I once preached a sermon on the Magi where I dazzled the congregation. I walked them through the Magi’s gifts and explained their deeper meaning. Gold, of course, represented Jesus’ royalty. Incense his deity; and myrrh the looming spectre of his death.
It ‘preached’ pretty well but I remember feeling uneasy. Was this really what I should have been preaching from that text?
Many Christmas puddings later I now have an inkling why I felt that way. The message was exegetically unstable. Or put another way: I am now far less certain that Matthew or the Holy Spirit intended us to see these deeper meanings.
In his writings on Matthew, Don Carson expressed the same view with more dogmatism:
Commentators old and modern have found symbolic value in the three gifts… This interpretation demands too much insight from the Magi. The three gifts were simply expensive and not uncommon presents and may have helped finance the trip to Egypt.
Oh well, then.
(cue sound of sermon notes being scrumpled)
I strongly suspect that Carson is right, but what I’m really interested in is a wider problem. In our desire to make Scripture ‘preachable’ we import uncertain meanings into the text, while ignoring glorious truths that are actually there.
Take the Magi and Matthew 2 for instance. In this famous Christmas passage there are least six emphases nearer to the forefront of Matthew’s mind.
1.Promises of the coming Davidic King are now being fulfilled. Note the significance of Jesus’ birthplace and the allusion to a messianic prophecy (Numbers 24).
2. The contrast between Jewish and pagan responses to Christ’s birth. There is hostility and apathy on the one hand; fascination and worship on the other.
3. Gentile inclusion in the promises of God. This is also suggested in the genealogy of chapter 1 and is a concluding emphasis in Matthew’s gospel (go make disciples of all nations).
4. The Messiah is worshiped. The pagans were unlikely to have viewed Jesus as divine, but they “worshiped better than they knew.” (Carson)
5. There is an echo of Pharaoh’s attempt in Exodus to destroy Hebrew male children and the line of promise. There is, like that occasion, divine preservation. But the Bethlehem persecution anticipates the later plot to kill Jesus as a man.
6. A new exodus is underway. The star goes before the Magi like the cloud went before the Israelites. Jesus will be taken to Egypt like Joseph was in the book of Genesis. He will come out of Egypt, go through water, endure a wilderness before coming to a mountain (Matthew 5).
We’ve only scratched the surface of the Magi and Matthew 2. But the point I wanted to make has hopefully been demonstrated. In stressing ideas that are tenuous at best, we are in danger of missing out on meanings that are there.
We must preach the Word, not conjecture. And there’s no holiday from that, even at Christmas.Tweet