That Might Preach, But…

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.

10 thoughts on “That Might Preach, But…

  1. The post said, “Commentators old and modern have found symbolic value in the three gifts… This interpretation demands too much insight from the Magi.” Actually it doesn’t require any insight from the Magi. They might not have understood the full meaning of their gifts but God did. And Matthew might not have had in mind the six points you emphasized. He could have just been telling what happened.

    When God inspired the writing of the Bible he showed the authors what to say but that doesn’t mean they understood the full significance of what they wrote. The meaning of the gifts is just as important a point as the ones you pointed out.

    • Clyde,
      I agree with your overall pushback about God’s superintending. In hindsight, what you’re saying about that is right.

      On the other hand, I’m less convinced that Matthew didn’t have in mind the six points I mentioned – or at least most of them. I think we are in danger, at times, of minimising the theological nous of biblical authors, especially NT ones who have Old Testament hindsight and clearly structure their gospels with great care. I doubt they are just telling us what happened.

  2. Thank you, Colin. I understand perfectly “that’ll preach…but is it the text..”! Recently, I read through Douglas Sean McDonnell’s commentary on Matthew and he more or less implies the same. Blessings, Merle D. Brown, pastor of Fontaine Baptist, Martinsville, VA., USA

  3. > Commentators old and modern have found symbolic value in the three gifts… This interpretation demands too much insight from the Magi.

    Without addressing the larger conclusion itself, Carson’s rationale here is not very good. The interpretation does not demand too much insight from the Magi, because it is not the case that the human agents have to understand the full implications of their actions. There is a sovereign divine agent operating at a higher level. The Pharisees and Sadducees did not have insight into the implications of what they were doing when they offered the anti-type of the Passover lamb to atone for the sins of the world – yet they still actually did do it. Herod did not know that he was fulfilling a Biblical plot-line (Matthew 2) and prophecy when he sought to kill Jesus; but he still actually was doing so.

    In fact, Matthew’s gospel is full of “between the lines” messages, and actions which fulfilled (the concept of fulfillment is one Matthew repeatedly refers to) Biblical plot-lines, including actions of actors who wouldn’t have been fully aware of the full implications of what they were doing (e.g. when Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt, did they know they were fulfilling what Matthew says they were fulfilling?). So, as I say, Carson’s reasoning here doesn’t actually work. That doesn’t in itself mean that Matthew *is* signalling signification in the gifts. That requires further justification. But I think there’s enough there to indicate that we should be at least be open to it.

    • Thanks David.

      Yes, I think you’re right about the push back on Carson’s point (and my injudicious quoting of it).

      On the justification side, I’m not saying there is no way one could make an argument that the gifts have symbolic meaning. I once preached a sermon entirely on these symbolic meanings, however, which is probably why I feel quite strongly about noticing other things in Matthew 2. What I am suggesting is that a stronger case and more clear case can be made for several other theological points. We mustn’t miss these because we think the gifts ‘preaches’ better.

  4. Far be it from me to question Dr. Carson. I had him as a professor in seminary, although not enough, as he was always away from school writing or editing a book. His explanation of the gifts as common gifts at the time with any theological importance being beyond their insight raised a question. Does the ignorance of the magi exclude any other meaning that could be discovered? Did Abraham see all the significance that the lamb that substituted for his son provided?

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