The Story of the Magi Demonstrates the Universality of the Offer of the Gospel to the World

The significance of the story of the Magi at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew

The Adoration of the Magi; Border with the Queen of Sheba before King Solomon, from a prayer book of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg (text in German), Bruges, Belgium, about 1525-30, Simon Bening. The J. Paul Getty Museum.

Matthew provides us the story the of the Magi priests (not kings) vising Jesus with gifts from afar. Magi is a Zoroastrian term referencing “dream interpreting astrologers-astronomers from Persia or Mesopotamia who possessed secret knowledge”.[i] We don’t know the actual number, though three is the popular legend. The number was postulated by Origen in the Third Century based on the number of gifts they brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  

The Feast of the Epiphany, which was first celebrated in Alexandria, Egypt, at the end of the Second Century or beginning of the Third Century (the home of Origen), celebrates the appearance of God to the world who became flesh in the person of the Christ child. The arrival of the Magi is acknowledgement of the worldwide, universal significance of the event.

“Matthew’s story about travelers following the trail of a mysterious star was all about including ‘foreigners’ in the Christmas story. Matthew showed Gentiles—in other words non-Jews, people who worshipped so-called pagan gods—acknowledging Jesus as king and, presumably, savior.”

The universal availability of Jesus beyond the Jewish community into which Jesus was born to the world is built right into the beginning of the narrative in Matthew. It resonates with all of Paul’s letters in which he maintains, to his own detriment among his fellow Jews, that Christ came for Jew and Gentile, alike.

That the offering of God in the flesh to the world which was built into the very beginning of the story was first celebrated in the Feast of the Epiphany in Northern Africa is intriguing to me. Though the Magi would have come from a different area of the world, the point of the story is the universality of Christ. We also forget how prominent in early Christian history was the African church.

The story in Matthew is only 12 verses long (Matt. 2:1-12). A longer version of the story exists in one other manuscript, “Revelation of the Magi”.[ii] This Syriac text that was translated into English only recently is apocryphal and likely dates to the Second or Third Century.[iii] It depicts the wise men coming from Shir, which is in China today.

Like many apocryphal texts, it smacks of myth and legend (the star they follow comes down and transforms into the baby Jesus). It is a whimsical story, perhaps, like the Chronicles of Narnia.

While the Revelation of the Magi is apocryphal and fantastical in its details, the idea that men came from the Far East is not. The Spice Route that comes into Jerusalem connects all the way to China and can be observed still today.

I have meditated before on the thought that Jesus came at just the right time in history when much of the known world was unified by a system of Roman roads and Roman rule opening the world to the west and north (to the British isles) for the spread of the Gospel. So also, we see that the Spice Route opened the world to the east for the spread of the Gospel, just as the Gospel spread south into Africa, with Alexandria being one of the three pillars of early Christian authority.

While I am very familiar with Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles and faithful devotion to the promise God made to Abraham to bless all the nations through his seed, I had not noticed in the Gospel of Matthew, the Jewish-orientated Gospel, the significance of the Magi.

Continue reading “The Story of the Magi Demonstrates the Universality of the Offer of the Gospel to the World”

Evangelicalism and Injustice Part II

We must recognize injustice and speak to it if we are going to represent God, the Father, accurately to the world. 


In Evangelicalism and Injustice Part I, I discussed how the evangelical world has been a champion of preaching the Gospel, but we have not been champions of doing justice. In fact, we have shied away from it.

Less Gospel-orientated people, religious and otherwise, have rushed in to fill the void we have left, including people with philosophies and worldviews that are hostile and antithetical to the Gospel. I will address those things in a follow up post.

Meanwhile, the burden that weighs on my heart in these days is that our God is a God of righteousness and justice at the very foundation of His throne. (Psalm 89:14) This should be our foundation too as children of God our Father.

Jesus carried that great pillar of God’s character forward in the parable of the sheep and the goats, instructing his followers that those who will be blessed by God and receive their inheritance at the throne of God (calling Psalm 89 to mind) are the people who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, invite the stranger in, clothe those in need, heal the sick and visit prisoners.

Jesus announced his ministry by reading from the Isaiah scroll. He said that God anointed him to preach the gospel to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, and to set free those who are oppressed. (Luke 4:18-19, quoting from Isaiah 61:1)

The good news (the Gospel), in this way, is holistic. Jesus demonstrated that holistic approach of preaching good news and doing justice in his ministry. If we are to be his followers, we should do what Jesus did as he did what he saw the Father doing. (John 5:19)

When Jesus quoted from Isaiah, the prophet, he was calling to mind the great theme of all the prophets, which is the call of God to His people to do justice. Zechariah, for instance, says,

“This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.'” (Zech 7:9)

And he adds what true justice looks like:

“‘Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.'” (Zech 7:10)

James picks up the same theme in the New Testament.

