Who Were the Wise Men?

This part of the church year feels a little bit rushed. I’m specifically thinking of the Christmas season (Dec. 25 through Jan. 5) and the beginning of Epiphany (Jan. 6). There is so much biblical ground to cover that we would need to have church three or four times a week to cover it all. So, inevitably, there are certain topics that don’t get as much attention as they should.

One of those topics is the wise men. Culturally, they’re often associated with Christmas. But liturgically, and biblically, they belong better in Epiphany, which immediately follows the season of Christmas. That’s because they don’t actually show up at Christmas. As best as we can tell, they meet Jesus about a year or two after his birth.

So who were these wise guys? Where were they from? And why did they come to visit Jesus?

They were not kings. The technical term for them is “Magi.” And they practiced some kind of pagan religion. Part of their religion included astrology (not to be confused with astronomy, which is the scientific study of the planets). Astrology is a pagan religion. They searched for religious meaning in the stars. This, by the way, is bad, but God got through to them to guide them to the True Light.

So they saw a star that revealed the birth of the “king of the Jews” (Matt. 2:2). How would a star reveal this? We don’t know for sure, but the most reasonable explanation (at least that I know of) is that they picked it up from Numbers 24:17:

I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near: 
a star shall come out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;
it shall crush the forehead of Moab
and break down all the sons of Sheth.”

Matthew says the Magi were from the east (2:1). And we know there were Magi in Babylon during the time of the Babylonian captivity (6th century bc). So it seems they became familiar with Judaism while the Jews were captives in Babylon. And perhaps this passage from Numbers about a star and a king caught their attention. They may also have been influenced toward Judaism by Daniel’s witness during this same time.

Fast forward several hundred years, and some Magi see a star they have never seen before. New stars don’t just pop into the sky out of nowhere, and they connect it with the star spoken of in Numbers. So they travel to Jerusalem with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This is why we often picture three of them, but we don’t actually know how many there were.

They arrive in Jerusalem within two years of Jesus’ birth. We derive this from Herod’s murderous response of klling all the male children in Bethlehem two years old and younger (Matt. 2:16). They also find Jesus and his family in a house (presumably still in Bethlehem). Matthew also refers to Jesus here as a “child” instead of a “baby” (Matt. 2:11). So it’s more like the Magi come and worship toddler Jesus. And this is key: they worship Jesus as God, and Mary lets them worship him. This would have been blasphemous to a Jewish mother, unless she knows that her son is God. And of course she does.

So imagine these strange men from a distant country showing up unannounced to worship a toddler. That’s what the Magi do. And in this encounter, God revealed to them the true light. And to us he reveals that his Son, Jesus Christ is the light to the nations.

The peace of Christ be with you all,

Pastor Dan