Who Were the Magi?
We will start with what we KNOW as fact from our reading of Matthew 2.1-12. The first myth we bump into is that there were three magi. We do not know this at all. There were three gifts brought and there were more than one magi ("magus" is the singular form of the noun). I will wind up proposing that there were three individuals, but we do not state this as fact.
They came from the east. You'll like this! This is not just a compass direction. The east is best defined in Luke 1.78 where the various versions paint a complete picture: "Because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the sunrise ["rising sun" (NIV) and "dayspring" (KJV)] from on high shall visit us." "East" means the direction in which the sun appears. The word can also mean from whence the stars appear!
From the term "east" we are not allowed anymore as to the nationality or region of these men (and, dare I say, we really don't know that they are males except that "magus" is a masculine gender noun). They could have come from Russia, China, India, or Saudi Arabia. Oddly, the national origin of these men is at the core of the mystery.
We are helped by the word "magi." Although, it had long since come to mean any person who dealt in science and/or magic regardless of nationality, it originated in a land to the east and north is Israel. Today, the nation is Iraq. It is more famous in biblical history as Babylon. In fact, Daniel 2.48 tells us that Daniel himself was made chief of the magi or wisemen during his sojourn in Babylon. Although the New Testament writers were aware of the vague nationalistic nature of the word, we'll add the Babylonian origin to our clue box and move on.
Now, let's really get down to business. Our magi saw a star! It has troubled me that these allegedly intelligent men headed west toward Israel when they "saw a star in the east." (Again, we talk like this all the time. At the sound of a breaking glass, you run from the bedroom into the kitchen and announce, "I heard a crash in the other room." Everyone knows exactly what you meant, but it sounds funny.) While in the east, the magi saw the star, which led them westward.
This was no simple star. Think about it. These men, who make it there business to study stars, got all lathered up over this one particular star. A cross-country journey is never cheap in any era. To launch out on this journey meant that they had reason to lay special significance on THIS star.
Furthermore, the magi did not follow the star to find out what it was all about. They knew what the star was about before they ever arrived at their destination. Read their question again upon arriving in Jerusalem. "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him." They knew when they saddled up their camels that they were on a magnificent journey that would culminate in coming into the presence of a King worthy of their worship.
This had to dishearten Herod! He claimed the title King of the Jews, and so he was, in a human political sense. I'll not digress into a discourse on Herod, but with little effort you will easily discover that Herod was a pathetic, diseased wretch. As the magi asked for the king and were to Herod, how quickly they must have said, No, we want the Real King!" Matthew records that when "Herod the king" heard of these men seeking another King "he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him." Yes, to turn a phrase which is known to be true of Herod, "When Herod ain't happy, ain't nobody happy."
Let alone the fact that Herod was utterly unkingly, there was a simpler reason to reject him as the object of their quest - he was hardly a baby. The magi were looking for the newborn King. How amazing, how astounding, that some oriental star-gazers came looking for exactly what they were supposed to find. This is also something we need to pick up and put in our clue box.
I do want to take a moment here and talk about astrology and astronomy. John MacArthur, who is a much better Bible scholar than I, takes a dim view of the magi using the stars to find the baby Jesus. In "God With Us", MacArthur points out that because the magi went through Jerusalem, bumped into Herod, which led to the slaughter of many baby boys - that this is some ipso facto indictment of star-gazing. I do not agree. I argue that God Himself offered the star (through prophecy) as a signal of Christ's birth, and that the magi were faithful in following it. The fact that death occurred in conjunction with this event is evidence of the high cost of sin!
Upon being rejected as the King of the Jews which the magi sought, Herod realized that he must be dealing with the religious King of the Jews which he had always heard rumblings of. Some things must have started coming together for ol' Herod; looked where he turned - to the Jews asking about their CHRIST! Whatever he learned from the magi, it was more than enough to start a full-scale plan in motion of protecting his backside. He did his research and found the site of the birth, he tried to conspire with the magi against the true King, and failing that, he set in motion infanticide. The fact that all these efforts failed does not diminish the fact that these efforts signify the severity of the threat which Herod was alerted to by these road-weary star-gazers.
