“We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar”… so goes the popular carol depicting the journey of the “wise men”, written by an Episcopalian deacon in New York in 1857. The carol was written for an elaborate holiday pageant, and the “kings” were given names: Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar.
Of course, we know that much of this is completely fictitious. The fact is, we do not know any of their names, they almost certainly were not kings, and we do not know how many there were. Unfortunately most peoples’ image of who these people were is based on what they have seen on Christmas cards or paintings, rather than on the realities of history or the Bible.
What we do know is that they came from the East (the word literally means sunrise), and they were referred to by Matthew as Magi. The reference to wise men carries the meaning of learned rather than necessarily endued with great wisdom. So, although “Melchior” did not really exist, I am using him as a representative of a group of men who really did exist, and are very much part of the Christmas story.
Now, Matthew’s bald statement “Magi from the east came to Jerusalem” needs some unpacking, and spawns a number of questions. And probably the first question we need to answer is – who were these guys?
Matthew refers to them as “wise men” – the Greek word used is Magoi – and it seems that their area of expertise was the understanding of the stars. Now we need to be careful here that we don’t automatically jump to the conclusion that they were astrologers in the sense that we understand them today. Yes, they were astrologers, but they were also astronomers, philosophers, and were also priests. There is much knowledge that we have lost concerning the understanding of the stars and their positions in the sky. God can speak through the stars just as easily as he can speak through any other medium of revelation. The first 6 verses of Psalm 19 tell us that “the heavens declare the glory of God”. In Matthew 24 Yeshua, speaking to the disciples concerning the end times, says that there will be “signs in the heavens”. Numbers 24:17 tells us “A Star shall come out of Jacob; a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel.”
So the Magi were a priestly tribe of people from among the Medes. And they were very skilled in both astronomy and astrology. They studies the stars and the heavens, and in those days they didn’t make much of a distinction between the superstition and the science, it was all blended in together, it was all one thing to them. However, they were also very learned people and because of their amazing intuition they also studied books and writings to grow in wisdom and knowledge. It seems that they were a tribe of people within a larger group of people, and were in fact a hereditary priesthood tribe. Now of course, we are familiar with that kind of arrangement, because it is very similar to that of the Levites in Israel who functioned as a priestly tribe.
We encounter these Magi earlier on in the bible, so when was that? It was during the time when Judah was taken into captivity in Babylon. They were the high-ranking officials serving in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar, who were advisors to the King. They were the ones who Daniel describes as the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers and the Chaldeans who had high positions of authority in Nebuchadnezzar’s court.
Daniel, who was one of the exiles taken to Babylon, was schooled in all the knowledge and wisdom of the Chaldeans as a young man; this would have included understanding the stars and how God speaks through his created order. The Magi studied the stars, and God chose that medium to speak to them concerning the birth of Yeshua. (There is a principle there – God uses the things that we understand and are familiar with to speak to us and to bring revelation of himself).
The Magi were known as those who could interpret dreams – but they were unable to interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dream; only Daniel, by revelation from God, could tell Nebuchadnezzar both the dream and its interpretation. As a result Daniel was promoted to be the chief of Nebuchadnezzar’s advisors – he literally became the master of the Magi. Now, that puts Daniel in the tremendously unique position of being able to dispense to these Magi all of his information about the Old Testament, which without a shadow of a doubt is precisely what Daniel did.
When the final decree of Cyrus came that they could go back to the land the majority of the Jews never went back. The majority of the Jews stayed in Babylon, intermingled, intermarried, and throughout the remaining history of Babylon and Medo-Persia there were people in the noble families, people in the high-ranking offices, some say even monarchs in that part of the world who had part Jewish blood. And certainly we would have to conclude that Daniel had a profound impact in the dispensing of that information.
