Lessons from the Magi
The Bible documents numerous events around the birth of Jesus Christ and the arrival of our Savior; each event is recorded to context, value, and importance (as if “God with us” was not enough!). The visit of the Magi from the East to full of interesting information and principles that we can learn and apply to everyday life.
Getting the Story Straight
The visit of the magi is often errantly portrayed as the visit of three wise kings. The tradition is so strong that many nativity scenes include three figures who are portrayed as being present for the birth of Jesus Christ.
Who were these men, where were they from, and when did they likely visit Jesus? More importantly, what principles should we glean from these men and how should we apply these lessons today?
First, let’s clearly identify three often wrongfully applied ideas: 1) they were not kings (and I love that hymn!), 2) there is no reason to limit their number to three, and 3) they were not at the manger on the night of Jesus birth.
Why is this important?
Proper understanding and application of scripture is vital for all Christians. The greatest damage to the Christian witness comes from those who pollute or twist scripture and use it to say things that are not accurate or true. Our knowledge of God’s Word is a testimony as to our faith. For those who would presume to represent God and His Word in the arena of politics and civics it is even more important. How can one be trusted to accurately represent God Truths regarding family, marriage, and value of life if we do not accurately represent the events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ? So let’s dig deeper into the scriptures to learn more about the magi.
Who were they and where were they from?
The event of The Visit of the Magi is documented in Matthew 2: 1-12. They are introduced as either wise men or magi from the east. Bible translations introduce them in different ways:
“…some wise men from eastern lands…” (NLT) with a note of “Or royal astrologers; Greek reads magi.”
“…magi from the east arrived…” (NASB) with a note of “A caste of wise men specializing in astronomy, astrology, and natural science.”
“…there came wise men from the east…” (KJV)
“…Magi from the east…” (NIV) with a note of “Traditionally Wise Men.”
“…magi (wise men) from the east came…” (AMP) with note of “Gr ,agoi; these were educated men who specialized in astronomy, astrology, and the natural sciences…”
The English Standard Version (ESV) with its note captures them most comprehensively. It says they were “…wise men from the east…” with a note “(Gk. Magoi, plural of magos) referred to priests and experts in mysteries in Persia and Babylon, but by this time it applied to a wide range of people whose practices included astrology, dream interpretation, study of sacred writings, the pursuit of wisdom, and magic.”
The “east” is thought by most scholars as being from the area of Persia and/or Babylon (modern day Iran and Iraq). This location indicates the magi were likely exposed to Jewish religion and beliefs from those exiled to these areas as documented by the Old Testament.
The magi seem to be an interesting blend of scientist mixed with aspects of the occult with elements of true religion mixed in. They were most likely gentiles with a Jewish influence left over from the exile of the Jews to the area from where they came. They represent a group of people who were seeking wisdom and truth and were able to recognize something special when it appeared and they sought it out with diligence.
Were they there for Jesus’ birth? Likely not.
The timeframe of the magi’s visit varies from 40 days to 2 years after Jesus’ birth with the latter being most plausible.
– The star likely appeared on the night of Jesus’ birth. This conclusion is based upon subsequent documented events recorded in Matthew.
– The star, when it appeared, caused the magi to study and determine the star was associated with the birth of Jewish King. It seems they were familiar with the prophesy of Numbers 24:17 stating “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, a scepter shall rise from Israel…”. With this information they set out for Jerusalem, the capital of Israel and as such the place where they thought they would find the new king. Their studies and subsequent journey would have taken some time.
– Scriptures does not document the number of magi. It simply refers to “the magi” in plural. The number three seems to arise from the number of different gifts given. There is no reason to limit the number of magi to three. Travel from the east continues to be a dangerous and difficult journey. At this time is was done in the form of caravans for safety and protection.
– When they arrived scriptures states “And going into the house they saw the child”. First, they found Jesus in a house, not in a manger. Secondly, they encountered a child, not a baby.
– Herod proceeded to kill every child who were “v.16 …two years old or under”. This provides a clue indicating the birth of Christ had happened two years earlier, but leaves enough doubt to make the time-period shorter.
What is clear is the magi were not present on the night of Jesus’ birth. This, however, does not detract from their important role nor does it lessen the lessons we can learn from them.
What are applicable principles we can apply today?
The magi recognized something the Jewish religious leaders missed.
Upon arrival in Jerusalem the Magi ask, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” The reaction of King Herod and all Jerusalem was one of being “disturbed”. Not excited mind you but disturbed.
The magi were diligent and aware enough to recognize something special and they acted upon what they learned. As such they were then able to be part of one of the greatest events in human history.