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)

James emphasizes the need for doing, not simply giving mental ascent to what Jesus says. The example he provides falls into the Old Testament definition of “doing justice”:

“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:15-17)

Evangelicalism has been very good at preaching and proclaiming.  Many evangelical organizations exist, like Administer Justice (which I mentioned in the first blog article), that both proclaim the good news and do justice (meet the needs of the poor, the oppressed, the prisoners, widows, orphans and strangers), but evangelicalism, as a whole, falls a bit short on the justice side of the equation. Let’s be honest.

Continue reading “Evangelicalism and Injustice Part II”

Evangelicalism and Injustice Part I

Evangelicalism has been very good at preaching the good news, but falls a bit short on doing justice.


I am taking a break from considering the difference between “the righteous” and “the wicked” in Scripture to return to a related topic that erupted publicly in recent weeks: racial injustice. It is related because God’s character is righteousness and justice at His core.

As an attorney, I have had the privilege (and sacred duty) to devote some time to a local organization known as Administer Justice that serves the poor, vulnerable and under-privileged in communities around the country. A great many of “those people” are minorities, immigrants and “the working poor”. I’ve had the honor of getting know some real servants of the Gospel in the process, like Bruce Strom, the founder and executive director of this organization.

I am reading through his book, Gospel Justice. I’ve owned the book for a long time, probably years. I started it a long time ago, and I am still not through it yet because ( I admit) that other, more “interesting” subjects and diversions have distracted me from the seemingly mundane subject of justice.

If I truly want to know God’s heart, to follow Jesus and to work out my salvation as God works within me to will and to act according to His good purpose, though, I need to be concerned about justice – because it’s at the foundation of God’s throne. (Psalm 89:14)

We can’t talk about justice in the United States in the 21st century without talking about racial disparities resulting from centuries of racial injustice. The recent events following the killing of George Floyd (and others) have focused national attention on the issue. As the national dialogue continues, we in the Body of Christ need to engage.

There is a great need for the Body of Christ collective to participate as God would have us get involved in the discussion, action and changes necessary to address racial injustice. My own neighborhood in the Body of Christ is the American evangelical church. Thus, I write this with my evangelical brothers and sisters in mind.

The following passage in Bruce Strom’s book inspires my thoughts today:

“The division between Jews and Gentiles was the great divide of the first century.
“In America that great divide is race, and it remains a leading contributor to injustice. In their book, Divided by Faith, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith examine the role of white evangelicalism in race relations. Based on extensive interviews and study, they conclude that the evangelical church, with its focus on individual salvation, not only misses the opportunity to break down the great divide between the races, but also contributes to it.
“This view is shared by my friend Ed Gilbreath, who wrote Reconciliation Blues. ‘A sad tendency of evangelical faith is to elevate the act of evangelism over the humanity of the people we want to reach…. Apparently, any time an ethnic minority speaks out against race-related injustice, he risks being branded a malcontent in need of therapy.’
“Racial injustice is real….
“We must not walk on by [like the priest and Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan] as if racial injustice does not exist. We should listen to our neighbors of color who understand well the injustices in their community. And our friends of race should not give up, but seek opportunity to lead by example.”

I am reminded that the evangelical tradition is informed by people like Luther and Wycliffe. They championed the principal that salvation is by faith in the grace of God, not by works that we can do. That and the primacy of Scripture and the need for individual members of the Body of Christ to read Scripture for themselves and to pray to God our Father – not through some intermediary, but directly – one on one.

These things have driven the evangelical church to seek and save the lost, proclaiming the Gospel with the message of salvation to individuals who believe, repent of their sins and put their faith in the lordship and salvation wrought by Jesus on the cross. These are hallmarks of evangelicalism. They are indeed central to the purposes of God.

I am reminded further that, when Jesus stood up in the Temple to announce the beginning of his ministry in Luke 4, he read this from the Isaiah scroll:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel…. (v.18)

When the evangelical church considers the Great Commission –  “[G]o and make disciples of all nations….” (Matt. 28:19-20) – preaching the Gospel comes primarily to mind.  Evangelicalism has been a champion of preaching the Gospel. 

But, I think that sometimes we forget that Jesus didn’t stop there. The passage in Isaiah from which Jesus read continues on well past preaching the good news (quoting from Isaiah 61:1):

He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are oppressed,
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.

Continue reading “Evangelicalism and Injustice Part I”

Christian: Where is Your Focus?

If Christianity is true, individuals are not only more important, but incomparably more important, than nations.

Brothers and sisters in Christ in the United States (and anywhere around the world), I urge you to read this:

Don’t Let Your Politics Ruin Your Witness

If you don’t have the present time or inclination, consider at least this statement:

“[W]hen we blindly follow the agenda of party over the values of the kingdom, we are in danger of making politics our functional god. When our public discourse parrots the talking points of blue or red rather than the radical call of neighbor love, we are in danger of losing the credibility of our witness…..

