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Home Group – Who Were The Wise Men?

by | Thu, Dec 13 2012

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Who Were The Wise Men?

The Magi in traditional art

We’ve heard the Christmas story so many times that we rarely ask the ‘so what?’ questions about all the people involved.

Who were the Magi from the east and why on earth did they care about a royal Jewish baby born in a country they had absolutely nothing what-so-ever to do with?

There is a great deal of myth surrounding the Magi and the vast majority of it has no basis in Scripture and came about over the centuries of church history, some traditions even going so far as to allocate personal names for them! In our mind we hear the term ‘3 Wise Men’ and immediately imagine three men wearing fancy turbans riding on camels in the desert with an enormous star in the night sky that coincidently looks like a cross…or…we imagine 3 men wearing fancy turbans and robes, each presenting bejewelled canisters while bowing before a cute pink baby wearing nothing but a nappy waving his arms and legs around with a big smile on his face, laying in a timber cradle on clean, comfy looking straw sprouting from under the edges of a beautifully white bunny rug.

This isn’t an accurate picture at all.

Matthew 2:1-3, ‘Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; for out of you shall come forth a ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.’”’

Who were the Magi and why was Herod and all Jerusalem so bothered about their arrival?

The name ‘Magi’ has been translated from an ancient Greek transliteration of a Persian word that was originally taken to mean ‘magic’ and therefore they were considered to be ‘magicians’ of a religious or spiritual nature, similar to the magicians in Moses day who mimicked the first few miracles done by God in the plagues. However, this Persian group was not made up of ‘magicians’ but rather they held the dual position of being priest-like as well as holding government office which had an upper house of the council of the Magistanes, from which we get the word Magistrates. They were civil rulers with supposedly supernatural type wisdom and knowledge. One of their duties included ‘the absolute choice and election of the king of the realm.’

It’s from this that they became known throughout the empire…and in successive empires…as ‘King Makers’.

In the Babylonian captivity of Judah, Daniel the prophet – one of the captives – became one of those chosen to serve king Nebuchadnezzar in his court and he became a member of the Magi, those considered wise and learned not only in supposed spiritual matters but also in national and civil matters with regard to economics, government, international affairs, laws and bylaws for the governance of the people and the king, national security etc. With regard to their ‘spiritual’ abilities, many were known to be phonies but due to their authority, they were revered nonetheless. So while their role was religious it was very much civil and political as well, and under Darius the Mede, the Magi were established as the state religion. They were particularly known to have the ability to interpret dreams. (Dan 1:1-6) We know this because of the account of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.

When Nebuchadnezzar had his famous dream he called his wise men and tested them to see if they were the real deal. He demanded they not only interpret his dream, they had to tell him what his dream was first and had it not been for Daniel, they would have all been executed.

Daniel 2:5-12, ‘The king replied to the Chaldeans, “The command from me is firm: if you do not make known to me the dream and its interpretation, you will be torn limb from limb and your houses will be made a rubbish heap. But if you declare the dream and its interpretation, you will receive from me gifts and a reward and great honour; therefore declare to me the dream and its interpretation.” They answered a second time and said, “Let the king tell the dream to his servants, and we will declare the interpretation.” The king replied, “I know for certain that you are bargaining for time, inasmuch as you have seen that the command from me is firm, that if you do not make the dream known to me, there is only one decree for you. For you have agreed together to speak lying and corrupt words before me until the situation is changed; therefore tell me the dream, that I may know that you can declare to me its interpretation.” The Chaldeans answered the king and said, “There is not a man on earth who could declare the matter for the king, inasmuch as no great king or ruler has ever asked anything like this of any “magician, conjurer or Chaldean”. Moreover, the thing which the king demands is difficult, and there is no one else who could declare it to the king except gods, whose dwelling place is not with mortal flesh.” Because of this the king became indignant and very furious and gave orders to destroy all the wise me of Babylon.’

Nebuchadnezzar wanted to find out if his wise men really were as wise as they wanting him to believe they were. Note that they actually differentiate between ‘magicians, conjurers and Chaldeans’, they were making a distinction between themselves and other common magicians and conjurers or illusionists.

At that time, Daniel was already a member of this elite group but not high enough in their hierarchy to be summoned before the king but being a member still had him scheduled for execution with the rest of them. When he heard about their imminent mass execution he asked why and then approached the king himself to ask for some time in order that he might declare the interpretation of the dream. He then went to his house and told his friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah (Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) so that they could collectively seek the mind of God about this matter in prayer. (Dan 2:13-18)

We know the rest of this famous story, God revealed not only the dream of Nebuchadnezzar but also its interpretation. Daniel went before the king and told him that God alone knew the dreams men dreamed and what they mean and then he revealed everything he knew to the king. Understandably, Daniel gained immediate notoriety and promotion within the ranks of the Magi.

