Summary: The reactions of Herod, the religious leaders, and the Magi to the birth of Jesus mirror people’s responses to Jesus today.
How “Wise” Are You?
True and False Questions about the Wise Men
1. The wise men arrived in Judea after Jesus had been born.
2. The Bible says that there were three wise men.
3. The wise men went directly to Bethlehem when they arrived in Judea.
4. The wise men were kings.
5. The Bible says that the wise men traveled on camels during their journey to Judea.
6. The wise men gave three gifts to Jesus on the night of His birth.
7. After finding Jesus, the wise men realized that Herod wanted to kill Jesus and went home another way.
8. The biblical text hints that Jesus may have been as old as two when the wise men found Him.
9. When Herod asked the chief priests and scribes where the Christ was to be born, they quoted the prophet Isaiah.
10. The wise men found Jesus in a house.
Now let’s read Matthew 2:1-12 and see how well you did.
1. TRUE. “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem” (v. 1).
2. FALSE. It’s usually assumed that there were three wise men because they gave to Jesus three gifts. They have even been given names: Caspar, Bathazar, and Melchior. But the Bible nowhere says how many wise men there were.
3. FALSE. “Magi from the east came to Jerusalem (v. 1).
4. FALSE. As early as the third century, the Magi were considered kings, fulfilling Psalm 72:11, “All kings will bow down to him.”
5. FALSE. They may have traveled on camels, but the Bible doesn’t say.
6. FALSE. The wise men did give three gifts to Jesus, but they did not give them to Him on the night of His birth (v. 1).
7. FALSE. The wise men did not realize Herod’s evil intentions on their own. They were warned by God in a dream (v. 12).
8. TRUE. “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave order to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under” (v. 16).
9. FALSE. They actually quoted Micah’s prophecy recorded in Micah 5:2 (v. 6).
10. TRUE. It appears that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were living in Bethlehem when the Wise Men found them. “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary” (v. 11).
The Magi dated from the seventh century B.C., when they were a tribe within the Median nation of eastern Mesopotamia. They became skilled in astronomy and astrology (which were more closely associated disciplines in those days) and had a sacrificial system similar to the Mosaic one. We derive the English words magic and magician from the name magi.
The Book of Daniel reports that the Magi, with their knowledge of science, agriculture, mathematics, history, and the occult, were among the highest ranking, most influential officials in the Babylonian Empire. Because of Daniel’s own high position and place of respect among them (Dan. 2:24, 48), the Magi undoubtedly learned much from him about the true God and His plans for the Jews through the coming Messiah. Because many Jews remained in Babylon after the Exile, it’s likely those teachings remained strong in the region even until New Testament times.
The “Magi from the east” (v. 1) who came to see Jesus had learned about the Jews’ messianic expectations, likely from the prophetic writings such as Daniel’s. They were probably among the many God-fearing Gentiles who lived in the Middle East and Mediterranean areas at that time, some of whom—such as Cornelius and Lydia (Acts 10:1-2; 16:14)—are mentioned in the New Testament.
Matthew tells us that when the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, they began the final stage of their search for the Christ child by asking, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” (v. 2). The Greek grammar of that question suggests the men went around the city asking that question to whomever they met. They evidently assumed that if they as foreigners knew about the historic birth, anyone in Judea, and especially Jerusalem, would know where the special baby lived. It was no doubt shocking to the Magi when no one seemed to know what they were talking about.
We don’t know how God revealed the birth of Christ to the Magi. Matthew simply says that He gave them the sign of “his [Christ’s] star in the east” (v. 2). The identity of that star has stirred perhaps more speculation over the years than has the identity of the men who saw it. Some scholars have proposed it was Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. Other commentators have insisted it was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, which formed the sign of the fish, the symbol for Christianity later adopted by the early church. Other conjecture regarding the star’s identity has concluded that it was probably some other astronomical rarity such as a low-altitude meteor or erratic comet. Some writers have even gone so far as to suggest the phenomenon was some inner vision the Magi had of a “star of destiny” that symbolized mankind’s hopes for a savior.