Summary: The Wise Men remind us that true worship comes from the heart.
Matthew 2:1-12 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "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."
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. "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.'"
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him."
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On 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 and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Those of us who have heard the Christmas story dozens of times often forget what it might be like to hear it for the very first time. Listen to the reaction of the Herdman children the first time they hear about the Wise Men. This is from the marvelous little book, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever:
"Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea," my Mother went on reading, "behold there came Wise Men from the East to Jerusalem, saying---"
"What does it mean, Wise Men?" Ollie Herdman wanted to know. "Were they like schoolteachers?"
"No, dumbbell," his brother Claude said. "It means like President of the United States."
Mother looked surprised, and a little pleased. "Why, that's very close, Claude," she said. "Actually, they were kings."
"Well, it's about time," their sister Imogene muttered. "Maybe they'll tell the innkeeper where to get off, and get the baby out of the barn."
They saw the young child with Mary, his mother, and fell down and worshipped him, and presented unto him gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh."
"What's that stuff?" Leroy Herdman wanted to know.
"Precious oils," Mother said, "and fragrant resins."
"Oil!" Imogene hollered. "What kind of a cheap king hands out oil for a present? You get better presents from the firemen!"
We laugh at their misunderstanding of the story, but perhaps our familiarity has caused us to miss the drama and the power it contains. After I ended up being a Wise Man for about six straight years as I was growing up, I figured I knew everything there was to know about those travelers from the east. Yet, in recent years, as I have studied Matthew 2, I have realized more clearly how the Wise Men really do give Christians today an important model to follow. Let's pray the Lord will give us a fresh understanding into this portion of His Word, so that we might grow as worshipers of the King born in Bethlehem that first Christmas.
Let's start with three questions that often seem to come up about the Wise Men. #1) What was the star they followed? I heard an hour-long lecture on this topic once, but my answer is very short. Some suggest it was a spectacular alignment of Jupiter and Saturn; others say it was probably a super nova, or maybe even Halley's Comet, which would have appeared in 12 B.C. I tend to think it was a supernatural phenomenon. God caused what looked like a star to appear in the sky and go ahead of them, leading the Wise Men to the Baby Jesus.
Question #2) Who were these Wise Men, or Magi? Tradition tells us their names were Melchior, Balthasar and Kaspar. It was not, however, until 600 years after Jesus' birth that these names first appeared in any writings. We also usually think of them as being three Wise Men, but again that comes from a much later tradition, not the Bible. Some say the fact there are three gifts listed implies there were three Wise Men, but there is certainly no reason, for example, why five or six of them could have brought gold to the Baby Jesus. Another inaccuracy which has crept into the Christmas tradition is the idea that these men were kings. In the prophet Daniel's time, 500 years earlier, Magi were astrologers and interpreters of dreams. In Daniel, Chapters 1 and 2, we see they were advisers in the king's court. By the time of the New Testament, the term Magi seems to refer to a broad class of astronomers and astrologers, some of them frauds and others serious scholars. We sometimes sing a carol titled, "We Three Kings of Orient Are." However, these men were not kings, there probably were not three of them, and they were not from what we would think of as the Orient. Maybe that will take the fun out of singing the song, but that is the way it is. The Magi came from the east, but not from China or Japan. They came from the Middle East, probably Persia, which is now Iran, or Babylon, which is now Iraq. Wherever they are from, they had encountered Jews who told them of Old Testament prophecies concerning a Messiah. The strange star they saw compelled them to make a journey to Palestine.