What Puts the "Wise" in Wise Men?

by Pastor Keith Graham

Please read Matthew 2:1-12, and keep your Bible handy. Thank you!

Before answering the question, "what puts the wise in wise men", I am compelled to burst a Christmas bubble or two. That is, I want to correct a few common misconceptions about this account from the earliest years on earth of the incarnate Son of God, which we have just read.

Many of you are familiar with the words of the popular Christmas carol -

"We three kings of orient are
Bearing gifts, we traverse afar..."

Although tradition numbers them, designates them as as royalty, and in some cases even names them, no such details about these magi (KJV, NKJV) or "wise men" (NASB, NIV) are given here in our text, or anywhere else in the Bible. There might have been two or four of them. There might indeed have been three, or there may have been six. We simply don't know how many there were.

The Bible says nothing about these men being kings.Verse 12 indicates that all the wise men were from one nation, and therefore not kings of different nations. Had they been royal personages, it is likely that their visit to Herod would have been attended with the pomp and circumstance associated with meetings between heads of state. We read in verse 7 that Herod summoned them. The context shows that this was not in the interest of diplomacy, but in the interest of Herod's wicked scheme to destroy the newborn King of the Jews.

Moreover, it is not in keeping with the Biblical record to believe that the wise men arrived in Bethlehem and saw the Christ Child on the very night of His birth, as the shepherds did per Luke 2:8ff. Note in verse 1 of our text, it was after Jesus was born that the wise men came. In verse 11, we are told that they came into a house, not to a manger, to worship and give their gifts. Compare verse 7 from our text, and verse 16 from the same chapter in Matthew. Evidently the special, supernatural star was seen by the wise men at the time of Jesus' birth, but their arrival from an Eastern nation to Bethlehem, via Jerusalem (vs. 1), was up to two years after that birth!

These observations provide for us an excellent example of how tradition can usurp the place of Scripture. The idea that the wise men were three in number, that they were kings, and that they arrived on the night of the Savior's birth, as so many nativity scenes show, is not in itself an heretical doctrine that strikes at the vitals of the Christian faith. However, that is how error always creeps in...it seems harmless or trivial at first. What may have started out as a healthy respect and admiration for heroic Christians has become the unhealthy and blasphemous veneration of certain people called "saints" (all true Christians are saints), wherein prayer is even offered to them. The Bible teaches that prayer is rightly directed to Deity alone, and that there is one faithful high priest for Christians, one Mediator between God and men, and that's the Man Christ Jesus!

The point being made that we need to beware of the corrupting influence of extra-Biblical traditions, especially at such times at Christmas, let us now consider the even more important matter before us, which I have given in the form of a question, "what puts the wise in wise men?" That is, why were they regarded as wise?

We do well to realize that God's mighty acts of old were not "done in a corner", so to speak. It is primarily now, in the days of the Gospel, the power of God for the salvation of the world, that the LORD makes Himself known to the gentile nations. However, even under the Old Covenant, when Israel was God's peculiar people, His chosen nation, God's fame went abroad. This reminds us of the way the mighty works of God incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ, could not be kept secret, even though He often told those who had seen and benefitted from His miracles to "tell no one" (Matthew 8:6, 16:20; Luke 8:56). So which mighty, Divine acts became published abroad in the ancient gentile world?

The chief, powerful, redemptive act of God in ancient times was the Exodus, that great foreshadowing of Christ's deliverance of His people from the house of the bondage of sin. The plagues God sent upon Pharaoh and Egypt, the way He led His people by the pillar of cloud and fire, caused astonishment and wonder among the peoples of that time. Thus we should not be surprised to read the words of Deuteronomy 2:25. As Israel's forty years of wilderness wanderings come to a close, and their conquest of the promised land begins under Moses, the LORD says, "This day I will begin to put the dread and fear of you upon the nations under the whole heaven, who shall hear the report of you, and shall tremble and be in anguish because of you." How does this all relate to the visit of the wise men to the Christ Child, almost fifteen hundred years after the Exodus?

Our passage in Matthew specifically says that the wise men were from the East. This refers to lands east of the Euphrates River, in and around the "fertile crescent", Mesopotamia. This region was the cradle of postdeluvian (after the Flood) civilization. Abraham was called out of that region, out of Ur of the Chaldees. This is the location of Babylon, where the Jews were sent when they went into captivity. The wise men of King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 2 were Chaldeans, and the wise men of Matthew were probably of a similar caste. They would have been familiar through their knowledge of history with God's works associated with the Exodus, some 1,450 years before the birth of Christ, as has been said. They doubtless would have known of the miracles that occured in Babylon under the ministry of Daniel, some 600 years before the birth of Christ.

Moreover, the wise men of Matthew chapter 2 would have been familiar with early prophecies concerning this mighty God, this peculiar people, and their particular expectation of a coming Messiah. One of the earliest of these prophecies was that of Balaam. Though he proved at last to be a wicked and lost man (2 Peter 2:15, Jude 11), Balaam was given to speak oracles of God. In Numbers 24:17 we read Balaam's prophecy of the Coming One: "I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; a Star shall come out of Jacob; a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and batter the brow of Moab, and destroy all the sons of tumult." Surely, the appearance of a strange star in the wise men's western sky would motivate them to travel to Jerusalem to learn more about the mighty God of the Exodus, the God of Daniel, whose faithfulness to God had made him famous right in Babylon itself.

