By Kelley Mathews
“… praising God for all they had heard and seen”
At the bedside of every beloved newborn, an audience awaits. Sometimes, mom and dad bear witness to the miracle of new life. Such was the case with Joseph and Mary—at first. But like most parents, they soon welcomed guests—perhaps the most unexpected and unusual nursery visitors ever. For not only did these strangers elbow their way into a family occasion, but they were the first to acknowledge Jesus for who he really was—more than just a baby, he was Savior, Redeemer, King.
Seeing the child
An angelic chorus over Bethlehem’s fields that night proclaimed the arrival of the long-awaited messiah. The shepherds, after recovering from their fear of the angels, followed their directions: “Today in the town of David … you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:11–12). So within hours of Jesus’ birth, the shepherds went and “found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger” (v. 16). They watched in awe, knowing they were witnessing God’s dramatic entry into their world, the fulfillment of Scripture’s promises. Visualize that juxtaposition—the dusty and ragged shepherds, straight from the fields where they had guarded smelly sheep through the night, coming to stand before the King of kings, their long-awaited Savior.
After witnessing the arrival of God to earth, these least likely cheer-leaders could not contain themselves, Luke reports. It’s only logical that they would go tell everyone who would listen. “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child” (2:17). In their witnessing, they worshiped.
While the shepherds gloried in witnessing the Savior’s birth, far to the east of Bethlehem wise men were preparing for their journey to worship a newborn king. These magi, also called kings, undoubtedly believed this child to be a human ruler, not a God-man come to save the world from sin. They were perhaps like Daniel of old, who was named a magus (wise man) in the Persian court for his gift of interpreting dreams and dispensing wisdom. These scholars found a sign written in the stars—or in the star, specifically—that pointed to the king’s coming. They prepared gifts fit for royalty. Their journey across the deserts of Mesopotamia echoed that of the Queen of Sheba, who traveled to Jerusalem with tribute for the wisest man alive, Solomon. This time, the magi sought the source of wisdom himself, though they did not realize it.
Interestingly, the magi witnessed about Jesus before they ever met him. Drawn by the star that had appeared at Jesus’ birth, they arrived in Jerusalem asking, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matt 2:2). Little did they know what a fuss they were about to kick up over someone they’d not yet seen in the flesh!
Their request disturbed King Herod, who apparently knew enough of the Hebrew Scriptures to understand they might be referring to the Jewish messiah. It also disturbed “all Jerusalem with him” (Matt 2:3). Word was getting around about the foreign dignitaries who had trotted into town. Imagine the murmuring about a newborn king. Not a child of Herod’s, surely. Why would royalty from a distant land visit a Jewish king? Could it be … the messiah? As his city and court became agitated over their visitors, Herod gathered his priests and religious teachers for the great reveal: the messiah was to be born in Bethlehem.
If they did not already consider the newborn king to be divine, perhaps the ancient prophecy about the messiah enlightened the magi. Maybe this baby was more than a human monarch. Once back on the road, they rejoiced to once again see the star that had guided them. Finally, it stopped over the house where Mary and the child resided. And thus, the witnessing ones became eyewitnesses.
Honoring the king
At first glance, a group of poor, grungy Jewish shepherds can’t compare to a band of traveling magi—wealthy, devout, and highly educated. But in the two nativity narrations, Luke and Matthew single them out as significant witnesses to the incarnation. Both groups knew about Jesus through special revelation from the heavens. Both understood that he was special. And at the moment they saw him, they all worshiped.
The earliest witnesses—the shepherds—worshiped Jesus with their words and lives. After hearing the angelic message and the heavenly host praising God, they turned to one another and said, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about” (Luke 2:15). They went. They saw. They praised God. They told everyone what they had seen and heard, “and all who heard it were amazed” (2:18). They glorified God in heaven by proclaiming what they knew of his baby Son. That’s worship.
A few years later, the magi arrived to honor the young king; they had traveled so far for that very purpose. “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him” (Matt 2:11). Fully intending to pay homage to a king, they had packed gifts suitable for royalty. Only the finest of offerings would do: gold, frankincense, and myrrh—expensive spices, fragrant oils, and the most valuable currency of their day.
I’ve often thought that Americans (and perhaps citizens in other democracies) lack a true understanding of the respect due to one’s lord and king. In a democracy where power lies with “we the people,” citizens view government with a different kind of loyalty and honor than people held for the monarchies of old. In those lands and times, the king or queen ruled with absolute power and deserved utter deference. Some considered themselves gods, or ordained to the throne by God, and demanded to be worshiped.
Without that sort of background, perhaps we find it difficult to grasp the complete devotion we owe Jesus as King of kings. He actually is God, the all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present One. The magi seemed to have figured that out by the time they met him. They bowed in reverence and offered their best. That’s worship.
As we read the nativity narratives, it’s hard to see ourselves in the story—and maybe that’s not the point. Perhaps we’re not supposed to ask, “Which of these disparate witnesses do I most closely resemble? Am I like the poor shepherd or the rich wise man? Do I talk about God or give my best for him?”
Instead, the inspired text invites us to consider how we are to respond to the hope-bringing, life-giving love we encounter when God becomes one of us. Like the shepherds and the magi, our response is clear: to witness the Savior is to worship him.
1 Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.