The Bible is often hard to understand. Maybe it is meant to be so – not to hide things from us or intimidate us into servile reverence, but rather to make us think.
Take for instance the story of the Magi. What does it really mean? What is the point we are meant to take from it? Who were these “wise men”?
The name magi already makes us think. Two other people in the New Testament share that label. One was Simon (Acts 8:9-24) who practise mageia and was converted to Christ, but temporarily fell back into his old ways and was sternly rebuked by Peter. The other was Elymas (Acts 13:6-12), a magos who opposed Paul when he was preaching to the governor of Cyprus and was struck blind.
The English word “magic” is derived from the same root: they were magicians, “wizards” rather than “wise men”. John Henson has a version of “We three kings” that is more realistic. It begins:
“We are freaks who follow the stars,Pleiades, Neptune, Venus and Mars;
men and women, dressed in linen,
peddling our lucky charms”
They were also astrologers. The idea of their following a moving star is a bit of traditional embellishment. The story simply says that they saw a new star which, to them, meant that a king had been born among the Jews. They came to look for him in the obvious place, Jerusalem, and were redirected to Bethlehem. Then, to their great joy, they saw the same star again.
The Bible never has a good word to say about magicians or astrologers. In the Book of Isaiah the people are mocked for trusting in them:“But evil will come upon you, which you cannot charm away… Stand fast in your enchantments and your many sorceries … perhaps you may be able to succeed … let those who study the heavens stand up and save you, those who gaze at the stars and at each new moon predict what shall befall you.” (Isa 47:11-13).
Today we have our “stars” in the newspapers, but few take their predictions seriously, and orthodox Christians generally disapprove.
Unanswered question number one: what does this story imply about astrology?
It is also clear that they were not of the Jewish faith, nor did they share the Jewish expectation of the Messiah. They were probably Zoroastrians. Unanswered question number two: after this experience, did they “see the folly of their ways” and become believers in the God of the Bible?
Number three: did they, years later, hear the story of Jesus and become Christians?
And number four: if they did not, and if (as traditional evangelical doctrine asserts) only born again believers in Christ go to heaven, where are they now?
This apparently simple story leaves a lot of questions unanswered! But in this respect it is closer to our present-day experience of faith than we often realise. In today’s multi-cultural society the old “certainties” don’t hold any more. Life isn’t as simple as we used to think.
The story of the Magi is meant to tell us that Jesus came for the whole world. But how does this work out in practice? Can people be led to Christ through other faiths or by means we think are heretical or superstitious? And if so does this mean they are meant to become Christians? And if not, can we say that it really doesn’t matter what you believe? Yet more unanswered questions!
This is the nature, and the power, of the Bible. It doesn’t give us answers: it gives us stories and leaves us to work out their meaning in the confusion and ambiguity of real life.