December 15, 2015

Who were the Wise men? - Nativity Story



Interview with Rebecca Holt Stay, Instructor of Biblical Studies - BYU Continuing Education

"When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem saying 'where is he that is born King of the Jews, for we have seen his star in the east and are come to worship him'" (Matthew 2:1-2). No mention of them being kings. No mention of how many. No mention of how they traveled. But there's a lot of clues there about them. The fact that they were in the east when they saw the star, that's how I choose to read it, rather than that wherever they are, they saw the star in the east. But rather that they were in the east when they saw the star, and east of Jerusalem is where the vast majority of Jews were actually living at the time of Christ.

The Jews were taken into captivity in Babylon 600 years before the birth of Christ, and they never came home. Only a small contingent returned to Jerusalem. So the center of learning for the Jews was Babylon. And that's where the wise men would be. Wise men like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. And so they will continue to be advisers to the court and will be literate, scientific men who in Babylon would be studying astronomy for the signs of the sky, and to determine when to have the holy days that are spoken of in scripture. So if you're coming to worship the King of the Jews, odds are you're Jewish. And you're reading about Him in a Jewish book, which would be the Old Testament.

And Isaiah in particular, has a lot to say about those who come to worship the King of the Jews. And I think that Christians asked a lot of questions as this story in Matthew was told and written down. They wanted more information. Where did they come from? What were their names? How did they get there? And so they turned back to their scriptures to find those answers. And so it's in chapter 60 of Isaiah, we get a lot of indication of where those answers came from.

It begins: "Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee" (Isaiah 60:1). So the light has arisen, the star is there. And in verse 3: "And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising." So immediately we say "Aah! There gentile Kings!" And then it says: "a multitude of camels will cover thee, the dromedaries" (Isaiah 60:6) and so we have camels as the way they're coming, and in particular, dromedary camels. Coming from Midian, and Ephah, and Sheba. Well there you have the three countries, so there are three of them. And in particular, Ephah and Midian are middle eastern countries. Sheba is Ethiopia, and so one of these kings must be black. They'll end up with names from the early Christians being named Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior. Those are just honestly made up names, but they're great names! And then it describes what these gentile kings will bring: "they will bring gold and incense; and shew forth the praises of the Lord" (Isaiah 60:6). So in my mind I think, OK, we have Jewish men who are educated, and literate, and they read in the scriptures that there will be a star (that's from the book of Numbers) that will arise at his birth, in the prophecies of Balaam. So looking for that star, they search the heavens, and finding a star that they believe to be that star, they say "When that star arises, we got to get camels, and go. And what we need to bring is gold and incense." And so they will bring gold, which is a kingly gift. They'll bring incense, probably two different kinds, frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense was offered at the temple with every offering, both on the altar of prayer and the altar of sacrifice. Myrrh was melted down and mixed in a special recipe into the anointing oil of the temple, and was also used for anointing the bodies of the dead. So there's some great symbolism there.

And then goes on and talks about some other great pieces. "Doves in the window," and so we'll see doves in every manger scene (Isaiah 60:8). It has the "glory of Lebanon shall come to thee, the fir tree, the pine tree, and the box to beautify the place of my sanctuary" (Isaiah 60:13). And so most of our sanctuaries, our churches, are decorated with the evergreen trees and branches, because Isaiah said so.

And I love the idea that these men read the scriptures and said "somebody's got to do it, why not us! We will be the ones who will fulfill the prophecies of the Lord and we will get to meet the Messiah!" And so it's really cool to think of those years (that at least two years that they traveled), and talked about what this is going to be like. And then to fall on their knees as they meet the Christ child and His parents. What an amazing moment that must have been to pay them back for their efforts.

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