Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The Artistic Theologian 4 (2016)

The Artistic Theologian, published by the School of Church Music at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, ‘focuses on issues of worship, church music, aesthetics,  and culture for Christian musicians, pastors, church music students, and worship leaders’.

Below are the essays and their introductory paragraphs published in volume 4. Individual essays are available from here; the whole volume is available as a pdf here.

Scott Aniol
Editorial: “Thus Says the Lord”: Biblical Worship in Contemporary Practice
God’s revelation is the basis and foundation of everything in Christian life and ministry. God’s inspired Word is the ultimate standard for what Christians believe, how they live their lives, and especially the manner in which they approach God in worship. Since worship is to God, for God, and about God, God alone has the prerogative to determine how he will be worshiped... This fourth volume of Artistic Theologian is not a themed issue, but providentially every article relates to this matter of the sufficiency and authority of God’s Word in worship.

T. David Gordon
Commentary: Partial Psalmody
Within the Reformed tradition, there has been considerable discussion of the question of exclusive psalmody (the belief that the Church of Jesus Christ should sing in worship only canonical psalms). There has been less discussion of the propriety of what I call “Partial Psalmody,” singing portions (or even snippets) of psalms but not in their entirety. I think we should discuss this question also, ideally with the same mutual respect and charity with which we discuss exclusive psalmody. I ordinarily object to Partial Psalmody, on grounds I will mention below. Let me say beforehand that contemporary worship music is the graver offender here. Exclusive Psalmist communions, such as The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA), frequently sing partial psalms, breaking biblical psalms into several portions, and singing each of those as its own separate part of a service of worship, ordinarily to different tunes. But at least the parts of psalms they sing are larger parts, whereas in the contemporary worship music it is common to sing very small portions.

Paige Patterson
Ultimate Mystery: The Disappearance of Holy Scripture from Evangelical Worship
The Southern Baptist Convention, identified by most as the largest Protestant denomination in America, revised its confession known as The Baptist Faith and Message (BFM) in June of 2000. A blue-ribbon committee chaired by Adrian Rogers and including Richard Land, Chuck Kelley, Al Mohler, and Jerry Vines – among others – worked diligently to rid the 1963 revision of the old New Hampshire Confession of the neo-orthodox language that had infiltrated the document at several points. After one of the most interesting debates in Baptist history, lasting more than an hour, the convention approved the changes by a vote of better than 95% of the thousands of registered messengers.

Matthew Ward
Baptism as Worship: Revisiting the Kiffin/Bunyan Open-Communion Debate
Baptists in America have very strong feelings about the conditions for church membership. In this article, I want to focus on one: believer’s baptism by immersion. My current church constitution lists as a requirement for church membership baptism by immersion on repentance of sin and profession of faith. The same qualification appears in both the Philadelphia and New Hampshire confessions of faith, in Pendleton’s Baptist Church Manual, and in the Baptist Faith and Message. Indeed, many Baptists in America consider believer’s baptism by immersion to be a non-negotiable prerequisite for local church membership—but perhaps not as many as did a generation ago. Some significant Baptist churches have begun accepting members without that requirement, and that trend will certainly continue. Indeed, I broached this subject with some colleagues in Britain, and they were confused by my intention because they have nearly unanimously removed that condition from their constitutions. It is no longer a debate for them.

Scott Connell
Implications for Worship from the Mount of Transfiguration
The Mount of Transfiguration has long been considered one of the most mysterious events in the New Testament (Matt 17:1–13; Mark 9:2–13; Luke 9:28–36). Some source-critical scholars have considered it no more than a symbolic (non-historical) story created to demonstrate the Messiahship and deity of Christ. Others have believed it to be an ecstatic vision experienced either by Peter or even Christ himself. Still others have considered it a misplaced resurrection narrative out of chronological order in the synoptic gospels. The reasons for attempting to explain away the miraculous nature of this event are predictable, though still unnecessary.

