The Wise Men from the East
Many readers of the Bible assume that there were three Wise Men and that they came to worship Jesus immediately after His birth, while still at the manger. However, there are some clues in Matthew 2 that indicate that it was up to two years after His birth before they arrived in Jerusalem seeking the King of the Jews. See verses 2, 7-8 and 16. From the first appearing of the star had probably been two years, for Herod had every child aged two and younger in Bethlehem slain.
We also see that Jesus was now a “young child” and not a “babe” as He is called in Luke 2 when the shepherds came to behold Him. We find also that In Matthew 2 He was living in a house and not a manger. Thus, some time had passed from His birth until the coming of the Wise Men, likely up to two years. Finally, we do not see an exact nmber given of these men. It was two or more. The number given as three is by tradition and not derivd from Scripture. We find three specific gifts mentioned in verse 11. Possibly, that is the origination of Christian tradition’s Three Wise Men, as illustrated in the picture at the top of this article. These Wise Men, whatever their number never beheld Jesus at the manger.
This article will look at what may have transpired over the intervening years from the star’s first appearing until the arrival in Jerusalem and then Bethlehem of these wise pagans.
In Matthew 2 we read the account of the Wise Men from the east who came searching for the Lord Jesus Christ, the King of the Jews. Let us do some digging and see what we can gain from a study of these men.
The English word in our King James Version of the Bible translated “wise men” is from the Greek word Magus. Here is the expanded definition from Strongs we see,
Meaning: 1) a magus
1a) the name given by the Babylonians (Chaldeans), Medes, Persians, and others, to the wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augers, soothsayers, sorcerers etc.
1b) the oriental wise men (astrologers) who, having discovered by the rising of a remarkable star that the Messiah had just been born, came to Jerusalem to worship him
1c) a false prophet and sorcerer
The word magus is found six times in the New Testament: four times here in Matthew chapter two referring to the Wise Men from the East, and in Acts chapter thirteen where it is translated “sorcerer” two times in referring to Simon the sorcerer. Simon was a sorcerer in the sense of being a magician, which word finds its origination from the Greek magus.
These wise men were not Jewish, else they would have been called Rabbis, Lords, Masters, or Rabbonis. But they are called Magii, Wise Men. They were men steeped in the learning and wisdom of the Eastern cultures, religions and sciences.
The Shepherds of Luke chapter two learned of Jesus’ birth from the message of the Angel announcing the Savior’s birth. But how did these wise men from the east learn of the birth of this King?
None of the books of the eastern religions ever contained any reference to the Messiah of Israel. There is nothing in astrology that speaks of the Lord Jesus Christ. How could they know about this child? Was there an angel that announced it to them? Did God give these pagans a special vision? We find nothing in Scripture that would indicate this.
They came looking for the one who was “born King of the Jews” Matt 2:2. If Rabbis, they would not have stopped to ask where this Messiah would have been born, for it was the scribes who answered their and Herod’s question with the reference in Micah 5:2 that Bethlehem was His birthplace, Matt 2:4-6. Clearly, these Wise Men, were pagans from the East, maybe Babylon, Persia or Media. These places contained Jewish populations and synagogues. These regions had been strongly influenced at one time by the prophet Daniel, and would have possessed copies of the Jewish Scriptures in their royal libraries.
They knew that there was a new King born to the Jews. And they knew this because they had seen “HIS” star in the east, Matthew 2:2. In other words, while they were in the east– either Babylon, or Media, or Elam, or Persia, wherever– they had seen a new Star somewhere over Israel. Not only that, but they were come to worship Him.
The word Worship found sixty times in the New Testament is from the Greek proskunew and here is its meaning from the expanded Strongs dictionary,
- to kiss the hand to (towards) one, in token of reverence
- among the Orientals, esp. the Persians, to fall upon the knees and touch the ground with the forehead as an expression of profound reverence
- in the NT by kneeling or prostration to do homage (to one) or make obeisance, whether in order to express respect or to make supplication 3a) used of homage shown to men and beings of superior rank 3a1) to the Jewish high priests 3a2) to God 3a3) to Christ 3a4) to heavenly beings 3a5) to demons
What would lead pagan magii to do such a thing? Worship the King of the Jews? Why would they do this?
