The Sacrifice of the Magi

by Robert Jacobs

My recent search for a new home has caused me to be in and out of a lot of neighborhoods. Though searching for a home is normally a fairly grueling task, some of the unpleasantness has been taken away by all of the Christmas decorations. As a kid, I can remember getting down the box of big bulb Christmas lights—popular back in the 70s and 80s—and checking them all in preparation for hanging. In recent years, though, the style of Christmas decor has changed. One of the more interesting shifts has been the advent of the inflatable yard decoration.

While touring various neighborhoods in the past week or so, I have seen some very elaborate inflatables. From snow globes to Santa helicopters and flying reindeer, these yuletide yard decorations are quite a sight to see. Earlier this week, I turned the corner into yet another neighborhood and I saw the largest inflatable I have ever seen: a giant nativity. Taking up about half of the house’s front yard, inflatable Mary, Joseph, and Jesus greeted everyone to the subdivision with a distinct halogen glow.

At first I was impressed, but I soon realized that we were missing all of the other key players traditionally present in the nativity scene. “Where are the inflatable wise men,” I asked myself as I drove past. I shrugged it off, chalking up my dismay to the fact that my mother collected manger scenes—there were at least thirty on display at any given moment during the year—and I probably set unrealistic expectations of nativity displays due to this heavy exposure. But as I drove on, I could not stop thinking about the wise men.

The wise men. What a strange part of the advent narrative. Technically, the wise men were magi, magicians or wizards that lived and worked in the Persian Empire.[1] They spent the majority of their time studying ancient texts, prophecy, and divination. According to Matthew 2, the three magi who visited Jesus had studied the book of Micah, quoting a messianic passage to King Herod as the impetus for their journey: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (Micah 5:2,4).

As I thought more about these magi, I realized that they must have studied thousands of texts and read countless prophesies. Yet, this prophesy must have been different in their eyes, justifying a costly trans-imperial journey. In order to seek out the ruler mentioned by Micah, in other words, these men would have put their life on hold and invested a large sum in the outlay of the journey. And these sacrifices were not without justification, for when “they saw the child with his mother Mary…they bowed down and worshiped him” (Matthew 2:11).

In many ways, these magi who set aside everything to find Christ lived out a teaching that Jesus would deliver decades later. Discussing worldly worry, Jesus teaches in Matthew 6 to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). Thus, as we seek God first, we find that which will truly sustain us. These magi sought Christ, a costly yet worthwhile endeavor, meeting with the creator of the universe face-to-face.

Scripture does not tell us what happened to the magi after their interaction with Christ other than that “they returned to their country” (Matthew 2:12). However, if the other encounters with Jesus recorded in the gospels are any indication, I am confident that their time with Christ was transformative. These men, the intellectual leaders of their community, returned home knowing Christ, a truth that cost them much yet informed and transformed the remainder of their study.

Are we willing to sacrifice like the magi to know Jesus? Are we willing to put our life on hold to commune with and worship Him, or do our overly full schedules take precedent? This is a stinging question for us, particularly at this time of year. December seems to be the month when social commitments pile up. Parties, shopping, pageants, and the like seem to sap all our mental and emotional energy, causing us to look at our Bible in the morning and turn away, metaphorically saying to Jesus, “I’ll talk to you later…if I have time.”

What do you need to do to “seek first the kingdom of God” this holiday season? Do you need to let someone else host the get-together? Do you need to let another parent make the pageant costumes? Do you need to say no to some of the party invitations? Do you need to bake cookies for just one neighbor in need rather than the whole block? Only you know what’s keeping you from seeking Him first. But whatever it is, I pray that you have the determination to overcome and relentlessly seek Christ before anything else. Like the magi, it may come at a cost, but it will be well worth the sacrifice.

[1] Liddell and Scott, A Greek English Lexicon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996,) s.v. Μάγος.