Some of our Christmas traditions are rather confused. Most of us know that Jesus was not born on December 25th; that is just the day we celebrate his birth. He was not born in the year 1 or 0! He was actually born likely in 4-6 B.C. But perhaps one of the biggest areas of confusion come when talking about the Magi.
The Wise Men are mentioned only in Matthew just as the Shepherds were only mentioned in Luke. Listen to what we are told about them and what we are NOT told about them.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, 2 “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”
3 King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. 4 He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”
5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:
6 ‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
are not least among the ruling cities of Judah,
for a ruler will come from you
who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’ ”
7 Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. 8 Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”
9 After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! 11 They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
12 When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.
So here is what we know: There were wise men (the Greek calls them Magi which some believe were astrologers…we don’t know how many. Nothing in the Bible says they were kings.) They saw a star that came from the East (we don’t know where in the east), to see a King whom they learned about somehow from a star which led them to the baby. They may have been on that journey for months or even years! They did not come to the manger but actually showed up in Jerusalem first. When the star appeared again they went to Bethlehem and entered a house where the child was. They seem to have arrived sometime after Jesus was born. They gave three gifts or three kinds of gifts but nothing is stated as to how many of these men there were. King Herod tried to get them to tell him where the baby was so he could have him killed. The wise men avoided returning to Herod.
The truth is, we don’t know much about these men. All we know is when they were looking at stars they somehow came to the conclusion that a King had been born to the Jews. One commentator asks,
How did these wise men know that the star represented the Messiah, the one who was born King of the Jews? (1) They could have been Jews who remained in Babylon after the Exile and knew the Old Testament predictions of the Messiah’s coming. (2) They may have been eastern astrologers who studied ancient manuscripts from around the world. Because of the Jewish exile centuries earlier, a large Jewish population still existed there, and they would have had copies of the Old Testament. (3) They may have had a special message from God directing them to the Messiah.
And what about the star? We are told the star led them to Jerusalem and then led them to the place where Jesus was laying. There have been many attempts to explain the star. Some say it was a comet and the tail guided them. Others say it was a rare conjunction of planets in 7 BC. But perhaps the best explanation is that this star was a unique creation by God for the express purpose of guiding these men to Jesus. That alone would seem to explain how the star guided the wise men to Jesus.
But why? Why the Wise men? We can only offer conjecture. In some ways these guys are the wild card in the story. Everyone else was broken and common. These guys seem to be men of importance and of some stature. Were they a reminder that even the powerful need a Savior? Perhaps their role was to show that Jesus had come not only to be King of the Jews, but to be the King of all people. In a sense the wise men represented the world bowing before Him. Perhaps it was to show a contrast between the indifference of the Jews and the willing worship of the Gentiles. Perhaps, the Wise Men were the only ones listening.
Confused Wise Men
As I thought about the Wise men I have to think they were men who were very confused. Think about it, they were looking at the stars and somehow from the stars concluded that a King was going to be born to the Jews. They packed up for what could have been a trip of 1000 or more miles, taking months or years. They invested a great deal of time and certainly money to go and honor this new King.
Imagine their excitement as they followed the star. I would have thought that they were filled with excitement as they followed what they believed was a leading from the Heavens themselves.
If you have ever felt specially led by God you might understand a little of what they felt. There is a sense of wonder and a sense of joy that God has communicated with you in such a clear way. It is a faith-affirming time.
As they arrived in Jerusalem I wonder if they were startled that no one seemed to be celebrating. In fact, when they spoke to King Herod he seemed to be caught off guard.
Herod called for his scholars and asked where the Messiah was to be born. They responded immediately (based on Micah 5:2) that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. But, instead of packing up to travel with the Wise men, Herod asked the wise men to go check it out and report back to him.
If you were the Wise Men wouldn’t you be really confused? It was the King OF THE JEWS that had been born. Perhaps they even recognized that this was not just a King but the promised King, the Messiah. A King is born and no one seems to care. They know exactly where the child was to be born but no one was going to check it out. Think about how confused you would be.
Look at the contrasts in the story
- The wise men came to worship; Herod sought to kill
- The wise men were filled with joy; all of Israel was troubled
- The wise men brought precious gifts, the Jewish leaders brought swords and later rocks.
- The wise men traveled a great distance; the Jews wouldn’t travel at all
- The wise men followed the star; the Jews knew where He was to be born and still didn’t go to see him.
Don’t you wonder why the leaders responded the way they did? Perhaps it was about power. The idea of a newborn King was seen as a threat by Herod. That’s why he wanted information about the King – so he could eliminate the competition. He was so protective about his kingdom that he was threatened by the idea of the Messiah being born.
Now here is the question that haunts me: Is the world around us equally confused by the way Christians approach Christmas? Did they hear us talk about a Savior yet see that we have no time for Him? Did they see us showering gifts upon our loved ones yet do little to honor the Lord? Did they watch us sing our songs with a lack of emotion? Did they know we believe Jesus is the One to whom every knee will bow and the only way of salvation and yet wonder why we have not shared this message with them with any sense of passion or urgency?
