Who were the wise men? We know next to nothing about these mysterious characters from the east. In fact, the familiar representations of them in nativity scenes and Christmas pageants are based almost entirely on tradition, not biblical facts.
As John MacArthur explains in his commentary on Matthew’s gospel,
The only legitimate facts we know about these particular magi are the few given by Matthew in the first twelve verses of chapter 2. We are not told their number, their names, their means of transportation to Palestine, or the specific country or countries from which they came. The fact that they came from the east would have been assumed by most people in New Testament times, because the magi were primarily known as the priestly-political class of the Parthians-who lived to the east of Palestine.  John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 1-7 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985), 26-27.
As John explains, the magi would have been masters of a variety of academic, scientific, and religious disciplines:
Because of their combined knowledge of science, agriculture, mathematics, history, and the occult, their religious and political influence continued to grow until they became the most prominent and powerful group of advisors in the Medo-Persian and subsequently the Babylonian empire. It is not strange, therefore, that they often were referred to as “wise men.” It may be that “the law of the Medes and Persians” (see Daniel 6:8, 12, 15; Esther 1:19) was founded on the teachings of these magi.  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 1-7, 27.
The influence the magi held in the ancient world put them in position to intersect with God’s people and His redemptive plan several centuries before their sojourn to Bethlehem.
We learn from the book of Daniel that the magi were among the highest-ranking officials in Babylon. Because the Lord gave Daniel the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream-which none of the other court seers was able to do-Daniel was appointed as “ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon” (Daniel 2:48). Because of his great wisdom and because he had successfully pleaded for the lives of the wise men who had failed to interpret the king’s dream (Daniel 2:24), Daniel came to be highly regarded among the magi. The plot against Daniel that caused him to be thrown into the lions’ den was fomented by the jealous satraps and the other commissioners, not the magi (Daniel 6:4–9).
Because of Daniel’s high position and great respect among them, it seems certain that the magi learned much from that prophet about the one true God, the God of Israel, and about His will and plans for His people through the coming glorious King. Because many Jews remained in Babylon after the Exile and intermarried with the people of the east, it is likely that Jewish messianic influence remained strong in that region even until New Testament times.  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 1-7, 27-28.
Scripture doesn’t tell us everything these wise men knew about the King they were coming to worship, or how they knew it. What is apparent is that they were God-fearing Gentiles, and that their enthusiasm is a condemning contrast to the apathetic indifference of Israel’s religious elite.
When these magi, however many there were, arrived in Jerusalem, they began asking, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” The Greek construction (saying is a present participle emphasizing continual action) suggests that they went around the city questioning whomever they met. Because they, as foreigners, knew of the monumental birth, they apparently assumed that anyone in Judea, and certainly in Jerusalem, would know of this special baby’s whereabouts. They must have been more than a little shocked to discover that no one seemed to know what they were talking about. . . .
These travelers from the east had come to Palestine with but one purpose: to find the One born King of the Jews and worship Him. The word worship is full of meaning, expressing the idea of falling down, prostrating oneself, and kissing the feet or the hem of the garment of the one honored. . . . Though having had limited spiritual light, they immediately recognized God’s light when it shone on them. They had genuinely seeking hearts, hearts that the Lord promises will never fail to find Him (Jeremiah 29:13).  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 1-7, 28-30.
These foreigners were the only ones who reacted to the news of Christ’s birth correctly. As we’ve already seen, Herod wickedly plotted deceit and murder to protect his authority from an infant usurper. The priests and scribes barely acknowledge the Lord’s birth, as their indifference temporarily held the place of the animosity they would harbor against Jesus throughout His public ministry.
However, these wise men—who likely traversed a great distance driven by nothing more than hope and faith—knew that they weren’t merely looking for an infant. They were looking for a newborn King—One worthy of their adoring worship.
In his commentary, John MacArthur points out that not only did these magi have the right motivation to worship, they were not confused about who they were there to worship.
Matthew is careful to say that the magi worshiped Him, that is, the Child, not His mother. They knew better than Cornelius, who attempted to worship the apostle Peter (Acts 10:25), and the crowd at Lystra who tried to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:11–13). No doubt the magi were delighted to meet both Mary and Joseph, who had been so specially favored by God to be entrusted with caring for His own Son while He grew to manhood. But they worshiped only Jesus. Only He was God, and only He was worthy of adoration.
It was also to Him that they presented their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. Their giving was not so much an addition to their worship as an element of it. The gifts were an expression of worship, given out of the overflow of adoring and grateful hearts.  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 1-7, 35.
There are plenty of people like Herod and the scribes today—ready to attack Christ or overlook Him altogether. Even in the days ahead, as the world ostensibly celebrates His birth, the truth of His Person and work are always under assault.
We need to foster the magi’s attitude and perspective, and not be distracted by the familiar imagery of Christmas. We must not be shortsighted when considering Christ’s humility as a baby in a manger. That baby did not stay a baby—as the wise men rightly appraised; He was and is our King. This Christmas take every opportunity to adore, worship, and celebrate Him accordingly.
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