Who were they? And what did they follow?
Did you ever wonder just who the Magi of the familiar Christmas story were? And why did God use them, of all people, seeing that they were foreigners and assumed strangers to the Promises of Abraham? A little background might be helpful.
“In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.” Heb.1:1- 2
One of those “various ways” that God spoke to the Jews at the closing of their age, and at the dawning of the age to come, was the “star” that pointed to the Messiah’s birth. In revealing His Son to the world, God chose to use instruments from afar – the Magi from the East.
HONOR AND CONTEMPT
Christ was honored from afar – and treated with contempt by his countrymen.
“He came unto His own, and his own received Him not”.
Yet these foreigners honored Him with luxurious gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. This is also how it is in a wider sense: Christ’s Incarnation and ongoing work is a subject of much admiration, honor and interest in Heaven, but our world, by contrast, treats Christ with contempt.
What an irony: A “star” announces his presence from afar – and leads the wise men right to their King, bundled up in a feeding trough! The Good Shepherd and Bread of Life comes to bring life to His own sheep.
The word “Magi” originally meant someone from the Medes. It has come to mean wise men (including knowledge of wisdom, astronomy and, sometimes, astrology). The Magi from Matthew most likely came from Persia. But they were not kings. They were not necessarily – nor even likely – three in number. This was an unhelpful guess from the later Church Fathers and the Roman Catholic Church, assuming that because the gifts were three the kings were as well. * They were also called “kings” because of an assumed connection to Psalm 72:10:
“the kings of Tarshish, and of the Isles, and of Sheba, would offer gifts to the Lord,”
More than likely they were part of a much larger entourage then we have been taught to imagine. It may be that Herod became afraid, not only for their message – they were looking for his replacement, after all! – but also for their large number. It might have been quite a caravan of impressive strangers that turned heads in Jerusalem.
THEOLOGY, NOT ASTROLOGY
One of the best proofs that the Magi were not working as astrologers is the fact that what they followed was not a star. It did not act “starlike”.
It led them.
It changed directions, first leading them westward, then southward.
It “stood over” (Matt. 2:9) the exact spot where Jesus was.
Stars don’t do this. Neither do remarkable configurations of bright planets.
And bear in mind that these were wise men who knew astronomical phenomena. We are left with the choice of either this not being a normal star (or planet)… or that these weren’t particularly wise wise men.
I don’t doubt that these Magi knew things that to the Jews were forbidden. I believe that it is a condescension of God that he used “inferior” (from the believer’s viewpoint) methods to communicate His truth to whomever He wished. This would not be the first time he did this. The Philistines learned more about the holiness of God from the “golden tumors” and the toppling of their Dagon in their temple then the sons of the High Priest Eli learned in the very Tabernacle. Daniel is full of miraculous imagery and messages that use, but do not condone, Pagan culture. It is the same way here with the Magi.
PROPHECY OF THE STAR ~ JESUS CHRIST
“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the sons of Sheth.” Numbers 24:17
This was an important prophecy concerning the coming Messiah, given by the unbelieving Balaam. This very prophecy may have been known to the Magi, and when they told Herod about His star, they probably had this in mind. Remember that when the Israelites were finally overcome and taken away in judgment by Sargon (730-728 BC), they were settled in various parts of the Median Kingdom (2nd Kings 17:6). They necessarily took with them their knowledge of this prophecy. These Jews lost their holy distinctness as a people of God, but God used the knowledge of this prophecy to bring the Wise men from their country to search for the King of the world.
The prophecy was like an ancient seed that, after centuries of dormancy, did not return void, but came to life, accomplishing it’s intended purpose, Isaiah 55:11.
By the way, many Jews, having not recognized their Messiah, fell for a counterfeit in AD 130- 135, Bar Kochba (“Son of the Star”) who conned his credentials from the very same verse of Numbers 24:17.
That was also pointedly aimed at the wicked King Herod. The phrase
“He will crush the foreheads of Moab”
had an application to Herod’s time as well as that of Balaam’s patron, Balak. He was Idumean, of Moabite stock. Balak’s (and Balaam’s) fulfillment of this verse were at Baal Peor, but other fulfillments are found in the first century.
MAGIC OF THE MAGI?
I have read accounts of them that put undue prominence on their (supposed or actual) astrological prognostication. I believe that this is foremost an example of God miraculously revealing Himself to people from afar. The focus is on God’s providence, not on man’s understanding. The story of the Magi is certainly not an example of how to find God or His will. For that we have the Bible and the Spirit of God who opens that Bible for us, revealing all truths we need to know.
AND THE MORAL OF THE STORY IS …
Maybe a good message to draw from this passage in Matthew 2 is that Christ is found by those who seek Him. He opens the eyes of those whom He chooses. Both the wise men and King Herod professed a desire to come and worship the Christ child. The latter, of course, was hypocritical and devious in his profession. The former found Who they were looking for, giving prophetical gifts as well as heartfelt worship.
* Their skulls (according to tradition) ended up in Cologne, Germany. These dubious relics are still on display in the Cathedral in the cathedral of that city. I remember seeing them when we visited there in the early 60‘s. Pretty impressive for a child.
Not Stars, Comets, or Planets
The issue here is whether a star, comet, or planet – could wander to the extent that the passage in Matthew relates. Yes, planets have a retrograde motion, perhaps known to the Magi. But these are not what the Bible is describing. Consider these points:
1. Planets would have very slight deviations in orbit – not accounting for the great direction changes in the story and, more importantly
2. They take weeks to go through these retrogrades – not the short time the Magi were there.
3. Comets, also, just could not make the direction change that is described in the Christmas Story.
From what I remember from astronomy class – long time ago – Mercury had the shortest retrograde, measured in weeks. Others took months.
The bottom line is that, whether weeks or months, this was a very unusual event. How could a star or a planet, something usual, regular, and predictable be a guiding sign? These are, after all, the wise men, not simpletons.