Now as to the wise men, we have more solid footing, but still not much. The wise men remain a mystery as well. The term "magus" in the Bible translations referring to the wise men, has the plural, "magi," which we are all familiar with, meaning "wise man" or "stargazer" or even "astrologer." That is how the term is commonly interpreted. It may be accurate to call the wise men "magi" from the East, but we don't know that for sure. The East, or anywhere from Damascus, Armenia, Babylon, on to Persia, which extended as far as the Indus--that is the geographical East that is being referred to in scripture. This region produced centers of astrology, which included star gazing, tabulation of the movements of heavenly bodies, lunar calculations, even predictions and prophecies. Daniel was one of the "magi" of his generation in Babylon, under Babylonian kings and then into the later revived Parthian/Persian period. Babylon remained a center of learning and Judaism, as well as Babylonian star gazing and astrology and prediction. Daniel certainly looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, and being a notable magus, perhaps the greatest of his time, he no doubt passed this prophecy from the Jewish scriptures to his pupils and even his peers in the court ranks of astrologers. Hundreds of years passed, the Persian Empire that ruled the known world, the realm of Darius and Artaxerxes, had fallen to Alexander the Great and his heirs the Seleucid kings and long faded away, and Babylon as the East's once greatest metropolis was long in decline, but yet star gazers must have lingered there in other major cities of the East. Rome rose to dominate the Mediterranean world and even extended its rule as far east as Babylon in the later Roman empire, but at the time of Christ that area was now under a strongly revived Persian/Parthian power that could resist and even check Roman expansionism. We may safely say the magi were Persian or at least subject to Persian or Parthian authorities. These magi were possibly something more than wise men and stargazers too!
It is suggested by some who have studied the Bible translations of the term referring to them in Luke and elsewhere that "magus" and "magi" are not the accurate translation. The root term is actually "magoi" and denotes those belonging to the special Higher Chamber or Senate of Persian officials and nobles at court who exercised supreme powers to make or break kings. It was a kind of imperial, hereditary Senate, in other words, and held extraordinary powers and privileges, as well it might. This sets the "wise men" or "magi" as they have been translated or mistranslated in a new and more interesting light, does it not? We can see a number of explanations here for what happened when they reached Herod's presence too, remembering what a dangerous fellow he was, and how he normally reacted to the slightest threat to his throne.
For one thing, we must rid ourselves of the Christmas card conception, that there were three "kings" or wise men riding three camels. Nonsense! There might have been sixty, or even a hundred, with hundreds of aides and crack troops of the Persian calvalry attending them in a long caravan that would have looked more like a small army when it moved toward Bethlehem in the wake of the guiding star. Magoi of the royal court of Persia would not be mere wise men or astrologers, though they would have cultivated special knowledge of that sort, probably. Or, like most kings of the time, they might have trained court astrologers as aides to chart for them the heavens and keep the star constantly in their sights as they moved along from East to West.
Considering the times and the culture, I believe there were more than three of them, and they could not have been mere astrologers either. They were men of God, or men of faith in the God of Israel, believing firmly in the prophecy concerning the coming Messiah of the Jews that had been handed down to them from the lips of Daniel the great wise man of Babylon. They may have consulted Daniel's own writings concerning this prophecy, for the Babylonians and Persians were highly literate people in the upper, ruling levels of society.
Travel in the East was always problematic, not because there were no roads, for the Persians had built major roads leading East to West from the time of the classical Persian Empire, and this well-devised system was still in use at the time when Christ was born. Travellers had roads, but they did not have security, unless they brought it along with them--in other words, they had to be able to fight off robbers and brigands and even whole tribes who preyed on the richly-laden caravans that regularly passed through. Lions, panthers, diseases, badly polluted wells, lack of water entirely in the huge desert stretches of the route, burning heat, chilling temperatures at night, all demanded that travelers be well-armed and well-equipped with sufficient food supplies and clothing and tents and draught animals and accurate knowledge of the terrain for them to survive the great distances involved between populated, civilized centers.
The wise men evidently set out well-prepared. They had all they needed to make a safe journey, as safe as it could be in those circumstances. There is no word or suggestion in scripture of them fighting off attacks (for who would dare to attacked a Persian convoy attended by mounted Persian archers?). Scripture simply states that they followed the star from the East and reached Judaea, the puppet kingdom ruled by Herod the Great but only because he had been approved by the Roman emperor. Luke tells how they went straight to Herod and inquired how they might find the newborn King of the Jews.
