And so this is the key. The Magi began to depart from a singular commitment to their historic religion, and they began to find their way into different things. Some may be leaning toward Zoroastrianism, some toward the ancient Magianism, and I believe in my heart that some, like these Magi that show up at the birth of Christ, were really true seekers of the true God. Welcome to Grace to You with John MacArthur. I'm your host, Phil Johnson.
Every year around this time you can find them in front yards, under Christmas trees, even in shopping centers. But even though nativity scenes are fixtures at Christmas, there's still plenty of confusion about what really happened at Bethlehem. Today on Grace to You, John MacArthur looks at some widely held myths about Jesus' birth, particularly those relating to the wise men who visited Jesus. As John continues his study from the Gospel of Matthew, titled The Birth of the King, while Matthew doesn't tell us everything we know about the wise men, the Old Testament fills in the gaps with some fascinating truths, as you'll see today. Follow along as John begins the lesson. Who were the wise men?
Are you ready for that? Matthew chapter 2. All of us have wondered. I remember when I was a little boy I wondered who those guys were. How many were there? Were they really kings? Did they really ride camels? We have most of our ideas about this fascinating group from the people who draw Christmas cards rather than theologians.
Vincent, who has written some very helpful word studies, says in regard to this, many absurd traditions and guesses respecting these visitors to our Lord's cradle have found their way into popular belief and into Christian art. They were said to be kings, and three in number. They were said to be representatives of the three families of Sham, Ham, and Japheth, and therefore one of them is pictured as an Ethiopian. Their names are given as Kaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior.
You probably heard that. And their three skulls, amazingly enough, are said to have been found. Yes, they were found in the 12th century by Bishop Reinhold of Cologne. Bishop Doug goes up and knew right off that they were skulls.
It's very clear. Their eyes were still in the socket fixed toward Bethlehem. Today, believe it or not, friends, they are on exhibit in a priceless casket in a great cathedral in Europe. Now frankly, folks, the only thing we know about these wise men is some history and what is said in Matthew. We really are very, very limited in terms of specifics. In addition to what we have here in Matthew, which is very limited, it says there came wise men from the east. That's it, folks, right there. We don't know their names.
We don't know anything from that. But as we put the pieces together historically, and we do have some very fascinating history, some of it from the Old Testament, books such as Daniel where the Magi or wise men appear, several different texts, other Bible books as well as the writings of Herodotus and other historians, we believe they were members of an eastern priestly group, descendants of a tribe of people originally associated with the Medes, M-E-D-E-S. Now I just want to remind you of something so you get a little bit of a picture. Basically, in the history of the world, there have been four major world empires, right? The first one was the Babylonian Empire. That basically was centered in the Fertile Crescent area east of Israel, the valley of the Tigris and the Euphrates River north of the Arabian Gulf, east of what we know as Israel today. That was where the Babylonian Empire was. It was followed by the second great world empire that Daniel talks about, and that was the empire known as the Medo-Persian Empire. It was a conglomerate empire made up of the Persians and the Medes. The Medes were a very large and powerful people. The third great world empire was Greece. When the Medo-Persian Empire was conquered by Alexander the Great, the world became Greek as it were.
The fourth great empire was the Roman Empire. Now as we go backwards, even while the Babylonian Empire was in existence, there were still Medes and Persians. So they are a very ancient people. In fact, there are many people in history who trace the origin of the Medes all the way back to the time when Abraham was called out of Ur of the Chaldees, way back in the 12th chapter of Genesis. So it may well be that these are very, very ancient people. Certainly, they are people who appear in the Babylonian Empire because we see them in the book of Daniel. They are people from the Medo-Persian Empire and existed on through the time of the Greek Empire and are still in existence in the Roman Empire when Christ is born.
So they were a very ancient and long-lived people were these wise men. And by the way, the word wise men, it says, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King, behold there came Magi. The Greek is Magos, Magoi, Magi. It is really an untranslatable word. It is not a translatable word. It is simply the name of a certain tribe of people.
