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The first Iranians to worship Jesus

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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The Magi Journeying (Les rois mages en voyage) by James Joseph Jacques Tissot (1836-1902) at Brooklyn Museum

Pastor Saeed Abedini continues to make headlines from his Iranian prison cell.  He has written a Christmas letter in which he explains his ability to withstand such suffering for Christ: “Christmas means that God came so that He would enter your hearts today and transform your lives and to replace your pain with indescribable joy.”

Pastor Abedini is the latest Iranian to make news for worshipping Jesus, but he was not the first.  The Magi came “from the east” (Matthew 2:1), most likely from Persia—Iran today.  Second-century Christian art in Roman catacombs depicts them in Persian garments.  Why did they come to Bethlehem?

First, God’s word came to them.  When Jews were taken captive by Babylon (609-538 B.C.), they brought their Scriptures with them.  The Magi were not kings, but religious scholars (similar to Levites in ancient Israel), and were fascinated with theology.  They learned from the Jews that a Messiah would one day come to earth.

Second, they began looking for a “king of the Jews.”  Roman historian Suetonius (A.D. 69-122) recorded: “There had spread all over the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judea to rule the world” (Vespasian 4).  Tacitus (A.D. 56-120), greatest of the ancient Roman historians, agreed: “There was a firm persuasion, that in the ancient records of their priests was contained a prediction of how at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers, coming from Judea, were to acquire universal empire” (Histories 5.13).  The Magi, like others of their day, began to search for such a king.

Third, they associated a star with this king’s birth: “we saw his star when it rose” (Matthew 2:2).  The Magi worshiped the god Ahura Mazda, and believed that light manifested his presence.  When they saw an unusual star in the sky, they interpreted its appearance as heralding the birth of the new king from Judea.

Fourth, they wanted to bring sacrifices for the new king.  Worship for Persians was an essential duty.  They offered not animals, but gifts.

The Magi were not present for Christmas: they came to the “house” (v. 11), not manger, and found a “child” (Greek paidion), not a “baby” (Greek brephos, Luke 2:16).  After their departure, Herod ordered all the male children in the area to be killed “who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men” (Matthew 2:16).

But they were there when God intended them to be there.  Their worship, two years after Christmas, guides us on this day after Christmas and for all the days to come.  Their sacrifices show us how to honor Jesus today: gold is for a king, frankincense for a priest, and myrrh for a sacrifice.

Will you make Jesus your King today?  Will you trust him to be your priest, your spiritual leader?  Will you accept his atoning sacrifice for your sins?  If so, every day is Christmas Day.  As Pastor Abedini notes, he will “replace your pain with indescribable joy.”  And you will find the Baby of Bethlehem waiting in the manger of your heart.