It is very likely that they knew specifically about Daniel's prophecy, recorded in Daniel 7:13, 14 - "I kept looking in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.

Both of those key prophetic passages speak of a scepter, of dominion, of destroying enemies, of regal glory. What we see emerging here is the reason that the wise men ask, "where is He Who has been born KING?" The reason is that they are familiar with the word of God. God's word puts the wise in wise men! That's how what has been said about the Exodus, about Balaam's prophecy, and about Daniel's prophetic and miracle working ministry relates to the wise men!

The words of another beloved Christmas carol include the phrase "Glory to the newborn king..." Indeed, the birth of the greatest King is a major theme of the Christmas story, which is not really a story, but historic fact - our faith rests on real events of history, not myths. Because the kingship of Christ is so central, we find that the prophecy of Micah (ch. 5, vs. 2), quoted in our in text, predicts not only that Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the Messiah, but His Rulership as well. We see aged Simeon in the temple (Luke 2:25ff) speaking of the rise and falling of many, on account of this Child.

One of the most glorious truths of Scripture is the one we find at 1 Corinthians 1:30 - "But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption..." Jesus Christ said "I am the way, the truth, and the life." Jesus is truth and wisdom, and the Scriptures make us wise because they tell us Who Jesus is!

What put the wise in the wise men is that they by the Word of God, they had knowledge of the promised King, and desired more knowledge.

Was it just to find Him that they came? No, but they came to worship and seek more knowledge. There is a sentiment sometimes seen on bumper strips and Christmas cards. It reads: Wise Men Still Seek Him. So it must be with us. Those magi of whom Matthew wrote had but a sketchy knowledge, derived from prophetic statements which left much untold. Yet it was enough to cause them to leave their country in a day when travel was difficult and dangerous, led only by a strange star, to find out more. That's the nature of the knowledge of God in Christ: it creates within a desire to learn more and more, to grow in grace and knowledge of the Lord. In this way, God's Word still puts the wise in modern wise men...and women...and children.

So what else is to be said about this King? The answer to that question is infinite! For today, we will consider three aspects of the kingship of the One Who born King of the Jews and indeed Who is the King of kings:

I. It conquers all
II. His subjects serve Him
II. Its everlasting glory

I. It conquers all.

We read in our text of King Herod. Herod is long gone, he has no kingdom whatsoever, now. Alexander the Great is another king of whom Daniel wrote. Daniel saw Alexander in a vision as a great he-goat coming out the west. And indeed history tells us that the empire builder from Macedonia swept eastward from that place, conquering everything in his warlike path until he reached the Indian Ocean. It is reported that when he arrived there, he wept for he saw no more lands ahead to conquer. Like Herod, Alexander is no more. But Daniel writes of the kingdom of Christ that all peoples, nations, and men of every language would serve Him; that His dominion is everlasting and will not pass away; that His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed. And this brings us to a point where God's Word gets up close and personal with you and with me. Let everyone who hears or reads these words ask himself this question:


One way or the other, every one of us shall be conquered! In Isaiah God said that to Him every knee would bow, and every tongue swear allegiance. This is repeated in the New Testament, and applied to Christ, God incarnate, the King of kings:

"...at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:10,11)

There are two ways in which this can happen...

The first way is the way of repentance and faith. There is a state of enmity between the King and you - His rightful subject - until this happens. You and I belong to God, He is our Creator. He is our Provider, Master, and Lawgiver. Yet we have failed to be thankful; we have been rebellious and despised His laws. This is called sin. By nature every man and woman born into this world is a sinner: one who hates God and is therefore a guilty, wretched creature facing a wretched but just end.

Now is the time that the King offers clemency. He offers pardon to whosoever will come to Him to admit and declare his or her offenses, asking the King to forgive. And He will forgive! The King came into this world because He loved the world and did not want it to perish by coming under His just judgment. The King of kings, the Son of God, was born of the virgin in Bethlehem in order that He might live a perfect human life. And so He did, and then offered Himself as a sacrifice for sins by dying on the cross. Yes, He was unjustly executed by wicked men, but the greater purposes of God were behind that. The penalty for the sins of all who would believe in the name of Jesus was placed on Him, the Sacrifice. He bore the sins of His people in His own body on that cross. He satisfied Divine justice and turned away Divine wrath. God was pleased to accept this sacrifice in place of the death of natural born rebels like you and like me.

When Jesus Christ rose from the dead, this was the glorious demonstation to the world that through the eternal Spirit He had offered Himself without spot to God, and that the spotless sacrifice was accepted, the debt fully paid. Repentance and faith is recognizing one's own, personal deep need of this Divine forgiveness and deliverance, and coming to the King, Jesus, believing that He will indeed forgive you and accept you, the former rebel. This great salvation is God's FREE GIFT! There is absolutely nothing you can do to earn it or be worthy of it. It can only be received by believing God at His Word. Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord, Jesus Christ, will be saved.

