Series: “Reactions to Christ’s Birth” (post #4)
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 have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” (Matthew 2:1-2, N.K.J.V.)
They weren’t kings. They weren’t from the Orient. They probably didn’t arrive in Bethlehem until several months (as much as a couple of years) after the night of Christ’s birth. They didn’t follow the star night by night as they made their journey. And the only reason to think there were just three of them rests upon the fact that they brought three gifts. Still, though, all these misconceptions not withstanding, the wise men’s visit to Jesus has classically become an integral part of the Christmas story.
The Biblical term “wise men” translates the Greek noun magi, which is the plural of the Greek noun magos. As a matter of fact, the N.I.V. translation just leaves the Greek word untranslated and goes with “Magi” in verses 1, 7, and 16 of Matthew chapter 2. In Bible times, the Magi were a group of highly educated men who served as advisers to kings in countries such as Babylon and Persia. For example, after Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar had strange dreams one night, he asked “the magicians, the astrologers, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans” (Daniel 2:1-13, N.K.J.V.) to tell him what he had dreamed. It’s likely that those men were Magi. Some scholars believe the Magi were the priests of the Zoroastrian religion that was practiced in ancient Babylon.
The Magi were masters of various fields of study, particularly astronomy. Such men would be impressed by the appearance of a new star in the nighttime sky. They would be even more impressed if they could somehow interpret that star to be the sign of the birth of a prophesied King. Now we’re getting to the heart of why those Magi made the trip from their homeland to Jerusalem/Bethlehem.
Matthew 2:1 tells us they were from the East. In the Bible, all directions are given in relation to Jerusalem, and so the Magi came from a land east of Jerusalem. While it’s true that the Orient (Japan, China, Korea, etc.) is located to the far east of Jerusalem, Babylon is located directly east of it. Unfortunately, the wise men’s words, “…we have seen His star in the East…” have been erroneously understood to mean that the star was located in the sky to the east of them. If that had been the case, it would have placed the star somewhere over the Orient rather than over Bethlehem. No, what the wise men meant was, “We were in the east when we saw His star in the western sky.”
We can’t say with absolute certainty what prompted the Magi to associate that new star with the birth of a king, but it seems obvious that they had access to certain prophecies of the Old Testament. This makes perfect sense in light of the fact that the people of Israel had a definite history with the Babylonians and Persians. Babylon’s Nebuchadnezzar had conquered Israel’s southern kingdom of Judah centuries earlier and had relocated the Jews to Babylon. Seven decades later, when the Medo-Persian empire had conquered the Babylonian empire, Persia’s Cyrus the Great had allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple and reclaim their status as a nation. While approximately 50,000 Jews had taken up this monumental task, millions of Jews had remained in Babylon for the rest of their lives. According to the Bible’s record, the prophet Daniel, who was very old by the time of Cyrus, was one of those who remained in Babylon. Surely, then, the Magi had read the ancient writings of Daniel.
The Magi might also have known about the prophet Balaam’s prophecy from Numbers 24:17, which said, “A Star shall come out of Jacob; A Scepter shall rise out of Israel.” This would explain why they showed up in Jerusalem and specifically asked Herod the Great, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” One prophecy the Magi evidently didn’t know about was Micah 5:2, which foretold that the “Ruler in Israel” would come forth from “Bethlehem Ephrathah.” If they had known that prophecy, which gave that singular location, they would no doubt have journeyed straight to Bethlehem rather than stopped five miles short in Jerusalem and basically asked for further directions.
This gets us into the matter of the star. While it is commonly believed that the wise men followed the star night by night as they journeyed, this isn’t the story the gospel of Matthew tells. What Matthew describes reads like this:
- The Magi saw the new star, coupled that appearance up with prophecy they knew, and concluded that they should journey to Jerusalem to find the newborn King of the Jews. (Matthew 2:1-2)
- They arrived at the palace of Herod the Great, Rome’s handpicked ruler over Judea, and asked him about the location of the birth of the King of the Jews. (Matthew 2:1-2)
- Herod asked the Jewish priests and scribes where their Messiah was prophesied to be born and was told, “Bethlehem.” (Matthew 2:3-6)
- Herod sent the Magi on their way to make the five-mile trip to Bethlehem, and as soon as they left Herod’s palace the star which had started them on their long journey reappeared and stood directly over where the young Jesus was. (Matthew 2:7-9)
- When the Magi saw the star again they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. (Matthew 2:10)
The Magi then made the short trip to the house where Jesus was. Not only does the story say that at that time Jesus was in a “house” rather than a “manger,” it also uses a different Greek word (paidion, Matthew 2:11) than Luke’s word (brephos, Luke 2:12,16) to describe Him. These two pieces of evidence indicate that some time had passed between the night of Christ’s birth and the night the Magi visited Him.
Another piece of evidence for this conclusion is the fact that a little over a month after Jesus’ birth, when Joseph and Mary took Him to the Jerusalem temple to dedicate Him to the Lord, Mary offered the Mosaic law’s more affordable sacrifice of two small turtledoves or pigeons (Luke 2:24) rather than the more expensive sacrifice of a lamb (Leviticus 12:6-8). Surely Joseph and Mary could have afforded a lamb for a sacrifice if the Magi had already brought their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus. For that matter, Matthew 2:1 begins the whole story of the Magi by plainly saying, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea….”
As for how much time actually elapsed between the night of Christ’s birth and the arrival of the Magi, it’s impossible to nail it down precisely. If we assume the star first appeared on the very night Jesus was born, and if we assume the star’s appearance came as a surprise to the Magi, it would have taken several weeks (if not months) for them to even prepare for the long journey from their homeland to Jerusalem. Furthermore, if they decided to travel by means of a large caravan, which is probable, that would have only increased their preparation time. And then there was the journey itself. As a prime example of how long such a journey would have required, we know that it took Ezra and the group he led four months to make the almost thousand-mile trek from Babylon to Jerusalem (Ezra 7:1-10).
If the Bible provides us with one clue as to the whole question of the Magi’s arrival time, it can be found in a certain answer they gave to Herod. When he asked them when the star had first appeared (Matthew 2:7, 16), apparently their response was, “Two years ago.” I say that because in the wake of their answer, Herod had all of the male children two years old and younger killed in Bethlehem and its surrounding districts (Matthew 2:16). The only other possible explanation for Herod choosing that particular age would be that he wanted to be extremely thorough in his efforts to kill the new king.
At any rate, whatever all the exact details of the story were, what we’re primarily looking for is the Magi’s response to the news that Jesus had been born. And what was that response? Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? As soon as they got the news by way of that star, they loaded up, left their homeland, and made the trip of many hundreds of miles to find Jesus, worship Him, and bring Him gifts. It’s hard to imagine a better reaction than that!
For the record, I fully expect that like Mary, Joseph, and those shepherds who were on the scene at the manger that first night, the wise men can be correctly classified as saved believers. And if that is indeed a correct assessment, it means that their souls are in heaven right now. It’s no wonder that the old cliche says, “Wise men still seek Him.” So, in light of all this, I guess the only question left to be asked is, “Just how wise are we today?”