The Story We Thought We Knew: The Wise Men We Ought To Know
I wish to read for you from the second chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew. This is the Word of God.
“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 worshipped 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.”
May God bless to us the reading and the hearing of this portion of His holy word.
Pray with me, please. Give me Jesus, Lord. Give me Jesus. You can have all the rest. Just give me Jesus. Amen.
My guess is that we think we know all we need to know about the wise men of the Christmas story, but is that really true? Good question. You see, most of what we know about the wise men actually does not arise from the Bible but rather arises from tradition and legend. Tradition tells us, for example, that there were three of them; that their names were Casper, Melchior, and Balthasar; that they were each one of a different race, thus comprising the three great racial strains that make up the human family; that ultimately, they were baptized by the disciple Thomas as he carried the gospel message to the Far East; and that when they died, they were buried first in Constantinople, today’s Istanbul, and then later on, their remains were removed to the Cologne Cathedral in Germany where you can see their purported tomb to this very day. All of that is from the tradition. None of that is from our Bible. However, I am convinced that if we dig just a bit deeper into the Bible, we can actually come to something of a better understanding of who they really were. And so therefore, I invite you to step back with me for a moment into the history of Israel.
You will remember that during the time of the prophet Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, invaded the land of the Israelites, conquered the land, and dispersed many of the people to serve as slaves or servants in the Babylonian Empire. We know that region today as Iraq and Iran. While there in that rather exiled state, these dispersed Israelites, because of their hard work, their intellect, and their spirituality, actually began to achieve some measure of prominence and power. The most prominent and the most powerful among them was the prophet Daniel. Daniel lived to be more than 100 years old, and therefore, as time unfolded, these exiled Israelites, with their powerful force in Babylon—ultimately, Babylon was conquered by the Persian Empire, and those Israelites continued to amass even more power under the Persian rulers. And, in fact, they created a special tribe of people called the Magi.
Daniel, in the Old Testament, is referred to as the chief of the Magi. Daniel’s tomb, apparently, is located in the city of Susa in present-day Iran. And it was Daniel who became the inspirational force behind the Magi, encouraging them to set aside all the pagan worship around them and to focus instead on the worship of the Hebrew god and to adopt Old Testament principles, as, for example, the necessity for blood sacrifice in order to atone for wrongdoing. They became a really powerful force in the Persian Empire. Over the period of time, they became highly schooled in fields such as astronomy, astrology, agriculture, architecture, natural history, natural science, and, of course, Hebrew prophecy. The magi became the most sophisticated people of their time. And while they were not the rulers, they amassed sufficient power to be able to determine who the rulers would be. And as a matter of fact, historians refer to the Magi as the king-makers of the east.
Consequently, a number of years later, the Magi, with their combined knowledge of astronomy and Hebrew prophecy, were able to inject a profound spiritual meaning into an otherwise unexplained astronomical phenomenon. They remembered so well the prophecies of Daniel and others, prophecies indicating that at some point in the future, a promised messiah would arise in the land of the Israelites. And suddenly, for the Magi, everything fit together. And so they headed out looking for this one whom they were going to name King. They came riding on Persian stallions. Understand, please, there are no camels in Iran. They came riding on Persian, or Arabian, stallions, and they came in force. The Magi always traveled in groups of 100, surrounded by soldiers numbering at least 1,000. And so when this force of the Magi arrived in Jerusalem announcing the fact that they had come to designate a new king, little wonder that King Herod was so terrified. Mind you, three men on camels would never have struck fear into one as powerful as King Herod the Great. But when confronted with this force of the Magi announcing their intention, it rocked King Herod to the core, and it led ultimately to the most diabolical of all his deeds: the slaughter of the little baby boys of Bethlehem.
