Who Were the Magi That Visited Jesus?

Perhaps the most shadowy and intriguing characters in the nativity scenes that appear each year around Christmas are the wise men who appear in Matthew 2. Also called the magi (or magicians), the Bible does not say that there were three wise men, only that they brought Jesus three gifts, and, like many holiday parties, there could have have been some guests who did not bring gifts. 

The Bible does not tell us exactly where the wise men travelled from to worship the young Jesus, other than the fact they came “from the east”. Gentiles from a pagan nation, they were highly educated and respected in their land. These magi are likely descendants of the same wise men trained in the Old Testament hundreds of years prior by Daniel when he was in exile in what was ancient Babylon, and then Persia, as recorded in the biblical book of Daniel. 

Daniel 2:46-48 – Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell upon his face and paid homage to Daniel, and commanded that an offering and incense be offered up to him. The king answered and said to Daniel, “Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery.” Then the king gave Daniel high honors and many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon.

Daniel 5:11 – There is a man in your kingdom in whom is the spirit of the holy gods. In the days of your father, light and understanding and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods were found in him, and King Nebuchadnezzar, your father—your father the king—made him chief of the magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans, and astrologers…

It seems that the wise men knew the Scriptures regarding Jesus’ birth and so they came to worship him some 600 years later when the time came for God to enter human history. 

Matthew 2 says that they came to “worship” Jesus and brought “treasures”. The gifts are both profound and prophetic. 

Gold is for kings and reveals Jesus Christ as the King of Kings.

Incense is for priests and purity (e.g. Exodus 30:9, 34-38; Lev. 2:2, 6:15; Eph. 5:2). This reveals Jesus Christ as our Great High Priest. 

Myrrh was an ancient spice used to embalm the dead. An incredibly odd but prophetic gift to give a healthy young boy, this reveals Jesus as our Savior who died on the cross in our place for our sins. 

John 19:38-40 reports the fulfilment of this prophetic gift saying, “Joseph of Arimathea…asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.” 

In Isaiah 60:1-6, it is prophesied that the dead would rise because of the resurrection of Jesus, and it fails to mention myrrh perhaps because Jesus’ body would not stay dead, “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord.”