Summary: A Look at the Visit of the Magi in Matthew 2.
FOLLOW THE STAR, PART 1
As we begin to focus on the Christmas season, we are going to look at the visit of the Magi, or wise men in Matthew 2. Turn there in your Bible. Now, there is a tremendous amount of background and introductory information that needs to be discovered here; so let’s read the passage up front and then we will answer some questions about it. Matthew 2:1-12 says:
1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 6 “ ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
Now this is one of the most well known stories in the entire Bible; and yet I suspect that many people miss the meat and potatoes of the story, if you will. So we are going to attempt to sift through what the text does and does not say about this incident. And we are also going to look at a little history that will help us understand the magnitude of this visit. In doing so we are going to answer five questions: 1) Who were the Magi? 2) Why were they there? 3) How did they find Jesus? 4) What did they bring him? 5) Where did they go? Let’s answer the first question: Who were the Magi?
WHO WERE THE MAGI?
Matthew 2:1 again says:
1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem…
Wise men, the Greek is mavgoi, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. Now just about everyone who has heard the Christmas story has heard of these mysterious men, who are noted for their wisdom. But who were they? To answer that question we have to take a look at history.
Now, to paint a picture of the political scene during the time of Christ’s birth we are going to go back to the Old Testament. You might remember way back in the beginning of the Old Testament, Moses brings the people of Israel out of Egypt and they eventually enter the Promised Land of Canaan under Joshua. After a period of conquests and a period of judges, Israel sets up its monarchy. Its first king was Saul, and then came the great kings David and Solomon. After Solomon’s rule the nation split into a Northern Kingdom and a Southern Kingdom. This was around 931 B.C. The northern kingdom was known as Israel with its capital of Samaria and the southern kingdom was known as Judah with its capital of Jerusalem. Eventually, the northern kingdom would be overcome by Assyria in 722 B.C. And a little over a century later, in 605 B.C. the Babylonians would begin to invade Jerusalem and would finish the job around 586 B.C. At that time the big world power that controlled Palestine was the Babylonian Empire. The book of Daniel records some of the events that occurred during the time. In Daniel 1 Daniel and his friends are called before King Nebuchadnezzar and Scripture says that the king found them to be wiser and more knowledgeable than all the magicians and enchanters in his kingdom. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, it says that Daniel and his friends were wiser than all the mavgouV, all the magi that were in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom. In the Babylonian empire, the magi were masters of interpreting dreams, and they were the king’s consul. They influenced nearly everything the king did. But empires rise and empires fall. In 539 B.C. the Persians conquered the Babylonians and they ruled for the next 200 years. But the magi did not disappear; in fact the Persian empire had its own wise men. Historically, the magi were a religious caste among the Medes and the Persians – ancient Iranian people – the empire that ruled over Israel from 539 B.C. until 331. Within the Persian empire also, the magi exerted great influence on the religious and political systems. They were powerful men. But the great Persian empire did not last forever, either. Alexander the Great overthrew the Persian empire in Palestine around 331 B.C. and introduced Hellenistic or Greek rule. But the Persian empire would not be completely destroyed. It rose to prominence again around 250 B.C., but only in the east, in what was known as the Parthian empire. And the magi continued to exist in the Parthian empire. In Palestine, the Greeks ruled until around 164 when the Jews revolted against them and took control of their own land – but only for about 100 years as the great Roman empire came and took it back from them around 63 B.C. Now, you may not remember all of that, but just remember that from the days of Daniel the prophet until the time of Christ many empires ruled the land of Israel and two of them in particular were highly influenced by magi – the Babylonian and Persian empires. When we get to the time Jesus is being born, the Roman empire is ruling in Palestine. But off to the east of Palestine the Parthian empire – a Persian empire influenced greatly by the magi – looms.