January 6th marks Epiphany—the date commemorating the visit of the Magi and the Twelfth Day of Christmas. One of several Christian holidays seldom observed in evangelical circles, there is practical benefit in commemorating the day.
In my neighborhood, it appeared as though Christmas went out the door with the crumpled gift-wrap. The day after Christmas, naked trees lay in the curb. The cheer of twinkling lights was markedly absent in the cold darkness of December—a full six days before Christmas was officially over.
In most evangelical Christian circles, adherence to a liturgical calendar has all but been abandoned leaving the commemoration of significant biblical events unrecognized and uncelebrated. Having said that, please understand that I am not advocating strict adherence, which can foster false security in the ritualistic observance of days. Nothing in our Christian experience should contravene the decisive act of the will to choose salvation through Jesus Christ.
A balance between the extremes of total disregard and strict formality can, however, add a deeper dimension to an otherwise superficial celebration of the Nativity. The practical benefit means that the typical “let down” after the intensity of preparation for what is generally a one-day event evaporates as the celebration of Christ’s birth is brought to a formal conclusion on Epiphany.
The Gospel of Matthew records:
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 THREE KINGS
Most beliefs about the wise men 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 evolved by the eighth century.
Tertullian can be credited with the questionable inference that the magi were kings (1) Our visual concepts 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.
Only when we view their story through the lens of Scripture in the context of history, do we understand who they were and what compelled them to make a journey of weeks or months to the small village of Bethlehem.
THE BIBLICALLY AUTHENTIC CONTEXT
Matthew recounts their appearance in Jerusalem and subsequent outcome of their visit, but supplies little information concerning their country of origin, except that they came from the East (2:1). To those living in Israel at the time of the birth of Christ, the East referred primarily to the Parthian Empire centered in areas near or just beyond the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Thus, Bible scholars generally associate the wise men’s point of departure with Babylon or Persia.
Daniel and the Chaldean Wise Men
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.
From the Hebrew Scriptures, we know that 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). Demonstrating a superior level of wisdom by revealing and interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, the king gave Daniel jurisdiction of the province of Babylon as chief administrator over all the wise men of the empire (v. 48).
As documented in the Hebrew Scriptures, Daniel’s prominence continued well beyond his last recorded prophecy in 536 BC outlasting the Babylonian Empire and continuing well into the Medo-Persian.
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 became the dominant religious system of Persia in ensuing years, there was undoubtedly a remnant holding to belief in God exemplified by Daniel and Esther. Is it possible this group of wise men or Magi represented such a remnant?
The Wisdom of the Magi
Considering his influence, it is reasonable to assume that the Chaldeans highly esteemed Daniel’s wisdom. While functioning as the chief wise man, Daniel received revelation from God providing a time frame for the appearance of Messiah. The timetable foretold the presentation of Messiah at the set time appointed by God.
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 BC (Ezra 1:1-4).
Familiar with Daniel’s recorded revelations, the wise men must have had little difficulty calculating that 450 of the 483 years of Daniel’s 69 prophesied weeks had already passed. The wise men were probably not only aware of the prophecies concerning Messiah, but zealously anticipated His coming!
Scripture does not disclose the exact number. Along with their entourage, however, the wise men presented a contingency large enough to be conspicuous amid the commotion of everyday life in Jerusalem; and, their purpose was broadly known. Their inquiry at the gate of Jerusalem sent a shock wave of apprehension through the city that ultimately reached Herod’s ears.
When Herod heard the news, “he was troubled and all Jerusalem with him” (Mt. 2:3). Because his subjects openly resented his cruel tyranny and Idumaean descent, Herod was paranoid about any perceived threat to his throne. (2)
Herod’s kingdom was a buffer between the vast Roman Empire to the west and the magnificent Parthian Empire to the east. Parthia enveloped the Persian Empire around 171 BC creating a dynasty lasting well into the third century. In 43 BC, the Parthians swept across the desert into Judea and crowned Antigonus, the last of the Hasmoneans, their puppet king.
Herod acquired the title, king of the Jews, by order of the Roman Senate. With financial backing from Rome, he drove the Parthians out, executed Antigonus and eliminated anyone seeking to restore the Hasmonean monarchy. (3)
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. He demanded an answer to one question: where the Christ was to be born (Mt.2:4). The Magi had been 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” (Micah 5:2).
The religious leaders were certain; they were unanimous; they agreed on the birthplace—Bethlehem. Acting swiftly, Herod instructed the wise men 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” (v. 9). Despite ample speculation about the phenomenon the Magi saw, the text provides little detail.
What we do know is the “star” that prompted their search reappeared after their interview. Coupled with their knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and supernatural guidance, the wise men found the King!
The guiding star had not as much to do with astronomy as it did with supernatural guidance. The star confirmed what the wise men already knew to be true—that the One, “whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting,” had indeed come (Mic.5:2).
Though a set time in human history, not many took notice. The purpose of the Magi’s search reverberated throughout the city of Jerusalem, yet there is no indication that anyone joined them in seeking the promised Messiah. The masses apathetically dismissed the news as an interruption of the status quo. Herod perceived a threat to his throne. The religious leaders used it as an opportunity to ingratiate themselves to Herod.
SEEKERS IN THE 21st CENTURY
What distinguished the wise men from their contemporaries was their ability to recognize the signs of the times and respond appropriately. Confirming what they knew, the Magi traveled more than 2,000 miles to not only seek, but worship Israel’s prophesied King. In the 21st century, little has changed; it is still the wise who seek Him!
As our preparations to enjoy the final days of Christmas come to a close, I hope you’ll join me by celebrating Epiphany. At our house, a traditional English dinner complete with a gluten-free Twelfth Night Cake is served.
At a minimum take time to read the account of the Magi in Matthew’s Gospel to your family. You can enhance the conclusion of the Christmas season on Epiphany, January 6th, by guiding your family through the fascinating account of the Magi. It’s a great way to enter the New Year demonstrating your determination to seek the Lord as the wise men did more than two millennia ago. For those willing, God promises: “you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13).
Christmas doesn’t have to end at bedtime on the 25th of December. The traditional date—that commemorates the visit of the Magi—puts an exclamation point on the Christmas season.
(1) Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus (Tertullian), Chapter IX—Of the Prophecies of the Birth and Achievements of Christ. Adversus Judeaos, AD 198.
(2) 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).
(3) Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944), 531.
1) Les rois mages en voyage (The Magi Journeying). James Tissot [Public domain].
Copyright © 2016 Charles E. McCracken, devotional comments only. Repost/Reprint with permission from the author. Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.