God loves to make clear guidelines, to help us.
God loves to break those guidelines, to humble us.
The wise men from the east are an important part of the Christmas story. And they can challenge our assumptions regarding the boundaries of God’s saving grace. What are these foreign astrologers doing in our nativity scenes?
God set apart Israel to be the special, chosen, “people of God”. He gave the Scriptures, the priesthood, and the temple to Israel. God calls Himself the Husband of Israel. Israel alone was His beloved bride.
To be outside Israel was to be numbered among the uncircumcised Gentiles, who were foreigners, outsiders, and strangers to the Covenant of Promise.
It was possible for a Gentile to become a Jew. But for this to happen, it was necessary to be circumcised, to confess the Shema, to confess sins in the presence of a priest, to take part in temple worship, to keep the commandments, and to participate in the Passover and other annual feasts. A Gentile could believe in Israel’s God, without meeting all these requirements. But such a person would remain a Gentile, outside Israel, and not a member of God’s covenant people.
Yet the Scriptures tell us about many righteous people who were outside the boundaries of Israel. Some of these people remained outside Israel their entire lives. For example:
- Melchizedek was outside the boundaries of Israel. He was a king, but not a descendant of Judah. He was a priest, but not a Levitical priest. Melchizedek was a foreigner, yet he faithfully served the Most High God. Later, Jesus Himself is called a priest after the order of Melchizedek.
- Job was an outsider to God’s covenant people. Yet he worshiped God, and he received God’s blessings. God had made His covenant with Jacob, and He hated Jacob’s brother Esau. Even though Job was a grandson of Esau, he still received salvation from the Lord.
- The Widow of Zarephath was not a member of God’s covenant people. Tyre and Sidon were cursed by God, outside the boundaries of Israel. Yet when there was a great drought, instead of sending the prophet Elijah to help someone in Israel, God sent him to help the widow of Zarephath, in the region of Sidon. She found mercy in the eyes of the Lord.
- The People of Nineveh were not God’s chosen people, and they were guilty of many sins. Yet because of Jonah’s preaching, the entire city repented in sackcloth and ashes. They repented of their sins, they believed God, and they humbled themselves before Him. They received great mercy from the Lord.
- Naaman the Syrian was not a member of the people of God. Syria was outside the boundaries of Israel, and idol worship of the pagan god Rimmon was common. Yet instead of having the prophet Elisha heal the lepers of Israel, God had him heal the leprosy of Naaman the Syrian. Naaman had faith in Israel’s God.
- Nebuchadnezzar was a foreign king, with no membership in God’s covenant people. He never became an Israelite. But he did repent of his pride, and he glorified Israel’s God as the King of Heaven. It certainly appears that he had faith, and that he received salvation from the Lord.
Now consider the Three Wise Men from the East:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” . . . and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then . . . they departed for their own country another way.
They were not born Israelites.
They did not relocate to Israel.
They did not convert to Judaism.
But they did recognize Christ and worship Him.
And they are recognized as Saints
in the Orthodox Church.
The Orthodox Church even sings in their honor during the Troparion of the Nativity:
Apolytikion: (Fourth Tone)
Your birth, O Christ our God,
dawned the light of knowledge upon the earth.
For by Your birth those who adored stars
were taught by a star
to worship You, the Sun of Justice,
and to know You, Orient from on High.
O Lord, glory to You.
The Magi had spent their lives adoring stars. They did not possess Israel’s birthright or Israel’s Scriptures. So, God revealed Christ to them through the stars.
These foreign star-worshipers found Christ,
while the religious leaders of Israel missed Him,
even though the priests and scribes correctly understood the prophecies from Scripture.
It would be a grave mistake to suggest that the Magi were actually Jews. They weren’t.
It would also be a grave mistake to say they weren’t recipients of salvation. They were.
And so this motif has continued throughout the history of the Church:
Consider how many martyrs have died for Christ, having received neither water baptism, nor the Eucharist. In life, they were never members of the Orthodox Church.
Yet the Orthodox Church recognizes them as saints.
Consider St. Isaac of Nineveh, who anathematized all who oppose Theodore of Mopsuestia, a century after the Fifth Ecumenical Council anathematized all who support him. St. Isaac dwelt in the Church of the East, outside the canonical boundaries of the Orthodox Church.
Yet the Orthodox Church universally recognizes him as a saint.
There are two mistakes which are well worth avoiding:
- It would be a mistake to throw up one’s hands in despair, believing that the Church contradicts itself.
- It would be a mistake to embrace ecumenism, concluding that the boundaries of the Church are broader than they really are.
To safely navigate these waters, we need to uphold two simultaneous truths:
Were these saints truly members of the Church during their lives?
No, they were not.
Even so, are they truly saints?
Yes, they are recognized as such.
“Out-of-communion” saints such as unbaptized martyrs, St. Peter the Iberian, and St. Isaac of Nineveh, were not members of the Church, any more than Job, Naaman, or Nebuchadnezzar were members of Israel.
Nevertheless, these people had genuine faith in Christ, and they found mercy with God. They are still bona fide saints, just as much as Job and Naaman.
Like Israel, God set apart the Church to be the special, chosen, “people of God”. He gave us the Scriptures, the priesthood, and the apostolic traditions. Just as God called himself Israel’s husband, He similarly calls himself the husband of the Church. The Church is His beloved bride.
And the boundaries of the Church are fairly well defined.
But do those boundaries prohibit God from granting salvation to whomever He wishes, by whatever means He deems necessary? Of course not.
The boundaries are there to protect us, not to protect God.