SAN DIEGO — As Christmas 2019 approaches, “Wise” people learn of the birth of a child who could become a great king — a king of the people of faith. By searching ancient scriptures and spiritual texts these wise individuals, sometimes known as the Magi, came to understand that the child would even be more than a great king. He would be an individual of divinity who could bring both great healing and peace to the entire world.
Great anticipation would arise from learning this. And great hope would arise as well that the world could be made a better place through the work of such a divine individual. But people would also learn that this individual’s unique birth would take place in a foreign land, in a far off nation on the other side of the world, in territory occupied by an enemy.
If God sent invitations out to the “Wise” or enlightened people of the day in order to celebrate the birthday of this special child, and if you were one of those who received the invitation, what would your response have been? How far would you be willing to go to meet the one who would become the Savior? Your Savior? Consider how far the “Wise Men” were willing to go to honor the “King of the Jews.”
Wise Men, Kings and Magi
The story of the Three Wise Men has inspired millions of people throughout the world and throughout time. Their story is more than fiction or fable. Usually, the focus of their story is upon the gifts they brought the infant Jesus. However, we can derive additional inspiration, beyond the material gifts that they brought, from a much bigger perspective.
A person of faith might well wonder about what drove these “Wise Men,” who were foreigners, to do what they did. Specifically, they undertook a journey of great risk requiring a tremendous amount of faith.
According to the Gospel of Matthew in the Aramaic and other translations, these Wise Men were actually called “Magi.” and came “from the East to Jerusalem.” They inquired about the whereabouts of the newborn King of the Jews who had been born some time within the previous two years. But before they even reached Jerusalem, these men had already traveled a great distance and by way of enemy territory, simply to honor this child foretold in their prophecy. In their minds, this child was to become king of the Jewish people, not their own people. Considerable mystery and myth still surround these foreign visitors from distant lands.
Origins of the story of the Magi
The story of the Magi and how they came to pay their respect to the baby Jesus has been briefly told in bits and pieces in many lands and over many centuries. Even Marco Polo, in 1298, wrote of the Persian Magi in “The Travels; The Description of the World.” Today one needs to consult worthy information resources to distinguish fact from fable and arrive at a more accurate appraisal of their existence.
Specifically, a close examination of Persian history indicates a likelihood that the Magi hailed from ancient Persia. A little-known fact in the Western world is that the Magi were a priestly class of nobles who served as members of the Parthian government. Today, the outlines of that ancient region cover all of modern Iran, Iraq and Armenia and parts of Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
Even the mention of Persia today can invoke unpleasant connections to contemporary Muslim extremists and terrorists. Yet at the time of the coming of the Messiah to those of the Jewish faith, Islam had not yet been born.
A connection with Zoroastrianism?
At the time of Jesus, the official religion of Persia was Zoroastrianism, now regarded as a nearly dead ancient monotheistic religion. Why did it largely disappear? It was replaced by Islam, largely due to the Islamist extremists and militants who arose as a force late in the first millennium A.D. But in the time of Jesus, the major enemy of the Parthian Empire (largely located in what is now northeastern Iran) was the Roman Republic, and later the Roman Empire.
Despite our limited information on these times and of this society, we can still piece an understanding of the Parthian Court and its customs together. And for those seriously interested in this history, I refer you to articles I have written on the Magi here and here.
It is likely that the Magi arose from the now largely forgotten religion of Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism appears in recorded history only in the mid-fifth century B.C. But over centuries since, the majority of people in this region had become followers of Zoroaster, the famous Middle Eastern prophet and teacher. The Magi had emerged as a priestly class who adhered to Zoroastrianism and eventually developed considerable influence at the courts of the Persian rulers.
By the first century after Christ, the Magi served in the hereditary priesthood in that region. More importantly, they served as members of one of two councils that advised the king. This political structure could be remotely comparable to the British parliament with its House of Lords and the House of Commons, both of which limit the power of the monarch. Members of the Megistanes or “nobles” were also looked upon as “the Great Men” (the privileged class) who held considerable power in ancient Persia.
Political structures in ancient Parthia and Persia
The councils essentially consisted of the Megistanes. Either their birth or right to office entitled them to high office, not merely the will of the king. The second council consisted of the spiritual and political chiefs of the nation, namely the “Sophi” (wise men) and the “Magi” (priests) who functioned like a senate. The two assemblies advised, appointed or elected — and placed checks on — the monarch. Practically, the right of inheritance may have been the normal practice for appointing the new kings. Yet there were difficulties in the system, such as when there was no son to inherit the royal office.
Within this system, the Magi were the devoutly religious followers of Zoroaster. They were well aware of the prophecies of Daniel concerning the coming of the Messiah. It is not clear when Zoroaster lived, but records indicate that some of his followers were likely students of the Old Testament prophet Daniel. He had once served as the “rab-mag,” the chief administrator of the Magi under Darius the Great. Darius had elevated the Magi above the state religion of Persia after some
Daniel and the Magi
Magi proved to be experts in interpreting dreams. Apparently, Daniel (of the Old Testament) entrusted his messianic vision to a sect of the Magi for its eventual fulfillment. And, “in the fullness of time” the Magi, in their dual priestly and political office, were poised to follow the guidance of prophecy.