Steven Winiarski
Music, Culture, and Vain Repetition: Matthew 6 in its Context
There are many different views on the relationship between church and culture. One extreme believes that the church should look nothing like culture and operate as a counter-cultural movement. This view tends to accuse recent worship music of being guilty of vain repetition, which Jesus condemns in Matthew 6:7. However, this view often does not want a counter-cultural church, but rather a church that preserves the culture of a previous generation instead of embracing the culture of the current one. What pastor hasn’t heard questions and statements such as “Why are we singing that 7/11 chorus (a chorus with 7 words sung 11 times)? Why are we singing this new song with these new instruments? It causes us to look like the world! What’s wrong with our old hymns?”

Abstracts of Recent SWBTS School of Church Music Doctoral Dissertations

Book Reviews

Monday, 30 January 2017

Embodied Grace

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.
Romans 6:11-14

Later on in this letter, Paul will move from the mercies we’ve received from God to the giving of our bodies as a living sacrifice (12:1). He anticipates that move here, using the same language of ‘offering’.

It’s bound up with the flow of the gospel, God’s work of salvation in Christ through his Spirit. Paul impresses on us that our obedience to the first Adam is now gone. We no longer need to be enslaved to the way of life which went with that allegiance, ‘for we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin’ (6:6). We have died and risen again in Christ. What is true of him is true of us, however much we might be tempted to think otherwise.

Since salvation involves a recovery of what it means to be truly human, it should come as no surprise that the body is bound up with that restoration. God has saved us – the whole of us. And ‘every part’ of us is offered back to him – hands, feet, eyes, ears, tongue, mouth, and brain. All that we are is put at the disposal of our new master.

It’s tempting to think that God’s interest in our bodies is necessarily restrictive, that God would want to limit our freedom of movement, slap ‘thou shalt not’ post-it notes on every pleasurable activity. And yes, there is a real challenge to note about ears that too quickly listen to the office gossip, eyes that are too easily drawn to images that are titillating at best and degrading at worst, tongues that too hastily put others down, hands that too readily get attached to smart phones and shut out our presence with family members.

But we live in an era of grace, Paul tells us, and we’re able to show a different way of living that flows from God’s generosity towards us. And we do so as embodied people, who have a particular family history, who talk a particular way, who occupy particular places in work and home and church. By God’s design, we live in a world of things we can see and hear, smell and taste. Watch out for the good ones today, and celebrate them as gifts from a gracious God.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Worship For Life

This article was first published in the November 2016 edition of EG, the quarterly magazine of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

I’m not that old (no snickering at the back, please), but even I can remember when the big question about worship was what type of musical instruments were allowed to be played in church. Drums were a definite no-no, but were tambourines okay? Or guitars? Even now, when we think about worship, what often comes to mind is a particular style of what takes place when Christians meet. Or we talk about ‘having a time of worship’ where the ‘worship’ is the ‘singing’ part before the sermon.

This being the case, it might come as something of a surprise to hear what the Bible says about worship. What light does it shed? One place to begin is with the words used in the Bible to describe worship.

A vocabulary for worship

As David Peterson helpfully shows, it turns out that the words usually translated as ‘worship’ in our English Bibles have very little to do with music or singing. What, then, do they involve?

Worship as honouring God

One group of words means ‘to bow down’. It’s used for the gesture of homage people show to kings or others in authority. Applied to God, worship is an expression of submission to him, as in Psalm 95:6 – ‘Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker’.

Worship as serving God

A second term is the ordinary word for ‘serve’, which describes the relationship between a servant and a master, and which is applied by extension to our relationship with God. For example, echoing the language of ‘serving’ God used throughout Deuteronomy, Joshua challenges the people of Israel towards the end of his life: ‘choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve’ (Joshua 24:15).

Worship as revering God

Another set of words has to do with revering or fearing God. The motif of ‘the fear of the Lord’ is found throughout the Bible’s wisdom books and elsewhere too, describing a deep respect for God and his ways.

