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What the Magi Mean to Christmas, Part 1

Selected Scriptures December 11, 2016 81-5

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Familiar scene of Christmas is depicted so commonly by artists who design Christmas cards, and most people get their understanding of Christmas from Christmas cards and not from Scripture.

There are some very familiar and accurate understandings. Obviously, Joseph and Mary and the Baby, and the shepherds; pretty clear to all of us just exactly who they were. We understand the shepherd were in the field in Bethlehem, and the angels came and sent them to see the Child that had been born. But the question comes as to who are the wise men, or the magi, as they have been called? They’ve even been called kings. But exactly who are they and why were they there? Obviously, it is important to the narrative of Matthew, and therefore to the Lord Himself who designed that this be included in Holy Scripture, that we know something about these men called the magi.

Now let me dispel some of the things that are inaccurate. They were not kings as such and there weren’t three of them. So there goes We Three Kings of Orient Are. Some have suggested through the years that they were actually specially chosen representatives of the three sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. For that, there is absolutely no sensible evidence. They actually acquire names in church history. They became known as Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. Those names were added long after the actual events and have no connection whatsoever to the actual wise men.

The magi number was unlikely three. There were three separate gifts, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there had to be three men. We don’t know how many there were. But there are traditions in the Roman Catholic Church that say there were three, and in the twelfth century, someone discovered their three skulls. And there was a little battle, I think, about who had the right skulls, because they were supposed to be in a cathedral in Cologne, and there were others claiming that the actual skulls were in the Cathedral of Milan. I might add, skulls found in the twelfth century would have absolutely no way to be connected to these men. And, certainly, three skulls is totally arbitrary.

Just exactly who are they and why are they there? Well, the question as to why they’re there is answered in the text, and that is to worship Him. They came to worship. That becomes absolutely clear. In chapter 2 and verse 2, they say, “We have come to worship Him.” That is their point. Herod even acknowledges this in verse 8 and says, “Come back and tell me when you find Him, that I too may come and worship Him.”

Their desire again is indicated in verse 11: “When they arrived and saw the Child with Mary His mother, they fell to the ground and worshiped Him.” They are worshipers. They acknowledge that the King has been born and the King is worthy of worship. This is another way that Matthew can identify the nature of the one that is born.

We know He’s a king from the genealogy in verses 1 to 17 of chapter 1. He’s in the royal line. We know He is more than just a royal son of David, He is also a Son of God, verses 18 to 25, what we looked at last time. He was born of a virgin. He is created in the womb of Mary by God Himself through the work of the Holy Spirit. So His birth is a royal Son on earth and a royal Son from heaven. And here we find that He is given worship from a group of men whose unique responsibility in their culture was to identify kings. They were Middle Eastern king makers, the magi.

For us to really understand this, we need to go back and do a little bit of church history, a little bit of ancient history, I should say, before the church. We need to go back and learn something about the magi. And we do have information about them. The term used to describe them appears in the New Testament here, as you see in verse 1, and then down in verse 12 again, Greek word magos. But there is also an equivalent in the Old Testament in the Hebrew, and they appear on a number of occasions as well in the Old Testament. So we can trace their history, and that helps us understand exactly what is going on here.

Essentially, the word “magi” is not a word that can be translated, although it has come to mean something associated with magic and magicians. Magi was just the name of a tribe, a tribe. It happened to be a priestly tribe, a very religious tribe from which there were priests that arose to very significant prominence. It appears that this tribe is extremely ancient. Some would trace this tribe back to Abraham in Ur of the Chaldees and see them as an extremely old tribe, a kind of wandering, meandering, nomadic tribe during the time of Abraham. Not all historians would push them back that far, but all agree that they are a very ancient people. They appear in the time of the Babylonian captivity. They appear in the Medo-Persian Empire, which followed the Empire of Babylon, and they’re still around in very significant positions of influence and power at the time of the birth of our Lord.

