LESSONS FROM THE WISE MEN
(Matthew 2:1–16)
Based on a PCC Prayer Meeting Exhortation by bro Linus Chua on 28 December 2001


It’s the Christmas season once again! Christians and non-Christians, believers and unbelievers alike all over the world celebrate this “important” and “joyous” event. It’s one of those events that this world simply loves very much. If you want a taste of Christmas celebrations, take a walk down Orchard Road and observe the colourful and attractive Christmas decorations. Then go into any shopping centre and you’re likely to hear those familiar Christmas carols and tunes being played over and over again. But you know it’s strange that unbelievers who hate God and His beloved Son should love to commemorate the birth of Christ, the Son of God. To me, that’s one of the many indications that there’s something wrong with Christmas and that Christians should have nothing to do with it. But my purpose in this article is not to discuss with us the reasons why we shouldn’t celebrate Christmas. Instead, I have selected a familiar “Christmas story” to show us why this passage of sacred Scripture—Matthew 2:1–16—has really got nothing at all to do with Christmas. But more than that, I’ll like to use this biblical account to remind us of some very simple lessons as we begin a new year—lessons that we’ll do well to think upon and apply.


Some weeks ago, I received a Christmas card from the shop from which we bought our piano. After taking a very quick look at it, I decided to throw it away. But as I got up and started walking towards the bin, suddenly the picture on the front cover of that card caught my attention. It was a picture of three men, dressed like kings, gathering in front of a little infant in a manger and presenting their gifts to him.


I do not think I am too far off if I say that the story of the wise men is one of the most well known and often retold biblical accounts, especially at Christmas time. A good friend of ours from a conservative church told me that, on Monday evening during the Christmas Eve service, the children from that church put up a sketch. One of the scenes in their Christmas sketch involved the story of the wise men. But more often than not, this story is mixed up with various inaccuracies and mistakes. I think they’ll become obvious to us as we go along.


Historical Setting


But first, let’s establish the biblical setting and context in which this account took place. Luke, in the second chapter of his gospel account, tells us that Joseph and Mary travelled from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea because Cæsar Augustus wanted a census to be taken of the entire Roman world. While they were in Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to the child. But because there was no room in the inn, they had to put up in a manger. The shepherds were the first to hear about the child’s birth through the announcement of the angel, and they went to see the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. On the eight days, the child was circumcised and given the name Jesus. Then after 33 days, according to the law in Leviticus 12, when the days of her purification were over, Joseph and Mary went to the temple in Jerusalem to present their firstborn to the Lord. But because they were too poor to afford a lamb for the sacrifice, they offered two pigeons or turtledoves instead. There at the temple, they met two godly saints, Simeon and Anna. Luke then concludes his account of this incident by writing, in Luke 2:39, “And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.” Because of this verse, many of us have the mistaken notion that immediately after the temple incident, Jesus and His parents returned to Nazareth. But that’s not the whole story, because Matthew records for us some things, which Luke omitted—things which happened before they returned to Nazareth, namely the visit of the wise men, and their subsequent escape to Egypt.


I am not exactly sure why Joseph and Mary didn’t return to Nazareth immediately after finishing their business at the temple, but instead returned to Bethlehem, which was about 5 miles south of Jerusalem. One possible reason I can think of is that winter was approaching or had just started and it wasn’t too convenient, especially for Mary and the infant, to make that fairly long journey of more than 70 miles back to Nazareth. Now, I am sure we all know that Christ wasn’t born on the 25th of December. Historians suggest that Christ was actually born somewhere around September or October. No one knows for sure. However if September or October was the time of His birth, then it makes sense for Joseph to wait a few months for Mary to recover her strength, for the infant to grow up a little more and for winter to pass before returning home in spring. And it was during this season of waiting that the wise men came.


Who were the wise men? Where did they come from? How many of them came? During the middle ages, legend developed that they were kings, that they were three in number and that their names were Casper, Balthazar and Melchior. Furthermore, they were thought to represent the three sons of Noah, and so one of them is often pictured as an Ethiopian. A 12th century Bishop of Cologne even claimed to have found their skulls!


