Summary: The wise men can teach us a lot about how they viewed Jesus -- as King, God, and Sacrifice.
Christmas is only a few weeks away now, so I thought I would share with you guys some thoughts I’ve had regarding some of the more mysterious characters in Christ’s birth story -- that is, the wise men.
The Bible doesn’t give a whole lot of specifics regarding these men, but it does allow us to infer several things about their lives that, while they can’t be proven, certainly make a lot of sense. Let’s begin by reading what the Bible actually says about the wise men:
“1After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: 6“ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” 9After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” (Matthew 2:1-12)
The first bit of information we see is in verse 1; the visitors were Magi and from the east. While this doesn’t really give us a lot, it can help us figure out with a little more detail where these men were from. The word “Magi” comes from the ancient Persian word “magauno”, which is a religious caste of the Zoroastrian religion. This not only tells us that the Magi were likely from eastern part of the Persian empire (mostly modern-day Iran), but also that they were priests in a different religion altogether. Zoroastrianism, simplified, is the search for truth over lies -- these priests recognized that Jesus is the Ultimate Truth, and so began their journey to seek Him. Zoroastrian priests were accomplished astrologers (which was considered to be a real science at the time), so it’s not super surprising that they decided to make their journey based on a star (verse 2).
It’s also important to note that their home is in the east, not the north or south or west. Throughout the Bible, moving east is a metaphor for moving away from God’s Presence; while moving west gets you closer to God. A few examples:
When Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, they were sent east. God placed angels to guard the entrance of the garden in the east. Since they were physically with God in the Garden, in order to get closer to him they’d have to move west.
When Cain killed Abel, he was banished even further east than the rest of his family -- in other words, even farther away from God.
The entrance of the old tabernacle faced east. This forced the people to go west to enter the tent as they sought the Presence of the Lord.
So, if the wise men were from the east, as verse 1 says, then they had to travel west to see the Messiah. They were travelling physically, yes; but also spiritually -- as they travelled from east to west they were getting closer and closer to the Presence of the Lord.
Verse 3 tells us that these were people who were fairly well-known because they got an immediate audience with King Herod. Also, it says that “all of Jerusalem” was disturbed by their story, which means they were famous enough for the entire city to know of their arrival. Anyone that famous and wealthy travelling that far would have to have a small entourage with them -- probably even an entire battalion of soldiers to protect them from bandits on the roads. There were definitely more than just 3 men with camels -- each magi probably had close to 300 people with him.