The Truly Wise Men

Rev. VanderWal is pastor of Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Wyckoff, NJ.

O little town of Bethlehem, lying in the shadow of Jerusalem! What is Bethlehem when compared to Zion, the city of the great King? But Bethlehem, though least among the thousands of Judah, would have a place in the history of redemption. Out of this small city was one to come forth to be ruler in Israel. No ordinary king, but one whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting. Bethlehem—not Jerusalem—was to have honored guests: wise men from the east, to bow before this Ruler. An amazing scene Matthew records for us. In this small town we see foreign, learned men, bowing in reverence before a baby held in His peasant mother’s arms. To this humble, lowly Child they present their exquisite gifts.

From all indications, Joseph and Mary, with their Child-King, had been living in a house of their own for some time. We can say this, not just because a house is the place where the wise men came. When an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph, commanding him to return to Israel from Egypt, Joseph’s determination was to return to Bethlehem. In Bethlehem Joseph had his permanent residence.

The wise men were, as Matthew records, “from the east.” No city, no country, no distant empire is named. Based on the word “magi” we can surmise that their homeland may have been the region of Persia. Wherever they may have lived in that distant land, these particular wise men had come to know the Old Testament Scriptures. Recognizing their value and dignity, they made those writings the object of their study—a marvelous example for us to follow. As they studied and searched they came to understand the great importance of the Jewish people in the land of Palestine. In their midst would be born a great King. Somehow, likely by some special revelation, they also understood that a star would appear to indicate His birth. This star they were now privileged to see. How excited they must have been! The ancient Scriptures, gotten from a faraway place, speaking of such things as they saw before them. Even from a human point of view, we can understand why they decided to undertake this long trip.

There had to be more. As they stated on their arrival in Jerusalem, they came to worship Him. They came from a far country, where they had their own king, to pay homage to this King. They came to place themselves under the rule of this One, born King of the Jews. They recognized that the claims of this King far surpassed the claims of any earthly king, even the king of their own native land. This King is heavenly and spiritual. His kingdom was already established in their hearts. They came to signify with their posture what was already true in their heart. They were endued with wisdom from on high!

Arrival in Jerusalem and a Searching Question

So they arrived in Jerusalem—the logical place to go. Jerusalem was the capital city of the Jewish people. They came to the city and began asking their question: “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” To their astonishment, no one has the answer. Jerusalem is business as usual. Have these people not seen His star? Have they no knowledge of this amazing thing that is come to pass? Here in Jerusalem is there no one who knows anything about a newly born King of the Jews? But the wise men do not give up. They have come this far, and nothing will turn them from their quest. They continue to ply their question.

This question produced a strange reaction among the residents of Jerusalem. Herod, the present king of the Jews, and the people became troubled. Herod had the most to fear. He had established his throne, as was common in those days, through political intrigue. A suspicious man, he had shed much blood, even that of his family, to keep his throne secure. Another King of the Jews Herod did not know. Every possible competitor he had already disposed of. The people were troubled as well. They knew all too well the violent history of this man. What possible bloodbaths might the future hold?

Herod, out of his troubling concern, showed himself hospitable toward these wise men. He called together the people who would have the answer, the chief priests and scribes, who made the Old Testament Scriptures the object of their study. Herod presented to them the question of the wise men. He did not ask, as the wise men had. He made a surly demand. Where should the Christ be born? And out of their knowledge the scribes produced the place: Bethlehem of Judea. “Thus it is written by the prophet.”

This passage is from the prophet Micah. The prophecy confirmed the particular place where the King of the Jews was to be born. It showed the wise men where they must go to find the one born King of the Jews. But this prophecy contains much more. Take note of the way in which it describes this King. His “goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.” This “ruler in Israel,” who shall be born, proceeds from everlasting. This makes Him much more than any earthly king, with an earthly realm. He is the Lord, the Ancient of Days. From eternity He is the King of the Jews. How these wise men must have rejoiced to hear this prophecy! Not only did they learn where to find this child. This passage also confirmed what they had believed all along, that He is worthy of the homage they have traveled so far to pay.

On to Bethlehem! The wise men continued on their journey alone. None joined these pilgrims on their way to worship Him who was born King of the Jews. Not Herod, not the chief priests, not the scribes, none of the common people accompanied the wise men to find this great King. The Scriptures speak of this King. God had announced the King’s birth by means of a celestial event. These magi came from far away with splendid gifts. The news was troubling. Yet, there was no company going to Bethlehem, either out of joy, curiosity, or enmity. There was a lack of interest.