The only legitimate facts we know about these wise men are those given in Matthew’s gospel. We are not told how many of them there were or the specific country from which they came. And there is certainly no indication in Scriptures that they were kings! All we know is that they came from the East. My Sunday School teacher, when I was in my teens, speculated that they came from China via the Silk Road. Some say they came from India; others, from Arabia and still others, from Babylon. I do not want to get into a discussion of where they may have come from although I do like the idea that they may have come from Babylon—that the knowledge of the coming Messiah had actually been preserved and handed down through the ages to these wise men, from none other than the prophet Daniel himself, almost 500 years ago.


Now, although we do not know where they came from, we do have an indication that they travelled for quite a long distance before arriving at Jerusalem. Verse 16 tells us that when king Herod realised that he was played out, so to speak, by the wise men, he was very angry and ordered that all the children in Bethlehem and the surrounding coasts, from two years and under, be slaughtered. Why two years and below? Verse 16 says, “according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.” In other words, Herod found out from the wise men the exact time in which they saw the star and started out on their journey. Assuming that the star appeared the moment Christ was born, these wise men could have been travelling for a number of months, maybe even up to a year. Furthermore, we read in Matthew 2:8–9, 11 that Jesus was already a young child and no longer a babe or infant (cf. Luke 2:12).


Why did the wise men travel all that way? The wise men said in verse 2, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” The wise men were seeking for this newborn child to worship Him. And so the moment they arrived in Jerusalem, they went around the city asking whomsoever they met about the birth of this King. Perhaps they assumed that everyone in Judea and certainly in Jerusalem would have heard and known of the birth of such a special child. I wonder if they were somewhat surprised to find that no one, no, not a single person, could tell them the child’s whereabouts.


We do not know exactly how God revealed to them that the King of the Jews had been born, only that His star in the east appeared. What is this star? Again we do not have very much information on it. There have been quite a bit of speculation on what this star was, but whatever it was, God used it to enable the wise men, eventually, to find the child.


As these wise men went about asking concerning the child’s whereabouts, king Herod came to hear about it and he began to be troubled. This Herod, known as Herod the Great, was the first of several Herods mentioned in the NT. Herod wasn’t a Jew, but an Edomite, and so in order to make himself more acceptable to the Jewish people, he married a prominent Jewish woman named Mariamne. Herod was a clever and capable warrior and governor. But he was also very cruel and merciless, and he was extremely suspicious and jealous for his position and power. According to historical records, he killed several of his own family members, including his brother-in-law, his own wife, his wife’s mother, and even three of his sons because he considered them to be potential threats. Yet another evidence of his bloodthirstiness and insane cruelty was his command to arrest the most distinguished citizens of Jerusalem and have them imprisoned shortly before his death. Herod knew that no one would mourn his own death, so he gave orders that the moment he died, all those prisoners should be executed in order to ensure that there would be mourning in Jerusalem at the time of his death.


Such an insane, paranoid and wicked man—you can be sure that he was very troubled when he heard what the wise men had said. Having found out from the chief priests and scribes where Christ should be born, he told the wise men to go to Bethlehem to search out this young child and then inform him of his whereabouts so that he could go and “worship” Him. So the wise men headed south towards Bethlehem and as they went, the star which originally appeared to them re-appeared once again and led them to the exact location and house. The wise men were filled with great joy. They went into the house and worshipped the child, and gave gifts to Him. Then, being warned of God in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed into their own country by another way.


Well then, what lessons can we learn from the wise men? I’ll like to highlight three of them.


Consider their Commitment and Resolve


Firstly, we observe their commitment and resolve in seeking Christ. We noted that it was very probable, judging from the time they travelled, that these wise men came from a far country and had to travel a long distance to Bethlehem just to catch a brief glimpse of the One who was born King of the Jews. Travelling in those days was neither easy nor convenient. They had to endure the rough terrain, the heat of the day and the cold of the night continuously for many days. There would have been numerous discouragements as they went on. Furthermore, there were countless dangers and perils along the way. Two weeks ago, we heard our Pastor’s sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan. He told us of how the road between Jericho and Jerusalem, although it was only a few miles, was notorious for thieves who preyed on travellers making the trip between those two towns. Also, this road between Jericho and Jerusalem goes through some of the roughest, most barren and desolate terrain on the face of this earth.