The greatest and most over-looked tragedy of this entire account (and perhaps greatest in history next to the sin of Adam) occurs in verses 4 - 6. Concerned that a real King was possible, Herod summoned the folks who could give prove or disprove the magi's claim. Note how convinced Herod was, he only asks "where." Note the priests and scribes; they don't blink an eye. There is not one recorded word of debate between the parties. Instead, the answer comes back short and sweet "Bethlehem." Then, the Jews lay out the prophecy which assures them of the location of the BIRTH of the KING! Do you notice what the Jews do next?
I couldn't find anything either. Nothing. No welcoming party, no baby shower, not even a "Hey Nicodemus, go check this out." Nothing. Jews are not even mentioned in Matthew until the adult ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus in later chapters. In Luke, we have the two saints waiting in the Temple at God's instruction, but other than that, nothing. Although the prophecies were perfectly accurate, and God's had given Israel every reason to trust in His word and anticipate the Messiah; when they heard He had arrived, they didn't even walk 10 dusty miles to a sleepy little village just to see if these things were so! That, to me, is the greatest tragedy in post-Eden history.
But our magi did go! And notice that when they picked up the star again, they continued on with joy as it led them directly to the place of the Baby's birth. Why the detour through Jerusalem? Did this star twinkle at just the wrong fork in the road. I think not. I think it was in God's plan to give the Jews the chance to join in the discovery of their King. In a real sense they rejected Him then as much as they rejected Him thirty-three years later.
The fact that the magi arrive at a "house" instead of a stable indicates that some time has transpired since the birth. Not knowing where the magi came from we cannot project a travel time. But we know that the star led them the whole way and in their minds at least, the star was directly connected with the birth of the King. We are safe in assuming that they first sighted the star on the "night of our dear Savior's birth." The fact that Herod ordered all babies under the age of two to be killed helps in guessing that we are less than two years from Jesus' birth.
Now is the good part! "They came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshipped Him." They didn't check ID tags, they didn't ask for verification of Jesus' credentials, they didn't present their own. (I guess after that first night, Joseph and Mary were willing to accept just about anything and anyone!) They didn't prattle on about their hard journey or their tough going in Jerusalem. They didn't waste a minute with any human social conventions. "They fell down and worshipped Him." How little there really is left to say when you come into the presence of the Creator of heaven and earth. The silence of this moment is beautiful. Savor it for yourself.
We are still on the quest to put faces on our magi and now we move ever so close. "Opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh." Much has been said about these gifts. These items were expensive and precious commodities. They are presents for a king, a priest, for life, for death.
I have even heard it suggested that what they are is not as important as that they were worth a lot of money - which is just what a new mother and father on flight to Egypt would need. How reckless to assume that God conspired all of this and had no better sense that to have His Son presented with useless gifts that would just have to be traded in for some spending cash at the Achmed Teller Machine.
I believe that the gifts presented to Jesus are most important and the very key to the identity of the magi themselves.
Let's leave the magi for a little while. They won't miss us. They are basking in the radiant glow of the Desire of the Ages, the Joy of Man's Desire. Let's step over here and look at what they brought.
The first gift mentioned is gold. You know gold; great for fillings, jewelry, a hedge against inflation and stock market fluctuations. I want you to know, that is as far from the biblical sense of gold as you can get. Exodus mentions gold more often than any other book of the Bible - 101 times! Not surprisingly, these references come from God's instruction to build the Tabernacle. Although bronze and silver are used in the outer and lower portions of the Tabernacle, only gold is allowed in the high and holy place of the Tabernacle. I Kings and I Chronicles mention gold extensively also - in reference to the building of the Temple! Once again gold, and gold alone, is reserved for that very special place where God meets the people. In Revelation, we see that the streets of Heaven, where we will once again stroll side by side with our God, are made of such pure gold they seem to be glass.
Of all the minerals, gems, elements, and materials mentioned throughout the Bible, gold occupies a singular place. Gold is found at that rarest place where man meets God. Gold symbolizes God's rarity, His preciousness, His radiant beauty. Nothing else is what gold is; no one else is who God is! Let's slip gold into our clue box.
The next gift to be opened and presented to the Newborn King is frankincense. Psalm 141.1-2 and Revelation 5.8 identify our prayers as incense rising up to the nostrils of God. Exodus 30.34 prescribes a specific formula for the incense to be used in the Tabernacle and Temple. The core element of God-pleasing incense is frankincense. Although we do not want to relegate prayer to simply asking God to act on our behalf (it must also include praise and thanksgiving), the overwhelming purpose of prayer in the Bible is to cry out to God in distress and need. This is even what Jesus did in the garden.