There is a divine reason for this lack of company. The magi alone go, so that the exact location of Christ might not be known. Thus the sovereign God was pleased to preserve His only-begotten Son alive. The people of Judea heard. Herod heard. They are left without excuse. But they neither saw nor knew the King. These men from the east are wise. The people and their king are foolish.

Rejoicing at the Star

When the wise men departed, the star which they saw in the east reappeared before their eyes. The star will guide them to the exact location in Bethlehem. First, the word of the King of the Jews, then the prophecy of Micah, then the star reappeared, filling their hearts with joy. Now they knew that this star was specifically for them. It seems that none but these wise men turned their eyes heavenward, to behold this strange sight! By this appearance of the star, God Himself approved their journey, and led them the last step of the journey. They made their way to the home of Joseph and Mary. The star beckoned onward. But as soon as they arrived at this particular house, the star stopped in its course. It then stood “over where the young child was.”

All we can say about this star is that it was truly a wonder. Matthew wrote of this star, “Lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.” Many have conjectured about this star, finding it in a conjunction of planets in a certain constellation, or imagining it to be a comet in a regular course. But every attempt falls short. All we can do is wonder in amazement at this great work of God to announce the birth of His Son to these men. Not only did it appear to them in the east, but it served as their guide to the exact house where this King resides. It moved with them, as if watching their every step. It disappeared, then reappeared, as need arose.

No wonder is it that these wise men rejoiced. Their joy was not due to the star itself. Rather, through the star they received the witness that the Almighty God was with them, guiding them to the King He had brought into the world. They knew through that star the favor and friendship of Jehovah upon them. They had to know, then, that the King they were shortly to see was King for them. They were citizens of His kingdom, though from a faraway country.

Worship and Homage

Entering the house, they came upon an ordinary sight. “They saw the young child with Mary his mother.” They beheld a peasant mother and her infant son in a simple house. The house was far from great Jerusalem, in humble Bethlehem. Everything in that home was far from grand or elegant. There was absolutely no sign of political power or might. No aura shines about the mother or child. Yet these men, endued with true wisdom, bow down before Him. They will not base their judgment on appearances, but on the Word of God. They came for this very moment. Their long search is now over. They are in the presence of Him born King of the Jews, whose goings forth are from everlasting. The Son of God.

To this young King they present their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They offer the products of their own land, the best they have to give. How eloquently these gifts speak. Gold, the most precious metal, was a most kingly gift. Frankincense was given to Him whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting. Myrrh was very likely a specialty produced by the region where these wise men lived. It was especially appropriate for this divine King. He came to save His people from their sins. He was born to die in the stead of His people—even in the stead of these wise men. Myrrh would be used in the preparation of His body for burial.

Meanwhile, Herod waits ….

Questions For Further Meditation and Study

1. Concerning the reaction of Herod and the people upon the appearance of the wise men: Did they share the same concerns, or were they troubled for different reasons? How could they have been troubled, yet none have gone with the wise men to find this King?

2. Concerning the wise men and the star: Research what is written about the two. What is the speculation about these men and their origin? What is the speculation concerning the star? Are these exercises helpful, or do they have their dangers? What can we learn about the manner in which we are to search the Scriptures?

3. Putting together what you know about the timing of these events, can we determine Jesus’ age when these wise men came to worship Him? Keep in mind that we do not know when the star appeared, before or simultaneous with Jesus’ birth. Nor do we know when Herod ran out of patience, waiting for the wise men to return to him—probably not long! Is it accurate to say that Jesus was about two years old when the wise men came? Many believe that Jesus was less than six months old, and John Calvin believed that the wise men followed closely upon the steps of the shepherds, arriving when Jesus was yet lying in a manger.

4. What does the visit of these wise men as Gentiles have to teach us? What passages of Scripture were fulfilled in this? In what particular way do we stand together with these wise men? What does this say about the nature of this King and His glorious kingdom? What do these men have to teach us about the homage that we must pay to this King?

5. What is the significance of the gifts these wise men present to Christ? Some have seen in these gifts a reflection of the threefold office of Christ as prophet, priest, and king. Others have seen in these gifts an expression of Christ’s kingship, His divinity, and His suffering. Which do you think is more accurate? How ought the basic idea of gift govern our thinking concerning this subject?