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Sunday, December 02, 2012

The Magi

(Matthew 2:1-12 MKJV) Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men came from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is He who is born king of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the east and have come to worship Him. But when Herod the king heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said to him, In Bethlehem of Judea. For so it is written by the prophet, "And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the governors of Judah. For out of you shall come a Governor who shall rule My people Israel." Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, inquired of them exactly what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child. And when you have found him, bring me word again so that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed. And lo, the star which they saw in the east went before them until it came and stood over where the child was. And seeing the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And coming into the house, they saw the child with Mary His mother. And they fell down and worshiped Him. And opening their treasures, they presented gifts to Him, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

Who were the Magi, the Wise Men in the Christmas story? The Hebrew word for Magi means "sacred scribes," from two roots "sacred" and "style" or "pen". They studied historical and sacred writings. The ancient Magi were a hereditary priesthood of the Medes credited with profound and extraordinary religious knowledge. After some Magi, who had been attached to the Median court, proved to be expert in the interpretation of dreams, Darius the Great established them over the state religion of Persia. Later, the Babylonians took power over the Mede-Persian empire and over Palestine, both the northern and southern kingdom. By the time of Jesus' birth the Parthian Empire had absorbed these kingdoms. Rome had not (and would never) conquer the Parthian Empire.

The Medes were an ancient Iranian people who lived in the northwestern portions of present-day Iran. This area was known as Media. The Persian Empire, was the successor state of the Median Empire, ruling over significant portions of what would become Greater Iran. The Persian and the Median Empire taken together are also known as the Medo-Persian Empire, which encompassed the combined territories of several earlier empires. The Persian Empire was the largest empire by geographical extent in ancient times. The empire was forged by Cyrus the Great, and spanned three continents: Asia, Africa and Europe. The Persian empire was invaded by Alexander III of Macedon, after which it collapsed and disintegrated in 330 BCE into what later became the Ptolemaic Kingdom (The Ptolemaic Kingdom in and around Egypt began following Alexander the Great's conquest in 332 BC and ended with the death of Cleopatra VII and the Roman conquest in 30 BC. It was founded when Ptolemy I Soter declared himself Pharaoh of Egypt, creating a powerful Hellenistic state.) and Seleucid Empire (The Seleucid empire was created out of the eastern conquests of the former Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great. The Macedonian kingdom was centred in the Near East and regions of the Asian part of the earlier Medo-Persian Empire.).

Israel (aka the land of Palestine, the Promised Land, the Land Flowing With Milk and Honey) had divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom was known as Israel and the southern kingdom was known as Judah. The Assyrians had captured the northern kingdom of Israel but Judah was still it's own empire until it fell to the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar.

The Prophet Jeremiah tells the story of the Fall of Jerusalem, capital city of Judah, to the King of Babylon and the Babylonians. Let me set the stage for you, Chaldea was a marshy land located in Southern Iraq and Kuwait which came to rule Babylon. Tribes of settlers who arrived in the region in 625-539 BC became known as the Chaldeans. The 11th dynasty of the Kings of Babylon (6th century BC) is conventionally known to historians as the Chaldean Dynasty. Their kingdom in the southern portion of Babylonia lay chiefly on the right bank of the Euphrates. In 652 BC a series of wars broke out in the Assyrian Empire over who should rule. These wars greatly weakened the empire. Sensing this weakness, the Chaldeans led the Medes in attacking the Assyrians. In 612 BC they destroyed the northern city of Nineveh, capital city of the brutal Assyrians and the entire Assyrian Empire. In its place, the Chaldeans set up a new empire of their own. It was only under Nabopolassar in 625 that the Chaldeans attained lasting control over Babylon, after having defeated Assyria and Egypt at Karchemish, founding the Chaldean dynasty, which lasted until 539. Nabopalassar was the father of Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar, becoming king of the Chaldeans, aka New Babylonians, in 604 B.C., raised Babylonia to another epoch of brilliance after more than a thousand years of eclipse. King Nebuchadnezzar not only prevented major powers such as Egypt and Syria from making inroads on his territory, he also conquered the Phoenicians and the kingdom of Judah (586 BC), the southern Jewish kingdom. By defeating the Egyptians in Syria, Nebuchadnezzar ended their hopes of re-creating their empire. Nebuchadnezzar brought most of the conquered Jews back to Babylon. It is called the Great Diaspora where they were exiled from their homeland. The Jewish Diaspora is commonly accepted to have begun with conquests of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the destruction of the First Temple (c.586 BCE), and the expulsion of the population.

