Dr. Mike Murphy
Church can teach us many valuable lessons, sometimes it can even teach us those lessons in the most unusual of places. At an early age I learned one of these valuable lessons at church, the importance of thermal underwear!
Anyone who has been a part of a living nativity knows exactly what I mean! Stand in the freezing night wind for a few hours in an outfit that is actually nothing more than an oversized cotton dress, and your mind will soon begin to ponder just how wise these men were! The invention of longjohns in ancient times might have changed some of the events of history as we now know it!
All kidding aside, every pastor and layperson of a church knows just how special a living nativity can be. We gladly bear the elements to honor and cherish the events and people that made up that very special night so many years ago. We preach sermons and teach lessons about that miraculous birth, and the child that would change the world forever. We look to open the eyes of the world to the struggles that Joseph and Mary endured, and to the joy they brought into this world that night. We sing songs of the angels and the shepherds, and of the revelation and amazement they witnessed. We illustrate a star, and we declare the glory that brought three men on a long and treacherous journey to lay gifts at the feet of this child.
We all know the story so well. Most know the details of that night by heart. We can tell about the Baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. We know of the town of Bethlehem, and can teach of God’s promise, and the role it would play that night. But of all the places and people that make up this incredible story, there is one group we know very little about, the wise men. Or do we? The Bible and history tells us far more about these remarkable men than we even realize. So exactly what does the Bible and history tell us about the wise men, or Magi?
To best understand these Magi, translated wise men, let us start by looking at the story itself and see exactly what the Bible has to say. Matthew 2:1 tells us, “ Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem,”. Most of the world east of Jerusalem was controlled by one empire, the Parthians. From 247 B.C. until A.D. 228, Parthia controlled much of the land that reached to India and China. Despite what we often think, Rome was not the only power of the day. Rome often feared the Parthians, and often tried to stretch its’ control to the east to better serve as a buffer between the two powers. These two empires found themselves bitter enemies on more than one occasion. In 63, 55, and 40 B.C. these two powers found themselves at war in the land of Israel, the land that separated the empires of the west and the east. In these battles, the Romans suffered one of their most humiliating defeats, losing over half of its’ army to the hands of the fierce Parthian cavalry
The Magi were a part of this Parthian Empire that Rome and all of its’ territories often feared. Parthia was ruled by a king, but they also had a governing body called the Megistanes. They were basically the equivalent of our Senate, or Great Britain’s House of Lords today. The Megistane was made up of the Sophi and the Magi, with the Magi having the responsibility to choose the king of Parthia. These men had incredible power, renown the world over, and were often referred to within the empire as kings. With this in mind, it should be no surprise that so many songs written about them often designate them as kings.
With the power and preeminence these men held, upon travelling outside of the Parthian Empire they were always accompanied by a large force of cavalry. Historians estimate that this force would have numbered over one thousand, all riding in full gear atop of Persian steeds.
When we now reading the next verse, Matthew 2:3, “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” , we begin to understand it in full. With what we now know of these men from Parthia, and its history with Rome, it should be of no surprise that Herod and the people of Jerusalem were frightened by what they saw. Also notice that nowhere in these verses does Matthew say there were only three Magi, or wise men. Reality shows us a far different picture than legend has painted for us. This was not three simple astrologers riding into Jerusalem atop their camels!
Now that we know who these wise men were, we can look at the question of why did they come to Jerusalem? In order to answer this question we must begin over 500 years before the birth of Christ, in another city over 500 miles east of the small town of Bethlehem.
The Bible paints us a picture of the Magi, often intertwined with the Jewish people. When Jerusalem was sieged by the Babylonians in 587 B.C., Jeremiah(Jeremiah 39:3 ) tells us the chief of the Magi was there. A short time later when the people of Judea were taken captive to Babylon, we are introduced to Daniel. In one of the first acts we read of Daniel, he was given the ability by God to interpret the dream of King Nebuchadnezzar. The Bible tells us that Daniel was rewarded and put into a position of power. Daniel 2:48, “Then the king promoted Daniel and gave him many great gifts, and he made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon.” We see that Daniel was made chief of the Magi! Should it be any surprise to us that Daniel would teach the theology of his forefathers to the Magi he oversaw?
They would have known well the prophecies of the coming Messiah. From Daniel’s own words, they would have known that Christ would be both God and man(Daniel 7:13-14). They would have even be aware of the timeline the Messiah was foretold to come(Daniel 9:24-27). The answers to the who, what, where, when, and how of the coming Messiah were all laid out through the Scriptures for the Magi to see!
The Bible also continues the story of the Magi about a hundred years later, as we are introduced to a young Jewish girl who would become queen of the Persian Empire(Esther 1:12-14). Besides showing us that the Magi played an important role in the eastern world, the Book of Esther also begins to show us that many of the Jewish people had chosen to remain behind instead of returning to the land of Israel after the captivity was lifted. It even tells us in Esther 8:17, “many among the peoples of the land became Jews”. The Jewish people actually prospered and expanded in the eastern empire.
We often have a bad misconception of history when it comes to the Jewish people. We often see them as a small nation of people confined to the Holy Land, with little influence throughout the rest of the world. The truth is a far different story!
At the time of Christ, approximately 300 million people lived on the earth, and historians tell us that roughly 4.2 million of these were Jewish. Of these, only about 1.2 million lived in the land of Israel. Over 1 million lived in Egypt, and historians tell us that over 500,000 resided in the Parthian Empire. History also tells us that many of these held positions of power and prestige in Parthia, even positions within the government itself. So yes, it is possible and even perceivable, this could have also included the title of a Magi!
History, culture, knowledge of the Scriptures, and yes, the faith of these Magi would have all contributed in bringing them to the feet of the one true King. God’s promise and His Word told them where and when the Savior would be born. It showed them the purpose of why He would come, and that Christ would both be God and man. We even see from the gifts they brought Christ just how much they know what His birth would bring.
We all know the gifts the wise men brought to Christ that day. The gold, one of the most precious of metals, and ordered by God to cover the very seat He would rest on when in the presence of His chosen people(Exodus 25:10-17). We see the divinity of Christ in the gold they would bring. Frankincense, a sweet, fragrant resin that was burnt as the anointing oil in the Lord’s presence(Exodus 30:34), and was used in the sacrifice offering in the Temple(Leviticus 2:1-15, 6:15). We see in this the holiness and righteousness that only Christ could bring, and His willingness to be a sacrifice for all mankind. And the myrrh, a spice used in embalming. In ancient times, myrrh also was an analgesic, often mixed with liquids as a way to ease pain.
We read of this in Mark 15:23, as it was offered to Christ as he was about to be crucified. In myrrh we see that Christ would pay the ultimate price, and suffer greatly for all who would believe and follow Him. Only those who were given wisdom and sought discernment in the Lord’s Word would have known the importance these three gifts would soon hold in the life of this special child.
In the Magi, we see the life of Christ in all His glory, and the fulfillment of the promises that God had made to His chosen people and to all mankind. In the few verses that Matthew tells us about these Magi, we see so much more about these men. From the scriptures and from history, we know they read and followed the Word of God. They sought to see and know Jesus. They accepted and identified the worth of Christ. They humbled themselves at the feet of Christ so that they might worship Him. And above all, they obeyed God rather than follow man. Without a doubt, these were truly wise men!
May the Lord bring His wisdom to each of you this Christmas!