This unexpected visit (for he had not known they were coming, or he might have tried preventing them, and some suggest the Roman troops and his own troops were away north in a military action at the time) by armed Persians inquiring about a "newborn King of the Jews," or Messiah, was certainly an odious call for him, but one that required some polite diplomacy and cunning statecraft on his part, as the Persians were independent of Rome and could muster some formidable armies that could easily reach and attack Jerusalem.
A foxy Roman client state despot like Herod knew full well it would not do him any good, as he was then in a weakened state, militarily, with the Roman legions of the area and his own troops largely drawn away up north, to offend his unwelcome "guests" from Persia. So as scripture indicates, he made a show of wanting to worship the newborn King of the Jews, the Messiah, and even inquired of his own scribes where this personage was to be born. They consulted the prophets' writings. The answer came quickly: "Bethlehem of Ephratah." There were two Bethlehems, one near Jerusalem, the other up north, so Micah the Prophet had made that clear enough by specifying the locality, Ephratah. That removed all doubt whatsoever about the location and nameplace. The visitors departed, with Herod's "blessing," and only the instruction that they return to tell him where they found the newborn King of the Jews "so he might also go and worship him."
Having paid a courtesy call on the local ruler, the invading Persians (for this was an invasion as far as Herod was concerned, being extremely fearful of losing his control and his kingdom to rivals all throughout his long and bloody reign, in which he put to death hundreds of people he feared might want to unseat him, including several sons of his) departed and then the star appeared once more and led them the remaining six miles or so from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
Once there, the local people could direct them to the house of Joseph, for it was a small Jewish town, where everyone knew everybody's business. Joseph had already been there with his young wife and child perhaps a year or more by this time when the Persians appeared with their gifts. We know the rest of the story: how they fell down and worshiped the Lord Jesus, a child by this time, not a baby, and presented their gifts, then departed. They knew Herod would recover from his shock or whatever kept him from striking right away, and send troops to arrest them and probably destroy the youngest rival to his throne. Despots of Herod's type were well-known for acting like this when their power was threatened. Why should Herod be any different? He certainly would remove any threat, if he were capable of it and again had sufficient forces on hand so that he no longer feared the Persians and their expert mounted bowsmen. Perhaps the Romans his allies had come back by this time, and Herod was now in a position to exert his full powers. We know that the Lord God warned the Persians not to return to Herod, where they might have faced arrest and torture and even death once their private army was defeated. They turned east and crossed the border at the Jordan and escaped Herod's area of control, and vanished into mystery, their mission completed.
What have we learned about these Persians? Magi? Magoi? Wise Men? Astrologers? Nothing can be fully certain except what they did, and that they were wealthy, wise, courageous, and men of faith to the extent that they revered the truth of the ancient Jewish prophecy of the Messiah that no doubt was conveyed down the generations of Persian aristocrats and ruling bodies by Daniel initially. They hazarded their lives to some extent in following the star that signalled the Birth. They did not quit on the difficult journey but persevered, even when they had to face a suspicious, blood-stained tyrant, Herod the Great. They heard from God, for God knew them well and gave them instructions that probably saved their lives. Men of faith who heard from God, they were obedient. They believed the Messianic prophecy, gave up their comfort and security of their homes to set forth on a long journey across possibly a thousand miles of robber-infested wilderness, all to worship the newborn Messiah of the Jews. Certainly, he was no mere human ruler, or simply a Jewish child with no relevance to the whole world. They somehow knew this Messiah was a Ruler of the whole world, in God's ordained, master plan of the Universe. It behooved them then, knowing what they knew, believing what they believed, to put their lives and fortunes on the line to go to this newborn and give him proper, kingly tribute, their worship of his divine personhood and divine mission on earth as well as their costly gifts fit for a king.
The star of the Nativity was significant, as it convinced the Persians that the prophecy was fulfilled. The Persians needed this unmistakable, supernatural sign in the heavens. That it pointed to and also led the way to the birthplace, well, that was something they probably had not expected but rejoiced continually to see. How could they miss, with a star as a guide?
So they were rejoicing, not traveling fearfully and wandering about through the vast wildernesses of the East. Unlike all previous travelers, they were filled with certainty that their quest was not going to end up in disappointment or failure or something even worse. Their gladness of countenance, their rejoicing, must have impressed the murderous old Herod too, so that he feared to lay his hands on them. This strange, impressive group of Persian nobles was come about a business bigger than himself, he must have sensed, so he drew back his talons temporarily instead of striking immediately.