It should better be translated perhaps Magi. The Magi were a priestly line, a priestly tribe of people from among the Medes, this very ancient and large people. They were very skilled in astronomy and astrology. This was a very great preoccupation with them. Their interest in astronomy and astrology was only part of their involvement. They were sort of occultists in a way. They had some sort of divination processes. They were involved in certain kinds of things that we would assume perhaps were like a sorcery. And that's why the word Magi was corrupted through history into the word magic, magician, which is a synonym for sorcerer. But the Magi originally were basically a pagan priestly tribe of people from the Medes and the Persians.
And there are many, many historical sources to validate this. They became very interested in astronomy and astrology and the study of the stars. And in those days they didn't make much of a separation between the superstition and the science. The science is astronomy.
The superstition is astrology. And they were pretty well blended at that time. Now what's interesting about this is that during the time of the Babylonian Empire, these Magi were dwelling in the area of Babylon. They were there during the Babylonian time in the Medo-Persian Empire as well. Now while they were there during the Babylonian Empire, they were very heavily influenced by the Jews. You remember that one of the things that Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon did was take Judah into captivity.
You remember that? That's what Jeremiah was saying. You are going to be taken into captivity. Jeremiah pronounced this fact and of course even the book of Lamentations laments this reality. And they were carried off into the Babylonian captivity. Well, here in Babylon were existing these Magi.
And they were very high ranking officials. By that time they had ascended to a high place in the Babylonian Empire because of their amazing intuition, wisdom, knowledge, astrology, occultic abilities, whatever you want to call it. They had arisen to place a prominence. And so immediately they came into contact with all these Jewish people that had been brought to captivity. They also came into contact with one very specific Jew by the name of Daniel who was elevated in the Babylonian Empire. And consequently they were very familiar or made familiar in the dispersion of the Jews in Babylon with Jewish prophecy regarding the Messiah. They were made aware of what was really on the Jewish prophetic plan for this one who was to come. And so that's basically who they were. Let's go back and see their history. According to the ancient historian Herodotus, the Magi were a tribe of people within a larger people called the Medes.
Now listen to this. They were a hereditary priesthood tribe. In other words, they were like the Levites in Israel. In Israel there were 12 tribes but one of those tribes was set apart as the priestly tribe. And they were the ones who ministered in the rituals and the religious ceremonies of the temple and they were the Levites. Well the pagan Medes had a similar thing. Of all of the tribes within the Medes, they had selected one of them to function as priests in their pagan rituals. And that tribe which they had selected was the Magi.
Again it's an untranslatable word really. This is the name of that priestly group of people. It was a hereditary priesthood. Now as I said earlier, some historians see them all the way back in Ur of the Chaldees as a part of a nomadic people that were wandering about in that part of the world. Whichever is true, whether they go all the way back to Ur or whether they just first kind of surface in the Babylonian time, we don't know.
The point is this. During the Babylonian world empire they were significant. During the Medo-Persian empire they were significant. During the Greek empire they were significant. And during the Roman empire they were significant. And in all of those empires they maintained a place of tremendous prominence in the Orient, in the East. You see even when the Greek empire was in vogue, there was still certain eastern culture and power. Even when the Roman empire was in vogue, there was certain eastern power. And in both of those periods, the Magi were really the key people in the government of the East centered in the Fertile Crescent, the area around Babylon and Medo-Persia. Now they always appear with tremendous political power.
Now this is very important for you. I'm going to have a little history lesson. They always appear with tremendous political power. I would say the majority of historians, at least the ones that I read and the ones that were referred to, see them as an eastern people who rose by virtue of their very unique priestly function, by their unique rather occultic powers of divination, by their astrological, astronomical knowledge. They rose to places of prominence and they rose up in Babylonian government, Medo-Persian government, even in some cases in the East during the Greek period and for sure during the Roman period to be the advisors to the royalty of the East. And that's where they got the name the Wise Men.
