A Journey of Faith
by Dennis Jamison – December 8, 2019
As Christmas approaches in 2019, “Wise” people learn of the birth of a child who could become a great king — a king of the people of faith. By searching ancient scriptures and spiritual texts they are able to understand that the child would even be more than a great king – an individual of divinity who could bring great healing and peace to the entire world. Great anticipation would be created in learning this, great hope would exist that the world could be made a better place through such a divine individual. But, they also learn that this unique birth will take place in a foreign land, in a far off nation across the world, in territory occupied by an enemy.
If God sent invitations out to the “Wise” or enlightened people of the day in order to celebrate the birthday of this special child, and you were one to receive the invitation, what would be your response? How far would you be willing to go to meet the one who would become the Savior? — your Savior? Consider how far the “Wise Men,” also known as the Magi, were willing to go to honor the “King of the Jews.”
The story of the “Wise Men” has inspired millions of people throughout the world and throughout time. Their story is more than fiction or fable. Usually, the focus on the story of the Magi is upon the gifts they brought the infant Jesus. However, additional inspiration, beyond the material gifts that were brought, could be derived from a much bigger perspective. A person of faith could also wonder about what drove these “Wise Men,” who were foreigners, to do what they did, which was to undertake a journey of great risk requiring a tremendous amount of faith.
According to the Gospel of Matthew in the Aramaic and other translations, these Wise Men were actually called “Magi” and came “from the East to Jerusalem.” They inquired about the whereabouts of the newborn King of the Jews who had been born within the previous two years. But before they even reached Jerusalem, these men had traveled quite a great distance, by way of enemy territory, simply to honor this child of their prophecy, who in their minds was to become king of the Jewish people — not their people. Much mystery and myth surrounds these foreign visitors from distant lands.
The story of these Magi and how they came to pay their respect to the baby Jesus has been briefly told in bits and pieces, in many lands, over many centuries. Even Marco Polo, in 1298, wrote of the Persian Magi in “The Travels; The Description of the World.” One needs to utilize worthy sources to distinguish fact from fable and come to a more accurate appraisal of their existence. Specifically, an examination of Persian history (Heaven forbid (; ) indicates the likelihood that the Magi were from ancient Persia. A little-known fact in the Western world is that the Magi were a priestly class of nobles who served as members of the Parthian government (all of modern Iran, Iraq and Armenia, parts of Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan).
Mention of Persia today usually invokes some unpleasant conceptualization regarding the Muslim extremists and terrorists. Yet, at the time of the coming of the Messiah to those of the Jewish faith, Islam had not yet been born. At the time of Jesus, the official religion of Persia was Zoroastrianism, the dead monotheistic religion. How did it die? It was replaced by Islam – quite possibly by extremists and militants. But in that time, the major enemy of the Parthian Empire was the Roman Republic, and later the Roman Empire.
Despite limited information, an understanding of the Parthian Court and its customs can be pieced together. And for those who are seriously interested in this history, I refer you to articles I have written on the Magi in previous years (links at the bottom). From the forgotten religion of Zoroastrianism, it is likely that the Magi originated. Zoroastrianism shows up in recorded history only in the mid-fifth century B.C. But over centuries since, the majority of people in this region had become followers of Zoroaster, the famous Middle Eastern prophet and teacher. The Magi had emerged as a priestly class who adhered to Zoroastrianism and eventually developed considerable influence at the courts of the Persian rulers.
By the first century after Christ, the Magi served in the hereditary priesthood and, more important, as members of one of two councils that advised the king. This political structure could be remotely comparable to the British parliament with the House of Lords and the House of Commons, which limit the power of the monarch. Members of the Megistanes or “nobles” were also looked upon as “the Great Men” (the privileged class) who held considerable power in ancient Persia.
The two councils were essentially composed of the Megistanes, whose rights and positions of power in the councils were conferred by birth or office, not by the king. The other council was a type of senate made up of both the spiritual and the political chiefs of the nation: the “Sophi” (wise men) and the “Magi” (priests). These two assemblies advised, appointed or elected and placed checks on the monarch. Practically, the right of inheritance may have been the normal practice of appointing the new kings, yet there were difficulties, such as when there was no son to inherit the royal office.
The Magi were the devoutly religious followers of Zoroaster, who were aware of the prophecies of Daniel concerning the coming of the Messiah. It is not clear when Zoroaster lived, but records indicate that some of his followers were likely students of the Old Testament prophet Daniel. He had once served as the “rab-mag,” the chief administrator of the Magi under Darius the Great, who had elevated the Magi above the state religion of Persia after some Magi proved to be experts in interpreting dreams. Apparently, Daniel (of the Old Testament) entrusted his messianic vision to a sect of the Magi for its eventual fulfillment. And, “in the fullness of time” the Magi, in their dual priestly and political office, were poised to follow the guidance of prophecy.