Now what do they know about the birth of Christ? How could they know anything about the birth of Christ? The answer to that is that you do remember there were a series of deportations into Babylonian captivity that God brought upon Israel, upon Israel, first of all, the northern kingdom, and in Judah, the southern kingdom. The southern kingdom Jews were taken in three waves into Babylon: that’s the Middle East, that’s the Fertile Crescent, that’s the familiar Middle East that you know today. The Jews were taken there into captivity by the Babylonians. They were kept in that captivity for 70 years, and then they were sent back to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, which they did. But during the 70 years that they were there, many of those Jews intermarried. Many of them remained in the Middle East in the Babylonian Empire.

One of those that remained was Daniel. Daniel extended beyond his role as a significant prime minister in the Babylonian world right on into the kingdom of the Medes and the Persians. Daniel was not the only remaining Jew, there were many others; and as I said, there were many who intermarried. Some of the nobles in the history of the Middle East had Jewish blood; and even, we are told, some of the kings may well have had Jewish blood. It was the dispersion of the Jews into the Middle East that brought the message of the Old Testament to that part of the world. They brought with them the Scripture. They brought with them the prophecies.

In fact, Daniel himself was a prophet, Ezekiel was a prophet, and there were other prophets who ministered during the captivity. Whatever their history might have been prior to that, however far back they may have gone, we do know that they were in Babylon, they were in this subsequent Medo-Persian Empire, and they remained there in the Fertile Crescent all the way until the time of our Lord Jesus being born, and they were extremely influential. They had great power. Most historians would say that they were Semitic people, that is they descended from Shem. They have been, through history, able to retain that designation magos, which is translated magi. That word later became corrupted to mean magic and magician, but originally identified this tribe of people who particularly were religious and marked by a significant noble kind of priesthood. They did apparently use occultic powers, they were not only involved in some level of astronomy, but even astrology, which is the kind of mystical partner to astronomy.

They had some features in their religion. Fire was a main feature in their religion. In fact, it might have been the principle element of their worship. They had an altar that had on it a perpetual flame that they said was lit by heaven, and they drew the fire off of that flame, put it on another altar, and burned up animal sacrifices on that other altar. And after the animals were burned on the altar, they were eaten by the worshipers and by the magi priests as well. So they had a sacrificial system.

Their priesthood was also hereditary. They carried around bundles of divining rods by which they used techniques supposedly to reveal to them the will of the gods through these mechanisms. They believed in the destruction of certain unclean forms of life, unclean animals, much as the Jews did. They were realistic about death and judgment after death, individual judgment. They also didn’t touch dead bodies, again very much like the Jews. By the time we see them in the Babylonian Empire and we see them there, they are identified as magicians. We see them in the court of Nebuchadnezzar.

Jeremiah 39, we see them there. In fact, we meet the chief of the magi who is named Nergalsarezer, and he is in the royal court, because they were very, very prominent, influential priests. They sustained that prominence on into the Medo-Persian Empire, and we see them there as well. They played a role under Nebuchadnezzar the great familiar king that we know so much about from the book of Daniel. And in Daniel, chapter 2, a couple of times, and in Daniel, chapter 4, a couple of times, we are introduced to the magi in the royal realm of Nebuchadnezzar.

Chapter 5 of Daniel in verse 11 says Daniel was made the chief of the magi, the chief of the magi. They were involved in trying to interpret dreams; that was something they did, and we know that Daniel did that as well in an accurate way, because God enabled him to do it. So Daniel connected to these magi in such a way that he communicated to them the truth of Old Testament Judaism and the promise of the coming Messiah; that is obvious. Messianic prophesies of Daniel and the other prophets, which Daniel would know, were revealed to these very prominent king makers – and I’ll more about that in a few moments. They absorbed them and they believed them, at least to the degree that they actually came to worship when the King was born.

They were no doubt excited about the fact that Daniel had told them, and others had prophesied, that there was coming a great world King, a great Jewish monarch who would bring in a divinely inspired monarchy of righteousness and rule the world, and they wanted to be in on that, they wanted to be a part of that. Daniel made such an impact on them that you have to note this when you’re going to the book of Daniel. And you remember that Daniel basically was put in a difficult position, because some of the very influential people in the court of Babylon came to the king and said, “Daniel doesn’t bow down to you, Daniel bows down to his God and he fails to worship you.” And they got the king previously to make a decree that if anybody didn’t worship him they’d throw them in the lions den.

