Were the Wise Men Really So Wise?
Sometimes we think we know more about something than we really know. A perfect case is this morning’s text about the three wise Men. We even think we know their names as being Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. We believe that they came from the east bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the baby Jesus at Christmastime. Finally, we call them “wise”. What of this story is true and what is legend?
We can dispense with the fact that there were three of them. The bible simply does not say how many there were. Some assumed that because three gifts were given that there were three wise men. Maybe there were three of them, but all the Bible can tell us is that there was more than one.
Neither does the Bible name the three Magi, so the names tradition has assigned to them is most probably not their names.
Neither can we be sure that they came from the East. This would seem more likely than not, but their report of seeing the star in the east could also be translated that they saw the star in the eastern sky which would mean that they came from the west. But as the Magi were the names of the astrologers and those who examined the livers of animals to predict the future was often associated with Babylon, at least this part of the story is likely true.
We also do not know when the Wise Men arrived at Bethlehem other than it seems that it was before Jesus’s second birthday as Herod, having inquired to the time that the star appeared, had all the male children two years and younger killed in the attempt to eliminate the competition.
We also need to examine how “wise” these Wise Men really were. Were they able to figure out something about the birth of the Messiah from their study of the stars that the Jewish people who had the Scripture did not figure out, even though it was clearly prophesied there. Let us now examine the text of the second chapter of Matthew a little more closely and see what the evangelist and apostle is trying to tell us.
Whereas Luke dates his Christmas story from the reign of Augustus Caesar, the emperor of Rome, Matthew begins it by dating it in the reign of Herod the Great who was a client king of Rome. Luke goes into considerably more detail concerning Jesus’ birth, where Matthew mentions it in passing. It isn’t even the main sentence. It only introduces the circumstances that caused the Wise Men to come. They had seen an unusual star appear in the western sky, assuming that they were from Babylon. As Magi, who carefully charted the stars including the wandering ones we now know are planets. A new bright star hanging low in the sky would have caught their attention and would have made them wonder. They would have also noticed that this star remained fixed in the sky and did not move with the rotation of the earth. As they followed this star, they would have noticed that it would have slowly risen higher in the sky as they approached Bethlehem. In other words, this star would have moved from west to east rather than east to west. This was certainly no ordinary star, and the Wise Men would have known this.
But how did they make the connection between this star and the birth of the King of the Jews? Did they have access to the Jewish Scriptures? Or did they have access to some Babylonian prophecies concerning the arrival of Jesus. All the Scripture teaches us is that they made the connection. When they got to Jerusalem, they asked where the King of the Jews was and that they had seen His star in the east.
The Wise Men followed the star until they saw the city of Jerusalem. When they saw the gilded Temple and the palace of Herod, did they take their eyes off the star? After all, Jerusalem was called the city of the great king. Herod had one of his many palaces there. Surely the people of this great and religious city would know about the birth of this king. But apparently no one knew anything about it. King Herod got the news that these Wise Men were seeking for the King of the Jews. Herod thought of Himself as the King of the Jews, even though he wasn’t Jewish. He was so worried that a legitimate Jewish king would rise up and take away his throne. He had once been married to the daughter of the High Priest. But political intrigue and fear caused him to assassinate her. He also had their two sons by her assassinated for fear that the Jews would crown one of them in his place. So Herod was troubled to hear that astrologers from the east had been following the star which announced the birth of the rightful king.
This was the first Herod had heard, or anyone else but the few that God had revealed it to of the birth of a rival to his throne. Herod was a very fearful person. But he also was very shrewd. He asked the High Priest and the scribes where such a king would be born. Although they knew nothing about the birth of Jesus, they did know the prophecy of Micah that this king would be born in Bethlehem. Then he asked the Wise Men who were ignorant of the evil intentions of Herod when the star appeared. The Wise Men told Herod. Then Herod told them to go to Bethlehem and he would come later to worship him too after they told Herod where they found Jesus. Was Herod really going to bow the knee to the Lord’s Christ? He who spared not his own sons to protect his throne was not about to spare Jesus.
