We Three Kings
December 23, 1990
Surely one of the great stories of Christmas is the story of the visit of the Wise Men from the East. Wherever the story of the birth of Jesus is told, so too is told this delightful tale of strange men from some faraway land who brought gifts to the baby Jesus.
From time immemorial every children’s Christmas pageant has included them–Joseph, Mary and Jesus in the middle, shepherds on the left, Wise Men on the right. Always three nervous little boys dressed up like oriental punk rockers bringing gold and two others gifts they can’t pronounce.
The story comes to us only in Matthew’s gospel. All that we know about the Wise Men we find in chapter 2. They show up in verse 1 and disappear in verse 12, leaving behind many unanswered questions:
1. Who are the Wise Men and where did they come from?
2. How many were there?
3. What is the star they saw and how did it lead them
4. How long after the birth of Jesus did they arrive in
5. How did they know that the baby was going to be the
king of the Jews?
Because of the mystery and the unanswered questions, great legends grew up about them. Over the centuries, the Wise Men were given names–Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. They were venerated as saints and a tradition arose called the Adoration of the Magi. In fact, if you go to the Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, you will find relics alleged to be the remains of the Wise Men.
After you puzzle over all the questions and play it over in your mind a few dozen times, you have as many mysteries at the end as you did at the beginning. And that is part of the perennial fascination of this Christmas story.
THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS
It all begins this way:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:1-2)
Right away we discover something interesting. The Wise Men–whoever they are–show up in Jerusalem after the birth of Jesus. That runs contrary to the notion that the shepherds and the Wise Men arrive in Bethlehem at the same time. Not so. The shepherds were there the night Jesus was born. The Wise Men came sometime later.
But how much later? No one really knows. It may have been a few months later. Some think even a year or so later. One hint: It was at least a few days later because when the Wise Men find Jesus he is with his mother in a house in Bethlehem, not in a manger.
That, by the way, fits well with the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church that the Wise Men came 12 days after Christmas–on January 6. And that’s why the Sunday closest to January 6 is called Epiphany in the Chuch Year. Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.
As a further note, that’s where the 12 Days of Christmas comes from. Traditionally, the 12 days of gift-giving lead you from his birth on December 25 to the arrival of the Wise Men on January 6. (As I said, this is only a tradition, but it is a very old tradition, and it may well be correct.)
STAR-GAZERS FROM THE EAST
Notice that these Wise Men are called “Magi from the east.” That’s all we are told about them. The term “Magi” is ultimately a Persian word that referred to a special class of priests in the Persian empire.
We know from other sources that the Magi had existed for hundreds of years before the time of Christ. They had their own religion (they are usually thought to have been followers of Zoroastrianism), their own priesthood, their own writings. It appears from the book of Daniel that they existed in his day and it even seems that Daniel was appointed head over the cast of the Magi in the time of King Darius. That fact will help us in a minute.
Who were the Magi? They were the professors and philosophers of their day. They were brilliant and highly educated scholars who were trained in medicine, history, religion, prophecy and astronomy. They were also trained in what we would call astrology.
In our day astrology has gotten a deservedly bad rap. But in the beginning astrology was connected with man’s search for God. The ancients studied the skies in order to find the answers to the great questions of life–Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?
There is a difference between astronomy and astrology. Astronomy is the science of the study of the stars. Astrology is the belief that there is a connection between the position of the stars and human destiny. The Magi were experts in both astronomy and astrology and claimed to be able to divine the future.
The important fact for us to know is that they were highly influential in Persia. They were in fact advisors to the king. While they were not kings, it would not be wrong to call them king-makers because they functioned as political advisors to the Persian rulers.
Finally, they were highly-educated men who thought deeply about life and consequently it is perfectly legitimate to call them “Wise Men.”
LOOKING FOR A BABY
But why have they traveled so far from home? It was a journey of a thousand miles from Persia to Israel. Why have they made such a treacherous journey?
The answer is, they have come to see the baby born king of the Jews. This is fascinating. They knew a baby had been born but they didn’t know where. They knew he was a king but didn’t know his name.
