Revive Our Hearts Podcast

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Who Were the Magi?

Dannah Gresh: Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth reminds us of an important truth.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: God is sovereign over all history, over all kings, over all rulers, over all kingdoms. No king or ruler or kingdom can thwart the will of God. You’ve heard me say it many times, and I want to say it here again: heaven rules!

Dannah: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of Choosing Gratitude, for January 4, 2021. I’m Dannah Gresh.

Just who were the mysterious visitors that showed up to worship Baby Jesus? And what do they have to do with you and me? That’s something Nancy explores in this new series from Revive Our Hearts. Here’s Nancy.

Nancy: Let me invite you to open in your Bible, if you’re able, to Matthew chapter 2, the gospel of Matthew, the first book of the New Testament, chapter 2, verse 1. If you want to scroll there on your phone . . . if you’re driving, I would suggest you just listen. But I want to read to you from the gospel of Matthew, beginning in verse 1.

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men [or some of your translations say Magi] from the east came to Jerusalem.

Now some of you are thinking, Hold on! This is part of the Christmas story, so why are we talking about this in January? I just got all my decorations put away! I don’t think I want to hear about the wise men anymore.

Well, our modern-day Christmas season begins . . . what? . . . back some time in October? But in Church history, the Christmas season started on December 25 and then it continued for twelve days. So there really are twelve days of Christmas—December 25 through January 5. And then that twelve-day period is followed by a feast on January 6, which falls on Wednesday this year. That feast marks the end of the Christmas season.

In some faith traditions, that day, the 6th, is observed on the Church calendar as Epiphany, or you may have heard it called “The Epiphany of the Lord.” And along with Christmas and Easter, Epiphany is one of the three main and oldest festival days that has been observed by the Christian Church throughout Church history.

Now, you may not be familiar with that word. The word “epiphany” means “appearance or manifestation or revelation.” You say, “I had an epiphany.” It means you had an “ah-ha” moment, a moment of sudden or great revelation. But originally that word was used to refer to the manifestation of God to the Gentile world. And it was linked with the visit of the wise men, or the Magi, to the Christ Child.

So, Epiphany celebrates the Messiah came, not only for the salvation of the Jews—the Jews knew that was coming—but that He also came for the salvation of the Gentiles. And I’m so glad, because that includes us.

I have some friends who are living in Spain, and they wrote the last time Epiphany came around, and said,

Epiphany is celebrated here in Spain as Three Kings’ Day, with more gusto and bang than Christmas Day. There’s a big parade on January 5, culminating with the Three Magi taking thrones in the town’s central park, letting kids sit on their laps to ask them to bring them something on Three Kings’ Day.

Then that night, legend has it, that the Three Kings sneak into all the homes and leave gifts for the kids—not unlike Santa Claus.

I love having the days separated from Christmas in part because the visit of the Magi probably happened two years after Jesus was born. But also because it allows us to consider the role that seeking and seeing play in the life lived with Jesus.

Advent teaches us to wait and prepare. Christmas teaches us to receive and rejoice. And the Epiphany was, for the Magi, an experience of finally seeing what they had sought and then responding appropriately.

Now, that first Christmas, the vast majority of people had no idea who Jesus was or why He was born or that that there was anything remarkable about Him. To them, He was just another baby born to a poor Jewish couple.

But surrounding Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem—and over the last several weeks we’ve been talking about this a lot in our churches and in our study of the Word—God revealed His Son’s identity to several different people or groups of people. And most of those accounts are found in the gospel of Luke, chapters 1 and 2.

So you remember, before Jesus’ birth, God made known to Zechariah the priest and Elizabeth his wife that the Messiah was coming, and their son John the Baptist would be the forerunner of the Messiah.

And then God sent an angel to make this known to Mary and to Joseph.

And then the night that Jesus was born, you remember the shepherds were in the field, and the angel choir came and told them of the birth of this Child.

