Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1,2 ESV)
I’ve been known to give a Christmas IQ quiz from time to time. One of the questions goes like this: How many wise men were there? (a) 1 (b) 3 (c) 12 (d) we don’t know Now, you have your answer in your head – and I won’t ask you to put up your hands but the answer is not (a) – not 1 – and it’s not (c) 12 – and it’s not (b) 3 – yes, it’s (d) – we don’t know.
Depending on your Bible translation you are going to get “Magi from the east” or “wise men from the east” or “some men who studied the stars” or ιδου μάγοι – behold Magi / wise men – but no version will have the number 3. That is the product of hymnody and songs and speculation presumably based on the number of gifts brought. Even the tabloid press of the 1st and 2nd centuries – the NT apocryphal documents – do not seem to specify the number of wise men but copy Matthew’s account. Later church tradition even suggested that there are may have been 12 visitors – safety in numbers maybe.
Now the class that I talk to this about generally get quite frustrated with me because pointing such things out – pointing out what the bible does and doesn’t say – is stripping away the shop front and the frill, the extra detail, often our childhood that we associate with Christmas. You may have noticed already over Christmas that the Magi were not prominent at all. You see they come after the shepherds have left – not to a stable – Matthew specifically says a house – and considering Herod’s response afterwards is the killing of boys 2 years and younger – then Jesus was probably well and truly a toddler rather than a babe in arms. [Pop! There goes another Christmas nativity scene!]
The wise men are part of the story of Christmas that gives us the second side of the coin – the first side was revealed by the sign of a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. Then around the manger we behold baby flesh, vulnerability, poverty too – humanity all too well known. Today we have a star that reveals to Gentiles that this new baby is a King and when the people of Israel check their Scriptures, they find that God had told them of a new king to be born in Bethlehem. Here is a king for both Jews and Gentiles – for all countries – a king of kings – and the wise men want to bend the knee, to bow before this king and even more – for in that action there is also a mystery – they have come to worship.
At Christmas we discover a human baby and at The Epiphany – a revelation is given that this baby is also to be worshipped and thus is also God. The Church describes Jesus as truly human and truly God – not half and half – but mysteriously both – he is here on earth for all human beings.
And the gifts of the Magi may have helped Mary and Joseph in the short term but they also speak about this child king; this God among us. Gold is the realm of kings – money means power, being able to do what one wants when one wants; frankincense is the realm of priests and prayer; and myrrh is the realm of the death. These gifts also reveal who Jesus is and what he has come to do. He is the King among his people but not to be served but to serve. He is the high priest who intercedes for his people and brings God’s grace and forgiveness and blessing to the people. And he is the sacrifice itself – the true Passover lamb; the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
When the heavens, the sky whether day or night is next full of signs – it will be so noticeable that it won’t be a few scholars who will be aware – the whole world will be and Jesus will be seen as who these Magi claimed he was. A king to be worshipped – both man and God – and Lord of all.
In the meantime people today also have the scriptures – the Old Testament and now New Testament to reveal the truth – that God is with his people; that Jesus has lived and died and lives again and is with us still through words, water, bread and wine; and that our entire lives are gifts given by God so that we may now
present our bodies as living sacrifices holy and pleasing to God – not out of terror but because of joy and confidence because this King, this Priest, this Lamb, this Jesus is for us and not against us – ever.
- Matthew 2:1 - 2