So they come to Jerusalem–the capital city–seeking help. They also assume that everyone must know about this baby. But a great surprise awaits them.
STAR OF WONDER
Verse 2 adds a detail that has baffled and intrigued Bible scholars and astronomers for 2,000 years: We have seen his star in the east, and have come to worship him.
What was “his star in the east?” What did they see and how did they know it was his star and how did they connect it with Israel?
It helps to remember that the Wise Men were students of the sky. That means they would not be frightened or put off by anything unusual that suddenly appeared to them. It also helps to know that in those days it was not uncommon to associate the birth of a great ruler with unusual heavenly phenomena. The star–whatever it was–would make perfect sense to them and would in fact perfectly fit what they already believed. You might say that if God wanted to get a message to these pagan priests, he picked the perfect way.
But still, what was the star? Frankly, we don’t know. The particular Greek word (aster) is a very general one. It referred to any bright object in the sky. It could refer to a star or a planet or a meteor or even to a comet.
Over the years there have been four main theories:
1. Halley’s Comet. Unfortunately, the nearest appearance was in 11 B.C., which is simply too early for the birth of Christ.
2. Supernova. This is an exploding star that suddenly fills the sky with light in a brilliant, blinding flash of light. These are unpredictable and very rare and there is no record in any astronomical records of a supernova in the years surrounding the birth of Christ.
3. Conjunction of Planets. This is probably the most popular theory. One version suggests that in 7 B.C. Jupiter, Mars and Saturn came together in a very rare conjunction that only occurs once every 125 years. Another possibility is a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in 2 B.C. (This last possibility is the one suggested by the “Star of Wonder” presentation at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.) The conjunction theory has this to favor it: It would explain why the Magi saw it and the people of Israel didn’t. Conjunctions don’t attract the attention of people who don’t normally watch the skies. They aren’t highly-visible phenomena like comets or supernovas or meteor showers. But to anyone who watched the stars regularly, a “triangular” conjunction like the one in 7 B.C. would certainly attract extraordinary attention.
4. A Supernatural Light. This theory suggests that the “star” was not a natural phenomena at all, but rather was a light placed by God in the atmosphere especially for the Magi to see. Those who hold this view (which I myself lean to) point to the shekinah glory of God in the Old Testament. At certain points in history God revealed himself as a bright light in order to guide his people. In this context, we might think of the pillar of fire with which God led Israel in the wilderness.
DANIEL AND THE WISE MEN
The truth is, we don’t know for sure what the “star” was. Let me take the mystery a step further. A star alone would not tell the Magi all they needed to know. They knew enough to come to Bethlehem to seek a baby born king of the Jews. They didn’t get that from the skies. So here’s the bigger question: How did they know the star (whatever it was) meant anything at all?
We are greatly helped by this fact: We know that the Jews and Persians had intermingled for at least 500 years. It seems that they considered Daniel (who was a good Jew) as one of their own. SInce the time of Daniel the Persians had known of the Jewish expectation of a Messiah. It is possible that they even knew from the prophecy of the “70 weeks” in Daniel 9 the approximate time of his appearing. What they did not know was the exact time. When they saw the star, they knew the time had come.
Now lest that seem like mere speculation, let me put it this way: Everything we know about the Jews, the Magi and the history of the ancient near east makes this story very likely:
–We know that the Jews were looking for a Messiah
–We know that the Magi looked to the stars for guidance
–We know that the Jews and the Magi had intermingled for at
least 500 years
–We know that the Magi would notice any new sign in the sky
–Therefore, it should not surprise us that the Magi would
travel to Jerusalem to greet this new Jewish king.
The story in Matthew 2 perfectly fits with everything we know.
THE LAST GASP OF A DYING MAN
The reaction of Herod is fascinating. Matthew 2:3 says that “When Herod heard the news, he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” The word “disturbed” really means to “shake violently.” Herod was all shook up.
We do know that he is very old and very sick. He is a dying man tottering on an unstable throne. The idea of baby “born” king of the Jews was a direct threat to him.
He’s scared, too, because the Magi are also potential threats to him. We don’t know whether there were only three or not, but even if there were, they certainly didn’t travel alone.