And then after Jesus was born, when He was forty-days old, He was taken to the temple, as the Law ordered, to be dedicated by His mother and Joseph. And there in the temple, He was met by two elderly saints, Anna and Simeon, who had been eagerly awaiting the birth of the Messiah.

Now, all these people were faithful Jews. But then we come to Matthew chapter 2, and this is where God made known this wonder of the birth of the Messiah to a group of Gentiles. Now, that may not sound like a big deal to you, but that but would have been astounding to the Jews of that day who thought that they (the Jews) had a corner on Yahweh and on the Messiah. Gentiles? What’s this about? God coming to make Himself known to Gentiles? That would have been unthinkable to them.

So go back with me now to Matthew chapter 2, verse 1.

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men [the Magi] from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

Let’s stop there. We’ll continue on in this passage all through this week, but this account is only found in Matthew’s gospel. And what we find here in Matthew chapter 2 that it is actually quite different from the way that the wise men are pictured in most of our culture—on Christmas cards, in nativity scenes and crèches, the popular carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”

If you put all those together, you come up with a number of, well, let’s call them myths and misconceptions about the wise men.

For starters, we have no idea how many there actually were. Legend has it that there were three, and you can see on this little set we have here today we’re following that legend in this set of wise men that actually came from my home, my Christmas setting. I love them. I think they’re beautiful, and I put them up at Christmas. But we don’t know that there were three.

In fact, Eastern Orthodox tradition says that there were twelve. It could have been more than that. I think the number three probably came from the fact that there were three different kinds of gifts that they brought to the Child Jesus. But we don’t know how many there were. However many, they likely had an entourage with them, something like a military escort accompanying them on the long journey.

Most of our nativity scenes and crèches, including, I might say, several in my home, show the wise men—where? At the manger, on their camels, right next to Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and their sheep. But we know that’s not how it actually happened.

We know that the shepherds came to the manger the night that Jesus was born. The wise men likely came at least weeks, if not months or a couple of years, later. The family by this time was no longer where the manger was. By this time, they were in a home in Bethlehem.

Furthermore, we don’t know what their names were. Sometime, about 500 years A.D., the tradition began that they were called “Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar.”

Andy Griffith (The Very First Noel):

There’s Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and those three on bended knee.
That handsome guy’s Melchior. I should know, he’s me.
Several weeks had passed when by the light of that same star
There came a second wise man by the name of Balthazar.
We came upon a third wise man, a welcome new companion.
He’d traveled from the distant East, the East that’s called Far.
And bowing with a gentle smile, he spoke his name, Caspar.1

Nancy: But that’s not in the Bible. We don’t know what their names were.

We’re also not told that they were kings . . . “We Three Kings.” We don’t believe that they were kings. That might be assumed because there are some Old Testament prophecies that speak of kings worshipping the Messiah—and we’ll look at those later in this series. But they probably weren’t kings.

It’s also unlikely that they rode to Jerusalem and then Bethlehem on camels. They were more likely, commentators say, Persian horses.

We also picture them following the star from their home country all the way to Jerusalem. Is that what you thought? Perhaps you did.

Song: “The First Noel”

And by the light of that same star,
Three wise men came from country far
To seek for a king was their intent,
And to follow the star wherever it went.
Noel, noel, noel, noel,
Born is the King of Israel.2

Nancy: But Scripture doesn’t actually say that. In fact, it suggests that they actually only saw the star while they were in their home country in the east, and then they traveled, without seeing the star, to where they had seen it located. And then, once they got to Jerusalem, the star led them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.

You say, “That’s kind of a small detail.” It is. But, as we study this passage, we want to see what the Scripture has to say to us about the wise men. And I hope in the process that I haven’t totally messed up future Christmases for you!

Scripture doesn’t give us a lot of details about the wise men, so this has been a fascinating study for me to try to dig into what it does say. But here’s one thing that we know: And that is the Scripture tells us everything we need to know about the wise men. We know that what we are told is inspired by God, and “it is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,” as 2 Timothy 3 tells us. All of God’s Word is inspired and is profitable. This passage matters, and it matters for us today.

