The Magi seem to have always been a mystery to me. Ironically, I think some of the mystery stems from all of the conjecture that surrounds them. The classic example is that while they rub shoulders with the shepherds in most nativities, it’s easy to see from Matthew 2 that they didn’t arrive in Bethlehem until Jesus was almost 2 years old (Matthew 2:16). And the idea that there were three stems only from the mention of three gifts (2:11) – I assume there could have been two to 200 of these travelers. I’m not vying for their removal from nativities or the manufacturing of magi armies to put on display – we have three kings set up in our house and I find them to be a great reminder of the worship the magi brought Jesus. My point is simply that knowing so little about them from Scripture but so much about them from conjecture seems to make them more of an enigma than they should be.

One way the magi are often portrayed is that they were fully cognizant of what their journey to visit this newborn King meant. But did they understand that this was the Messiah? Or in their minds was He simply another monarch? Because they were experts in astronomy, astrology, and natural science (so says my Bible’s footnote), they had easily recognized a new star, marking the birth of a king they identified as the King of the Jews (v. 2). In response to this discovery, they set off to honor the new monarch. Had they done this in response to other stars marking the arrival of other kings in other nations? I’m not sure, but it seems possible.

They initial looked for the new King at Herod’s palace, which was the logical place to go, only to be met with confusion by Herod – confusion that led to anger. The mix-up was resolved when the magi were informed by the scribes that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, to which they went. The star they were following eventually rested over a home in Bethlehem where they found Jesus with Mary. They rejoiced and they worshipped. They offered gifts to the child in the presence of His mother, who, judging by her previous reactions, was probably equally astounded and understanding.

These magi from a far away land, non-Jews surrounded by God’s chosen people, were some of the first worshippers of Jesus. Jesus had come to His own people, but they didn’t recognize Him. Yet these gentiles were led to the Messiah by a supernatural star, and they rejoiced in a city oblivious to the royalty in its midst. Not so unlike the shepherds the magi were unlikely and unworthy worshippers of this King.

My confusion about the magi and the mystery that surrounds them in my mind begins to clear when I remember that so much about the Christmas story is not as I would expect. Why would God come to the earth He created as a baby, born of a virgin? Why would He be born in such a mean and lowly way? And why would he reveal Himself first to shepherds and magi from the east? While I ask the questions, hindsight helps me see that this was right in line with the God of grace and mercy revealed in Scripture, whose ways are not at all like mine. So I guess that’s what I’m learning from the magi this year – that with God, things are often not as we expect them. That God chooses unlikely and surprising people to reveal Himself to, but that all respond with rejoicing and worship. That Bethlehem and a manger and poverty and shepherds and magi make perfect sense for our great God.