What’s New Is Old

Acts 13:16-25 (NRSV)

So Paul stood up and with a gesture began to speak:

“You Israelites, and others who fear God, listen. The God of this people Israel chose our ancestors and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. For about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. After he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance for about four hundred fifty years. After that he gave them judges until the time of the prophet Samuel. Then they asked for a king; and God gave them Saul son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, who reigned for forty years. When he had removed him, he made David their king. In his testimony about him he said, ‘I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes.’ Of this man’s posterity God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised; before his coming John had already proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his work, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but one is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of the sandals on his feet.’”


As Christians, we love the story of our savior, Jesus Christ. Let’s never forget how he is rooted in a more ancient story.

Yes, that sometimes intimidating collection of Old Testament texts is very important. God came to save all the world through a particular group of people, and it’s difficult to fully understand salvation without understanding their story.

Paul knew that while speaking to fellow Jews, he needed to keep Christ in context so they could see Jesus as the fulfillment of long-awaited promises made to them. Note, however, that Paul also addressed “others who fear God.” We owe some study time to the story of the Israelites, the one group of humans selected by God to serve as a light to all the world, illuminating the path to salvation.

Paul summarizes the story by beginning with the Israelites’ captivity in and exodus from Egypt, moving through their time in the wilderness and their conquest of the Promised Land. Then he recounts their being led by judges and kings, noting the great King David was in Jesus’ ancestry.

If you find the Old Testament less than familiar, perhaps today is a good day to launch into at least a high-altitude study of what is there. A good study Bible is all you really need, although the amount of information now available to us in a digital world is astonishing. Just be sure your sources are trustworthy!

And of course, you can always ask your pastor and other church leaders for help.

As you immerse yourself in these ancient texts, much of what Jesus Christ has to say in the New Testament will make more sense. Jesus was, after all, a good and faithful Jew, deeply rooted in his people’s history and traditions.

Lord, bless us with a deeper understanding of how the stories in our two testaments are connected. May we find joy in all that is there, knowing these concepts add up to the great story of our salvation. Amen.

Here Come the Pagans

Matthew 2:1-12

The story of the “wise men from the East” has embedded itself firmly in our Christmas practices. On the church calendar, their story is the centerpiece of Jan. 6, the day we call “Epiphany,” which marks the end of the Christmas season.

On the nearest Sunday, it’s not unusual to add three crowned characters to our church nativity scenes, often accompanied by camels. We sing “We Three Kings.” We read the above story found in Matthew.

And yet, I’m not sure we always grasp the identity of these visitors, which means we may also miss the significance of their trip.

Matthew’s gospel is very sparing in details about these travelers. Writing in Greek, he simply referred to them as magi, as if he expected the audience of his day to know exactly what that meant.

Our problem arises because at some point in history, what it meant to be a magi was largely lost by western culture, resulting in English translations using words like “kings” or “wise men.” The former is largely inaccurate, despite the popular hymn; the latter is accurate but so general that we gain little in terms of understanding.

Fortunately, researchers in the last couple of centuries have developed a better understanding of these travelers’ background. One hint lies in the fact that magi did make it into the English language in words like “magic” and “magician.”

It helps if we understand the religious practices of the lands east of Israel in Jesus’ day, places we now think of as dominated by Islam—modern-day Iran and Iraq, for example. We have to remember, Islam did not exist until about 600 years after Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry. One of the dominant pre-Muslim religions in the area was Zoroastrianism.

Historically, the Zoroastrian priests were known as magi, and they practiced all sorts of activities the Jews and even the Romans would have considered the province of pagans: astrology, divination, and other activities considered to be magic. Often, the magi used these practices to advise their kings.

It is revealing that Matthew chose to incorporate the story of the magi’s astrological discovery of Jesus and their visit into the birth narrative of Jesus. In the book of Acts, the works of similar magi are presented negatively, as a force working against God.

Matthew mentioned the magi to make a larger point, however. The birth of Jesus was the fulfillment of the dreams of the world, not just the dreams of the Jewish people. Through Jesus, God was speaking to all people in a way they could understand.

Matthew also was demonstrating that the Jews should have recognized Jesus as the fulfillment of their desire for a messiah. Even far-away “pagans” were able to use what the Jews would consider forbidden practices to spot Christ’s arrival.

We live in a culture today where many people are like the magi. There is a goodness about them and a fascination with all things spiritual, to the point that interest in astrology and magic are on the upswing among generations where church attendance is in decline.

If the magi in the book of Matthew are any indication, people with general spiritual interests at least may be open to hearing the story of God among us.

They will need a shining light to guide them. Christian, you may be that light as you gently connect their desire for goodness with God’s great plan of redemption.

Lord, help us to better understand how we can lead people with differing spiritual practices to Jesus Christ. Amen.