When they Wise men left Jerusalem they caught sight of the star they had taken their eyes off of because they saw the glitter of Jerusalem. Instead of a large city, it took them to a very small, humble, and poor village called Bethlehem. It is ironic that this unimportant place lay at the foot of a mountain where Herod had taken the top off of and built a magnificent palace for himself. Some think the manger was actually a cave in this mountain which would mean that the star would have been directly over both Herod’s palace and the place where Jesus was born. But the Wise Men did not go to the upstairs residence this time. By the grace of God they looked below and found Jesus. If the Wise Men had kept their eye on the star, Herod would never have been tipped off. It was most unwise of the Wise Men to have lost sight of that star, and it would have tragic consequences for the young boys two years old and younger whom Herod will kill in a dragnet, in order that the Christ child would be killed. I wonder if Herod sent spies to follow the wise men.
The Wise Men came to where Jesus was, guided by the star. Whether this was the manger or not, we do not know. They offered their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold and frankincense were gifts fit for a king, but myrrh was a strange gift as it was used as a spice for embalming the dead. Even here it can be seen that this King of the Jews was born to die. Even though Herod had marked this child for death, it was not the time and place that God had ordained.
The unwitting Wise Men were about to return to Jerusalem and tell Herod where they had found Jesus. However, God directly intervened and warned them to take a different route home. The Spirit also warned Joseph in a dream to get the family out of Bethlehem and flee to Egypt. Because of these interventions, the life of Jesus was spared until the proper time that He would lay down His life for the sins of the world.
As we can see, the Wise Men weren’t so wise after all. If it had been left to their wisdom, the infant Jesus would have been found and killed by Herod. Because they took their eyes off the star which was God’s means of guiding them and instead made wrong assumptions once they saw Jerusalem, the Innocents in Bethlehem were slaughtered. They did not figure out by human wisdom that the King of the Jews had been born any more than the Jews having the greater light of the Scriptures. No one came to Jesus because they had reasoned it out. The angels had to announce to the shepherds that Jesus had been born and what the significance of this birth was. In other words, they knew of it by revelation. And the same must be said of the Wise Men. We know that God through Moses had said that astrologers, soothsayers, and magicians were to be stoned to death along with false prophets. By the Scripture, these Wise Men were marked for death. It was by grace and in spite of who these Magi were, that God directed them to the infant Jesus.
What is really significant about the visit of the Wise Men is that they were Gentiles. Luke records the visit of the Jewish shepherds. His gospel starts out sounding very Jewish and gradually transitions to the Gentiles. Matthew shows the inclusion of the Gentiles in the new people of God from the very beginning. Matthew has often been considered as a gospel written to Jews and Jewish Christians. But if one were to examine this gospel, they would not find a single mention of the circumcision of Jesus. Instead, the emphasis is on baptism. You would find that there are Gentiles who listened to the Sermon on the Mount. We have the story of the Syrophonecian woman, the trip to Caesarea Philippi, and most of all the Great Commission to make disciples of all the Gentiles.
We learn from this passage that if we are to know anything about the true meaning of Christmas that it will have to come by God’s grace. Unless God opens up our hearts to receive the truth, we will never know it. Paul tells us that humans in their wisdom did not find God. In fact God did something that would have seemed utterly foolish to the world in sending His Son to become human to confound those who trust in their own wisdom. Therefore, the gospel is not for the intellectually elite to obtain by their wisdom. The gospel is for them, but they have to come in the same humble was as the shepherds did that first Christmas morning. The gospel is for the “whosoever will”, but it is on God’s terms and not ours. Whosoever would come to Him and believe on Him must lay aside the pride of knowledge and be clothed in the humbleness of faith, which itself is a gift of God’s grace. Then we can sing with all of our being the words of the great hymn of Charles Wesley:
“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail the incarnate Deity;
Pleased as man with men to dwell;
Jesus our Immanuel.
Hark the herald angels sing;
Glory to the newborn King.”