Now, I do not tell you all of this in order to undo your wonderful image of “We Three Kings of Orient Are” as a part of the celebration of Christmas. That’s actually a perfectly appropriate part of the Christmas celebration, and I certainly would encourage it. However, I tell you this so that perhaps you will have a deeper, more profound understanding of what was actually happening in Matthew’s account of the first Christmas. You see, in the Bible, the Bible chooses not to spend much time on the Magi themselves but rather focuses instead on the purpose of their arrival and on the gifts that they brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. That’s not legend. That’s in the Bible. And given what we know about the Magi, I think we can safely assume that those gifts were not just gifts. They were instead deliberately intended symbols for who Jesus was and is and always will be. Now, while there is no written record in the Bible about what happened to those gifts, I would like to tell you what I think happened to them.
The gift of gold.
Gold was the most valuable commodity in the world at that time, and gold thus came to symbolize royalty. By presenting gold to the infant Christ, the Magi from the East were acknowledging the right of Jesus to rule, and they were designating Him as King, King forever. I don’t know if you’ve thought about this or not, but the visit of the Magi marked the last of the good times for Mary and Joseph during that first Christmas. After that, life for them deteriorated rather badly. Herod launched his search-and-destroy mission. An angel of the Lord warned Joseph in a dream to take Mary and the child and to escape to Egypt. Joseph bolted into action, gathered up his young family and their meager belongings, and set out on the long, hazardous journey across both the Negev Desert and the Sinai Desert all the way to the land of the pharaohs.
Now, given the fact that Joseph was not a wealthy man, we can assume that his financial resources were strained, first by the enforced journey from Nazareth the Bethlehem under difficult circumstances in order to comply with the Roman census, secondly, in order to secure temporary housing the Bethlehem after the birth of the child. I mean, we know that that’s true because the Bible says that the Magi came to the house where Mary and the child were, and we know that they were in Bethlehem for at least 40 days after the birth and maybe even longer. And so their financial resources were tight, and then suddenly, now, they find themselves as refugees with no visible means of support trying to live in a land not their own. It was then, I believe, that the wise men’s gift of gold became a God-sent gift for the young family. That gold designed to symbolize the kingship of the Christ child wound up, I think, ensuring a safe beginning to the life of this little one who was destined to transform the whole of life and history in human kind.
The wise men, because they saw Jesus as king, gave to the infant Christ the very best that they had. We should do the same. Now, I know it’s often said that there is nothing that we can bring to Christ, and in a sense, that’s true, but there’s another sense in which it’s not true. There is something we can bring. We can bring what the Magi from the East brought. Because, you see, when we bring to Christ the gift of our gold, our treasure, our money, we are declaring that Jesus Christ has the right to rule in our lives. We are proclaiming Christ to be, as the carol puts it, “King forever, ceasing never, over us all to reign.” Yes, those Magi from the East were wise enough to see Jesus as King.
The gift of frankincense.
Frankincense was the liquified sap which was extracted from the trunk of the beautiful frankincense tree. And when that sap was then solidified, it formed amber-colored lumps. And when those lumps were warmed, they gave off a positively lovely fragrance. And as a result, frankincense became useful in cleansing and purifying the atmosphere of the temple in preparation for the worship of God, and frankincense was sprinkled over the sacrifices in the temple in order to make them worthy of God. And thus, frankincense became the symbol for divinity. Therefore, by bringing the gift of frankincense, the Magi from the East were acknowledging the divinity of Jesus, and they were designating Him as the Son of God.
The years sped by. With the help of the golden treasure, the young family lived safely in Egypt for a while until it was safe for them to return to their home in Nazareth. And there, once at home, life fell for them into familiar patterns. Under the guidance of Mary and Joseph, the young boy Jesus, as the Bible puts it, grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and others. And then gradually, youth gave way to adulthood, and Jesus took His earthly father’s place at the workbench in order to provide support for His family, for His now-apparently-widowed mother and the younger children in the family. And then there came a point where Jesus was designated to lead worship in the synagogue at Nazareth. On that occasion, as an act of devotion, Mary, I believe, went to the place where the choicest family treasures were stored, and she picked up that precious box of Frankincense and took it to the synagogue in Nazareth and spread it lavishly over that whole place to purify it, to make it perfectly appropriate for the worship of Almighty God.
