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We three kings of Orient are; bearing gifts we traverse afar,
field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star.
First we looked at the magical and mysterious Christmas “star of wonder, star of light, star with royal beauty bright” which led the wise men to the Christ child. Now, let’s look closer at these “Three Kings of Orient," also known as the three Wise Men or “Magi.” Who were they? How did these unlikely characters enter into the Christmas story? Were they astrologers, or magicians or noble men from modern day Iraq or Iran? The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t define the term “Magi" for us. The word was old when he used it 2,000 years ago. The origin of this Greek word comes from the Persian “maguŝ." The Magi were the priestly caste of the Zoroastrian faith, which before Islam was the national religion of Persia, and remains so among Parsis outside Iran. This Persian clan specialized in cultic activities and the word “Magic” derives its origin from their name as well. Certainly, these were men on a spiritual quest.
To unlock the mystery of the magi, we must go back to the book of Daniel. The Israelite people, because of their rebellion against God, had been captured by the Babylonians and were living in exile. Daniel was one of the elite men who were chosen and assimilated into the Babylonian court and he quickly became known for his conviction and wisdom. The King of Babylon at that time was named Nebuchadnezzar. King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream and summoned the magi (magicians and astrologers) to tell him his dream and then interpret it for him. As was custom, the magi replied to the King, "tell us your dream and we will interpret it.” At this, the King broke protocol and said, "No, tell me the dream AND interpret it. If you do not, I will kill you, if you do I will reward you and give you great honor.” After the Babylonian “wise men” confessed that they did not have the power to fulfill his request, King Nebuchadnezzar’s ordered all of the astronomers and magicians to be executed. Daniel, an Israelite exile in captivity gets roped into this group because at some point Daniel had developed a reputation for having the ability to interpret dreams. Daniel was able to tell the king his dream and interpreted it.
We read that story and we move on saying “wow, God did it again!” But, what about all of those magicians, astrologers, and sorcerers who could not interpret the dream and whose life was spared because of this Jewish exile? Daniel became to them a legendary Magi! Over the course of Daniel’s distinguished career, he continued to interpret dreams, visions, and miraculous events. Throughout the book of Daniel, we see Daniel prophesy about a coming, anointed ruler who would rule a Kingdom without end. Surely, the rest of the Magi were astounded by Daniel’s unique powers and sought to study the ancient writings of Daniel’s heritage. In their study they likely found this seemingly obscure prophesy from the book of Numbers by a man named Balaam. Balaam, you might remember, was a prophet of God who was a sell out… he sold his services as a prophet for his own personal gain. Due to Balaam’s rebellious attitude, God intercedes, providing one of the most humorous and unpredictable miracles in Scripture as Balaam's donkey begins speaking (and arguing) with him! God used this flawed individual to provide a powerful spiritual truth that the magi most likely discovered in their studies of Daniel.
“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;” Numbers 24:15
The glory of this King is portrayed using two metaphors, the “star”(kôkāb) and the “scepter” (šēbeṭ). The Qumran sectarians interpreted this passage as having Messianic import, as did other Jewish sources between 100-200 years before Christ. Around 100 BC, the Hasmonean king Alexander Janneus had the star imprinted upon some of the royal coins, thereby implicating him as the conquering star of Num 24:17. A Rabbi named Akiba understood the Messianic significance of this passage when he proclaimed Simon bar Kosiba to be “Bar Kochba” (“Son of the Star”), thereby consecrating him as the messiah. In other words, they understood from their study that the Messiah would come at some point within a window of a couple hundred years. Looking to take advantage of this prediction, others assigned themselves as “the Star.” Yet, none had a Star from the heavens appear to announce their birth.
It is almost certain that the Magi expected that many others would also be aware of the birth of this newborn King and that it would not be them (outsiders, foreigners, gentiles) who would announce the news of Christ’s birth to the Chief Priests and scribes in Jerusalem (Matthew 2:3). With a trip that would have taken them over 1,200 miles and several months to travel, surely the “chief priests" would have also interpreted the signs and become aware of this newborn King. As God so often does, He used the least likely for His great purposes.
What the Magi recognize as divine guidance fills them, literally, with exceedingly great joy (v. 10). They find the mother and child and bow before him in worship. The gifts used to honor the new king were typically associated with royalty. All three gifts honor the Christ child in unique fashion. Gold, then as now, was a precious metal prized for its beauty and value, would crown Jesus as King. Frankincense, which served a priestly function, would be used as incense for prayer and praising. Myrrh, a fragrant spice used both for perfume and embalming breathed a life of gathering gloom for a sacrificial King. Interestingly, Matthew does not say how many Magi came to visit Jesus, the designation of “Three Kings” or “Three Wise Men” is based purely on the three gifts which they bring.
We can only speculate what became of the Magi who returned to their country after their encounter with Jesus. Clearly, they identified and worshipped Jesus as an earthly King. Did they know that Jesus was the Son of God? Their worship, along with the seemingly supernatural experiences with the “star” that led them on one path to Jesus and the “dream” which led them home on an entirely different path seem to suggest they may have concluded that this child was something far greater than simply “the king of the Jews.” Would they have ever pondered that this Jesus may have been the mysterious fourth figure that King Nebuchadnezzar had seen in the furnace besides Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego? “Look!” he answered, “I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.” Daniel 3:25. We will never know on this side of eternity, but of this we can be sure… Wise Men (and Women) still seek Jesus.