The Magi

“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.”

—Matthew 2:2

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.

 

Reading

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “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.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 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. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. (Matthew 2:1–12)

Questions

How did the tradition of three wise men come into being?

What are pros and cons to the giving of gifts?

Christmas Carol

We Three Kings of Orient Are
—Rev. Henry Hopkins, Jr.

We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain—
Following yonder star.
O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain:
Gold I bring to crown him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.
O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising;
Worshiping God on high.
O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.

Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia, Alleluia,
Sounds through the earth and skies.
O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.