Do members of foreign religions sometimes offer God greater honor than we who follow the Bible? Does God work through non-Christian religions to bring people to himself? What do the Babylonian captivity of ancient Israel, a pagan religion and worldly politics have to do with the birth of Christ? We cannot limit God to our narrow vision of the world.
In Matthew 2:1 we are introduced to Herod. The name applied to a dynasty of foreign Edomite (i. e. Idumean) kings. As clients of Rome their rule included Galilee and Judea during the time of Christ. They were known for military expertise, cruelty and being lovers of luxury. As subcontractors to the Roman Emperor, they enforced Roman rule, took taxes in the form of money, food and merchandise, and kept order. While taking taxes for Rome, they were also free to take for themselves. The excessive tax burdens led to unbearable poverty which, along with the imposition of emperor worship, led to frequent revolts by zealots. It was a precarious position with threats all around. So, the kingdom of God, while not of this world, was understood as a political force by the disciples, Jewish leaders and the Romans.
Jews were deported from their own land into Babylonian captivity during the 500’s BC. At that time the chief of the magi was Nergal-Sharezer. They were the wise men of Babylon, priests, physicians, alchemists and astrologers. Their influence was widespread throughout much of the middle east. They most likely came into contact with teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures during the Jewish Babylonian captivity and mixed them into their own religion. Many Jews did not return from exile in Babylon and may have had further influence on the religion of the magi. The particular magi who came to visit the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:1) could have come from virtually anywhere east of Jerusalem such as Persia, Babylon, Arabia, or India. It was 500 years later, a long time. National tragedy can be used by God to bring people to Jesus.
Ever since we were children we have heard of the visit of the Magi after Jesus was born (Matthew 2:1). Who were they? The Greek term is magoi. Friberg defines this as wise men of the Magian religion, magicians or sorcerers. Louw and Nida prefer “men of wisdom who studied the stars.” An ancient historian, Herodotus of Halicarnassus called them interpreters of omens and dreams who perhaps still sacrificed to Persian gods. They were possibly baptized into the church many years later by the apostle Thomas while on his way to plant churches in India. Why did pagans show more belief than followers of God? Herod had access through the Jews who had even easier access, but most of them chose not to be interested. What is our reaction to the birth of Jesus?
How does Israel’s Babylonian Captivity tie in with Christmas? What if our country was conquered by a foreign nation and large numbers of our population were exiled, taken captive for about 60 years? We have never experienced that, but historically native Americans and African Americans have. English history in Australia and the U.S. State of Georgia was begun by exiling prisoners to form a population base. During Israel’s captivity the current Babylonian Hebrew alphabet began. Jeremiah, 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Daniel and several deuterocanonical books recorded it. Many Jews never returned home. It was probably also their first major contact with the Magi, who were the sacred class in ancient Babylon. Their knowledge was a mixture of astrological superstition, semi-scientific alchemy, magic and early Zoroastrianism. It was descendants of this group who honored Jesus’ birth (Matthew 2:1).
When the Magi inquired about Jesus in Matthew 2:2 they said that they had come to worship him. This upset Herod who plotted to kill Jesus. These wise men of the east did not come merely to honor Jesus, but to worship him. When Jesus was tempted by Satan he was told to bow down and worship the devil. But Jesus replied that worship is something reserved only for God (Matthew 4:10), and he told the devil to leave. In Greek, the same wording is used for when a leper, a synagogue leader, the disciples, a gentile woman and Zebedee’s wife also worshiped Jesus (Matthew 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20; 28:9, 17). Although it is popular for people to think of Jesus as merely a good man, he was God with us.
How can we bring people of different religions to Christ? Over the years I’ve seen many different approaches all the way from outright insults to arguments showing them the “error of their ways” and numerous more tactful approaches. How about letting God bring them to Christ? That’s what happened to the Magi. How God did it is also interesting. Magi were astrologers among other things. How would God bring an astrologer to Christ? God has used many ways to reveal himself to people. In this case he used their own religion and revealed his purpose in a manner that they would understand, a star. There is nothing to be found of Old Testament language of condemnation for these pagans, but rather a gentle leading to the place of Christ’s birth even using elements of their own faith (Matthew 2:2).