The city of Jerusalem was under seige but Nebuchadnezzar had to gather his beseiging troops to go confront Egypt. The Prophet Jeremiah is one of the refugees who stream out of Jerusalem seeking supplies like food. But Jeremiah has been prophecying to the people that, because of their sins, they will be taken by the Babylonians. This means he's not very popular and someone accuses him of leaving Jerusalem to join Nebuchadnezzar's troops, i.e. being a spy. Here is Jeremiah's story about the fall of Jerusalem to King Nebuchadnezzar:

And Shephatiah the son of Mattan, and Gedaliah the son of Pashur, and Jehucal the son of Shelemiah, and Pashur the son of Malchiah, heard the words that Jeremiah had spoken to all the people, saying, So says Jehovah, He who remains in this city shall die by the sword, by the famine, and by the plague. But he who goes out to the Chaldeans shall live; for he shall have his life as a prize, and shall live. So says Jehovah: This city shall surely be given into the hand of the king of Babylon's army, and he shall capture it. And the rulers said to the king, Please let this man be put to death. For in this way he weakens the hands of the men of war who remain in this city, and the hands of all the people, in speaking such words to them. For this man does not seek the good of this people, but the hurt. Then Zedekiah the king said, Behold, he is in your hand. For the king cannot do a thing against you. And they took Jeremiah and threw him into the pit of Malchiah the son of Hammelech, which was in the court of the prison. And they let Jeremiah down with ropes. And there was no water in the pit, only mud. So Jeremiah sank into the mud. And Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, of the eunuchs in the king's house, heard that they had put Jeremiah in the pit (the king then sitting in the gate of Benjamin), Ebed-melech went out of the king's house and spoke to the king, saying, My lord the king, these men have done evil in all that they have done to Jeremiah the prophet, whom they have thrown into the pit. And he is likely to die of hunger in the place where he is, for there is no more bread in the city. Then the king commanded Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, saying, Take in your hand thirty men with you from here, and lift Jeremiah the prophet up out of the pit before he dies. So Ebed-melech took the men in his hand and went into the house of the king under the treasury, and took worn out clothes and worn out rags from there, and let them down by ropes into the pit to Jeremiah. And Ebed-melech, the Ethiopian said to Jeremiah, Now put the worn out clothes and rags under your armpits, under the ropes. And Jeremiah did so. So they drew up Jeremiah with ropes and took him up out of the pit. And Jeremiah remained in the court of the prison. And Zedekiah the king sent and took Jeremiah the prophet to him, into the third gate in the house of Jehovah. And the king said to Jeremiah, I will ask you a thing. Do not hide anything from me. Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, If I declare it to you, will you not surely put me to death? And if I give you advice, you will not listen to me. Zedekiah the king swore secretly to Jeremiah, saying, As Jehovah lives, who made us this soul, I will not put you to death, nor will I give you into the hand of these men who seek your life. Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, So says Jehovah, the God of Hosts, the God of Israel: If you will surely go forth to the king of Babylon's rulers, then your soul shall live, and this city shall not be burned with fire. And you shall live, and your house. But if you will not go forth to the king of Babylon's rulers, then this city shall be given into the hands of the Chaldeans, and they shall burn it with fire, and you shall not escape out of their hand. And Zedekiah the king said to Jeremiah, I am afraid of the Jews who have fallen to the Chaldeans, lest they deliver me into their hand, and lest they hurt me. But Jeremiah said, They shall not deliver you. I beg you, obey the voice of Jehovah which I speak to you; so it shall be well to you, and your soul shall live. But if you refuse to go out, this is the Word that Jehovah has shown to me: And, behold, all the women who are left in the king of Judah's house shall be brought out to the king of Babylon's rulers, and they shall say, Your friends have urged you on, and have prevailed against you. Your feet have sunk in the mire, and they have turned away. So they shall bring out all your wives and your sons to the Chaldeans. And you shall not escape out of their hand, but shall be taken by the hand of the king of Babylon. And you shall cause this city to be burned with fire. Then Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, Let no man know of these words, and you shall not die. But if the rulers hear that I have talked with you, and they come to you and say to you, Declare to us now what you have said to the king; do not hide it from us, and we will not put you to death; also what the king said to you; then you shall say to them, I presented my cry before the king, that he would not cause me to return to Jonathan's house, to die there. Then all the rulers came to Jeremiah and asked him. And he told them according to all these words that the king had commanded. So they quit speaking with him; for the matter was not known. So Jeremiah stayed in the court of the prison until the day that Jerusalem was captured. And he was there when Jerusalem was captured.
(Jeremiah 38:1-28)

The Babylonians soon returned to beseige Jerusalem again, this time the seige lasted 18 months:

