What the Wise Men teach us
As I write this it is the feast of the Epiphany, the coming of the Wise Men to visit Jesus, one of the most beautiful and meaningful feasts in the calendar of the Church. The word epiphany means "manifestation" or "showing forth". The reason is that this was the showing forth of Christ to the Gentiles.
Who were these Wise Men? Almost certainly not kings as they are often portrayed, they were more likely Persian priests. Not all priests are wise men, but these were. They were probably men skilled in philosophy, medicine and especially astrology – the science of the stars. In those ancient days, people believed that their destiny was very much influenced by the stars (as some people still do). But the Magi would appear to have been godly men. They had probably heard of a Messiah, who was to come because the prophet Daniel, the prophet, had been a prisoner in their part of the world.
So the Magi were always studying the stars and trying to interpret their movements. One night they noticed a particularly brilliant star, which they had never seen before. They believed this star was a sign that the Messiah had come and to go and pay homage. They set out on a long, long journey and – as far as we can judge – the star moved before them and led them to Jerusalem. It then disappeared and they were lost. So they did the sensible thing. They asked where the city hall was and who the king was.
There they came upon Herod. Born in 73 BC, the son of an idumean named Antipater and an Arab princess, he was appointed king of Judea, a position which he held at the time of the birth of Christ. He was not fully Jewish and would not have been accepted by the Jews. He was a very able man but also a cruel one. Anyone who stood up to him was killed. He was also jealous and of a suspicious nature. He had one of his wives, Miriam, murdered because he thought she was plotting against him. He also had three of his sons killed. So, when these three Wise Men arrived with the news that a new king had been born, Herod was immediately worried.
He knew the Jewish belief that a new King would come, so he sent for the Jewish religious leaders and asked them where the new King was to be born. They quoted for him the prophecy of Micah that the Saviour would be born in Bethlehem. So, Herod called the Magi again and expressed interest and pleasure at the birth of a new King. He told them to go to Bethlehem and find the King and then return to him with news, so that he could go and pay homage also. The Wise Men seem to have believed him and did not suspect his real motives. The star appeared again and led them to Bethlehem – only six miles from Jerusalem. The Gospel tells us that "falling down they adored him."
There is a great lesson for us in this. They would naturally have expected to find the new king in a palace, surrounded by servants and wealth. But they find a poor little babe with a humble mother. What is the lesson? They take God as they find Him. God sometimes comes to us in ways that we do not expect – and we do not recognize Him.
They gave Him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. There is great significance in these gifts. Gold is a gift for a king; incense of a priest and myrrh was the sign of suffering. Jesus is a King. He is also a priest and He is the Suffering Servant, who died for us on the Cross. The Magi must have been inspired on their choice of gifts.
When they had paid their respects to the Saviour, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod but to make for home by a different route. So Herod did not know exactly where the dangerous Child was but he was determined to get rid of Him. Since he did not know who this Child was, he ordered that all boy babies of two years and under were to be slain, the Massacre of the Holy Innocents. It is estimated that between 20 and 30 baby boys were slain in the small city of Bethlehem. (In Canada, we murder some 100,000 babies every year – so Herod isn't really dead.)
And so ends the story of the Wise Men. What do they teach us? They were determined to find the Saviour and they did not allow anything – personal inconvenience or political correctness – to stop them.