The Magi: From East to West

The story of the “wise men” in the book of Matthew is certainly among the most famous and iconic of all Christmas stories. If you are anything like me, you have this image in your head of three opulently-dressed rich men, riding camels for days and weeks across the desert, then kneeling in front of the baby Jesus and His parents, still in the stable and surrounded by animals, and presenting these magnificent gifts. This is the traditional “nativity scene” image.

The facts are only slightly different. There were likely far more than three wise men; there were enough of them, and they carried enough authority, for both King Herod and “all of Jerusalem” to be troubled by their arrival (2:3).

The story very likely takes place some time after Jesus’ birth. It’s far more likely He was somewhere closer to two years old at the time (hence Herod’s decision in verse 16 to kill all children two years old and under). But those are just details, really. There is one important question about this story that only rarely gets asked:

Why is this story here in the first place?

There is a detail that’s often overlooked when reading the story of the wise men. They are described as having come “from the east” (2:1).

While this seems like simply an ordinary geographical description, there is something more going on in this detail (as there often is in Scripture), something that takes the story all the way back to the beginning, to the Garden of Eden.

When Adam and Eve were first cast out of Eden – when God declared that, because of their sin, they were no longer worthy to dwell in His Holy Presence – the book of Genesis says that “He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden He placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen. 3:24).

The entrance to the garden of Eden, then, is depicted as being on the east side, and re-entry into the presence of God would be a movement from “east to west”. Again, these just seem like details, but they are details that continue to be further developed throughout Scripture. Symbolically, to move west is to move closer to God, and to move east is to move away from His presence.

When God gives the Israelites detailed instructions for the building of the Tabernacle (and, later, the temple), He describes very clearly how they are to orient the structure. Whenever they moved to a new location, the tabernacle would be set up so that the entrance to both the outer court and the Holy of Holies, were facing east.

It becomes clear as the details of the tabernacle are being described that this orientation is pointing back to Eden. The Holy of Holies, the place where God’s glory dwells, is protected by a thick veil on which were woven images of guardian cherubim (just as a cherub had been placed to guard the entrance to Eden).

The purpose of the tabernacle and temple, then, was to allow a sort of limited re-entry into the Garden; to once again dwell with God in His Glory. Thus, to enter into this presence meant entering from the east, and moving west. This is even why, when the Israelites enter the promised land after their 40 years of wandering, they cross over the Jordan river, crossing into the land from the east.

This same imagery continues to be woven throughout Scripture – but perhaps most dramatically, we find it in the final chapters of Ezekiel.

In Ezekiel 47, the prophet has a vision of a river “issuing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east)” (Ezek. 47:1). Ezekiel sees this life-giving river of water flowing out of the very presence of God, growing deeper and wider as it continued to flow eastward, bringing God’s life and blessing to the “nations”.

The imagery in Ezekiel reflects a theme across the Old Testament: God’s purpose for Israel is that they would be a people through which all the nations of the world would be blessed. Because God would be dwelling in their midst, they were to be a “river of life”, flowing out of the presence of God and bringing light and life to the nations. They were to be extending the presence of God eastward.

So there is this prophetic theme that declared that one day God would indeed dwell fully among His people, and the nations who had not known Him would be drawn to His presence, and they would be blessed and given life by it.

All this is a very roundabout way of saying that this is what Matthew is alluding to at the very beginning of his Gospel.

He sees the birth of Jesus as the arrival of God Himself to dwell with His people (Matt. 1:21-23). Then he sees this story of these wise men, traveling from east to west in order to bring Jesus gifts and to rejoice in His presence (2:10-11). When Matthew looks at this story, he recognizes it as an incredible picture of God beginning to fulfill His promises going all the way back to the beginning of Scripture.

The doors to the Garden of Eden are being thrown open, and there is now once again a path into the presence of God. These wise men are the first to taste Jesus’ life-giving water, to experience life in His presence. They are the first wave of what will soon enough become a world-wide reality when the Gospel goes out into the nations, to conquer kings and kingdoms. Where these wise men traveled from east to west to experience God, through the work of Christ the blessings of God would begin flowing outward, to the east and to the ends of the earth, and the world would never be the same.