Context of Christmas: Magi from the east…

Following the Star (artist unknown)

Following the Star (artist unknown)

In the last blog, we walked through a brief overview of the progression of the Nation of Israel from Abraham to the birth of Jesus. The goal of this series is to provide some additional context to the modern celebration of Christmas, a holiday that contemporary Christians have designated to remember and celebrate the virgin-birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. In today’s post, I’d like to begin in the Matthew account beginning in Chapter 2:

Matthew 2 (NASB) The Visit of the Magi
2 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:

6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah;
For out of you shall come forth a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”

Here, we have the arrival of “magi from the east”, who came to Jerusalem, looking for the new born King of the Jews. Why would any non-Jew be looking for a new born King of Jews? Given the events of the previous 200 years of Roman rule, how could anyone be looking for a child who is born King? Notice in the passage that the magi quoted the Hebrew prophet, Micah

Micah 5:2 (NASB)
2 “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Too little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will go forth for
Me to be ruler in Israel.
His goings forth are from long ago,
From the days of eternity.”

Micah 1:1 begins with, “1 The word of the Lord which came to Micah of Moresheth in the days of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem.” Remember from the last post that the Nation of Israel was split into 2 kingdoms, Israel in the north whose capital city was Samaria, and Judah in the south whose capital city is Jerusalem. So we have a prophet of God speaking of the impending punishment of Israel and Judah. The Assysrians end up taking Israel and Samaria and scattering its people (the Lost Tribes), leaving Judah for a time.  Judah’s independence is secured largely by the obedience and humility of Josiah, King of Judah (2 Chr 34). Josiah dies in battle, and Judah falls to Egypt and then to Babylon soon after as Josiah’s successors do evil in God’s sight. King Nebuchadnezzar took many Israelites away to Babylon (2 Cor 36:10, 2 Kings 24:12). And that is where I believe we can gain some insight into how these magi could have become aware of Micah.

The Exile

We looked at the exile of Jews into Babylon when we looked at the history of the kings of Israel. Nebuchadnezzar took the very best of Jerusalem into captivity in Babylon (2 Kings 24:10-16). The record in 2 Kings continues in Jerusalem, so instead of going there I’d like to follow those who were taken into captivity:

Daniel 1:6-7 (NASB) 6 Now among them from the sons of Judah were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. 7 Then the commander of the officials assigned new names to them; and to Daniel he assigned the name Belteshazzar, to Hananiah Shadrach, to Mishael Meshach and to Azariah Abed-nego.

Now the story of Daniel is an exciting one, filled with great faith, and the mighty Hand of God. It’s a wonderful story. Suffice it to say for this blog that Daniel did well in the Sight of God and found favor in the eyes of King Nebuchadnezzar. Let’s look at what was spoken of Daniel to Nebuchadnezzar’s successor, Belshazzar:

Daniel 5:11-12a (NASB) 11 There is a man in your kingdom in whom is a spirit of the holy gods; and in the days of your father, illumination, insight and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods were found in him. And King Nebuchadnezzar, your father, your father the king, appointed him chief of the magicians, conjurers, Chaldeans and diviners. 12 This was because an extraordinary spirit, knowledge and insight, interpretation of dreams, explanation of enigmas and solving of difficult problems were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar… (emphasis mine)

It is soon after that Daniel is promoted to Third Ruler of the Kingdom. Belshazzar was succeeded by Darius, who is tricked into condemning Daniel to the Lion’s Den. When God spares Daniel of this fate, Darius issues the following decree:

Daniel 6:25-28 (NASB) 25 Then Darius the king wrote to all the peoples, nations and men of every language who were living in all the land: “May your peace abound! 26 I make a decree that in all the dominion of my kingdom men are to fear and tremble before the God of Daniel;

For He is the living God and enduring forever,
And His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed,
And His dominion will be forever.
27 “He delivers and rescues and performs signs and wonders
In heaven and on earth,
Who has also delivered Daniel from the power of the lions.”

28 So this Daniel enjoyed success in the reign of Darius and in the reign of Cyrus the Persian.

If you remember from the last post, it was Cyrus the Persian (due to his Zoroastrian beliefs) that would commission the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, sending back many Israelites to their homeland.   God is so awesome. Okay, now here is the part where I share my interpretation of these events and their significance to the Christmas story. I could be wrong here, but I must stress that this is my interpretation of the Scriptures. If my interpretation proves incorrect, that has no bearing on the infallibility of the Scriptures, it just means that I am human. 😉

So, how did the magi learn of Micah?

Given the prevalence of Zoroastrianism in the east, the Chaldeans paid attention to all of the major religions and their gods. Daniel (Beltashazzar), one of the captured Jews, was quickly promoted to “chief of the magicians, conjurers, Chaldeans and diviners”. While I cannot point to a specific source, it sure seems that this would fit as a definition of “magi”. Daniel stayed faithful to the One True God and would have shared/taught with them the prophets. I believe it is by this that the magi became aware of Micah.

Okay, but why would they care enough to make the journey into Roman lands?

I believe they remembered the decree of Cyrus. They did not choose to stay in Jerusalem, nor did they bat an eye at being warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod (Matt 2:13), they simply went back home. In their pantheism, they recognized the sign of the birth of the King of the Jews, and searched Him out to worship Him and bring gifts. Did they miss the greater point? Perhaps… the Bible does not follow their walk after this time. Here we have yet another instance of God using pagans to serve His purpose.

Closing thoughts

It pains me to see everyone refer to the magi as “Three wise men”, or whenever I hear the carol “We three kings” sung in a Church setting. Not nearly as much as seeing an endorsement of santa, but I digress. The Bible only lists 3 types of gifts. We don’t know how many came, but it was a long journey. These men were traveling into a very politically tumultuous setting, seeking a newborn king. They were able to gain an audience with Herod… an evil and paranoid governor. It was most likely a very impressive procession with its own security details.

I wish we would do more to keep to the truth of the event, and let go of the all of the extraneous trappings of the holiday.  Much of what is emphasized in popular Christmas celebrations isn’t even remotely Biblical. With respect to the “we three kings” song, imagine if we started treating the Titanic movie (with Leonardo DiCaprio) as an actual account of the events rather than simply a writer’s use of the historical event for a bit of fiction. We can do better than that… as Christians and as stewards of the Gospel… we must do better.

I hope you enjoyed reading this, and it is my prayer that it will have sparked some renewed interest in the Old Testament and the Prophets. May the Lord bless you and keep you this Christmas,

In Him,

2 thoughts on “Context of Christmas: Magi from the east…

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