It was Daniel who appointed Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego to high political office giving them administration over the province of Babylon (Dan 2:49) and Daniel himself personally served Nebuchadnezzar in the king’s court. It’s highly probable that Daniel appointed other Jews as well to positions of leadership within the government and particularly within the Magi.

Over time, the other ‘wise men’ – overwhelmed by jealousy – deviously tried to have Daniel killed; he ended up in the lion’s den but the end of the story saw Daniel saved and the conspirators eaten by the hungry lions themselves.

It’s believed that this resulted in Daniel becoming the ‘Prime Minister’, the ‘Rab-Mag’ – the leader of the Magi and it stands to reason that there were other Jews of the Babylonian Diaspora within the Magi with Daniel, after all, many Jews decided to remain in Babylon after the 70 years captivity was over and didn’t return to Judea with Nehemiah and Ezra.

While Daniel’s primary focus was on civil matters he also fulfilled his role within the Magi and he was always faithful to God so we don’t have to worry about Daniel and his friends bowing before false idols. They all showed themselves to be utterly faithful to God. Not once did they compromise and it’s because of this unwavering, uncompromising heart within these Jewish men that lead the other Babylonian priests to be so jealous in the first place.

Daniel, a prophet of God, would have taught his fellow Jews within the Magi about the promised Messiah, and there is little doubt that Daniel understood the Hebrew Mazzaroth and that he taught his kinsmen its prophetic meanings and implications which explains why any of the Magi were even watching the heavens for a sign of a Jewish Messiah in the first place. If the Magi were NOT Jewish, why would Persian civil and religious leaders care at all about the birth of a royal Jewish baby thousands of miles away from them that they had no connection and nothing whatsoever to do with?

There are some today who claim the Magi were ancient Zoroastrians, there is no proof of this, but Zoroastrianism may have developed in later centuries from the Magi…but this is uncertain.

The Hebrew Mazzaroth

After Job makes his long case about being righteous and that all his troubles are unfair, God responded to Job and asked him a series of questions about the enormity of all creation and what role Job played in its coming about and its daily order.

Job 38:32-33, God asks, “Can you lead forth a constellation in its season and guide the bear with her satellites? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens, or fix their rule over the earth?”

The inference of course is that Job had no clue about any of it…God and God alone is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe!

The Hebrew word for ‘constellation’ is Mazzaroth which means, ‘the 12 signs of the Zodiac and their 36 associated constellations.’

If you look at the Mazzaroth, you see the Gospel in the stars, beginning with Virgo (the virgin birth) going right through to Leo (the Lion of the Tribe of Judah). Chuck Missler has excellent teaching material on this in his Christmas DVD/MP3, as well as an audio teaching called ‘Signs In The Heavens’.

The Mazzaroth or Zodiac, has been dreadfully corrupted by men and this goes back to Nimrod and the Tower of Babel, but regardless of these corruptions, God has nonetheless revealed His plan of redemption in the heavens, but they’re for His purposes not for us to use.

Psalm 19:1, ‘The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.’

This verse has far greater depth of meaning than simply extolling the magnificence of the heavens.

So with this knowledge and insight, it’s believed that Daniel taught his fellow Jews within the Magi to watch the heavens to see how the Mazzaroth moved and intercepted with one another and during these observances many centuries after Daniel the prophet had died, the Magi (members of Jewish descent from the Babylonian exile) saw the supernatural occurrence of THE STAR. This was probably not a star like the bodies we see in the night sky, but rather a supernatural phenomenon, that appeared at specific times to these Jewish Magi to lead and direct them to the place where their Jewish King was.

Upon recognition of this momentous event, the Magi journeyed to Judea with the authority and permission of their own Sovereign at the time. There’s no other explanation that would cause ‘Medo-Persian’ priests and civil government leaders to watch the heavens for a sign of a Jewish Messiah? Judea wasn’t a province over which they governed or had any interest in. At that time, it was under the rule and occupation of the Roman Empire.

The Jewish members of the Magi held great authority and influence within their government and because they were the ones who had absolute authority over who would rule their nation, even their Sovereign Kings held them in great awe. They were highly respected and held to be official national dignitaries in much the same way that we treat ambassadors or national leaders of other nations when they visit our country.

These Jewish Magi watched the heavens – they were not astrologers or prognosticators, they were students of their ancient Scriptures and understood the promise of their Messiah – and when they saw the phenomenon, maybe the Shekinah Glory of God, they embarked on the long journey overland from Persia to Jerusalem.