This is the first way that one can be conquered by the King. This is the way of His love and mercy, which conquers enemies by making them into those that love Him, have learned that He is indeed rightfully King, and who go on learning the peace and joy of His rule over all areas of their lives. To Him every knee will bow in humble adoration and every tongue confess with happy shouts of praise, OR be conquered by Him in the second of the two ways...

One day, the King's gracious and loving offer of clemency and pardon will expire. One day, He will return to earth, but not as a young Child who was visited by men who had to follow a lone star to find Him. The brightness of His return will fill the whole sky with a brightness unimaginably greater than if all the stars, the sun, and the moon shone together. In that day when the very laws of physics and nature will take a back seat to the King's revealed purpose to hold a great and awesome day of judgment, every human eye will see Him. To those who have known His saving grace, there will be not mere escape but also public acquital, vindication, and a place at His side - to judge with Him and to reign with Him forever after. Those who have rejected His rightful sovereignty and His offer of mercy, or both, will then bow their trembling knees in abject fear, and confess with howls and shrieks that He is the King! But it will be too late for them. They will be completely subject to the King indeed on that day, but only as objects of His righteous wrath. They will suffer the penalty of eternal torment in the lake of fire...eternal separation from the presence of God and all goodness...the second, everlasting death - HELL.

To benefit from this passage in Matthew 2, we must see the spiritual lessons in the visit of the wise men from the East to the Christ Child in Bethlehem. Their visit was only a foreshadowing. Their understanding was strongly motivating yet very scant, very meager. They did not grasp just how this Child King would gain His regal scepter, namely by way of death on the cross and resurrection. They could not yet fathom that it was necessary that He ascend His throne via that cruel, horribly painful, unkingly way. Even so, according to the little they knew, we see both worship and obedience in their relationship to the King. They fell down, worshiped, and gave gifts. When they were Divinely warned not to return to Herod, they obeyed and returned to their country another way. No doubt they had come to Judea by way of the most direct, usual route. The way they returned was probably more dangerous and difficult, but obedience required it. And that brings us to the second point of Christ's kingship that I want to expound on today, namely that...

II. His subjects serve.

The British monarchy was not always what it is today. Once, the kings and queens of England were real potentates. Today, the monarchy is a "figurehead". The throne passed down through family lines is a kind of national ornament. The Prime Minister, other government ministers, the Parliament, and so forth are the real bearers of power in that nation.

I fear that in the minds of many, Christ is but the figurehead of the Christian church. He is to be admired, He is to be thought of as a great example, but not as a real king whose word is law, who has the power of life and death over his subjects. NOT SO! True subjects of the living, resurrected Christ Who at this moment is at the right hand of God the Father, ruling over all things, render real service to Him. Like service to any king, serving King Jesus requires commitment, sacrifice, and perserverance.


Just like repentance must be turning away from my personal, specfic sins, and faith must be personal trust in Christ for salvation and for all things, so our obedience must be a personal obedience. Each of us must repent of specific sins such as adultery, stealing, lying - and even if we only do those things inwardly in our hearts, and not literally. Even so, each of us must render real, personal obedience to the king. The wise men gave gifts, and regular faithful giving of money to the work of His kingdom is part of obedience to King Jesus. The wise men, as has been pointed out, suffered some hardship and danger by disobeying Herod in order to obey God. And so we read in 2 Timothy 2:3,4 - "Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier..."

Jesus said, "If you love Me, keep My commandments" (John 14:15). Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, John the apostle wrote, "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome" (1 John 5:3). Many TALK of their love for God, but the Bible says love for God is demonstrated by keeping His commandments. "Keeping" God's commandments doesn't mean that we attain sinless perfection in this life, for the same inspired apostle John also wrote, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). It does mean that true Christians live lives characterized by faith, humility, love, holiness.

Our final, brief point for today is...

III. His kingdom's everlasting glory.

We read a precious promise at Revelation 3:21 - "...to him that overcomes I will grant to sit with me on my throne, as I also overcame, and sat down with My Father on His throne..."

The throne of Jesus is eternal, and the glory beyond anything this earth can offer, or that we can possibly imagine! When the gold offered by the wise men has turned to dust, when the sun shall have shined its last, King Jesus' kingdom will still be in the full strength of its eternal day! All that has been said about His Kingship, wonder of wonders, is to be shared with those who overcome! And how do they overcome?"...They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death. (Revelation 12:11)

The overcoming power is the blood of the Lamb, by which forgiveness and justification comes. The overcoming power is not any power that is merely human, but is in the word of their testimony - that they are only helpless sinners saved by grace. The overcoming power is seen in that they love not even life itself more than they love Jesus, a love they show by keeping His commandments even if it costs them their lives.

The eternal reality of the Kingship of Jesus should motivate believers to perservere. Whatever slight, momentary affliction we endure is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, namely sharing in the King's reign. This is the wisdom that only began to dawn on those men from the East. This is the eternal wisdom of God.

Revelation 22:16 - "I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things in the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning STAR."

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