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Wise Men Seek the Savior- Matthew 2:1-12


I like this interesting illustration given once by pastor David Simpson. He writes:

"There are a lot of symbols at the Christmas season. All represent something. Santa Claus, mistletoe, wreaths, candles, etc. I’ve always admired the beauty of poinsettias and decided to do a little research on them. You may know that they were named after Joel Poinsett, who happened to be the minister to Mexico, and a native of South Carolina. He introduced them to America in 1825. In Mexico the poinsettia is called "Flor de Noche Buena" (Christmas Eve flower).

It is truly the quintessential Christmas plant. When you see them appear in the stores, you know that Christmas is not far away. Traditionally, the star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, and the red color represents the blood sacrifice of Jesus for our sins.

Just as this beautiful plant draws our attention to Christmas, the star over Bethlehem drew the attention of learned Magi (wise men)."

Just who were these wise men and why does Scripture mention them? Interestingly, Matthew 2:1-12 is the only gospel that talks about these travelers from the East. And sadly, a lot of things that we may have heard about them just aren't found in the Bible. Before we go on, let us read what the gospel writer says about them. Matthew tells us this:

"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 have seen His Star in the East and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So, they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’” Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way."

Today, let's look more closely at these mysterious men from the East and dispel some myths about them while, at the same time, finding out what we can learn from this historical account for our lives today.

I. Dispelling Some Myths About the Wisemen

First, a few myths. They almost certainly were not kings, though they probably were influential men. Let's face it, not everyone would be able to get an audience with King Herod.

Also, with further apologies to all those who love the song 'We Three Kings', the account of these men doesn't say how many there were. And we have no way of knowing. The tradition that there were three is based upon the three gifts that they brought to Jesus of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And over time, church traditions have assigned them names: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar.

However, there are other traditions that believe that there were much larger numbers. The Armenians and Syrians, for instance, believed that there were 12 of them.

Further, the only thing we know for certain about the wise men's place of origin is that they came from the East. Beyond that there is much speculation as to the exact place. Some have even suggested that the supposed three men came from three different places: Persia, India and Africa. However, once again, just like we don't know that there were three men, we can't tell from Scripture from where they came.

Dwight Longenecker in his article entitled: '5 Common Myths about the Three Wisemen Story' has this to say about the men's origin. He states:

"They came “from the east,” which based on the nature of their gifts, and Old Testament prophecy, means they most likely came from the ancient Arabian kingdom of Sheba. Arabia was known for its vast wealth from gold mines of Africa, as well as the Boswellian and Commiphora trees — from which frankincense and myrrh are derived. Of course, men from Persia could have brought these gifts, but they signify a giving of the best commodities from their own country to a neighboring King."

If we take Mr. Longenecker's view of the place of origin of these mysterious men, then that blows the whole idea that they rode on camels, like we see in about every Christmas movie ever made. The fact is that people from northern Arabia only rode Arabian horses. Camels were used as pack animals at the time of Jesus' birth. However, wealthy travelers used the more comfortable and swift horses.

Dwight Longenecker also had something to say about the star. He said that Matthew never said that the wise men followed a star. Rather that they had seen a star which history teaches is the North Star. Because they were astrologers, they saw the star as a sign that signified the prophecy of the Jewish King. He said that this doesn't mean that they followed the star all the way from the East to where Jesus' lay in the manger.

If we look at the Scripture more closely, he is right that there is no indication that they followed the star the whole way. But they did follow it to the exact location where Jesus lay. King Herod called the wise men before Him and sent them to Bethlehem, which had been prophesied in Micah 5:2 as the place where the king would be born. Herod told the men in Mattew 2:7,8 that he wanted them to go search carefully for the young child. And when they had found him, they were to return and tell Herod, so that he could supposedly go and worship him as well, though he was really planning to kill the child. In verse 9 and 10 we see that the star seems to miraculously go before them. It states:

"When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star; they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy." (9,10).

So, even if the star was the North Star, it seems to be doing a lot more than just pointing North in this case.

A final myth that we need to dispel about the wise men is the assumption that they came to see the child while he was lying in a manger on the night of his birth. The truth is that they actually came to a house where Mary, Joseph and the child were temporarily residing. The Scriptures tell us this about the wise men in verse 11:

"And when they had come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down and worshipped Him."

How long after the birth of Jesus the wise men came cannot be completely determined. We do know that Herod ordered the murder of all the male children in Bethlehem from two years old and under, according to the time he had determined from the wise men, according to verse 16. However, despite this, that doesn't mean that Herod actually knew when the child was born. He evidently thought the child could have also been a newborn since he ordered the death of infants as well. So, once again, we just don't really know.

II. The identity and Mission of the Wise Men

So, now that we know the mythology that has been added to the story of these Eastern men, let's see what we can say that is true about them. What is their identity and mission? A real clue of these men's identity can be found in their title, given in the book of Matthew. The Greek word that Matthew uses, which some translations render 'wise men' is actually the word magi from which we get our English word magician.

