Who Were the Magi in the Christmas Story?
On a dark night, a bright light shone in the Judean sky. A star, brighter than any other, illuminated the night sky. It shone so brightly, Magi in the east observed its brilliance. This extraordinary star was unlike any they had seen before. They wondered if it could be the star foretold by the prophet.
“A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17).
Filled with anticipation and guided by the heavenly light, the Magi embarked on a journey that would alter the course of their lives.
The Magi’s History
The story of the Magi began centuries before Christ’s birth. Since the beginning of kingdoms, kings have sought advice from their advisors and prophets. Babylon, however, perfected a council of advisors. It included well-trained “magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and astrologers” (Daniel 2:2). This council became known as the Magi.
As the Babylonian Empire grew in power, they laid siege to Jerusalem (2 Kings 25). The Lord delivered Jehoiakim, king of Judah, into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. Among the first group of Israelites deported to Babylon included “young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace” (Daniel 1:4). These men were trained for three years in the language and literature of the Babylonians. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were among the young men chosen.
In the mighty city of Babylon, the young Israelites found themselves thrust into a world far removed from the familiar hills of their homeland. Babylon was steeped in mysticism and the occult. In contrast, Daniel and his friends were men of profound faith and unwavering devotion to God.
Daniel and his friends remained obedient to their faith. God blessed them and they excelled in their studies. “In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom” (Daniel 1:20).
As a result, “the king placed Daniel in a high position and lavished many gifts on him. He made him ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men. Moreover, at Daniel’s request the king appointed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego administrators over the province of Babylon, while Daniel himself remained at the royal court” (Daniel 2:48-49).
While serving as chief of the Magi, Daniel received prophecies from God concerning the coming Messiah. Daniel wrote about his activities and the prophecies he received, including the time frame the Messiah would arrive in Daniel chapter 9.
These writings, along with the prophecies of Isaiah and other Scriptures, would be added to the Magi’s library of ancient writings. Under Daniel’s guidance, the Magi were more than mere practitioners of the occult. They became devoted seekers of truth. Daniel, firmly rooted in his faith, taught the Magi to recognize the God of Israel as the one true God.
Years passed, and the mantle of leadership passed down through the generations of Magi. These wise men included three groups of men:
- Scholars who sought truth from the ancient writings, including the prophets of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
- Astrologers who studied the heavens seeking signs of things to be.
- Sorcerers who studied science and occult practices.
Together, their knowledge and understanding provided wise counsel and guidance to kings and leaders across the land.
The Magi’s Journey
“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’” (Matthew 2:1-2).
Matthew does not tell us how many Magi came. The tradition of the three Magi comes from the three gifts they brought, rather than the actual number. Matthew referencing them in the plural indicates at least two, and there could have been as many as ten or twelve Magi.
While camels would have been used to carry their supplies and gifts, the Magi most likely rode on stallions, indicative of their royal status. Servants, to care for their needs, and guards, to ensure their safety, would have accompanied the Magi.
The sudden appearance of this large delegation arriving in Jerusalem from a foreign country would create quite a spectacle in the city. No wonder Matthew wrote that King Herod was disturbed, “and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3).
Learning from the chief priests and teachers of the law that Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem, the Magi continued their journey. Leaving Jerusalem, “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” (Matthew 2:9-10).
This was no ordinary star. First, it shone so brightly the Magi saw it in a far-away land. Now the star travels ahead of the Magi and stops over the house where Jesus was. God uniquely created this extraordinary star for this miraculous event.
The Magi’s Worship
“On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him” (Matthew 2:11).
Matthew saying that they saw Jesus with His mother is significant. People typically mention a mother before her child, but this unique Child deserves to be mentioned first. The Magi worshiped Jesus, not Mary or Joseph. Jesus alone deserves our praise and worship.
Overwhelmed with awe and reverence, they presented their precious gifts. The Magi “opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11). The treasures they brought, fulfilling the prophecy in Isaiah 60:6, were significant.
- Gold is a symbol of royalty and nobility. Many men had been born a prince and later became a king. But never in history has anyone been born a king. Jesus, born King of the Jews, was undeniably deserving of a gift of gold.
- Frankincense is a fragrant ointment or perfume. Burning frankincense as incense creates a strong and beautiful aroma, and people sometimes used it for healing. The gift of frankincense is symbolic of the beautiful fragrance of Jesus’ sinless life, and only He can heal us from our sins.
- Myrrh is a bitter herb used in embalming bodies for burial. It symbolizes Jesus’ purpose in coming and reminds us of His suffering and death in bearing the sins of the world.
All three gifts have immense monetary value. The Magi’s generous gifts provided the finances needed for Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to stay safe in Egypt during King Herod’s Massacre (Matthew 2:13-18).
Having worshipped the newborn King, the Magi heeded a divine warning to return by a different route, avoiding Herod’s deception. Meeting the Christ child profoundly changed them, and they left as messengers of the miraculous birth, forever transformed by the encounter with the promised Savior.
The Magi’s Example
Beyond the historical narrative, the story of the Magi serves as a call to seek and worship the Savior with unwavering determination. The Magi’s willingness to embark on a challenging journey, and their humble adoration of the Christ Child, provides a shining example for us to follow.
The Magi’s eagerness to worship Jesus stands in stark contrast to the apathy of the Jewish leaders and the hostility of Herod’s court. Their story challenges us to undertake the journey of faith with persistence and determination.
The Magi inspire us to prioritize our worship of Christ above all else, and recognize His profound significance in our lives. Their act of presenting costly gifts reminds us to offer our best to the Lord, not just material possessions, but also the gifts of our hearts, time, and talents.
Just as the Magi returned to their lands transformed, Christians today are called to carry the message of Christ’s birth into the world, proclaiming the good news with joy and conviction. May we, like the Magi, be willing to embark on journeys of faith, guided by the light of God’s Word, and bow before the Savior in humble adoration.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Rawpixel
Brad Simon has shared God’s Word for over forty-five years, with a unique blend of storytelling and Bible exposition. He is a retired Master Jeweler and relies on the God-given creativity that won him several national and international jewelry design awards to craft Biblical Narratives and Life Stories that are engaging and thought-provoking. Once a speaker, author, and publisher for the jewelry industry, now he is putting those skills to work to promote the beauty and appeal of God’s Word. Download a free copy of his devotional on prayer.