We remember the story; Daniel was thrown then into the lions den and survived, as we know. But just keep this in mind that the regional governors who are identified as the ones who pulled the plot off and got Daniel thrown into the lions den are satraps, regional governors, not magi. Daniel was the chief of the magi, which means that he had been elevated in their eyes and respected by them. It wasn’t the magi that put Daniel in that lions den. They continue in providence and in prominence, as God’s purposes unfold, through the Medo-Persian Empire.

Along the way, there appears to have sort of merged with them a religion called Zoroastrianism. We don’t know exactly the time of the prophet Zoroaster, a very, very ancient prophet who appeared in, I guess we would say Modern Persia and Iran – again, in the Middle East. And Zoroaster established a sort of state religion. It’s kind of a pre-Islamic religion in the Middle East. It became the state religion of Persia, and the magi absorbed it as well, anxious to maintain their political and religious power. They went along with royal decrees and allowed the merger of Zoroastrianism with their own form of religion. It may be that Zoroastrianism carried with it more of the astrological things that seemed to be associated with them.

So they are a very hybrid religion. They are whatever they were to initiate that religion, and then mingled with prophecies that they were taught by the Jews, and then with the addition of things from Zoroastrianism, they were an eclectic kind of religion. But among those magi were some who had actually come to believe in the truth revealed to them by the Jewish people in dispersion. Now they were so powerful in the Middle East that no Persian was able to become a ruling king in the empire unless he first mastered the scientific and religious discipline of the magi, which wisdom was called the law of the Medes and the Persians. And you’ve heard that expression. The law of the Medes and the Persians refer to in Esther, chapter 1, and Daniel, chapter 6, was essentially the wisdom of the magi. And it may well have been that which was taught to the young men, Daniel and his friends, when they were originally taken captive into Babylon.

The magi also in ancient times controlled the judicial office. They were a kind of combination of senate and supreme court. It was among their ranks from which the bench of royal judges was chosen, referred to in the 1st chapter of the book of Esther. They basically were in a position to check and balance the monarchy so that ultimate despotic authority didn’t reside in one man. They were the king makers. No one could be king unless they appointed them. And they kept the king, to whatever degree they could, in check. The law of the Medes and Persians, the teaching and the wisdom of the magi involved astronomy, mathematics, natural history, agriculture, architecture, and any other sciences.

You do remember a parallel to that. You remember that when Moses went into Egypt and was raised as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He was disciplined, Scripture says, in all the wisdom of the Egyptians. The Egyptians had their own elite, as the magi were in the Middle East. They were, to Babylon Medo-Persia, what the wise men of Egypt were to that great country. No one ruled apart from their approval.

And Daniel rises to be the chief of the magi; really an amazing thing for a Jew. He ruled under various monarchs, Daniel did, for 64 years, all the way from Nebuchadnezzar to Cyrus the Great. And during that time, not only was he faithful to pray to his God, but he was faithful to proclaim his God and the prophecies of a coming Messiah and Savior.

Strangely enough, the syncretistic hybrid religion of the magi had some things in common with the religion of the Jews. Each was monotheistic. Each believed in one God, and that was in a world where there was virtually everywhere the belief in many gods: polytheism. But the magi and the Jews believed in one true God. They both believed in angels, they both believed in demons, and they both believed in a deliverer or a savior. They both had a hereditary priesthood, which was identified as the mediator between the one true God and man by means of blood sacrifice. Each priesthood was wielding overwhelming political and social power; and we know that to be the case with the priests of Israel at the time of our Lord’s birth.

Each – that is both the magi and their religion, and the Jews and theirs – depended on supernatural revelation gained by the priests in their religions. The magi and priests gained their revelation by some form of divination, and the Jews, early on as you remember, received revelation from God by the Urim and the Thummim on the breastplate of the high priest. Each of these two religions claimed prophetic insight, and therefore prophetic authority. Each had a coming Messiah at the end of history in an apocalyptic judgment, and to establish a final kingdom of righteousness. So we can see there were common realities in their religion. And when they were exposed then to what the Old Testament said about the Messiah, about the coming of the Lord, it fit many of the things that they already had preconceived.

