The apocryphal story is told of the semi-truck which got stuck under a bridge. Not paying attention to what he was doing, the driver of the truck had unknowingly driven his payload under an over overpass slightly too low for the trailer and its contents. The truck had slammed to a screeching halt as, sparks flying, the arches of the bridge ground into the roof of the cargo trailer, hopelessly wedging the truck under the overpass and immediately sending traffic into a snarl. Before long, a tow truck had arrived on the scene along with firetruck, police, and other emergency crews. Could they find a way to take apart the trailer or, perhaps, get a crane to lift the bridge just enough to yank out the load? A large crowd began to gather and a news helicopter could be seen circling overhead as the group charged with getting the truck free began to run out of ideas. At this time, a small boy on his bike rode past, stopping to see the commotion. As he looked at the situation, he looked up at one of the bystanders and said, “Hey, why don't they just take the air out of the tires?”
Sometimes, it takes the perspective of an outsider to see something missed in a situation, often to the embarrassment of those embedded therein. We see this played out in Matthew 2:1-2 with the Messianic anticipation and eventual adoration of the Gentile, outsider Magi compared with the blindness and hostility of the insider Jewish people. This is a common theme throughout Matthew, and the gospels as a whole: outsiders “get” Jesus. Insiders often do not. We find this, among other places, in the inclusion of four Gentile women in Matthew's genealogy, in the prophetic declarations of favor for the Gentiles, in Jesus' inclusion of tax collectors, sinners, and the sick in His ministry (often amidst excluding the Jewish leaders of the day) and in the parables declaring the eventual destruction of the favored and the exaltation of the disfavored. This dynamic is in full display in this passage.
Having been born in Judea, as the prophet Micah had predicted, the Messiah is not showered with adoration and gifts from the local Jewish population, but, rather, the Gentile magi from the East. Originally a term for the Persian priestly class, by the first century “magi” could refer to any number of Eastern titles, from theologian to scribe to priest to magician. Both within Jewish circles and early Christian circles, this term often had a negative connotation which makes their inclusion in the account all the more remarkable.
These magi, we are told, have seen the Messiah's star in the East and have come to worship him. Commentators have pointed to the ancient social convention of ascribing stars or other astrological signs to the birth of kings and deities. We even have evidence of the ancient idea that everyone had a star – born at his or her birth and extinguished at death, a dim one for commoners and a bright one for those of importance. While we should never discount the miraculous in Jesus' birth, we should always note the cultural milieu behind the text. If stars were important indicators of the birth of royalty or the divine, we might easily expect one to be present at the birth of the Messiah. Matthew does not disappoint.
Finally, we see the presentation of gifts before the new-born king: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Scholars have long noted the value of these items in the ancient world while some have pointed to the specific uses as foreshadowing Christ's crucifixion. However, one might argue for these gifts, one of the important details is that these gifts come with a prostration by the magi. Prostration, kneeling – or even laying fully face down – before one in reverence is reserved for acknowledgment of the divine in the New Testament. Numerous people prostrate themselves before Jesus in recognition of his divine sonship while Peter chides Cornelius to get up from his prostrated position in Acts 10:26b for, as he says, “I too am just a man.” These Gentiles recognize that before them lays the preeminent king, divinely appointed. Further, Matthew's inclusion of this account may be a reference to Isaiah 60:6.
Several themes emerge in Matthew's magi story. First, the picture of revelation to the Gentiles: while Matthew can certainly be accused of seeing Gentiles negatively, he routinely expresses that God's favor, in the person of Christ, has come to the Gentiles. Jesus is the Messiah for all nations, destined to make God's name great throughout the whole world. The magi are first-fruits of this promise. Second, the provision of God for His messiah: the soon-coming journey to Egypt has been financed at the hand of God's generosity. The magi bring both their worship and their resources, each acting to both support and enhance the mission of God in Jesus. This contrasts Herod's active attempts to destroy the King of the Jews. Third, God's provision for those who are obedient: God not only leads the magi in their pursuit of Jesus, but, supernaturally directs them on their way home. While obedience should never be seen as a totem for physical safety, we do see here the precedent that God protects His people who are seeking Him.