Last Christmas, my wonderful wife gave me an amazing gift. She found a collectible, hand-made set of the “first Christmas” gifts: the gold, frankincense, and myrrh that the wise men, or Magi, presented to Jesus when they found Him. I loved these finely-crafted reproductions, and thinking back on them today, I thought it could lead to a nice Christmas post. This week, a special Christmas day interruption of our ongoing examination, we will look at the figures behind those wonderful “first Christmas” gifts: the Wise men of the East.
Who are these Magi? Though their origins go back much further, as we shall see, their most notable appearance in the scriptures comes to us in Matthew 1:1-12:
1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,
6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.
12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
Jumping right on in, it goes without saying that this subject, like so many others, has seen its share of alterations and additions over time. Many notions about these men have sprung up, yes, but the reality of them may be quite different than what we tend to expect.
The Magi, their official title, is actually a Latinized version of the Greek magoi, a word which itself has been borrowed from an earlier Persian word for a specific sect of priests. These Media-Persian priests formed an important, and hereditarily-specific, role in their native kingdom, not only overseeing the continuation of vast religious insights, but also playing a particular role in matters of state (including the election of the king of the realm). It was to this group that Daniel, in Daniel 6, was elevated as chief by Darius, thereby unsettling the status quo of the days, and inevitably setting into motion the chain of event that would ultimately lead him to the lion’s den.
In any event, after centuries of turbulent politics within the region and amongst the Persians, Jews, their neighbors and their oppressors (which you can, and should, read here¹), we find that, compelled by the arrival of a strange sight in the sky, a convoy of Magi came from the East to Jerusalem, to King Herod.
Herod, a tyrannical Edomite who used vile subterfuge to acquire his office from the Romans, would have been understandably rattled by the appearance of the Magi, not only because of the political implications of their arrival, but especially since they came with a specific inquiry: they came saying, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him ( Matthew 2:2).”
Seeking insight from his advisor and scribes, Herod learned of the prophecies of old, specifically that of Micah 5:2, which declared:
But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.
Whether or not Herod understood the full implication of what was at hand, he certainly knew that his days as crooked overseer of the Jews, unless he took measure against it, were numbered. With a treacherous heart, he asked the Magi when they had first seen the star in the East, and told them then to go to Bethlehem, to:
Go and search diligently for a young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come worship him also. (Matthew 2:8)
Off they went until they found the home where the star had directed them; the home of the young Savior.
A few things to note here:
While we are accustomed to seeing three wise men in our picture books and nativity scenes, there is in fact no reference to there being three. In fact, no number is assigned to them at all. In reality, there may have been a great procession of them; a full royal entourage of Eastern mages and stargazers who set off to meet the King of Kings. Many people tend to assume that there were three of them (even, in earlier times, associating these three with various races and regions, and even assigning them name: Balthasar, the King of Arabia; Melchior, the King of Persia; and Gasper, the King of India), but this concept may simply come to us from the three gifts that these wise men presented the young king.
Those gifts hold significance in and of themselves. As we are told in the scriptures (Matthew 2:11), the Magi presented the young Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Apart from the general richness of these gifts, there is vast meaning hidden within each, and certainly this was understood by those who presented them to the Messiah. The gold was a testament to his sovereign royalty. The frankincense represented His priestly nature, as it was a spice used by priests for various duties. Finally, there was the myrrh, an embalming agent that no doubt signified his ultimate sacrifice. It is worth noting that the scriptures remind us that we too will give gifts of gold and frankincense to our Lord during His millennial reign, but intriguingly the myrrh is missing. Surely this is an acknowledgment of the fact that His sacrifice has already come to pass and it shall never be necessary again.
Also worth mentioning here is that, despite what we see on our Christmas cards and in plays, etc, the Magi were not present at Jesus’ birth, nor were they ever there at the manger in which this miracle occurred! In fact, when we consider the scriptures carefully, we find that Jesus may have been as old as two years in age by the time they arrived and presented Him with their gifts! Herod, if you recall, wished to know the exact time at which the “star” appeared to the Magi; an event that heralded the arrival of the Savior babe. Well, in Matthew 2:16 we read of How Herod then ordered all baby boys aged two and under to be killed. In spite of what we are accustomed to, it is more likely that Jesus was a toddler living in a home, not lying in a manger, by the time He was approached by the Magi.
One last point: What was the star that the Magi followed? Was it a real star, or could it have been something else entirely. Consider for a moment how it appeared with the birth of our Savior, implying that it was not a regular feature of the night sky prior to His advent. Also, there is the nature of its appearance in the East to the Magi. The language behind that usage of the term “East” (Greek – ανατολη) is a bit ambiguous as it essentially means the “rising of light,” and is understood as East only by the inherent implications thereof. As such, it could possibly be that the Magi saw it appear in the Western sky from their vantage point in the East, or perhaps even that it appeared to them in the Eastern sky as a sign that simply directed them towards their distant goal.² In any event, everything from its sudden appearance to the way it “moved” across the sky to lead them to Bethlehem, essentially stopping over the position of the young Lord, appears to be in conflict with all traditional astronomical bodies.
All things considered, what was the star? One provocative suggestion is that it may have been a pillar of fire, the Shechinah glory of God, just as the Israelites followed at night during their exodus from Egypt (see Nehemiah 9:12). Could this have been the “star” the Magi followed? In fact, thinking more deeply about it, could it have been something that only they themselves witnessed, a vision or a sign made apparent only to their eyes, a wonder leading them across the desert towards the most perfect being in existence? No one can say for certain…
In the end, while questions certainly remain about the “wise men” of the East, we can be confident that the reason for their long journey was one of great honor and importance. They were called to Palestine by a divine miracle to see for themselves the incarnation of God coming in fulfillment of long-cherished prophesies, the young Savior who had come to save the souls of man.
As I wrap this special Christmas post up, I want to leave you with one of my favorite songs for the season (Here With Us, by Joy Williams). God bless you all, and to each of you and your friends and families, Merry Christmas!
- “A Christmas Surprise: Who Were the Magi?,” Chuck Missler, December 2003 Personal Update News Journal
- “The Wise Men and the Star,” Eric Hovind, creationtoday.org, Advanced Articles, November 28, 2011
Feel free to share this article using the buttons below, and as always, if you enjoy what you read here, I’d love to know!
Thank you very much, and God bless!