So who were these “wise men”? Some of your English translations say Magi, The Magi. The Greek word here is the word magos which sounds like our word “magician”—magi, magos, magician.

  • These wise men were counselors to the kings of ancient Media, Persia, Babylon and those countries.
  • They were scholars.
  • They were part of a priestly tribe.
  • They were well-educated in science and philosophy.
  • They were astronomers. They studied the stars and the planets because they believed that they contained divine messages for our world.
  • These men were king-makers. They worked for the kings. They were the educated elite, and they vetted and approved any new king who came to the throne.

Now, we don’t know for sure where they came from. The Scripture only says that they came “from the East.” Most believe that they were from Persia, which would be modern-day Iran. Some believe they came from ancient Babylon, which would now be Iraq.

Others think that they came from the ancient kingdom of Sheba. There’s a reference to this in Psalm 72 that we’ll look at in a bit. Sheba would be the modern-day Yemen, at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. That country, Yemen, is known for its vast resources of gold and for its production of frankincense and myrrh. So that’s a possibility.

But the answer is: We don’t know for sure where they came from. Any of those places would have been a thousand miles or more away from Jerusalem and Bethlehem. So get that picture that this was not, like, the next state. This was a great distance in that era.

How did the wise men know that the star they saw when they were back in the East signified the birth of a king in Israel? I mean, you look at the night sky, and you see some bright stars.

  • What would cause them to look up and see a star, a particular star, and say, “This signifies that a king has been born”?
  • And how would they have known that He was the “King of the Jews”?
  • And why would they have cared about going to worship this infant King in a faraway country? It wasn’t their own country. It wasn’t their own king, as far as they knew, so how did they know, and why did they care?

Well, the quick answer is going to be: We don’t know for sure.

But I think there’s some clues the Scripture gives us that are helpful.

First of all, we can assume, and it’s safe to assume that God revealed this to them supernaturally. God is the one who let them know, and they believed the word that God revealed to them.

But also, as we go back and we read historians of that era, Roman historians wrote about the belief at that time that someone coming from Judea would rule over the earth. This was a commonly believed thing in that time.

One commentator says,

About the time Jesus was born, there was in the world a strange feeling of expectation of the coming of a king.

You see, before sending His Son into this world, God had planted in the hearts of scholars and thinkers and kings and rulers and historians this concept. He had given hints of it throughout the Old Testament Scripture that a King was coming. God was preparing the way. “In the fullness of time God sent forth His Son into the world” (Gal. 4:4). This was part of the fullness of time.

Now, I’m going to tell you something here that is maybe informed speculation. I can’t be dogmatic about this, but here’s a possible explanation or a bit of context that I think is really plausible, about the wise men. It goes back to the sixth century before Christ.

You remember, this is when the Jewish people were exiled from Judah and Israel to—where? Babylon, for seventy years. Because of their sin, God sent them into captivity in Babylon.

Daniel was among the Hebrews that were taken captive. When he got there, he was conscripted to serve King Nebuchadnezzar. God gave Daniel and his three friends wisdom and ability that was greater than all the king’s other counselors.

When you come to Daniel chapter 2, you read that Nebuchadnezzar had some dreams that troubled him, and they disturbed his sleep. And then verse 2 of Daniel 2 says, “Then the king commanded that the magicians, the enchanters [remember that word], the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans be summoned to tell the king his dreams.”

That word “enchanters,” in the Greek translation of the Old Testament is magos. (The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew. The Greek translation of the Old Testament is called the Septuagint.) In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, that word is magos—Magi, wise men.

So King Nebuchadnezzar sent out to these “wise men” and he said, “Tell me my dream, and tell me what it means.” These were supposed to be the most educated, the most erudite, the most gifted men in the kingdom. And what happened? They couldn’t do it. They didn’t know. They had no idea.

