“The light of God is ever shining amid the darkness of heathenism.”

-E.G. White

In the book of Deuteronomy, God, through Moses, gives a very direct prohibition; that the people of God should guard against the practices of the surrounding heathen nations when they entered into the promised land. God sought to guard Israel against the idolatry that would certainly and ultimately result were they to mingle amongst the practices of these pagan peoples. He cautioned them saying:

When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you. You must be blameless before the Lord your God.[1]

God sought to ensure that Israel would maintain a close connection with Heaven, and therefore, forbade their reliance upon pagan spiritual practices. The prohibition would have been understood within the context of a previous command: “And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven.”[2] It was understood that the celestial bodies were worshiped as deities and thus served as a primary source of diviners and soothsayers. Thus, Israel was (thoroughly) cautioned on how they should relate to the stars, as well as how they should relate to those who consulted the stars.

But then there’s the story of the Magi:

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.”…After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.[3]

What makes the story of the magi so challenging is the fact that these are the very types of person’s who have previously been identified as accursed. God’s truth has constantly been pitted against these types of pagan wizards (see Ex. 7:10-12, Dan. 2:27-28). But here, God reaches out directly to the pagans with a sort of exclusive purview into the divine plan. Some have sought to explain this idea away saying, they were “seekers of truth.” Yet, when speaking of the magi in The Desire of Ages, Ellen White says, “The light of God is ever shining amid the darkness of heathenism.”[4] In other words, even in a heathen context God determines to reveal himself and to draw the masses to himself.

The lives of Joseph, Daniel and Jonah immediately come to mind when we think about God’s interaction with heathen nations. These were God’s prophets who served as a mouthpiece in heathen contexts. These found themselves in secular contexts for totally different reasons, yet each found exceptional occasions to reveal the truth of the living God. Yet, we are more amazed by circumstances in which there seemed to be no previous contact with the ways of Israel’s God. Balaam spoke the words of God without previous contact with the chosen people. In Acts, the Ethiopian eunuch was studying Isaiah, but we have no direct indication in scripture how he even received the scripture. The greeks came to Jesus because they wanted to worship him. This was not news, but rather specific fulfillments of prophecy, as we see in Isaiah 56:1-8. Yet, God had made it clear, on several different occasions (and in numerous ways) that “my name shall be great among the Gentiles…my name shall be great among the heathen.”[5]

Nevertheless, today, the tension in the story of the magi is still present with us. We are still commanded not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers and we are still called to come out of Babylon. But, does God still reveal himself in heathen contexts? Does God still use unconventional means to speak to the secular masses? Is it possible that God is at work in dark alleys and depraved environments when there are no Christians around? The magi came to Jerusalem because they saw a foreign star. They heard no sermon, nor did they attend an evangelistic meeting, but they assumed the posture of worship.  Does God still use various kinds of stars to light the path for unbelievers?

While speaking specifically about the secular film industry Christopher Deacy writes: “There are thus viable grounds for supposing that theological activity has the capacity to be discerned and apprehended in the so called ‘secular’ arena, and that, in the medium of film in particular, robust instances and manifestations of Christian activity may be found to be available to cinema audiences.”[6]

In Traces of the Spirit, Robin Sylvan writes:

Observers of culture and scholars of religion have said many things about the slow decline of religion and the death of God in western civilization. Yet for the millions of people…religion and God are not dead, but very much alive and well and dancing to the beat of popular music…Yet, because conventional wisdom has taught us to regard popular musics as trivial forms of secular entertainment, these religious dimensions remain hidden from view, marginalized and misunderstood.[7]

As difficult as it may seem, the magi remind us that whether it’s in the secular music industry, secular movies, skid row, a nightclub, a crack house or any other “seedy” establishment, God may choose to self-reveal for the sake of saving those who are lost. If God can speak through a donkey, then surely the gospel can be shared through any medium there is.

The irony in the story of the magi is that when they arrived, no one was worshipping. The shepherds had done their part by spreading the word of the savior’s birth (see Luke 2:17-18), but the spiritual leaders of Israel had refused to take heed. Ellen White suggests that it was the pride of the priests that caused them to reject the pagan wizards and impoverished shepherds.[8] These pagan priests brought their best gifts and fell down and worshiped, while the chosen people rested on their laurels of spiritual and theological supremacy. In the end, the priests were lost, while the magi had dedicated their hearts to Jesus.

Might this same tragedy be manifest today? Could we miss the opportunity to help someone grow in the faith because we’re not comfortable with the route they took to arrive at “the truth?”

Do we still struggle to affirm and accept seekers after the Spirit because they reek of alcohol and marijuana? The music in the car passing by is blasting obscenities so we shake our heads in disapproval and scurry into church. The Five-Percenters and Hebrew Israelites spout incessant recitations about the supreme mathematics and the true children of Israel, but we wave it off as nonsense and go on about our way. I’m afraid that the modern-day magi might still be given some sort of pre-packaged response, while we, the people of God miss out on an opportunity to worship the King. Might we be found among the worshipers; no matter where they came from and no matter what they look like.

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[1] Deuteronomy 18:9-13 NIV

[2] Deuteronomy 4:19 NIV

[3] Matthew 2:1-11 NIV

[4] Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, Deluxe ed. (Silver Spring, MD: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2002), 59

[5] Malachi 1:11 KJV

[6] Christopher Deacy, “Faith in Film,” quoted in The Religion and Film Reader, Jolyon Mitchell and S. Brent Plate, eds., (London: Routledge, 2007), 311.

[7] Robin Sylvan, Traces of the Spirit: the Religious Dimensions of Popular Music (New York: NYU Press, 2002), 3.

[8] Ellen G. White, Desire of Ages, 62-63.

Christopher C. Thompson

Christopher C.
Thompson

Dr. Christopher C. Thompson currently serves as Communication Director for the Southeastern Conference of SDA. As a pastor, author, teacher and church resource developer who is passionate about the spiritual growth process, he works tirelessly to develop tools to aid pastors and parishioners alike. Click below to follow him on twitter or visit his website.

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