A Promise Answered
The theological significance of the three wise men.
This is the second devotional in Ministry to State's Advent series: The Politics of Christmas. You can read the first devotional here.
Last week, Will Stockdale began Ministry to State’s advent series by looking at Jesus’ lineage in Matthew 1. As Will rightly noted, the genealogy of Jesus is more than a mere list of names. It actually reveals important characteristics of God’s redemptive plan and his character as the covenant Lord of Israel.
Another striking thing about the genealogy in Matthew, however, is the number of women the author chooses to include. If you were to look at other genealogies in the Bible, you would find that the mothers are noticeably absent.
Now read Jesus’ genealogy again and note these four matriarchs: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (or as Matthew notes, “the wife of Uriah”). What is Matthew trying to communicate to his reader by including their names?
A good starting point is to consider what these four women have in common. Interestingly, all the women were likely non-Israelites by birth. The account in Genesis 38 suggests Tamar was probably a Cannanite. We know Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho who helped the Israelite spies and was then spared when the city was razed to the ground (Jsh. 2). Ruth was a Moabitess (Ruth 1:4) and Bathsheba likely a Hittite, the same as her first husband (2 Sam. 11:3).
By including these Gentile women in the genealogy, Matthew is pointing his readers back to a promise first made to Abraham, the Father of Israel,
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:1-3)
Here we see that God’s redemptive plan was always global in scale. While the Lord set apart Israel for his purposes and bestowed special favor on them, the Lord’s intentions were still to bless “all the families of the earth.”
The well-known story of the three wise men in Matthew 2:1-12 is just one of several instances where Matthew emphasizes Gentiles coming to worship the one, true God.
It is interesting to contrast the two, Gentile and Jew, in this passage. Compared to the eager anticipation of these Gentile men, the Jews in Herod’s court are disastrously unprepared. These wise men had perceived the signs which announced the coming of the Messiah while the Jewish people had not.
This pattern runs throughout the rest of the gospels. The religious authorities, the people who ought to recognize the messianic character of Jesus reject him. Meanwhile, those who we least expect - the Gentiles (Mk 7:24-30; Jn 4:1-45), sinners, and tax collectors (Mk 2:13-17) - are among the first to demonstrate faith.
Returning to the case of the wise men and Herod, we see also their respective receptions to Jesus’ arrival could not be more different. The wise men come bearing gifts fit for a king, falling down and worshiping him. All the while, Herod plots Jesus’ death.
Herod’s response is extreme and conveys a dark sense of irony. He is prepared to murder all the sons of Israel, the very people Christ came to save, to prevent anyone from challenging his power (Matt 2:16).
Of course, the efforts of men and all the power of the civil authorities cannot thwart the mighty hand of God. Jesus survived Herod’s purge and began his ministry years later. His death, resurrection, and ascension inaugurated the days of the King. And even now, Jesus sits on his heavenly throne as the King of kings, and Lord of lords (Rev. 19:16).
In the Christmas story, we see God’s promises coming to fruition. Like the wise men, we praise the Lord for his faithfulness, singing words like those from the hymn they inspired,
Glorious now behold Him arise
King and God and Sacrifice
Earth to heav'n replies.
Robert Hasler is Director of Communications and co-host of The Will & Rob Show.