They said, “If you tell us the dream, we can tell you what it means.” (They could just make something up. Right?) But they couldn’t tell the king his dream because they had no supernatural or godly power or wisdom.

The king was furious. He commanded that all these wise men should be destroyed, but before that could happen, God sovereignly intervened and gave Daniel, who was placed there for such a time as this, the ability to tell and interpret the king’s dream.

And then Daniel 2:48 says,

Then the king gave Daniel high honors and many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men [the magos, the Magi] of Babylon.

So who’s in charge now? The Magi now reported to Daniel. Now, Daniel was no smarter than these men, but he knew the God who is the source of all wisdom. It’s likely that in the ensuing years, Daniel told these men who reported to him about the Hebrew God. These men were learners. They were students. They were scholars. They wanted to learn. And Daniel, who had such a vibrant relationship with God, certainly would have told them about his God.

Even at times, as you read through the book of Daniel, when he was attacked for his faith, his commitment to God, his loyalty to God, Daniel faithfully continued to worship the one true and living God.

Daniel served under four different kings in Babylon and then the kingdom of the Medes and the Persians. In each of those he held a key leadership position in the kingdom for decades. So he was an influencer.

During that time of his influence, God gave Daniel visions of what would take place in the future. And those visions included prophecies of a Messiah. If you’ve read the book of Daniel recently, you know that some of these visions are very hard to understand. They’re complex, and you read all kinds of study Bibles and commentaries, and you come away scratching your head and saying, “I’m not sure what all that means.”

Daniel didn’t fully understand what all they meant, but they were recorded for us in the Scripture. And it’s clear that there was coming a Messiah. For example, in Daniel chapter 9 we’re told that a Gentile ruler would issue a decree for the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their city. We know that happened under King Cyrus. And then it says that 483 years later, when you do all the math in that chapter, 483 later the Messiah would come into the city and would be put to death.

Now, you come to the book of Nehemiah, where the order to rebuild Jerusalem was issued by King Artaxerxes, and 483 years later, Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem . . . 483 years after that order.

Now, it’s very possible, and I think it’s likely, that Daniel told the wise men, the Magi, the magos, of his day about the promised Messiah and King. I think it’s likely they knew these promises, and they passed those prophecies on from one generation to the next.

It’s very possible that the wise men, the Magi, in Jesus’ day were descendants of the wise men in Babylon in Daniel’s day. So it’s not at all surprising that the Magi in Jesus’ day had paid attention to the clues found in Daniel’s prophecies and that they were waiting expectantly for Messiah to be born when this unusual star showed up in the night sky.

Now, we’re going to talk more about that star later this week as we walk through Matthew chapter 2. Let me go back to the first two verses that we’ve looked at today, Matthew 2, starting in verse 1:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men [Magi] from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him."

Let me just give us three takeaways from those two verses.

First of all, “In the days of Herod the king,” we’re going to talk more about Herod tomorrow, but we’re going to see that Herod was a cruel, evil ruler. And yet, “In the days of Herod the king,” we’re also going to see that God is sovereign. He’s sovereign over all history, over all kings, over all rulers, over all kingdoms. No king or ruler or kingdom can thwart the will of God.

You’ve heard me say it many times, and I want to say it here again: heaven rules—heaven rules. Even “in the days of Herod the king.” Even in times of ungodly, undeserving, wicked rulers, God is in control. God always has His ways. In the midst of any rule, any kingdom, God is accomplishing His purposes and bringing His Kingdom to earth.

And then this passage says, “Wise men came from the east [these were pagan lands and they came] to worship Him, to worship the newborn Messiah. This is astonishing if you think about it, but it reminds me that God can supernaturally and irresistibly draw the hearts of those who are far from Him. God can transform secular scholars, scientists, and influencers into seekers and worshippers of Jesus. He can.