We need to lose the imagery of three wealthy-looking, camel-riding, turban-headed guys with bulging saddle bags out for a midnight stroll in the desert. Three rich men on camels would have been easy targets for robbers on such a long journey.

This was in fact an official governmental delegation of high ranking officials, who would have travelled in a large company not only for protection, but because they were representatives of their nation and sovereign king. Their journey from Persia to Jerusalem was approximately 1,300-1,500km and they would have been accompanied by military escort, court officials, basic staff to take care of all their needs while travelling in such a large company; needs such as accommodation (tents) along the way, food for their group as well as their animals…horses and camels etc. This was a large company of people much like an ambassador’s diplomatic entourage making a friendly gesture to a neighbouring country upon the birth of a royal heir, or the death of their king or something similar.

The Roman Empire ruled the majority of the then-known world, but they had never subdued the Persians who were a formidable foe and Rome didn’t like them.

Herod the Great was given the title and position of ‘King of the Jews’ by the Romans, but he was neither a king nor a Jew, he was in fact Idumean – an Edomite – descendants of Esau. The Jews in fact hated Herod, so much so that it was too dangerous for Herod to rule from Jerusalem in his first three years for fear of assassination. His rule was more than a little precarious. He was also known as Herod the Butcher, he had his wife and two sons executed because he was suspicious they wanted him dead to take over his throne and he was also mentally deranged, he was literally paranoid and delusional. It was said that it was safer to be Herod’s dog than a family member.

When the Magi turned up in Jerusalem Herod became seriously panicked and most people miss this part of the story.

Matthew 2:1-3, ‘Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.’

He called for the Jewish religious leaders to ask about the prophecies regarding Messiah and they told him that Bethlehem was the town named in prophecy to be the birthplace of Messiah. We know how this part of the story unfolded; God warned the Magi – who were probably God-fearing Jews – in a dream and warned them to go home by an alternate route to avoid Herod. Herod became so enraged by their secret departure that he ordered the murder of every little boy two years old and younger in Bethlehem in a bid to make sure the new Messiah would be killed. (Matt 2:16-18)

So why was Herod and all Jerusalem troubled about the arrival of the Magi?

It’s almost understandable why Herod was troubled about the Magi coming to town, he himself was an imposter and the rightful King of Israel had finally arrived…exactly as the prophets had said He would…and what’s more, King Makers from the east who were probably of Jewish descent had turned up on his doorstep to acknowledge the fact.

He knew the populace hated him passionately and if they had the choice between him and their Messiah there would be no contest at all!

Herod the Great was very troubled because his right to the throne was now in serious jeopardy. If the legitimate King of the Jews that had been prophesied for centuries had finally arrived, he was out of a job, and he wasn’t happy.

The Romans hated insurrection and they strove for peace throughout the empire. The Jews were notorious for not submitting to Caesar and Rome’s multi-cultural, pluralistic embrace of all cultures and religions and if the Jews believed that their true King had finally arrived, it would cause a Jewish rebellion that might try to expel Rome from Judea. They didn’t want that kind of trouble.

Both Rome and Herod were noted for their brutality; if they got mad, the people would suffer terribly from their brutal crackdowns and this would have brought concern upon the populace as well, they lived in fear of both Herod and Rome’s brutal oppression.

Matthew 2:9-11, ‘After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented Him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.’

This passage also hints that the Magi were Jewish because the Persian governmental elite would have no cause to fall to the ground and worship a toddler who had no connection to them whatsoever. They were ‘King Makers’ with incredible power and authority; they would never bow their knee to a child who was not even of their own race or nation.

It also suggests that the ‘star’ was some kind of spiritual phenomenon because it appeared only when necessary and no one else ever testified to seeing it. The Magi were given the task of validating the prophetic Scriptures that were accurately taught to them by Daniel the prophet and they willingly and deliberately travelled between 1,300 and 1,500 km to see Him and worship Him.

The fact that they did this once again validates the legitimacy of the Word of God and proves that God always keeps His promises.

You’ll notice too that when the Magi arrive in Bethlehem to worship Yeshua, the shepherds weren’t there. We’ll look at the shepherds next week.

The Magi who visited Yeshua in Bethlehem were incredibly important men of high civil and religious rank were very probably of Jewish descent, they served in ancient Babylon/Persia and they believed the Scriptures and the prophets as taught by Daniel the prophet and they travelled a several thousand kilometre round trip to seek and worship their Messiah.

This is a true historical event from 2000 years ago but in 2012 it is true to say that wise men still seek Him.