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The Life of Jesus - Series 1: Episode 11

The coming of the "Wise Men"

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 2:1-12

The identity, origin and journey of the Magi are all discussed. Links trace back to the Old Testament. The star phenomena is considered. Herod the Great is introduced and the effect of the Magi's visit.

The identity, origin and journey of the Magi are all discussed. Links trace back to the Old Testament. The star phenomena is considered. Herod the Great is introduced and the effect of the Magi's visit.


Hello and welcome to Series 1, Episode 11. The title is ‘The Coming of the Wise Men - or the Magi'


The story comes from Matthew 2. We are coming towards the end of the story of Jesus' birth and I want to remind you of what we have discussed in recent episodes - just so you can see the context very clearly. Joseph and Mary, having understood fully the implications of this miraculous child to be (whom Mary was carrying), were living in Nazareth and decided that they were going to move from engagement to marriage. Joseph decided that he was going to undertake the responsibility of caring for this remarkable, miraculous, newborn child. Then came the demand from the Romans for every family in Israel to go to their ancestral home and be registered for a census for taxation purposes and this meant that Joseph and Mary needed to leave Nazareth and go a long way south to the village, or small town, of Bethlehem, near Jerusalem. That is where Jesus was born in an animal enclosure, or in a basement in a house, and laid in a manger. We tried to understand the significance of the remarkable appearance of the angels to some shepherds in nearby fields, just outside Bethlehem. In the last episode, we recounted the story how a few days after Jesus was born, whilst the family was still at Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to carry out the demands of the Jewish law in terms of dedicating the child, having been circumcised and providing sacrifices for the child - and there in the Temple they met two very prophetic older people, Simeon and Anna, who both identified this newborn child as the Messiah, the Saviour of Israel and the new King following David's line. These are the remarkable events that have happened just prior to the event that we are going to describe in this episode. We are still in Bethlehem.

A short time later, something happens that is, again totally remarkable and surprising. Joseph and Mary will be planning, no doubt, to return to Nazareth as soon as they can. Before they do that, whilst they are still in Bethlehem, this event takes place concerning the Wise Men, or the Magi.

 Matthew 2: 1 - 12:

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.”

Matthew 2:1-12, NIV

Who were The Magi?

This story presents all sorts of interesting challenges in terms of identifying who the Magi were - where they came from, what was this miraculous star and what were the circumstances in Israel concerning the King, Herod the Great, and his anxiety about everything that was going on. We're going to try and unwrap the story a little bit and work out what Matthew was referring to.

First of all, we are going to think about the geographical context. Matthew describes the Magi as ‘coming from the East.’ This could be a reference to Arabia, to Babylonia, which is roughly the equivalent of modern-day Iraq; or Persia - the approximate equivalent of modern-day Iran. It is most likely, in my mind, to refer to Babylonia. Babylon was a very important culture, had previously been an empire, and there are a number of reasons to think that the Magi may have come from there. What does this word ‘Magi’ mean? We sometimes describe it in English as ‘the Wise Men’. They were essentially astrologers and those who had a role of priesthood in the Babylonian and Persian religious systems of the time. We know from Greek historians that such a class of people existed in Babylon and in Persia at this time - advisers to the king, courtiers, and those who dabbled in the occult and were particularly interested in astrology and astronomy. In the ancient world, the stars were incredibly important: people took great note of what happened because supernatural powers were ascribed to the stars and the planets in many different civilisations - and this was definitely the case in Babylon and also in Persia. The Magi were a group of people who worked in the court of Babylon and elsewhere - influential and respected advisers and astrologers.

The other interesting thing in the background that helps us to work out the origins of their interest in the King of the Jews, is the fact that the Jews had been taken from Judah, from Jerusalem, to exile in Babylon hundreds of years before and had stayed there as a whole community for 70 years. Then some began to come back to Israel. From that time on, up until the time of this story, there was a living Jewish community in Babylon. This is a very interesting historical fact and the book of Daniel, for example, is set in Babylon where Daniel, a young man, emerges in the story as an adviser to King Nebuchadnezzar and the other monarchs of that Empire. He mixes with the other wise men, Magi, astrologers, occultists of that court who were, in essence, the same group of people as the Magi that we are talking about here. So there is a connection between the Jews and Babylonia and the Magi which is a direct connection. There were Jews living there.

