The Wise Men’s Response
This story has always been fascinating to Christian thinkers.
It has captivated poets, artists, and philosophers. In the catacombs in Rome, where believers met during the earliest era of the Christian church, there is artwork dating back to the second century that depicts the visit of the Magi from the east. Science fiction writers have even written stories imagining experiences of the Magi.
But if we just stick to what the Bible says, what stands out about the Magi is how startling their arrival on the scene is. Of course, everything about the narrative of Jesus’ birth is startling—the appearance of Gabriel to Mary, the pregnancy of Elizabeth, the angels’ announcement to the shepherds in the field. But the most startling of all is the arrival from out of nowhere of these folks these ‘out of towners’ who are intent on worshiping this Child.
The story remains fascinating, but sometimes it gets so overgrown with our traditions that we will do well to look carefully at what the Bible says. There are some powerful insights here. We should observe what the inclusion of these travelers from the east says about the God who called them there. We should also see what we can learn from their discipleship about what it means for us to be disciples of Christ.
The Christmas song We Three Kings, to begin with, is misleading. The number “three” is not used of the Magi anywhere in the Scripture text. We don’t know how many Magi there were. They did give three gifts, but there is no indication of how many were actually in their party. Some of the oldest traditions of the church envisioned twelve Magi who made the journey.
We don’t know what the Magi looked like. We don’t know their mode of travel. We don’t know a great number of things. But that makes the things that we do know particularly important to focus on. The words of these travelers are very important: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We…have come to worship him.” That is at the heart of what these men understood their calling to be.
Another way that the Christmas song We Three Kings is misleading is that these men weren’t kings. The Magi were a caste of scholarly-priests. It was this caste of scholarly priests that placed the crown on the head of a new king when that was required. It was they who interpreted history, writings, religion, and the events of their day and decided, “This is the one who is now king, in place of his father; this one, not his brother. This is now the time for the crown to descend, rather than last year or next year.” They were the ones who set in place the structure that allowed a king to rule.
The eastern visitors entered the home where Mary and the Baby were. It is certain the home was only the most basic kind of shelter. These people were still very poor. So this new baby didn’t look like a King. There was no army protecting him, no royal palace for him to live in, no servants, no pampering, and no elegance. But the Magi recognized that he was the King of the Jews nonetheless, that God had sent them to him.
God moved them to bring gifts that were not only valuable but also instructive of the life of his Son. They gave him gold because he was a King. They gave him incense because he was a Priest. They gave him myrrh because he would ultimately be the One who died for us (myrrh was an ointment applied to bodies being prepared for burial). The Lord God caused these men to honor his Son as King and Priest and Sacrifice. Then they did something extraordinary: they fell on the ground and worshiped him. They had been granted by the God who loved them and led them, insight that this was not just the Son of David, not just a human savior, but God himself become human to save the world!