The term appears only twice in the Hebrew Old Testament (Jeremiah 39:3;13). Originally, they were a class of priests among the Persians and Medes who formed the king's private council. They are often spoken of by many ancient authors outside of Scripture. Later, the term got applied to all Eastern philosophers.

According to Smith's Bible Dictionary:

"“The Magi took their places among “the astrologers and stargazers and monthly prognosticators.” It is with such men that we have to think of Daniel and his fellow exiles as associated. The office which Daniel accepted (Daniel 5:11) was probably rab-mag, or chief of the Magi”

Also, like we see in the book of Daniel, besides astrology and astronomy, the Magi would also often interpret dreams.

As the word came into the Greek language, it became associated with a foreign system of divination, and it soon became a byword for the worst form of imposture or counterfeit. That is the way it is most often used in the New Testament. For example, we have Simon Magus, or Simon the Sorcerer who confronted Peter in Acts 8:9-24. Magus is the singular form of Magi.

However, the Magi who met Jesus were good and well-respected members of society. Some have even said that they were genuinely followers of the one true God, Yahweh, though we can't know this for sure.

What we can know, however, is that they risked their lives to leave their homeland. They did this because they were on a mission to honor a child which they knew almost nothing about. They only knew that He had been born King of the Jews and that He was worthy of some very precious gifts.

They brought gold as was the custom of royal visits to honor the newborn King of the Jews. Gold, as it is today, was a valued commodity in the ancient world. Because of its scarcity and value, it was particularly associated with royalty and nobility.

They also brought, frankincense. Frankincense is an aromatic gum resin that is still widely used in parts of the Middle East and Africa today. When burned as incense it creates a strong and aromatic aroma. However, it was too expensive to buy in order for it to be used as a common air freshener. Rather, its burning was closely associated with the ceremonial worship of a deity. This may indicate that the magi had some understanding that the prophecy regarding Jesus carried with it a claim of His deity.

Finally, myrrh which is a fragrant spice derived from the sap of a tree native to the Near East, which we said a little about earlier. Like frankincense, it can be used as incense, but in the ancient world it also had wider usage as a perfume, anointing oil, and was even imbibed as a medicinal tonic. More specifically, when applied to Jesus' situation, it was a key ingredient in the mixture of spices that were used to prepare bodies for burial. Perhaps, the wisemen gave this as a recognition of Jesus' humanity and possibly a cursory understanding of the way in which He would save His people- that is by His death.

After their mission of seeing and worshipping the newborn King of the Jews is complete, we see that their final act in Scripture is one of obedience to God, which kept Herod from finding and killing the child. Verse 12 of Matthew 2 tells us:

"Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way."

III. The Old Testament and the Wise Men

Before we end our discussion of the wise men that came to see Jesus, let us look at some possible Old Testament connections. First of all, is there an Old Testament prophecy that might have predicted their coming? Many believe that there was. Isaiah 60:1-3 tells us:

"Arise, shine; For your light has come! And the glory of the Lord is risen upon you. For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and deep darkness the people; But the Lord will arise over you, And His glory will be seen upon you. The Gentiles shall come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising."

This may or may not be a prophecy concerning the wise men. But it is, however, the reason that some have gotten the mistaken notion that these men were kings. What we do know is that they were gentiles and were led by the light of the star.

What about the prophecies that lead the wise men to look for the signs of the Jewish Messiah? With their ancient connection to the prophet Daniel, they likely would have known about what was written in Daniel 9:24-27. This is the famous seventy weeks that Daniel prophesied about that also included a prophecy which gives a timeline for the birth of Messiah.

The magi further may have been aware of the prophecy of Balaam centuries before Daniel. It is found in Numbers 24:17 and concerns a star coming out of Jacob. It states:

"I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; A Star shall come out of Jacob; A Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and batter the brow of Moab, and destroy all the sons of tumult."

But whatever, the prophecies were that they saw, these men were looking for what God had promised centuries earlier in the Scriptures. And apparently God gave them the insights to know when and where His Son would be born.


So, what can we learn from this historical account of the magi or the wise men. I like how summarizes this story. They tell us:

"So, the magi were men who 1) read and believed God’s Word, 2) sought Jesus, 3) recognized the worth of Christ, 4) humbled themselves to worship Jesus, and 5) obeyed God rather than man. They were truly wise men!"

Today, in this world that seems to have abandoned all reason, wise men still seek the Savior. The Christmas holiday in America has become a time where we tend to celebrate love but forget about the love of God who sent His Son into the world to save sinners. You ask some people about the holiday, and they may say it is a time where we celebrate family. Well, families are great, but they are not the reason we celebrate this season.

The wise men had it right. While the world was looking the other way, they looked toward the child that was born in Bethlehem and worshipped the new-born, King. The world is still looking the other way. However, we who know the Savior shouldn't be doing this. Like those wise men of old, we need to be the ones who seek the Christ of Christmas. And let us also, like that miraculous star, point the way so that others will see what happened on that night, over 2000 years ago. Let us lead men and women to the Savior, who is Christ the Lord! And to God be the glory for all that He has done on our behalf!

© 2022 Jeff Shirley