From a biblical perspective, then, acceptable worship is not primarily a matter of praising God in music and singing, or of taking part in particular ceremonies. It involves honouring, serving, and revering God – in every sphere of life.

A story of worship

Beyond the particular words used in the Bible is the story told in the Bible. To tell the story of the Bible is to tell a story of worship.

The first human beings enjoy the unmediated presence of God, walking with him in the sacred space of Eden. Because of sin, that relationship is marred and breaks down, with Adam and Eve banished from the garden. But God in his grace sets about restoring it. Men and women may still draw near to God’s presence and enjoy relationship with him, but only through priestly mediators and on the basis of sacrifices offered in a tabernacle or a temple.

In due course, as the story reaches its peak, Jesus comes and declares that he is the temple, the place where God dwells, the meeting-point between God and humans, the place where sacrifice is made. Worship is now centred on Jesus, the great High Priest, the one whose death inaugurates a new covenant with God’s people. In this new covenant, worshippers offer their bodies as ‘a living sacrifice’ (Romans 12:1) and bring ‘a sacrifice of praise’ to God (Hebrews 13:15). No longer does the glory of God fill bricks and mortar. The church, the whole body of Christ’s people, indwelt by God’s Spirit, is now the place of God’s presence.

Then, as we come to the final page, we discover there is no need for a temple in the New Jerusalem, for ‘the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple’ (Revelation 21:22). That’s where the story ends, with God’s people forever enjoying the glory of God’s presence.

Above all, the story of worship is a story of grace, as we trace the acts of God on behalf of the people of God and our response to God in lives of worship.

A life of worship

It should come as no surprise that the Lord of the whole of life requires worship in the whole of life. In the Old Testament, we see it in regulations that touch on every aspect of daily existence, in psalms which embrace the highs and lows and everything in between, in prophets who call for justice and mercy as well as sacrifice and singing. As Deuteronomy 10:12-13 captures it, all of life was to be an expression of service to the Lord:

‘And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?’

The Old and New Testament stand together on the necessity of whole-life worship, as Paul makes clear in Romans 12:1-2 – where bodies, minds and wills are offered in service back to God.

It thus becomes clear that worship embraces both what we do when we gather at set times with other Christians and what we do when we’re scattered the rest of the time on our everyday frontlines. Authentic worship takes place in a rhythm of gathering and scattering – like the regular breathing of a healthy body, like the back-and-forth movement of a well-played accordion.

Importantly, moments of gathered worship are not merely a platform for our individual expression of worship upwards to God, but the place for the Spirit’s downwards transformation of us. And it is our immersion in the life of the gathered church that forms us and equips us to be God’s people in everyday life.

So, singing is crucial after all! And so are the intercessions and the offering and the sermon. The very act of gathering expresses our identity as those called out of the world to be a people who serve God. Even the seemingly trivial and potentially awkward practice of greeting one another acknowledges that we are present not simply as individual worshippers but as the family of God. We sing God’s praise and give thanks for his work in the world. The preached word brings us face to face with Jesus and his power to equip us for everyday life. The taking of bread and wine nourishes us as we take our place in the story of his redemption of us and all things. We pray for the Spirit’s empowerment of each other in daily living and witness. It’s practices like these carried out faithfully and regularly that nurture our identity as God’s people and enable us to align ourselves more closely with his purposes for the world.

Here is where worship and mission flow into and out of one another. From the opening call to worship to the final blessing, God commissions us back into the world as stewards and disciples, equipped and shaped for the callings he has laid on us, in the various places we find ourselves, and in a way that the glory will belong to him alone.

Going Further

Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel
Mike Cosper (Crossway, 2013)
Shows how the gospel story shapes the church, and how the rhythm of gathering and sending continues to tell the story as God’s people in the world.

Encountering God Together: Biblical Patterns for Ministry and Worship
David G. Peterson (IVP, 2013)
A helpful reinforcement of worship as an engagement with God on the terms he proposes and in the way he alone makes possible.

