Christmas stirs my imagination. Not only can I endlessly ponder the significance of our eternal God becoming a full-fledged human, I am intrigued by the variety of responses in the Bible to this event: Bethlehem shepherds awestruck by an angelic light show; Nazareth residents scandalized by an unwed pregnant teenager in their tight-knit community. Jerusalem’s citizens and king confused and disturbed that a new king is being announced when the old one is still on his throne. But the characters who arouse my curiosity the most are the Magi from the East. Depending on the Bible translation one uses, they are also referred to as kings or wise men in the Gospel of Matthew.
So, what makes them special?
As I have researched these guys over the years, the main thing I’ve learned is that we really don’t know much about these travelers. We can make some educated guesses taking a historical look at who the Magi were known to be. And those guesses can open a whole new appreciation of what these mysterious characters were all about and what their motivations might have been.
Star Gazers and King Makers
It’s most likely that the Magi mentioned in the Bible came from the Parthian Empire, centered in present-day Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. Magi, at the time of Jesus’ birth would have been around for hundreds of years with a very illustrative history and reputation. It’s thought that they originated among the ancient Medes and were initially a tribe of priests (kind of like the Jewish Levites) that over the centuries morphed into royal advisors. The biblical prophet Daniel was made chief magus (singular form of magi) for the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:9). And by the time the Parthians took power, the Magi had out-lasted four empires and were renown for their cleverness and accorded great honor.
Two roles distinguished them. They were expert astronomers, knowing and interpreting events among the planets and stars. And they were also the ones who selected the kings for the Parthian Empire.
Modern-day astronomers have offered multiple explanations for the heavenly event the Magi were following when they came to Bethlehem. We must remember that stars don’t move. So it has been proposed that three planets converged to form a very bright heavenly light. This is possible, but the problem is that it seems that King Herod and his counselors knew nothing of the star (Matthew 2:2-10). Wouldn’t an unusually bright star that suddenly appeared have drawn many people’s attention and speculation? Surely everyone in Jerusalem wouldn’t have appeared so clueless if just anyone could see it.
Another proposal is that a planet, perhaps Jupiter the “king” planet, was in a unique position at that time. It wouldn’t have been particularly bright but would have shown up briefly each morning on the predawn horizon and then disappeared when the sun fully rose. This is called a “heliacal rising.” The planet would have appeared to journey across the sky as it and earth moved along, each in their different orbits. Only the most observant star gazer would have noticed it, and because this would have been a very rare alignment of astrological events, it would have easily been interpreted as announcing a royal event.*
Whatever the explanation (perhaps it was simply a light God miraculously put in the sky for that time), it seems that these Magi were looking where no one else was. And they saw something that no one else recognized.
Parthian Magi also had the task of selecting new kings. I’m not sure how this tradition started or how they made their decisions. But considering their attention to celestial events as well as their respect for dreams, they surely were expected to look for guidance outside themselves, perhaps from a higher power. When they grew dissatisfied with the behavior of a current monarch (the surrounding kings were generally poor rulers) might they have searched the heavens for a sign of a coming change? The old dynasties were shallow and devoid of the kind of ruler their world needed. It was time to look elsewhere—even to the Jews.
Invested with such political power, every king (Parthian or other neighboring royalty) would have had to seriously consider how he related to these “king-makers.” Their reputation was so well established that they held a unique level of clout. Wherever they went they carried the potential to bring down and raise up a monarch.
What do they mean for us?
I wonder if maybe the prophet Daniel had instilled in the Magi mind an awareness passed down of a coming king who would rule over the nations (spoken of in Daniel 9:24-27 to be coming after 70 sets of 7 years). Perhaps some of these Magi even had Jewish roots and had been keeping a calendar linked to Daniel’s prophecy. When they would have finally launched their mission to find the prophesied king, it wouldn’t have been a small thing. We don’t know how many of them showed up in Bethlehem, only that three valuable gifts are mentioned. But some historians suggest that their entourage could have involved thousands, including many armed soldiers, riding horses rather than camels. That would have been how Parthian Magi typically travelled on a king-making journey. And such a company would have definitely drawn King Herod’s attention when they rode into Jerusalem, making him more than a little nervous.
Whether Jewish or pagan, these Magi were operating in ways from which we present-day Jesus seekers and followers can learn. Their search for a new king that led them to a child’s house in Bethlehem is a simple yet powerful model for us who are seeking the One who wishes to rightly rule our own lives.
Seeking Jesus, even today, is risky business that will cost you much. But a new king, the right king, is worth it. What’s at risk for you to come close to King Jesus?
As a Jesus follower, am I looking for His kingdom to come and His will to be done? Or, are the distractions and busyness of life keeping my eyes focused downward so that even when His guidance is right in front of me, maybe even a miracle, I can’t see it.
The Magi were some of the very first followers of Jesus. They surely didn’t understand everything that was going on, but they stepped out in faith to pursue something, urged on by a desire deep in their hearts. They longed to be able to choose a new kind of king. And so they humbly followed a star to worship a baby.
This Christmas let’s follow the example of the Magi. Throw off the distractions that restrict your sight and boldly seek your King at all cost. Jesus can be found when you search for Him with your whole heart. He is the ultimate treasure and worth everything.
*Check out a site that explains what might have been happening with the Star of Bethlehem: search for “Can Astronomy Explain the Biblical Star of Bethlehem?” And there are many more sites that provide interesting and insightful perspectives on the Magi.