Faith of the Magi

It's a 15th-century Italian painting of the Magi on their way to visit the infant Christ.
Benozzo Gozzoli’s Procession of the Magi, c.1460.

Often overlooked in its importance, God’s revelation of Christ’s birth to the Magi is a significant theological event that provides us with a powerful Christian witness. Mentioned only briefly in scripture, few details are provided about the identities of the wise men and their travel to Jerusalem (Matt. 2:1-17). We can only speculate as to the number and nationality of these spiritual adventurers, but we know that they were religious leaders who worshiped another god. Just as God revealed the good news of Christ’s birth to the lowly shepherds, outcasts of Jewish society, God chose the Magi to be among the first to learn of the Messiah’s arrival. In choosing the shepherds and the Magi, God announced to the world that Christ had come for all people, regardless of their beliefs, nationality, or status in society.

The Magi were driven by an intense desire to answer the call of a foreign God. Only God’s strong pull on them can explain why they deserted their families, incurred great expense, and risked their lives on a long, dangerous journey to a distant land. While the training and knowledge possessed by the Magi provided them with an understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures, it was their desire to know God that empowered them with the faith required to undertake the journey to Jerusalem.

The experience of the shepherds was quite different from the Magi. The shepherds witnessed an angel of the Lord, accompanied by a multitude of angels proclaiming Christ’s birth (Luke 2:9-14). They received a clear message, delivered with a powerful display of God’s glory, while God’s interaction with the Magi was much more subtle. In a distant land far from Jerusalem, God appealed to the Magi through nature by placing an unusual star in the sky above Jerusalem.

While Scripture provides us with few details about the Magi, much is known about their beliefs and customs. Many experts believe that the Magi were Medes, a sect of Persians with reputations as fierce warriors and as breeders of exceptional horses. The Magi were known throughout Persia and beyond as priests and scholars possessing special knowledge. As they also had a reputation as astrologers, it is not surprising that God used a star to draw the Magi to Christ. The star that God placed over Jerusalem must have been unlike any other: Its brilliant light appeared suddenly and would have captivated all who saw it, particularly those who studied the night sky. It was common for scholars to interpret such extraordinary celestial events as signs foretelling an earthquake, famine, or other calamity, so the location of this star in the western sky above Israel would have certainly given it special meaning.

God’s star appeared during a fascinating time in Middle Eastern history, when the Silk Road was already wellestablished and had since become the “information super-highway” of its day. News of world events, medicine, and religion were exchanged by travelers along this great road extending from China to Rome. Because religious authorities in the region held differing views about religion, they likely held different views about the star’s meaning. Followers of Confucius held to his prophecy of a great teacher who would come in the west, while Zoroaster, the founder of the Magi’s religion, also spoke of a prophet who would come from the heavens. The Magi were familiar with these religious perspectives, as well as the Messianic prophecies contained in the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly since many of the Jews taken to Babylon as captives five hundred years earlier remained in Persia and continued to worship their God. In addition, Greek translations of the Hebrew Scriptures were widely distributed along the Silk Road, so the appearance of the brilliant star over Jerusalem must have caused many to postulate it to be a sign of the Hebrew Messiah. One Messianic prophecy in Hebrew Scriptures that surely would have drawn their attention was the account of God causing the diviner Balaam to proclaim, “There shall come forth a star out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel” (Num. 24:17). Many interpreted this reference to the star and the scepter as identifying the same entity: the Hebrew Messiah. It was not their curiosity of nature alone that led the Magi to Jerusalem. God’s star certainly caught their attention, but it was their understanding of God through the Hebrew Scriptures that gave the star its meaning. In witnessing this incredible event, God’s call to the Magi must have been a powerful spiritual experience.

Just as we struggle in coming to know God, there were many obstacles in the path of the Magi. An obvious dilemma facing the Magi was their role as priests who led their people according to the teachings of Zoroaster. The Magi worshipped Ahura Mazda and believed him to be god. But the one, true God, the God of the Bible, was intervening in their lives by appealing to their intellect through the Scriptures and to their interest in astronomy through the star. At some point in their great journey in search of another people’s messiah, the Magi must have experienced doubt about Ahura Mazda.