In the ninth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and all his army, came against Jerusalem. And they besieged it. In the eleventh year of Zedekiah, in the fourth month, the ninth of the month, the city was broken up. And all the rulers of the king of Babylon came in and sat in the middle gate: Nergal-sharezer, Samgar-nebo, Sarsechim, chief of the eunuchs, Nergal-sharezer, chief soothsayer, and all the rest of the rulers of the king of Babylon. And it happened when Zedekiah, the king of Judah and all the men of war saw them, then they fled, and went out from the city by night, by the way of the king's garden, by the gate between the two walls. And he went out the way of the plain. But the Chaldean army pursued them and overtook Zedekiah in the plains of Jericho. And they took him, and made him go up to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, to Riblah in the land of Hamath, where he gave judgment on him. Then the king of Babylon killed the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes in Riblah. Also the king of Babylon killed all the rulers of Judah. And he blinded Zedekiah's eyes and bound him with chains, to carry him to Babylon. And the Chaldeans burned the king's house and the houses of the people, with fire, and broke down the walls of Jerusalem. Then Nebuzaradan the chief of the executioners exiled to Babylon the rest of the people who remained in the city, and those who fell away, who fell to him with the rest of the people that remained.(Jeremiah 39:1-9)

The Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, gathered round him the religious teachers and wise men of the nations he conquered. We know this from the book of Daniel.

Daniel 1:3-4 And the king spake unto Ashpenaz the master of his eunuchs, that he should bring certain of the children of Israel, and of the king's seed, and of the princes; Children in whom was no blemish, but well favoured, and skilful in all wisdom, and cunning in knowledge, and understanding science, and such as had ability in them to stand in the king's palace, and whom they might teach the learning and the tongue of the Chaldeans.

The Prophet Daniel was one of these young men, as were the famous Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego. Born a Jewish nobleman and educated in that way until he was taken to Babylon where he was then educated in their ways. Daniel rose high in the Babylonian power structure. One of Daniel's titles was Rab-Magi meaning Chief Magi. His prophecies were probably well known by the succeeding Magis. Since the days of Daniel, the fortunes of both the Middle Eastern empires and the Jewish nation had been closely intertwined. Many of the Jews from the Diaspora had become acclimated to living in exile and they would have kept the prophecies alive as well. At one time the Babylonian Magi, in their dual priestly and governmental office, composed the upper house of the Council of the Megistanes ("magistrates") whose duties included the absolute choice and election of the king of the realm. They were "king makers" at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ.

Rome had gained control of Palestine but there were always military attempts by subjugated groups to take back control. The Magi "came from the East" but exactly from where is unknown. They may have come from Babylon or from the Parthian Empire (247 BC – 224 AD), which was second only to Rome in power and ruled parts of Persia and Babylon. During the time of Herod, the king of Parthia invaded Judah, set free the captive high priest of Judaism and gave him a habitation in Babylon. It was the only empire Rome couldn't conquer. The Parthian Empire was a major Iranian political and cultural power in the Ancient Near East. The Parthians largely adopted the art, architecture, religious beliefs, and royal insignia of their culturally diverse empire, which encompassed Persian, Hellenistic, and regional cultures. The greatest expansion of Parthian power and territory took place during the reign of Mithridates I of Parthia (r. c. 171–138). Mithridates invaded Media and occupied Ecbatana in 148 or 147 BC; the region had been destabilized by a recent Seleucid suppression of a rebellion there led by Timarchus. This victory was followed by the Parthian conquest of Babylonia in Mesopotamia. The Indo-Parthian Kingdom, located in modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northern India, made an alliance with the Parthian Empire in the 1st century BC. The constant politics and successions made the Romans nervous about what was going on in the Parthian Empire, the empire they had been unsuccessful in grabbing.

When we realize the depths of what was going on around the tiny baby Jesus, it makes His simple birth even more miraculous! The Magi evidently went to King Herod in Jerusalem believing, as the ruler of Judah, he would know where the Messiah was located. Their retinue and military escorts would have been a significant event so they had to do the "meet-and-greet" with the local leader as a matter of form. They were definitely important enough to get an immediate audience with King Herod and he didn't feel like he had the authority to send them packing or kill them. But King Herod was in a quandary about what these Magi were really doing. And was there a Jew claiming to have given birth to the prophetic Messiah, King of the Jews? Did that mean there was a rebellion in the making? There was danger on every side. To have the Magi appear and ask Herod where they can find the "king of the Jews" was very threatening. By hook and crook, Herod had finally been named "King of the Jews" by Augustus Caesar but it still took him 3 years to occupy the capital of the rebellious Jewish nation. Herod had no reservations at murdering his own family to maintain control of the throne and had proved it on numerous occasions. So, when these Magi appeared looking for the newborn King of the Jews, Herod would have been worried about what this all meant. What were the Magi really there for? Who is claiming to be the King of the Jews? What kind of trouble is this going to bring him? Is this indicative of rebellion by the Jews or an attack by outside empires looking for conquest?