The Message of Worship
John Risbridger (IVP, 2015)
A rich and wide-ranging set of biblical expositions on ‘celebrating the glory of God in the whole of life’.

The Whole of Life for Christ: Enriching Everyday Discipleship
Antony Billington & Mark Greene (IVP, 2015)
Worship is one of several themes explored in this book. Produced in partnership with Keswick Ministries, the seven Bible studies offer individuals and groups the opportunity to explore whole-life discipleship more deeply.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Journal of Missional Practice 8 (Winter 2017)

The Winter 2017 edition has just been posted, containing four story articles, a theory article, and a book review, with an opening editorial by Alan Roxburgh on ‘Hopeful Stories, Anxious Cultures’.

Here are some excerpts from the editorial:

‘Recent events are revealing a churning just below the surface of everyday life among Western peoples...

‘As Christians on both sides of the Atlantic, we’re now live in communities increasingly shaped by mistrust, anger, confusion, anxiety and fear. Neighbors feel increasingly at risk in communities that, until recently, were the bedrock of security. Whether it’s the election of Donald Trump, with its attendant shock to all elites who considered themselves wise in reading and guiding social movements, or the hugely off-balancing Brexit vote, or the radical divisions that have re-emerged on the streets of America with movements such as Black Lives Matter, or the fear of the other in the form of migrants and refugees, or the growing chasm between the 1% and the rest that was such a central concern of the Occupy movements, or the eviscerating of a middle class that has been the basis for the social and political cohesion of Western democracies and so and so on, we find ourselves implicated in a massive unraveling in which the established structures of state, economics and their educated elites have lost their capacity to lead. Mistrust of elites and institutions across the West is palpable...

‘How do we discern helpful ways of attending to this unraveling?...

‘This volume is framed around a number of grounded interviews with Christian communities/leaders engaged with some of these issues in their communities.’

Monday, 23 January 2017

In Christ Alone

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
Romans 5:17-19

As he does elsewhere, Paul places the account of salvation on a big stage – nothing less than the story stretching from the first Adam to the second Adam.

He puts it even more succinctly in 1 Corinthians 15:22: ‘For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all shall be made alive.’ It’s by virtue of our union with Adam that we die, and by virtue of our union with Christ that we’re made alive. God fulfils not merely his promise of descendants for Abraham, but creates a new humanity in Christ.

And that little word ‘in’ is all-important.

What’s the central thought of Paul’s letters? Is it justification? Reconciliation? Adoption? Those are certainly important to Paul. But what’s most central is Jesus. The prior, primary, central, fundamental reality for Paul is our union with Christ, being in Christ. And all the benefits of salvation flow from that union – our justification, adoption, redemption, sanctification, preservation and glorification, and our being joined to each other in the church, the body of Christ.

Knowing who we are in Christ has all sorts of implications, as Paul will go on to explain: ‘count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus’ (6:11); ‘there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (8:1); ‘in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others’ (12:5).

All this could sound ever so abstract were it not for our all-consuming interest in identity. Who am I, really? We can spend a lot of time wondering. For some of us, the answer depends to a large extent on what others think and say about us – our parents, our peers, our colleagues. What conclusions about me are reflected back in the way they treat me? Who am I – the joker, the trouble-maker, the failure, the helper?

In Christ, we can know who we are. I may be a son, a husband, a father, a colleague – those things make me who I am. And they are not suppressed, but gloriously redefined in the light of my being in Christ, as I bring that identity into my everyday work, my relationship with my spouse, my conversations with my children, my handling of money, my use of time.

In our union with Christ – and Christ alone – our humanity is not obliterated but restored.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Bible Society You and Your Bible Survey

Bible Society have posted the results from their ‘You and Your Bible’ survey launched last autumn, in which they invited people to share their Bible reading habits.

They asked questions in the following few areas:

• Books of the Bible: What’s your favourite book of the Bible? And what’s your least favourite?
• The Bible: Select five words or phrases that best describe the Bible for you.
• Bible Reading: Outside of church services, how often do you read (or listen to) the Bible?
• Reading Methods: Which of these do you use most often to read the Bible? (options given)
• Reading locations: In the last month, where did you last read/listen to the Bible?

