The story of the ‘wise men’ appears only in Matthew’s gospel, that sometime after Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph received a group of visitors. They are referred to by different translations of the Bible, as wise men, magi, a band of scholars, and kings. Although most modern versions, now choose either ‘wise men’ or ‘magi’ to describe them. They were educated, wealthy, Gentiles. Where had they come from and why were they in Bethlehem?
Where did The Three Wise Men Come From?
They came from the east, possibly Persia, the region which is now modern-day Iran, to Jerusalem. Because of their obvious status they gain an audience with King Herod and explain the purpose of their visit. They have travelled a long way in search of the “one who has been born king of the Jews.” As astrologers, those who study the stars, they had seen an astronomical phenomenon, a new star rising. This was interpreted by them as a sign of a new ruler and a new era. They had decided to follow the star and come to worship the new king. Jerusalem as the capital of Judea was the obvious place to search for the King of the Jews.
Who Were the Magi?
The wise men, or Magi, appear in the nativity story, some time after the birth of Jesus, while the holy family are still in Bethlehem. They come to Jerusalem in search of a new-born king and Herod, who was ‘King of Judea’ was disturbed by these words. He had gained control of the throne by manipulation, and ruthlessly held onto it. The wise men were not seeking the child that would become king but were stating that they were seeking the one who was born king – which Herod certainly was not.
Herod called together all those who could advise him on Jewish history and literature to find out where the Messiah was to be born. It is interesting to note that Herod had been brought up as a Jew and knew enough to understand that the Israelites were looking for Messiah, a future king.
His advisers informed him that in the Old Testament, Micah had prophesied that from Bethlehem would come a ruler for Israel. This ruler is described as one ‘whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.’ The Jewish scholars and teachers of the law interpreted these words to mean the Messiah, who was One with God from the beginning of time.
Now that Herod knew where the child had been born, he plotted secretly for the Magi to search and find the child and then to come and report back to him. He told them that he too wanted to ‘worship this new king’. The wise men leave Jerusalem and follow the star on to Bethlehem….
Star of Bethlehem Bible Verse
The star that the Magi had seen ‘rising’ and which had started them on this journey was clearly visible. They followed the star onwards from Jerusalem to Bethlehem in their search for this new king.
“After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose 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 worshiped him.” Matthew 2: 9-11 NIV
Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh
As an act of worship, the wise men bring with them gifts ‘fit for a king’ to present to the child Jesus. Because three gifts are listed, the concept of three kings or wise men became accepted. But Scripture does not tell us how many men came or name them.
Gold – This was the ultimate currency of the day, and a costly gift of the highest order. A gift suitable for a king, as it was often used to adorn Temples and Palaces. Gold then, as now, signified great wealth, and wealth equalled power.
Frankincense – This is an aromatic resin obtained from the bark of the Boswellia tree, native to North East Africa. It was regarded as the ‘King of Oils’ and brought from the Middle East to Europe by traders on, what became known as, the Incense route. Frankincense has been an important remedy in traditional medicine systems throughout the ages and a coveted trade item. It was also one of the ingredients in the incense which was to be burned at the altar in the Temple.
Myrrh – This is also an aromatic gum or resin but extracted from the leaves of the citrus rose. The oil extracted from the resin had many uses. Because it was highly perfumed it was used in beauty treatments. It had a medicinal use and sometimes was added to wine to relieve pain. Myrrh was also used as an anointing oil when preparing a body for burial. And it was the main ingredient in the anointing oil used by the priests for consecration.
Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh Symbolism
We might consider that the wise men brought unusual gifts to celebrate the birth of a child. They were highly valuable and chosen as suitable to honour a king, but each one of the gifts also had a symbolic meaning:
Gold represents kingship. It was costly and a sign of wealth and power. Gold made a statement, and for that reason was used to decorate palaces and temples.
Frankincense is associated with holiness as it was used in worship. It was one of the ingredients in the oil of incense, which was burned at the altar of incense in the Temple. The fragrant offering of the incense rising from the altar became a symbol of the prayers of the people rising up to God. Our prayers represent the healing of the broken relationship between God and mankind.
Myrrh represents humanity. It was one of the ingredients in the anointing oil link used for consecration in the Temple. It signified being set apart for God’s service, being anointed and made holy. But myrrh was also used for preparing a body for burial, and by referring to death, symbolised our mortality.
What Does the Arrival of the Three Kings Symbolize?
The arrival of the ‘three’ kings, wise men, or Magi ,into the nativity story is a profound picture that something new was happening. They were Gentiles, from outside of Israel, yet they are invited into the celebration of the birth of Messiah.
This was the time of God’s favour, with the birth of the longed for and promised Messiah. We see those who were Israelites, but on the fringes of society, the shepherds included in the celebration. And the wise men, Gentiles who were outside of God’s relationship with Israel, are now included.
The wise men find the child Jesus, with His mother Mary, and bow down in worship. They present their treasures to Him, gifts fit for a King. These ‘kings’ from the east, are the first to worship the Lord during His time on earth. They had come seeking a king who was worthy of the arduous journey. A King who was worthy of their costly gifts, and of their respect and honour.
There was a message here that God was doing something new, something bigger. Something that previously had been kept hidden, was now beginning to be revealed. The mystery of the gospel that the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, was good news for all mankind.
The Visit of the Magi Summary
Now the Magi were ready to start the long journey home. Their mission was accomplished, they had bowed down and worshiped the new-born King. They were warned in a dream not to return to report to Herod the location and identity of Jesus.
The danger of evil presenting itself as good, requires discernment and the Magi fulfil their name as wise men. Judging well they choose a different route home which avoided Jerusalem.
What Was Wise About the Three Wise Men?
The wise men were wise indeed – proved not just by their knowledge, or their learning, but by their actions.
Wisdom is proved right by her deeds.Matthew 11:19
The wise men proved themselves to be wise by committing to seek the Lord. They sacrificed their time, and travelled a long way, to present their gifts to King Jesus. After their mission was completed, they returned home by a different route – as they had discerned Herod’s evil motives. Wisdom is a gift from God and they used it well.
……He (God) gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning.Daniel 2:21b
May we seek God for the wisdom to recognise good, and pursue it, and to discern evil and flee from it!
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.James 1:5
To Bethlehem and Beyond!
As we approach the Christmas Season do you find it difficult, among all the busyness, to focus on the reason we are celebrating? I have a new daily reading devotional for December which may help. It is available, on Amazon, Kindle and Paperback, UK, US.
‘To Bethlehem & Beyond’ travels through Scripture reflecting on God’s plan, the people, and the promises fulfilled. Each day has a Scripture reading, a short reflection, a take-away thought/question, a psalm verse and a prayer.