I am sure the wise men had to face numerous difficulties and dangers along the way. Furthermore, it must have cost them quite a bit to make that trip. I doubt if anyone was financing or even subsidising their travelling expenses. Yet they went. They left the comforts of their homes to seek Christ. I wonder what their families and friends might have said to them as they prepared to set off on this journey. “Where are you going? Do not you know that the journey is long and the way dangerous? And what if you cannot find Him? And even if you can find Him, what benefit would you receive? Do not be foolish! You’re risking your lives and wasting your money in return for very little.” Perhaps they were thus persuaded and discouraged from going. Yet they went. None of these things moved them. They had set themselves to seeing Him that was born King of the Jews and they didn’t rest till they saw Him. They were committed to seeking after Christ.


How about us? Are we just as fixed in our commitment and resolve in seeking Him, who is the King of kings and Lord of lords? Do we follow Christ for a season and then stop for one reason or another? Are we willing to deny ourselves in order to seek Christ, or are we more concerned about our own enjoyment and comforts? And, when discouragements or difficulties come along our way, do we give in and allow them to prevent us from seeking Him, or do we press on all the more diligently? How committed are we? J.C. Ryle has some important questions for our serious consideration, “Where is our self-denial? What pains do we take about the means of grace? What diligence do we show about following Christ? What does our religion cost us?”


Oh that we would be willing to follow in the example of the wise men!


Consider their Faith


Secondly, I’ll like us to observe the faith of these wise men. The moment they reached Jerusalem, they started asking the people, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” At first, no one in Judea seemed to know. That probably surprised them but it didn’t discourage them or cause them to doubt whether such a king had in fact been born. And even when the scribes and chief priests, who thought they knew where Christ would be born according to OT prophecy, didn’t show any interest at all in following them to Bethlehem to seek for Christ, still the faith of these wise men didn’t wavier. But that was not all. When the star stopped over what must have been a poor man’s house, and not over some grand palace or castle, the wise men didn’t think that it was a mistake and try to look around for another house. No, they went in, and when they saw the young child with His mother Mary, they believed without doubting that this was the One whom they had been searching for.


Here was their great faith. They saw Christ as a helpless and weak child, utterly dependent upon His mother and father. He could perform no miracles for them; neither could He give them any sign or wonder to authenticate His person and ministry. He neither preached a sermon to them nor spoke any words of prophecy or wisdom. In all probability, Christ couldn’t even walk, let alone talk. At most, He could only utter some sounds or syllables just like any young child before he learns to speak. Yet their faith didn’t falter or fail. They bowed before Christ the King, not just any king, but the King of kings; and they worshipped Him as God incarnate. Again J.C. Ryle has this to say about them,

We read of no greater faith than this in the whole volume of the Bible. It is a faith that deserves to be placed side by side with that of the penitent thief. The thief saw one dying the death of a malefactor, and yet prayed to Him and called Him Lord. The wise men saw a newborn babe on the lap of a poor woman and yet worshipped Him and confessed that He was Christ. Blessed indeed are they that can believe in this fashion!


May the Lord strengthen our faith!


Consider their Devotion


Thirdly and finally, I’ll like us to observe the devotion and love that these wise men had for Christ. When the wise men initially saw the star and knew that Christ was born, they didn’t say to themselves, “If such a great King was truly born, then news of Him would spread far and wide and we shall eventually hear of Him in our own country. Then only will we make our way there to pay Him homage.” Instead they set off in search for Him. They were eager, even impatient to see Him.