Most of our pictures of the Magi show three guys dressed like cone-heads riding three camels across the deserts. Nothing could be farther from reality. There is no way under heaven the Magi traveled 1,000 miles across the desert by themselves. The whole notion is ludicrous. In those days, the only way you could travel in the desert was in a large caravan.
The Magi would have swept into Jerusalem with pomp and circumstance and covered with the dust a thousand miles. At a minimum they would have brought with them a full military escort along with their servants. The total party could have amounted to more than 300 men. No wonder all of Jerusalem was buzzing.
By the way, it’s interesting that the Magi had no trouble gaining an audience with Herod. That fact attests to their importance.
WHAT MICAH KNEW THAT HEROD DIDN’T
So Herod turns to the scribes and priests for advice. He has only one question: Where is this child to be born? The scribes don’t have to look it up. They already know the answer. 700 years earlier the prophet Micah had predicted the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem. That was common knowledge in Israel. Little children learned that in Sabbath School before they were six years old. It’s hard to believe that Herod didn’t know it.
If you add what the scribes knew to what the Wise Men figured out, you surely conclude that the signs of Jesus’ coming were clear enough for anyone to see. It is sometimes said that God always speaks loud enough for a willing ear to hear. He certainly did that here. The Wise Men knew and did something; the scribes knew and did nothing.
Herod now does something we might think strange. He calls in the Magi and asks them when the star first appeared to them. The text (verse 7) indicates he wanted an exact time. He didn’t tell them why he wanted to know and you have to read on in the story to find out the answer:
When Herod realized he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he learned from the Magi. (16)
It appears that the Magi told Herod that the star first appeared to them two years earlier. Does that suggest that Jesus had been born two years earlier? Or did the star appear two years earlier to give them plenty of time to make the journey? Perhaps it took them two years to make the journey from Persia. We can’t be sure. It seems likely that Herod assumed that the star first appeared when the child was born. If the Magi told him it had first appeared two years ago, then that explains why Herod ordered all the male children in Bethlehem under two years old put to death.
Now we can’t be exactly sure about that … but neither could Herod. What we have at this point is a very interesting situation:
–The Magi haven’t seen the baby Jesus yet so they don’t know
how old he is.
–The scribes know where he is to be born, but they evidently
don’t believe the Magi know what they are talking about.
–Meanwhile, Herod knows where the baby is to be born, but not
how old he is, so to make sure he kills him, he orders the slaughter of all the
baby boys in Bethlehem. In his mind, he is willing to kill them all to make sure
he gets the one he wants.
LIAR, LIAR, PANTS ON FIRE
We all know what happens next. Herod asks the Magi to go to Bethlehem as his representatives, find out where the baby is, and report back to him so he can go and worship him. Herod is up to no good, and for all their wisdom the Magi fall for his trick. But why shouldn’t they? If they have come so far to worship the child, why wouldn’t Herod do as much? They have no reason to suspect his motives.
TWINKLE, TWINKLE, LITTLE STAR
At this point, something unusual happens. As the Magi set out for Bethlehem, which was only six miles south of Jerusalem, the star they saw in the east suddenly reappears. I think they first saw it in the east, set out on the their own for Jerusalem, and didn’t see it again until they left for Bethlehem.
Verse 9 is very specific. It says the star went on before them until it came and stood over the very home where the baby Jesus was. That’s necessary because, although they know the child is in Bethlehem, they don’t know where in Bethlehem, so the star leads them to the right house.
That does not sound like any natural star. It sounds like a miraculous star created by God to lead the Magi to a particular house. No wonder they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. The end of their long, hard journey was at hand.
THE KING IN THE CRADLE
Verse 11 tells us that “on coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.”
You may ask the question: When the Magi finally found the baby Jesus, were they disappointed? They might have been. After all they been through, after such a long journey, after the detour in Jerusalem, did what they find seem anticlimaxic? It might have seemed that way.
–He did not look like a king.
–His home did not look like a castle.
–He had no scepter in his hand, commanded no armies, gave no speeches, passed no laws. He could not walk or talk. No royal decree came from his lips.
