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Looking Back: W Is For Wise Man

From December 1972

W Is for Wise Man

By Norman Fenwick

Who were the Wise Men? This is the name normally given to the visitors who came to pay homage to the infant Jesus at his birth in Bethlehem and presented him with his costly gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh. The story is only to be found in St Matthew’s gospel.             

Wise men is the A.V. translation of the Greek word meaning ‘a magician or astrologer.’ The New English Bible uses ‘astrologers’; Moffat ‘magicians’.

The term is said to have been used by Herodotus, the Greek historian, of a tribe of the Medes who had a priestly function in the Persian Empire; in other classical writers, it is synonymous with ‘priest’. Daniel applies the word to a class of wise men or astrologers who interpret dreams and messages of the gods. (Daniel 1: 20; 2: 27; 5:15). In the New Testament, the usage of the word broadens to include all of those who practise magical arts (Acts 8:9; 13: 6,8).

So the Magi, or Wise Men, were Persians or Arabians, who would be Zoroastrians by religion and astrologers by profession.

The Word of God, then, came to men in realms where the stars had been studied with extraordinary accuracy for centuries. And they were given a sign to which they responded enthusiastically.

In May of 7 B.C there was a rare conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, producing an appearance of outstanding significance to the astrology of the time; another rare conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars took place between April and December of 6 B.C.

So the astrologers, inferring from their astronomical observations the birth of a great Jewish King, started off on their long journey. The tradition is that there were three Wise Men, because of the three gifts presented to the baby Jesus. Later tradition regarded the Wise Men as kings.

Travelling would be difficult and dangerous – hostile tribes, broad rivers; trackless deserts. But at length they appeared before King Herod, and asked, “Where is He Who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship Him.” (Matt. 2:2).

King Herod was a dying old man, and frantically jealous and suspicious of anyone with a claim to his throne, legitimate or otherwise. No wonder that Herod was ‘troubled’ when the priests told him that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem!

So off went the Wise Men in haste to Bethlehem, still following the star, ‘the grace in the sky’. They presented costly gifts to the Baby King – gold and frankincense and myrrh; and in turn the Wise Men were given a special gift. They saw God in the Son and they fell down and worshipped Him.

“Being warned in a dream not to return to Herod” the Maji returned home another way, rejoicing at what they had seen and heard. They had seen guidance in the star and God in the Son, and they had been abundantly blessed thereby.

Who were the Wise Men? They were astrologers or magicians from Arabia, Babylon or elsewhere; Zoroastrians by religion and astrologers by profession; men who followed the star which led them to God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

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