Once the Magi witnessed specific astronomical signs that had been foretold by an ancient Middle Eastern prophet, they set off on their journey of faith. The prophecy concerned the coming of a star that would precede the arrival of a great leader of the Jewish people. This is also known from the book of Numbers in the Old Testament and was obviously of great interest and of significant inspiration to the Magi. Most notably, the Magi needed to recognize the prophetic signs and and needed to have sufficient motivation to leave their respective “comfort zones” to seek out the one who was to become a great leader of the Jewish people.
These men of faith were not just seeking to change their diets, or having to give up pleasurable pastimes. They actually were required to follow the star, no matter where it led — an incredible manifestation of faith. They had to leave their comfortable, regal circumstances in Persia, and at their own expense, embark upon a rugged journey that crossed into the territory of the Romans (geo-political enemies) to complete their task of faith.
Simply put, the journey of the Magi to seek this precious child of prophecy.would not have occurred without considerable cost, difficulty, risk, and sacrifice. And there was no guarantee that they would find what they sought. The distance of their journey could have been around 500 to 1,000 miles, depending upon the point of origin, which still remains a mystery. Some accounts indicate that the journey could have started in Ur in what would be in the southern part of modern Iraq. Others speculate it could have started at the ancient Institute of Astrology at Sippar near Babylonia (also in modern Iraq).
Such a trek through the deserts and rugged terrain of the Middle East may have taken six to eight weeks, depending upon prevailing conditions along the way. But, King Herod had asked how long the Magi had been following the star. Their answer to Herod prompted the “massacre of the innocents” in Bethlehem. The Magi also may have been at risk for losing their own lives while in Judea. They received in dreams that they should return to their county via another route. Jesus was spared the massacre due to the dream Joseph had that prompted him to move his family to Egypt. Certainly, the entire pilgrimage of the Magi was made at risk to the loss of their lives.
The journey of the Magi had great religious significance, but it also contained potential political peril. The Magi were foreigners, possibly active members of the Parthian government, and would have had to travel through the territory occupied by the Roman Empire, Parthia’s border enemy. The journey could have sparked an international confrontation if an encounter with the Roman military had occurred on the way. Even so, the party of the Magi (likely more than three men on camels) boldly entered Jerusalem and sought out King Herod, specifically seeking knowledge regarding the recently born “King of the Jews.”
It would have been a formidable journey, requiring great faith, courage, and physical wherewithal. Their fundamental means of navigation was limited (no GPS in those days), and from the biblical account, the Magi primarily depended upon the “star” they were faithfully following, since they honestly did not know their destination. Amazingly enough, these non-Jewish foreigners, were the ones who traveled upon a great and dangerous journey to offer incredibly valued gifts to an unknown and unproven infant “king.”
A pilgrimage of this nature, by people of such faith, contains lessons for people of all faiths,
but especially for those who bear the identity of being Christians. Do contemporary Christians possess such deep faith that their journey is a journey toward Christ, or with Christ, or is their journey, an intellectual endeavor only? Is it a journey for appearances only, or is it a true trek?
If our Heavenly Father sends out the invitations for the celebration to meet His son, what would have to be sacrificed? What pursuits of pleasure have to be discarded on such a journey? How great a distance would one be willing to travel to meet the Messiah? How much cost would one be willing to expend; how much personal risk would one be willing to endure?
In the world today, people are still risking their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor to pursue their faith and to enter into relationship with Christ. This is because “For God so loved the world,” and He still does — otherwise we would not be witnessing this phenomenon right now.
Unfortunately, it is not clearly apparent in the United States. What are American Christians doing in this time of an intense outpouring of faith in other countries around the world? Are American Christians mounting their camels of faith to begin their journeys to find Jesus in this time? Are they practicing what he asked Christians to accomplish? Or, are American Christians lost, wandering in a pointless pursuit of pleasures and making excuses and accommodations for such pleasures that there is only an illusion of faith? Can American Christians still proclaim proudly: In God We Trust? How many invitations will it take to open the doors to our minds, or to open the gates to our hearts? How many invitations will it take to be doing the will of God?
As Christians approach Christmas this year, it might be good to revisit the value of the first Christmas, and do an internal diagnostic on their personal journeys of faith.