Gifts for a King! What is the Magi Story all About?

by Lois Tverberg

One of the stories of Christmas that seems to be most cryptic is that of the wise men. Who were they? Where did they come from? Why did they give Jesus the gifts they did? Why are they called magi and what does the word magi mean? Why do we sometimes call them kings? What is the significance of this story, and what does it say about Jesus?

Let’s take a look at the text:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’” … On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of frankincense and of myrrh. (Matt. 2:1-6, 11)

Expecting a king

The first question that we should ask is, why are they expecting a king, and why is Herod concerned? The answer comes from looking back at some promises from the scriptures. In Micah 4, the prophet told of a messianic age when God would set everything right. Micah said that a king would arise from Bethlehem, the city where David had been born several hundred years before:

“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Too little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will go forth for
Me to be ruler in Israel.
His goings forth are from long ago,
From the days of eternity.” …
He will arise and shepherd His flock
In the strength of the LORD,
In the majesty of the name of the LORD His God. (Micah 5:2, 4)

This king that would come would be a descendent of David. This comes from a very important promise that God had made to King David, who had displayed great faith and love for God:

“‘I declare to you that the LORD will build a house for you: When your days are over and you go to be with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. I will never take my love away from him, as I took it away from your predecessor. I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever.’” (1 Chron. 17:10b-14)

This is the one who Herod feared, this great king that God himself would bring into power.

Prophecies about this king

When a powerful king arises in a country, other kings would give him gifts to form alliances and show friendliness toward that nation. David and Solomon, Israel’s most powerful kings, formed many alliances with the nations around them. One story from Solomon’s life is even reminiscent of the story of the wise men:

When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relation to the name of the LORD, she came to test him with hard questions. Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan — with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones — she came to Solomon and talked with him about all that she had on her mind. … And she gave the king 120 talents of gold, large quantities of spices, and precious stones. Never again were so many spices brought in as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon. (1 Kings 10:1-2, 10)

Interestingly, other prophecies describe this same thing occurring when the messianic age would come. In Isaiah 60 it says:

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. … The wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and frankincense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD. (Is 60:1-4, 6)

Psalm 72 prophesies a similar thing about the messianic king:

He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; he will crush the oppressor. He will endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through all generations. … He will rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. The desert tribes will bow before him and his enemies will lick the dust. The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him; the kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts. All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him. For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight. Long may he live! May gold from Sheba be given him. (Ps. 72: 4-5, 8-15) 

Gifts from Sheba

In all three of these stories, royalty from Sheba would come bearing gifts, including gold, precious stones, and spices including frankincense. Where is Sheba? It is at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula, where Yemen is today. It was known in ancient times as possessing great wealth — gold, jewels and spices.

Spices don’t seem very precious to us, but in ancient times, some spices and aromatic oils were worth more than their weight in diamonds because of their rarity and use as perfumes, incense and medicine. Herod gained much of his fantastic wealth by trading in spices and regulating the trading routes.

To transport them over 1,800 miles through the dangerously dry, barren Arabian desert, camels were the only animals that could be used. From these Old Testament prophecies we can get some reason of why the tradition was that royalty would come from the east, and that they would be on camels.

Who are the magi?

In different text translations the travelers are called wise men, magi or astrologers. The term “wise men,” hakamim, is often used in the Old Testament to describe a pagan king’s counselors that are schooled in the magical arts, and are often mentioned with magicians and diviners.

Pagan kings like the Pharaoh in Egypt had magicians who interpreted dreams and imitated Moses’ miracles. Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, had wise men and magicians as well. These “spiritual advisors” were respected counselors and probably also acted as ambassadors. When they learned by some kind of divination that a great king had arisen in Israel, most likely the pagan kings had sent them with riches to deliver to this powerful new ruler, to pay homage for their countries.

We are unsure of what type of celestial event the star was or how the wise men interpreted it, but through some spiritual means they learned that a great king had been born in Israel. This says something about the impact the coming of Christ had on the spiritual world. We hear about angels rejoicing, but the news of Jesus’ coming shook the rest of the unseen world as well!

In the scriptures we see other places where God reveals his plans to foreign diviners. In a strange parallel to this story, Balaam, another pagan magician, prophesied about the rise of a king in Israel, and even associates him with a star:

“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star rises from Jacob; a scepter comes forth from Israel… Edom will be conquered; Seir, his enemy, will be conquered, but Israel will grow strong. Numbers 24:17-18

Perhaps the reason Herod feared Jesus is he knew this prophecy said that he, an Edomite, would fall to the true king of the Jews.