The Persians themselves, though a mystery still, shine like a star, for their clear and noble character and their singleness of dedication to their mission.
There is an excellent saying that has grown up about them: "Wise Men Still Seek Jesus."
How true! If we would seek Jesus, as they did, we would be singleminded, dedicated, fearless, and rejoicing all the way into His presence, would we not? And certainly we would not, just like them, be disappointed when at last we found Jesus. Have we really found Jesus? Are we fearful or rejoicing this season? Upset or glad? Fulfilled or seething with all sorts of disatisfaction? What is wrong with us? Are we really seeking Jesus, or something, someone else, both inferior to the Christ who came for our salvation. The Persians, the so-called wise men, sought the Son of the Most High God, the Messiah, and found Him! Almighty God even helped them find Him and then gave them direction to protect them from Herod and see them safely on their way to their homes! So he will do for each of us too, if we truly are wise in this wicked generation. God will lead us to the Lord, if that is our highest, chief desire of our hearts, then see us safely to our homes in heaven. Let us then resolve in our hearts to seek Jesus this season and throughout the coming new year.
Final Note: Hal Lindsay's just now, for Christmas, re-aired his 2005 program on Daystar concerning the Mystery of the Magi (who probably numbered more than three, he stated), and it was most excellent! Every word of his was riveting. His understanding that their high caste was that they presided in the Babylonian royal court initially, and that is quite possible. As Hal Lindsay said, they could have been, initially, contemporaries of Daniel and learned much about the coming Messiah that he prophesied and other prophets foretold as well. They may well have passed this knowledge on, so that later generations of magi (or court wisemen, astrologers, Chaldeans or star-gazers and trackers) looked expectantly toward the grand event that they knew would take place in the land of the Jews. Things being equal when you consider this mystery, he may be correct. But perhaps not all is explained by him either. We just cannot know, unless the Lord tells us himself, or we dig up evidence of the actual wise men or magi or their accounts of their trip to Bethlehem guided by a star. But is it really so important if we pinpoint where they originated specifically? The godly, courageous acts, the noble, pure intentions, the ardent worshiping of the Baby Jesus as King and God, they are made crystal clear by the scriptures. They searched with all their heart, mind, and strength for the Messiah, and God was pleased to lead them to the very town of his birth and to the house where he was residing with his parents, guiding them by the most special sign imaginable, a shining star in the heavens.
Have you ever seriously reflected on what this world would be today had not Jesus Christ been born into it 2,000 years ago? On what would we reflect without Bethlehem and its swaddling clothes, manger, and straw?
Western civilization owes its existence to Bethlehem and its manger and straw. The fact that the statesmen, the philosophers, and the scientists will not admit it, will not discuss it, proves nothing; most of them won't even admit that God created man.
Two thousand years later the inn is still crowded with people unwilling to welcome the Savior...
When you reflect on what this world would be today without Bethlehem and its God-Child, what it would be without Jesus Christ, you know time is dated from that manger.
Every event is dated before, or after, Jesus' birth. The Greeks tried to date time from their Olympics--and failed. The Romans tried to date time from the founding of their Imperial City--and failed...
But what the Greeks could not do with their universally famous games, and what the Romans could not do with their Imperial City...Jesus Christ did with His swaddling clothes and His bed of straw.--Adapted from "A World Without Christ" by Noel Smith, Baptist Bible Tribune, 12/21/78. Reprinted in Rejoice in the Lord.TV Newsletter, Winter 2009, Pensacola, FL 32523-9160.
The Light of the World
Savior to those who receive him
Hope in a dark world
Peace for the troubled soul
Refuge in time of trouble
Near to those who need comfort
Jesus came to:
Provide eternal life
Destroy the works of the Devil
Redeem me from the enemy
Enable me to be strong
Be my Healer
Lead me in righteous pathways
Teach me to love
Teach me how to pray
Give me wisdom
Rescue me, comfort me.
From Moshe's Musings, Jews for Jesus Newsletter, December 2009:
God is without body.
He has no form, Except that of a babe born in Bethlehem,
A small refugee who became a man so far from home.
Yet, through His body, and through His blood, a world of people was nourished and came to life.
He gives life,
And calls us into strength and holiness;
He calls us to goodness,
And to giving-ness.
Oh that we, like Him, should become nourishment to bring nations to life.
And through that refugee babe,
May we see the mighty Lord,
Who prevails over all.