Prophecy in Daniel

As the Magi saw this remarkable star, they were living in a context where they knew Jewish people. Many thousands of Jews were living in exile, they would have known the stories of Daniel in the Babylonian court and they may well have had familiarity with the Jewish scriptures. The Hebrew Scriptures are what we call the Old Testament, including the book of Daniel which had a number of very remarkable prophecies in it - and one of those prophecies spoke of the coming of the Messiah, the Anointed One, to Israel. This prophecy appears in Daniel 9: 24 - 27, and gives a timing from the Jews returning from Babylon or beginning to return until the Messiah comes - it actually creates a time framework. The possibility exists that these Magi were in touch with the Jewish community, knew about Daniel, knew about the Hebrew Scriptures and maybe even knew some of these prophecies. If we keep that in mind, that will help us to understand the remarkable decision that they made to leave home and travel an enormous distance to get to Israel.

The Star

Before we discuss that journey, there is one other important thing which we need to think about: what about the star? People have speculated as to what this star was, ever since Matthew wrote this account. Was it a conjunction of planets? Was it perhaps a comet - like Halley's Comet? Was it an exploding star or a supernova? All these possibilities exist - there might have been some astronomical sign, something remarkable happening in the sky but when you read the account carefully, you will notice that the star has two ways of appearing to the Magi. First of all, they describe a star rising in the east whilst they were in Babylon. They saw something which they described as a star and then, the second time that they saw the star was when they had arrived in Jerusalem and they were seeking to get to that very short distance (a few kilometres) to Bethlehem and to identify the place where they were going to find his infant child. The text tells us that the star guided them on that particular journey. Some people would take this as a myth - not really a historical fact - and one of the reasons for this is, it is very hard to describe how a star in the sky can possibly fulfil these functions.

What I want to propose to you is that, what the Magi saw in the sky looked to them like a star but probably wasn't a natural phenomenon at all. It was probably a supernatural phenomenon. It was probably an appearance of the glory of God in the form of light - what the Hebrews called the Shekinah glory - that appeared to them in Babylon in a remarkable way and looked to them in many ways like a star - a very bright light in the sky but they knew it wasn't a star that they could observe in a standard way of something new that appeared in the sky. I am proposing to you, that when they arrived in Jerusalem and they moved to Bethlehem, a light in the sky (that had an appearance of a star) guided them in a very specific way on a short journey. It is impossible for any star in the normal form of a star in the sky to guide you to a particular location or even to a particular house - it is pretty obvious that that is not remotely possible! You only need to look up in the sky and think about it for a few seconds to realise that that isn't a possibility; and yet Matthew describes, very decisively, that that is exactly what happened.

I want to connect this idea with what Luke has already told us about the shepherds. You will remember when we looked at the story of the shepherds, that they saw an angel and then a whole group of angels but they also saw a bright light in the sky above Bethlehem. What I proposed to you when we looked at that passage is that this was actually the glory of God coming back: the glory that had previously existed in the Temple; the glory that had travelled with the people of Israel in the wilderness in the form of a light - a cloud filled with light in the daytime and and a fire filled with light in the night-time. This glory was returning to Israel. Luke describes it in one context and, I believe, Matthew describes it in another context. The Magi were so sensitive to astronomy and the movements of stars and planets and anything unusual, that this type of phenomenon would have attracted their attention in a dramatic way. I believe that God miraculously guided them but what the text does not say, is that the star guided them every kilometre of the journey from Babylon to Israel. What it says is, that the star ‘rose in the east’. So they saw this phenomenon in Babylon and then they saw it again when they were in Jerusalem and it guided them in that short journey to Bethlehem and to the place where Jesus and his family were staying.

