What is the Magi Story all About?
One of the stories of Christmas that seems
to be most cryptic is that of the wise men. Who
were they? Where did they come from? Why did they give Jesus the gifts
they did? Why are they called magi and what does the word magi mean? Why
do we sometimes call them kings? What is the significance of this story,
and what does it say about Jesus?
Let's take a look at the text:
Matt. 2:1-6, 11 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 in the east 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 peoples chief priests
and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ 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 be the shepherd of my people Israel. ... 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 and of frankincense and of myrrh.
Expecting a king
The first question that we should ask is, why are they expecting a king?
And why is Herod concerned? The answer comes from looking back at some
promises from the scriptures. In Micah 4, the prophet told of a messianic
age when God would set everything right. Micah said that a king would
arise from Bethlehem, the city where David had been born several hundred
But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will go forth for
Me to be ruler in Israel.
His goings forth are from long
From the days of eternity. ...
He will arise and shepherd His
In the strength of the LORD,
In the majesty of the name of the LORD His God. Micah 5:2,4
This king that would come would
be a descendent of David. This comes from a very important promise that
God had made to King David, who had displayed great faith and love for
I declare to you that the LORD
will build a house for you: When your days are over and you go to be
with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one
of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who
will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever.
I will be his father, and he will be my son. I will never take my love
away from him, as I took it away from your predecessor. I will set him
over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established
forever. 1 Chron. 17: 10b-14
This is the one who Herod feared,
this great king that God himself would bring into power.
about this king:
When a powerful king arises in a country, other kings would give him gifts
to form alliances and show friendliness toward that nation. David and
Solomon, Israel's most powerful kings, formed many alliances with the
nations around them. One story from Solomon's life is even reminiscent
of the story of the wise men:
Kings 10:1-2, 10 When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon
and his relation to the name of the LORD, she came to test him with
hard questions. Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan
with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious
stones she came to Solomon and talked with him about all that
she had on her mind. ... And she gave the king 120 talents of gold,
large quantities of spices, and precious stones. Never again were so
many spices brought in as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.
Interestingly, other prophecies
describe this same thing occurring when the messianic age would come.
In Isaiah 60 it says:
Is 60:1-4, 6 Arise, shine, for your
light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness
covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD
rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to
your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. ... The wealth
on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations
will come. Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian
and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and frankincense
and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.
And Psalm 72 prophesies a similar
thing about the messianic king:
Ps. 72: 4-5, 8-15 He will defend the afflicted
among the people and save the children of the needy; he will crush the
oppressor. He will endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through
all generations. ... He will rule from sea to sea and from the River
to the ends of the earth. The desert tribes will bow before him and
his enemies will lick the dust. The kings of Tarshish and of distant
shores will bring tribute to him; the kings of Sheba and Seba will present
him gifts. All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve
him. For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have
no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save
the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence,
for precious is their blood in his sight. Long may he live! May gold
from Sheba be given him.
In all three of these stories, royalty from Sheba would come bearing gifts,
including gold, precious stones, and spices including frankincense. Where
is Sheba? It is at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula, where Yemen
is today. It was known in ancient times as possessing great wealth - gold,
jewels and spices. Spices don't seem very precious to us, but in ancient
times, some spices and aromatic oils were worth more than their weight
in diamonds because of their rarity and use as perfumes, incense and medicine.
Herod gained much of his fantastic wealth by trading in spices and regulating
the trading routes. To transport them over 1800 miles through the dangerously
dry, barren Arabian desert, camels were the only animals that could be
used. From these Old Testament prophecies we can get some reason of why
the tradition was that royalty would come from the east, and that they
would be on camels.
are the magi?
In different text translations the travelers are called wise men, magi
or astrologers. The term "wise men" (hakamim) is often used
in the Old Testament to describe a pagan king's counselors that are schooled
in the magical arts, and are often mentioned with magicians and diviners.
Pagan kings like the Pharoah in Egypt
had magicians who interpreted dreams and imitated Moses' miracles. Nebuchadnezzer,
the Babylonian king, had wise men and magicians as well. These "spiritual
advisors" were respected counselors and probably also acted as ambassadors.
When they learned by some kind of divination that a great king had arisen
in Israel, most likely the pagan kings had sent them with riches to deliver
to this powerful new ruler to pay homage for their countries.
We are unsure of what type of celestial event the star was or how the
wise men interpreted it, but through some spiritual means they learned
that a great king had been born in Israel. This says something about the
impact that the coming of Christ had on the spiritual world. We hear about
angels rejoicing, but the news of Jesus' coming shook the rest of the
unseen world as well! In the scriptures we see other places where God
reveals his plans to foreign diviners. In a strange parallel to this story,
Balaam, another pagan magician, prophesied about the rise of a king in
Israel, and even associates him with a star:
see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star rises from
Jacob; a scepter comes forth from Israel... Edom will be conquered;
Seir, his enemy, will be conquered, but Israel will grow strong. Numbers 24:17-18
Perhaps the reason that Herod
feared Jesus is that he knew that this prophecy said that as an Edomite
he would fall to the true king of the Jews.
are the Frankincense and Myrrh for?
Both frankincense and myrrh are purified from aromatic tree saps into
either powders or oils. They would have been gifts more precious than
the gold, because of their rarity and the tremendous expense in transporting
them. But why were they appropriate for Jesus, this newborn king they
had come to worship?
Remember that in biblical times, a king was not "crowned" in
a coronation ceremony, he was anointed with anointing oil. This was olive
oil blended with myrrh and some other of the most expensive fragrances
known, and would be like liquid diamonds in terms of expense.The anointed
king would have an aroma that would say that he was the one chosen by
God. Kings would wear fragrances other times after they were anointed
to show their kingliness. Psalm 45, about King David, says:
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you
With the oil of joy above your fellows.
All Your garments are fragrant
with myrrh and aloes and cassia;
Kings daughters are among your noble ladies;
At your right hand stands the queen in gold from Ophir. (Ps 45:7-9)
And about King Solomon it says:
What is this coming up from the wilderness
Like columns of smoke,
Perfumed with myrrh and frankincense,
With all scented powders of the merchant?
Behold, it is the carriage of Solomon. (Songs 3:6)
So, perhaps the wise men had
brought these precious oils to anoint the king, the prophesied son of
David. What is most interesting is that the Hebrew word for anointed is "Moshiach", what we say as Messiah. In Greek, the same word
is Christ. So every time we say Jesus Christ, we are calling Jesus the
"Anointed King". So the wise men were proclaiming Jesus as the
"anointed one", the Messiah, the Christ, the King of Kings!
Happy New Year from En-Gedi!
Lois Tverberg and Bruce Okkema
Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All rights reserved. This article is copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.
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