By Jeff Westover
No doubt these were men of a different culture. Their description as "wise men" means they were highly regarded. They must have had a striking physical appearance and the very way they portrayed themselves left a lasting impression. To some of the more learned in Jerusalem's society their very appearance must have been shocking because the scriptures had long foretold the arrival of foreign kings and dignitaries bearing gifts of gold and frankincense for the promised Messiah. Could these men verify the rumored tales of the shepherds near Bethlehem?
That these wise men got the notice of the people of Jerusalem did not get past King Herod.
"Herod" was actually a family name of a line of kings who ruled Judea before, during and after the lifetime of Jesus Christ. At the time of Jesus' birth, Herod the Great was king.
He was an evil tyrant.
In fact, just as the names Stalin and Hitler today are synonymous with evil rule, Herod the Great was infamous for his crimes against his Jewish subjects. Herod himself was not Jewish, of course. His heritage and family were Idumeans, far from Judea in distance and very different in culture.
Herod the Great was a self-absorbed king and he was forever suspicious of political opposition. He once executed his own wife and several sons of people he suspected were plotting against him. He heavily taxed his people to support his lavish lifestyle. And before he died, he directed that a number of well-known Jewish individuals be slain on the day of his death to ensure that people would actually mourn on that day.
The arrival of high-profile visitors who came to worship a king other than Herod must have been most disturbing to him. He hastily called his priests and experts in Jewish scripture to determine what this all meant. They told him that ancient prophecy predicted the birth of Christ in Bethlehem and that the Child was destined to be a ruler over Israel.
With evil designs in his heart, King Herod called the Magi before him. He told them that the Messiah was born in the city of Bethlehem. He instructed them to find the Child. "Go and search diligently for the child and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him." But worship was never clearly the intent of the request.
Following the star once again, the Magi traveled to Bethlehem, located the house of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, described now as a "young child" . There they worshipped the Child and gave unto him their treasures of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The Magi, though evil in the eyes of Herod, made a lasting impression upon humanity with their Christmas quest. Though predicted in ancient scripture, the modern world is left to wonder who the Magi really were and why their pilgrimage had to take place.
The word "magi" comes from ancient Greek and Persian terminology referring to scholars and priests. In biblical times, these learned, respected holy men were commonly found in countries of what we call today the Middle East.
Common history identifies them as students of astronomy and astrology, and skilled in the interpretation of dreams and philosophy. Officially, many magi served in advisory capacities to kings and rulers. They were prolific writers and many their teachings survived to be an influence upon later Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. The magi were practiced magicians and experts in divination. The English word "magic" is derived from the ancient word "magi".
Some believe the Magi had their beginnings in an ancient religion known as Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrians believed in the coming of a savior known as a saoshyant. In fact, they believed there were three saoshyants, Zoroaster being but the first. The third, or greatest of them all, would be born to a virgin mother and his exploits would include total defeat of the forces of evil, resurrection of the dead, termination of old age and renewal of the earth.
All of these known historical factors fit nicely with elements of the Christmas story as told by Matthew. As believers in a saoshyant they could accept the idea of a savior. As astronomers, they would have knowledge of the night sky and be able to determine significant celestial events. As astrologers they might have been practiced in reading the skies for a sign through the rising of an unusual star. And as interpreters of dreams, they understood fully the warning of the danger and evil designs of Herod the Great. But for all the efforts that historians and scientists make to justify the journey of the wisemen it cannot be discounted that they were driven by forces beyond stars and science.
For students of the scriptures the wise men could only be described as faithful. Their quest was spiritually driven. They could see the star when others could not. They knew enough of prophecy to fulfill it with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrhh. They too, like their brethren on the continents of the Americas who knew through recorded scripture of the prophecies of the Messiah and experienced his birth in their own land, were likely just "other sheep", as Jesus later described. And though unlearned and unqualified -- much like the shepherds abiding in the fields watching over their flocks by night -- the Magi were called to participate in the great story.
Regardless of who they really were, they ultimately knew that they were in trouble. Upon falling asleep after presenting themselves before the Christ Child they were told in a dream to avoid going back to Jerusalem because of the evil designs of the King.
Herod, of course, eventually found out the Magi had given him the slip. In a rage, he ordered all male children under the age of two in Bethlehem and "in all the coasts thereof" to be put to death.
This immediately put the babies central to the story of Christmas in danger -- Jesus and John. We do not know if Zacharias and Joseph were told the same thing from an angelic visitor. We do know that John was described as growing up "in the deserts" , so Zacharias clearly took John a safe distance from Bethlehem and the slaughter of the innocents sought by Herod. Joseph was told to flee to Egypt and await the day of Herod's death.
But Christmas on earth had finally been celebrated. What began "before the foundation of the world", and was since celebrated as a future event, could now and would now be celebrated for all time. Christmas would not be immediately identified in societal circles. It would slowly emerge. It would be celebrated in its purest form by remembering and honoring those characters central to His coming.
But just as the idea of Christmas before Christ celebrated the free gift of a Messiah, so too would Christmas yet-to-come be celebrated through gift-bringers carrying the message that the greatest of all gifts had come through Jesus the Christ.
And no gift-bringer would spread that word better than one man dressed in the red robes of a Bishop and wearing a long white beard.