“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.’” (NKJV) Matthew 2:1-2 – NKJV
Gentile stargazers suddenly appear to worship a young boy born to Jewish peasants. Where did they come from? How did a star guide them to this special Child? Why would they dare to call Him “King of the Jews,” confirming their praise with extravagant gifts?And what was the significance of those specific gifts? We have become so familiar with the sight of the magi in nativity scenes and Christmas plays, that we forget what strange parts they played in the Christmas story.
The magi were not “we three kings” of popular Christmas lore. They were astrologers, probably from Persia, who practiced the ancient custom of divining knowledge from the stars and planets. To the Jews of the first century, the word “magi” referred to “magicians” or fortunetellers whose practices were strictly forbidden.
So what business did they have recognizing let alone worshipping the divine royalty of Israel? Why did God choose them to draw Jerusalem’s attention to its true king?Answers to these questions reveal a crucial, but often-neglected, aspect of the Christmas story: the message of the magi.
Daniel’s Wise Men
The only other book in the Bible to mention “magi” is Daniel. About 600 years before Christ, the Babylonians started to take Jews into exile. A young Hebrew named Daniel was among the first to go. This is where we are introduced to the magi. They appeared in King Nebuchadnezzar’s court when he called his spiritual advisors to help him decipher a mysterious dream. In the Greek translation of the book of Daniel, one of the four groups that came to the king was called “magi.” No one had the power to discern the king’s dream except for Daniel.
The prophet of the Most High God revealed the king’s dream. So King Nebuchadnezzar made Daniel chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and fortunetellers of Babylon: the “wise men”, including the magi. Over the course of his ministry, along with many other interpretations and prophetic visions, Daniel foretold the coming of the Messiah, the “King of the Jews.”
Daniel’s ministry endured into the Persian period. So did his position of leadership. The magi continued under his supervision. Surely the favor of God, the power of his anointed ministry, and the stature of his political position gave Daniel a loyal following among the magi. They passed on Daniel’s faith and writings, from generation to generation, culminating in the magi of Matthew’s gospel. They combined Daniel’s teachings with their study of the stars, and God’s gracious guidance to discern the season of Messiah’s birth. Thus when the time came, descendants of Daniel’s magi were waiting.
Behold, magi come from the east! God’s deposit through Daniel paid glorious dividends. Pagan stargazers had embraced Daniel’s faith from a distance, and now bring extravagant wealth to the King of the Jews!
The Roman Senate had entitled Herod the Great, who was ruling over Judea, “king of the Jews.” But he was just a puppet of the Roman Empire having no rightful claim to the throne of David. Like most rulers of his day, Herod was paranoid and superstitious. So when eastern astrologers claimed that a star led them to a Child born “King of the Jews,” Herod could not have felt more threatened. The Child had to die. He called the Jewish people’s own “wise men” (the chief priests and scribes) and demanded of them where Christ (the Chosen One) was to be born.
What’s fascinating is the fact that these Jewish “wise men” actually knew exactly where Jesus would be born. Yet we don’t see any of them seeking Him out, much less worshipping. One would think that the Jewish leadership would seek the Jewish Messiah, but the religious establishment was not interested. Instead, it is a band of astrologers from a pagan land who seek, affirm and worship the “King of the Jews.”
Years later, when Jesus made His “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem, the people praised God in loud voices and recognized Jesus as Messiah. The jealous Pharisees demanded that Jesus rebuke the disciples for their outburst, but Jesus said, “If they keep silent, the stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40). It seems that the Father will not allow His Son to go un-praised. If the Jewish “wise men” won’t praise Him, pagan wise men will. If people won’t praise Him, inanimate objects will.
I have been struck by this thought during this Christmas season: one way or another, God will get His glory. One would think that given all the darkness in the world, any redemptive Christmas message would have been lost long ago: silenced by secular culture, emasculated by political correctness, ridiculed by humanism and drowned with materialism (especially this time of year). Yet, somehow the praises of the King keep slipping through. From among the hurried bustle of ravenous shoppers, I hear a familiar melody floating through the air, carrying the most pristine doctrine. To most it goes totally unnoticed, but I stop and listen, awed by the power of the words:
Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord,
Oh, Praise His Name forever
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
I have often heard Christians protest celebrating the birth of Christ during a holiday that was originally taken from the pagans, but this seems to fit the narrative of Christ’s birth quite appropriately. God is using the most unlikely things and people to give glory to His Son. On Christmas day, even among the most secular, the most heathen, the most godless in our society, everyone will pause. They may try to ignore it or change it or tell themselves it’s about something else. But in their heart of hearts, everyone knows why the world is standing still on this day. It’s because a King has been born!
The Nations Are Coming!
Matthew expected his readers to catch the striking irony: Gentile astrologers from the east discovered the Jewish King by following a star, but scholars of Israel failed to discern their King though possessing the Scriptures. Pagan magi came to worship the Messiah, but Jerusalem royalty sought to kill Him. The contrast was sharp, startling and prophetic. These magi were the first gentiles to worship the Jewish Messiah as King, even when the religious establishment had rejected Him. Soon the gentiles would be coming to him by the millions and even billions. Thus, at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, King Jesus commanded His followers to make disciples “of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). The last book of the Bible reveals the end result. The trickle that started with a small handful of Persian gentiles culminates with a deluge of multitudes from every nation under heaven:
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” Revelation 7:9 & 10.
The message of the magi declares that the Jewish Messiah is Lord of all nations.God has provided the way to save all who believe. These unseasonable heroes risked their lives to participate in God’s global mission, as predicted by Daniel. In this age, the Gospel goes around the world. In the next age, people from every tribe, kindred, and tongue will gather as one family to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
That is the message of the magi.
Be on the lookout for Part 2: “The Mysterious Star” tomorrow…