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The Magi and the Star of Bethlehem

The Magi

by Tom Stewart
December 2, 2002

The birth of Jesus Christ is of such great consequence that even those in the world that reject Him must count their days by a calendar that celebrates His birth. "For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His Name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6). Acceptance of the story of the nativity of Christ implies that if the narrative occurred as depicted in the Scriptures, then such elements as the Magi and the Star of Bethlehem may have more profound implications than simply character and color for a quaint story. "And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into Glory." (1Timothy 3:16). Who were the Magi? The name Magi comes from the Greek word magoi. It is translated as wise men in the King James Version and is used four times in the New Testament Christmas story, e.g., "1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came Wise Men from the East to Jerusalem, 2 saying, Where is He that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen His star in the East, and are come to worship Him" (Matthew 2:1-2). However, the most common derivative from the name of the Magi is the word magic. When the Apostle Paul began his first missionary journey, he encountered a "certain sorcerer [Greek, magos ], a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Barjesus" (Acts 13:6). Sorcerer comes from the same Greek word magos that identifies the name of the Magi; and, if that was all that we knew of the Magi, then Christians would have only a very negative and confused picture of the Wise Men of the Christmas story. "Then Herod, when he had privily called the Wise Men, enquired of them diligently what time the Star appeared" (Matthew 2:7).

 And wise men came bearing gifts.
This art print, "And Wise Men Came Bearing Gifts" by Tom duBois is provided courtesy of Christ-Centered Art" ---New Window.

Other than the obvious and positive use of the phrase "wise men" in the Old Testament Scriptures, i.e., "He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: but a companion of fools shall be destroyed" (Proverbs 13:20), we find that both the dynasties of the Egyptian pharaohs, i.e., "Then Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers: now the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments" (Exodus 7:11), and the kingdoms of the Babylonian and Medo-Persian monarchs surrounded themselves with "wise men." Originating from the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates, the Magi were religious priests, Chaldeans, physicians, philosophers, astronomers, astrologers, soothsayers, in short, the brain trust of their kingdom. In ancient Babylon, which is now modern Iraq, King Nebuchadnezzar dreamed of a great image, where he not only forgot his dream but called upon his "wise men" to interpret the vision on pain of death. "2 Then the king commanded to call the magicians, and the astrologers, and the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans, for to shew the king his dreams. So they came and stood before the king. 3 And the king said unto them, I have dreamed a dream, and my spirit was troubled to know the dream. 4 Then spake the Chaldeans to the king in Syriack, O king, live for ever: tell thy servants the dream, and we will shew the interpretation. 5 The king answered and said to the Chaldeans, The thing is gone from me: if ye will not make known unto me the dream, with the interpretation thereof, ye shall be cut in pieces, and your houses shall be made a dunghill" (Daniel 2:2-5).

Naturally, the wise men objected to the impossible demand of the king.
"10 The Chaldeans answered before the king, and said, There is not a man upon the Earth that can shew the king's matter: therefore there is no king, lord, nor ruler, that asked such things at any magician, or astrologer, or Chaldean. 11 And it is a rare thing that the king requireth, and there is none other that can shew it before the king, except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh" (Daniel 2:10-11). And, like an oriental despot, Nebuchadnezzar "was angry and very furious, and commanded to destroy all the wise men of Babylon" (2:12). Now, notice who the Divine Scriptures identify with the "wise men" of Babylonia. "And the decree went forth that the wise men should be slain; and they sought Daniel and his fellows to be slain" (2:13). Yes, not only were Daniel and his companions (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) identified as "wise men," but, we are further informed that Daniel was promoted to be the chief [Aramaic, rab ] among the "wise men" for successfully interpreting Nebuchadnezzar's dream, i.e., "Then the king made Daniel a great man, and gave him many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon, and chief of the governors over all the wise men of Babylon" (2:48). Later, Belshazzar was informed that Daniel, the Master Magi of Babylon, was the only man that could interpret the famed handwriting on the wall, "MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN" (5:25). "There is a man in thy kingdom, in whom is the spirit of the holy gods; and in the days of thy father light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods, was found in him; whom the king Nebuchadnezzar thy father, the king, I say, thy father, made master [Aramaic, rab ] of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers" (5:11).