One momentous comment about prayer comes in Exodus 2.23. Here we see the Israelites in bondage in Egypt. The "sighed" and "cried" and their prayer of distress "rose up to God" - just like incense! Because of this incense-rising prayer, God helped Israel. To be sure God helps us without us always having to request it, but prayer is a special tool God has given us to use in sharing with Him our needs. When we think of frankincense, then, we should not only think of prayer, but our helping, prayer-answering God. Let's put frankincense in our clue box.
Finally, we open myrrh. Myrrh is also given in Exodus 30 (verse 23) where God is setting out the plans for the Tabernacle and later the Temple. Flowing myrrh was a primary ingredient in the oil prepared for the annointing of the elements of the Tabernacle and of the members of the priesthood. The oil was forbidden to be used on laymen or other non-Tabernacle uses. From this we see that myrrh was connected with the marking and setting apart of special persons. Although far removed from the Tabernacle and priesthood, Esther 2 gives us a running account of how myrrh and annointing oil was used in biblical times. In verse 9, Esther - the original Jewish princess! - is introduced to the great Babylonian king Ahasuerus. The record states that Esther "pleased him and found favor with him." Having chosen Esther for special place in his royal household, the king dispatched Esther to some very special treatment for "twelve months under the regulations for women" (verse 12). This process is called "the days of beautification" and began with "six months with oil of myrrh." Man, I hope that stuff smells good!
Verse 17 tell us that even though Esther had already found favor in the eyes of King Ahasuerus, when she was presented to him a year later she found even more favor in his eyes, more than anyone else from who the king could choose. We should not overlook that Esther also found favor in the eyes of others in fact, "all who saw her" (verse 15). (Who else have we ever heard about that found favor in the eyes of the King and of men?) Clearly now, we have established that myrrh is directly connected, both in holy and in pagan senses, with finding favor in the eyes of the One in power. Let's then slip a little myrrh into our clue box.
As if we haven't spent long enough on our mystery tour, I need to take one more major aside. Don't miss it, don't avoid it; this reminds us of what lies behind gift giving. I once had dinner with a short, red-faced man with severely thinning white hair. The man's name was John Adams. Indeed, he was a direct descendent of the patriot patriarchs of the American Revolution. We did not have a lengthy discussion, so I have been left to ponder how important his families' legacy was to him. We can all study history, but he was history. We can read about the Adams family, but he was the family. Don't you know that this present John Adams knew and cherished the special stories, traditions, and values of his great and notable family? I have often wondered what kind of gifts he would give to special friends. If I were John Adams I wouldn't do much business in the nik-nak department at Penney's. If I were John Adams. . . I would give replicas of the Declaration of Independence and I'd sign them myself! You are laughing now, but wouldn't that best celebrate my heritage as well as being a special blessing to you?
I don't know where John Adams is now - although I'm looking for him. I do know that when I have the opportunity to give a special person a special gift, I try to give a gift that shares my life with the person who receives the gift. Don't you do the same?
So I wonder, did Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior (probably not their real names, by a long shot) load up their camels with some hurriedly purchased trinkets at the Babylon Bazaar? I doubt it. There was so much expectation in their searching the sky for that special star. There was so much earnestness in the persistent quest to arrive at nothing less than the Newborn King worthy of all their worship. I can't believe that slapped themselves on the head as they headed out of town and said, "Oh, we better take a gift or something." In the same way that they anticipated this exceptional birth, I believe that carefully planned the gifts they would present to this Exceptional Babe.
Let's return to the magi then and see if we can safely, carefully presume anything additional about their identity from the facts given. First we need to look at the issue of revelation. Where in the world did they get the idea that a star would lead to them to the newborn King of the Jews, anyway. Either God personally revealed this to them or they received this knowledge otherwise. I am perfectly happy for God to come in a dream to them (as He does at the end of the story) and say, "There's the star, go see my Boy!" But God usually doesn't give special revelation if His general or prior revelation is sufficient for the situation. I have appended to the end of this essay a number of verses which Bible scholars have relied upon for over two millennia to inform about the Messiah. (Two millennia? Yes, remember the priests and scribes went directly to their Scripture and quoted detailed information on the location of the Birth.) Anyone who has access to the scripture has access to these prophecies. That's a strong clue.
