The magi, or the three wise men from the East, have been the topic of much debate over the centuries, but who were they, were there three, and how were they guided by a star?
Was it a star, in which case were they astrologers and if so, would that not be a problem for Christians, who tend to view astrology with a degree of suspicion?
Firstly, there is no mention in any of the biblical record of there being three wise men That particular speculation springs from the fact that there were three gifts. Did they come from the east? Undoubtedly they did, for there is much historical evidence to support that view and also, the Greek word Matthew used to indicate that they came from the east means ‘from the rising of the sun.’
Magi means wise men. One of the earliest recorded magi is thought to be Daniel, who was elevated to the position of Chief Magi by King Nebuchadnezzar, but why are they referred to as three kings? Probably because of the prophecy in Psalms 72: ‘May all kings fall down before him’.
What was the star? Some believe it was an angel that appeared in the sky and led the men to Jesus. However, in ancient times astrologers often believed that God had allowed the heavens to reveal something of the future. This makes a certain amount of sense: the movement of the moon controls the tides, the light and warmth of the sun brings life and it is as the Earth revolves around it that our seasons are created.
There’s no evidence in the Bible or elsewhere that the star was an angel. It’s more likely that the wise men were indeed astrologers who were driven by the foretelling, perhaps by Daniel, of the coming of the Messiah, the Saviour of the world.
But whatever they saw, or whatever motivated them to travel from their homeland to a faraway place in the west, clearly it was sufficiently authentic for them to collect gifts and, probably with a considerable entourage, head off across dangerous and difficult terrain, perhaps from as far away as the land that we now know as Pakistan. A king was going to be born in Judaea, and they weren’t going to miss the spectacle.
It’s interesting that Matthew and Luke knew nothing of each other’s accounts of Jesus’ birth, and as a result there are some striking and delightful contrasts. Luke tells us about the shepherds: local, rural boys, not well educated; while Matthew reports the travels of the magi: wealthy, exotically foreign, sophisticated and highly educated. The underlying message being that the baby of Bethlehem is for everyone. It matters not whether you are rich or poor, sophisticated or rustic, educated or illiterate, Jewish or non-Jewish. Nothing has changed in 2000 years. The good news of Jesus is for absolutely everybody.
Whoever you are, Jesus came to Earth for you, the Word became flesh for you. My old dad used to say that if I had been the only person in the entire world, it would have made no difference, he would have come just for me.
That’s how personal the nativity and the gospel are for me, and why I love Christmas. I wish you a very happy, meaningful and enriching Christmas.