Summary: There are many things we don’t know about the Magi but we do know that they were Gentiles, they came to worship the Christ, and they brought expensive gifts. Where would they look if they came today?
We Three (Billion?) Kings Matthew 2:1-12 December 19, 2004
Someone speculated what the first Christmas might have been like if Wise Women had come from the east instead of Wise Men.
First of all, they would have asked for directions and made it to Bethlehem on time. Second, they would have helped with the delivery, cleaned up the stable, and brought some practical gifts like a casserole so the family would have something to eat.
The Bible records the account of wise men who visit the Christ child in Matthew chapter 2. But there’s much about them we don’t know.
• Matthew tells us that they came from the East but we don’t know exactly which country was their home. It could have been Persia, which is modern day Iran or Babylon which is modern day Iraq.
• We sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” But they weren’t kings at all. The Bible says they were “Magi.” Magi were astrologers and interpreters of dreams. They were skilled in astrology and astronomy, and were likely involved in various occult practices, including sorcery. They were men of great wisdom and magical power like Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings.”
• Who were these Magi? Tradition tells us their names were Melchior, Balthasar and Kaspar. But again there is no certainty behind this tradition. It wasn’t until 600 years after Jesus’ birth that these names first appeared in any writings.
• We don’t even know that there were three of them who came. The Bible doesn’t give us that number but we have come to assume there were three because three gifts are mentioned: gold, frankincense and myrrh. There could have been three Magi, or four or five. The good news is that if your kid breaks one of the kings in your nativity set you’re still OK with two.
• What was the star they followed? Some suggest it was a spectacular alignment of Jupiter and Saturn that occurred in 6 B.C. Others say it was probably a super nova, or maybe even Halley’s Comet, which would have appeared in 12 B.C. It may have been a supernatural phenomenon as well.
• We are not even clear about when they came. The wise men are pictured in ancient paintings kneeling before the baby in the manger. But Matthew’s account tells they came to the house and saw the child with his mother Mary. When Herod decides to do what he can to exterminate this child who is a threat to his throne, he gives orders to kill all the male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem who are two years old and under. Either he is being overly zealous (not unlikely in this fiend’s case), or up to two years may have transpired. We don’t know for sure.
There are many things we don’t know, but there are a many things we do know. I want to mention just three.
• These men were Gentiles
• They came to worship Jesus
• They came with expensive gifts
They were Gentiles. They were idol-worshiping pagans. And yet they may have been familiar with the Jewish prophecies because of their contact with the descendents of the Jews who had been carried away to captivity in Babylon 600 years before. Perhaps they had even read the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24:17: "A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel."
A Gentile, you recall, is the term a Jewish person used to describe a foreigner. But it meant more than foreigner. A Gentile was an outsider. No good Jew would associate with one. When they spoke of a gentile they usually added the word "dog." They were unbelievers, heathens. That is what is so unusual about this Gospel story. It is the Magi (Gentiles not Jews)who come to Jerusalem, the religious center and political capitol, asking, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
They came to worship him. The Jews had been praying for a Messiah for decades; prophets had foretold his coming for centuries. Yet the first ones to worship the Jewish messiah when he arrives are not Jewish priests; they are pagan sorcerers. You can’t say they didn’t know either. When Herod asks the chief priests and teachers of the law where the Messiah is to be born, they quote directly from the prophet Micah.
“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “ ‘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 be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”
Matthew is demonstrating how Jesus and Jesus alone fulfilled the prophecies that were spoken about him. He is authenticating Jesus as the Messiah. But he is also illustrating how the religious are often the most oblivious and most apathetic when God moves into the neighborhood. The Wise Men had come 1,200 or more miles west to worship the King of kings. Yet the Jewish priests in Jerusalem wouldn’t go 6 miles south to Bethlehem to see him for themselves.