Listen to these words from Francis Chan,
I’d bet that at least 95% of American “Christians” would choose not to leave their families today if they were given the choice to be with Jesus. You can justify that all you want, but something is off. Paul recognized the value of staying on earth to minister to the people around him, but his burning desire was to be with Jesus (Philip. 1:21–26). If you’d rather watch your kids grow up than see the face of your Savior today, you don’t grasp the beauty of God. If you worry about what would happen to your children if you were gone, you don’t understand the providence of God. Pray for a deeper understanding of His worth and sovereignty. Pray earnestly until you are infatuated with seeing His face.
There’s always something. Marriage, the birth of a child, watching the kids grow up, watching your grandkids grow up. There’s always something immediate and attractive that keeps us from anticipating heaven. For some, your lack of excitement could be caused by a lack of meditation. You don’t dwell on heaven much. But for others, the lack of anticipation could stem from something deeper: a lack of faith. (You and Me Forever chapter 4)
Think about it. We talk a great deal about the fact that Jesus is coming back. We even say that we are eager for the return of Christ. Yet, if somehow we got advance notice that He was coming this afternoon, would there not be a part of us that would feel like His coming was “messing up our plans?”
It is easy for us to criticize the Jews, but before we do it would be wise to ask if we might be more like them than we like to think.
Lessons from the Wise Men
I think we can draw three lessons from the wise men. These are lessons that will apply to the New Year and to every day of our lives.
First, we learn that before God can lead you, you have to be listening. There is a great story in 1 Kings about Elijah. He had just won a great and dramatic contest with the prophets of Baal. Instead of a celebration, Queen Jezebel was trying to kill him. Elijah ran far away and was exhausted. The Lord helped him sleep and had the ravens bring him food. When Elijah was recharged God says,
11 “Go out and stand before me on the mountain,” the Lord told him. And as Elijah stood there, the Lord passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
And a voice said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19)
Elijah had to fight off the distractions in order to hear the gentle whisper of God. I believe we have to do the same thing.
The Wise Men knew about the birth of Jesus because they were listening. They were watching the stars. They were pondering the meaning of what they were seeing.
Have you ever heard anyone say, “God has never spoken to me . . . I don’t believe He exists.”? Maybe you have said or thought those words yourself. The proper response to such a statement should be, “God exists but you aren’t going to hear Him speak to you unless you listen.”
We live in a world of noise. We say we multi-task but the truth is that we just move our attention from one thing to another so quickly that it seems like we are concentrating on two things at once. We aren’t. We live in a society that can best be described as “distracted”.
We have our earbuds in our ears or the TV or radio making noise behind us seemingly all the time. We also have text messages, emails, phone calls, and Facebook messages constantly interrupting us. We are surrounded by things that distract us. For the most part, the only time we pay attention is when someone is shouting at us. Unfortunately, God doesn’t shout, He whispers.
If we want to hear from God we must make time to be still. We need to not only read God’s Word but also listen to it. I have had too many times when I have turned pages in God’s Word but my mind was actually somewhere else. To listen, we need to build times of true quiet into our lives when we are free from distraction. God can speak through a whisper, through His Word applied by God’s Spirit, and sometimes even from the lips of a teacher of the Word. I’ve had many times when I was reading someone who was commenting on God’s Word and what they wrote spoke to my soul with power.
But there is a second lesson. When God leads you, you need to follow His leading wherever it takes you. If listening is hard, following is much harder.
The wise men could have written up their discovery of the King announcing star. They could have put in in their blog post or told their story to CNN. The point is they could have settled for scholarly information without ever acting on it. This is the indictment that Jesus had against the Pharisees. They were knowledge without being engaged.
If the Wise men had chosen to go this route they would have never met Jesus, never been immortalized and perhaps more important, they would have never known of God’s redeeming love.
It’s the same with us. We can comfort ourselves with the knowledge we gain. We can share our wisdom in Bible Studies. We can write papers (or books) and yet never do what God is calling us to do. We can debate the best way to help those who are needy and never actually help those who are hurting. We can discuss methods of evangelism without ever sharing our faith with another person. We can discuss prayer without ever praying. We can discuss living sacrificially without ever making choices that cost us anything. We can talk about love without ever giving ourselves to another person.
The lesson of the wise men is that they took action. They made the long and tedious journey to find the King. These guys were committed. Oh, that we would do likewise in the coming year.
Finally, the Wise Men teach us that you need to keep following Him even if others do not support you. The wise men refused to be discouraged by the lukewarm reception. They refused to turn back because things were not as they expected.
Following Christ boldly will not be popular. People who are fervent in their faith upset the status quo. They force people to question the way they use their time, the way they spend their money and the way they live their lives. The truth is, even as believers, we are much more comfortable with people who are half-hearted in their faith than we are with one person who serves fervently.
If we become serious about following the Lord we are going to have to tune out the voices of those who would tell us to “not work so hard because you are making everyone else uncomfortable”. We will have to listen to the One voice and follow it without wavering.
There is much to learn from the Wise Men. They may have been confused at the response of the people but they were never confused about what they were supposed to do. I can’t help but marvel at these men. I am stunned by their commitment and blown away by their tenacity. Sadly, I am probably stunned because it is an attitude that is rare in the world, and sadly, it is even rare in the church.
 Barton, B. B. (1996). Matthew (p. 23). Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.