There’s no ruler, no kingdom, no influencer, no scientist, nobody who’s so smart that God cannot supernaturally and irresistibly draw their heart to become a seeker and a worshipper of Jesus. Those men would never have sought after God if He had not drawn them.

Let me give you a little secret: Neither would you or I ever have sought after God if He had not put it in our hearts to do so. You think about that person you know in a government position or in a position in your work place or a position in our society, and they seem so far from Christ. Let me just remind you as my dad used to say, “There are no tough nuts for God to crack.” And my dad knew that because he had been so far from God, so rebellious against anything biblical or godly when God reached down and grabbed his heart and brought him to faith many, many decades ago.

And then one more takeaway here. As I think about Daniel, here’s a righteous man who worked for unrighteous kings in a pagan country. It’s a hard place to be, isn’t it? Sometimes you feel like that Daniel in your work place, in your family maybe, in our culture. But Daniel faithfully worshipped God, listened to His Word, and influenced those around him with his faith. He had no idea that 600 years later, the descendants of those he had lived and worked with would travel to Jerusalem to find and worship the newborn Messiah. He was just faithful in his era, where he was, but 600 years later, those seeds that had been planted came to fruition.

In God’s providence, your faithfulness to God and to His Word today may have ripple effect for generations to come. It may provide clues for those who come behind you to seek and to find King Jesus.

And, Lord, that’s what we want, that’s what we desire, that’s what we long for. Thank You for these reminders from Your Word that heaven rules, that there are no hearts so tough or so far away that You cannot conquer them and draw them to Yourself. Thank You for drawing our hearts. Use us, I pray, in our places of influence, to believe You steadfastly, to cling to Your promises, to share them with others.

And then I thank You, by faith, for the fruit that will come even in generations yet to come as we are faithful to You today. I pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

Dannah: Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has been talking about the wise men who came to worship Jesus. She just began a series that brings us to an in-depth look at those wise men and the context surrounding the Christmas story.

Some of our listeners shared how today’s message was meaningful to them. Let’s listen.

Cindy: One of the things that ministered to my soul this morning was just the picture of Daniel in hard times calling God’s calling hard in the midst of probably what we don’t conceive of the hardness of a pagan society and an evil king. It’s a comfort knowing that our future that seems so uncertain, that whoever God places there, we don’t have to be afraid.

And then, personally, my daughter-in-law seems so far from God. She’s bi-polar and just a mess. It’s rough on the family, and I’m right in the middle of it. And just the exhortation that “no nut is too hard to crack” just gave me the affirmation that God is able and very able.

Nancy: Amen, amen. God’s Word gives us faith, doesn’t it, to believe Him for the impossible.

Jean Hynes: My name is Jean Hynes, and going on what you had said, the idea of us being faithful and keeping our focus on God, like the wise men kept their focus on the star. We are made righteous because of Him, and there is nothing too difficult, no situation too hard, “no nut too hard to crack,” because I was cracked, and God rescued me. He can use us in the lives of others because heaven rules.

Nancy: Amen.

Sue: I liked what you said at the end, “If God hadn’t put it in your heart, you wouldn’t seek Him.” I feel personally that is so true for me. He’s spoken to me so many times about so many things. That resonated with me, that if He didn’t want you, He wouldn’t seek you. And He wants us all. We just have to listen. He is a seeking God.

Nancy: Oh, my goodness, amen.

Gladine: It’s astonishing to me to see God’s meticulous providence in how He spoke back to Daniel, in Daniel 9, and how the details all come together and how it points to Jesus. It’s amazing.

Nancy: It really is. This was like going on a dig for gold for me in this study. Things just keep coming together and points connect and parts of Scripture connect that you had no idea. So I love that. God’s meticulous providence.

Gladine: Something else came to me. We have all heard so many stories about Christmas and the wise men, and this is really interesting to clarify some of the truths or the things behind what we have read and how they happened. To have some clarification is really very interesting and enlightening, and I’ve really enjoyed that part.

