They’ve been called kings, wise men, and astrologers, sorcerers, and magicians, but we ought to call them what they are: Magi. I know, that doesn’t tell you anything, but that’s just the point; we know what all those other things are, so we think we understand, at least a little, who these guys were. At least when we call them Magi, we know we don’t know, and maybe we’ll do a little investigation.
Matthew doesn’t just call them Magi, however; he tells us they are from the East. Of the four great empires mentioned in the Old Testament, only the Egyptian Empire is not from the east. The Assyrian, Babylonian, and the Medo-Persian Empires are from the east; in fact, these empires covered much of the same territory. The Babylonians wrested it from the Assyrians, and Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians (and also the kingdoms of Lydia and Media, thus forming the Medo-Persian Empire.)
Magi were priests of Zoroastrianism, and were originally from Media, where they were actually a priestly tribe not unlike the tribe of Levi in Israel. They were very powerful in the courts of the Babylonians and the Medo-Persians, so much so that Cyrus sought to put them down. They survived enough to revolt against his son Cambyses and install their own king, though he was murdered shortly thereafter when Darius became king. Still, their influence in the east continued even into the Greek and Roman empires.
They were politically powerful, rumored to be able to practice magic and sorcery, interpret dreams, and divine the stars. They influenced empires, overthrew empires, outlasted empires.
So Herod wasn’t just upset that some guys showed up asking about a newborn king of the Jews. If some guys just walked in off the street talking about a baby king he might have been curious, but he might not have taken it seriously.
But not Magi. Not from the East. Magi from the East asking about a new king and talking about a magical star; this was not to be ignored.
Herod knew to take this seriously, because this couldn’t be good. Especially when they said they came to give homage to this king.
Nothing mentioned about these Magi paying homage to Herod.
They apparently didn’t give him any gifts either.
When guys with a history of deposing and installing kings show up and don’t leave any gold, frankincense, and myrrh, there’s trouble afoot. And when they blew Herod off and skirted Jerusalem on their way back home, Herod understood what was going on:
It was brewing. A new king. A new kingdom.
If was just, as we often think of it, a spiritual kingdom, a heavenly kingdom, then Herod didn’t have anything to worry about. But Herod knew.
He knew that spiritual matters have earthly consequences, just as earthly matters have spiritual consequences. He knew that a king in heaven was king on earth, that in fact a heavenly king was king of the entire earth.
King not just of Jerusalem, but of Rome, Herod’s protector.
Magi don’t concern themselves with mere kingdoms—Magi deal with whole empires.
Matthew is telling us that Jesus didn’t come just to increase the population of heaven, he came to change the world.
And he did. And does. And will.
Will you join him?
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