They were the ones that were consulted about the various things that the kings and the rulers and the nobles and the princes wanted to know. Now we even have some history that tells us about their religious activities. Now I'll give you a little description of the kind of religion that the Magi were involved in. Their priesthood had certain functions and here are some of the things. The principal element of their worship seems to have been fire. It's apparent from history that they worshiped or that they sort of reverenced fire. And we don't know for sure why but perhaps they saw fire as some kind of incarnation of deity. And by the way, they were monotheistic.
They only believed really in one God and so they had that in common with Israel. But they looked at fire as the principal element of their worship. And in connection with that, they had an altar which burned with a perpetual flame. And they believed that that perpetual flame was kindled by God from heaven. So they had this perpetual flame altar. Now over beside that in their temples and wherever, they also had another altar and on that altar they offered blood sacrifice. So they actually had a blood sacrificial system and they lit the fire to burn the sacrifice with the flame off the perpetual altar. And then when they had burned their sacrifice, this is interesting, the victim was then eaten by the worshiper and by the Magian priests. What's fascinating about that is that's almost a direct parallel to Judaism. And you can see how way back then Satan was counterfeiting true religion from the very beginning, you see.
He's always done that. You know, even today there is real Christianity and there is phony. And in that day there was real sacrificial system with genuine worship toward the one right true God and there was phony monotheism, phony blood sacrifice, false sacrifice and offering burned and then eaten by the worshiper and the priest. Additionally, these people had a hereditary priesthood.
Again, a counterfeit of the Levitical priesthood. These people carried about small bundles of divining rods in their garments and they used these divining rods for their little ceremonies, not unlike the Urim and the Thummim of the priest, the high priest, by which the knowledge of God was sought. They believed in the distinction of certain kinds of unclean animals.
That's interesting. They believed that certain insects and certain reptiles were unclean. Again, this is an interesting parallel to what God truly revealed to Israel.
And another thing that I felt very interesting as I was reading about it was they were very ritualistic about ever touching and disposing of a dead body. Another thing common to God's standard for Israel. So in the Babylonian Empire this very interesting religious group of people appears and they rose to tremendous prominence. In Jeremiah 39, 3 and verse 13, a man by the name of Negele-sharizah is mentioned. And Negele-sharizah is the chief of the Magi in the court of Nebuchadnezzar.
Okay? These oriental kings starting with Nebuchadnezzar had elevated the Magi and even before that, but as far as the Scriptures concerned, we see them first with Nebuchadnezzar. They had elevated this priestly group from the Medes to the place of being the official advisors to the king. And so they are tremendously powerful people. And even when Babylon fell and the Medo-Persian Empire came in and you have great rulers like Cyrus and others, you still have the high ranking officials of the Medo-Persian government being taken from this group called Magi.
They were unmatched in political power. Now I want you to turn in your Bible with me for a minute back to Daniel and I want to show you how they appear in the book of Daniel. Daniel chapter 2. When I get all done with this and you reread verse 1 of Matthew 2, it's going to make a lot more sense. Daniel chapter 2 and verse 10. And we won't take time to set all the context. But here we are in the court of Nebuchadnezzar.
Daniel is there. The Jews are in captivity in Babylon. And it says the Chaldeans answered before the king and said, There is not a man on the earth that can reveal the king's matter. Therefore, there is no king, lord nor ruler, that asked such things of any Magi or astrologer or Chaldean. And it's very likely that those are all synonyms. And then astrologer and Chaldean may just be other ways of saying the same thing. So here we find the word Magi. It's not strictly the word magician.
That's an English corruption. It's the word Magi. They had a very prominent place at that time. They were known as those who could interpret dreams. Now you remember Nebuchadnezzar had this bizarre dream and none of them could handle it. Now you know what's so fascinating about it is there was one man who could interpret it. You know who that was? It was Daniel.
Now let's go on a little bit. Chapter 4, verse 7. We again see the Magi. Chapter 4, verse 7, Then came in the Magi, the astrologers, the Chaldeans, the soothsayers.
