“They saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11).
Israel never existed for herself alone. When the Lord called Abram, he aimed beyond Abram’s descendants to bless the nations. This Abrahamic promise animates the prophets—they see nations bringing treasures to Zion, learning the law of the Lord, turning from violence, and living together in peace. Light shines from Zion, so that “nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isa. 60:3). In Revelation, John sees the same vision: “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it” (Rev. 21:24).
This was no pipe dream. Jethro helped Moses organize elders to rule Israel. Hiram of Tyre sent cedar timber and craftsmen to help Solomon build the temple, and the queen of Sheba visited Jerusalem with a large retinue and pack animals laden with treasure. Cyrus became a “nursing father” to Israel, supplying the returned exiles with all they needed to rebuild the house of God. Every time Israel needed to build, Gentiles were right there to help.
So it is no surprise that as soon as Israel’s Messiah appears, Gentiles appear. Magi—rulers and wise men—follow a star from the east. They search for the King of the Jews, because somehow they know Abraham’s Seed is also their king. Like Hiram, Sheba, and the nations of Isaiah’s prophecy, they bring treasures as if they’re preparing to build yet another temple—gold for the floor and furnishings, frankincense to turn to smoke, myrrh to anoint Jesus as priest.
It is a triumphant story of fulfilled promise, depicted heartwarmingly in countless Nativity plays. But the Magi’s visit also has a bloody aftermath. Jealous of Jesus, King Herod slaughters the infants of Bethlehem and the surrounding towns.
It seems an unmitigated tragedy: While Gentiles pay homage to Jesus, Israel’s own king tries to kill him. But it is God’s habit to bring comedy from tragedy. Israel failed to honor her newborn King, but Israel’s mission to the Gentiles doesn’t fail. Jesus takes the burden of the Abrahamic promise on himself to spread blessings to the nations.
Our word mission comes from the Latin missio, “send.” Advent and Christmas are about mission—the mission of God, the Father’s gift of the Spirit-born Son. As the season comes to a close on Ephiphany, may these feasts stay with us, calling us into the ongoing mission of Jesus, our Light, Savior of the world.
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute, a Christian think tank and training institute in Birmingham, Alabama. An ordained minister, he serves as a teacher at Trinity Presbyterian Church. He is author, most recently, of 1 & 2 Chronicles (Brazos).
This article was part of CT’s 2019 Advent devotional which includes Scripture-based reflections for the Advent and Christmas season. A similar CT devotional special issue for Lent and Easter is now available for purchase; find out more here.
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