What are the Frankincense and Myrrh for?

Both frankincense and myrrh are purified from aromatic tree saps into either powders or oils. They would have been gifts more precious than the gold, because of their rarity and the tremendous expense in transporting them: but why were they appropriate for Jesus, this newborn king they had come to worship?

Remember that in biblical times, a king was not “crowned” in a coronation ceremony, he was anointed with oil. This was olive oil blended with myrrh and some other of the most expensive fragrances known, and would be like liquid diamonds in terms of expense.The anointed king would have an aroma that would say that he was the one chosen by God. Kings would wear fragrances other times after they were anointed to show their kingliness. Psalm 45, about King David, says:

Therefore God, your God, has anointed you
With the oil of joy above your fellows.
All Your garments are fragrant
with myrrh and aloes and cassia;
Kings’ daughters are among your noble ladies;
At your right hand stands the queen in gold from Ophir. (Ps 45:7-9)

And about King Solomon it says:

What is this coming up from the wilderness
Like columns of smoke,
Perfumed with myrrh and frankincense,
With all scented powders of the merchant?
Behold, it is the carriage of Solomon. (Songs 3:6)

So, perhaps the wise men had brought these precious oils to anoint the king, the prophesied son of David. What is most interesting is that the Hebrew word for anointed is Moshiach, “Messiah.” In Greek, the same word is Christ. So every time we say Jesus Christ, we are calling Jesus the “Anointed King.” So the wise men were proclaiming Jesus as the “anointed one,” the Messiah, the Christ, the King of Kings!

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Photos: Heinrich Hofmann [Public domain]; Inbal Malca on Unsplash; A Peaceful Christmas, [Public domain]

Kings From Distant Lands

by Lois Tverberg

May he also rule from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. Let the nomads of the desert bow before him, and his enemies lick the dust. Let the kings of Tarshish and of the islands bring presents; the kings of Sheba and Seba offer gifts. And let all kings bow down before him, all nations serve him. – Psalms 72:8-11

When we read about the magi, it is a mystery who they are and where they come from. But if we understand the culture of the ancient world and read some of the Old Testament prophesies about the Messianic King, we can find out where they came from, and the incredible statement it makes about Jesus.

Three Kings

When a powerful king arose in a country, other kings would give him gifts to form alliances and show friendliness toward that nation. The verses in today’s passage from Psalm 72 are from a messianic passage with a vision of the greatness of the coming Messianic king. It names two areas where royalty should come from to honor the king – “Tarshish and the islands,” and “Sheba and Seba.” Tarshish is in modern Spain, and the islands are that of the Mediterranean. Sheba and Seba are at the southeast end of the Arabian peninsula. In the ancient world of the near east, these two areas were the limits of the known world of that time. Tarshish was as far west as one could go, and Sheba, as far east. It was if all the royalty from the ends of the earth should come to worship the Messianic king.

This picture of a king so great that other kings would come to pay homage to him was used to describe the coming Messiah. The Messiah was the promised son of David who would have a great kingdom without end. Not only would he be king over Israel, he will be king over the whole world!

Today’s verse from Psalm 72 foretells that kings from distant lands would come to give him gifts, as the queen of Sheba did for Solomon. The wise men were most likely counselors to foreign kings who were acting as ambassadors for their gentile nations. If the wise men were bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh, they were most like like from Sheba or Seba, which is known for those things.

It is interesting how God was telling the ancient people something in language that they could understand that would one day mean something much greater. God was saying that peoples of every tongue and tribe and nation from all over the earth, including even the world they didn’t know existed, would someday worship the Messiah. As the gospel goes out to the far corners of the world, we only now see the magnificence of God’s plan.


Photo: Wonderlane

A Rabbi and a King

by Lois Tverberg

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
– John 10:10

Throughout the Old Testament, the promise is made of the coming Messiah, which primarily is a picture of a king who comes to reign. Even though Jesus speaks often of his kingdom, during his time on earth he really acts as a rabbi rather than acting anything like what we would expect of a king. That may be why some have mistakenly said that he never actually became king, but only will in the future, even though he says so clearly himself (Matt 27:11).

