Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.” [Matthew 2:1-2 (NLT)]
Although we try to keep Christ in Christmas, many of our ideas about Christmas aren’t Bible based. In spite of the delightful carols, the gospels make no mention of a little drummer boy, cattle lowing, Jeanette or Isabella, a partridge in a pear tree, and, rather than mid-winter, it’s more likely that Jesus was born in early fall.
Perhaps the most glaring example of misinformation found in the season’s songs has to do with the wise men. We can blame John Henry Hopkins, the Pennsylvania clergyman who wrote the song “We Three Kings” for much of our confusion. He wrote the carol in 1857 for his nieces and nephews and used it in a Christmas pageant that year. Published in a collection of hymns and carols in 1863, it’s been sung around the world ever since and most people are now convinced that these three kings visited the baby Jesus shortly after his birth.
The magi or wise men, however, weren’t kings. If they had been, it’s likely that the Gospel writers would have included such an important detail. Renaissance artworks depicting king-like figures in flowing robes and elaborate crowns at Jesus’s birth probably contributed to Hopkins’ misrepresentation. While they may have been envoys from a king, these wise men probably were priests, court advisors, or even astrologers from a land or lands to the east such as present day Iran or Iraq.
Ancient astrologers interpreted major astronomical events as signaling the birth of a king. Whether a conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars or a supernova, these wise men recognized the phenomenon as a special sign. Familiar enough with the ancient prophecies to quote from Micah to Herod, they knew a star would herald the Jewish king’s birth. It was typical for kings to send emissaries from their court with gifts to another king and a king (or kings) may have sent these men with their extravagant gifts to pay tribute to this newborn king. Moreover, while the gospel mentions three gifts, it never says how many men brought them and there may have been as few as two or more than twelve of them.
Even though the gospel account of the wise men’s visit follows closely after the birth of Jesus, logic tells us a couple of years had to pass before their arrival. Having traveled over 800 miles and stopping to see Herod in Jerusalem, the magi couldn’t have arrived immediately following Jesus’ birth. Jesus probably was a toddler when they finally arrived and found Him in a house with Mary. While these visitors sought to worship the new king, Herod wanted to kill him and his decision to kill all boys two years and younger ties in with this timeline.
The Magi may not belong in our nativity scenes, but they are an important part of the Christmas story. Today (January 6), many Christians observe Epiphany or Three Kings Day—a day that celebrates Jesus’ outward and visible expression of love for us and the wise men’s recognition of the one who was born “king of the Jews.” Although Jesus’ birth announcement was made to lowly Jewish shepherds, His first worshipers were these wise Gentiles. Although a messiah had been promised to the Jews, it was foreigners who sought Him, recognized His value, presented Him with precious gifts and worshipped Him. They may have been Gentiles, but they recognized the promised king of the Jews. Moreover, instead of returning to Herod as ordered, they were obedient to God’s direction and returned home another way.
While they weren’t actually there at the time, the presence of the wise men in our nativity sets is a reminder that Jesus, the promised Messiah, came to save all of mankind. They remind us to seek Jesus and recognize Him as our savior, to present Him with our gifts and worship him, and to obey God even when He sends us in a different direction.
We three kings of Orient are Bearing gifts we traverse afar.
Field and fountain, moor and mountain, Following yonder star.
O star of wonder, star of night, Star of royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding, Guide us to thy perfect light. [John Henry Hopkins]