The Journey

I want you now to imagine the Magi. We certainly don't know that there were three as is traditionally taught. They were a group; they bought three gifts but we don't know how many Magi came - probably more than three made this remarkable journey. It is a journey, by the standard route, of about 1200 km from Southern Iraq (in modern terms), through Northern Iraq, through Northern Syria down through Syria and into the modern land of Israel - that is how we would describe it in modern terms. In between, was a desert area that they couldn't get to by a more direct route without great difficulty. So they travelled 1200 km and they were heading for Jerusalem and they made this decision because of the confidence they had that they were onto something really important. What were the things that helped them make this decision? I believe that they were familiar with Jewish expectations of the Messiah by interacting with the Jewish community - just as their predecessors had interacted directly with Daniel, hundreds of years before. I think they may have even had an awareness of the prophecy of Daniel 9: 24 - 27, which gives a time frame for the appearance of someone described there as the Anointed One, or the Messiah. I think they were guided by the fact that the appearance they saw in the sky was so dramatic and so overwhelming - this glory of God, this supernatural light that looked to them a little bit like a star - I think they were so affected by that, that they felt, intuitively, that this was a key moment and something was going to happen. So they came on the journey.

Herod the Great

They came to Jerusalem, the capital city, and they introduced themselves to the King, King Herod the Great. This was a very strange meeting and a meeting that unsettled Herod the Great. Why was this? Herod the Great wasn't a Jew himself but he was appointed by the Romans several decades earlier, to rule over the land of Israel on their behalf. He was an agent of the Roman Empire; he was very unpopular amongst the Jews. He was now very elderly, in the last year or two of his life. He suffered from a number of illnesses and he had a very brutal reign. He had suppressed all opposition; he had very tight political control. He had even assassinated several members of his family - including one of his wives, several of his sons and other close relatives over the years - because he felt they were a threat to him. He was a man who was paranoid about power and quite willing to lash out against anyone, suppress anyone, and kill anyone who threatened his power. This king, very vulnerable, very old, but still powerful with his own military and his own political organisation and his own finances and power, was suddenly confronted with a very unpleasant reality: some Babylonian Magi come to his country and indicate that they feel another king is coming to Israel: a king that God has sent; a king who is connected to the prophecies of the Old Testament; a king who will take his authority in the country - you can imagine how insecure Herod was when he thought of these things.

Although he was polite to the Magi, he was thinking to himself that this could be a threat. It was a complete surprise to him. He hadn't realised what had been happening in the previous weeks as Jesus was born in Bethlehem and had come to the Temple very near his palace in Jerusalem. He didn't know any of that, as far as we can tell but, suddenly, the Magi made him aware that something was happening. What is even more unsettling is that the religious leaders actually indicate that they know, from prophecy, where the Messiah (the Anointed One, the new King of Israel following David's line) will be born because in the prophet Micah 5: 2 is a direct prophecy which indicates that the small town, or village, of Bethlehem is going to be the place from which a future ruler is going to arise. They quote this passage and this directs the Magi to make that very short journey - just a few kilometres - down the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The story ends with the Magi being warned in a dream not to go back to King Herod; they return home by another route.


The story has a sequel - rather sinister things happen very shortly after this but we are going to pause there and just reflect a little on the things that we can learn from this remarkable passage. My first reflection is that we shouldn't minimise the supernatural dimension of this story. This so often happens in the Gospels. We are presented with stories of miraculous events that are very hard for us to fully understand and it is easy to rationalise them. I feel there is a very coherent explanation for this story and I have given you some of the key elements for that in my explanation to you in this episode. Something very remarkable happened. People from a Gentile country, hundreds and hundreds of kilometres away, appear - suddenly appear - in the land of Israel because they have got revelation and knowledge to indicate that something special is happening and a special child has been born who is going to be the Messiah, the ruler of Israel.

Just a few further reflections, as we come to the end of this episode. There is something here about the journey to faith, isn't there? The Magi were on a literal journey, a physical journey, obviously but it appears they are on a spiritual journey too because they were very alert to the spiritual world: they were experienced in the occult; they were astronomers professionally (they understood the stars); and they were astrologers (meaning they were trying to find supernatural meaning in the positioning of the stars and the actions of the heavens). So they were on a journey.

