Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”Matthew 2:1-12
Who were these magi from the east? All we really know is what Matthew tells us. Matthew and Luke are the only gospels that tell the Christmas story, and Matthew is the only one that mentions the magi. The time of the magi’s visit was probably within a two year period after Jesus was born. We know Jesus had to be no more than two because Herod calculated His approximate age based on what the magi told him. When Herod issued the decree to have all baby boys two years old and younger killed, Jesus and his family fled to Egypt.
The word for “child” that Matthew uses has the idea of a “small child” whereas Luke uses a different word for “child” that means specifically “infant.” Another clue is that the magi visited Jesus in a “house” (see Matthew 2:11), implying that Mary and Joseph had a more permanent residence.
Most of our nativity sets depict three wise men alongside the shepherds visiting Jesus on the night of His birth. I love how Scripture clarifies truth from fiction! Legend tells us there were three wise men because there were three gifts. The truth is, we don’t know how many wise men there were because the Bible doesn’t tell us.
How did the Magi know about the birth of Christ?
We know that the magi were wise men from “the East,” most likely Persia, or modern day Iran. This means the wise men traveled 800-900 miles to see the Christ child. Most likely they knew of the writings of the prophet Daniel, who in time past had been the chief of the court seers in Persia. Daniel 9:24-27 gives a timeline for the birth of the Messiah. Also, the magi may have been aware of the prophecy of Balaam (who was from the town of Pethor on the Euphrates River near Persia) in Numbers 24:17. Balaam’s prophecy specifically mentions a “star coming out of Jacob.”gotquestions.org
“They surely had been strongly influenced by Judaism, quite possibly even by some of the prophetic writings, especially that of Daniel. They appear to be among the many God-fearing Gentiles who lived at the time of Christ.” (John MacArthur New Testament Commentary on Matthew 2).
Magi in the Persian Empire had a reputation of being well educated in the sciences and divination. They were actually not kings, but they were highly respected in government having influence with kings and princes. Daniel was considered part of the magi, but he sought his wisdom from God alone. He was well known among secular magi, and most likely trained and influenced many of them for generations to come. The idea that 500 years later, the Christmas magi were influenced by the teachings of Daniel is amazing and shows the impact Daniel had on his culture.
The magi studied the stars and knew that God used signs in the heavens to declare His glory (see Psalm 19:1-3).
Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years.”Genesis 1:14 (NASB)
The star of Bethlehem caught their attention and must have been amazing! Some have said it was the conjunction of Jupiter (the king planet) and Venus (the mother planet). Whatever it was, it truly had to be a miraculous sight! The night skies back then were not polluted and washed out by city lights. An awesome phenomenon is about to take place on December 21, 2020. The conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn is supposed to be similar to what the star of Bethlehem may have looked like. Apparently it’s a once in a lifetime event and hasn’t taken place in almost 800 years! Nasa’s website says, “this will still be a striking sight, but you will need to look fast as both planets will set shortly after sunset” (NBC Chicago). For more info, click here.
As an act of worship, the magi presented Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The gift of gold symbolizes royalty and kingship. Frankincense was a sweet smelling incense symbolizing deity, and myrrh was a fragrant embalming oil which symbolized suffering and death. There are no random details in the Christmas story. God was revealing Himself even in the very gifts they gave. These were men who “read and believed God’s Word, sought Jesus, recognized the worth of Christ, humbled themselves to worship Jesus, and obeyed God rather than men. They were truly wise men!” (gotquestions.org).
2. Read Matthew 2:10. What was the magi’s response when they saw the star had stopped?
3. Read Matthew 2:11. What was their response when they saw Jesus?
4. Read Matthew 2:12. What were the magi careful to do when they were warned by God?
5. There are so many truths we can learn from the magi. Their hearts were full of worship, joy, humility, reverence, sensitivity to God’s leading, and obedience. All of these characteristics flowed out of hearts that were seeking God. How does Matthew 6:33 encourage you to be like the magi?
Click here to listen to the John Rutter arrangement sung by the Cambridge Singers on YouTube.
Click here to watch the Piano Guys version on YouTube.