Jesus’ return is imminent and will happen in the blink of an eye. When he returns will you be excited or disturbed? Do you look to the sky with expectation of Jesus’ imminent return? Do you live a life that honors Jesus?
Where were the religious leaders?
I wonder, was the response by the religious leaders to Jesus’ life tainted by the embarrassing fact they had missed or were absent from the events surrounding His birth?
They had the clues, they knew the location. I often wonder why did they not have a synagogue of priests interviewing the parents of every birth that took place in Bethlehem. Asking questions like, “Was there anything unique about this child’s conception?”, etc.
Were the religious leaders really looking forward to the prospects of a Savior or were they too focused on their own positions to really care? Their ignorance around the birth of Jesus seems to provide an answer.
I ask the same question of religious leaders today. Are you preaching and teaching about Jesus’ imminent return? Are you readying followers for His return and to live lives ready for exposure to the King of King and Lord of Lords?
Always obey God’s call—immediately.
One of the greatest undercurrents of the Birth Story of Christ is the faith and immediate obeying of so many. Mary, Joseph, Shepherd, Simeon, Anna, and the Magi; each of them accepted God’ call, had faith, and immediately acted upon what they heard or what had been revealed.
Let’s remember, the Magi were guests in a foreign land. The King of that land had asked they stop by for a visit before they departed but the Magi were warned in a dream by God to return home via a different route. This placed them in a difficult position. Yet, they chose immediate obedience and honored God’s prompting. Their act of obedience made it possible for Joseph to then demonstrate his own.
Matthew 2:13-15 records God instruction to Joseph to flee to Egypt because of the threat from King Herod. The response of Joseph was immediate, “That night Joseph left for Egypt…”. (Joseph, in addition to being the step-father of Jesus, should be remembered as a man of immediate action, see Matthew 1: 20-25 for further proof).
Do we obey God in the same way? When God places something to mind, do we immediately obey the call or do we question it, ponder it, or doubt it? We all should aim to be more like Joseph. When we hear God’s prompting we should obey it, immediately without delay.
Some may argue that it was easy for Joseph and Mary as they had angels talk to them! We have something even better, we have the Holy Spirit Himself dwelling within us.
One of the clearest lessons of the visit of the Magi is it demonstrates God provides for our needs on His perfect schedule.
I will forego the symbolic meaning of the gifts and go to the practical aspects. The gifts provided represented financial provision for what was to be a short notice trip to Egypt. Depending upon the amount of gifts it could have provided for the family for many years. Regardless if it was for a single trip or for a long period of time, God provided what Joseph needed and at just the right time.
We too can trust that God will provide for us.
Jesus has always been at odds with political figures who desire power more than righteousness.
King Herod was not a legitimate king of the Jewish people. He was placed into power by Rome and had no blood relation to King David. So, the arrival of important men coming to worship a baby who they referred to with his title obviously put him on edge.
This political figure, in an effort to protect his position, was ready and willing to kill Jesus and did in fact commit mass murder in an effort to do so. At the end of his life, Pilate refused to pronounce Jesus innocent in an effort to hold onto his position of power.
We must be wary of any politician who finds it more important to hold onto a position than to stand with and for Jesus Christ and his Truth. Those truly committed to Christ over position are rare and need prayed for and supported!
Jesus and his family were in effect political refugees.
Warned by an angel, Joseph moved his family Egypt to get flee from political persecution. They were in effect political refugees. The earliest memories of Jesus’ life were likely not of Israel but of Egypt.
This fact further proves that Jesus truly understands the challenges faced by everyone and he lived a life that proves we can overcome any circumstance so long as we are oriented and aligned with God.
We should extend sympathy and help to those persecuted for their faith.
Did the Magi fully recognize Jesus as Lord and Savior or was their experience with Him limited to His role of King of the Jews?
It says “…they bowed down and worshiped him.” Did they recognize him as more than just a king worthy of honor; did they see the child as the Savior He was? I wonder this question about many of the people who encountered Jesus Christ when He was alive. Did they later accept Him as the Lord and Savior of their life?
We too must ensure our encounter with Jesus extends deeper than mere knowledge. Many have knowledge of Jesus’ life, his death, they have heard of his resurrection but they stop here…at mere knowledge. Let your encounter with Jesus go further into a full out encounter with a Savior. Go beyond mere knowledge and go to a dynamic and life changing encounter.
You experience the real, total and complete Jesus when you encounter Him as the living Savior He truly is. Have you had a personal experience with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? If not, reach out and seek Him and He will reveal Himself.