Summary: The magi brought extravagant gifts for the baby Jesus even though they could not know what this child would do. We know that Jesus the Christ is God and saves us from our sin. What gifts do we bring to our Lord?
Today we observe Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, with the visitation of the magi to the baby Jesus. The visit of the magi is probably the most misunderstood part of the Christmas story. The magi are often depicted in nativity scenes as if they arrived for the birth of Jesus, but Matthew says they came to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus when they were in a house, not in the stable where He was born. It’s not clear exactly how long after the birth of Jesus they arrived but it may have been as long as two years later.
Who were the magi? They were from the region of Mesopotamia, what we know today as Iraq and parts of Iran, in the area that Abraham came from. They were among the most educated of men in the ancient world. They studied astronomy and astrology, were noted for interpreting dreams, and practiced sorcery (our word magic is derived from magus). They had a priestly and political role in their culture. They offered sacrifices to their gods and it was from among the magi that kings were selected in the Parthian empire. Magi in the Babylonian empire would have been greatly impressed by the prophet Daniel’s ability to interpret dreams, and it’s likely that they learned of the prophecies of the Jewish Messiah from Daniel and other Jewish captives in Babylon. As astronomers, they believed that the heavens would tell of important happenings in the world and they would interpret appearances of comets and the movement of the planets, the wandering stars. They kept an eye on the skies in their search for knowledge.
We’re not sure exactly what the star was that led them on their journey, but it was probably not like the depictions on Christmas cards, blazing away bigger than anything else in the sky. That would have been noticed by everybody but not even King Herod and his court knew anything about it. Whatever the magi saw in the sky, they believed that it meant that a new king of the Jews had been born and so they gathered up treasures to pay tribute to this king and began the long journey to Jerusalem. It wouldn’t be necessary for the star to guide them along the way because they would know that a king of the Jews would be in the capital of Judea.
They must have been quite disappointed when they came to the king’s palace and no one knew anything about a king being born. This was not something that King Herod would be excited about. He was paranoid about rivals to his rule and we know from Roman historians that Herod had a wife and her mother, and a couple of brothers and in-laws executed on suspicion of being involved in conspiracies against him. Herod wanted to know where this child might be, not to worship Him, but to kill Him. He sought the council of the priests and scribes to know where to look. They turned to the book of the prophet Micah to determine that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. Then Herod sent the magi off. I would think that the priests and scribes would be excited to hear that the Messiah had been born and would want to see Him themselves, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. The magi were sent on their way to Bethlehem alone.
The magi must have wondered if they were on a wild goose chase. They came to see and worship the newborn king of the Jews and nobody in Jerusalem knew anything about it. Had they been wrong? Had they traveled all this way for nothing? So when the star reappeared on the short journey to Bethlehem, they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy,” I don’t think you can get any happier than that. And when they came to the house and saw Mary with the baby Jesus, they fell to the ground and worshipped Him. King Herod rejected this king, the priests were uninterested and apathetic about Him, but the outsiders, the wise men, knew to worship this little baby, the light of the world, which God had revealed to them through the lights of the skies.
Not only did these very wise men worship their Lord Jesus, they also brought gifts fitting for a king; gold, frankincense, and myrrh – the most valuable things of their world. Mary and Joseph knew they had a very special child because the angel Gabriel had made that very clear. They knew that this baby Jesus would be used by God for great things, but they weren’t sure exactly what that would be. Until now, only the shepherds had come to see this new king and praised God for what they had been told about Him. How surprised would Mary have been when these magi, men of wealth and power from a faraway land, came knocking at the door? How surprised would the magi be that a king would be born to this poor young couple? But they did not turn away in disappointment. Despite the humble circumstances of the holy family, these wise men still knew that this was a king to worship, worthy of their treasures.