Summary: We often focus on issues that are insignificant rather than seeing the glory of the Lord shining through what has been written.
“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.’ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
“Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.’ 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. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.”
Everyone knows there were three wise men! It says so in … er, in … Well, I know it must be somewhere because everyone says there were three wise men. Every crèche includes three wise men, often with camels mingling with donkeys, sheep and oxen (and to satisfy the courts, a gnome and perhaps some whitetail deer). Every church pageant includes three children dressed in bathrobes and wearing foil crowns—three wise men! Even our hymnody asserts there were three magi each time we sing “We Three Kings.”
Ultimately, the number of magi making the trip to Bethlehem is unimportant. What is important is the purpose of their journey and what happened as result of their trek. For completeness’ sake, I will tell you that we do not know how many magi visited the home in Bethlehem. Moreover, they did not see the child in a manger. Rather, they came to the home of Joseph and Mary, and there they found the One for whom they were searching.
THEIRS WAS AN INCONVENIENT JOURNEY — No one knows who these wise men were. We don’t know their names; we don’t know how many of them were in their caravan. We cannot say with certainty where their home was. Nevertheless, we can draw some conclusions from what we do know. They are called mágoi—magi in the Latin tongue. We get our word “magician,” or “magic” from this Latin term. The word itself had the connotation of “great,” but it often had a bad connotation in the New Testament. Simon, whom Peter cursed, had for a long time presented himself to the populace as a “magi” [see ACTS 8:9-24]. Paul encountered a magician named Bar-Jesus who attempted to thwart the work of the Lord by endeavouring to turn the proconsul from believing the Gospel he heard from the missionaries [see ACTS 13:6-12].
In later Christian literature, the term is pointedly used to reject certain practises. One ancient source pointedly commands believers, “You shall not practise magic; you shall not engage in sorcery” [DIDACHE 2:2]. Ignatius writes, “All magic and every kind of spell were dissolved, the ignorance so characteristic of wickedness vanished, and the ancient kingdom was abolished, when God appeared in human form to bring the newness of eternal life; and what had been prepared by God began to take effect. As a result, all things were thrown into ferment, because the abolition of death was being carried out” [IGNATIUS, EPHESIANS 19:3].
Nevertheless, while the term carried a bad connotation, it pleased God to draw precisely such individuals to seek out His Son, showing us something of great value, even at this date late in the history of mankind.
The magi are said to be from the east, calling to mind Arabia, or Babylon, or Persia. It is impossible to make a choice between these possibilities. However, appealing to Scripture, I would be inclined to opt for Arabia because of what is written in the Old Testament.
“May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands
render him tribute;
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
May all kings fall down before him,