The results from over 3,700 people who took part are available to view here, and to download as a pdf here.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Lausanne Global Analysis 6, 1 (January 2017)

It’s a little while since I’ve linked to the Lausanne Lausanne Global Analysis, from The Lausanne Movement. The latest issue has a lead article on ‘A Caribbean Perspective on the US Elections: Five Key Areas to Watch’.

In the issue overview, editor David Taylor says:

‘In this issue we firstly focus on the impact of the US presidential election campaign and its outcome on Christian ministry in other parts of the world. In the light of the elections, we invited Lausanne leaders from several regions to comment from their perspective. We received some very helpful surveys as well as one more-than-full-length analytical article by Las Newman and Minke Newman. The arrival of the latter enables us to feature our first ever LGA article written from a Caribbean perspective. We have added to it ‘Voices from other regions’ as a postscript, with brief excerpts from three regional surveys. We also feature two articles on networks and partnerships, one focused on evaluation of their effectiveness, and the other on the growing Mahabba network. We conclude with a piece on artisanal and small-scale mining in the majority world and how Christians can make a difference.’

The executive summary is available here, and the full issue is available here.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

D.A. Carson on the Love of God

A new volume has been published in Crossway’s ‘Theology in Community’ series, this one on the love of God...

Christopher W. Morgan (ed.), The Love of God, Theology in Community (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016).

The table of contents, other front matter, and opening chapter by D.A. Carson on ‘Distorting the Love of God?’ is available as a pdf here.

Monday, 16 January 2017

3D Salvation

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly... God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Romans 5:6-11

The story is told of Brooke Foss Westcott, Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge and Church of England bishop, being approached by a zealous evangelist. (Accounts differ as to whether it was a member of the Salvation Army or an undergraduate student, but don’t let that get in the way of a good story.) ‘Are you saved?’, Westcott was asked. To which he apparently replied, ‘Ah, a very good question. But tell me: do you mean…?’ – and went on to cite three forms of the Greek verb ‘to save’, indicating that his answer would depend on which of the three was in mind. ‘I know I have been saved,’ he said, ‘I believe I am being saved, and I hope by the grace of God that I shall be saved.’

There’s a temporal span to our salvation, which embraces past, present, and future.

Having just written of God’s love being ‘poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 5:5), Paul reminds us where that love was so clearly demonstrated in the past – in Christ’s death on our behalf, when we were powerless to save ourselves. If God went to such cost to reconcile us to himself, even when we were his enemies, we can be confident he’ll finish what he has started. All this is grounds for assurance in the present, encouraging us to rejoice for what God has done in Christ.

Paul moves with ease from the past to the future to the present. And it’s helpful that he does. Some of us may be certain that God worked in us in the past, but find it difficult to see his hand on our lives right now. Or we might worry whether things we have done in the past disqualify us from his service in the present. Or our current struggles and suffering can make it hard to see the certainty of our future hope. But Jesus has the whole of our redemption wrapped up – then, now, and forever more.

And it’s all of grace. At every stage – past, present, and future – we come with empty hands, seeking mercy from our heavenly father, recognising as Paul says in Philippians 2:12-13 that we ‘work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling’, knowing that ‘it is God who works in [us] to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose’.

Monday, 9 January 2017

A Definite Maybe?

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Romans 5:1-5

Samuel Goldwyn, the movie producer and co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was known for his malapropisms – amusing statements resulting from the use of incongruous or contradictory words. A story goes that when someone urged him to come to a decision about a project, Goldwyn replied: ‘True, I’ve been a long time making up my mind, but now I am giving you a definite answer. I won’t say yes and I won’t say no, but I am giving you a definite maybe.’

Whimsy aside, that’s perhaps the best that can be offered to us on a whole host of issues – a definite maybe.

