After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, "wise men" from the East came to visit Jesus and present gifts before Him. Who were the "wise men"? Where were they from, why did they come looking for the king of the Jews, and were there only three of them? The answers from Scripture may surprise you. This episode begins to look at the story of the Magi from Matthew 2.
Hey everyone, Josh Hawkins here, this is episode 27 of Opening Up the Gospels. We left off in the last three episodes in Luke chapter 2 with Mary and Joseph in the Temple in Jerusalem. They had met Simeon and Anna, two elderly, devout Jews waiting for God to fulfill all His promises to restore Jerusalem and the glory of the nation of Israel. Both Simeon and Anna had declared that the baby Jesus was the one that would bring what the Law and the Prophets said to pass. But He would also be the one who would bring division to Israel. In a few episodes, we'll see how John the Baptist expounds on this very point. Even though I haven't talked about it that much so far, I really want to stress this point - this idea of division and reckoning is so significant to understanding Jesus' first coming, and in modern presentations of Jesus and the Gospels, he's almost always talked about as just the nice guy who goes to the cross, not the God who seeks the repentance of His people and brings judgment upon them for their rejection of Him. In the next couple of episodes I want to look at the Magi, or as is probably more commonly known today, the wise men. Even though virtually all of our Christmas movies and TV specials portray the Magi showing up on the night of Jesus' birth, that actually has no biblical basis whatsoever and is presented that way only because it makes a great story for the big screen. The Magi actually visited Jesus when he was months old. Before I show you why I believe this is the case, I want to look at what Matthew says about them. Trust me on this - the details of the story help us place the timing of their visit a lot easier. So let's jump into the story in Matthew chapter 2. “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1–2 ESV) Matthew puts us in the days of Herod the king, just like Luke does in his account of the birth of Jesus. You can go back and watch Episode 11 where I talk a little bit more about Herod and who he was. So in Herod's days, wise men come from the east to Jerusalem where Herod is reigning. There is so much speculation among commentators and scholars concerning who these wise men were. The Greek word used here for wise man (magos), μάγοι, where we eventually through Latin get the plural Magi in modern English, is used a few other times in scripture - of course here in Matthew 2 but also in Acts 13 verses 6 and 8 where it's translated "magician". In the Septuagint, it's also used in Daniel 2:2 to describe a magician. At the time of Jesus, we know that Magi were practicing a form of astronomy. They were skilled dream interpreters and according to the Jewish writer Philo, they were thought to possess knowledge of mysteries. Historians trace the Magi all the way back to the 7th century BC, but these specific Magi here were likely part of the Parthian Empire, which at the time covered most of the area of modern day Iran and Iraq. Among many of the things they did, they were priests, serving an ancient priesthood, they were astrologers, interpreters of dreams, and government officials who had the authority to elect the Parthian king. There's so much we don't know about the Magi. How did they know about the birth of the Christ, the king of Israel? All we know is that they saw a star. And why would these Gentiles far from Jerusalem even be interested in the king of Israel? First, let's talk about the star. I think there are two possibilities here if we believe in the inspiration of scripture. Number one, the star was some miraculous light that was seen just for the birth of Jesus. And possibility number two, it was some sort of astronomical phenomenon that they observed and discerned the meaning of. There's a video documentary on this called "The Star of Bethlehem", and the author makes some good points there that support this second possibility, but not without a few major historical hurdles that I don't think he overcomes. We can't be fully certain what the cause of this star was, but at least to me, with all of the other miraculous things that happened surrounding the birth of Jesus, I think option number 1, the miraculous light, seems to be the best fit. We also have to ask the question: how would Gentiles in the East even know about the promised king of the Jews, and why would it be so important to them? We've got to keep in mind that there was a large number of Jews still living in the Parthian Empire at the time of Jesus. Remember, back in 2 Kings 24 and 25 we see how the Babylonians conquered Judah and Jersualem and deported the Jewish people to Babylon, and they lived there for 70 years. This began in 605BC. King Cyrus allowed the Jews to return and rebuild as we see in Ezra and Nehemiah, but not all the Jews returned home. So, the Hebrew religion and Scriptures stayed alive and well in the East. Think of people like Daniel who had a lot of favor with the kings of Babylon and Persia. So if this was the case, passages like Numbers 24:17 and some of the prophecies from Daniel might explain how these star-gazing Magi had knowledge of the promise of the Messiah, the king of Israel. Let's refine our picture of the Magi a little more. Again, we get details from Christmas songs and plays, but nowhere