Now as we come to the birth of Jesus Christ, there are some further facts about them that you need to know. I think we look at the magi and we think of them as really benign guys dressed up in women’s clothes, riding on camels, as harmless as harmless gets. But the reality is this: they came from the Middle Eastern Empire from the historic Babylonian Medo-Persian Parthian Empire, the massive Middle Eastern Empire that eventually became Persia and Iran, and is broken up to into component parts today. That Middle Eastern Empire was the sworn enemy of Rome. Rome was the massive monolithic power in the west, and this empire was the massive monolithic power in the east.

And they had gone to war significantly three times: in 63 B.C., in 55 B.C., and in 40 B.C. And as you would expect, because Rome is to the west, and the great Medo-Persian Parthian Empire is to the east. When they fight, they’re going to wind up fighting in Israel. Israel becomes sort of the no man’s land between these two massive powers. And that is exactly what happened. That is precisely what happened.

By the way, as a footnote, when you’re reading the book of Acts, you’ll come across Simon Magus, and Magus Elymas, in Acts 8 and 13, who had obviously – Jewish men who had identified with the influence of the magi. Just to let you know that they not only were there at the time of Christ, but even in the years after, they had some influence.

Now at the time of Christ that the Persian Parthian Empire to the east is dominated by the magi in their dual role as religious priests and governmental officials, they compose the upper house of the Megasthenes, which would be like their ruling body. They had absolute power to select the king of the empire. They were the royal king makers. And interestingly enough, they had a king, Phraates, who had recently been deposed, and they had at the time of the birth of Christ no reigning king.

So they were in the process of trying to find the next monarch, somebody obviously better than the one who was deposed. Combine that with the fact that they knew the prophecies of Daniel, and that would mean that they may well have known the prophecy of the 70 weeks of Daniel and could have calculated the years from the decree of Artaxerxes to the very time when our Lord lived, they were aware that they were probably in that time period. This may well be the time. Daniel would have interpreted his own prophecy for them. They’re without a king. They know they’re at the time when the king is supposed to come, and so they head for Jerusalem from deep into the Fertile Crescent, the Tigris-Euphrates Valley in the Middle East.

Now if you think there were just three of them you are so wrong. They came in full force. They are not just meandering isolated wise men, they are the king makers of the massive empire of the Middle East, the pre-Islamic Empire. They come with all their oriental pomp. They come escorted by perhaps several thousand soldiers, riding on magnificent steeds, Persian steeds. They come with servants and slaves and cooks and all kinds of craftsmen. They come with all oriental pomp and circumstance, and they show up at Jerusalem, this huge entourage numbering in the thousands, and they are there looking for the King of the Jews. They go to Jerusalem and to Herod, who is at the time the king of the Jews – the Romans let him have that title – and they tell him, in verse 2, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? We saw His star and we’ve come to worship Him.”

Verse 3 says, “When Herod heard this, he was troubled.” Of course, he was troubled. He was more than troubled, he was terrified, he was panicked. He had secured for himself the title king of the Jews from Augustus Caesar, but what he got with it was this little piece of buffer land between these two massive empires with huge contending armies. At the time of the birth of Christ, Herod was close to death. He certainly died within about a year of the birth of Christ.

Augustus Caesar, who had given him that title, was aged. Rome, since the retirement of the great general Tiberius had no commander in chief for its army. Rome had great vulnerability, and Herod had very little protection. The time may have been right in his mind, and maybe in the minds of those in the east for another attack on Rome, and they could begin it in Israel. And, oh, by the way; the troops that had been given by Rome to Herod at the time that the magi arrived were somewhere else dealing with some other issue. So he is a king without an army. He is a king in a position of becoming a victim caught in the middle of a fourth war between the west and the east.

And then they say the reason: “We’re here is because we’ve come to see the King of the Jews, for we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” Not only are there natural forces working here, and biblical or prophetic forces, but there is a supernatural sign going on. And they’re saying, obviously, the magi, “Could this be the invincible Monarch that we will crown, as the official king makers of the east? Could this be the one we’ve all been waiting for, the one Daniel spoke about, the one the Jews called their Messiah? And can we, with the coming of Messiah, crown Him King and take back Israel from the Romans, and then march beyond Israel to the Roman world and exterminate even the Romans?”

