READ : Matthew 2:1-11
What can we learn from the story of the wise men? Lots of legends surround the mysterious visitors from the east who knelt before the infant Jesus and worshiped him with their gifts. But the truth about them says something important about us.
In a way it’s incredible that the story of Christ’s birth should be commemorated and celebrated by so many people worldwide, for nothing could have been more obscure than what happened on the first Christmas. A poor peasant girl, in an out-of-the-way corner of the world, gives birth to a baby one night in a stable. Hardly earth-shaking. Yet this was the event that changed the world, and we rejoice in it and remember it still.
Some rejoiced in it even then. The first to celebrate the birth of Jesus the Messiah were the angels, who lit up Bethlehem’s midnight sky with their carols of praise. Then came the shepherds to see their infant Savior, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. Later on, still others came to worship the child. Matthew tells us about them in the second chapter of his gospel:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”. . . . They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet . . .” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.
We Three Kings?
Who were these strangers who came to do homage to the newborn King of the Jews? And what does their visit signify? We sing about them in a popular carol that admittedly is a bit misleading:
We three kings of Orient are:
Bearing gifts we traverse afar.
There are three statements in that song, only one of which we know to be true. They were from the Orient, or the east; in this case, east of Jerusalem. But Matthew doesn’t say anything about the number of wise men. He mentions three gifts, but to assign one man per gift is to make an assumption that may or may not be true. And as for their being kings, the Bible doesn’t say anything about that. The fact is: our ideas about these mysterious visitors from the east who figure so prominently in our Christmas stories owe a lot more to imagination and legend than they do to Scripture.
Over the centuries, in fact, Christian tradition has filled in all sorts of details about the wise men. They were given names: Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. One was 20, one was 40, one 60; one was white, one was black, one was brown. It was said that the apostle Thomas found them many years later living in India and baptized all three; and eventually they were martyred for the Christian faith, and their bones are preserved today at the cathedral of Cologne in Germany??”or so it is claimed. And it’s all, of course, simply legendary.
But these legends do point to a real and important truth. In a sense they’re right. The magi do represent all the families of humankind. They are the first-fruits in the gospel story of the harvest of gentiles. They represent the nations and races who would eventually come to worship the Lord Jesus just as the wise men did at the first Christmas in Bethlehem so long ago.
So what do we really know about them? All we know is what they were. They weren’t kings. They weren’t really wise men in a sense, though that’s the name the King James Bible used for them, but in the original they are called magi, from which the English word magician comes. Magi were priest-sages who most commonly came from ancient Persia, or present-day Iran. Some were almost like scientists, students of ancient wisdom; others probably were more like magicians who dealt in what today we would call occult knowledge. So the magi represent both the best and the worst of the ancient world: learning and science, but also idolatry and magic. And yet it was to such that God chose to reveal the birth of his Son.
The story of the visit of the magi to Bethlehem illustrates two important truths for us. The first is a truth about God, and here it is: God is wonderfully condescending. Does that word surprise you? It often carries a negative connotation for us. But to say that God is condescending toward us means simply that he comes down to our level. He lowers himself to meet with us, rather than making us struggle to try to reach him. God’s greatest act of condescension is the one we celebrate at Christmas to come down into our world as one of us. Imagine what it must have taken for the God of the universe to make himself a tiny, helpless baby! Think of that! The infinite God, whom time and space cannot contain, made himself small enough and weak enough to enter a woman’s womb and be born into the world.
And then he condescends even further. God lowers himself in order to tell us about himself. He’s like a mother, cooing to her child in baby-talk in order to communicate her love the only way the child can grasp. That’s how God speaks to us. He uses human ways that we can grasp. God comes to people where they are, as they are, using whatever means they can understand to make himself known to them. And that’s exactly how he came to the magi.
They understood the heavens, so the Lord spoke to them in their own idiom, so to speak, and he led them by a star. You know, he does something like that today as well. He reaches people in all sorts of strange places by all sorts of means that we wouldn’t expect him to use.
He can make himself known to you. He’ll attract your attention to himself in some way. It doesn’t have to be in church. It isn’t necessarily through a sermon. It could be a radio program or a television show. It could happen anywhere, on the street, in your job. He could come to you and touch you through an event, or a song, or another person, a conversation. Somehow he’ll spark an interest in you in Jesus, and then he’ll lead you one way or another to his Word, the Bible, the way he led the wise men, and there you can meet him and come to know him personally.
That’s the truth about God. God is condescending toward us because he wants to communicate himself to us. He is, in fact, the great communicator!
And the second truth this story teaches is a truth about us. Jesus was born, the story says, “the king of the Jews.” But his kingship was not intended for just one race or one tribe or one group. The blessings of Jesus’ reign??”of peace and joy and hope??”are meant for everyone. No one particular people is God’s particular favorite. Christ is the Light of the whole world. He’s the king of all the nations. And the magi represent a sort of preview of all those different nations who have come and who continue to come and who will come one day in faith to worship and bow before the Lord Jesus.
Why did they come? What drew them on? Yes, they must have been curious about that star and its astrological and astronomical significance. They were intrigued by the supernatural sign God gave them. But imagine the time and effort their journey cost them; think of the obstacles in their way, the hunger and thirst, the fatigue, the danger. And still they persisted until they found him.
Why? It wasn’t for ambition or a desire for gain. “We saw his star,” they said, “and have come to worship him” (v. 2), just like that. I don’t know that they would have gone to all that trouble just to honor another earthly prince??”after all, there must have been plenty of them living closer to home in Persia!
No. It was something different that attracted them, something that gave them cause to hope. This child would be different, another sort of king altogether. He would bring the reign of God into the world. His name would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” and of his government there would be no end (see Isaiah 9:6-7). Somehow the magi sensed some of that; maybe they saw it in the stars. It gave them hope, and hope drew them on, and faith gave them strength to persevere.
That’s what impresses me most about them??”their faith. No Bible, no prophets, no Temple, no long history with God, just a hint from the heavens, and off they went, pressing onward through the weeks and across the miles. They went to worship Christ, even when Herod and the leaders of his own people showed no interest in doing so. They believed even when at last they saw the King whom they were expecting and he turned out to be just a little baby on a poor mother’s lap in a humble village house. There was no apparent greatness here, no obvious majesty, but still “they bowed down and worshiped him” and “they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts” (v. 11), gold and incense and myrrh.
But the real gift of the magi, you know, wasn’t carried in any box. It was the gift they gave as they knelt before the child in glad and humble adoration. It was the gift of themselves, of their love, their hearts, and their lives. It was the same gift the Christ child wants from you. If the magi, with so little to go on, could give Christ the worship of heart and life and treasure, cannot you and I, with so much more knowledge of him and experience with him, do the same?