king because the people rejected the kingship of God and later his kingship was rejected by God. When David was anointed king, God made promises to him with respect to his dynasty, promises that point forward to the reign of the Messiah.) This shadow-presence, unfortunately, is an unavoidable part of the Gospel and of the reality of the church in the world (see Matthew 11:2—13:52 and throughout).
Nevertheless, in spite of this opposition, God protected Jesus, giving Him haven in pagan Egypt (probably among the Jewish community in Alexandria), and likewise God protects the church. “A hair of your head shall by no means perish” even though you be put to death! (see Luke 21:16-19). God uses this opposition to work out our salvation.