So into Jerusalem comes this massive entourage, led by the magi, to identify this new King. Riding their fine horses, the king makers of the east with their conical-shaped headdress – it’s a symbol of their power – they scare the wits out of Herod. They’re on a mission to check out a new king. This is about sovereignty, and sovereignty could mean war. It certainly can mean that whatever title Herod had, he’s about to lose. But it’s beyond that, because we find in the account that they are honorable, they are deeply religious, they are God-fearing, and they believe in what they have been told from the Old Testament, and they have been told it by Daniel, the chief of the magi. So the stage is set – Bethlehem, Joseph, Mary, a little Baby; a panicky, terrified Herod; and a powerful group of magi – and Matthew unfolds what happened.

And, oh, by the way; one other misconception: they didn’t come to the manger. Where did they come? Verse 11 says they came to the house. This is after Joseph and Mary and the Baby have left the manger and are living somewhere in a house. Why, again, does Matthew include this? Because he wants to demonstrate that not only is Jesus a King by virtue of royal lineage – verses 1 to 17 of chapter 1; He’s in the line of David, He’s a descendant of David – but he wants to demonstrate that He is even viewed as a King in the non-Jewish world, because those who are the highest level of king makers acknowledge Him as King. This is another way for Matthew, for the Lord Himself to reveal to us the royal identification of the Lord Jesus. His royalty is recognized by His royal line from David, but it’s recognized by Gentiles as well. He is the King of Israel, but His is also the King of kings.

Chapter 1: Jesus deserves royal honor; He is a son of David. Chapter 2: He receives royal honor, but not from His own people, but rather from those who came from afar – Gentiles. So the magi represent the first fruits of the Gentile nations and remind us again that God always had them in His heart.

Now for just a moment we’ll look at the text itself. Verse 1: “After Jesus was born.” We’ve now moved after Jesus is born. They’re out of the stable; He’s out of the manger; they’re in a home. In the days of Herod the king Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem. We all know about Bethlehem where He was born, a little town six miles south of Jerusalem. It was once called Ephrata, and then Bethlehem – house of bread, because it was a fertile countryside in which there was produced wheat that could make bread. The town of Bethlehem rests on top of a gray limestone ridge more than 2,500 feet high. The ridge has a summit at each end, and it’s kind of a saddle in the middle. It looks like a town set in an amphitheater.

It had a long history, Bethlehem did. It was there that Jacob buried Rachel and set up a pillar by her grave. It was there that Ruth lived when she married Boaz; and from Bethlehem, Ruth could see across the Jordan Valley to her homeland of Moab. But above all, this was the town, the home, the city of David; and it was for the water of the well of Bethlehem that David longed when he was a hunted fugitive. This is David’s city, and the Messiah is to be born as David’s son in David’s city. Bethlehem is so very important.

They didn’t go to Bethlehem, however, they came to Jerusalem, and they came in the days of Herod. We’ll look at a little more history about Herod. But he was not a Jew, he was an Edomite – an Idumean, another way to say it. He made himself useful to the Romans when they occupied Israel during the civil wars in Israel, and so the Romans came to trust him. He bought his way in by favoring the Romans. Once Rome had captured Judea, they set up a procurator there by the name of Antipater, who was also an Edomite, and he was allowed to appoint his son Herod as tetrarch of Galilee in 47 B.C. In 40 B.C., that was the last of those. Three times I told you that the eastern forces came and fought a great battle in the land of Israel 40 B.C.

Herod fled to Rome. When he got to Rome he asked for help from the Roman senate, so they made him King of Judea. They gave him a small army, sent him back. Took him three years to kind of win back the territory; but by 37 A.D., 37 years before B.C. the time we mark the birth of Christ, he had won back his land. He was essentially Rome’s appointed king. Rome gave him the title King of the Jews until he died around 4 B.C. So that’s the setting.

He has fought for this petty kingdom, this insignificant – in one sense – place; and now he is threatened like he’s never imagined with the force coming from the east. They’re looking for the one who is King of the Jews. They saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him. Just a few words about this and then we’ll wait until next week for the rest.

