Have you ever wondered about the wise men?
I mean, why are they part of the story? And what were they actually? Three wise men, three kings, three magi? Which is it? And when did they come? It's common to see the wise men as part of the traditional nativity scene, but didn't they later once Jesus was way older?
The three wise men are a thing of legend, which can makes it hard to pinpoint their identity and place in Jesus' birth narrative. But there is hope. In the spirit of the three, here's three things you should now about the wise men, and make sure you read to the end, because you're not going to want to miss number three.
1. The Three Wise Men Were Magi
The identity of the three wise men is the biggest place of confusion for most people. I'm not going to bother to research why we have such confusion about what the wise men were. A lot of it probably comes down to the song and the King James Bible. If you know the history, fill free to tell us in the comments.
What we can know is what the text of Matthew says, and there's no debate. The foreign visitors who came seeking a king born in Jerusalem were magi. Magi were ancient astrologers who interpreted the signs in the sky. They would often advise kings using the insights they gleaned from their observations. When we look at the story in Matthew, we see exactly this. Having saw a sign in the sky, the magi went to Jerusalem to welcome a newly born king of the Jews.
So the three wise men were actually magi. I suppose you could make a case for wise men reflecting the type of work that magi did, but it's better to stick with the magi.
2. The Three Wise Men Might Not Have Visited Jesus Until He Was Two Years Old
We've all seen the traditional nativity scenes with Mary and Joseph, baby Jesus in a manger, some barnyard animals, an angel, a shepherd boy, and three wise men in their crowns (kings?). But does this scene accurately depict the birth of Jesus?
Of course, we can't know for sure, but we can take a closer look at Matthew 2. The trick is knowning where to look. The clue is in an editorial note at the end of the story. In this note, Matthew says that King Herod had all the boys two and under in the region around Bethlehem killed once he realized the magi had left him without directions to the baby.
Why did Herod target all the baby boys two and under? To answer this we must again be careful readers. When Herod learns of the magi in town, he summons them. In this meeting he inquired about when they first noticed the star in the sky.
Based on this information, we can infer that the star must have appeared roughly two years prior. We can't be certain, but it's pretty clear that the magi didn't come night if Jesus' birth.
A safe estimation is to say they came sometimes within his first two years of life.
3. The Three Wise Men Story Changes the World
When we get down to it, why does the three wise men story matter? What bearing does the three wise men have on everyday, 21st century life?
This is an important question, and the answer might surprise you.
The story of the three wise men changes the world.
I know that might sound wild, but bear with me for a moment. What can easily be lost in the noise of the story of Christmas is one simple fact. Jesus coming was supposed to be a Jewish thing, so why is it now just a Christian thing?
This answer lies in the story if the three wise men. Their presence in the birth narrative of Jesus remarks an important transition, when God shifts his plan from rescuing Israel, to rescuing the whole world.
The plan was always to eventually make this shift, and the magi visit marks the moment when the glory of God is revealed to the nations and God's anointed one is declared king of the world.
To make things plain, for those of use who don't have Jewish descent, the magi story marks the moment when we can call Jesus king.
The magi point to God's plan of rescue and redemption going global, and that's good news!
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