Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
December 29, 2013
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 worshiped 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, ESV
The Christmas season would not be complete without the display of nativity scenes. Often they are wooden, plastic, or ceramic figures placed on tables or shelves in our homes or church buildings. Some churches present living manger scenes, complete with live animals, real hay, a wooden crib, and freezing adults.
The infant Jesus is always in the center, as He should be, surrounded by people and animals. The people include Mary and Joseph, shepherds from the fields, and three wise men. But were the three wise men really there at the birth of Jesus? If so, were there exactly three of them? And furthermore, were they really wise?
Wisdom is something God and God’s word take very seriously. It has its origin in the triune God Himself, who is the personification of wisdom. And God passes His wisdom along to those who live by reverential fear and faith in Him. So who are the real wise men in this text?
Wise Men From the East
Having a one-time, exciting or emotional experience with Jesus does not make one a wise man. This is illustrated by the “wise men from the east,” who in spite of the legend that has grown up around them, seemed to have had only a fleeting encounter with the Lord. A lot is speculated about them, and there are some things in this life we cannot know, but there is enough evidence in Scripture to make us doubt many of the traditions that are told about them.
They were not there at the manger when Jesus was born. Planes, trains, and automobiled did not exist in that day, and their actual transit time on foot and camel would have taken a long time. They were detained by King Herod on the way, too, which would have cause a lengthy travel delay. By the time they arrived in Bethlehem, Jesus was in a “house,” not a manger, which would have served as one of the temporary homes for Mary and Joseph while they figured out what to do with the Son of God.
There were almost certainly not three of them. This legend grew from the fact that three types of gifts were brought by the men to give to Jesus. There were at least two, due to the use of the plural “men.” It was probably an entourage of a dozen or so men.
Finally, and most significantly, there is no indicative evidence that these men were truly “wise,” at least in the way that God reckons wisdom. “Wise men” is better translated in one, transliterated word from the Greek into English, “Magi.” This is short for magician. These men were some kind of magicians, astrologers, soothsayers, and practitioners of some pagan or syncretistic religion which originated far east from the true wisdom and worship of the God of Israel.
I cannot say for certain that God’s special and peculiar revelation of the star over Bethlehem did not change them. I cannot say for certain that their brief encounter with Jesus did not result in saving faith. I cannot say that their generous offering and deception of Herod on the return trip did not buy Jesus time to take exile in Egypt. But I do know that when all the excitement was over, they went back to their old homes and as far as we know began to practice their old way of life and religion.
They did not relocate to Israel and begin to worship Jehovah. There is no identification of a synagogue or church built in the east at that time of their return. There is no further mention of them in Scripture at all. I know this is an argument from silence, but how can someone who really meets Jesus and really accept Him as Lord and Savior remain silent?
It happens all the time after church services, so-called revival meetings, youth camps, and vacation Bible schools. Someone has a brief, exciting, emotional response to Jesus and we proclaim them saved, or “wise.” Then they walk away from the church, returning to the east, never to be seen or heard from again. Having a one-time, exciting or emotional experience with Jesus does not make one a wise man.
Herod the King
There were a few more unwise men mentioned in this text, too, beginning with big King Herod. He was actually among the most intelligent, wealthy, and religious men of his era. But, being highly intelligent, wealthy, and religious, even at the same time, does not make one wise in God’s eyes.
“Herod the king,” as he is called in these verses, was more often called “Herod the Great.” He was the leader of a notoriously infamous and powerful half-breed Gentile and Jewish family who helped Rome rule over Israel. He really was a brilliant politician and architect who actually designed and built the Temple that stood in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day. To this day, it is still referred to as “Herod’s Temple.”
If Time magazine had existed in the year when Jesus was born, it would have been “Herod the Great” who was recognized as man of the year. He was very, very smart. He was obscenely wealthy. And he was an expert in matters of religion, and even built the Temple to house the worship of the true and living God.
But Herod was by no means wise, the way God counts wisdom. He was blinded by his own pride. Being highly intelligent, wealthy, and religious, even all at the same time, does not make one wise in God’s eyes.
The Chief Priests and the Scribes
Neither the Magi nor Herod could be expected to be really wise, since they were not schooled in Holy Scripture and not regular attenders at biblical worship services. But there were other men in this story that fit that bill. They were “all the chief priests and scribes of the people.” But knowing your Bible and serving in worship services is not necessarily the same as knowing Jesus as Lord and serving Him with your mind, heart, and soul.
These characters appear in the birth story of Jesus and they will be around through His death story. At all points in between they either ignored Jesus, harassed Him and His followers, blasphemed His holy name, or directly contributed to His arrest, death, and burial. Yet they knew the Bible better than anyone. They never missed “Sunday School” or weekly worship. They would have been considered to be the wise men in their day.
If anyone should have traveled to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus, it should have been them. If anyone should have taken up a collection for the holy family, it should have been them. If anyone should have rebuked Herod and paved the way to acknowledge Jesus as the true Lord and King, it should have been them. But, knowing your Bible and serving in worship services is not necessarily the same as knowing Jesus as Lord and serving Him with your mind, heart, and soul.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
Jesus is wisdom incarnate, Mary is blessed among women, and Joseph is a hero in the first degree. The first family at the first Christmas were blessed with the gift of wisdom, yet none of them at that point fully understood why Jesus has been born.
God had emptied Himself into a child, and would have to grow in wisdom (ref. Luke2:52). Mary would put her doubts on display many times (ref. Luke 2:48-50; Mark 3:31ff). And Joseph we hardly know. They were all faithful and true, but truly did not have full faith and understanding of what the birth of Jesus Christ was all about.
Real wisdom comes from examining the whole of the Christmas story, the gospel of Jesus Christ, from beginning to end. So then, where are the real wise men in this story?
Real Wise Men
Real wise men and women see what the Magi couldn’t see. They see what Herod, the chief priests, and scribes wouldn’t see. They see what even Jesus, Mary, and Joseph could not see clearly at the beginning of His life.
Real wise men and women see the cradle and contemplate the cross. They know Jesus was born to die for the sins of the world. Real wise men and women have experienced God’s grace. Real wise men and women do not merely make a profession of faith, they possess faith and live by faith. Real wise men and women do no harm to the cause of Christ. Real wise men and women are not cold-hearted, judgmental Bible thumpers. Real wise men and women have exchanged their sin for the righteousness of Christ, the Christ who was born in a manger on Christmas day, lived a perfect life, sacrificed His life on the cross, and rose again the third day. And, one day He is coming back, for the real wise men.