The Magi and the Despot

The Magi and the Despot

Scripture: Jeremiah 23:5-6; Psalm 33:1-5; Matthew 2:1-12

Although the account of the visit by the Magi is recorded only by Matthew, we have heard the message about them proclaimed every year at this time. Epiphany, the day of their discovery, is celebrated in the Western Church on January 6 every year.

So what do we “know” by tradition and what does Matthew record?

We are very familiar with all of the “facts” recounted in that famous Christmas carol, We Three Kings.

If asked to tell the story, we would probably say there were three kings who came from the afar; their names were Gasper, Melchior, and Balthazar; they came from the Orient; they brought gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

So what is the best information that we have from the biblical account and from historical accounts?

The men who came were described by Matthew as wise men, a Greek title given to priests of the Zoroastrian religion. These men would have been a combination of astronomers and astrologers. They would have studied the stars as a description of events that happened or would happen. When they saw the new star that signified the birth of Jesus, they believed that it signified the birth of a great king. Therefore, when they came to Jerusalem, their question to Herod was, “Where is He that is born King of the Jews?”

Matthew doesn’t give names to the Magi. The names with which we are familiar appear to come from a Greek manuscript that was composed in Alexandria, Egypt in the year 500 AD. They have been given other names by several Eastern countries.

Matthew does name the gifts that were brought:

  • gold – a gift befitting a king,
  • frankincense – incense used in worship,
  • myrrh – a fragrant perfume used to embalm.

Costly gifts worthy of a king.

So how old was Jesus when they arrived? It would have taken time for the Magi to complete their study of the star that they had seen from their home in the East. They would have needed time to prepare for the journey. The journey itself would have followed the trade route and would have been about 900 miles in distance. We know from the account of Ezra, in his travel from Babylon to Jerusalem (Ezra 7:9), that it took him four months to make the trip. It would have been only five miles farther to Bethlehem, where they finally reached their goal.

Do you ever read the end of a book and then go back and find out how the characters got there?

This account that Matthew writes about the visit of the Magi

  • has its beginning in the prophecies of the Old Testament,
  • is a report of the sighting of the star by the Magi,
  • records their encounter with Herod, the chief priests, and the scribes,
  • tells of their epiphany (discovery) of Jesus, and
  • their return home without returning to Herod.

Matthew writes for everyone, but his particular focus is on reaching the Jewish reader. He has at least three purposes in the way he writes about this event:

  • to show that Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem, was the promised Messiah, as foretold by the prophets;
  • to demonstrate the hypocrisy of Herod, the chief priests, and the scribes who pretended their desire to worship Him at that moment and in the future;
  • to demonstrate that Jesus had come as the Messiah for the entire world, Jews and Gentiles alike, forecasting the Great Commission that Jesus would give to his disciples just before his ascension (Matthew 28:19-20).

If the visit with Jesus were the end of this account, we could end the reading with great rejoicing. But great tragedy is headed toward the city of Bethlehem. Herod will not tolerate any threat to his rule over the Jews. He has already murdered two of his sons who might have taken his place and murdered his wife for perhaps helping them.

We can surmise that the age of Jesus at this time is perhaps a few months, up to a year. Herod’s paranoia expands the timeline. Remember, he had asked the Magi when the star first appeared.

An angel comes to Joseph in a dream and warns him to flee with his family so that the life of Jesus will be spared. They are on their way to Egypt by the time that Herod’s troops arrive in Bethlehem with orders to kill all of the boys who are two years old or younger.

In 4 AD Herod died a horrible death from a combination of kidney failure and gangrene.

Learning of Herod’s death, Joseph and Mary return to Israel with Jesus, but upon learning that Herod’s successor, his son Archelaus, is now reigning, Joseph is warned once again by an angel in a dream to go to the Galilee region. There the little family made their home in Nazareth, thus fulfilling the prophecy that the Messiah would be called a Nazarene (Isaiah 53:3).

And what happened to the Magi? There are many references that tell of how they became followers of Jesus and were martyred for their faith. The bones of the three are contained in a richly ornamented chest that now rests in the Cathedral of Cologne in Germany.

A physical star was there to guide three men to find Jesus, the promised Messiah. These men were familiar with the Hebrew scriptures that had been used by the Jewish captives who lived in Babylon. One can only imagine their joy when they found themselves participating in the fulfillment of long-ago prophecies.

The physical star is no longer in the heavens, but a spiritual star in the Person of the Holy Spirit still invites us to come and kneel down and worship Jesus as Lord of our lives.