“Where is the one who has been born
king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east
and have come to worship him.”
No single tradition is more widely adhered to during the Christmas season than that of giving gifts. This tradition is firmly rooted in the biblical account of the Magi who saw a star in the east and came to worship Jesus. “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh” (Matthew 2:11).
Despite its biblical basis, gift giving has been vigorously challenged by followers of Herbert W. Armstrong as well as by organizations such as the Watchtower Society. Their basic argument is that Magi means “astrologers” and that God would never lead His people to give gifts at Christmas on the basis of astrology.
In response it should first be noted that even if the Magi did practice astrology, the Bible makes it crystal clear that the wise men were led by God both by means of the star, which guided them to Christ (Matthew 2:9), and by means of the warning that kept them from returning to Herod (Matthew 2:12). Furthermore, contrary to the practice of astrology, which involves divination and attempts to predict the future apart from God, the star the Magi followed was not used to foretell the future, but to forth tell the future. In other words, the star of Bethlehem did not prophesy the birth of Christ; it pronounced the birth of Christ.
Finally, it is interesting to note that, contrary to popular tradition, the Magi were not necessarily three kings. While Matthew’s gospel narrative does teach that wise men visited Jesus and His parents shortly after His birth, Matthew never specifies how many wise men there were. The traditional belief that there were three wise men originated from the fact that they brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11). Consequently, while the biblical account is consistent with the possibility of three wise men, there is no strong biblical or extra-biblical evidence in support of this numbering. Neither is there any biblical support for the naming of the Magi. Tradition beginning sometime in the sixth century named the wise men Melkon (or Melchior), Balthazar, and Gaspar. As with the numbering of the Magi, these names should be attributed to folklore and tradition rather than to historical fact.
On the one hand, the exchanging of gifts can be dangerous in that gift giving has a powerful potential for promoting crass materialism. On the other, the giving of gifts reinforces the reality that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). This Christmas season, may we be ever more mindful that the greatest gift we can give to another human being is the Christ Child. When He enters the human heart, everlasting life becomes a present reality.