The magi were ‘wise men’ who studied the stars; it is possible they were astrologers considering they were from Babylon. However, it is also possible they were something else; if we think back to the book of Daniel, the Babylonian kings were always surrounded by wise men and advisers. When Nebuchadnezzar had a dream he didn’t understand he summoned his advisers to tell him the meaning. He was aware that at least some of them were crooks, so to prove they knew what they were talking about they had to tell the king what he had dreamt before explaining the dream’s meaning. Because they couldn’t do this, the king sentenced them to death, but Daniel was able, by the power of God to tell Nebuchadnezzar not only the full dream, but its meaning as well. The magi then, could be wise men of this type – Babylonian astrologers, or they could be more like Daniel. Could it be that rather than being merely pagan astrologers, they were descended from either the Jews who had stayed behind in Babylon after the exile had ended, or could they be Gentiles descended from those advisers of Nebuchadnezzar’s time who had studied the prophecies of the God who Daniel belonged to? In Jewish tradition, the stars and their constellations tell the story of the gospel starting with Virgo, the virgin and ending with Leo, the Lion of Judah. This is known as the mazzaroth and it existed well before it was corrupted at Babylon and became the zodiac we recognise today with all reference to the God of the Bible removed. So perhaps the magi were Babylonian Jews who were descended from those of the Jewish nobility who stayed behind after the exile was ended; perhaps they were Gentiles descended from the king’s advisers, perhaps they were pagan astrologers or perhaps they studied the prophecies of God through the Hebrew scriptures and the mazzaroth. We don’t know for sure. God sent them a star to follow. I am inclined to believe that they knew what the star meant because they were familiar with the messianic timetable in Daniel, so I think it makes most sense that Gentile or Jew regardless, they were keen students of the Hebrew scriptures, they knew where they were on God’s prophetic timescale and they were looking for the imminent arrival of their Redeemer. This seems particularly likely given the gifts they brought Jesus. The significance is generally lost on people until they look closer;
- Gold represented royalty and kingship
- Frankincense symbolised the priesthood and priestly duties
- Myrrh was a spice used in embalming corpses.
Obviously none of these are particularly suitable gifts for a small child – but the magi knew what they were doing. They knew that Jesus would be a king and that he was descended from the royal line of Judah. They knew also that although Jesus was not descended from the priestly line of Levi that he would be the High Priest to end all high priests, that that was part of his role despite the fact that the kingly role and the priestly role had never been combined. Finally, they were familiar with the writings of the Messianic prophet Isaiah. The myrrh signified the Messiah’s role of suffering servant and sacrificial lamb (Isaiah 52-53). They knew that Jesus had come to die.
Herod clearly was a nasty man. He held on to power at any cost, even if it meant murdering members of his own family. So when he heard an enormous caravan of travellers had arrived in Jerusalem searching for the baby Messiah, he lost it and killed any boy found to be under two years old. Interesting isn’t it, how desperate he was to hold on to power? Herod by this point was getting old; a young whippersnapper of two years or less was never going to threaten the status quo in Herod’s lifetime – but Herod was not logical, he would sooner kill than think. Possibly part of Herod’s insecurity stemmed from the fact of his being an Idumean, not a Jew, and perhaps therefore it terrified him that this baby had more right to the title ‘King of the Jews’ than he himself did.
It’s interesting at this point to reflect that these magi were willing to travel far to pay tribute to the King, yet the priests in the Temple who must have known the scriptures as well as the magi were more intent on appeasing Herod than going 5 miles down the road to worship the King.
Throughout the Old Testament we get little glimpses of Jesus the Messiah; as mentioned, one of these was Jesus’ namesake Joshua. Another is Moses. Both Jesus and Moses left Egypt to minister to God’s people. Both Moses and Jesus’ family had to step out in faith, relying fully on God.
It is at this point that two apparently contradictory prophecies are fulfilled in such a way that they make sense when taken together. Micah 5:2 tells us that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. But Matthew 2:23 mentions that the people recognised that their Messiah would be a Nazarene. At first we see they appear to be contradictory, but then we see that yes, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but when Jesus’ family came out of Egypt, they settled in Nazareth where Jesus grew up. And the irony is that in the gospels we see people disbelieving in Jesus precisely because he’s a Nazarene! (see John 1:46, Matthew 21:11, Mark 14:67 and John 18:5-7).
Warren Wiersbe notes that the term ‘Nazarene’ appears to be connected with ‘netzer’ which means ‘shoot’ or ‘branch’. Two words used by the prophets to refer to the Messiah (Isaiah 4:2, 53:2, Jeremiah 23:5, 33:15, Zechariah 3:8, 6:12-13).
With thanks to my spiritual uncles: Uncle Warren Wiersbe, Uncle Chuck Missler, Uncle Matthew Henry, Uncle Jacob Prasch and Uncle Arnold Fruchtenbaum.