Summary: A look at the "wise men" and what we can learn today as modern wise men and women
I guess that male bashing is the order of the day in some circles and now it’s reached even to the three wise men. Recently, I saw something that suggested that if the wise men had been women, things would have been different and better.
First, if the wise men had been women, they would not have arrived many months after Jesus’ birth because they would have stopped to ask for direction. And had the wise men had been women, they would have been there to clean up the mess so Jesus wouldn’t have had to be born in a barn. And finally, had the wise men been women, they would have brought much more practical gifts including a casserole so the family would have something to eat.
What do we really know about the wise men? Not much when you examine the scripture. Where did they come from? “The east” you say. But where in the east? How far east? Beaumont? Atlanta? Africa? We know they came from the east and they came from a long way away, but we don’t really know where they came from.
How many of them were there and what kind of men were they? Again, we don’t know. In the second century, a church father named Tertullian suggested that these men were kings because the Old Testament had predicted that kings would come to worship him. He also concluded that there were three kings based on the number of gifts mentioned, gold, frankesence and myrrh. And the manufacturers of nativity scenes caught on and so in every nativity scene, you see three kings or wise men. But the Bible doesn’t tell us who they were or how many of them came.
In the sixth century, someone decided that their names were Melchior, Baltazar and Gaspar. And so operas have been written ascribing these names to them. But no one really knows what their names were.
We don’t even really know that they were wise. In the original manuscripts they are called the “magi” from an ancient Iranian word, “magoi” which was used to describe people who acted in very strange ways, were captivated by astrology, spells and incantation and dressed in a very bizzare manner. The latin word is “magi” from which we get words like “magician.” You’ll see a clear example of this in the adventures of King Arthur and the knights of the round table. You’ll remember Merlin, the magician and the strange way he dressed.
So we don’t know who they were, where they came from or even how many of them there were. Why not? Why doesn’t Matthew tell us any of this information? I’m not sure I know with certainty, but I’d suggest that all of this detail is left out of the picture in order that the full emphasis may be placed on the one thing that is central to this story, namely their statement, “we have come to worship.” That’s the main point of this particular story as Matthew tells it to us. “We have come to worship.” And as we look at what Matthew tells us about these men,although they may have been strange little men who dressed weird, they really were wise men.
And the challenge for us today, is whether we will be wise men and women. I believe that wise men still seek him. Wise men still serve him and wise men still worship him. Let’s read the text.
[Read Matthew 12.1-12.]
First, wise men still seek him. It’s likely that these magi were descendants of the ten tribes of Israel that remained in Babylon after the time of Daniel. Many of the Jews did not return to their homeland but rather chose to remain behind in Babylon. There they were assimilated into the culture and probably adopted many of the religious practices of the pagans. So these magi may not have been very orthodox in their faith, but still, they were looking for the coming messiah. They took literally the statement from Numbers 24.17: “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.” And so they searched the skies for hundreds of years looking for a sign that the messiah had come. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced and came seeking the one who was born king of the Jews.
We don’t know exactly how far they traveled, but it is likely that they came from 500 to 1000 miles away. Imagine traveling that far on the back of a camel. One hump or two? It might not be that bad if you were on a two humper. Maybe you could settle in between the humps and put it on auto-pilot, or auto-camel. But imagine being on top of a one humper trying to keep your balance the whole way! And it was a long and difficult trip across the desert. Give these men credit. They really wanted to come and worship Jesus. They were serious seekers.