More questions from Matthew Chapter 2
3. Who were the Magi and how many came?
The Greek work magos is used to identify these men who arrived to worship Jesus. It comes from a word in the Old Testament, rab-mag that referred to a Babylonian official. The Greek meaning is an Oriental scientist and by implication, a magician. The King James Bible translates it as wise men.
A very unfortunate paraphrase of the Bible uses the word astrologer. I suppose that the person who did this was thinking that these were people who would have corresponded to the officials in Nebuchadnezzar’s courts in ancient Babylon. However the source of the Greek word would not justify such a conclusion. He may have even used the word because they studied the stars. However, this should have led to using the word astronomer, not astrologer.
The modern day concept of astrology is associated with the belief that the stars, planets, moon and sun have some kind of effect on us. They believe that by studying the paths of the celestial bodies, they can predict our future or determine what kind of person we are by our time of birth. This is attributing god-like qualities to objects that God has made.
One of the problems that caused Judah to be destroyed was their worship of the starry hosts. Jer 8:1-3 "'At that time, declares the Lord, the bones of the kings and officials of Judah, the bones of the priests and prophets, and the bones of the people of Jerusalem will be removed from their graves. They will be exposed to the sun and the moon and all the stars of the heavens, which they have loved and served and which they have followed and consulted and worshiped. They will not be gathered up or buried, but will be like refuse lying on the ground. Wherever I banish them, all the survivors of this evil nation will prefer death to life, declares the Lord Almighty.'” (NIV) At the time that Jesus was born, the Pharisees and others in control of Jewish worship were extremely legalistic. They were very aware of what had happened to Judah as a result of their spiritual adultery. If the Magi had come to town looking for a Jewish king and if they were in fact astrologers, I don’t think they would have been concerned that the Messiah had actually been born. They would have been more concerned about them introducing their religions practices. Rather than cooperate with them they would not want anything to do with them.
There is a warning in this that needs to be emphasized. When we read the Bible, we shouldn’t be jumping to conclusions and assigning our own wisdom to what the Word says. In this case, calling the Magi astrologers would lend a subtle validation of the current practices of astrology. However, as we can see in Jer 8:1-3, this worship of the stars and planets is something quite abhorrent to God. A new believer can easily be led astray if we aren’t careful about our teaching.
The question about the number of Magi is only upheld by tradition. Tradition says that there were three. There is nothing in the Bible that would confirm or deny that there were only three Magi. Matt 2:11 says that they presented three kinds of gifts (a possible explanation why tradition says there were only three) – all expensive and would be targets of thieves on the long journey. Surely, wise men would not undertake that journey alone. If we were to understand the times of the Bible, we would conclude that however many there were, that they probably traveled in a caravan with many servants and armed guards. Such a caravan would have impressed King Herod to give them an audience when they arrived.
The question could be asked how should we treat traditions? Could a tradition cause the same kind of problem as incorrectly translating the Bible? That depends on the tradition and how we prioritize it in relation to God’s Word. In the case of believing that three Magi visited Jesus, there is nothing that is going to counter God’s Word or cause us to go astray. It is a benign tradition.
Mark 7:6-8 He replied, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: "'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.' You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men." (NIV)
However, look at what Jesus had to say regarding the traditions that the Jewish leaders were teaching. I’ll be writing more about this when we reach the parallel passage in Matthew. In the meantime, it would be prudent to start thinking about traditions that honor or dishonor God. There are some that cause people to become quite adversarial. Some are with good reason and others without. However, Jesus came down hard on the Jewish establishment when their traditions trumped the God’s commands.
In Mark 7:9-13 Jesus zeroed in on how they broke the commandment to honor their father and mother by devoting their wealth to God and not using it to help elderly parents. He added “And you do many things like that." (Mark 7:13b NIV) Think about things, traditions or not, that set up idols in our hearts. Things that cause us to violate God’s commands in order to worship them. Just a couple of example: Husbands, love you wives. Does worshiping at the altar of work cause you to abandon your wife? Wives, where does your beauty come from? Do you worship at the altar of appearances?
Whenever self is on the throne instead of Jesus, we will set up idols to worship. We will use all sorts of excuses to please ourselves and traditions are only one of many that we can use.