I want to home in for a few moments on the “star”. It is one of the most often used symbols of the Christmas story. The wise men see the star in the sky, they follow it and it leads them to Bethlehem, right? Well, actually, that’s not what the Bible says. According to Matthew’s account the Magi said “…we saw his star when it rose in the east, and have come to worship him.” There’s nothing there about following the star. They wouldn’t need to follow the star, because they already knew where to go – they understood the Old Testament scriptures, and so they knew where the Jewish Messiah was supposed to be. They knew the royal city was Jerusalem where Jewish kings reigned, they knew exactly where to go.
So this begs the question, what then was the star that they are talking about? Again, lots of different explanations have been suggested. Some say it’s a real star. Others say it is a conjunction of planets, usually Jupiter and Saturn. Others have suggested a comet or a meteor. So what did the Magi actually see? Matthew uses the Greek word “astera”, which is the equivalent of the Hebrew word “kokab”. Kokab’s root meaning is “to shine, or to blaze forth”; sometimes it is used for a real star in the sky, but it is also used for an angel, or a fire, or anything that shines brightly. What the Magi are saying is that they saw his blazing forth in the East. So we’re not necessarily talking about a physical star in the sky here. And if it wasn’t that, then what was it?
What does Luke tell us was shining in the sky when the angel appeared to the shepherds? The glory of God was all around them. The glory of God throughout the Old Testament manifests itself in brilliant light. When God radiates His presence, he transforms it into ineffable, visible light. I think what the Magi saw was a manifestation of the glory of God, and God revealed it to them in the context of something they had knowledge of – in the sky. It is the sign of the Son of Man in the heavens manifesting as a bright light; Matthew tells us in chapter 24 the same thing will happen immediately before the second coming of Jesus, the sky will be darkened and the sign of the Son of Man will blaze forth in glory.
So this company of Magi – however many there might have been, together with their servants, set off to travel to Israel to find the child. The direct distance is about 500 miles, but the journey would have been approaching twice that. They travelled on – almost certainly on Persian thoroughbred horses, not camels – across mountains, through valleys and wilderness until they reached the river Jordan, where they began the ascent to Jerusalem. Now, if they already knew that the baby was born in Bethlehem, why did they go first to Jerusalem? They came first to Jerusalem, assuming that the leaders of the Jews would be aware and excited about the birth of their Messiah. But as Matthew’s narrative tells us, they were neither aware nor excited – in fact quite the opposite.
After they had been in Jerusalem a while the “star”, the astera, the visible manifestation of the glory of God re-appeared, which was the cause of much joy and rejoicing among the Magi. And this time they do follow it, because it moves, it is guiding them to the exact place where Jesus is in Bethlehem. And it comes to rest right over the very house, they couldn’t miss it. The literal translation of the text is that it “stood over the head of the child”. Wow! How specific is that! That’s why it couldn’t possibly have been an actual star, it would be impossible for a real star to do that.
So they entered the house and they saw the young child with Miriam his mother. This clearly tells us that the wise men did not arrive on the night of Yeshua’s birth. What they saw was a young child – not a baby. In fact, Yeshua was probably about 6 months old when the Magi came to visit.
“When they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh”: It was common – especially in the East – that one would never appear before royalty or a person of importance without bringing gifts. Considering who these wise men believed the young child to be, it is not surprising that they gave such lavish gifts. Did the gifts have any significance? Probably, but Matthew does not confer any meaning to them, and we should beware of adding anything to the text that is not actually there. However it is generally agreed that gold was an indication of divinity, frankincense indicative of holiness and righteousness, myrrh was a bitter substance often used in embalming. How clearly these men understood whose presence they were in.
But the most significant thing that happened that day is summed up by Matthew in just 6 words: “They fell down and worshiped Him”. At the end of the day, that must always be our response in any encounter with Yeshua. The Magi travelled hundreds of miles to be in the presence of the Messiah, albeit a child just a few months old. Psalm 2 says that those who are wise should kiss the Son – that is precisely what these wise men did. They fell down and worshiped. They had revelation from God and pursued it, and were rewarded by an encounter with the King who would shepherd the people, exactly as the ancient texts had said. The testimony of these men has stood the test of time, and although it has been said before, it is nevertheless still true today: wise men still seek Yeshua.