This time of year, many churches across the globe are currently practicing Epiphany, the season following Advent and Christmas, a time to celebrate the manifestation of Christ. Besides the baptism and first miracle of Jesus, the story of the three Magi marks the key biblical narrative for Epiphany. Given our cultural preconceptions, we often associate this famous narrative with Christmas. Yet, when we look at it in view of redemptive history, Genesis to Revelation, we might be surprised to see something different as we get a glimpse into God’s heart for diversity.
The Magi Throughout Scripture
Though we might assume that the narrative of the Magi is limited to the Gospel accounts, there are echoes in the Old Testament and continuations in the New Testament. There are two explicit mentions of the Magi in Psalm 72:10–11 and Isaiah 60:1–14, passages that allude to the nations bringing gifts—even mentioning “gold” and “frankincense”—to the coming Messiah as they worship at His feet.
And then moving beyond the person and work of Jesus Christ in the Gospels, we see a progression initially in Pentecost, where “there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven,” a launching pad for the gospel to move forward to the nations (Acts 2:5). Then we ultimately see a culmination in Revelation, with the New Heaven and New Earth, as we see the story of the Magi realized with “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9).
A Picture of God’s Diverse Kingdom
These passages help us understand the meaning of the magi as more than a final plot point in the nativity story and the reason we exchange presents during Christmas. Through them we see that the Magi have less to do with the coming of Christ as a human and more to do with the manifestation of Christ as God—the Word and the Light. The story marks the reintroduction of God’s saving plan for the nations, pointing back to God’s promise to Abraham to bless people from all tribes, tongues and nations and pointing forward to the fulfillment of that promise in Revelation 21.
This story also gives us a greater understanding of God’s beautiful vision for racial and cultural diversity. From the Old Testament to the New Testament passages, we see the nations bringing their best gifts—the distinct cultural goods—to the throne of Christ. The magi serve as a foretaste, with gold, frankincense and myrrh, for the finale that Isaiah 60 predicts to come in the New Jerusalem. According to this passage, “the ships of Tarshish” full of “silver and gold” will be brought to the Lord (Isa. 60:9), and “the glory of Lebanon shall come to you, the cypress, the plane, and the pine, to beautify the place of my sanctuary, and I will make the place of my feet glorious” (Isa. 60:13).
It’s not that there are individuals from every tribe, tongue and nation represented in eternity, but we see that God acknowledges and values the unique cultures and personalities of these individuals because His kingdom is one of color, marked by people who look differently, act differently and worship differently, where the greatest parts of every culture are to be experienced, valued and understood as instruments of worship to King Jesus. Reflecting on this particular passage, Timothy Keller notes,”Every culture has certain themes, and certain strengths and has contributions to make to the entire flourishing of the human race that can’t be replaced. We need them all. It’s the only possible explanation for the fact that all the nations come and they maintain their ability to do certain things. That’s marvelous. God does not want cultural homogeneity.”
Laying Our Greatest Gifts at the Feet of Jesus
The story of the three Magi not only gives us a theology of diversity, compelling us to care about the things that God cares about, but it also bears weight on the Christian in a different way. Like the Magi, most of us are outsiders—Gentiles—who have been brought into the fold of God. This Epiphany narrative then invites us to stop and remember our salvation but also calls us to take a note from the “wise men,” and drop everything for Him. God wants our lives—our greatest gifts—to be brought to Him as an act of worship. His vision is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic vision of people groups and individuals bringing the best parts of who they are and where they come from, casting our crowns upon the throne of Jesus.