Who Were the Magi?

 While thinking about the Christmas story, I couldn’t get the three wise men out of my mind. After Jesus was born, Magi came looking for the King of the Jews. Who were the Magi? Let’s explore the history of the Magi and separate truth from fiction!

graphic depiction of silhouette of three magi with 3 camels on a blue hill

I started by reading about Magi in the Bible. I was a bit surprised that only Matthew’s Gospel tells their story in Matthew 2:1-12.

The books of Mark and John start with Jesus as an adult. Luke has the other birth story, but no mention of the wise men.

Magi In the Bible

Matthew 2:1-2

“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.”

Where Did the Magi Come From?

The only fact we have is “from the east”–Matthew 2:1. Countries east of Jerusalem included Persia (now Iran), Assyria, and Babylonia (where astronomers enjoyed their own settlement.) ¹

What we do know is they traveled hundreds of miles with expensive gifts and inquiring minds. I think we can learn a lot about them just with that information.

What Religion Were the Magi?

Astrologers were not followers of God, but may have followed a monotheistic (one god) religion that was common in the East.

When God dispersed the Jews during the exile, many stayed behind in foreign lands. It is quite possible these exiles influenced the astrologers with Jewish Scripture and prophecy to believe Jesus, the newborn King of the Jews, was the Messiah to come.

Facts About the Magi

Meaning of Magi

The Greek word Magi (magos) meant wise men, priests, astrologers and other titles.

They were not kings themselves, but often trusted advisors to kings. King Nebuchadnezzar knew Daniel had “wisdom like that of the gods” (Daniel 5:14) and appointed him “chief Magi” over his astrologers, magicians, etc. (Daniel 2:8)

Prophecy of the Magi

The Old Testament gives us prophecy of the coming of the Magi:

“The Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising… All those from Sheba [now Yemen] shall come; they shall bring gold and incense and they shall proclaim the praises of the Lord.” KJV. Isaiah 60:3-6.

(Isn’t it interesting that these Gentile Magi were some of the first to recognize Jesus as the Messiah and worship Him!?)

And Psalm 72:10- “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles will bring presents; the kings of Sheba and Seba will offer gifts.”

How Many Wise Men Were There?

The Bible doesn’t give us a number, but simply state that Magi came. Many assumed there were three Magi because there were three gifts.

“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, frankincense, and myrrh.” Matthew 2:11.

Some traditions even speak of twelve Magi! Ancient art shows anywhere from two to eight Magi.

Speaking of traditions, the Magi are also unnamed in the Bible. The names Gaspar, Melchior and Balshasar didn’t appear until the seventh century!

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Gifts from the Magi

Gold (a valuable metal), frankincense and myrrh (both resins from trees used as a perfume, incense, and medicine) were all luxury items and fit for a King.

The Bible tells us many stories of the value of gold. They used vast quantities of gold while building the temple and for the Ark of the Covenant. They measured King Solomon’s incredible wealth by how much gold he accumulated.

Gold is a worthy gift for a King.

Frankincense was a key ingredient in the incense that was used in the temple. The high priest burned frankincense in the Holy of Holies on the one day that he was allowed to enter to make atonement for the nation’s sins.

The incense was burned for it’s smoke to hide the presence of God on the mercy seat. The High Priest would die if he saw God.

The frankincense the Magi brought signified Jesus, a King, was also a high priest.

Myrrh was an ingredient in holy anointing oil, perfume, and in the embalming process. The gift of myrrh symbolized Jesus, our King and High Priest, was also a human man who would die as a sacrifice for His people.

What gifts do we bring our King? Are they appropriate for royalty? Or do we give Him “leftovers” from our day? In this season of gift giving, let’s reflect on what spiritual gift we can give to Jesus.

Jesus’ Birth Star

How did the Magi know to follow the star of Bethlehem and that it would lead to Jesus?

These men religiously studied astrology and philosophy. They believed stars were a sign of the birth of a king. Also, remember the dispersed Jews? They would have spoken of their hope and promise of the Messiah as prophesied in Scripture.

The Magi might have also heard of the prophecies of Daniel (a timeline of the Messiah’s birth in Daniel 9:20-27) and Balaam from Numbers 24:17:

“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.”

Jesus’ birth star was from God. He knew these astrologers would be interested in a supernatural celestial event!

Not only did this star signify the birth of Christ, it traveled with them and stopped “over the place where the child was.” Matthew 2:9. (Stars never stand still; they continually move!)

God’s imprint is all over the details of this story. ♥

I love this application of the truth that God always meets us where we are. He pursues us in ways that draw us to Him. He shows Himself in ways that are personal to each one. Remember the Star of Bethlehem when you feel as if God has abandoned or disappointed you. Then, be like the Magi- relentlessly follow Him!

King Herod and the Magi

When the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, they asked about the birth of the King of the Jews. When King Herod heard of their arrival and this King’s birth, he contacted the chief priests and was told that prophecy stated Christ was to be born in Bethlehem.

Calling for the Magi in secret, Herod told them to go to Bethlehem, and when they found the child, to report back to him.

As the Magi went on their way, the star went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.

“When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.” Matthew 2:10

The Visit of the Wise Men

God was certainly involved in this miraculous event, working in and through the Magi. Matthew tells us in verse 12 that the Magi were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, so they returned to their country by another route.

When they returned home and recounted their adventure, they were sharing the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, in many foreign lands!

Lessons From the Magi

The Magi certainly put a lot of effort into finding Jesus, both in expense, royal gifts, and time. When they saw His star, they were “overjoyed.” When they met Jesus, they bowed down and worshiped Him.

As you prepare for Christmas this week, keep the story and history of the Magi at the forefront.

●Follow His light, His direction, and His Voice this Christmas season.

●Take time to actively seek your King and worship him with “exceedingly great joy.” (NKJV)

●Bring him your gifts of time, praise and worship!

●Keep pursuing Jesus, ask questions as the Magi did, look for His guidance.

●Trust Him wherever He leads.

●The Magi shared the good news; who will you tell?

graphic of 3 wise men in silhouette sitting on camels- high on a hill looking down at bluish landscape below. Bethlehem star in upper left

Think about the phrase “celebrating the birth of our Savior” as more than just mere words this weeks. It was truly the best gift we have ever received.




All Scripture is taken from the NIV unless specified otherwise.

Photo Credit: Canva

2 thoughts on “Who Were the Magi?”

    1. That’s beautiful, Karma! I so appreciate hearing how God’s Word encourages us to seek Him! Thank you, and have a very Merry Christmas!

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