When the wise men from Babylon or Persia inquired about Jesus (Matthew 2:3) they had no idea of the politics involved. They only wanted to worship the Messiah and seem to have naively believed that others would too. However, there were a lot of power plays threatened by this news. Israel was ruled by a brutal foreign king, Herod, who was a client of the Roman Emperor. Herod was vulnerable. He had encountered trouble with Rome and Jewish zealots before and had brutally murdered many other potential rivals. Jewish leaders had made an uneasy peace with the devil by cooperating with Rome and its puppet king Herod. They had profited by this compromise and zealots rising up to free Judea were a threat to their arrangement. The kingdom of heaven and its Messiah were a political threat all around.
Of about a million Jews living in Babylonian captivity only about 42,000 returned to Jerusalem. The rest remained in the Persian Empire. Unlike their relatives who had returned they had peace and protection for a thousand years. Over the next 1500 year history of the diaspora in Babylon, the head of the Jewish community was always a descendant of king David and had noble status in community life. It was here that the current Hebrew script was invented and the Babylonian Talmud was written. As Jews intermingled with Babylonian society and some possibly even intermarried, the Hebrew Scriptures would have eventually influenced local religions. Median Priests, the Magi, had great prestige in Babylon. Their political power included approving who would be king and they appointed judges. They believed in one god and were influenced by ideas of a Messiah.
The gifts given to Jesus in Matthew 2:11 were gold, frankincense and myrrh. The number of the wise men is taken from the three gifts, but they could have been as many as twelve people according to eastern tradition. Gold was a gift for royalty. Frankincense and myrrh are aromatic herbs with healing properties. Frankincense comes from the sap of Boswellia trees and used for incense, perfume and anointing oil (Exodus 30:32-34). As a gift it possibly symbolized Jesus' high priestly office. Myrrh comes from the sap of Commiphora trees, is bitter and another ingredient of anointing oil. As a preservative is was used to anoint the dead and thus foretold Jesus’ death on the cross. The gifts may have been seen as prophetic and symbolic of Christ as king, high priest and suffering savior.
Some foreign dignitaries with a completely different religion recognized Christ and brought a gift. Herod did not. Instead he plotted to kill the Christ child. The powerful often do not seek to give others recognition but to remain in power. It’s something that we see in our western democracies and is the same story no matter the form of government down through history. The story of the wandering astrologers, the Magi tells us that things are about to change. Non-Jews would soon be embraced by God. Herod did not offer a gift. He feared change, feared that his position may be about to be taken away. When we hear of a change in God’s way of doing things, we can choose to fear and threaten or bring a gift to the Messiah. What gift do we bring (Matthew 2:11)?
As we think of the story of the Magi, it is natural to ask about what gifts we bring to the Christ. The Magi did not bring money, though that would have been a very useful gift for Jesus’ parents, but we do have other things that we can offer. One of the greatest gifts that we can bring to Jesus is our attendance in his presence every chance we get. We call this discipleship. As we listen to what he has to teach, we offer a gift by putting it into practice. He calls that being doers and not just hearers of the word. That means that we show love to God and neighbor, that we show compassion to others, that we forgive as he forgave, that we practice the way of self-sacrifice offering our whole selves to him.
The western tradition of three magi comes from the number of gifts that they gave. Eastern traditions suggests that there may have been twelve. While they were certainly high officials, it is a myth that they were kings. That idea possibly arose around the 8th century in trying to retrofit Psalm 72:11 which was not meant to be quite that time-specific in nature. The names Melchior (a Persian scholar or king), Caspar (an Indian) and Balthazar (an Arabian) are also probably also fictitious embellishments because they came from one country (Matthew 2:12). The Christmas Nativity Scene is often but not always a montage of two events, Jesus born in a stable and the magi visiting him later in a house. What is significant is that among the first to recognize Jesus as ruler of Israel were foreigners.
Members of other religions sometimes offer God greater honor than believers in the Bible. God often works through non-Christian religions to bring people to himself. We cannot limit God to our narrow vision of the world. If leaders of another religion offered expensive gifts to Christ, what do we offer?