Torah

It is interesting that the Jewish picture of the Messianic King incorporates this idea of the king as a teacher of scripture, even though it doesn’t grasp that Jesus was the Messiah. According to one Jewish commentary,

The messianic king plays a unique role. He, as first citizen of the nation, is the living embodiment of Torah and how its statutes and holiness ennoble man… Holder of immense and almost unbridled power, he submits to the laws in the Scriptures which he carries with him at all times, he does not rest until his people know the rigors of Torah study and a discipline of honesty and morality in their personal and business lives that would earn sainthood in any other nation. It is the function of the king to safeguard the Torah and see to it that the people study it and obey its commandments. Nor is he to be considered above the Law – on the contrary, it is his duty to be a model of scrupulous adherence to the laws of the Torah. (Nosson Scherman, from the ArtScroll Commentary on Ruth, pp xxxi – xxxiii)

The Jewish commentator is actually basing his thoughts on God’s regulations for a king as they are described in Deuteronomy:

You shall surely set a king over you who your God chooses… When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees. Deut. 17:18-20

The idea behind the Jewish picture is that God wants his king to have as his chief aim to revere and obey God and teach the nation to obey him as well. He is not to seek glory in his own power and might, but to intentionally point people toward obedience to God.

It is fascinating that Jesus, the king that God chose, scrupulously adhered to God’s laws, and primarily concerned his earthly time with teaching of the scriptures, to follow them perfectly and to teach people the clearest way to obey them. With his death he redeemed his people and brought them into his kingdom, but his life was an example to teach them how to live, to bring honor to God and have life as it was meant to be lived.


Photo: Lawrie Cate

The Son of Man

by Lois Tverberg

His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. – Daniel 7:14

One phrase Jesus often uses to describe Himself is “The Son of Man.” Many have assumed that when Jesus uses the phrase to describe himself, he is emphasizing his humanity. That appears to be true in some places. But people are often unaware that the phrase “Son of Man” was one of the most powerful messianic claims! It is from a passage in Daniel 7:13 – 14:

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

This passage is about the messianic king. God had promised David that one of his own offspring would have a kingdom without end (2 Samuel 7:13), and this is who is being described here. Daniel has visions of many kingdoms rising to power, but the final kingdom that conquers them all is this kingdom of the Messiah. And this is the scene of the the great King coming to take his seat of honor and receive authority over all creation.

When we now look closer at how Jesus uses the phrase “Son of Man” to refer to himself, we can see that he is often referring to himself in terms of this passage!

At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. (Matt. 24:30)

Art of Transfiguration

We can see these in scenes the Son of Man coming in the clouds and the picture of Jesus having great glory, just as in Daniel. Here Jesus is hinting to his great glory as the Messiah by alluding to these passages, as he does many places. So, the passage in Daniel predicting the Son of Man coming in glory is central to what Jesus says about his own future, and is a prominent image in the New Testament to describe the glorified Christ on the throne in heaven. This explains Jesus’ usage of the term as prophetic toward his return as judge at the end of time, and also shows that he didn’t regard himself only as a humble human being, but as the predicted Messiah who would have a kingdom without end.


See Ch. 22, Jesus the Jewish Theologian, by Brad Young, Hendrickson 1995, p.243-52.

Photo: http://elizabethhagan.com/2014/03/02/wait/

Adonai – My Lord

by Lois Tverberg

If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. Romans 10:9

The word adon (ah-DOAN) means “Lord,” as a term for royalty or authority, and of course, often in reference to God himself. With a possessive suffix, the word adonai means “my Lord,” and is used when displaying an attitude of obedient submission to a greater power. When we refer to God as Adonai, we are saying that he is sovereign and in authority over us personally.

We can learn interesting things about Jesus by how he is addressed using the term,”Lord.” Throughout the gospels Jesus is addressed with respect by strangers as “rabbi” or “teacher.” Rarely is he addressed using his common name, Jesus, and only by demons (Mark 1:24) and a few who didn’t know him. But Jesus’ disciples and others who believed in him referred to him as “Lord,”1 suggesting that they were giving him great honor, with the understanding that he is the Messianic King.

To call Jesus, “Lord” is using a term for addressing royalty, like saying “Your Majesty” or “Your Highness.” It is also a common term for addressing God himself, and has a hint of worshipping Jesus as God. It is interesting that even though the demons know that he is the Son of God, they refuse to use the word Lord to address him! (Luke 4:34, 40)

To call him Lord is to say that he is the King that God has sent who has a right to reign over us. Jesus even seems to expect that those who call him Lord obey Him – he said, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). According to Paul, those who are saved have two things: both a belief in the atoning work of Jesus, and a commitment to honor him as their own Lord and King. As Paul says,

If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)