These Wise Men came in faith to find the King of the Jews. And as we know from Romans 10:17 faith comes from the hearing of the Word of God. When these pagan Wise Men, magii, noticed a new star in the sky located in a line towards Jerusalem, they would have begun searching the records and books of the libraries available to them in the East. And the only volumes available to them with any clues at all would have been the writings of the Jewish prophets, the Old Testament Bible. It is all holy speculation but I believe there are three passages in the Old Testament that contain the answers to these questions of why pagan magii would come to worship the King of the Jews.
The first is found in Numbers 24:17. A little background is required for this verse. This is a prophecy given by that wicked prophet Balaam. He was a man that God used in spite of the man’s wicked nature. He was a man that was self-willed. God had told him NOT to go and serve Balak, but he persisted in seeking a way to get the Lord to let him go anyway, and He did. He was a man that received God’s word, but refused to obey God’s word– for God had to use a donkey to speak to and rebuke the man. And he was a man that loved money, the root of all evil as Paul tells us. Balaam was drawn to Balak by the reward of money that Balak offered. Finally we see that he was a man cursed of God, for he– in a backhanded way– cursed God’s people and caused them to trespass against their God(see Genesis 12:1-3), even though he spoke only the words God gave him when he prophesied of Israel to Balak, king of Moab. See the account in Numbers 22 for this background.
You say, how did Balaam curse Israel? Num 31:16 tells us. Balaam gave counsel to Balak on how to entice Israel into fornication, adultery and idolatry.
I pray that none of us are like Balaam, desiring our will rather than the Lord’s; or disobeying God’s clear command to gain a short term profit/gain; or loving money, this world and the dark treasures it offers, more than the heavenly rewards that await us in glory. Where our treasure is, that is where our heart is. And we are clearly taught in Scripture not to love this world, nor the things of this world.
This prophecy we find in Numbers 24:17 though given by a wicked prophet, a prophet who was not an Israelite, is still a word of prophecy and one that gives us a wonderful truth. Let us read it, “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.”
I shall see him, but not now:
This coming King will come to this earth, but His coming is yet 1400 years from Balaam’s days.
I shall behold him, but not nigh:
Indeed, Balaam will see this King one day, but it will be in the far distant future. Balaam will see Him probably only at the Great White Throne judgment.
There shall come a Star out of Jacob,
Literally, it is a star, a light bearing body in the heavens. And that is what the Wise Men observed with their eyes. But we find a figurative use of this word in Scripture also. And it nearly always refers to the Lord Jesus Christ. See 2 Peter 1:19 and Revelation 22:16.
What is also of interest in this verse is the verb Come. Normally the English word Come in the Old Testament is translated from the Hebrew Bo’ with the idea of entering, coming in. But in Number 24:17 it is from DaRaK. This word is found sixty two times and has the Meaning:
- to tread, bend, lead, march
- 1a) (Qal) 1a-1) to tread, march, march forth 1a-2) to tread on, tread upon 1a-3) to tread (a press) 1a-4) to tread (bend) a bow 1a-5) archer, bow-benders (participle)
Come is a good translation and it would appear to carry with it the thought of marching forth, maybe suddenly coming forth into heaven’s skies. I believe that these Wise Men saw a new star suddenly burst forth in the night sky and it caught their attention.
Has the Lord Jesus Christ caught your attention, dear reader? I pray that He has indeed!
and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel,
When we see the word Sceptre in Scripture it always speaks of that rod of authority by which a King rules. We see here then, the prophecy of a Star and a King. But this verse says that this Star and Sceptre–this King– is of Jacob (Israel). Judah is not mentioned. But the Wise Men came looking for the King of the Jews, not the King of Jacob.
Where can we find a King in relation to Judah, the Jews?
Before they came to Numbers 24, the Wise Men would have read Genesis 49:10 which reads “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.”
We see here again,a sceptre. Judah was the tribe from which God’s kings and the ultimate King would come. The Wise pagans would here see that this King of Israel as spoken of in Number 24:17, is from Judah, and thus is the “King of the Jews.”
