The story of the wise men (or magi) who followed a star to Bethlehem and gave gifts to Jesus has generated much speculation and research over the centuries. What was the star and who were the magi?
Historically, the magi of the East were wise men who gave counsel to kings. They can be traced back to Babylonian and Persian Empires. They were often associated with the religion of Zoroastrianism and with astrology and the magic arts.
However, between 605 and 586 B.C., the Babylonian king Nebuhadnezzar subjugated Israel, exiling thousands of Jews to Babylon, including the prophet Daniel. Eventually, because of the people’s rebellion, the Babylonians burned Jerusalem, tore down its walls and destroyed its temple. Daniel served in the king’s court and became an influential wise man, because God was with him.
After the Babylonian Empire was defeated by the Medes and Persians in 538 B.C., the descendants of the Jewish exiles were given several opportunities to return to Israel and rebuild Jerusalem’s walls and its temple. Many decided to go back to their homeland, but others, including Daniel, stayed behind. The fact that the magi in the Christmas story showed some knowledge of Jewish traditions and beliefs suggests that they were probably descendants of these exiled Jews who remained in Babylon, and were actively seeking signs in the heavens that would announce the birth of the Messiah.
If these magi were indeed Jews, they would not have looked at the stars through astrological eyes. There’s a big difference between recognising signs that God has written into our mathematically precise universe and believing in an elaborate scheme that links our daily lives to the movements of the stars and planets. Besides, the information they gleaned only got them as far as Jerusalem (Matthew 2:1, 2). They did not know where in Jerusalem—or, as it turned out, in Bethlehem—to look.
What can we learn from the journey of the magi?
They were diligent seekers for the truth. The magi were trained to be diligent observers and to keep meticulous records of everything they observed. They had an eye for detail, which made them sensitive to any patterns and anomalies that arose in the data they were continually collecting. The magi, like most people of their time, did not question the existence of a god, so the real question becomes, which god did they believe in?
The limited evidence of Matthew’s biblical account suggests they were Jews who were looking at the stars for signs and they had enough knowledge of the Bible that it also gave them clues. Thus, their understanding of God encouraged them to look for order and purpose in everything, and their knowledge of the Old Testament gave them the clues they needed to conclude that the Messiah had been born in Israel. But, there was only one way for them to confirm their findings— they had to take the long journey to Jerusalem.
They were willing to follow the evidence and go wherever it led. The journey took many months to complete, but the magi were determinedto find this new King. They sought an audience with King Herod and asked him about the Child, probably assuming the Baby would be his son—but of course, He wasn’t. Disturbed by the news, Herod consulted the chief priests and teachers of the law to see if they could shed any light on the wise men’s question (Matthew 2:4). These Jewish leaders told Herod about the prophet Micah, who had identified Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah (Micah 5:2). Obviously the priests and teachers of the law had devoted their lives to studying and memorising the Old Testament, but they didn’t understand the significance of what they read until someone asked the right questions.
Herod pretended to be pleased by the information given to him by the Jewish leaders and he pointed the magi in the direction of Bethlehem, encouraging them to find the Child, and if they found Him, to report back to him (Matthew 2:8). But Herod really only wanted to destroy the truth, because it threatened his way of life and his throne.
The magi, on the other hand, were willing to listen to this new information and they went looking where the evidence from the Bible pointed them.
They recognised who Jesus was and worshipped Him. When these wise men “saw the child with his mother Mary . . . they bowed down and worshipped him” (verse 11). Gazing into Jesus’ eyes they realised that He was the One they’d been looking for. What the stars had announced and the prophets had proclaimed had now become real! After their encounter with Jesus, God spoke to the magi in a dream and warned them about Herod’s true intentions (verse 12), so they returned to their homeland by a different route.
We can see God’s creation and believe in Him. We can read the Bible and believe what it teaches us about Him. We can even believe the testimony of those who say they know Him. But believing all these things is no substitute for getting to know Him ourselves. God was no longer distant or silent to the magi. Like many before and since, they discovered what it means to “walk” with Him.
The journey of the magi began as a fact-finding tour and ended with a personal encounter with the Saviour of the world. They were in the right place at the right time because they followed the evidence and pursued the truth wherever it could be found. They found the One who would later say, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). They were never the same again.