What most people know about the Magi comes from popular traditions and Christmas carols, few of which are supported by the biblical text. Matthew does not suggest the Magi were kings, he does not say they were three in number, nor is it likely they were from the Orient.
Who then were these Magi, and where did they originate? Craig Chester, past president of the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy gives the following description of the Magi:
The group of Magi in question came "from the East." They might have been Zoroastrians, Medes, Persians, Arabs, or even Jews. They probably served as court advisors, making forecasts and predictions for their royal patrons based on their study of the stars, about which they were quite knowledgeable. Magi often wandered from court to court, and it was not unusual for them to cover great distances in order to attend the birth or crowning of a king, paying their respects and offering gifts. It is not surprising, therefore, that Matthew would mention them as validation of Jesus' kingship, or that Herod would regard their arrival as a very serious matter.
The Magi were important, powerful people of their day. The mention of their visit to Jerusalem was Matthew's way of securing the testimony of top scientific authorities to authenticate the royal birth of Jesus.
There are many references in ancient literature to Magi visiting kings and emperors. For example, Tiridates, king of Armenia, led a procession of Magi to pay homage to Nero in Rome in AD 66. Josephus records that Magi also visited Herod in about 10 B.C. A visit by the Magi to pay homage to a newborn king would not have appeared unusual to the original readers of Matthew's gospel.
It would not, however, have gone unnoticed. In fact, Matthew 2:3 says that not only was Herod disturbed but also "all Jerusalem with him." The Magi were such important individuals; they probably traveled with a large entourage that included soldiers, even a small army for protection. So it should not be surprising that Herod and the citizens of Jerusalem were troubled when they arrived.
What Led the Magi to Jerusalem?
The Magi must have seen an unmistakably clear astronomical/astrological message to urge them on such a long, dangerous journey. In Matthew 2:2, the Magi indicated that they saw something in the night sky that was so significant it convinced them to make the trip of more than a thousand miles to Jerusalem to look for this new king.
How could seeing "signs in the sky" inform the Magi that a king of the Jews had been born?
The answer may take us back more than 500 years to the work of one of God's faithful servants during the Babylonian exile. We read that King Nebuchadnezzar assigned Daniel to the high office of "chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers, and diviners" (Daniel 5:11). In other words, Daniel was appointed chief of the Magi.
The Magi of the first century would have most certainly studied the writing of Daniel and possibly other Jewish writings with which Daniel would have been associated, such as the book of Isaiah. This connection between Daniel and Magi may help to explain why the Magi in question 600 years later expected a Jewish king to arrive in Judea near the end of the first century.
In fact, there is evidence that Daniel's prophecy of the coming of a powerful Jewish king was well known to many in the ancient world in the first century. Both the Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus wrote about a widely held belief based on ancient writings among the Jews of a great world ruler that would be from Judea. It is likely therefore that the Magi followed the star based on their study of Daniel's writings.
Because Daniel was faithful in his work, God used him to bring the news of the birth of Christ to both his fellow Israelites and even the some of the most powerful, knowledgeable, and influential Gentiles of the day.
For the Good of the City
In Jeremiah 29, we find part of Jeremiah's letter to the exiles in Babylon: "seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare" (Jeremiah 29:7).
These exiles, including Daniel, had seen the destruction of their homeland, the death of their family members, and the demolishing of their holiest place of worship. It must have been hard to work for the good of a city that had destroyed his homeland, yet Daniel obeyed God's call and became "chief of the Magi" and an adviser to the king.
In a way, we too are in "exile," for we live in a fallen, sinful world and look forward to when Christ will return and restore it. But rather than sit passively, we actively engage in the world because God calls us to "work in the peace and prosperity of the city" here and now.
With Christmas passed and the business year about to start again it is good to be reminded about the effect of our work. God calls us to be faithful in the here and now, even when we can't always see the result of what we do. We have no idea how God will use it.
Take the story of Edward Kimball, a Sunday school teacher. Concerned for the spiritual wellbeing of his pupils, he never gave up, even though the task of teaching a group of rowdy boys could be mundane and difficult.
It turns out that through Kimball's teaching, evangelist D. L. Moody came to Christ. In his lifetime, Moody led thousands to Christ, including Wilbur Chapman. Chapman himself became an evangelist who converted the famous preacher Billy Sunday. During his many evangelistic meetings, Sunday led Mordecai Ham to accept the gospel. And who did Ham reach? His preaching led to the conversion of Billy Graham, who preached to more people than any other individual and led untold thousands to Christ.
Today, few people remember Edward Kimball. Yet because of his faithfulness and tenacity, God used his efforts to set off an incredible chain of events that saved millions.
The story of the star of Bethlehem and the Magi does not start in Matthew 2. It extends hundreds of years back to the Babylonian exile where Daniel faithfully answered God's call to work and engage in the culture—even in the most difficult of times. If we are faithful in this same call, who knows how God will use what we do today to further his kingdom tomorrow.