Rotation.org Writing Team
Bible Background and Lesson Objectives
Scripture for this lesson set
they saw the star
they were overjoyed
they saw the child
they bowed down
they opened their treasures
they returned to their country
Lesson objectives for this lesson set:
- Know where to find the story in Matthew and be able to retell it.
- Know what a Magi is and what the Star is -- and desire to be both!
- Leave changed and ready to tell others what his birth means to you and to everyone.
The story of the Magi is rich with many teaching possibilities, including "follow that star," the meaning of the 3 gifts, "returning home by another way," etc. And indeed, the lessons in this set will touch on these and some of the "surprises" in the story. Given that children will hear or be reminded of this story every year for the rest of their lives, this set takes the opportunity to emphasize the life application of the story and not merely get lost in its pageantry. The Magi were seekers who found and worshiped the One who had not only changed their lives, but would change the life of everyone ever born.
Before we get lost in the intriguing details about who the Magi were and what they did, let's get right to the two main teaching points of the story:
Jesus is the one promised by scripture and Isaiah.
“Arise, shine, for the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn…
and all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.”
Excerpts from Isaiah 60:1-6
Do as the Magi did.
Search for Christ and find him.
Humbly offer him your treasure.
Share the good news back home.
The story of the Visit of the Magi is so well-known that it is easy to overlook its surprising details and exotic origins—many of which we share in this Background. Through the lessons in this set, you'll have the opportunity to share many of the following tidbits great and small. Together they remind us of the richness of scripture, the importance of its study, and its hidden surprises.
Who were the "Magi"?
The word "Magi" is found in many similar forms in Middle Eastern and Roman (Latin) languages. "Magi" can describe someone who is an adviser, a wise counselor, or someone who seeks to know the future by various means, including the use of magic to consult the gods. It is believed that the term "Magi" dates back to ancient Persia—which just happens to be "in the east" where Matthew says the Magi came from. "Magi" is where we get the English word "magician" as some Magi (seers and such) in various ancient times and countries used magic tricks or illusions to sell their special powers.
In Persian history, "Magi" is a title often used to describe a Zoroastrian priest or ones who devoted themselves to science, including astronomy and philosophy. "Zoroastrianism" was a Persian religion focused on the seeking of signs and wisdom. One of the ways Zoroastrian priests ("Magi") tried to predict the future was to look to the stars for signs. Their unique and mystical skills were highly sought after, especially by those in power.
Interesting Fact: Matthew uses the plural form of "MAGOS" which is pronounced with a hard "g"—"Ma-gos". A single "magos" is a "magi"—also pronounced with a hard "g" and not a "j" sound as it became pronounced in English. "THE MAG-GUY " is correct!
The term "Magi" has gone in and out of favor at various times in Church History—often due to its association with Eastern religions and terms like "magic." Though Matthew definitely uses the term "Magos," it has been translated "Wisemen" in most English translations, and further understood as "Kings," especially in the popular culture (a subject kids want to know about and we'll get to in a moment).
How the Old Testament Shaped Matthew's Magi Story
"Magi" (wisemen, advisers, seers) are mentioned quite a few times in the Old Testament, and almost always in association with a king—wisemen visiting a king, being summoned by the king, giving advice to the king. As they do today, kings and advisers attended the coronation or counsel of other kings, especially those who were powerful. (We might think of them as "chiefs" or "vassal kings." King Herod, for example, visited Rome.)
Psalm 72 and Isaiah 60 are the two most prominent Old Testament passages that describe and perhaps shaped Matthew's recollection of The Visit of the Magi. Like the other Gospel writers, Matthew was eager to show that Jesus fulfilled the scriptures, and these two certainly look like they are fulfilled in Matthew 2:
“May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts, ...and bow down before him.”
(Psalm 72: 10-11)
“Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn…
and all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming
the praise of the Lord.”
Prophets are also a type of "wisemen." They seek signs, perform miracles, anoint Kings, and foretell the future—all of which the Magi do in Matthew's story. Prophets also speak to those in power, which the Magi did. By this definition, Joseph, Mordecai, and Daniel are also "wisemen." In Genesis 41, Pharaoh elevates Joseph to a position of authority saying, "There is none so discerning and wise as you." In Esther, Mordecai rises to power as the king's adviser because the king believes God speaks through Mordecai. In Daniel 1:20—which takes place in Babylon and Persia (the lands of the Magi)—we read that "in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king inquired of them, he found them (Daniel) ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom."
The Queen of Sheba was a "wise woman"! For she herself came to Jerusalem bearing gifts and seeking the wisdom of Solomon's one true God (1 Kgs 10). This scripture explains why the Magi would have first gone to Jerusalem to inquire where the new king had been born. Being a Magi or Seer or Prophet gave you access to power and got the attention of those in power.
So how did the Magi become "Kings"?
It was because of Psalm 72.
“May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts, ...and bow down before him.”
Tertullian, one of the early Church's theologians and "founder of Christian theology," was the first to affirm the identification of Magi as Kings. Undoubtedly he read what you have just read. Then over time, legends about the names and backstories of the Magi developed in the far-flung reaches of the early church. To say the Magi were "definitely kings" is a bit of a stretch, but now at least you can see how the tradition formed and evolved.
How did we end up with "3" Kings?