What is His star? What is it? And I know you have imagined many things, and perhaps been told many things. Some say it was a genuine star, it was an actual star. The Lord blew on it and kind of enriched its flames a little bit, and it got brighter than normal. Some say it’s Jupiter; that has been called the king planet. Some say it was sort of a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the sign of a fish – there’s some imagination. Some say it was an erratic comet. Some say it was a low-hanging, flying, small meteor. And some say it was the star of destiny in the minds of the magi.

None of that makes any sense, of course. But one thing does make sense, and it is this: if you go to Luke, chapter 2 – just to comment on it – and verse 9, when the shepherds are out in the field and the angels come and make an announcement, it says, “The glory of the Lord shone around them.” The shekinah glory of God appeared. The glory of the Lord shown around them. The chief word in the Hebrew Old Testament is kowkab, the shining, the blazing forth, the shekinah. It is used to speak of stars in the Old Testament, of angels, of men, and even of God. And in Numbers 24:17, “There shall come a kowkab, a shining out of Jacob; a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” Christ is that kowkab.

This is further described in Matthew 24. At the second coming of Christ, glory appears. Everything goes dark and glory appears in the sky. His kowkab, His blazing forth. So at the second coming of Christ, the glory, the shining shekinah glory of God appears. He reveals Himself in blazing glory.

And I think that’s what you have here. His star, His unique kowkab, His unique aster, from which we get the word “asteroid,” which is a New Testament term. His own shining. His star, not any other one, but His star. The star that accompanied the birth of Christ is the same shekinah glory that will accompany the second coming of Christ. It appeared, it appeared.

Verse 7, “Herod asked at what time the star appeared, phainō, that which lights up like lightening. It’s used as lightening in Matthew 24:27, a kind of blazing out of nowhere like lightening. So we can assume that with all the prophetic knowledge they had and all the timing they had learned from Daniel, they were ready to come. They needed a king; maybe this was the one. They began their journey when there was in the skies something that they had never seen, the lightening of the shining of the glory of God, the star that marks the coming of the Messiah. It will mark His second coming; it marked His first coming as well.

Chapter 2, verse 9, says, “They went their way, and the star which they had seen in the east went on before them.” No real star can do that. This is a star that is like the shekinah glory of God in the Old Testament during the exodus that was a glory cloud in the day and a pillar of fire by night that led the people of Israel in the direction that God wanted them to go.

So here again the glory cloud appears, and it led them  . They saw it in the east. It came, stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they greatly rejoiced with great joy. This is an indication of the genuineness of their interest in the God of Daniel and the God of Israel, and the King that the God of Daniel and the God of Israel was sending into the world.

I like to think that the star is the sign of the Son of Man. Remember in Matthew, “You will see the sign of the Son of Man.” The glory that accompanied His birth and led these magi is the glory that will accompany His return. They came to worship Him. Pagans guided by a prophet, guided by Old Testament Scripture, guided by supernatural presence of the glory of God come enthusiastically and authentically to seek the King.

While the Jewish hierarchy, with the Pentateuch and the prophets, are content to be ruled by Herod, and remain totally indifferent, hostile, and even murderous toward the true King. When they arrive and confront Herod, the story becomes tragic.

Just for today to conclude, there are only two possible responses to the arrival of Christ. One is the response of His own people: “He came unto His own and His own received Him not,” or the response of those who were not His people, who came from afar to worship Him, and rejoiced with great joy – the only two options. No middle ground. You either reject Him like His own nation or you receive Him like those from afar. He came unto His own, His own received Him not. But to as many as received Him, to them He gave the power to become the children of God. His own were cursed, but these Middle Eastern king makers were blessed because of their response to Christ.

Father, we thank You for, again, a glimpse of history, and yet it informs so richly the account of the magi and what is about to happen. Lord, thank You that You have not only given us Your Word, but that You have even preserved resources throughout history that we can draw from so that we can better understand the things that are written on the holy pages of Scripture.

May we be made worthy by Your grace; we’ll thank You, in Christ’s name. Amen.


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