Three Lessons from the Wise Men

This post is the third in a series of three discussing the account of the worship of the Christ-child by the Magi in Matthew 2:1-12. In the first post, I played mythbuster by exposing three common misconceptions about the wise men. In yesterday’s post, I considered the significance of the three presentations (gifts) made by the wise men. In this concluding post, I would like to draw three points of application.

The Necessity of Special Revelation / Scripture
General revelation could only take the Magi so far. They needed special revelation to actually find the child-king. General revelation is what is revealed to all men everywhere through creation and conscience. Special revelation is the more detailed revelation that is revealed at specific times to specific people. If creation is the primary type of general revelation, then Scripture is the primary type of special revelation. The Wise Men saw something in the stars which led them to search for the Christ, but they only found Him after hearing the words of the prophet Micah that He was to be born in Bethlehem. Similarly all attempts to find God apart from His revealed Word will end in disappointment. But all responses to what is revealed in General Revelation will be rewarded with Special Revelation.

The Folly of Knowledge without Action
We’re so used to this story that the most startling thing about it has lost its edge. Pagans are worshiping the long promised Messiah, instead of the Chief Priests and Scribes who knew of His coming. The religious leaders of the day knew the prophecies of the coming Messiah. They were even able to tell the Wise Men exactly where He was to be born. But there is no indication in Scripture that any of these religious leaders took the 5-6 mile journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to worship the newborn King. It’s important to know the Bible, but failure to act on that knowledge will result in condemnation. There are many who could explain the gospel story, but who have never personally placed their faith in Christ Jesus the Lord. What a tragedy!

The Priority of Worship
But the main application of this text is the priority of worship. Matthew shows us that the child whose birth was recorded in chapter 1 is worthy of worship as the King of the Cosmos. This must be our priority as we prepare to embark upon a new year. How should we then worship? Follow the model of the Magi by worshiping Christ as the ultimate King to whom every knee shall bow, the Great High Priest who has offered one sacrifice for sin forever, and the buried and risen Savior. He is worthy of our worship in 2011 and throughout all eternity! The scene of the wise men is a foreshadow of another scene that the apostle John was privileged to see and he recorded it in Revelation 5:11-14.

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, [12] saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” [13] And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” [14] And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped. (ESV)

The Three Gifts of the Wise Men

In yesterday’s post, I played mythbuster by exposing three common misconceptions about the wise men. In today’s post, I will consider the significance of the three presentations (gifts) made by the wise men.  A final post on Thursday will offer three practical applications that we can learn from the story of the wise men.

The gifts of the wise men are the heart of the story of the wise men and the reason that it is recorded by Matthew in Matthew 2:1-12. Matthew desires to show how the Christ child was recognized and worshiped as a King by pagan astrologers.

The word translated “worship” means to fall down at one’s feet and worship. This is emphasized by the added description that they “fell down.” “Falling they fell at his feet and worshiped Him.” What a scene this must have been! A band of Oriental travelers entering a humble abode and falling flat on their faces at the feet of a toddler in an act of worship. And they brought gifts! This is either the most ridiculous scene in human history or this baby is the God-man, the heir to the throne of David, Christ the Son of the living God! And if this is the case, the Wise Men’s response is the only proper response.

The Wise Men’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were highly significant. These gifts were significant on two levels. First, from the Magi’s perspective these gifts were costly gifts worthy of a great king. They were seeking to honor this one who was born King of the Jews.

But the gifts of the Magi were significant on another level as well. Gold was the metal of kings. Frankincense was a sweet-smelling gum imported from Arabia that was used by priests in temple worship (Lev 2:1, 2, 15-16). Myrrh was a fragrant gum which was used as medicine and as a perfume, as well as to embalm the bodies of the dead. Thus, unbeknownst to the Wise Men each of their gifts meant more than they could have probably understood. These facts moved Bible commentator William Barclay to write:

Gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, myrrh for one that was to die – these were the gifts of the wise men, and, even at the cradle of Christ, they foretold that he was to be the true King, the perfect High Priest, and in the end the supreme Savior of men.

But what an indictment it is upon the religious elite of the day, that the birth of the Jewish Messiah was noted by Gentile foreigners! Where are the scribes? Where are the chief priests? They’re in Herod’s palace seeking favor with the political power from a man who within a few short years will be dead. While at the same moment the King of the entire universe has invaded planet earth. Talk about misplaced priorities!

Excursus: Herod the Great was a crafty and cruel ruler whose paranoia cost many of his own family members their lives. He murdered his favorite wife, her mother, two of her sons, and his own eldest son. The Roman emperor Augustus said it was better to be Herod’s pig hys than his son hyios.

Mythbusting the Wise Men

One of my family’s favorite television shows is Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel. On this program, co-hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage scientifically test popular assumptions, with the result either being that the myth is confirmed or busted.  The story of the wise men who came and worshiped baby Jesus is a familiar one, but there are a lot of unbiblical misconceptions about this story. Maybe you don’t know the story as well as you thought you did.  In this post, we’ll see just how well you know this story as I play myth-buster by exposing three common misconceptions about the wise men. I will follow up this post with one tomorrow that will consider the three presentations (gifts) made by the wise men.  A final post on Thursday will offer three practical applications that we can learn from the story of the wise men found in Matthew 2:1-12.

There are at least three common misconceptions about the Wise Men that are perpetuated every year by Christmas cards, carols, plays, and nativity scenes. They are their total (how many), their title (what are they called), and their timing (when did they come).

Their Total
Nowhere in Scripture are we told that there were three Wise Men. The Greek term (magoi) used is plural indicating that there were more than one, but no specific number is given. The number three, of course, is based on the fact that three gifts were given: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There could have been three Magi, but virtually any other number is almost as likely. Pick a number, any number.

Their Title
Nowhere in Scripture are they called kings. This legend was probably originally based on passages like Psalm 72:10, 15, and Isaiah 49:7 which speak of kings bringing gifts to Israel’s Redeemer. Of course, no where do those texts say that these gifts will be brought to the Christ child. I think they are probably best interpreted as referring to the future age in which the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our Lord.

Seven hundred years after the birth of Christ, these “three kings” are even given names: Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. In Scripture they are simply called “wise men” or (magoi) from which we get the term Magi. It can mean one who is trained in astrology and dream interpretation or a magician/sorcerer. These were obviously astrologers because they came in response to a star which they had seen. In short, there was only one King present when the Wise Men visited, and his name was Jesus!

Their Timing
Nativity scenes regularly depict the “three kings” kneeling with their gifts before the manger along with the shepherds, cows, donkeys, etc. This almost certainly did not happen. The visit of the Magi could have been as much as two years after the birth of Jesus. It is very possible that Jesus was already walking and talking by the time the Wise Men arrived. There are at least two reasons for this conclusion. First, verse 11 clearly states that Mary and the Child were in “the house.” No cattle were lowing, no shepherds were present, no baby was in a manger. Enough time has elapsed for Joseph to secure a place for his family to live. Second, Herod asks the Wise Men when they began to see the star (v. 7) and on the basis of that knowledge had all the male children killed who were 2 years old or younger (v. 16). Evidently the Magi told him that they had begun to see the star signaling Christ’s birth 1-2 years earlier. In other words, contrary to what is commonly assumed, there were not three kings kneeling at the manger on the night of Christ’s birth.

In tomorrow’s post, I will set forth a more positive account of what the Bible actually says about the wise men and the significance of their gifts to the Christ-child.