How a Search for a Semitic King Marked the Start of a Global Revolution
© 2022 Phill Butler
It is only in Matthew’s gospel that we have the story of the “Wise Men” and their visit to honor the new-born Jesus. It’s part of the Christmas story that has become an anchor element in songs and seasonal portrayals of Jesus’ birth. Imagine children in bathrobes – well intentioned – but never quite capturing the gravity or significance of the events.
There are the public displays — from the famed New York Radio City Musical Hall Christmas show with live camels on the stage to the more commercial presentation in your local shopping center. Even Lew Wallace in his legendary novel Ben Hur gives significant space to the Wise Men – their history and how they came together.
In contrast to a theological or devotional study, this is an effort to explore questions that may constitute at least part of the “back story” of the wise men’s visit. It is a look at otherwise familiar series of events and how the events demonstrate God’s remarkable orchestration of His son’s birth.
The common narrative suggests there were three Wise Men. There is nothing explicit in Matthew’s account that identifies the group as three in number. Assumptions have been made, because of the three gifts, there must have been three gift givers. But the count is not just a recent invention. Reference to the number of the Wise Men as three does survive from early days; for instance in sarcophagus from as early as the 5th and 6th centuries(1)
God’s sovereign celestial navigation guidance for the Wise Men brought honor to Christ. The Good News reflected in their visit set in motion a series of events that had been prophesied – some of which are difficult to understand. As circumstances played out, one life was saved, yet many lives lost. A jealously crazed King Herod precipitated the most horrific infanticide ever experienced in Israel as prophesied in Jeremiah 3:1and subsequently described in Matthew 2:16.
These graphic events set the stage for what was to become a signature of conflict between the forces of good and evil in Jesus’ journey. The giver of life comes into the world and immediately is challenged by the “father of lies” (2)—characterized by Jesus as a murderer or killer by nature. It is the first of what will become a succession of encounters between Jesus and the Prince of this World.(3)
The story almost feels like watching a complex puzzle in which the pieces fall into place one by one – in slow motion! The visitors from the east were filed with wonder. In retrospect reading of the events and their sequence can still produce wonder today. But, of course, it was the birth of the Christ – a pivotal moment in human history.
The interlocking elements of the story evoke a series of questions as one considers God’s grace and expansive inclusivity.
- Their origin? Matthew indicates they were from “the east.” Going back to Abraham, Israel’s roots were in “the east” – specifically in Ur of the Chaldeans. (4) Abraham and his wife Sarah were both from Ur of the Chaldees. Is it surprising that there were spiritual remnants of Abraham’s father, Tera, still present at the time of Jesus’ birth?
- Was it that family lineage, now many generations old, that had carried this remarkable anticipation all the way from the distant past?
- They came looking for the new “King of the Jews.” Was their expectation t in terms of political structure based on their home experience? Or was it some special revelation that prompted their use of the term, “King?”
- What were their unique qualifications that suited them to this mission? They are variously called “magi” or “wise men,” The cultures of ancient Mesopotamia were in their twilight. But, the region around the ancient Ur of the Caldes still had its share of holy men. Were they part of that elite element of society?
- Out of all of the people in the “east”, why did these three men have the listening, watching, anticipatory hearts that drew them into this extraordinary series of events?
- What was their daily life in their home culture – their position in society, their “job” that prepared them for this assignment?
- How were they seen in their home society? Clearly the costs of the journey itself and of the expensive gifts which they brought suggests they came from unique financial capacity.
- It seems unlikely, knowing about those who plundered camel supply chains, that they would have traveled alone. Protection, 24/7, costs money to say nothing of the food, lodging, needed for them, the camels, and any traveling companions.
- Who provided the funds for this expensive expedition?
The God call
- What does this story, these men, the events and outcome say about the inclusive nature of God’s grace? Individuals from another place, status or role, yet living with anticipation and a readiness to respond to God’s message.
- These men were “foreigners’ who play no further evident role in the scriptures. Yet they are specifically selected to cross cultural boundaries in order to honor the ‘King of the Jews’ – the ‘second person of the Trinity’s’ “Messiah.” Why?
- Why did these men perceive Jesus’ birth in at least quasi-political terms: “the King of the Jews” rather than in religious terms?
- There are strong anticipation and obedience elements to the story. Well before they mounted their camels, these men had to have anticipated this day, prepared their gifts, etc. When ‘the message’ – the star — appeared, they were ready and obeyed the call God had put in their hearts and minds. How and why did all this happen?
- The “Wise Men” were from a cultural-religious context that was apparently outside the unfolding saga or prophesies of the Old Testament. Why those individuals from that culture to play that role?