We see in this verse also, that there is a line of kings inferred, but one specific one is in focus, Shiloh, Him whose it is. This One to Whom the Law and the People belongs, this Law Giver, will one day gather His people together.
Today He is gathering Gentiles (through the preaching of His glorious Gospel) unto Himself to make them a peculiar people, zealous of good works. But one day, He will turn again because of His tender mercies unto the people of that nation of Israel, and Jews the world over will start turning to and being gathered unto their Messiah the Lord Jesus. See Titus 2:11-14; Romans 11:25-36 and Zechariah 12.
But why did the Wise Men come to Worship this King of the Jews recently born?
As we saw earlier the word translated worship in Matthew 2:2 is Proskunew, and has the idea of bowing the knee before royalty and kissing the hand, acknowledging the Sovereign’s right to rule over the one bowing.
As we know, faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God, Rom 10:17. That I am convinced is what led these pagans to come to worship this King, the King of the Jews. And this brings us to a third passage that I believe informed these Wise pagans, Psalm 2:1-12.
Let’s do like my wife, and read the last verse first.
“Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.”
Kiss the Son, lest He be angry.
That is what worship truly is, bowing the knee to Christ, acknowledging Him as the Sovereign King and the Ruler of your life, and submitting yourself to Him and His will.
We are often confused in these apostate days in our understanding of true worship. We find in Genesis 24 that Abraham’s servant worshipped the Lord with praise and thanksgiving (verses 26-27, 48), but we find no mention of a song there. We tend to confuse worship with being overcome with emotions while hearing or singing praise songs. We tend to think it is a lifting of the hands. We tend to think it is an emotional outpouring of the heart in song. At best, these are merely outworkings resulting from a heart of worship. But worship primarily as we saw earlier, is a submission of ourselves to our God and an acknowledgement to Him of His Lordship over our souls and an humbling, a bowing of the knee, if you will, of our wills to Him as our King and Master, the One whose authority is supreme and whose will is our focus and desire. Don’t get me wrong. Emotions can and should flow forth from a worship of God in spirit and in truth. But emotionalism does not in itself equate to Biblical worship.
I am reminded of what my former pastor often stated, “A mind convinced against its will, is of the same mind still.” If our concept of Worship is primarily a focus on the outward expression of our emotions without an humbled attitude and submissive will—then we are guilty of being hearers and not doers of the Word and of being mere will-worshippers and are neglecting the things of God. We can so easily fall into the trap of seeking to satisfy our carnal desires through the music and the swaying and the raising of hands while claiming to worship our God. Nothing is mentioned of music in the worship offered by these Wise Men. I fear that today many if not most Christians equate the carnality of modern praise and worship with what the Bible presents true worship to be. Remember, we are to walk by faith, not by sight(senses). See 2 Corinthians 5:7.
Also these Wise pagans would have seen their obligation before this King of the Jews from Psalm 2:1-3. They saw that the nations of the world were and are in revolt against the LORD, Jehovah, the God of the Jews. And they saw the utter futility of this rebellion in Psalm 2:4-5. Then in Psalm 2:6-7 they saw the response of God’s plan to end the rebellion. God would place His King, this King of the Jews that these wise pagans had come to worship, upon His holy hill of Zion, Jerusalem. Not only that, but this would be a unique King for this King is none other than God’s own unique, only-begotten Son, the God-man Jesus Christ.
They would have seen that this King of the Jews would one day possess full authority and would reign over all the nations of this earth. Every soul would be responsible to Him and one day answer to Him for either their allegiance or resistance. See Psalm 2:8-9.
As a side note, the progression in Psalm 12 reminds me of some of the verses in Romans 1. We see the promise of the Son of God brought forth from the dead in Rom 1:4 and Psa 2:6-7. We see the warning of God’s wrath revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who hold the truth in unrighteousness in Romans 1:18 and Psalm 2:1-5, 8-9. And finally we see the promise of salvation for those who repent and trust in Christ in Romans 1:16 and Psalm 2:10-12. Mankind needs to be warned that their rebellion is storing up wrath and that they are under God’s condemnation and that a day of judgment is coming. They need also to hear that God has provided them a Savior in His Son the Lord Jesus Christ and that Christ has conquered sin and death forever. Finally they must hear the Gospel’s command to repent and believe the Gospel of Christ.