“So how do we carry ourselves politically? Fuller spoke with characteristic wisdom on that issue as well: ‘If a wise man wishes to gain over a nation to any great and worthy object, he does not enter into their little differences, nor embroil himself in their party contentions; but, bearing good-will to all, seeks the general good: by these means he is respected by all, and all are ready to hear what he has to offer. Such should be the wisdom of Christians. There is enmity enough for us to encounter without unnecessarily adding to it.'”

“The gospel is offensive enough, so let’s allow people to be offended by it. When we replace the gospel with politics in our affections, we will draw the battle line in the wrong place and drown out the mesmerizing voice of Jesus beneath tired drone of petty partisan squabbles.”

I posted yesterday, Questions for Christians in America, out of frustration. My frustration is that so many Christians seem to be so colored by their politics that the Gospel is obscured in their rhetoric and the things they are focused on, at least on social media. The field is ripe for the harvest, and we seem to be stuck in out political tents, fixated on political platforms, defending actions Scripture condemns and  fighting for our own rights to a comfortable existence in which the world bows to us.

I don’t pretend sit in judgment on individuals in their personal walks with God. I don’t want to come across self-righteously. When I post things like that (and this), I am stirring up and exhorting myself and the tendencies I see within me. I don’t exempt myself from the fray.

But, I can’t stay silent. My soul grieves within me. We are missing opportunity to share the Gospel, to introduce people to love of Christ. Worse: we are turning people away from the Gospel by focusing too much on temporal things. We seem to be spending ourselves to protect institutions and current political positions, when eternity yawns ahead. Think about it:

“If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilisation, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual.

“But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is everlasting and the life of the state or civilisation, compared with his, is only a moment.”

–C. S. Lewis from Mere Christianity

Why do we spend so much time trying to reform a temporary nation when individuals with eternal value are getting lost in our rhetoric?

The following statement from Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, served in the last three Republican administrations, sums it up pretty well in an Op Ed in the NY Times (originally written in September 2016):

“Like water that refracts light and changes the shape of things, politics can distort and invert Christianity, turning a faith that at its core is about grace, reconciliation and redemption into one that is characterized by bitterness, recriminations and lack of charity. There is a good deal of hating and dehumanization going on in the name of Christ.”

We can – we must – do better for the Shepherd who died for us while we were yet sinners and gave us the blueprint for His purpose – to go into all the world spreading the Gospel (the Good news) of Christ.

Justice Means Working in the Fields Among the Wheat and the Weeds

Jesus warned us that weeds would grow up with the wheat, but the fields are ripe for the harvest.


The recent turmoil that was triggered by the killing of George Floyd has put a focus on justice in our country. In a sense, justice is on trial. Racial justice is the primary focus, but justice generally is implicated.

Most people are focusing on racial justice right now, but I have seen people with signs at rallies with messages aimed at “police brutality” generally. The spark of emotional reaction has ignited the flames of passion in all people who believe that injustice exists in our systems of justice.

One good example of that more general focus on justice is the “autonomous zone” created by protestors in the City of Seattle, WA.  (Seattle protesters set up ‘autonomous zone’ after police evacuate precinct by Danielle Silva and Matteo Moschella for CBS News June 11, 2020) The police have abandoned the East Precinct in response, and the protestors have replaced the sign on the police station to read “Seattle People Department”.

Many Christians, especially evangelicals, who tend to be conservative, having traditional values and respect for authority, react negatively to such extreme radicalism, and for good reason. In doing so, though, we fail to see, ignore, or gloss over real justice issues that should be addressed.

Our God is just. Righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s character. (Ps. 89:14) Righteousness and justice should be priorities to us as they are to God.

We might think of justice in terms of punishment, but that is a very warped and inaccurate view of biblical justice. “Biblical references to the word ‘justice’ mean ‘to make right.’ Justice is, first and foremost, a relational term — people living in right relationship with God, one another, and the natural creation. From a scriptural point of view, justice means loving our neighbor as we love ourselves and is rooted in the character and nature of God. As God is just and loving, so we are called to do justice and live in love.” (What does social justice really mean? by Adam Taylor, World Vision February 20, 2012)

Many Christians get tripped up by the term, social justice, because of secular baggage associated with the term. Indeed, social justice has taken on connotations that might by antithetical to some biblical principles. Because justice is a primary characteristic of God, however, we can’t let competing visions of what justice looks like to get in our way of doing justice.

God desires for us to be salt and light in the world. That means getting involved. Jesus warned us that weeds would grow up with the wheat (Matt. 13:24-30), but the fields are ripe for the harvest. To be involved in the harvest, we need to venture out into the fields, weeds and all.

Continue reading “Justice Means Working in the Fields Among the Wheat and the Weeds”