Longing for the Divine

Pagan Magi Can Find Jesus

I’ve been receiving personal messages urging me to consider that Christmas is based in falsehood and to specifically indicate connections to the pagan concept of a Trinity. To the writers of these messages, to sing Christmas carols or reference Jesus’s birth during this season is to compromise with pagan culture. To them, to believe in the Trinity is to believe in the pagan doctrine of three gods. Does affirming the virgin birth also make me guilty of supporting pagan mythology? 

Having studied these topics, I know that Jesus—God in the flesh—is not an idea contrived by paganism. Even so, I think we must be careful this Christmas season, lest we conclude that nothing good can come from secular influences. I have been thinking a lot about the Magi—the diviners from the East who saw a new star rise in the sky—who are described in the gospel of Matthew (Matthew 2:1–12). Weren’t these devoted astrologists from other faiths doing good by following the star to celebrate Jesus, even as the expositors of God’s Word ignored it?

The Christmas story itself thus reminds us that God includes wise pagans and those from other faiths into the story of Jesus’ birth. Like the biblical prophet Balaam, a diviner who sought truths from pagan rituals (Numbers 22:7; Joshua 24:22) and was guided by God to predict the star that would come out of Jacob (Numbers 24:15–19), the Magi came looking for the king who would be exalted in Israel. These Magi who possessed mystical knowledge were doing right as they followed the star that led them to pay homage to Jesus (Matthew 2:1-2).

As students of the heavens, the Magi looked to nature and studied the constellations for indications of God’s revelation (Psalms 19:1–2; Romans 1:20; 2:14). They consulted ancient scrolls, philosophy and “the best of pagan science” as sources of knowledge in seeking God (Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, p. 168). Might some of these sacred traditions—passed down from the days when Daniel the prophet served as chief of the magicians—also have provided information of a coming Jewish king (Daniel 4:7; 5:11)? Whatever sources of truth the Magi had, it is obvious that the information was distorted and incomplete. Nonetheless, God spoke to them on their quest. Despite the divination and magic, these wise men possessed integrity and truth and could discern God’s message to them (Matthew 2:12).

Perhaps the story of the Magi bearing gifts is presented to broaden our sense of God’s plan of salvation by indicating that even gentile nations and pagan kings will bow before Jesus and serve Him because the light of truth shines on them.

May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands

render him tribute;

may the kings of Sheba and Seba

bring gifts!

May all kings fall down before him,

all nations serve him!

Psalms 72:10-11, ESV

The Magi from the East saw a star rising in the sky and faithfully traveled to the holy city of Jerusalem, bearing valuable gifts for the child king they expected to find in the palace. We can’t consider these wise astrologers of other faiths inferior because they clearly understood some truths about the rising king in Bethlehem that the chosen people had neglected or were blind to. Though the remnant people, in their religious exclusivity, dismissed these heathen outsiders, it was they who missed the main event. That’s what happens when we consider our status as remnant to mean that God speaks only to us and that we have the true religion because we keep it pure and right.

Instead of aiming to reject every pagan influence, let’s keep our focus on Jesus. The radically humble and loving way that God came into this world remains significant. While we should affirm biblical teachings and be grateful for the special revelation God has given us, we should recognize that God shines light on others—even heathen outsiders—who may have something to teach us. Don’t ignore the modern Magi who come seeking the Christ child, but even if you do, God will produce a bright angelophany or send an company of shining angels to guide these wise men and women toward a clearer revelation in the humble babe of Bethlehem.

I suggest that we think more about how God is revealed in Jesus, so we don’t miss out. Don’t fuss if Jesus gets some attention this Christmas; simply refocus your celebrations or other behaviors in ways that do not compromise your devotion to God. “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (Romans 12:9, ESV).

Craig Ashton Jr.

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