They’ve been called kings, wise men, astrologers, sorcerers and magicians, but we ought to call them what they are: magi.
I know that doesn’t tell us anything about them, but that’s the point. We know what all those other descriptions imply, so we think we understand, at least a little, who these men were.
When we call them magi, however, we know we don’t know. So as we approach Epiphany Sunday, which falls on Jan. 5 and celebrates the wise men’s visit, let’s do a little investigating of our own.
Matthew doesn’t just call them magi, 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 were in the east. In fact, these empires covered much of the same territory.
The Babylonians wrested it from the Assyrians, and then Cyrus of Persia (reigned from 559-529 B.C.) conquered the Babylonians. He also conquered 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 remove them from power.
They survived Cyrus’ efforts well enough to revolt against his son, Cambyses II (reigned from 529-522 B.C.), and install their own king, who was murdered shortly thereafter when Darius I (reigned from 522-486 B.C.) became king.
Still, their influence in the east continued even into the Greek and Roman empires.
They were politically powerful and were rumored to be able to practice magic and sorcery, interpret dreams and divine the stars. They influenced, overthrew and outlasted empires.
So Herod wasn’t upset that a few unknown foreigners showed up asking about a newborn king of the Jews. If someone had walked in off the street talking about a baby king, he might have been curious but most likely would not have taken it seriously.
When it was magi from the east asking about a new king and talking about a magical star, Herod knew this inquiry was not to be ignored.
He knew to take their appearance seriously because this couldn’t be good news for his reign, especially when they said they came to give homage to this king.
Nothing is mentioned about these magi paying homage to Herod, and they apparently didn’t give him any gifts either.
When men with a history of deposing and installing kings show up and don’t leave any gold, frankincense and myrrh, there’s trouble afoot.
When they ignored Herod’s request for information and skirted Jerusalem on their way back home, Herod understood what was going on: Revolution. Rebellion. Coup d’état.
It was brewing. A new king. A new kingdom.
If it 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 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 only of Jerusalem, but also of Rome, Herod’s protector.
Magi don’t concern themselves with mere kingdoms – magi deal with whole empires.
Matthew’s narrative about the magi journeying to pay homage to Jesus is telling us that he didn’t come just to increase the population of heaven; he came to change the world. And he did. And does. And will.
The question is: “Will we join him?”
Larry Eubanks is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Md. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, While My Muse Gently Weeps, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @EubanksLarry.