In some cases, lack of certainty on our part can be bound up with personal insecurity or a self-worth that has been undermined in damaging ways. But these days, even assertive, self-confident people find it hard to be sure, or at least say they are. For that smacks of intolerance, doesn’t it? The entire drift of our culture makes it unacceptable to say ‘I am sure’, particularly when it comes to issues of faith.

Read again Paul’s words at the start of Romans 5.

Just what is it that flows from being justified? Not merely some vague, warm ‘spiritual’ experience, but peace with God, access to God. And how has this come about? Not through attainment to a higher level of consciousness or through anything we can bring to the table (as Paul has made clear in the previous chapters of Romans), but through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Since God has declared us ‘right’ in the present, that verdict will stand on the last day. Even in the face of suffering, then, we have hope. Here, as elsewhere in the Bible, hope is not some vague wish-fulfilment. Hope involves looking forward to the future with confidence, because it’s a future that Christ himself has secured for us.

At the bottom line of it all, and the ultimate basis of Paul’s confidence, is God’s love – not merely shown to us, but ‘poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit’, a sign of his ongoing commitment to us. It’s a love, Paul will say later, from which nothing can separate us (Romans 8:37-39).

If any of this was down to us, we’d have room for doubt. As it is, our confidence lies elsewhere. Peace, hope, love. Not maybe, but definitely.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Carl Trueman and G.K. Beale on Issues in History and Exegesis

Westminster Theological Seminary have gathered together some essays in what they are billing as ‘The Best of Trueman and Beale from the WTJ’, containing the following pieces:

Carl Trueman
Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light

Carl Trueman
Richard Baxter on Christian Unity

G.K. Beale
Can The Bible Be Completely Inspired By God and Yet Still Contain Errors?

G.K. Beale
The Cognitive Peripheral Vision of Biblical Authors

The collection is available as a pdf here.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Of Astrologers, Magicians, and Bungling Sorcerers

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. This is a lightly-edited re-run of a piece first written and published back in 2010.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’
Matthew 2:1-2

The 12th day of Christmas falls on 6 January this year. In the Christian calendar the day is known as Epiphany, marking the visit to the young Jesus by... well, by whom?

We sometimes sing ‘We three kings of Orient are’. But Matthew calls them ‘Magi’, not kings. Magi were a number of things, but they were certainly not kings. Nor, probably, should we think of them as ‘wise men’.

By the first century, the term ‘Magi’ referred to astronomers, fortune-tellers, or star-gazers. So, think ‘magicians’. Think horoscope fanatics. Think those who claim to tell the future by reading stars, tea leaves, and chicken gizzards. In the Bible, think of the magicians in Egypt at the time of Moses, or the interpreters of dreams in the book of Daniel, or Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8.

So, for an early reader of Matthew’s gospel, the Magi aren’t just Gentiles (significant though that is); they represent the height of Gentile idolatry and religious wizardry. But it’s these star-gazing, horoscope-writing, would-be magicians who are the heroes in the story. They shouldn’t be there. They don’t worship the right God or adhere to the right religion or belong to the right race. And yet they are there.

It’s possible, then (according to Mark Allan Powell, Chasing the Eastern Star, Westminster John Knox, 2001) that we should see the Magi as bungling astrologers or sorcerers – more like the Three Stooges than the Three Wise Men! They go to the wrong place. They speak to the wrong person. When they give their gifts, it’s gold, frankincense and myrrh, which were elements used in their magic. And yet, by a mysterious combination of God’s loving grace and their faithful seeking, they are there – as models of seeking Jesus, believing in Jesus, and worshipping Jesus with what they have. God used what they knew – the stars – and gave them what they didn’t know – the Scriptures – to bring them to Jesus.

The story of the Magi shows us that God revealed the truth about Jesus to a bunch of pagan fools while those who were clever enough to work it out for themselves missed out. Their story reminds us that God shows his strength in our weakness, his glory in our humility, his wisdom in our folly – to make it clear that everything comes from him and not from ourselves.

Let’s celebrate that this New Year.