Theology 101

How the Mystery of the Magi Impacts Our Faith & Work

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There is no brighter symbol of the Christmas story than that of the star of Bethlehem. Every year, we hear how the Magi traveled from the East, following a star in order to pay homage to Jesus Christ, the newborn king.

Have you ever wondered what led the wise men to undertake this long, dangerous journey to Bethlehem? How did they know about Jewish prophecy at all, and what led them to believe that this particular star was the one that would lead them to the birth of a great king?

Solving the Mystery of the Magi

What most people know about the Magi comes from popular traditions and Christmas carols, most of which are unsupported by the biblical text. Matthew does not suggest that the Magi were kings. He does not say that they were three in number, nor is it likely that they were from the Orient.

Who then were these Magi, and where did they originate? The Greek word μάγος is used by Matthew and translated “Magi” by the NIV. It is the name given to great, powerful men, who were priests and wise men among the Medes, Persians, Zoroastrians, and Babylonians.

Dr. Craig Chester, past president of the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy gives the following description of the Magi:

The group of Magi in question came “from the East.” They might have been Zoroastrians, Medes, Persians, Arabs, or even Jews. They probably served as court advisors, making forecasts and predictions for their royal patrons based on their study of the stars, about which they were quite knowledgeable. Magi often wandered from court to court, and it was not unusual for them to cover great distances in order to attend the birth or crowning of a king, paying their respects and offering gifts. It is not surprising, therefore, that Matthew would mention them as validation of Jesus’ kingship, or that Herod would regard their arrival as a very serious matter.

The Magi were very important, powerful people of their day. The mention of their visit to Jerusalem was Matthew’s way of securing the testimony of top scientific authorities to authenticate the royal birth of Jesus.

Making a Mysterious Journey

Josephus records that Magi visited Herod in about 10 BC. A visit by the Magi to pay homage to a newborn king would not have appeared unusual to the original readers of Matthew’s gospel.

It would not, however, have gone unnoticed. In fact, Matthew 2:3 says that not only was Herod disturbed but “all Jerusalem with him.” The Magi were such significant individuals they probably traveled with a very large entourage that included soldiers, even a small army, for protection. So, it should not be surprising that Herod and the citizens of Jerusalem were troubled when they arrived.

What led these Magi to Jerusalem?

The Magi must have had an unmistakably clear astronomical/astrological message to urge them on such a long, dangerous journey. In Matthew 2:2, the Magi indicated that they saw something in the night sky that was so significant that it convinced them to make the trip of over a thousand miles to Jerusalem to look for this new king.

How could seeing “signs in the sky” inform the Magi that a king of the Jews had been born? The answer may take us back over five hundred years to the work of one of God’s faithful servants during the Babylonian exile. King Nebuchadnezzar assigned the prophet Daniel to the high office of “chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers, and diviners” (Dan. 5:11). In other words, Daniel was appointed chief of the Magi.

The Magi of the first century would have most certainly studied the writing of Daniel and possibly other Jewish writings with which Daniel would have been associated, like the book of Isaiah. This connection between Daniel and the Magi may help to explain why six hundred years later, the Magi in question expected a Jewish king to arrive in Judea near the end of the first century BC. It is very likely that the Magi followed the star based on their study of prophet Daniel’s writings.

Meaning for Our Faith & Work

Because Daniel was faithful in his work, God used him to bring the news of the birth of Christ to both his fellow Israelites and some of the most powerful, knowledgeable, and influential Gentiles of the day.

In Jeremiah 29, we find part of Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon:

…seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jer. 29:7)

These exiles, including Daniel, had seen the destruction of their homeland, the death of their family members, and the demolishing of their holiest place of worship. It must have been hard to work for the good of a city that had destroyed his homeland, yet Daniel obeyed God’s call and became “chief of the Magi” and an advisor to the king.

In a way, we too are in “exile,” for we live in a fallen, sinful world and look forward to when Christ will return and restore it. But rather than sit passively, we are to actively engage in the world because God calls us to “work for the peace and prosperity of the city” here and now.

In this Christmas season, it is good to be reminded about the impact of our work. God calls us to be faithful in the here and now. Even though we can’t always see the impact of what we do, we have no idea how God will use it for good.

Editor’s Note: On “Flashback Friday,” we take a look at some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This post was previously published on Dec. 24, 2013.

We at IFWE wish you a Merry Christmas and a wonderful holiday with your friends and family. If our content has blessed you this year, please consider including IFWE in your end-of-year giving.

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