in the Scripture does it say that there were three wise men. As we'll see, the Magi bring three different gifts, but it never says there were only three Magi. Perhaps there was a whole entourage of them, maybe 10 or 12. Now remember, these Magi were pretty high up in the ranks of society in the Parthian empire. They were almost certainly extremely wealthy, very well furnished, and finely clothed, perhaps with servants and animals, marching up to the city of Jerusalem. Just think about how this would have arrested the attention of the city. This wasn't something that happened every day! This is why Matthew goes on to say that Herod and the whole city of Jerusalem was stirred: “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”” (Matthew 2:3–6 ESV) Think about it, the watchmen on Jerusalem's walls see this entourage coming with all of the pomp involved with their wealth and political clout, and I can just imagine them asking "what is the meaning of this? What's going on?" And they say "We've come because we want to pay homage to the king of the Jews." Oh, what a scene! What were the people in Jerusalem thinking? Perhaps the news spread by the shepherds who had been visited by the angel armies had reached the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the dreams of the Israelites - that hope that burned brightly in their hearts - that promise held out in the prophets of Jerusalem's restoration and Israel's golden age - perhaps those expectations were being freshly awakened. Maybe they had remembered the stories of Solomon's day, the glory of Jerusalem and the splendor of the temple, peace and safety all around on every side because the God of Israel was with them. And maybe they remembered their waywardness and how the people languished and how the Davidic kingdom and dynasty had crumbled. But what about those shepherds? And now this entourage of Magi from the East? Now it does not seem that the majority of the inhabitants of Jerusalem had their hearts postured with expectation. We see a small remnant, like we see with Zechariah and Elizabeth, with Simeon, and with Anna, but the Jewish authorities clearly had already hardened their hearts and dismissed all the rumors of their newly born king. Sadly, they were more interested in their own power and wealth. Do you see how this is such an indictment to Herod, Rome's puppet king, and the whole city of Jerusalem? Herod was not the rightful king of the Jews, and the Jewish authorities had completely missed the announcement and birth of their rightful king. And Gentiles from the east are coming to Jerusalem seeking the king of the Jews that had been born. The Magi came to make a political statement, and this is the way Herod and the city of Jerusalem would have understood it. Remember, there was no separation between religion and politics in that day. These guys were the ones who elected kings in the Parthian Empire, and now they're coming to pay homage to the rightful king of Israel. Do you see how Herod would have interpreted this to be such a threat to his leadership? A new king had been born, and Herod might be overthrown. Do you see how the words of Simeon about Jesus causing division are already beginning to find their fulfillment? Just as a side point - this historical narrative in Matthew makes absolutely no sense if somehow Matthew is redefining what it meant for Jesus to be the king of the Jews. Like we looked at in Episode 13 in Luke 1, Jesus is going to sit on the throne of David and rule over the house of Jacob forever. This is political, it has to do with real governance on the earth in Jerusalem. There is no redefinition we see in the passages here that somehow makes Jesus just a spiritual king of Israel. To try and spin it that way makes absolutely no sense in light of all the details we're looking at. So the Magi find an audience with Herod. If these guys were just smart people and didn't have any political authority at all, why would they even have the chance to appear before Herod? Think about that. It makes no sense otherwise. So Herod gathers the chief priests and the scribes to give the Magi an answer regarding the location of the king of Israel. "Bethlehem of Judea", they said. They quoted the prophet Micah chapter 5 verse 2: “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”” (Micah 5:2) Not only was Bethlehem the very city of King David, but Micah said that out of Bethlehem would come forth a ruler who would lead the nation of Israel like a good shepherd. Again, do you see the political implications here? Just like all of the other movements of resistance that rose up during his reign, Herod would once again seek to crush it. He had not failed before, and I'm sure he had no doubt he would succeed again this time. Undoubtedly from the very first moment this entourage of political dignitaries arrived, Herod was plotting and scheming to keep his power. Here's a few points of review and some ideas for your meditation this week: 1) Imagine you are a watchman and your station on the walls of Jerusalem faces the east. What would it be like seeing the entourage of Magi coming over the horizon? 2) Put yourself in Herod's shoes. How would you have felt if these political dignitaries came and basically said "you're not the king of the Jews, we've come to pay homage to the right one." We'll continue looking at the Magi from Matthew 2 in the next episode. In the meantime, check out the other episodes on my website, www.joshuahawkins.com/gospels, and share this on social media if it's impacting to you. Blessings to you, see you next time.