Did the magi have access to Scripture. If they came from China, they might not have - then again they might. If they came from a region closer to Israel the chances get better. If they had come from Babylon (Persia) they almost certainly would have. When the Jews were taken into Babylonian captivity, they took their culture with them. The Babylonians, as lovers of knowledge, books, and foreign culture, were definitely infused with a great many details of Jewish life and culture. Let's not forget Daniel then, who as a prophet of the Lord was also the chief over all the magi! What is the chance that Daniel mentioned any of his knowledge and faith to those he had charge over?
Furthermore, when the Captivity ended more than a few Jews stayed behind in Babylon where their lives had become established. They kept with them their religion and their religious books. It is fair to say that, although not converted to a God-fearing nation, ancient Babylon was a great repository of Jewish history and religion. Any native of Babylon would have interaction with Jewish culture and by intermarriage, may even be a part of it.
We presume to know more about the magi. They were either wealthy themselves or were sponsored by wealthy patrons. The long overland journey they had come on was not cheap. And have I mentioned anything about the value of their gifts? Not only were they aware of specific Old Testament prophecies, but they were given over to them. They had probably watched the stars for years, and seeing it they embarked on their journey. Upon seeing the Christ-child, they worshipped Him. This act is not one of star-gazers happy that their travels are over. This is the act of men who are beginning a life they had anticipated and hope for for many, many years. I urge you to accept that the magi both left home and arrived in Bethlehem as devoted believers and servants of the King. Who are these men? All these presumptions yield strong clues to who the magi are.
Remember gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Remember the clues we took from the biblical meanings and use? If we made a statement about God based on these items we might say the following: Gold- Who is what God is? Frankincense - God has hears my prayer and helps! Myrrh - God has shown favor to me! Does that sound right? Are those statements true and fair mottoes for the items they describe? What if I told you those are not mottoes, but names! And not just three odd little names, but three conspicuous names. Not three disassociated names, but three names that are as frequently connected and said together as, well, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. You may not readily recognize the Hebrew names Mishael (Who is what God is?), Azariah (God has hears my prayer and helps!), and Hananiah (God has shown favor to me!), but if you turn to the book written by that chief of the magi - Daniel, in chapter 1, verse 7 you will meet our old friends (with new, Babylonian names), Meshach, Shadrach, and Abed-nego. How well these name definitions fit the lives of these men!
How mysterious and profound that these three young men, thrown together literally in the furnace of history, should share names that would later come to life as gifts to the Newborn King. How do we span the 500 years or so from King Nebuchadnezzar court to the sleepy town of Bethlehem? First, let's see what happened to our trio after the fire (where three men became four!). Daniel 3.24-30 records that not only did the three survive the fiery furnace, but they gained the king's favor and he "caused [them] to propser in the province of Babylon." When the king of a great empire causes you to prosper, it is no small thing. Undoubtedly Meshach, Shadrach, and Abed-nego enjoyed wealth, fame, and power in their adopted home. I wonder if, when the Israelites were freed to go home, these three and their descendants also left. Or perhaps they stayed behind honoring God and enjoying the position which had been afforded them because of their devotion to God.
Perhaps the descendants of Meshach, Shadrach, and Abed-nego were there in Persia 500 years later when a bright and much-anticipated star flashed into the sky. Now as we look into our box of clues and lay them out, we are amazed at how well both our facts and our presumptions frame up around these men. Everything fits and nothing has to be ignored. Although we are given no certainty about the identity of the magi from all this, we do warm with the thought that if it was this way, how beautiful it is.
If those men who came to see the Babe were the descendants of the faithful three from long ago, what gifts would they bring? If my family name meant "Who is what God is?" what else could I bring but gold? If my family name meant "God has hears my prayer and helps!" what else could I bring but frankincense? If my family name meant "God has shown favor to me!" what else could I bring but myrrh. And who else could I worship but the One - the One who stood in the furnace with my ancestor so long ago.
As we ponder whether these things are true or possible, let's also ponder what God has done for us and our ancestors. He has saved us from a burning fire - not in Babylon, but in Hades. Whatever gifts we give Him, He has given us more, first. Still, what I do bring to Him He blesses and uses - so at Christmas, and everyday, I give Him as much as I have to give, I give Him me.
Key Old Testament Messianic Prophecies
Bethlehem / Jerusalem
(all scripture quoted from the NASB)