The Magi – How Much Did They Know?
19. The Magi’s knowledge of Jewish Scriptures, and “astronomy” (a mixture of what we would call both science and astrology), caused them to recognize and apparently MUCH more about the BIRTH of the Messiah than even the Jewish scribes did. From their actions and statements, we know that they recognized:
A. The time of His birthThis is amazing enough when we consider that these people were not Jewish, not related to the Jews, and in fact, not even Roman citizens. The last involvement that history records them having with the Jews at all was 500 years earlier when the prophet Daniel was the head of their order just prior to the Jews being released from their 70 years of captivity to return home. So apparently, Daniel's legacy was powerful and enduring to have caused these people to watch and wait for 500 years for the coming of the Jewish Messiah. But as we will see next, it appears they really knew much, much more than this about Him.
B. The general location of His birth (though not exact)
C. That He was born to be King of the Jewish people
20. The Magi’s gifts and actions upon meeting Jesus reveal that they had a breath-taking amount of knowledge about Who He was. Their choices might be explained by any of 3 possibilities: Either...
- They were extremely lucky in their gift choices, or
- They were unknowingly guided guided by the Holy Spirit, or
- They demonstrated and extremely advanced knowledge of the nature and mission of the Messiah - not just to the Jews, but to all Mankind.
A. Gold represents both royalty and deity throughout Scripture. By presenting it to the baby Jesus, in conjunction with their statements to Herod, it illustrates that they at least knew He was to be a King to the Jewish people. Whether they understood His deity I'll address later). But even if it only represents knowledge of His earthly kingship, the fact that the Parthian Magi have undertaken this immense, expensive, and very risky journey to present Him with this gold indicates that they knew His Kingship was far broader than just the Jewish people. We can be confident that wasn't just political maneuvering to ingratiate themselves with a future Jewish king for several reasons. First, the Parthians had successfully withstood the advance of the Roman Empire itself. They had no fear or need to be concerned about becoming allies with the tiny and insignificant province of Judea. Further, in performing this act, they were actually infuriating the existing king of the region - a man known to be tyrannical, volatile, and insane. If it was peace they were after, this was one of the last things they would have done. In addition, if they were interested in winning the lasting favor of this future king, they would have waited to visit Him when He was at least old enough to remember their visit and generosity. As an infant, there was no guarantee anything they did would be remembered or appreciated. Neither history nor Scripture records any further visits or connections between the Magi and Jesus as He neared adulthood and His ministry. Rather, it appears clear that their recognition of His Kingship indicates their intent to glorify God and demonstrate their own humility toward the Messiah at His advent.
B. Frankincense (incense of any type in Scripture) represents the Priesthood. Frankincense is referenced at least 21 times in the Bible, but most notably as a part of the special and very specific blend of incense God required to be used in the Tabernacle / Temple before His own presence(5). In presenting Jesus with frankincense, it appears they were recognizing Him as a priest. However, Jewish Law prevented a single individual from being both a king (who had to come from the tribe of Judah) and a priest (who had to come from the tribe of Levi). There are Scripturally only two people (or groups) that are permitted the privilege of being both a king and a priest. One is the Messiah Himself. The other, is a member of the Church ... The Christian(6). The New Testament makes a big deal of the importance and privilege that Christians are afforded in this regard. For these non-Jewish Magi to recognize that the Messiah was to be both King and Priest is a profound insight that appears to even have been missed even by Jewish leadership. So a gift of incense in general alongside their gift of gold demonstrates this advanced knowledge of the nature of the Messiah. But the fact that the incense chosen is in fact Frankincense, may also indicate a far deeper knowledge of Who He is in that Frankincense is one of the primary ingredients burned before the Holy of Holies unto God Himself in the Temple. But it may be much more. While it's possible that the gift is intended simply to recognize Jesus' Priesthood, another possibility is that they are ACTING in the role of priest and offering the incense themselves. In other words, they are recognizing that Jesus is in fact God incarnate! If this were being offered by itself, or in conjunction only with the gold, it might be a stretch to consider this. But the next two gifts (yes, there were four gifts), in my opinion, make their intentions clear. Read on...
C. Myrrh has many uses including perfume, incense, spice, sedative, antiseptic, and others. It appears a few other times in Scripture, but was used widely in Jesus' day as an embalming agent due to its antiseptic (preservative) properties. As a spice, it has a bitter taste. Both these properties are almost certainly the purpose of the gift here by the Magi. As such, it signifies that they knew His death was to be both bitter and very important – as important as His Kingship (represented by the 1st gift) and Priesthood (represented by the 2nd gift). The symbolic nature of the gifts would make no sense whatsoever unless they actually realized that He had come to die a bitter, but extremely important death. Whether they understood the full importance of His death, we don't know. But the next gift may shed even more light on this question as well.
D. Worship, the fourth gift, which is usually missed, was that the Magi literally "fell down and worshiped" the young Jesus. Technically, this was the first gift, for Scripture records that this was their first act upon meeting the young Jesus(7). As Christians already knowing that Jesus is worthy of worship, we are in danger of missing the significance of this act. But recognize that there was no earthly reason for these extremely high ranking officials from an “enemy” empire to Rome to be there recognizing a Jewish King in the first place. For them to actually prostrate themselves and worship Him is nothing short of shocking. Given their political positions, this act is actually an affront to their national sovereignty and would likely even have been considered an act of treason by their own king and punishable by death under normal circumstances. Imagine the Secretary of State, or even the President of the US bowing down before a foreign king. OK, perhaps bad example, but more than just a bow of "respect" or even submission, the word used here(8) and the context indicate full worship of Jesus as before God Himself.
Taken together in full context, their journey and these four gifts seem to point rather powerfully to the conclusion that the Magi were not just a group of well-meaning visitors who happened to know a bit more about the stars (more on this in my next post) than the Jewish leadership did. Rather, their journey and gifts demonstrate that the Magi knew more about the Nature, Mission, and Destiny of this baby than every professional Jewish cleric of the day, more than His disciples (prior to Pentecost), and in fact, more than many Christian scholars of the first several centuries of the church(9) and in some measure - even today! It seems very reasonable to conclude that the Magi knew:
- That He would be King, not just of the Jews, but of them as well
- That He was a Priest of higher order than any living or historical Jewish priest (history records no such recognition by the Magi of any other Jewish priest),
- That His death was important, again, not just to the Jewish people, but to themselves as well - probably recognizing that it would be important for all Mankind, and
- That they recognized Jesus' Deity. The gold certainly indicates acknowledgment of Royalty, but given the symbolism of the other gifts, the cost and risk of their journey, and their personal worship of Him, it's reasonable to conclude that the gold was also a full recognition of His Deity.
Stay tuned. Next time we'll examine the famous Star of Bethlehem.
(5) Exodus 30:34-38For a more in-depth study, see my full study in the file titled "The Christmas Story" at: http://www.nightlightministries.org/topical_studies.html
(6) Psalm 110:4, Jn.18:36, Hebr 6:20, 1 Pet 2:9, Rev.1:6
(7) Matt 2:11
(8) προσκυνέω http://studybible.info/strongs/G4352
(9) Referring here to the many heresies that divided the early church regarding the deity of Christ and the mechanism of His atonement for sin. http://www.exchangedlife.com/Sermons/topical/trinity/heresies1.shtml