And I told the dream to them, but they didn't make known unto me its interpretation. Verse 9, O belt as yazar, master of the magicians. Now here we meet the master of the Magi. And I'm just trying to point out that they are mentioned repeatedly in the book of Daniel. And rather than call them magicians, they should be Magi.
That's essentially what he's referring to. Now when Daniel came along and all these Magi who were in the high, high ranking place of advisors to the king couldn't give any answers, Daniel could. Something amazing happened. Daniel 5, 11. There is a man in thy kingdom in whom is the spirit of the holy gods and in the days of thy father light and understanding and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods was found in him, talking about Daniel now, whom the king Nebuchadnezzar thy father, the king I say thy father made master of the Magi. Now how interesting. Daniel was so adept at telling the dream to the king that the king made Daniel the master of the Magi so that Daniel was literally in Babylon the chief over this whole priestly group.
Okay? Fascinating. Now that puts Daniel in the tremendously unique position of being able to dispense to these Magi all of his information about the Old Testament, which without a shadow of a doubt is precisely what Daniel did. We know that Daniel was a man of God. We know that Daniel was a man totally devoted to worship and expression of his faith because he wound up in a lion's den because of it, didn't he? And there's no question in my mind but that Daniel and the other godly remnant in the diaspora of the dispersion shared their knowledge of the Old Testament and their copies of the scripture with these people in Babylon. And additionally, when the final decree of Cyrus came that they could go back to the land, the majority of the Jews never went back.
The majority of the Jews stayed in Babylon, intermingled, intermarried, and throughout the remaining history of Babylon and Medo-Persia, there were people in the noble families, people in the high-ranking offices, some say even monarchs in that part of the world who had part Jewish blood. And certainly we would have to conclude that Daniel had a profound impact in the dispensing of that information. And by the way, I want to add another footnote to this that as I was studying this was very fascinating to me because I began to think about this, if Daniel was so good at winning these Magi over and convincing them about this fact of the coming Messiah, why was it that they plotted against him and threw him in the lion's den if he was so influential and believable? And so I began to study and the sixth chapter of Daniel revealed a most interesting thing.
You don't need to, we're not going to go all through it, but this. In the sixth chapter of Daniel we find a plot against Daniel based on jealousy. But what is really amazing about this plot is that it is not a plot devised by the Magi who dominated the hierarchy of the royal court, it is a plot developed by men known as the satraps.
And I don't mean S-E-T, I mean S-A-T, satraps. That was the term used to describe the regional governors who had nothing to do with the palace. So remember, the plot that was hatched in jealousy against Daniel was not a plot hatched at the hands of the Magi, which again leads me to see that very likely Daniel was extremely believable and convincing in his impact. In fact, do you realize that when Daniel was actually being thrown in the lion's den, the king said, Daniel, I know that your God will deliver you. You remember the king actually said that. He was so convinced of the power of God for the testimony of Daniel.
And I'm sure he just checked it as often as he possibly could to see that that anticipation was in fact a reality. So the Magi kept their place of prominence, influenced no doubt by such a great man as Daniel and there were few who ever lived like him. Influenced by godly Jews in the dispersion. Influenced by the inner marriage and the constant Jewish culture that was imposed upon them in many ways. And they became and maintained a position in the Medo-Persian empire of great power in the court of the king.
Now let me tell you something else interesting. In the sixth century B.C., there was a great king of Persia by the name of Darius. Darius the Great. This is in the Medo-Persian empire. This is right around the time of Daniel. And Darius came in and Darius said, I am going to establish a national religion.
And you know which one he picked? Zoroastrianism. Now we don't have time to go into Zoroastrianism. But Zoroastrianism had with it a lot of astrology and it may well be that the final little nuances of astrology and the preoccupation of the Magi with that came in the merging of Zoroastrianism. So now what you've got is you've got these Magi who have their own culture religion. On top of that has been superimposed Judaism and on top of that has been superimposed Zoroastrianism.