Furthermore, we can learn something else from these pagan Wise Men. Though steeped in the things of their culture and world, they realized that they owed their allegiance and service to the Lord God of Israel and to His Son, Psalm 2:9-10. They wisely considered that they would give an answer to Him. They took the admonishment of God’s instruction of verse 9 and determined to “serve Him with fear and to rejoice with trembling.” I am afraid that the modern Christian’s expression of service is often framed in serving and rejoicing without any fear and certainly without any trembling, in complete disobedience to these commands. Do we take seriously the fact that we will one day, as Christians, appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ, 2 Corinthian 5:10 ? What drove Paul in his ministry of proclaiming the Gospel of Christ that reconciles sinful men to the Holy God and of warning reconciled sinners to walk in holiness? It was knowing the terror of God as he stated in 2 Corinthians 5:11.
I praise God for His grace that has saved all of us who have been born again by His Spirit and His Word unto a lively hope. But I also praise God that this same Grace teaches us to deny all ungodliness and worldly lusts and to live soberly, righteously and godly in this present (evil) world. See Titus 2:11-14.
It would appear that these Wise pagans had acknowledged their own responsibility before the Holy God Jehovah and His Son, the King of the Jews. When they finally came to Him, led forth miraculously by the Star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy! Matthew 2:9-10.
Remember that Numbers 24:17 said that this Star would come, as in marching forth. That is exactly what we see in Matthew 2:9, this was no ordinary star, it led them to where the Lord Jesus was in His house in Bethlehem. No longer a babe, no longer in a manger, he was a young child (no more than two years old, Matthew 2:7, 16) living with His parents in a house.
Though not able to prove Biblically that this account is accurate in presenting how it was that these pagan magii came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, it is clear that these passages are the key to pointing to Him as the fulfillment of these prophecies. They all point to Jesus Christ, and as that miraculous Star led the way to Him, these verse do as well.
There is one final verse we need to consider before departing this subject. And that is the figurative application of the star in reference to the Lord Jesus Christ. As mentioned previously in 1 Peter 1:19 we read of Jesus “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:”
As the stars of the sky can only be seen in the darkness of night due to the brightness of the sun, there is such a darkness upon this earth that can only be lit by the brightness of the Light of the world, Jesus Christ. The “more sure word of prophecy” that Peter writes of is the Bible, the Word of God. It is the sole authority for faith and practice that we have in this world. And as he admonishes us, we do well to take heed to it. For it is like a shining light in this sin plagued world. There is no light in philosophy. There is no light in any other religion in this world because it does not have its basis solely and completely upon the Bible. The word translated Dark in this verse is from the Greek word auxmeros and is found just this one time in the New Testament. According to the extended Strongs its Meaning: 1) squalid, dirty 1a) since dirty things are destitute of brightness: dark
It has the thought of something dry and parched, thus dusty and dirty. That is such an apt description of this world in which we live and all of its wisdom and philosophies. It is only as we read, believe and obey this wonderful “more sure word of prophecy” that the daystar, Jesus Christ Himself will arise in our hearts. Let us redouble our efforts to search His word to seek and find His will and determine to do His will in every area of our lives.
Also, this dark place, this fallen world in which we live, will one day have the full beam of the Light of Christ present here as He fuflills that prophecy of Psalm 2. He will be the King of Kings in Jerusalem. Every soul will owe Him allegiance and every knee will bow before Him. His rod of correction will rule upon all this earth and there will be no man-centered history books, no God-denying science books, no God-mocking and man-exalting philosophy books. And finally, there will be no other psychology books that attempt to put a bandaid on man’s sin cursed, putrid soul. There will only be one Book, the Holy Bible. That is the only Book that contains the cure for the problems of mankind and for the soul of every individual who has ever lived. It is the only Book that reveals to us the Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Son of Man, King of the Jews, Savior of the World– the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, the One who bore God’s curse in our place!
Our prayer is that this article on the Wise Men will be a blessing to you and yours as we reflect upon the birth of our Savior, the King of the Jews, at this time of year.