Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance … the wealth of nations shall be brought to you … all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense
Today the Gentile world first rejoices in the salvation brought by the child of Bethlehem. In these three wise men from the east, masters of astrology or astronomy or both, perhaps even pagan priests or kings according to ancient traditions, the whole non-Jewish world is introduced to the Son of David, in whom they too, like the children of Abraham, are to find their salvation. How fascinating that Isaiah the prophet joins the chorus of God’s angelic messengers to proclaim that the Messiah hoped for by Israel will in fact be the Savior for all mankind: “Nations shall walk by your light,” he writes, “Raise your eyes and look about, they all gather and come to you.”
They all will “gather” says Isaiah; all the nations will “gather” and come to Jesus who will be their light also, and the nations will learn to walk by his light. The word “gather” is significant here, because this notion is at the root of our word Church. “Gathered” here means more precisely to be “reunited.” So we learn from Isaiah that the peoples of the world will be “reunited” in Christ, become the “gathering” of Christ, become His Church.
Thus all mankind, without exception, is to have but one spiritual head, one savior in whom they are all to be reunited as members of his mystical body, and so to be “gathered” into His Church. The full realization of this Messianic prophecy still lies far ahead, and the wise men from the East are but the first fulfillment of this great prophecy, fulfilling it in an initial way by their long journey, the Spirit leading them by the light of the star to the stable in Bethlehem. They are called by God to be the first gentiles to confirm the truth about this child, to confirm that He who is the King of Israel, the long-awaited Son of David, born in David’s City, is also the Savior of the peoples, their Lord and God.
Of course the skeptics in our day see all this as Christian myth making, and would have us believe that the three wise men are simply fictional creations of the Gospel writers, who want to make it appear that the words of Isaiah about the Kings and the gifts of gold incense are literally fulfilled, thus supporting their claim that Jesus is the Messiah. The star especially bothers these skeptics, as if God would interfere with his own creation just to announce the birth of His own Son! But then there are certain problems for these skeptics’ theories too.
For instance, we might wonder why in the world the Gospel would include that third gift, the myrrh, the burial ointment, which is missing in the prophecy of Isaiah, for this bit of fiction might well only confuse the issue of prophetic fulfillment they are using here.
And then there is this whole business of Herod, to whom they go to ask where the newborn king of the Jews is to be found. If one is simply making up the star story anyway, why not just have them bypass this pseudo-Jewish king and have the star lead them by itself to the new king, thus attributing the whole journey to God? But assuming it is factual, it makes perfect sense that they would be led by God to the Jewish authorities, temporal and spiritual, to check their calculations against the Jewish prophecies. So the wise men come to Jerusalem to ask the leaders where there newborn king is? I suppose they could have been told in dream to go to Bethlehem, but God chose that they should inquire from the leaders of Israel.
This all makes sense if the events related are facts rather than fiction. They are not Jews; they are following a star, but they do not know exactly who or where this prodigy is whose birth is announced by the rising of a new star in the heavens. So they decide to go to the city of the Jewish King, to Jerusalem, and get more information. Thus, in God’s mysterious plan, these three pagans are privileged to announce to Jerusalem that there is evidence in the heavens that a great King-prodigy has been born in their land. Thus, Herod is given his chance by God’s design to come and adore, but when he refuses, and plans a slaughter of the innocents instead, only then are they warned in a dream not to return to this evil man.
How absurd and even amusing God it is that leaned men should think that these humble and unlettered Apostles and their scribes, the evangelists, are the real creators of all this marvelous occurrence. For by this absurdity they miss the true beauty of God’s providence, the marvelous ways in which he enlists even the pagans to bring the scriptures to fulfillment. The wise men are simply playing their part in God’s plan, and they are accomplishing this simply by doing what they had obviously been trained to do, that is, to use their religious and scientific knowledge to look for marvels in the skies. They are likely unaware of just how they serve a greater purpose in their journey, of how they wonderfully bring to fulfillment an ancient Messianic prophecy of the Jews. But they do just that. And they do so simply by remaining true to their own lights, to the light of their own reason and religious desires, which enables them to faithfully follow the star which has been sent by God to lead them to their marvelous destiny.
Then, after their long journey, they unknowingly fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy by laying at the feet of the newborn king, the gifts of gold and incense, which have a reference to kingship and priesthood, and thus they pay homage to the Priest-King who is the Jewish Messiah and Savior of all mankind. But with their third gift, the mysterious gift of myrrh, the burial ointment of kings, God enables them, again unwittingly of course, to go even beyond simply fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy, for the myrrh is intended by God to prophecy the way in which the Messiah will be savior and king, that is, by means of his sacrificial death. The gift of myrrh anticipates, confirms and further elaborates the prophecy Simeon will speak in the temple on the day of his circumcision, that this child will be a sign that is contradicted. That this rejection will end in his death is clearly suggested by the unusual gift of burial ointment brought by the wise men to Jesus. The conjunction of these two prophecies, the first in action and the second in words, surely must have been one of those things that Mary pondered in her heart, and who can doubt that she saved this precious gift for whatever God in mind in the future of her son.
But there is one other great truth that God manifests through this visit of the men from the East, and that is the fact the true riches that come from the nations to Christ will not be the gifts of gold and incense and myrrh, but rather the people who will come from every place and time in this world, the sons and daughters of mankind who come from afar, the true riches of their nations, carried “in the arms of their nurses.” This too was foreseen by Isaiah, and was first manifested in the wise men. These are the riches that Christ desires, the people he came to redeem and make his own. This is what these mysterious and marvelous events of the Epiphany proclaim, that in Christ all people are called to salvation, and that by faith in Christ all people can become children of Abraham, inheritors of the promises made to Israel. All are now called to be God’s people.
Finally, there is this practical lesson we should all learn from the three wise men today, that if we would be part of those riches inherited by Christ, one of those who walk by his light and share his life, then we too must follow the star to Bethlehem and adore the child by laying our lives at his feet. The light we will is not that of a cosmic body, but the inner light of faith, the morning star, that St. Peter speaks of in his 2nd Epistle, 1:19, that star that rises in our hearts, the light of faith, by which we confess Jesus to be both Lord and Master. Only if we faithfully follow that inner star of faith, as the wise men faithfully followed the celestial light to Bethlehem, will we arrive at the same child’s feet, and, like them, prostrate ourselves before him, offering him all we have, and all that we are. And only then will we find our way back to our true homeland, by following our King, wherever his light may then lead us, and right into His heavenly Kingdom.