December 21, 2023

Who Were the Wise Men?

Almost every Nativity scene features three wise men, each wearing a golden crown, and arriving from the east riding heavy-laden camels. But what do we really know about the wise men? Were there really even three? What was the significance of their gifts and what does their story teach us about our own journey to seek the Savior?

For centuries Christians have sought to learn more about the wise men. Some traditions even give them names, for example Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. While we often picture three wise men, the scriptures don’t actually tell us how many came. The only reason there so often are three magi is because they brought three gifts. Because of the dangers of traveling for long distances in a caravan, it is likely that there were more than just three wise men.

We also don’t know where they even came from, only that they came from the east. While there are many theories on their origin, some scholars have suggested they came from Babylon and were of Jewish descent. In 587 BC the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and carried away many Jews into slavery. Seventy years later, the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland. However, tens of thousands remained behind, creating in Babylon a thriving Jewish community.

The wise men being of Jewish descent living in Babylon makes logical sense because who more likely would be studying ancient Israelite prophecies about the coming Messiah? We can envision faithful Jews whose ancestors remained in Babylon, continuing to search and celebrate God’s sacred word. When a star appeared in the night sky revealing that prophecies of the coming Messiah were about to be fulfilled, they left everything and traveled to Jerusalem.

So what about the wise men being kings wearing crowns and adorned in royal robes of wealth? It seems later Christians, in an effort to fill in the missing details, went searching in the Old Testament. Isaiah prophesied, “And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising…. The multitude of camels shall cover thee … they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall show forth the praises of the Lord.” (Isaiah 60:3, 6). From these verses later Christians presumed the wise men must be gentile kings arriving on camels from faraway lands. While these verses may have partial fulfillment in the story of the wise men, the primary context of this prophecy seems to describe the last days and is yet to be fulfilled. This means our wise men were almost certainly not wearing crowns!

After traveling a long distance from their homeland, the magi arrived in Jerusalem in search of a new born king. They first thought to visit the palace of King Herod, but this visit greatly “troubled” him. Herod had been placed upon the Jewish throne by Rome shortly after he had conquered Jerusalem around thirty years earlier. Because Herod was not of the royal family of King David, and wasn’t considered of true Jewish lineage, most Jews simply saw him as a Roman puppet king whom the Lord would someday overthrow. Because of this, Herod often went to extreme measures to retain his power.

Remarkably, when Herod consults his chief priests and scribes about the sign of the star, they are able to confirm the prophecies. It appears they took two prophecies, one from Numbers and another from Micah, to identify where the infant king would be born: “There shall come a Star out of Jacob, And a Scepter shall rise out of Israel.” (Number 24:17). “But thou, Bethlehem … out of thee shall he come forth … to be ruler in Israel.” (Micah 5:2). While Herod’s scribes and chief priests were able to correctly interpret the ancient prophecies, they themselves were not even looking for the Messiah! The wise men had possibly journeyed for more than a thousand miles to find the newborn king of Kings. Yet Jerusalem’s priests and scribes seemed unwilling to even travel the short distance of approximately six miles, or ten kilometers, to the village of Bethlehem. This story reminds us that it isn’t enough to just know and understand the scriptures. We must be willing to go the distance to find the Savior so that we too can kneel before him and worship him.

Herod sends the wise men to Bethlehem, imploring them to report to him after finding the infant King, supposedly so he too can worship him. Imagine the scene as these foreign visitors from distant lands began asking around the neighborhood to find the birthplace of the young king. Many locals might have laughed and scorned the visitors for their peculiar request. We are not told how long they had to search, but eventually they did manage to find Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. Matthew records that by this time, Jesus was a “young child,” suggesting that they had been on their journey for several months, if not longer.

It would have been a breathtaking moment for these faithful visitors who had traveled so far to find the young child. As they fell to the ground to worship him, they laid at his feet their precious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But why these particular items? What is the significance of these gifts? Obviously such things would not be at the top of any child’s gift-list today. Powerfully, all three gifts were connected to temple worship, seeming to foreshadow the redemptive and sacrificial mission of Christ.

While jewelry, coins, and gold bars might come to our minds today when we think of gold, an ancient Jew would likely first think of God’s Tabernacle and Holy Temple. The Lord commanded Moses to cover much of the Tabernacle, including its walls, and all of its interior furniture with gold. During the time of Jesus, King Herod was in the process of renovating the temple and he had plated the entire facade and interior with large sheets of gold. If indeed these wise men were of Jewish origin, they would have seen gold as a most fitting and appropriate gift for Israel’s Messiah King who would be enthroned in the heavenly Temple.

Anciently, frankincense was more valuable by weight even than gold! The odors of human sweat, spoiling food, dung, smoke, and death would have dominated virtually every setting of daily life! Because of this, spices and incense like frankincense and myrrh were highly prized and quite valuable as they helped in masking unpleasant odors. Both of these incenses came from certain trees that mostly grow in southern Arabia. The incense is actually just tree sap, and is harvested by gouging the bark and letting the sap bleed out. After the sap dried, it was collected and brought by caravan to areas such as Jerusalem. The difficulty in harvesting and the long distance required in transport made the product extremely valuable.

During the morning and evening prayers, frankincense was burned on the altar of incense at the Temple. The smoke rising to heaven before the veil represented the prayers of the saints ascending to God. The gift of frankincense is an appropriate gift for the Savior, for it is because of his sacrifice that our prayers can be answered by God. 

Myrrh was similarly used to mask unpleasant odors and was often used as part of the burial process. John records that Nicodemus provided large quantities of myrrh which were used for the burial of the Savior. Myrrh was also melted down and added to the anointing oil for Aaron and his sons and all future priests before they could serve at the Temple (see Exodus 30:23). Myrrh is a fitting gift for the Savior who would die yet rise with healing in his wings, and as the Great High Priest who intercedes on our behalf!

Perhaps we cannot afford precious gifts like gold and incense. Still as we celebrate this Christmas season, what are some gifts that we might give to parallel the gifts of the wise men in significance and meaning? Like the wise men, let us give the Lord the gift of our time in studying and understanding His sacred word. Not just so we can understand the prophecies and revelations, but so that we can then go the distance, leaving behind every worldly thing to find the true king of Kings. Let us give to our Savior the gift of temple worship, laying our sins and self-serving desires on the altar of sacrifice, allowing the atonement of Christ to take effect in our lives. Let us give Jesus the gift of frankincense in the form of offering humble and meaningful prayers morning and evening. As we kneel, let us pray for the strength and courage to serve others. Then let us rise to our feet and do the works of Christ.

Perhaps most importantly, let us remember that the most significant gift ever given is the gift of our Father in Heaven. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16). Let us remember this gift, and accept it from the Father by repenting of our sins and embracing the Savior’s example in all we do. This is the best Christmas gift we can give this season and throughout the year! The gift of Jesus Christ!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.