Dannah: Thanks for sharing, Cindy, Jean, Sue, and Gladine.

In today’s message, we saw how the Lord was working in difficult circumstances at the time of Jesus’ birth. You know what? He’s still at work today. I’m reminded of another place in the Bible where God worked through challenging situations to accomplish His purposes—the book of Ruth.

I’m so excited to tell you about our newest Women of the Bible study—“Ruth: Experiencing a Life Restored.” This study showcases God’s restoration through the book of Ruth, and you’ll see how Jesus can restore your life, no matter how desperate your circumstances may seem.

This brand-new study is now available, and we’d like to send you a copy when you make a donation to support the ministry of Revive Our Hearts today. It’s our way of saying “thank you.” Your support of this ministry makes it possible, and we’re just so grateful.

Visit ReviveOurHearts.com to give, or call us at 1–800–569–5959 to donate.

Along with this study, the Ruth season of the Women of the Bible podcast will be released—a new episode each Monday—starting a week from today. So grab a cup of coffee or some tea and join my dear friend Erin Davis and her friends as they walk you through the study and share how they’ve seen the Lord’s restoration in their own lives.

Here’s a sneak peek from week one of the Ruth podcast:

Erin Davis: In this first session of this season you’re reminding us that Scripture is not about us because I think the lens we want to view Ruth is: I’m Ruth, and the Lord is going to give me my Boaz, or He’s going to transform my current man into a Boaz, or whatever, and this story isn’t about us.

Gayle Villalba: All the way through. I’m presently doing the Chronological Bible.

Erin: Me, too!

Gayle: Are you?

Erin: Yes.

Gayle: So, Ezekiel, right?

Erin: Yes! We’re in the weeds a little bit.

Gayle: Yes, yes. But I’m trying to see it through the lens of Jesus, finding Jesus in the hard areas of Scripture. And He’s there. And it just fills me with joy every time I see it.

Erin: Yes.

Dannah: That’s just a little taste of the soon-to-be-released Women of the Bible podcast. It’s part of the new Revive Our Hearts podcast family. This season of Ruth will release next week, so stay tuned.

Now that December is over, you may be wondering if we met our year-end matching challenge. Can I say, “Thank you for giving last month?” But we’re still checking for any last-minute donations that were mailed in on the 31st, so we’ll let you know later this week if we were able to meet that challenge amount.

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the different characters in the Christmas story: King Herod, the wise men, Jewish religious leaders, and King Jesus. We’ll see the picture of the cosmic battle for worship. Join us tomorrow as Nancy continues in this new series here on Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth reminds you that God’s will cannot be thwarted. It’s an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

1 The Very First Noel (The Three Wise Men), starring Andy Griffith, ASPIRON ENTERTAINMENT. https://www.amazon.com/Three-Wise-Men-Andy-Griffith/dp/B08M25DQT2/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=the+three+wise+men&qid=1608663747&sr=8-1

2 "The First Noel." Christmas Songs and Carols—Love to Sing ℗ 2019 Christmas Songs and Carols 
https://open.spotify.com/album/1TsEGg1GHQZBF4LutWIDSs?si=WylU0_mzScmjKnlgdXhx7A

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About the Teacher

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has touched the lives of millions of women through Revive Our Hearts and the True Woman movement, calling them to heart revival and biblical womanhood. Her love for Christ and His Word is infectious, and permeates her online outreaches, conference messages, books, and two daily nationally syndicated radio programs—Revive Our Hearts and Seeking Him.

She has authored twenty-two books, including Lies Women Believe and the Truth That Sets Them Free, Seeking Him (coauthored), Adorned: Living Out the Beauty of the Gospel Together, and You Can Trust God to Write Your Story (coauthored with her husband). Her books have sold more than five million copies and are reaching the hearts of women around the world. Nancy and her husband, Robert, live in Michigan.