Once the Magi witnessed specific astronomical signs that had been foretold by an ancient Middle Eastern prophet, they set off on their journey of faith. The prophecy concerned the coming of a star that would precede the arrival of a great leader of the Jewish people. This was also known from the book of Numbers in the Old Testament, and was obviously of great interest to the Magi, inspiring them considerably. Most notably, the Magi needed to recognize the prophetic signs and and possess have sufficient motivation to induce them to leave their respective “comfort zones” to seek out the one who was to become a great leader of the Jewish people.
What these three men of faith were seeking
These men of faith were not just seeking to change their diets, or having to give up pleasurable pastimes. They actually determined that they were required to follow the star, no matter where it led. It was an incredible manifestation of faith. In other words, they had to leave their comfortable royal circumstances in Persia, and at their own expense, then embark upon a rugged journey that crossed into the territory of the Romans (geo-political enemies) to complete their task of faith.
Simply put, the journey of the Magi to seek this precious child of prophecy would not have occurred without considerable cost, difficulty, risk, and sacrifice. And there was no guarantee that they would actually find what they sought.
Political and physical perils involved in an ancient journey of faith
The distance of their journey could have been around 500 to 1,000 miles, depending upon its point of origin.That, however, still remains a mystery. Some accounts indicate that the journey could have started in Ur in what would be in the southern part of modern Iraq. Others speculate it could have started at the ancient Institute of Astrology at Sippar near Babylonia (also in modern Iraq). Such a trek through the deserts and rugged, mountainous terrain of the Middle East could have taken six to eight weeks, depending upon prevailing conditions along the way.
King Herod had asked how long the Magi had been following the star. Susequently, their answer to Herod prompted the “massacre of the innocents” in Bethlehem. The Magi also may have been at risk of losing their own lives while in Judea. They received in dreams that they should return to their county via another route.
Meanwhile, the fateful dream of Joseph ultimately helped spare Jesus from the massacre of the innocents. That disturbing dream prompted Joseph to move his family temporarily to Egypt. Given the prevailing political chaos, the Magi clearly made their entire, dangerous pilgrimage at the risk of losing their lives.
While the journey of the Magi had great religious significance, it also risked potential political peril. Obviously, the Magi were foreigners, possibly active members of the Parthian government. Further, they would have had to travel through the territory occupied by the Roman Empire, Parthia’s border enemy. Thus, their journey could have sparked an international confrontation had an encounter with the Roman military occurred on the way. Even so, the party of the Magi (likely more than three men on camels) boldly entered Jerusalem and sought out King Herod, specifically seeking knowledge regarding the recently born “King of the Jews.”
Risks to life and limb, and risks to faith itself
In addition to the political risks, theirs would have been a formidable journey, requiring great faith, courage, and physical wherewithal. Their fundamental means of navigation was limited (no GPS in those days). From the Biblical account, the Magi primarily depended upon the “star” they were faithfully following, since they honestly did not know their ultimate destination. Amazingly enough, these non-Jewish foreigners were the ones who embarked upon a great and dangerous journey to offer highly valued gifts to an unknown and unproven infant “king.”
A pilgrimage of this nature by people of such unwavering faith, contains lessons for people of all faiths. This holds especially true for Christians. But do contemporary Christians possess such deep faith that their own faith journey is a journey toward Christ, or with Christ? Or is their journey an intellectual endeavor only? Is it a journey only for the sake of appearance. Or is it a true spiritual quest?
Would contemporary Christians be up for a similarly risky faith journey?
If our Heavenly Father should again send out the invitations to a celebration to meet His son, what would we have to sacrifice? What pursuits of pleasure would we have to discard on such a journey? In addition, how great a distance would one be willing to travel to meet the Messiah? How much cost would one be willing to expend. And how much personal risk would one be willing to endure?
In the world today, people are still risking their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor to pursue their faith and to enter into relationship with Christ. This is because “God so loved the world.” And He still does. Otherwise, we would not be witnessing this phenomenon right now.
Unfortunately, this level and intensity of faith is not clearly apparent in the United States today. What are American Christians doing in this time of an intense outpouring of faith in other countries around the world? Are American Christians mounting their camels of faith to begin their journeys to find Jesus in our own? Are they practicing what he asked Christians to accomplish?
Or, are America’s Christians simply wandering about in a desert of confusion this Christmastide?
Or, are American Christians lost, wandering about in a pointless pursuit of pleasure while making excuses and accommodations for such pleasures? Is their “faith” is only an illusion of faith? Can American Christians still proclaim proudly, “In God We Trust”? How many invitations will it take to open the doors to our minds, or open the gates to our hearts? How many invitations will it take to again motivate Christians to follow the will of God?
As Christians approach Christmas 2019, it might be a good time to revisit the value of the first Christmas. And in so doing, conduct an internal examination on the merit of their personal journeys of faith.