The identity of the Magi, or “wise men,” is another of the wonders that surround the first Christmas. The account of their visit is recorded in Matthew 2:1-12.
What we think we know about them is based largely on the misinformation that is perpetuated in our carols and on our Christmas cards. We imagine them as wearing crowns and regal robes and traveling on camels. Because they brought three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – some have concluded that there were three of them (We Three Kings of Orient Are) and gave them the legendary names of Kaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.
“These men were not kings, but Magi, magicians or astrologers – possibly Zoroastrian wise men from Persia whose knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures could be traced back to the time of Daniel (cf. Dan. 5:11),” says Dr. John MacArthur. We have no way of knowing for sure how many magi there were, although it seems logical that there were more than three since Herod got so upset about their inquiry. The point is, the Bible doesn’t say, so neither can we; nor can we be sure where they came from (other than “the east”), or what they rode on, or how they came.
The wise men arrived “after” the birth of Christ, indicated by the fact that they did not visit the manger as did the shepherds, but came to the “house” where the “young child” was (Matthew 2:11). Herod, frustrated that the wise men did not report to him the whereabouts of the newborn King, Whom he considered a potential rival, ordered the death of all male babies under two years of age in the area of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16), which suggests that the wise men may have arrived quite some time after Jesus’ birth.
What is important for us to understand is that these men, led by the star (Matthew 2:9), came to Jesus and worshiped Him, and gave Him the gifts they had brought. Gold, which is traditionally associated with royalty, was a fitting tribute to the King of the Jews. Frankincense was used in worship and represents deity. Myrrh was used in embalming, a picture of His suffering and death.
The magi are one of the fascinating mysteries of the Christmas story. They were not among God’s chosen people, the Jews, but their wisdom exceeded that of the religious leaders of the day. The wise men searched diligently for Jesus and bowed before Him in reverent worship, offering Him the very best gifts they had. We would do well to follow their example. As the popular saying goes, “Wise men still seek Him.”
The magi remind us that God’s grace goes out to all people regardless of racial or ethnic backgrounds. Even before God revealed this truth to Peter (Acts 10) or Paul turned to the Gentiles in his preaching, non-Jewish souls came into life-giving touch with God. Melchizedek (Genesis 14) was one such person, and so were the wise men.
The magi also illustrate that God’s message of “good news” is not only for the “shepherds” – that is, the poor, the lonely, and the social outcasts; it is also for the wealthy, the famous, the well-educated, and the powerful.
The Bible says, “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). Whether you’re at the top of the social ladder or at the bottom, or somewhere in-between, God loves you and sent His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to be your Savior. Have you received Him?