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The Coming King - Visitors From the East

Have you ever given much thought to the three wise men? Tomorrow (Friday, Jan. 6th) is the feast of the Epiphany which celebrates and remembers the arrival of these three men from the east to visit the infant Jesus. Yet, beyond a (misleading) appearance in nativity scenes and singing “We Three Kings,” not much thought or mention is given to three mysterious figures.

So who were these foreign fellows? Well, to start off, they were not necessarily kings. Yes, they were very likely high ranking officials in their homeland but they were not the kings of those lands. The original Greek used the word magos which is a close to the Latin magus (plural of magi). You’ll likely notice that magi is rather close to the word magic which often doesn’t have the best connotations when it comes to the Christian faith. So part of the reason we don’t often refer to them as the three magi is, admittedly, political. Additionally, there are several Old Testament prophecies about the Jesus the Messiah being worshipped and adored by kings (see Isaiah 60:3, Psalm 68:29, and Psalm 72:10). In light of these prophecies, readers of Matthew’s gospel where their visit is recorded would have had an understandable instinct to elevate them from magi to kings.

Now that we know that these foreign fellows weren’t kings but magi, or more popularly translated today, wise men, what can we know about where they were from? Scripture tells us only that they were from the East. However, various traditions and legends passed down through the centuries in Western Christianity do name them. Melchior is believed to be a Persian scholar, Caspar is believed to be from India, and Balthazar is believed to be a Babylonian scholar. Regardless of their names or countries of origin, scholars to tend to agree that part of their studies and religious practice included astrology which would explain why they were watching the stars on the night Jesus was born.

But how did they know what the star meant? After all, as Matthew records, when Herod asks them where they are going and why they are traveling, they answer, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet….from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd the people Israel.” How did they know about these prophecies? The most likely answer is found by looking to the events of about 600 years before Christ’s birth. This is when the Babylonian Empire invaded and took Daniel, and his friends, into captivity. Daniel, you will remember, remained faithful to God and so was saved from the lion’s den. He also found favor with the king and raised to a high office. It is believed that because of this, Daniel was allowed to rather freely talk about, teach about, and practice his faith which would have included the writings of the prophets regarding the promised Messiah.

We don’t know how long it took the magi to arrive at the home of Jesus. We do know they set out the follow the star the night it appeared and it took anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of years. They did visit Jesus, not in a manger as the shepherds did, but at his house. We assume there were three because three gifts are named, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but some speculate there could have been as many as twelve. We know the trip was not without risk as they are carrying gifts of high value and are stopped by Herod. They remain stubbornly mysterious in many ways to us still today.

But they are still important in the story of Jesus. They still bring valuable gifts as official representatives of the lands from which they started their journeys. They come not to form political alliances but to worship him. Their joy is not in gaining favor but in being in his presence.

Their gifts are gifts which would be brought to a king in those days. A gift of gold speaks of his kingship on earth and virtue. A gift of frankincense, which burned as an incense, is a gift which speaks to his deity which would further enforce his title as king since many believed that kings were, if not specially blessed by God, descended from some pagan god. And finally, a gift of myrrh, an embalming oil, would speak to Jesus being king even in his death as only the richest families could afford to preserve the remains of their loved ones. They are gifts which affirm Jesus as fully man (needing to buy the basics of food and shelter) and fully God and because of this, the one to someday be the perfect, blameless, sacrifice needed as payment for the sins of humanity.

We aren’t told a lot about these important visitors. Beyond the shepherds who come to see Jesus on the night of his birth, we aren’t told of anyone else who specifically travels to visit the infant Messiah after his birth so, when you stop to think about it, it does seem odd that more isn’t know about them. But, as Professor Eric Vanden Eykel of Ferrum College speculates, perhaps Matthew intended for us to wonder a bit about who they actually are. I find myself both being frustrated with Vanden Eykel’s conclusion and agreeing with it.

For in leaving so much of their identity up to speculation, it is easier to imagine ourselves as one of these three wise men. It is easier for us to remember those times we were anticipated the birth of a special baby in our own lives and how excited we were to visit them when they arrived. It invites us to remember the gifts we brought them to celebrate their arrival and how we hoped they would make the lives of their parents just a little less overwhelming as they figured out how to care for their newest addition to the family. Leaving so much vagueness in the story allows us to ask which gift we would bring the infant Jesus. Would our first instinct be to acknowledge his rule in this world, his deity, or the sacrifice he would make on our behalf?

Follow Up:

- How diligently would you have been watching for signs of Jesus' birth? How diligently do you watch for signs of God working in our world today?

- Which gift would you have been most likely to bring Jesus? Gold, Frankincense, or Myrrh?

- Have you ever celebrated Epiphany? What might you do to remember the arrival of the three magi?

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