–There was nothing to make you think he was a king. To the outward eye, he was nothing but a peasant child born in dire poverty.
–But to the Magi, he was a king.
–He possessed more royalty in a cradle than Herod possessed in his fine palace. He was greater in his infancy than Louis XIV in his ascendancy. He was more powerful as a child than Napoleon as an emperor.
But it did not seem that way. The eyes of flesh revealed nothing but a normal baby, gurgling and cooing, moving his tiny hands side to side, reaching eagerly for his mother’s breast.
Somehow the Magi saw beyond the present and into the future and in deep faith, they worshipped him. They saw that this child would one day rule the world and they were not ashamed to fall on their faces before him.
Let me paraphrase the words of one Bible commentator: Although we read that the Magi met Herod, we do not read that they worshipped him. But when they found this tiny baby, not yet two weeks old, rocking in his mother’s arms, these great men fell on their faces before him. To this baby they gave the honor due a king. What Herod craved, the baby received.
GIFTS FIT FOR A KING
Now we come to the last detail, the one for which the Magi are most remembered: Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (11) The gifts in themselves are expensive and represent a worthy tribute. But beyond that, there is a very ancient tradition that sees these gifts as symbolic of who this child would become.
The early church fathers said that gold represented the wealth and power of a king. Frankincense was used in the temple worship of the Lord. It represents his deity–He is truly God born in human flesh. Then there is myrrh–a kind of perfume made from the leaves of the cistus rose. It was used in beauty treatments, but when mixed with vinegar it became an anesthetic. After a person died, myrrh was used to anoint the body and prepare it for burial. John 19:39 tells us that Jesus’ body was bound in linen wrappings along with 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes. So the gift of myrrh pictures his suffering and death.
–Gold pointing to his majesty … for he is king.
–Frankincense pointing to his deity … for he is God.
–Myrrh pointing to his humanity … for he is destined to suffer
You ask, did the Magi understand all this? No, not at all. But God arranged it so that their gifts to the Holy Child would point us to who he is and why he came.
The hymnwriter understood it perfectly. Listen to his words:
Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain,
Gold I bring to crown him again
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.
Frankincense to offer have I,
Incense owns a deity nigh.
Prayer and praising, all men raising
Worship Him, God on high.
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom,
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
Then the last verse:
Glorious now behold him arise,
King and God and Sacrifice,
Sound thru the earth and skies.
THREE ABIDING TRUTHS
I offer three abiding truths from this story for your consideration.
1. If the Wise Men can find Jesus, then so can you.
Think of how many barriers they had to cross to get to Jesus. There was a culture barrier, a distance barrier, a language barrier, a racial barrier, a religious barrier, not to speak of a hostile king and indifferent religious leaders. It wasn’t easy for them to find Jesus, but they did.
If they found him, then so can you.
2. If God can use a star to reach these pagan astrologers, then he can use anything to reach anybody.
Sometimes we despair of seeing our friends come to Christ because nothing we say seems to have the slightest effect on them. This story ought to give us great hope. Our God is infinitely creative in the things he can use to break through to people who seem to be so far from him. He can use a star, a book, a tract, a television show, a song, a bow and arrow, a chance comment, or anything he desires.
If God can reach the Wise Men, he can reach anybody.
3. If the Wise Men offered Jesus gifts fit for a king, then so should we.
It’s good to remember that the tradition of giving gifts at Christmastime did not start with Santa Claus. It started with the Wise Men. Often we get so caught up in giving and receiving that we forget where it all began.
It is good to give gifts to each other; it is even better to give gifts to Jesus. It is good to show our love to those we love; it is even better to show love to the One who loved us when we were unlovely.
This, surely, is the central meaning of the story. This year and every year, and all during the year, we are invited to return to Bethlehem. A baby lies there who is King and God and Sacrifice. The King in the cradle. The Deity in diapers. The Sacrifice resting in his mother’s arms. Before long, he will arise to do his work and the world will see him as he really is. For the moment, the baby sleeps in Bethlehem surrounded by regal gifts and foreign eyes wide with wonder.