What can we learn from the wise men in the Christmas story of the Bible? By digging into the historical narrative, we come away with five surprisingly robust insights from these mysterious Magi.
The wise men have been a source of inspirational sayings (“Wise men still seek Him”), narrative fiction (e.g., Martin Sheen’s The Fourth Wise Man), and even jokes: “Why did the wise men smell like smoke? It’s because they came from afar.” A wise guy even suggested that the wise men should have been replaced by the wise women: they would have arrived on time, spruced up the nativity scene, and brought sensible gifts for an infant including diapers.
If we dig deeper into the story, will we find more than sentimental sayings and narrative speculation? By delving into the story of the wise men, we actually find a richness of insights grounded in this fascinating historical event.
#1 – God uses strange ways to connect with people.
Matthew calls these star-gazing visitors from the East “Magi.” They were students of the stars and interpreters of dreams. The Old Testament describes wise men in both Egypt (Ex. 7:11) and Babylon (Dan. 2:48), but the wise men in Matthew’s Gospel were likely from Persia. They likely played both a religious and political role, and visiting royalty was not outside their job description. For example, we also have a record of Magi visiting Emperor Nero in A.D. 66 and paying him homage.
By all accounts, it was a strange way for God to connect people with his Son. Magi is a root word from which the word “magic” is derived. It’s also the same Greek term used in Acts 13 to describe “Elymas the magician” whom Paul rebuked for twisting God’s straight paths (13:8). And while it’s not out of God’s wheelhouse to communicate to Gentiles in dreams (Dan. 2:1) and other unorthodox means (Num. 22:28), it’s pretty out-of-the-box to use pagan astrology as a way of reaching outsiders with the gospel of King Jesus. Yet, “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39). Praise God for doing what it takes to reconcile seekers with himself (Acts 10:34-35).
What do we learn from the wise men in the Bible? God uses outside-the-box methods for reaching people.
#2 – God prepares the way.
The destruction of both Jewish kingdoms (the North by the Assyrians, the South by the Babylonians) were unspeakable tragedies for their generations. Yet getting conquered meant Jewish dispersion all over the Mediterranean world. This ended up meaning that, in the Roman era, there were pockets of people waiting for the Jewish Messiah all over the empire.
“In the Roman era, there were pockets of people waiting for the Jewish Messiah all over the empire.”
Add to that the widespread rumor in the East that a ruler would arise from Judea (which corresponds nicely with the Magi’s visit), mentioned by Roman historians Tacitus and Seutonius. According to Seutonius, “A firm persuasion had long prevailed through all the East, that it was fated for the empire of the world, at that time, to devolve on some one who should go forth from Judea.” After the Emperor Vespasian rose to power suppressing the Jewish rebellion in Judea, Roman loyalists, such as the Jewish historian Josephus, applied this prediction to Vespasian.
As believers in Jesus, we can see in this prediction—and all the more so in Old Testament prophecies and the Jewish diaspora—God preparing the way for his Son’s entrance into history. As Galatians 4:4 puts it, “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son.”
Moreover, we can see in the geographical centrality of the promised land, the universality of the Greek language, and the accessibility of the Roman roads that God had prepared just the right time and place for the first Christmas. God prepared the way so that outsiders like these Magi would be able to connect with the Savior of the world.
What do we learn from the wise men in the Bible? God prepares the way even for outsiders.
#3 – Insiders can miss the obvious.
It’s been difficult figuring out exactly what it was in the sky that led the Magi to Judea. Some proposals: the concurrence of Saturn and Jupiter, Halley’s Comet, a Nova (exploding star), an angel (for the association of angels and stars, see Job 38:7; Dan. 8:10; Rev. 8:10-11). Whatever it was they saw in the East got them to Judea, and when they set out from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, it guided them, moving and stopping over where Jesus and his family stayed.
While we don’t know precisely what it was in the sky those months, what we know for sure is that the Magi were looking up, while the religious leaders in Israel were preoccupied with matters of infinitely less importance. When the Magi showed up in Jerusalem to get further directions, Herod assembled the top religious leaders and, sure enough, they were aware of the prophecy. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied (Matt. 2:5a). Then they promptly got back to scurrying about their religious duties and missing the event their decades of Bible study had trained them for.
What do we learn from the wise men in the Bible? Keep looking up.
#4 – Traditions can be distracting.
Much of what we picture about the wise men comes from traditions that are often distracting at best and sometimes not even true. The hymn “We Three Kings” provides numerous examples. First of all, three kings? They’re not kings; they’re Magi. And three kings? Just because they were three gifts doesn’t mean that there were three Magi and we don’t know their actual names. The symbolism tied into the three gifts (e.g., “Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom; sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb”) can be exaggerated. For example, although myrrh was used at Jesus’ death (Mark 15:23) and burial (John 19:39), in the Old Testament, myrrh had a romantic connotation (Pr. 7:17). The Magi don’t even technically belong in the Nativity Scene, unless (as my purist upbringing had it) they are placed at least five feet away, arriving months after Jesus the “child” (not infant) had outgrown the manger and was now living in a “house” (Matt. 2:11). (Sorry for “debunking” all these wise men traditions. Well…merry Christmas.)
It would be pretty silly to read the story of the visiting Magi, lose the facts in the midst of half-true traditions, and forget to internalize the reason they’re there: “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” (Matt. 2:2). Let’s enjoy the holiday and its traditions, but all the while let’s keep the main thing center stage in our hearts: Christmas is for worshiping the King.
What do we learn from the wise men in the Bible? The point of Christmas is to worship the King.
#5 – Worship costs.
Gold, frankincense and myrrh were just a down payment. The real cost lay in the weight of making an exclusive decision of which king they came to Judea to worship. In this, the Magi appear naïve, assuming that Herod would be amenable to hearing about the one “born king of the Jews” (Matt. 2:2). They apparently weren’t aware of how this obsessive, paranoid monarch had conquered armies, ingratiated emperors, and slain family members all to get and retain this title. He wasn’t about to have it stolen by an infant descendant of David for whom the throne was quite literally a divine right.
“Herod wasn’t about to have it stolen by an infant descendant of David for whom the throne was quite literally a divine right.”
Choosing to worship King Jesus costs more than just the gifts we offer him. It costs us the favor of the powers that would be king over us and awakens their rage. There is a very real sense in which worship is warfare.