Have you set out your nativity scene (or scenes) yet? Which people from the story are on your mind this Christmas? Every year, God brings one segment of the scene into the spotlight for me, and I find myself thinking about him/her/them throughout the holiday season.
This year for me, it’s the wise men. I know why. I recently started working for a nonprofit that supports internationals and the wise men were the first non-Jews…the first border-crossers…to worship Jesus.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” –Matthew 2:1-2
The magi came to worship him.
What’s east of Jerusalem? When I was a kid, I thought these guys were from China and places close to China. After all, the song says, “We three kings of Orient are…” To me, the Orient was where Oriental people lived. (No offense. It was the late 1970s. “Political Correctness” wasn’t a thing yet.) Little did I know that the Orient includes Arabia and that the “near East” was just as exotic as the “far East.”
Also, I thought they were kings. (The song is so wrong!!) They were more like Daniel and the guys who served with him: astrologers, scientists, magicians.
Star-watchers from the near East. That’s Persia, southern Arabia, and Mesopotamia (NIV Study Bible notes for Matthew 2:1). These days, we know these areas as Iran, the Saudi Arabia/Yemen/Oman/U.A.E., and Syria.
They were internationals. And they worshiped Jesus as a king. Before anyone other than the shepherds of Judea realized it, these foreigners knew Jesus was something special.
I’ve written about all the characters in your nativity sets. Find the one the Holy Spirit has put on your mind this Christmas and dig into their story. You might learn something new. You might grow closer to “the one who has been born king of the Jews.”
Remember too, “King of the Jews” is what Pilate wrote on the placard above Jesus’ head when He hung on the cross (John 19:19).
The holiday season is over, the decorations and leftover wrapping paper stored away for next year (except that one dishtowel that just got washed. Every year, there’s something left out!). Our nativity scene Mary and Joseph have moved back into their storage box, while the real Mary and Joseph moved out of the stable into a less drafty and more appropriate home. They will still receive one very interesting set of visitors, however. The final characters in our cast of Christmas are the Wise Men.
Sorry, Mr. Hopkins
The wise men would have brought an entourage and created a spectacle as they walked through Jerusalem.
As much as I love “We Three Kings,” it’s not a very accurate song. (No offense, descendants of John Henry Hopkins, Jr..) These so-called “kings” were wise men or astrologers, sometimes called magi (Latin for ‘magicians’), along the lines of Daniel in the Old Testament (e.g. Daniel 2:2). Also, we have no documentation that there were three of them. That number is assumed because of the three gifts listed by Matthew. It’s reasonable to think that Matthew simply listed a few example gifts after saying the men “opened their treasures” (2:11). It’s also reasonable to assume these men didn’t travel alone. Probably well-respected officials in a king (or kings) court(s), they would have brought an entourage and created a spectacle as they walked through Jerusalem.
Where did they come from? We don’t actually know. It wasn’t the Orient (back to the inaccurate carol) as we think of it today, meaning Eastern Asia. By “Orient” Mr. Hopkins meant the Near East: Persia, Babylon (where Daniel most certainly left a legacy), or the Arabian Peninsula. I know that frankincense is produced in Oman and Yemen, so they could have come from there.
Wise, Yes, but Neither Subtle nor Sophisticated
We can’t give the wise men any points for subtlety. Look what they did! They just waltzed into Jerusalem and started asking around about a new king. Herod was the king. He liked being king. He liked it so much that he killed anyone who threatened him. Then some foreigners in fancy clothes showed up and started looking for another king. Word got back to him quickly. (The text doesn’t say they went straight to Herod. Verse one just says they came to Jerusalem.)
To be wise men, it seems to me that these guys were rather unsophisticated, at least regarding how things worked in Jerusalem. They thought people would know about this new “king of the Jews” when Jesus had been born in a stable, cast aside by the world. They also thought Herod would be interested, if not excited. Well, he was interested…in a way. When Herod heard “the word on the street,” he held a conference with his own wise men to get the backstory. Then, he secretly (Had you noticed that before? I hadn’t. Matthew 2:7) called in the wise men and pointed them in the right direction. Look how Jim Key portrays Herod in Cotton Patch Gospel by Harry Chapin. (Watch the first thirty seconds, or watch the full five minutes to learn the repercussions of this situation.)
Undaunted by Obstacles
The wise men arrived in Jerusalem only to learn that no one had even heard about a new king. In fact, they had still further to travel; their only lead was that one verse from Micah, so they couldn’t be certain of an answer when they got there. Yet they didn’t give up. (Okay, so it’s only five miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, but this is still a good point!)
How many people give up just short of the finish line? In my life, I’ve been tempted to give up writing (as a career) several times in the last few months, but I keep thinking that results/answers may be really close! Compared to 1000 miles (the distance from Babylon to Jerusalem), five miles is easy. I’ve run five miles before. It’s not that far.
The wise men also didn’t give up when the star stopped above a humble house in a humble town in what many considered the armpit of the Roman Empire. Look at verse 11.
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.
Walking into that little house wasn’t what they expected, but it was what they sought.
They went to Jerusalem, the capital city, expecting to find an honored king. He was born King of the Jews, after all (2:2). So walking into that little house in Bethlehem wasn’t what they expected to be the culmination of their journey. But it was what they sought.
How often do we seek God’s will with expectations or assumptions already in our minds? How often do we reject His provision because it doesn’t look right in our eyes? Oh friends! If the Holy Spirit has been leading me like the star led the wise men, then the answer is correct even if it looks paltry! I’m tempted to use more exclamation points here because this is BIG! And it just came to me right now as I was writing!! Cry with me at how often we think we have a better idea than God…how often we reject His perfection for our predictions!
The wise men got it. They humbled themselves. “They bowed down and worshiped him,” and then they responded exactly as we should. They opened their treasure chests—their valuable possessions—and gave Him the best gifts they had. Giving is a natural part of worship. They didn’t skimp or stutter. In those days, frankincense was more expensive than gold.
What about the gifts?
Here’s a random question: What did Mary and Joseph do with those weird gifts? Did they keep them forever? Maybe…just maybe…those gifts funded their trip to Egypt and their resettlement costs. It’s expensive to move. Mary and Joseph fled in the middle of the night (Matthew 2:14). They didn’t have time for a yard sale, and they couldn’t post a bunch of furniture on Craigslist. Maybe they sold those expensive things along the way. Isn’t that a beautiful idea? I have no clue, really, but this would have been a beautiful expression of God’s provision. The day before they have to move, a bunch of strangers load them down with relatively useless but very expensive gifts. Praise God!
Alpha and Omega
And now, one of the most beautiful parts of the story…and a great way to close this series.
In calling wise men, through the special star, God reached out to the highest level of society. In calling the shepherds, through an angel, He reached out to the dregs of society. The wise men were Gentiles. The shepherds were Jews. The wise men travelled a long way, spending much money to see Jesus. The shepherds walked into town. Do you see how broad God’s love is? When God says, I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End (Revelation 22:13), He is using a literary device. It means that He is the ends and everything in between, like we say, “From A to Z.” This is what we have with the nativity visitors! Through Jesus’ coming, God reached out to the rich and the poor, the important and the overlooked, the near and the far, the fast-tracked and the outliers…and everyone in between. That means he reached out to you.