Put an exclamation point on your Christmas season!
Today’s Text: Matthew 2:1-6, 11
Maybe the festivities went out the door along with the Amazon shipping boxes for some people, but Christmas doesn’t have to end at bedtime on the 25th of December. Today marks Epiphany—the traditional date commemorating the visit of the Magi and the 12th day of Christmas. Epiphany puts an exclamation point on the Christmas season.
The Gospel of Matthew records the visit of the Magi:
MATTHEW 2:1-6, 11
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen 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. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:
‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;
For out of you shall come a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”
And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
THE LEGENDARY MAGI
Tertullian mistakenly established that the magi were kings (1) Visual traditions of the wise men have been further obscured by stylized vignettes—from Nativity crèches to illuminated lawn ornaments—that are more about legend than reality.
The number and other traditions related to the Magi were solidified in the 1400s when a Carmelite friar named John of Hildesheim compiled Historia trium regum (The Story of the Three Kings). Drawing from popular folklore of the second century, Hildesheim established the number of wise men based on the three gifts presented. Their names and physical persona had evolved by the eighth century.
THE HISTORICAL MAGI
Viewing their story through the lens of Scripture in the context of history, however, helps explain the Magi’s determination to make a journey of weeks or months to the small village of Bethlehem. Matthew recounts their appearance in Jerusalem and reports they came from “the East” (Mt. 2:1).
To those living in Israel at the time, the East referred primarily to the Parthian Empire centered in areas near the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Bible scholars generally associate the wise men’s point of departure with Babylon or Persia.
Chaldean Wise Men
Interestingly, the prophecy of Daniel cites a group of wise men simply known as Chaldeans who were influential in the court of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. The Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) renders the word khak-keem (wise men) as magos, the term, used by Matthew to describe the curious visitors from the East.
Young Daniel, along with his friends, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, appear to have been inducted into this fraternity of Chaldean wise men shortly after their captivity in Babylon (Dan.1:19). After Daniel revealed and interpreted a perplexing dream for Nebuchadnezzar, the king gave him jurisdiction over the province of Babylon as chief administrator of all the wise men of the empire (Dan. 2:48).
Daniel’s prominence continued well beyond his last recorded prophecy in 536 B.C. outlasting the Babylonian Empire and continuing well into the Medo-Persian.
A somewhat obscure Jewish tradition suggests that Daniel is actually the man, Hatach, identified as the eunuch who aided Queen Esther. According to the Targum Rishon, Hatach was murdered by the anti-Semite Haman for his allegiance to the queen. (2)
None-the-less, Daniel’s life was a strong testimony to the One-true God in this region of the world as evidenced through the influence of Esther and Mordechai during the reign of King Ahasuerus. You will remember that after Haman’s reprehensible attempt to annihilate the Jewish people, “many of the people of the land became Jews” (Est. 8:17).
Even though Zoroastrianism prevailed the dominant religious system of Persia in ensuing years, a remnant undoubtedly held to belief in the One-true God as exemplified by Daniel and Esther. It is possible this group of wise men, the Magi, represented such a remnant.
The Wisdom of the Magi
While functioning as the chief wise man, Daniel received revelation from God providing a time frame for the appearance of Messiah. Beginning with a royal decree to rebuild the ruined city of Jerusalem, Daniel’s revelation outlined the remainder of Jewish history in 70 weeks of years. After 69 of those years, Messiah would present Himself to the nation of Israel. The command to rebuild Jerusalem was issued by Artaxerxes in the month Nisan 445 B.C. (Ezra 1:1-4).
Familiar with Daniel’s recorded revelations, the wise men would have had little difficulty calculating that 450 of the 483 years of Daniel’s 69 prophesied weeks had already passed. It is likely the wise men were not only aware of the prophecies concerning Messiah, but zealously anticipated the fulfillment.
Along with their entourage, the Magi presented a contingency large enough to be conspicuous amid the commotion of everyday life in Jerusalem. Their inquiry at the gate of Jerusalem sent a shock wave of apprehension through the city that ultimately reached Herod’s ears.
When the client king of Judea heard it, “he was troubled and all Jerusalem with him” (Mt. 2:3). Because his subjects openly resented his cruel tyranny and Idumaean descent, King Herod was paranoid about any perceived threat to his throne. (3) His kingdom was a buffer between the vast Roman Empire to the west and the magnificent Parthian Empire to the east. In 43 B.C., the Parthians swept across the desert into Judea and crowned Antigonus, the last of the Hasmoneans, their puppet king.
After acquiring the title” king of the Jews” by order of the Roman Senate and with financial backing from Rome, Herod drove the Parthians out, executed Antigonus and eliminated anyone seeking to restore the Hasmonean monarchy. (4) Visitors from the heart of the Parthian Empire seeking a legitimate Jewish king were particularly distressing.
Herod’s extreme suspicion prompted him to summon the religious leaders demanding an answer to one question: “where the Christ [Messiah] was to be born” (Mt.2:4). The Magi were specific. They had not asked whether a king had been born in Israel, but rather where He was born. In response, the religious leaders quoted Micah’s prophecy,
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting” (Mic. 5:2).
The religious leaders were certain. They were unanimous. They agreed on the birthplace—Bethlehem. Acting swiftly, Herod instructed the Magi to go to Bethlehem, find the young child and bring word back to him again (Mt. 2:8).
Miraculously, “the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was” (Mt. 2:9). Despite speculation concerning the astronomical phenomenon, what we do know is the “star” that prompted the Magi’s search reappeared after their interview with Herod.
Coupled with their knowledge of prophetic Hebrew Scriptures and supernatural guidance, the wise men found the King. It confirmed that the One, “whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting,” had indeed come (Mic. 5:2).
It was a set time in human history though few took notice. While the purpose of the Magi’s search reverberated throughout the city of Jerusalem, there is no indication anyone joined them in seeking the promised Messiah. The masses apathetically dismissed the news as an interruption of the status quo. Herod perceived their inquiry as a threat to his throne. The religious leaders saw an opportunity to ingratiate themselves to Herod.
What distinguished the wise men from their contemporaries was their ability to recognize the signs of the times and respond appropriately. The Magi traveled more than 2,000 miles to not only seek, but worship Israel’s prophesied Messiah-King.
For those willing, God still promises: “you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13). Reclaim Christmas by taking time to read the account of the Magi to your family. Keep the truth in your heart when you pack-up the decorations!
Charles E. McCracken is an international Bible teacher, long-time friend of Israel and advocate for the Jewish people. Rev. McCracken authentically communicates biblical truth for those seeking to understand the significance of Israel and the church in Bible prophecy. He staunchly supports the nation of Israel and the Jewish people’s right to exist and live in peace.
© Charles E. McCracken 2016, devotional comments only. Repost/Reprint with permission from the author via Contact Form under ABOUT. Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1) Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus (Tertullian), Chapter IX—Of the Prophecies of the Birth and Achievements of Christ. Adversus Judeaos, AD 198.
2) Targum Rishon (Aramaic translation and elaboration of the book of Esther).
3) Herod was the son of Herod Antipater, an Idumean (Edomite), whose ancestors had converted to Judaism. His mother was Cypros, the daughter of an Arabian sheik. Raised in the Jewish tradition, Herod was adept at maintaining favor with the Jewish people while embracing a Hellenistic worldview (i.e. assimilated into Greek culture).
4) Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944), 531.
Categories: RECLAIMING CHRISTMAS