There were three things that influenced them, which I think can also influence us, and some people will be reading this who will be on a journey too. There are three ways that God often speaks to us as we are on this journey. One is through the natural world - clearly, they were very attuned to the natural world - particularly the world of astronomy, and it had an influence on them, made them aware of a greater reality: the potential of a creator, of a divine force. Secondly, they had revelation through the Scriptures, the Word of God. It doesn't say that directly in terms of what I have said about the book of Daniel. I am just suggesting the most likely probability for them being so confident to make such a long journey but they did have the direct revelation when the religious leaders read to them from the book of Micah: they took that as a lead and off they went to the village of Bethlehem. They also had revelation through miraculous events that happened in their lives. That is an interesting pattern isn't it? The natural world and the direct revelation of the Bible and events that happen in our lives, which can sometimes have a miraculous dimension, God speaks to us through these things and leads us to faith in him - which is exactly what happens to the Magi because when they arrive at the place that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were staying, they bowed down and they worshipped. Something was happening in their hearts - this wasn't an intellectual exercise and wasn't just to do with astronomy and astrology. This was a deeper seeking after truth that they had. With guidance, there is a combination of revelation given to us, and openness on our part to follow through on that, and using our own resources. They used their own resources, they received guidance but they had an openness - they decided to follow the lead - and they took a very long journey. By the way, that journey would have taken, probably, six months or more - so a substantial period of time was taken in the journey there and the journey back.

The other thing this story tells us, quite emphatically, from the very beginning, is that the good news about Jesus was not just for the Jewish people. These people are Gentiles, non-Jews. They come from a completely different culture; and yet at the very beginning of the story of Jesus, we find that people totally outside Judaism or Jewish background are drawn to faith. We discover, from this story, what we find many times in the Gospel, that God's pattern is clear: he's going to work through the Jewish people; he's called them to serve him in order to bring forth the Messiah from the Jewish people - who is there as a gift to the whole world through the good news of his salvation. As Peter says on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2: 39) “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”  That is you and me, 2000 years later, in countries spread all the way across the world.. We are all called to that same salvation in the same way that the Magi were called from a very distant culture to come and find salvation through this Jewish Messiah.

My final point is this: it is better to be a seeker than a sleeper. We have two types of people in this story - we have, on the one hand, the Magi and on the other hand we have Herod the Great and his courtiers and his rulers - the people in his establishment. The contrast between them is very remarkable. The Magi are seekers and they have come a very long way to try and find the Messiah, the King of Israel, the One whom they feel is going to help them find the truth and bring salvation to them. They are seeking the truth. The irony is they have come this huge distance, whereas Herod the Great is living just a few kilometres from the place that Jesus is born, which was prophesied in the book of Micah; and he is living in his palace just a few hundred metres from the Temple where Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to be dedicated, as we saw in a previous episode, and yet he is ignorant of the whole thing. He is not even looking, he can't even bring to mind the prophecy of Micah that the future ruler is going to be born in Bethlehem of Judea. He is not focused on the Jewish faith and its aspirations and the salvation that comes through them to the whole world. No, Herod is not interested. He is interested in power, in himself, in protecting himself and, at the end of his life, he is very urgently interested in protecting himself - he fears a takeover, he fears assassination. He is asleep spiritually. He is a sleeper and the Magi are seekers. If you are reading this, almost certainly you are a seeker, or you have found Christ already. I want to encourage you, if you feel you are a seeker - like the Magi. I want to speak to you for a moment at the end of this episode and say this is particularly for you. You may feel you are a long way from the Christian faith; you may feel that the culture you come from is completely different (like the Babylonian culture was completely different to the Jewish culture); you may feel the bridge is a very big bridge to get from one to the other, a very long way to go - but the Magi did it and so can you. To believe and trust in Christ, is not that complicated and they did it -immediately that they saw him. They just knew who this person was and they dedicated their lives to following him. It is better to be a seeker than a sleeper. If you are seeking God and you call out to him and you pray to him and you study the Gospels as we are doing now, and you continue in these studies then you will find that faith you are looking for.

So thank you very much, I look forward to meeting you in subsequent episodes.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. ‘It's better to be a seeker than a sleeper.’ Compare the magi with King Herod. How would you describe your spiritual self?
    2. What are the supernatural aspects of the magi's journey?
  • Discipleship
    1. You are on a spiritual journey. What influenced the Magi? Do you have the same influences today?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Think about the probable journey of the Magi on a map but also its significance
    2. Use tagging to research ‘Shekinah glory’ found in the Gospels
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