Now that's really a can of worms to put it mildly. But what's so interesting is the Magi were so anxious to maintain their political power and they were so anxious to maintain their religious power that when the decree came from Darius that Zoroastrianism was the religion that was going to exist, they just slid right in and said, fine with us. And they made some adaptations. But now what you've got is very interesting. You've got the Magi all gobbled up here and you've got some of them no doubt committed to Zoroastrianism as time went on, some of them committed to ancient Magian formulas and some of them may be believing honestly in their heart that the God of Daniel was the real God.
And so this is the key. As history moved on from here, the Magi began to depart from a singular commitment to their historic religion. And they began to find their way into different things. Some may be leaning towards Zoroastrianism, some toward the ancient Magianism, and I believe in my heart that some, like these Magi that show up at the birth of Christ, were really true seekers of the true God.
And so that gives you a little bit of the background. This is Grace to You with John MacArthur, Chancellor of the Masters University and Seminary and Pastor of Grace Community Church. Today he explored both the Old Testament and New Testament to answer the question, who were the wise men? As John is piecing together the Christmas story in a way you may never have heard in a study John calls The Birth of the King. Well, with the weekend upon us and just over a week until Christmas for lots of people, John, I'm sure shopping is on the agenda. And for those who still haven't checked off everyone in their Christmas list, I know you have some gift ideas that can make a profound spiritual difference long after December 25th. Nothing is as powerful as divine truth. And it beats a bad sweater for Christmas, I think.
So let me mention a few Christmas gifts. Truth for Today. Truth for Today, particularly helpful for someone who may not be a Christian. It is a sort of a beginner basic level devotional book. It takes you through a series of devotions one day at a time and exposes the reader to a brief portion of biblical truth every day.
That's Truth for Today. It's a small, handy size devotional. Not expensive, just a really good starter for those who want to get started in daily devotion. And then One Perfect Life. I love this book. The book takes the four Gospels, blends all four of them so that you have one narrative telling the full story of Christ. A complete chronological narrative. And it includes notes from the MacArthur Study Bible that explain some of the issues in the text as you read. You start at the beginning, you read through the whole life of Christ as all the Gospels are blended, and you see how they perfectly harmonize. And then again, to remind you of the MacArthur Study Bible, kind of our flagship resource.
It's in the New American Standard translation, the ESV, the New King James, and a number of non-English translations, Spanish, Russian, German, French, Italian, Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, hardcover, leather, premium, goatskin, lots of different formats. But we're still hanging on to the sale price. We've discounted the price of every MacArthur Study Bible 25%, so this is a great time to order them for the people you love. By the way, the last day we recommend placing Christmas orders with second day shipping is next Monday, so don't delay. Place your Christmas orders now and we'll get your gifts to you as fast as we can.
Yes, we will. And friend, that 25% discount applies to every MacArthur Study Bible, including our many non-English translations. And again, you can still get those gifts before Christmas, but you're going to have to order soon. So to pick up Truth for Today, One Perfect Life or the MacArthur Study Bible, get in touch with us today. Our toll-free number, 855-GRACE. You can talk to our customer service representatives about expedited shipping options. Our business hours are Monday through Friday, 730 a.m. to 4 o'clock p.m. Pacific Time. Or you can place your order outside those hours at our website, gty.org.
Be sure to choose the shipping option you need. The number here again, 855-GRACE, and our website, gty.org. I would also encourage you to review John's current radio series at the website.
You can look for the title, The Birth of the King. You might want to point a friend to that series for their encouragement in these days before Christmas. And if you have an iPhone or an Android device, you'll want to download the Grace to You app. It gives you access to all of John's sermons wherever you take your phone. The app, all of John's sermons, and a whole lot more are available for free at gty.org. Now for John MacArthur, I'm Phil Johnson, reminding you to watch Grace to You television Sundays on DirecTV channel 378, or check your local listings, and then be here Monday when John continues his fascinating look at the wise men who visited Christ. It's another 30 minutes of unleashing God's truth, one verse at a time, on Grace to You.
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