We set up a nativity every year. We pay careful attention to the pieces; we position the animals, the shepherds, and the wise men. All those who came to see the Christ child. We attend Christmas pageants with adorable children dressed as sheep and shepherds and young boys with fake beards pretending to be wise.
The nativity is the central focus of our Christmas season because it is the reason we celebrate. Without the birth of Christ, Christmas is quite pointless. There is not much reason to break out the lights or trim the tree if Christ never came.
As Christians, this is why we celebrate, “And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:8-10
It is important for us to know and understand the purpose of the coming King, and God allows us to see a beautiful picture of the birth of our Savior. One piece that always has us puzzled is the wise men. Who were they? How did they know of the star? And why did they matter?
The wise men are always the part of the nativity we get biblically inaccurate. We look at the pretty picture with shepherds, animals, and the wise men and mistakenly think they came to the infant King in a manger.
We find the story in Matthew 2:1-12 with very few details about who the wise men were other than that they had clearly heard the prophecy of a coming king and a star that proclaimed his birth.
There are a few things we can gather about these men from what we read in Scripture, but a great deal of what we know about them can be found in the historical record.
The idea of wise men is seen throughout the Scriptures. In most cases, they are serving royalty and advising the kings or pharaohs. In some instances, they were referred to as magicians and wise men.
Who Were They?
We can look to the extra-biblical historical record to inform our understanding of the wise men. Herodotus, a historian of his day, mentions the magi or wise men in his writings. Herodotus tells us that they were priestly and likely from Persia.
The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible tells us that the religion of Persia during that time was Zoroastrianism, which was a monotheistic religion that focused on the idea of good and evil, ultimately with evil being defeated. It could be safe to say that the wise men were likely Zoroastrian priests.
In the book of Daniel, the wise men or magi were often knowledgeable in astrology and dream interpretation, which made them valuable to kings. They could determine how one should rule or make decisions for their kingdom.
The other question that may remain for us is how many were there?
There is no number given in scripture of how many wise men there were. The western church has often viewed it as three wise men because there were three gifts. However, we are never told with certainty how many.
How Did They Know?
As we discussed earlier, the wise men were known for studying the stars. They used astrology to make predictions and even to serve kings.
The prophecies of the coming king were many and likely ones that were often spoken about in that region of the world. This astrological phenomenon was a new star and was interpreted as a divine signal that a new Jewish king had been born.
Numbers 24:17, “a star shall come forth out of Jacob, a scepter shall arise out of Israel.”
Isaiah 60:3 “And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”
The wise men seeking to follow the star and find the newborn king would have traveled a great distance. If they were indeed coming from Persia or Babylon, their journey would have been 900 miles, which would have taken them approximately 120 days to complete.
What Did They Bring?
“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.” Matthew 2:11-12
The wise men did not come to the Christ child empty-handed. Their gifts were meaningful and costly, each representing the King they came to worship.
The first gift brought was gold, likely coins. The gold often points to the truth that He is the King of Kings. “On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of Kings and Lord of lords.” Revelation 19:16
Second, frankincense was given; this precious spice was used as sacred incense in the temple by the priests. Christ is our great High Priest. “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.” Hebrews 4:14
Third, myrrh was given. This unusual blend of herbs and spices was often used for incense or medicine but most often in caring for dead bodies. Christ came to die for our sins. “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.” Ephesians 1:7
Why Does It Matter?
Those who came to the Christ child to pay homage represent a gospel that would go out unto the nations. The Shepherds were lowly, common men who came to worship. The wise men were wealthy, worldly, and royal, yet bowed before Him.
There is not one who is out of reach of Christ. Whether in poverty or power, the gospel is for all. He came to seek and to save that which was lost (Luke 19:10). Even the mighty are lost, without hope, apart from Christ.
No matter the gifts brought, the status, intelligence, or earthly rule, none can compare to the King of Kings, Jesus. We are reminded that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess, even the wisest of men.
Philippians 2:10, “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”
Photo Credit: ©Thinkstock/mastapiece
Michelle Rabon is a wife and homeschooling mom of three who feels called to help women thrive in their walk with Jesus every day. In 2012, she started Displaying Grace, a ministry that is focused on helping women engage with God’s Word. Michelle has also served in women’s ministry for the past five years seeking to equip women in the local church through Bible study. When she is not writing or teaching, she enjoys reading, being close to the ocean, and drinking a lot of coffee.