In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Have you heard of “Chinese Whispers”? It is a story that is retold from person to person, with each version slightly different from the one before, so that the final telling bears only a little resemblance to the original story. The story of the Magi who visited Jesus when he was born seems to be like Chinese Whispers, with embellishments added to it over the years. It all makes for fascinating listening, but what is the truth?
We don’t really know. They were most probably a priestly caste from Mesopotamia, who were famous for their learning and for their wisdom. Very interested in the study of the stars, they may have come across the prophecy of Balaam (see Numbers 24:17), which predicted that a star would rise in Israel, and looked out for it. So when they saw this special star, they followed it. Or maybe, God just revealed it to them. He’s been know to do this kind of thing.
Were they kings? Probably not? Were there three of them? Again, probably not. The fact they bore three expensive gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh undoubtedly contributed to this story, but it isn’t important. Were they wise? Yes, but what made them wise was not their learning or their knowledge.
What made them wise was their acknowledgement of Jesus and who he was! Seeking no honor for themselves — they did come from a long distance, after all, bearing precious gifts — they humbled themselves by kneeling before a woman and a child. Can you imagine somebody doing this today, much less 1st century Israel? In doing this they showed themselves to be like infants.
Years later Jesus would thank his Father, saying, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will” (Matthew 11:25-26). Contrast them with King Herod, who thought himself to be a wise guy, but was anything but wise. Consequently, all he wanted to do was to kill the Messiah.
So, what kinda wise guy do you wanna be?