Matthew’s account of the birth of Christ is the only gospel account that records the visit of the wise men (Matt. 2:1-12). The expression “wise men” is translated from the term “magi” (Gk. magoi). The word magi might evoke in our modern mind images of David Copperfield or David Blaine, but this is not what the term suggests. Herodotus says that the magi were originally a tribe of the Medes (1:101:1). He also identifies them as priests, similar to the Levites in that they presided over the offering of sacrifices (1:132:2). These mysterious magi were renowned for their interpretation of dreams and their observations of, and their insight into, the meaning of astrological and astronomical events. They performed peculiar, public religious rites and were held in high regard by the children of the east as having special insights through these methods of divination.
What is more, being so highly esteemed, they were counted valuable as advisors to the kings, and thus they wielded great political power. When Nebuchadnezzar could not remember his dream, he turned to his magicians first to tell him the dream and then interpret it for him (Dan. 2:1,2). They objected that no king asks magicians such things, knowing that such is impossible with man. Whereas they were unsuccessful, Daniel, through revelation from God, made known the dream unto the king, giving all the glory to God (2:27-30). In return, Daniel was given gifts and made a “great man,” “ruler over the whole province of Babylon,” and “chief of the governors over all the wise men of Babylon” (Dan. 2:48).
The wise men who came from the east to seek Jesus were the spiritual heirs of those we meet in the book of Daniel. The Holy Spirit did not see fit to tell us how many of these men came to seek Jesus, though many have surmised that the number of kinds of gifts gives us insight into their number. Non-authoritative, secular traditions place the number anywhere between two and twelve. Equally unknown and unimportant are the names of the wise men, though secular history agains supplies alternatives: Gaspar, Melchoir and Balthasar, though other cultures offer other names.
Some have objected to the King James translation of “wise men.” However, Daniel was made “chief of the governors over all the wise men of Babylon” (Dan. 2:47). Daniel referred to the magi as wise men (Dan. 2:10-12, 13, 14, 18, 24, 27, 48; 4:6, 18; 5:7, 8, 15). Jeremiah refers to a rab-mag, or chief of the magi (Jer. 39:13). In being made chief of the wise men, or magi, Daniel would have been considered a rab-mag. Since this position was usually a hereditary position, perhaps this explains, in part, why there were forces seeking Daniel’s death, being a foreigner.
Several things can be gathered from the statement of the wise men about this event (Matt. 2:2). First, these wise men knew about the birth of Jesus. But how could they have known? Daniel’s prophecy pinpointed the time when the Messiah was to appear (Dan. 2:44; 7:9-27; 9:20-27). The Jews still living abroad, as well as the wise men, would have had access to these scriptures, or at least the teachings of the scriptures. Further, since God speaks to the wise men in having them turn in another direction without telling Herod (Matt. 2:12), it is possible that He had already spoken to them earlier, as well, directing them further.
Second, the wise men also allude to the star. We already know the wise men were students of the stars and thought that they could divine the world through them. But perhaps, having had access to the writings of Daniel and other Old Testament authors, they had read Balaam’s prophecy of a star coming out of Jacob (Num. 24:17), Balaam himself being a child of the east (Num. 22:5). The star which the wise men saw was no ordinary star and does not find any fulfillment in any alignment of the planets. This star first moved and then stood still over then house where Jesus was (Matt. 2:9).
Third, they understood that this child was born “king of the Jews” and was worthy of worship. The wise men traveled a great distance, perhaps a thousand miles to see Jesus. This no doubt entailed a great expense and great risk. What would Herod, notorious for killing any who stood in his way to challenge him, do to them? Would Herod consider this trespassing of his land a prelude to war? The fact that their lives were hazarded is confirmed by the fact that the Lord sent them out another way instead of returning to Herod (Matt. 2:12). Yet, despite all this, the wise men risked all to fall down before the young child and worship Him (Matt. 2:11). Contrast the actions of the wise men with that of Herod who only feigned interest in Him so that He might get him out of the way (Matt. 2:16-18).
These wise men sought Jesus at great expense of money and time and at great risk of life and limb. Some “Christians” today would never confess the Lord if they thought it might cost them money, friends or take time away from their precious entertainment. The wise men truly intended to worship Him as Lord and did so worship Him. Many “Christians” today act as if they are Lord. The wise men traveled perhaps a thousand miles so that they could find Him. Some today won’t travel across town to worship the Lord. The wise men undoubtedly had searched the scriptures and listened to God. Some “Christians” today have never opened their Bible or know what the Bible teaches and, perhaps, don’t even care.
Those wise men sought Jesus. Wise men today still seek Him (Acts 17:27).
Eric L. Padgett