The Wise Men • Matthew 2:1-12
What would the Christmas story be without the presence of the Wise Men and retelling of how they followed a star and worshipped the one they believed was born a king? Then they gave Him incredible gifts. No one in Israel would have considered it a remote possibility that these men, who were for sure Gentiles, would be invited to participate in the birth of a Jewish Messiah. But Jesus came for all men because all of us as sinners desperately need a Savior. God made it very clear from the beginning that the Messiah had come to bless all men.
The Wise Men are an interesting part of the Christmas story in part because we know so little about them.
- They are identified as magi from the east. The word “magi” is the one from which we get our English word “magician.” It had a broader meaning in ancient times.
- The expensive gifts they brought, as well as the distance they traveled, tell us they were financially well off.
- We know that they had an idea a king would be born, and his birth would be foretold in the stars.
That is all we really know about them.
- We have no idea how many there actually were. We say three because of the three gifts. In the 4th century people began giving them names. (Casper, Melchior, Baltezar)
- There is a tradition that they were baptized by Thomas the disciple and when they died their bodies were preserved in Constantinople. Centuries later, supposedly their bones were moved to Cologne, Germany. For a price you can still see those bones. (Want to buy a bridge?)
- We assume they were from Persia or Babylon because many in that area were deep into astronomy and astrology. They believed the stars had messages in them. Some speculate they were aware of Daniel’s writings since Daniel lived in what we call Persia today and was associated with those considered the wise men of that community. There is, however, no evidence of that.
- We don’t even know when the star appeared in relationship to the birth of Jesus. Matthew tells us they came to the house where Jesus was, not to the manger. Herod ordered the slaughter of male children under 2 causing some to wonder if the star might have appeared at least a year earlier although the trip was certainly much shorter than a year even with preparation.
The Wise Men stepped out in faith and followed a star they believed God had given them, even when they really did not know where it was leading or what they would find in the end. If we learn nothing else from those Wise Men, it should be that we must be willing to follow wherever God leads. God is not likely to lead us in as dramatic a way as He did the Wise Men. He has promised, however, that if we are willing, He will lead us so that the decisions we make and the path we follow are in keeping with His perfect desire for us. Following God does not always make sense but, as the Wise Men of old knew, when He leads, we should follow with enthusiasm.
We know that these men followed that star because they felt compelled to go and worship the one we know was born in a manger not a palace as one might expect for a future king. Worshipping Him appears to have been their only reason for making the trip. They simply believed that this one born in Israel was worthy of their worship. There is no hint that they made the trip for any personal gain. They did not make any requests of Him. They merely worshipped Him. Herod also sought Him out but for the wrong reason. Whenever we think of the Wise Men, we need to ask ourselves what we want in Jesus. Do we worship Him because we want Him to bless us or do we worship Him because He is truly worthy of worship? Can we talk to Him in prayer and not make a single request or is our talking to Him focused on what we want Him to do for us? The Wise Men remind us that He is worthy of just simple worship.
In addition to worship, they gave gifts to Him and again there is no hint that they expected anything in return. They gave to honor one they believed was worthy of their gifts. One can only wonder how much more they would have been inclined to give if they had known the rest of the story. What if they had known that this baby born in a manger came to dwell among us so that He could offer us the one thing no amount of money could secure, our redemption.
It is interesting that Matthew recorded exactly what they gave, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It is easy to see them giving Him gold since that was the gift to kings but the other two are a bit strange. Myrrh was a spice used in embalming. We can only imagine that somehow God led them to give those gifts, undoubtedly without them having any idea of their larger significance. It is just like our Lord to take our gifts and use them in unique ways in the lives of others. Matthew recorded specifically what they brought as a way of showing how God uses our gifts to illustrate His love and provision.
Gold was appropriate for a king, so it is easy to see why they chose that. It is interesting that this one born in a barn would be given gold. Jesus seemingly never had the proverbial 2 coins to rub together even though He owned the cattle on a thousand hills and the universe belonged to Him. Did Joseph and Mary use the money to live off when they fled to Egypt?
“Frankincense” was derived by cutting a slit in the bark of an Arabian tree and getting the yellow sap out, much as one gets maple sap out of a tree to make maple syrup. That sap from those trees in Arabia had a special fragrance to it and when it was hardened it was used as incense in worship. Frankincense represents worship. More than any other person born in all of history Jesus is truly worthy of our worship. Read Philippians 2:10, 11.
“Myrrh” likewise came from trees in Arabia. It is brown and became the perfume that was used to anoint dead bodies as part of the burial process. Matthew undoubtedly saw in the gift of Myrrh a picture of the reason Jesus had come to dwell with us. He came to die for us upon the Cross.
In Matthew 2:12 we read that having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod they returned by another route. Matthew probably intended to set the stage for what follows but no pastor can resist the temptation to point out that whenever we visit Jesus, we should go out via a different route than we came in. Just being in the presence of Jesus should change so much of how we live that it can literally be called a different route. When we come to Jesus properly, we are made aware of sin in our lives.
- Sometimes there are sins of commission. We must abandon them.
- Sometimes there are sins of omission; we are not doing something we should be doing. We must act properly.
- Sometimes we need an attitude adjustment. We need to experience more fully His peace, trust Him more completely, or love Him more deeply. Sometimes we need a new attitude toward others.
Spiritual growth is becoming more like our Savior. Any time we come into His presence we should learn something that helps us to grow. In coming into His presence, we should discover something that draws us closer to Him. When we go away, we go via a different route than the one we came to Him.
In the final analysis Christmas is not about giving or getting gifts to each other but those things the Wise Men demonstrated for us.
- Trusting God to lead them as they followed the star to the one that they knew was to be a King.
- Worshiping Him and giving Him gifts because He was worthy of their worship
- Going away from time with Him via a different route.
In the year ahead may we be encouraged to worship Jesus, give Him the gifts He deserves, and be changed in the ways He wants to change us so we can become like Him.