Certainly, the Almighty made a way for Daniel to avoid the obvious pitfalls of the occult practices of the
"wise men of Babylon," and He used the lawful functions of Daniel's office to preserve the Seventy Weeks prophecy concerning the First and Second Advents of Messiah the Prince. "24 Seventy weeks [490 prophetic years] are determined upon thy people [Israel] and upon thy holy city [Jerusalem], to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in Everlasting Righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy [the Second Coming of Jesus Christ]. 25 Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem [decree of Artaxerxes on March 14th 445 BC] unto the Messiah the Prince [Triumphal Entry of Christ on April 6th 32 AD] shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks [7 + 60 + 2 = 69 (weeks) x 7 (of years) = 483 prophetic years]: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times. 26 And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off [Crucifixion and Atonement of Jesus Christ only a handful of days after the Triumphal Entry], but not for Himself: and the people of the prince that shall come [Ancient Rome] shall destroy the city and the sanctuary [70 AD]; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined. 27 And he [Antichrist] shall confirm the covenant with many for one week [a shortly upcoming Tribulation Week of seven years that obviously occurs after a more than 2,000 year gap between the 69th and 70th Week of Daniel]: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease [the Abomination of Desolation in the Middle of the Week], and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate" (Daniel 9:24-27).

It is uncertain what the Magi of the Christmas story identified as a star to cause them to set out for Jerusalem to see who the Jewish Scriptures of Daniel would choose as the King of the Jews, but they knew that Messiah the Prince would sit upon the throne of David.
"Of the increase of His government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon His kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with Judgment and with Justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of Hosts will perform this" (Isaiah 9:7). Since the Magi were able to calculate the time of the cutting off of Messiah the Prince in Israel from Daniel's Seventy Weeks prophecy, they needed a miraculous sign to indicate more precisely the time and place of the birth of the Messiah, which the Almighty gladly provided by the Star of Bethlehem. "We have seen His star in the East, and are come to worship Him" (Matthew 2:2). Several things can be deduced from the Scriptural narrative of the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew concerning the Magi and the Star of Bethlehem.

Daniel's Seventy Weeks prophecy (Daniel 9:24-27) coupled with other Messianic prophecies, e.g., "The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto Him shall the gathering of the people be" (Genesis 49:10), enabled these believing Magi to greet their Newborn King with royal gifts, but they needed a special sign from God in the form of the Star of Bethlehem, i.e., "there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel" (Numbers 24:17), to pinpoint the birth of the Messiah at His First Advent. As much as Christians are rightly warned about seeking after signs, i.e., a "wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it" (Matthew 16:4) and seeking to know the day and the hour of the coming of Jesus Christ, i.e., "ye know not when the time is" (Mark 13:33), both a sign and date will be given for the Second Advent of Jesus Christ. The miraculous sign for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ will be the Pre-Tribulational Rapture of the Watching and Waiting Saints, i.e., "Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man" (Luke 21:36), while the timing for the LORD's Appearing will be the termination of the Seventieth Week of Daniel, i.e., "Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in Everlasting Righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the Most Holy" (Daniel 9:24). [See our articles, "Must There Be a Pre-Tribulational Rapture?" ---New Window and "The Seventy Weeks of Daniel" ---New Window, for more background on each of these prophetic themes.]

Like the Magi who looked for the appearing of the King of the Jews, it is right that we look and wait expectantly for the soon return of the KING of Kings.
"So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for Him shall He appear the second time without sin unto Salvation" (Hebrews 9:28). The difference between those Magi of old who sought the Young Child of Bethlehem and the contemporary seeker of Christ is that their sign was the Star of Bethlehem, while our Pre-Tribulational Rapture will be a sign to those who are left behind, who should have known better. "1 Then shall the Kingdom of Heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. 2 And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. 3 They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: 4 but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. 5 While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept. 6 And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. 7 Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out. 9 But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. 10 And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut. 11 Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, LORD, LORD, open to us. 12 But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. 13 Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of Man cometh" (Matthew 25:1-13). [See our article, "A Tale of Ten Virgins" ---New Window, for greater understanding of Christ's parable and the Pre-Tribulational Rapture.]

May God grant to us the grace to shine as the Star of Bethlehem, and may the
"LORD direct your hearts into the love of God, and into the patient waiting for Christ" (2Thessalonians 3:5).


[See our article, "The Glory and Majesty of Christmas" ---New Window, for more background on the Christmas story. And, Sir Robert Anderson's "The Coming Prince" ---New Window (1895) provides a scholarly and faith-filled defense of Daniel's Seventy Weeks prophecy (Daniel 9:24-27) of the First and Second Advent of Messiah the Prince, giving justification for many of the dates employed in this presentation. Also, "Sir Robert Anderson and the Seventy Weeks of Daniel" ---New Window gives background on Sir Robert Anderson, a stalwart defender of the "faith which was once delivered unto the Saints" (Jude 3).]

.Following the Star

Tom Stewart

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