The tradition grew up that there were THREE of them because there were three gifts. This happened despite Matthew's silence about how many Magi there were! A tradition of naming the three kings also grew in the early centuries of Christianity. As Christianity spread, different translations and traditions (and names) appeared while the knowledge of the roots of Magi faded. At some point they acquired camels! And then they started showing up at the newborn's manger, instead of the HOME that Matthew very clearly names as the place they entered into.
Wait... How old was Jesus when the Magi arrived?
Jesus may have been a toddler! Matthew 2:10-11 says that the star stopped where Jesus was at a "home" that they would then enter, not a manger or a stable. This means the Wisemen were not part of the "manger" scene as they are so often erroneously depicted. The family had moved into a house. And this being their "hometown" it seems they stayed for a while until they received word to flee to Egypt. This is another great example for children of how tradition and art can sometimes take license with the actual scripture. No camels. No manger. And maybe not even a "baby" in this Magi scene!
What was the "star" they saw?
Nobody really knows what the "Star of Bethlehem" was, and the only thing most agree on is that is a wonderful metaphor about seeing and following God's sign into the presence of our king.
Many have tried to prove their theory of what the star was. Was it a bright star or a comet? Was it maybe a planet or a conjunction of planets?
The only thing we do know is that it wasn't very obvious. When the Magi arrive in Herod's court, nobody there knows anything about it, suggesting this star was not as obvious as later religious art and tradition has led us to believe. Astronomers and astrologers track the movement of the planets among the stars, and it is often the movement of a planet (to them, a "star") into a certain constellation of stars that created the "sign" or message they were looking for.
To those of us in modern times, it is best to imagine the "Star of Bethlehem" as a tiny point of light, both then and now. Small like a mustard seed. A message others ignore. A message whose potential is known only to those who wait for its rising. And upon seeing it, they rise up themselves and follow the one who created and gives light, and who tells us to let our light shine before others. Yes, my friend, you are the real Star of Bethlehem.
When they "fell down and worshipped"
The literal position of the Magi described in Matthew 2:11's Greek phrase, "pesontes prosekunhsan" (pronounced "pa-son-tes pro-say-kun-san") is explored through sculpture and a reading activity in this lesson set's Art Workshop. But it's an interesting insight for every workshop. The common English translations of "pesontes prosekunhsan" are "fall down and worship" or "knelt down and worshiped" or "bowed down and worshiped." But Matthew's actual words describe a physical position that speaks volumes about the hearts of the Magi as they entered into the presence of the King they had journeyed so far to find. The polite word for "prosekunhsan" is "worship," but it literally means to fall on your face --to prostrate yourself. Elsewhere the word is used to describe kissing someone's hand, or a dog licking your hand. Whether you're a king of wise person, that's some serious humility!
Why did they gift Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh?
Origen, one of the early "Church Fathers" (a 3rd century A.D. theologian), was the first to give the gifts their theological significance.
- Gold: for a king.
- Embalming Myrrh (oil): for one who was human or was to die
- Frank-incense: an offering to God (as it was used in the Temple).
These are expensive and highly symbolic gifts. Gold and incense were "foretold" by Isaiah 60:6. Matthew adds myrrh oil to the gifts Isaiah foretold serving as a sort of symbolic "bookend" to the life of Jesus—being given to him at his birth and brought to the tomb at his death. (Myrrh was an embalming and healing oil.) All these gifts are signs of who the child is and will become.
What do you give the child who already has everything?
Focusing too much on these three gifts can take away from the "fourth gift" and perhaps the most important gift anyone can offer God—humility. The literal Greek of Matthew's story here says they "fell down prostrate, face down." Quite a sight! One can imagine the Holy Family with eyes wide in amazement at the sight of these elite searchers face-down before their child while accepting their gifts with a slightly befuddled look. ("Incense for a baby?")
What gift did Jesus give THEM in that moment?
What does it feel like to lay flat on the floor looking up at little pink toes?
What does it feel like to search for the meaning of life and find it?
"And they returned to their country by another way." This may be the most overlooked verse in the entire story, from a teaching point of view. Yes, they wanted to avoid Herod but we can also see it as a metaphor for how our visit to Christmas changes us. We are different after we have searched, humbly prostrated ourselves before Jesus. We are changed when we open our treasures and hearts to him.
Are you looking for a Christmas that means something? Search for him, humble yourself, and offer your greatest treasures to him.
Yes, you should burst their "Christmas Story Bubble" with the truth.
Surprises like these are not only attention-grabbing and thought-provoking, they emphasize the importance of actually READING the Bible instead of getting our scripture from Christmas pageants and Christmas cards.
Call them Magi. Call them wise men.
You can even call them kings if you’d like!
Each label shines a light on a different facet of the story. Whatever you choose to call them this holiday season, these men are the first in the canonical New Testament to bow and worship the Lord Jesus. This Christmas we would do well to follow their example. (Quote from Christianity Today)
BTW: What about Herod's "murder of the innocents"?
We are leaving that story out of our lesson set. Children don't need to hear it, and at this point in Matthew's Gospel, it does nothing to help us understand the motivation and quest of the Magi–or our own.
While the known historical records about Herod (and there are several) fail to mention a murder of children, other recorded events show that he was quite capable of it. Herod murdered three of his own sons, so 20 more from a backwater village would not necessarily even be remembered, except by those who survived it.
Written for the Rotation.org Writing Team by Rev. Neil MacQueen
Copyright 2018, Rotation.org Inc.