The Christmas Story Part 4: We Three Kings

“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 saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 

When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him,

“In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” 

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying,

“Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 

After listening to the king, they went on their way.

And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.”

Matthew 2:1-12

This passage from Matthew is often read at Christmas time. It tells of how wise men from the East saw a star that brought them from afar to Judea.

Here they met with King Herod and asked to see the newly born King of the Jews. Herod is perplexed by this idea and so seeks advice from the priests who tell him of an old prophecy that says that the King of the Jews would be born in Bethlehem. Herod asks the wise men to go and find the child so that he too can go and worship him. However, his true intentions were to depose of anyone who might challenge his claim to the throne. The wise men leave to see this child and are warned not to return to Herod so that his evil plot cannot be carried out. The wise men are then led to the child by the star and when they see him, they worship him and give him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

So, who were these wise men? The short answer is we do not know. We don’t even know how many there were, it never specifies. The common idea that there were three is drawn from the three gifts they brought, but there could have been more of them. We do know that they clearly were not just astronomers who followed a strange cosmic event. They knew they were coming to see their future King. How could they know this? Presumably they had access to some of the same prophecies the priests did when they identified where he should be born. And some have speculated that this is the legacy of a prophet called Daniel who lived in captivity in Babylon.

The gifts given by the wise men may seem very random to us today. Ok gold is always a good gift, but frankincense and myrrh? What is that about? Although it seems like this is the wise men frantically trying to put together a gift with whatever they had on them, this could not be further from the truth. The wise men were actually demonstrating an incredible understanding about why Jesus was born. The gold represents that Jesus would be a King, Frankincense is an aromatic resin that is a component part of the incense burnt by the priests in the temple, and myrrh was used to anoint the dead. These gifts represented Jesus’ priesthood, death and kingship.

The fact that some wise men from a great distance away knew about the arrival and purpose of the King of the Jews better than most of the Jews themselves shows the spiritual state of Judea at the time. And we can bring this forward to now. Just as people should have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Jesus then, so we should be awaiting his return now.