And then it was in the synagogue at that service of worship where her son, Jesus, claimed to be exactly what the Magi from the East believed Him to be. There it was that He proclaimed for the first time that He was the Son of God, God come to this earth in human flesh. God, in His grace, gave to those Magi what so many people fail to see: that Jesus is God in human form. And wherever men and women have opened their minds and their hearts to accept that glorious truth, their lives have been transformed by the sweet fragrance of the spirit of Jesus Christ.
Did you notice in the Matthew account that we’re told that when the Magi from the East saw the child, the moment they saw the child, they bowed down and worshipped Him? I take it from their response that their lives were transformed because of that. If it could happen to them, it can happen to us. If we dare to claim that Jesus Christ is divine, then we are left with no alternative but simply to bow down and worship Him. Those Magi from the East were wise enough to acknowledge the divinity of Jesus Christ, and they designated Jesus as the Son of God.
The gift of myrrh.
Myrrh is the symbol of suffering. It was the substance which was used for the deadening of pain and for the embalming of the dead. And therefore, the Magi from the East, by presenting myrrh to the infant Christ, were acknowledging the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and declaring Him to be the Savior of the world. I’m convinced that early on, Mary understood that her son was born to die. You see it in the encounter that she had with Simeon in the temple. He told her that that would be the case, and he said, “It will be like a sword that pierces your heart.” Well, I think she carried that truth in her heart. And then, years later, when she joined her son for that last journey to Jerusalem, I believe that she packed in her things that urn of myrrh, believing that perhaps her son’s time had come. And then on that Sunday, after the crucifixion, I believe Mary took the urn of myrrh and, with her friends, hurried through the dawn’s early light to the garden tomb, determined there to properly prepare her son for burial, only to be greeted by the thunderous announcement, “He is not here. He has risen.” And that’s why I believe that the wise men’s gift of myrrh was the only gift that was never used.
Here is a part of the Christmas story not often told. Those little baby hands, so soft and chubby, were formed in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit so that one day nails might be driven through them. Those tiny little baby feet, unable to walk, were formed so that one day they would climb an awful hill and be affixed to a cross. That sweet infant’s head, with sparkling eyes and an easy smile, was formed so that one day, a crown of thorns might be jammed down upon it. That newborn infant’s body, warm and soft and wrapped in swaddling clothes, was formed so that one day, it might be pierced by a spear. Jesus, you see, was born to die. But out of His death and His subsequent resurrection, there came nothing less than your salvation and mine. Yes, Jesus was born to die, but Jesus also was born to save, born to save you and born to save me. The wise men were wise enough to see Jesus as the Savior of the world.
Let me finish with this, please. In Manger Square in Bethlehem today, there stands the oldest church building in the world: the Church of the Nativity. It is built over the spot where Jesus was born. Back during the seventh century, Persian warriors from the east invaded that whole area and set about destroying all of the Christian churches. They succeeded in destroying all except one. The Church of the Nativity was spared. Why? When those Persian warriors entered the Church of the Nativity, determined to destroy it, suddenly they noticed on the wall a mosaic, a mosaic which you can see in the Church of the Nativity to this very day. The mosaic pictures the Magi from the East, and it portrays them wearing Persian-style clothing. And when the warriors noticed that, that those Magi from the East were wearing clothing very similar to what they were wearing, they made the decision not to destroy the Church of the Nativity. Imagine that. Remarkable, isn’t it? The Church of the Nativity stands to this day because of the wise men from the east.
And there’s something else remarkable about that church that is reminiscent of the wise men. The doorway to the Church of the Nativity is so low that you have to bend in order to enter the church. You cannot walk in tall and proud. You have to humble yourself. You have to bow down in order to enter that church. Remember Matthew tells us, the wise men, the moment they saw the Christ child, they bowed down and worshipped Him. We ought to do the same.
So come, let us adore Him, Jesus the King. Come, let us adore Him, Jesus the Son of God. Come, let us adore Him, Jesus, the Savior of the world. Oh, come, all you faithful, come, let us adore Him.
Soli Deo gloria.
To God alone be the glory.
Amen and Amen.