By Arch Hoercher
Who are these guys? Matthew, in his gospel, devotes more words to these “Magi” than he does to the birth of Christ. Why did he do this? What did he see that was so important about these “visitors” from the “east”? Matthew must have seen some importance to their visit or he would not have written about it. One thing is for certain, these “three kings” are some of the most recognizable characters in any nativity scene or play. Non-believers even know who they are.
So, who are these guys? We will first look at the story as written in Matthew 2:1-12 (NIV): “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.’ When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written: But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel. Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find Him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship Him.’ After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with His mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.”
First where did these “Magi” come from? Matthew tells us from the “East”. There is a whole lot of real estate to the East of Bethlehem. Let’s look at the word Matthew uses to describe them, “Magi”. This word is of Persian origin and can refer to “wise men” or “princes (kings)” or men of great education and wisdom. This is not the first time men of such renown are seen in the Bible. In Esther 1:13-14, these “wise men and princes” are advisors to the king. It was not uncommon for kings to have advisors who were the brightest and most educated under their employ as advisors or holding very powerful positions of authority within that kingdom. All we have to look at are the stories of Daniel and of Joseph to see these “Magi” in action. What we do know about Matthew’s Magi is that they were wealthy and very learned.
Matthew was very vague in his reference to where they came from. They came from the “East”. Upon checking many references as to where this might have been, I came up with several possibilities. They could have come from Iran or Babylon or Arabia. There are some who believe that they might have come from India and even China. Wherever they came from, all anyone knows for sure is that they came from the “East” of Bethlehem. Wherever it was, it had to be a long way off because it took the Magi 2 years to get there from when they first saw the star. These Magi probably did not set out on this trip the day after the star appeared. They would have first done their research. How did they know that this star represented the King of Israel (The Messiah). First they would have had to be familiar with prophesy as written in Numbers. It would have also taken some time to get provisions and people together for this journey. They were wealthy, whether they were royalty or not. Their entourage would have been quite large. There would be servants to take care of their needs on this trip as well as soldiers for their protection. And as far as how many Magi there were, we really do not know. For sure there was more than one, because Magi is plural. Tradition has always assumed that there were three because of the three gifts. But in reality there could have been as few as two or as many as twenty or more. No one really knows for sure.
One thing I would bank on is that when this group showed up in Jerusalem, there would be many wandering what in the world is going on. Especially when they were going around asking where is the new born King of the Jews. Matthew wrote, “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” King Herod was “disturbed” because he would not tolerate any competition as King. But “all of Jerusalem” was also disturbed. This would have included all the priests and scribes and teachers of the law. Herod then called the priests and teachers of the law to him to find out what scripture says about the birth of the Messiah. They respond with a scriptural quote from Micah saying that Bethlehem would be the place. Herod then calls the Magi to him and gives them this information and tells them to search for this king in Bethlehem and report back to him as to where He is.
The Magi set off to Bethlehem and to their joy the star appears to them again and leads them directly to the house where Jesus is. What is this “star” that appeared to them when it first rose on the day the Messiah was born to now when it leads them directly to the Messiah. One thing is for sure, this star was a supernatural event. The Magi recognized it for what it was, a sign from God heralding the birth of the King of Israel. At the least it was an angel sent by God, but it also could be God Himself announcing the birth of His Son, the Messiah. As a pillar of fire and a pillar of smoke led Israel through the dessert, this pillar of light led to the Son of God who is the light of the world.
The Magi go inside the humble little house where Jesus was with His mother Mary. The first thing the Magi do is fall to their knees and worship the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. They then give very expensive gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. These gifts carry with them meaning. The gold would be a gift to a king, the Frankincense would be of importance to a priest, and the Myrrh would be used in preparing a body for burial. The Magi leave and are given a dream to not go back to Herod and to leave to their home by a different route, which they do.
How does God present Himself to the world? First, by revelation in His creation and the signs that He gives. Second, by the Word of God (Scripture), Third, by speaking to individuals directly or through dreams. The Magi experienced all three. They could very well be the first Christian Gentile Christian believers. The Magi would have gone home and taught others of what they experienced. It would be very possible that a missionary of Jesus Christ could have come to their land (maybe even Steven). These people who had a foundational knowledge would have been open and receptive to the Good News presented to them. But what of Herod and the Jewish religious leaders back in Jerusalem? This is the saddest part of the entire narrative and one of the reasons why Matthew wrote about it in His Gospel. Herod believed what was happening but like so many of Satan’s minions, only wanted to destroy it. And the religious leaders, you would have thought that many of them would have made the pilgrimage to Bethlehem to see firsthand the King of Israel and Messiah. But no, they were complacent and comfortable in the place where they were. They were only interested in what privilege and position that they had at the time. The religious leaders did not want anything to rock their comfortable boat.
So who were these guys? Matthew had an important teaching for us. God will reveal Himself to all people, nationalities and races. God does not discriminate with His grace. He wants all people to come and worship the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and our Savior Jesus Christ. God does not want us to become complacent and apathetic in our relationship with Him. He wants us to seek our Savior Jesus Christ every day and fall on our knees and worship Him. One thing is for sure, if you seek Him you WILL find Him!