Depending on where they resided in Persia, a journey to Jerusalem may have taken a year or longer and may have subsequently taken them through areas fraught with danger. In addition to the great expense required to finance a caravan and provide for its protection, they traveled on roads in poor condition while defending against roving groups of bandits and unfriendly militia.

We do not know if the Magi were merely curious adventurers when they left their homeland or if they had already undergone a religious conversion. Scripture suggests that the Magi’s long walk with God must have provided them with an intensely strong faith in the Hebrew God. When they reached Jerusalem, the Magi told King Herod that they “had come to worship He who had been born King of the Jews” (Matt. 2:9). If the Magi were not yet believers in the Hebrew God, they would not have announced their intention to worship the King of the Jews. Considering that the Magi were the spiritual leaders of their people, this passage conveys a particularly significant meaning.

The unique properties of the star must have caused the Magi to marvel at this foreign God’s intervention in their lives. While the star’s appearance was distinct enough for the Magi to recognize it as a sign of Christ’s arrival, amazingly not everyone even saw the star. Scripture records that no one the Magi encountered in Jerusalem, including Herod, was aware of the star, even though its spectacular light was responsible for drawing the Magi from their distant homeland. Once more, as the Magi entered Jerusalem, the star disappeared from view. It wasn’t until the Magi departed Jerusalem for Bethlehem that the star reappeared. Scripture also tells us that when the star reappeared, it went ahead of the Magi, lighting their path to Bethlehem (Matt. 2:10). The star hanging over Jerusalem moved from its position in the sky over Jerusalem in order to lead them south towards Bethlehem until it finally came to rest over the house occupied by Christ’s family.

When considering the special properties of the star, we are reminded that there is precedence in Scripture for God using light to lead the followers. During the exodus from Egypt, “the Lord went before His people in the form of a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and as a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night” (Exod. 13:21-22). The Hebrews gave the pillar and cloud the name “Shekinah,” derived from the Hebrew words “shakan,” meaning to dwell or settle down, and “anan,” meaning cloud. Shekinah was the “Glory Cloud” that had come to be among God’s people.

Over the centuries, many have attempted to explain the “Christmas Star” as a natural occurrence. Some suggest that it was a comet, a configuration of planets, or another natural celestial occurrence, but to define the star in such a manner disregards Scripture. The star was supernatural, just as the shepherd’s experience with the angels was supernatural. And what could have been more supernatural than Mary’s immaculate conception? God provided us with these spectacular events to fulfill the promise of Scripture and to announce to the world that God had come to live among us. The apostle Matthew makes it quite clear when he tells us, “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, And they shall call his name Immanuel. which is, being interpreted, God with us” (Matt. 1:23).

While the Magi’s experience was extraordinary, in many ways it must have been similar to what we experience in coming to know God: their acceptance of Christ may have been immediate, or God may have transformed them over a period of time. Similarly, some of us are quite certain about our faith once we receive God’s call, while others have doubts about God that may linger long after they have claimed Christ as their Savior. Given that the Magi were Zoroastrian priests, we may also wonder if they doubted the existence of the Hebrew God and if they initially resisted the personal commitment and sacrifice necessary to fully accept and trust God.

Like us, the Magi had choices to make. In seeking Christ, the Magi were separated from their friends and families, endured much hardship, and risked their lives on the journey to Jerusalem. We do not have God’s star to guide us, but we have so much more. We have knowledge of Christ’s life, sacrifice, death, and resurrection. Yet many of us delay in responding to God’s call or ignore it completely. The next time you or someone you love is struggling with their faith, be reminded of the journey of the Magi and their faith that led them to Christ.

Byron Anderson

Byron Anderson is a lawyer in Washington, D.C. While attending seminary, Byron became interested in first-century Middle Eastern religion and culture. This interest led to his writing the novel, Quest for Light—Adventure of the Magi (2010).