And when they arrived in Judea, they were not afraid or ashamed to tell people, including king Herod, that they had come from the east to worship the newborn King. Then when they saw the star once again, they “rejoiced with exceeding great joy.” Notice how Matthew piles up all these superlatives to emphasise the extent of their joy and exhilaration, which they felt even before they saw Christ. I wonder how many of us are filled with as much joy when we come to worship and seek the Lord. Finally, when these wise men entered the house and saw the child, they immediately fell down before Him and worshipped Him. They had finally found the One whom they had been seeking and searching for all these months. We do not read that they fell down before Herod the Great. But we read that they fell down before the One who was far greater than king Herod. The One who made heaven and earth, who made the stars, the hills and the seas, and who upholds and sustains the entire universe and all things therein by the word of His power. Yet in all His greatness and glory, He was also the One who humbled Himself and took upon Himself the likeness of man to dwell with men—to be our Immanuel, God with us!


I do not know if the wise men had the privilege of knowing Psalm 95, but I am sure they would have loved it. When I think of the wise men, I can almost feel the words of our Psalter coming alive:

O come, let us sing to the Lord:
come, let us ev’ry one.
A joyful noise make to the Rock
of our salvation.


Let us before his presence come
With praise and thankful voice;
Let us sing psalms to him with grace,
And make a joyful noise


For God, a great God, and great King,
above all gods he is.
Depths of the earth are in his hand,
The strength of hills is his.


To him the spacious sea belongs,
for he the same did make;
The dry land also from his hands
its form at first did take.


O come and let us worship him,
let us bow down withal,
And on our knees before the Lord
our Maker let us fall.


Well, what did they do after falling before the Lord their Maker and worshipping Him? Verse 11 tells us that they opened their treasures and presented unto Him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. All these three items were precious commodities. As an aside, that’s the reason why I believe that the wise men only arrived after Jesus was presented at temple. If the wise men had come before that and given them these precious gifts, Mary and Joseph would have been able to use these items to buy a lamb for the offering instead just two pigeons.


What significance do these three gifts have? The first gift was gold. Gold has always been considered the most precious metal throughout history. It has remained even till this day a symbol of wealth and material value. But not only that, it has also been used as a symbol of nobility and royalty. Next was frankincense. Frankincense was a costly and beautiful smelling incense used only for the most special occasions. Lastly, myrrh. Myrrh was also a perfume but not as expensive as frankincense. Nevertheless it was valuable and it was used together with other spices for embalming and preserving dead bodies. Commentators suggest that gold signified the Royalty and Kingship of Christ, frankincense signified His deity, and myrrh, His humanity. Well, whatever the significance of these gifts may have been, these three precious items were most fitting gifts for the Lord Christ. And by presenting them to Him, they demonstrated their great love and devotion to Him.


How long did the wise men spend with Jesus at the house? Not very long I suppose. Maybe a few hours at most. In any case, they couldn’t stay long even if they wanted to. King Herod was after the child’s life. They had travelled a long time just to see the Lord Jesus for a very short while. To the world, that was foolishness. But to them, it was worth it all. Every danger they faced, every hardship they had to endure along the way, every cent they spent on their travels and on buying those precious gifts, and every moment of time expended in travelling was worth it all. Why? Because Christ is worthy of everything. He alone is worthy of all our worship and praise.


Conclusion


Scripture records nothing more of these unusual visitors from the east. But blessed be God for their example of commitment, of faith and of devotion to Christ! In the eyes of the world, they were known as wise men, probably because they were skilful and knowledgeable astronomers and scientists. But in the eyes of God, they were truly wise because they sought Christ above all things.


Dear brethren, we live in an age where we have so much more light and knowledge than these wise men, and we enjoy so much more privileges than they did. They had but a star in the east to guide them. We have the day star arisen in our hearts, and the Sun of Righteousness who has risen with healing in His wings, to instruct and guide us. Surely we have no excuse for lagging behind these wise men. In fact, we who have received so much, much more will be expected of us.


And so as we begin a new year, may the account of the wise men be an encouragement to us to seek the Lord all the more fervently and diligently. May the Lord strengthen our faith and our resolve to follow hard after Christ, and may He deepen our love for Him who is altogether lovely. Amen.


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Editor’s note: Thank God for this seasonable exhortation. Brother Linus has indicated his desire to serve the Lord in the fulltime capacity in the near future. He is currently under the care of the Session, and it is our prayer that the Lord may confirm His call both through the gracious provision of gifts for the ministry as well as the providential unfolding of His will.