Who were the wise men? What can we actually know about them? How in the world can we apply the honor they showed Jesus to our lives today? This week and next, we’ll be looking at these wise men. This week, let’s see if we can discover who they are (and why that matters), and next week we’ll figure out what is so important about the gifts they brought.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod, wise men from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star at its rising and have come to worship him. (Matthew 2:1-2, CSB)
You may or may not know that there are many legends and myths concerning the wise men. We’ve all heard the song sung at Christmas about them: “We three kings from orient are. Bearing gifts we traverse afar.” We see them show up in ceramic Nativity scenes. There was even a video game about them!
As far back as Tertullian (so probably around A.D. 200), we got the tradition that these men are kings. This probably came from Old Testament passages like Psalm 68:29 and Isaiah 49:7, which told of kings coming to worship the Messiah.
Furthermore, Church tradition tells us that these “kings” had names: Belthasar, Melchior, and Gasper. There is a cathedral in Cologne, Germany that even claims to house the skulls of these men! This tradition tells us that these three men came from three different areas: Arabia, Persia, and India, respectively.
Because of Nativity scenes that show the visiting magi, some also assume that they showed up on the same night the shepherds did, paying homage to the newborn babe in the manger.
But all of these assumptions might raise the question, What do we know for sure about these wise men? The truth is that we know very little. We can do some digging and find out a little bit, though.
Who Were They?
First, we do know they are from the East, because Matthew tells us as much.
Second, we know they are magi: a word Matthew also uses. In New Testament times, this term covered a huge array of people, from men interested in interpreting dreams to people who practiced magic, and even those who thought the stars told the future. What these magi’s trade was, we’re not exactly sure, but we do know that they were interested in astronomy.
Third, we can be sure that when they found Jesus, he was most certainly not in a manger out behind an inn; he was most likely in a house and could have been up to two years old. We can know this because Herod asked them in no uncertain terms how long ago they’d seen His star in the sky and promptly put out an order to kill all males under the age of 2 (see Matthew 2:16).
Fourth, we know that these magi traveled as a big group: enough to trouble the entire city of Jerusalem (see Matthew 2:3).
What Can We Learn From Them?
The magi’s persistence in finding Jesus shows us what it looks like to truly seek after the King of Kings. They poured months of their lives and spent considerable money on resources in order to honor Him.
But what is most striking to me is this star they followed to find Jesus. There is some support for the fact that these magi were descendants of the men that Daniel trained in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom (Daniel 2:48 tells us that he was in charge of “all the wise men of Babylon). If they are, Daniel surely would have taught them prophecies about Jesus and how to look for His star (for example, in Numbers 24:17) when He came.
Even if these men were not part of that same tradition of wise men, we can certainly believe that the wise men were scientists, specifically astronomers who studied the stars. They knew that this new star they discovered was related to one born, “king of the Jews.” And what’s most amazing is thatGod used their exact medium to speak to them in a way they understand.
He still does this today. He reveals Himself to us in ways that we can understand—if only we are diligent to listen for His voice. This Christmas, take some time to reflect on the magi’s search for King Jesus and be in awe of the fact that this same God still speaks to us—and beckons us to follow Him—today.