The Star: The Planning and Timing of the Trip
- Were there generations of “Wise Men” who had been looking for the star for years? Or, for some unknown reason, were these three selected specifically at that time for this unique role?
- It is implied that when they first saw the star they began their journey. Does that mean they were ‘packed and ready to go’ – simply awaiting the confirmation signal?
- Were they startled? – “A new star in the night sky!” – or, did they actively scanned the sky as part of their routine – living in anticipation of some significant event or message and simply said “There it is at last!”.
- If so, why had this level of anticipation been placed in their hearts?
- Timing had to be reasonably precise. Experienced desert travelers indicate that camels average 18-20 miles a day with rider and luggage. Unlike the visit of the shepherds who found Jesus in a manger, Jesus was likely now a babe in arms; the text suggesting that they visited Him in a “house.” Still, the time “window” for their arrival was limited if they were to fulfill their mission. How did all of these pieces fit together?
Arrival: Expectation and Reality
- Clearly the Wise Men assumed there would be knowledge about and interest in such a major event — the new “King of the Jews!” After apparently enquiring among Jerusalem’s population (all of Jerusalem was disturbed), they went right to the top – Herod, King of Judea.
- From Jerusalem’s busy streets they went to a small village. They find Mary, Joseph, and the baby in humble circumstances. Was there a conflict between what they expected in locating the new “King of the Jew” and what they actually found?
- How did they reconcile Jesus’ “kingship” and these, at best, humble circumstances? Did they have second thoughts? If Herod and the general population don’t know, “Have we made a mistake?”
- What was actually happening in the Wise Men’s guidance? This may be the first and certainly unique reference to celestial navigation. Were they the only ones who saw the star?
- Guiding them, the star “stopped” over where the child was. Did others in Bethlehem see the star? Was there widespread wonder in Bethlehem or were the Wise Men alone in their experience?
- Motivated by long anticipation combined with a sense of calling and obedience, the three men were “overjoyed” when they saw the child. Different cultures, different “worlds” were intersecting: “Kingship” and very humble circumstances. What was it in their history, their spirit that brought such an emotional response — particularly in these unexpected, humble circumstances?
Dreams and the Post-Visit Implications
- First, the Wise Mean are warmed in a dream not to return to Herod. They pack up and leave. But where is home in “the east?” And, are there colleagues awaiting the Wise Men’s return – eager to hear their first-hand report? If so, who and why?
- As soon as the Wise Men left, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream in Matthew 2:13-14. The angel’s message? A dire warning regarding Herod’s intent to kill the baby. Get up, get out of town and go to Egypt – now! Apparently in the middle of the night!
- Joseph was a carpenter from Nazareth in Bethlehem for the census. He wasn’t even a “local.” But he did as directed. Conviction likely strengthened by the wise men’s visit. You might imagine in the middle of the night, an out of town carpenter asking, “What road did you say I should take to get to Egypt?”
- Then, what are the prospects of a Jewish carpenter getting a regular paying job in Egypt? So, were the Wise Men’s gifts God’s provision? The resources which allowed Joseph and Mary to live while in Egypt?
- It was a cascading series of events that were deeply intertwined. Without the Wise Men’s visit, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus would never have gone to Egypt fulfilling the prophecy in Hosea 11:, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
- Apparently the only other special communication about Jesus’ birth was to Bethlehem locals. Individuals who were socially and educationally the opposites of the Wise Men – shepherds out in the field in the middle of the night! A humble group visited by an angel and heavenly choir with the remarkable news of Jesus’ birth complete with instructions as to where to find the child.
- To explore comparisons between the Wise Men and the shepherds would likely draw us into an effort to reconcile the accounts of Matthew 2 and Luke 2. Having moved from a “manger” to a “house,” Joseph, Mary, and the child would have been on their way to Egypt had the shepherds showed up later.
So, in any case, what is to be made of these events? God stages a spectacular visitation of angelic forces to humble, local people who have no apparent influence or on-going role in Jesus’ life and ministry. Then a group of elite foreigners come and go with, similarly, no apparent prior or lasting connection to Jesus’ life and ministry – the Wise Men.
On reflection, the story provides a remarkable perspective on the expansive nature of God’s inclusivity and grace. A challenge to our faith, and obedience of His “call” – whatever form that may take.
(1) Adoration of the Child Jesus by the three wise men or Magi. Sarcophagus relief (4th century), Vatican https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adoration_of_the_Magi
(2) John 8:44
(3) John 12:31
(4) Genesis 11:27-29