Is the account of the wise men really a part of the Christmas story? Also, who were they, where did they come from, and is it true that there were more than three?
As far as the time element goes, the coming of the wise men to worship Jesus is not a part of the Christmas story in Luke 2: the night of Jesus’ birth, the appearance of the heavenly host to the shepherds, the visit of the shepherds to the stable, and so forth.
Note Matthew 2, especially verse 11: “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.” We see here that Mary and Joseph and Jesus were living in a house by this time. Also, the verse refers to Jesus as a young child, not a babe.
Verse 16 gives us another clue to a time lapse: “Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men.” Jesus could have been almost two years old when the wise men arrived, since Herod was concerned about calculating accurately so he could get rid of the child by killing all those two years and under.
I see no harm in focusing on the story of the wise men during the Christmas season. We just need accurate details. So often we see pictures of wise men standing with the shepherds around the stable, and so on. This is inaccurate. Children often grow up with these kinds of misconceptions. Let’s be careful.
The wise men were “from the east” (Matt. 2:1). Other than that, we are uncertain of the exact location they came from. The wise men are often referred to as the “Magi,” as you know, and this name appears in the original Greek of the above passage. This term often referred to Median and Persian priest-scholars who did much traveling and dabbled considerably in astrology and astronomy. (This would coincide with their interest in the supernatural star God directed them with.)
Some scholars point out that the Magi did exist as a priestly order long before, however.
Others have insisted that the wise men came from Arabia because of the close relations that existed between Palestine and Arabia at the time. But still others point out that Arabia is more south of Palestine, contradicting the Scriptures, which say that they came from the East.
If the Magi did come from the Persian regions of the East, they might well have heard about the expectations of the coming Messiah from the Jews living in their area and/or from prophecies of Daniel and others. The order of the Magi had been extremely powerful during the Median and Persian empires, when Daniel and the Jews were captives. Also, the Persians and Jews were on fairly good terms then. This stemmed from the time of the fall of Babylon to the Medians and Persians. In fact, some believe that the Jews conspired with the Persians to overthrow the Babylonians. This might have been one reason why King Herod was so disturbed at the appearance of the Eastern-garbed Magi. Remember, Herod was a Roman. He would have been especially suspicious when they asked, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” (Matt. 2:2). The Magi apparently didn’t realize the distrust that the Romans had for the Jews, as they came innocently to Jerusalem and did not hide their interest in the birth of the King. Nevertheless, Herod “demanded” (v. 4) of the wise men where Christ was to have been born. He was concerned about his reign to the point of paranoia. And Jerusalem, the city that should have rejoiced, was troubled along with Herod (v. 3). Undoubtedly, the people feared Herod and the other Roman rulers and their reaction to the news. The proverbial boat was being rocked.
We don’t know for sure how many wise men were in this company that went to see Jesus. We have gotten the idea from paintings and songs such as “The First Noel” and “We Three Kings of Orient Are” that there were three, probably because three gifts were specified: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But as many as hundreds of men could have gone. Bible scholars have noted that Herod would probably not have been greatly worried if just three men had come to him. But a large delegation descending upon him certainly would have upset him. We also do not know from the passage just how long the journey of the wise men took. We do know from the account that the star was miraculous, not just a conjunction of planets or a confluence of certain stars, as some men have speculated. Verse 9 tells us that the star stopped and reappeared supernaturally to direct the wise men. It was a star created by God for a special occasion and purpose.
We noted the three gifts of the wise men. Each stood for something—gold for Jesus’ birth, frankincense for His life, and myrrh for His death. Isaiah 60:6, which speaks of Christ’s second coming, appropriately and accurately leaves out myrrh. When Christ comes again, He won’t be coming to die upon the cross as He did after His first coming. Rather, He will come as the living and victorious King of Kings.
We should also note that the wise men worshiped Christ, not Mary. Matthew 2:11 mentions Mary, but it says that the wise men “fell down, and worshipped him,” not them. The shepherds, too, would have most certainly worshiped Mary in that setting on the night of Jesus’ birth. But, again, the worship was exclusively directed to Jesus Christ.
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