Today is Epiphany, a day that many in the Christian church observe in remembrance of Christ’s first appearance to the Gentiles, which were the magi. Epiphany has been on the church calendar since at least the fourth century. But who were the magi, those mysterious travelers from the east who showed up in Jerusalem looking for “he who has been born king of the Jews”? What place do they have in the unfolding drama of redemption?
We’ve all seen manger scenes that show three wise men gathered in a stable with Mary, Joseph, and some shepherds - whether it be the modern ones that appear every Christmas or ancient ones, like the 14th century painting above by Giotto. We may also be familiar with the old Christmas carol, “We Three Kings.” In reality, the facts about these magi have been obscured in the folklore that has overshadowed the biblical record in Matthew 2.1-12. It’s important that we separate legend from fact.
First, Scripture never says that there were three wise men. Matthew tells us that there were three different types of gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – but not that there were three wise men. It is far more likely that they numbered more than three, given the long journey they made from the east. They came from the Parthian Empire, which was beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Crossing dangerous and lawless lands, they undoubtedly traveled with a large number of assistants and guards. They probably resembled a small army, making their arrival to Jerusalem very noticeable.
Second, despite what is sung in the popular Christmas carol, the magi were not kings. From what we know about the magi, both from the Old Testament as well as ancient Persian and Babylonian texts, the magi were assistants to kings and rulers. They were a priestly caste in Babylon and Persia practicing an ancient form of Zoroastrianism, which was the official religion in Persia from about the 6th century BC onward. They were experts in the science of astronomy, but blended it with the superstition of astrology. They were specialists in dream interpretation, wizardry, and magic. But they also served as scientists, mathematicians, doctors, and legal experts. They were considered the leading scholars in Babylon and Persia, and were the advisors to kings and rulers, and partly responsible for choosing the kings of Parthia.
This is why Herod treads carefully when speaking to them. He doesn’t throw them in prison or have them executed because he knows this could invite the wrath of the Parthians. Instead he took the diplomatic approach. He assumed that these magi served as advisors to high officials.
Remember when Nebuchadnezzar had his dream? He assembled his magi and asked for an interpretation. Later he made Daniel the chief prefect over all the magi in Babylon. This may provide a clue as to how the magi in Matthew 2 knew about the birth of the Davidic King. It very well may have been a prophecy they discerned from the days of Daniel.
They also expected a star at his birth. Numbers 24.17 reads, “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” As scholars of ancient texts, the magi evidently knew this prophecy. This Old Testament text provides some background to what the magi say when arriving in Jerusalem: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
The star that these magi saw was probably not a natural phenomenon like a comet or supernova, but a supernatural revelation by God, leading them to Christ. Just as God led Israel through the wilderness, appearing as a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, he led these magi to the place where Christ was born. Whatever it was that they saw, it “went before them,” as v.9 says, “until it came to rest over the place where the child was.”
They followed the star to a house, not a stable or inn. “And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.” The magi saw Jesus when he was only a baby or toddler, and yet they believed the promises. They worshiped him as a king. They presented him with costly treasures, as gifts of honor and devotion: Gold, the most precious metal then known to man, was a common symbol of royalty; frankincense, an expensive and fragrant resin, was used as incense on the altar in the temple; and myrrh, a curious gift for a newborn king, often used as a stimulant and anesthetic. When Jesus was crucified, he was offered a myrrh and wine mixture to dull the pain, but he refused it.
These were very costly gifts, which, providentially, were likely used to finance Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt. They were acts of devotion. They were acts of worship. And worship is the response of true faith.
True faith in Christ leads one to worship Christ. Like these magi, the one who loves Christ and acknowledges him as Lord, bows before him in worship. He cannot be stopped; he must come to Christ. These magi traveled a long way. If they came from Babylon by the main trade route, it meant they crossed at least 800 miles. If they averaged 20 miles a day (the norm in the ancient world), it took them about 40 days. It was costly and inconvenient. We often fail to appreciate the cost, fatigue, and danger involved in travel in the ancient world. Yet, they were determined to come and adore he who would be given the throne of his father David.
As the 19th century Anglican pastor J.C. Ryle put it, the faith of the magi “deserves to be placed side by side with that of the penitent thief. The thief saw someone dying the death of a criminal, and yet prayed to him, and ‘called him Lord.’ The wise men saw a baby on the lap of a poor woman, and yet worshiped him, and confessed that he was Christ…Let us walk in the steps of their faith. Let us not be ashamed to believe in Jesus and confess him, though all around us remain indifferent and unbelieving. Have we not a thousand times more evidence than the wise men had, to make us believe that Jesus is the Christ?”
May we have faith like the magi and worship Christ the Lord.