How did the wise men know that the star represented the Messiah? Why did they, as pagans, travel all that distance? Where did we get the name “magi” for them? Also, I saw in a songbook specific names for each of the three men; where did those names come from?
Let me address your last questions first. Concerning the name “magi,” I am tempted to have you simply add the letter “c” to the end of the word, and you’d have your answer. I know it is not quite as simple as that, as “magi” is a “corruption” and rather inclusive. Nevertheless, one can readily get the picture that these men studied the stars, among other subjects, like medicine and even dreams. We have two views concerning the spirituality of these men. Some believe they were merely curious sorcerers or fortune-tellers interested in the birth of a foreign king. Others believe they were spiritual men who really sought after the true God.
The names occasionally used of the men—Melchoir, Balthasar, and Gaspar—appeared around A.D. 600 in an Armenian writing. But the names are misleading because they assume only three men came to worship Jesus. They also imply there had to be exactly the same number of men as the recorded gifts given to the Christ Child. In reality, there could have been dozens in the party (even 300 or more, as estimated by some scholars). Some scholars point out that Herod probably wouldn’t have been worried sick had there been only three men coming to see Him. Also, the men were not necessarily kings, as our popular Christmas carol “We Three Kings” indicates. The church father Tertullian may have been a source of this “king” idea. Yet there isn’t much doubt that the men were of a high class of people.
Now, how did they know the star represented the Messiah? One view is that God communicated with them exclusively and directly communicated concerning this matter. He knew their heart’s desire. Later in the account of the wise men in Matthew 2, we find God speaking directly to them regarding their returning home without going back to Herod.
Another view is that, along with the above, the magi (especially as a successionist group from past centuries) knew certain Scripture passages that foretold this event. Daniel 2:12 and 18 and 4:6 and 18 tell of wise men in Babylon, where the wise men of Matthew 2 also could well have come from. The visitors of Jesus could have been familiar with the various writings of Daniel, including the well-known prophetic passage of Daniel 9:24–27. Being the scholars that they were, they could have, from this passage, calculated the time of the appearance of “Messiah the Prince”; and the divine giving of the star only confirmed that this time had come. They knew where to go (Jerusalem), since this sign was for the Messiah, King of the Jews. The Scripture account doesn’t say that the star actually led them to Jerusalem, as often supposed; the only time the star is recorded to seemingly do any leading was from Jerusalem to Bethlehem after they saw Herod (Matthew 2:9). From their homeland to Jerusalem they may not have seen the star at all. By the way, this possibility answers those who try to assign the star to all sorts of astronomical speculation. Some say that the star was some sort of confluence of stars, and the like. But Scripture indicates that God supernaturally made that star for the occasion.
Another passage they may have known is Numbers 24:17. Here Balaam the Old Testament prophet wrote, “A Star shall come out of Jacob; a Scepter shall rise out of Israel.” Still another view is that the wise men were Jews who had descended from those who stayed in Babylon after the captivity. If that were the case, they would know the Jewish prophecies concerning the Messiah, including those in Daniel. A weakness in this view, however, is that they evidently were totally ignorant of Micah’s prophecy of Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus (Micah 5:2); they had to seek this information when they stopped in Jerusalem.
If the wise men did use Scripture to connect with the star and take the long journey to Bethlehem, it certainly is a powerful testimony concerning obedience to the Word of God. Also, it shows that when we act on Scripture, we are given more Scriptural light, as was the case with the wise men when they arrived in Jesusalem and learned from further Scripture that Jesus had been born in Bethlehem.
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