Eastern traditions say that twelve Magi, not three, went to Judea to worship the Messiah. One of them was said to be Gaspar or Gathaspar, a name which can be traced to Gundophar, a prince ascending the Parthian throne around 19 A.D. Their exact number and their names are not found in the Biblical account. We think of three Magi because of the three mentioned gifts but there could have been more.

These Magi, or Wise Men, would have been well educated for their world. The Magi had probably studied astrology and were fascinated by a new star. The star probably came into existence when the Savior was born. They would have been wealthy, maybe having royal blood. They would have been politically knowledgeable and astute. They would have come with all the comforts wealthy people of that time would have had... servants, military escorts, tents, etc. Somehow they knew about the prophecies of the Messiah, King of the Jews but they didn't know the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Herod found this out from his advisers and he told this to the Wise Men. But Herod didn't want the purpose of the Magi to become public because the Jews highly resented the Roman occupation and had been desperately awaiting the Messiah thinking He would lead them in a successful revolt against Rome. Herod dared not go with the Magi, and kill the child they led him to, because of offending these foreign dignitaries. He thought he would go after they were gone and kill the child. The star they followed moved independently, leading the Magi to the very house where Joseph, Mary and the Christ were living. The family may have still been living in Bethlehem or somewhere around Bethlehem or they may have moved to Nazareth. They had only gone to Bethlehem because of the census so they may have returned to Nazareth.

It is thought Jesus would have been about 2 years old before the Magi found Him, not a newborn in the stable manger in Bethlehem. The Magi would have seen the star and begun to study it. By the time they realized it for what it was and studied the prophecies of the Messiah some time would have passed. Then they had to make their traveling plans and begin their journey.

Why did the Magi come to find a baby prophecied about in ancient texts of the small nation of Jews? There were much bigger empires. There were much more important things to do and people to see. They had their own life and were doing quite well - rich, famous, powerful. But they came to worship Jesus. They went to a lot of trouble, expense and time to locate this young child. Why?

When Jesus was born, it was not merely a local event involving a few people. His birth caused the world's greatest empire to move exactly according to God's plan. His birth terrified Herod, a Roman King of Judah. These Wise Men were inspired by God. God had prepared them and called them to come worship His Son! They may have been from a different nation (not Jews) and culturally different. They may have been from a different part of the world and from a different "class". But God worked in mysterious ways to call these men, these "king makers", to the home of a little toddler in the land of Palestine. God showed them that this boy was the Messiah, the King of the Jews, and they had an urgency to find this child. The Bible says they came to "worship" Jesus. They "fell down and worshipped Him". They lay prostrate before Him to pay Him homage as a King. And not just a petty small town king. These men wouldn't have come all this far at such expense to bow to an irrelevant, unknown ruler. The Jews were under Roman rule, after all. So any "King of the Jews" could be assumed to be an empty title. But God had spoken to these Wise Men and they had faith that this was a special King, one crowned by the one true God. They were so delighted and joyous upon finding the true Messiah who would save the world that they fell before Him in worship and gave Him expensive gifts. They had made their long journey in faith and had been obedient to follow the star. Now these "king makers" were, in essence, acknowledging the new King. Their gifts were gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Frankincense is tapped from the very scraggly but hardy Boswellia tree through slashing the bark and allowing the exuded resins to bleed out and harden. These hardened resins are called tears. Frankincense was lavishly used in the Jewish Tabernacle (and later the Temple) as part of the incense.

Myrrh is the dried oleo gum resin of a number of Commiphora species of trees. Like frankincense, it is produced by the tree as a reaction to a purposeful wound through the bark and into the sapwood. The trees are bled in this way on a regular basis.  Myrrh has been valued for its fragrance, its medicinal qualities as a wound dressing. So valuable has it been at times in ancient history that it has been equal in weight value to gold. During times of scarcity its value rose even higher than that. It has been used throughout history as a perfume, incense and medicine.

Gold was presented to the King in token of His royalty. The gold was probably a very providential supply as Joseph, Mary and Jesus probably lived on this while they hid in Egypt.

Now we come to how this applies to today. God knows who will love and accept Him in true faith. No matter where we live, how we were raised, what culture or class or religion we are from, God knows His Own. And God will make sure that those who will believe are led to the Savior. Even if it takes a moving star in the sky, God will lead those who will accept Him to the feet of His Son, the King of Glory. God uses the Holy Spirit to prepare our hearts, to make the call, to give us the urgency. If we will have faith and obey the Holy Spirit's call to salvation, He will lead us to the feet of Jesus. We will become children of God, adopted into the very family of the God of the Universe, the King of Glory. We become Princes and Princesses in His Kingdom with Jesus as the First and Foremost. This Christmas, fall down and worship this King who gave all for us. Rejoice and worship the true King!

To read the whole story of the birth of Christ, check out my post HERE.

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