We Have Seen His Star in the East:
Exploring the Amazing True Story of the Wise Men and Their Journey to Worship the Messiah
By: Patrick D. Kilgo
During the Christmas season, a great deal of attention is given to the nativity scene and the quaint circumstances that supposedly surrounded it. Often people imagine a “welcoming party” of sorts gathered around the newborn Jesus, complete with Mary and Joseph, animals, shepherds and wise men. But, as it turns out, the wise men were not even at the nativity scene; only the shepherds visited the manger that night!
Indeed, considering the truth about what the wise men actually went through, they no doubt would have preferred this cozy setting. However, rather than assembling peacefully around the nativity fire, the wise men were divinely appointed to a far more difficult journey to see the Christ child. When they left their home in the east, they faced dangerous robbers, harsh elements, a blood-thirsty king, cowardly priests, usurping national leaders and an indifferent Jewish populace. The wise men provide us with the gold standard of what a true worshipper should be. Here is their story, as told in Matthew 2:
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.”
– Matthew 2:1-2
As this portion of scripture opens, we find the people of Israel utterly and completely unprepared for their newborn Messiah. To their shame, a band of Persian Gentiles from a pagan land over a thousand miles away had to break the news to them. There is no indication in the text as to how many wise men came (the supposition that there were three arose from the fact that three gifts were presented to Jesus, see Matthew 2:11). Note very carefully that the scripture does NOT say that they “followed” the star to Jerusalem – they saw it from the East and evidently they knew what it meant. This is an important detail, as we will see. Their arrival in Palestine was up to two years after the birth of Christ (cf. Matthew 2:16), which means they were not at the nativity scene as is commonly depicted.
The Identity, Purpose and Motivation of the Wise Men
Just who were these wise men? How did they have knowledge of “the King of the Jews?” How did they know to associate a star with the birth of the Christ? Why did they come to Jerusalem first?
In order to answer these questions, it is vital to understand the civilizations to the east of Israel and their relationship to the favored nation. Following the reign of King David, the Jewish nation began a rapid descent into idolatry. Solomon, David’s son, had been a good king during the earlier portion of his reign. In fact, his wisdom exceeded that of the wise men (1 Kings 4:30) and he was an accomplished scientist himself (1 Kings 4:33). Later in his life, however, Solomon fell into idolatry and wickedness.
This small ember of idolatry spread like wildfire. Soon after Solomon’s kingship, the nation was divided into two kingdoms – Judah and Israel. Within a span of sixteen generations, Israel (the northern kingdom), because of its idolatry, was taken captive by Assyria and lost its sovereignty. Judah, the southern kingdom, the nation most associated with Christ’s lineage, would, a few generations later, receive the same judgment of God for their idolatry, being captured by the Babylonians. This captivity started about 450 years before Christ’s coming.
Babylon was famous in the ancient world for its academic prowess. It boasted some of the greatest thinkers and scientists of the ancient world. When Daniel and some of the brightest Jewish children were trained in the king’s court, it was these intelligent “wise men” of Babylon that taught them. The turning point in the relationship between the wise men and the Jews came after the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, had a troubling dream:
“And in the second year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar Nebuchadnezzar dreamed dreams, wherewith his spirit was troubled, and his sleep brake from him. Then the king commanded to call the magicians, and the astrologers, and the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans, for to shew the king his dreams. So they came and stood before the king. And the king said unto them, I have dreamed a dream, and my spirit was troubled to know the dream.
Then spake the Chaldeans to the king in Syriack, O king, live for ever: tell thy servants the dream, and we will shew the interpretation. The king answered and said to the Chaldeans, The thing is gone from me: if ye will not make known unto me the dream, with the interpretation thereof, ye shall be cut in pieces, and your houses shall be made a dunghill. But if ye shew the dream, and the interpretation thereof, ye shall receive of me gifts and rewards and great honour: therefore shew me the dream, and the interpretation thereof. They answered again and said, Let the king tell his servants the dream, and we will shew the interpretation of it. The king answered and said, I know of certainty that ye would gain the time, because ye see the thing is gone from me. But if ye will not make known unto me the dream, there is but one decree for you: for ye have prepared lying and corrupt words to speak before me, till the time be changed: therefore tell me the dream, and I shall know that ye can shew me the interpretation thereof. The Chaldeans answered before the king, and said, There is not a man upon the earth that can shew the king’s matter: therefore there is no king, lord, nor ruler, that asked such things at any magician, or astrologer, or Chaldean. And it is a rare thing that the king requireth, and there is none other that can shew it before the king, except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh.”
– Daniel 2:1-11
In the history of unreasonable requests, this one from King Nebuchadnezzar is at the top of the list. Not only did he require an interpretation from the wise men, he also told them that he had forgotten the dream itself and demanded that they remember it for him! But the wise men obviously could not know the dreams of another man, much less interpret those dreams. This made the king angry:
“For this cause the king was angry and very furious, and commanded to destroy all the wise men of Babylon. And the decree went forth that the wise men should be slain; and they sought Daniel and his fellows to be slain.”
– Daniel 2:12-13
Notice carefully that Daniel was one of the wise men! He was enlisted among their ranks and lumped in with them to be executed. Then God revealed the dream and the interpretation to Daniel and he arranged to tell the dream to the king:
“Therefore Daniel went in unto Arioch, whom the king had ordained to destroy the wise men of Babylon: he went and said thus unto him; Destroy not the wise men of Babylon: bring me in before the king, and I will shew unto the king the interpretation.”
– Daniel 2:24
After telling him the dream and the interpretation, King Nebuchadnezzar became a believer in the God of Israel and made Daniel a great man in Babylon:
“Then the king Nebuchadnezzar fell upon his face, and worshipped Daniel, and commanded that they should offer an oblation and sweet odours unto him. The king answered unto Daniel, and said, Of a truth it is, that your God is a God of gods, and a Lord of kings, and a revealer of secrets, seeing thou couldest reveal this secret. Then the king made Daniel a great man, and gave him many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon, and chief of the governors over all the wise men of Babylon.”
So Daniel became “the chief of the governors over all the wise men of Babylon.” Daniel was so intelligent and wise that the king of Babylon had this to say about him and his friends:
“And in all matters of wisdom and understanding, that the king enquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and astrologers that were in all his realm.”
– Daniel 1:20
Don’t miss that important point: Daniel and his friends were TEN TIMES better than the magicians and the astrologers – the wise men! Thus, for the rest of his life, all of which was spent in captivity, Daniel had pre-eminent influence over the wisest men in the world. The verse above makes it plain that he was in command of the wise men and certainly his influence in the lives of the Babylonian wise men was profound and long-lasting.
Today, if there were a person born with wisdom and understanding ten times greater than their next closest competitor, how many generations do you think that person would be remembered? If you were a “wise man” and your boss was 10 times smarter than you and had saved you from certain death at the hands of an angry and irrational king, wouldn’t you see to it that his leadership and teachings were remembered for generations to come? Wouldn’t you feel indebted to him for saving your life? These wise men and their future generations (including the wise men in Chapter 2 of Matthew) would feel the influence of Daniel for a long time. Daniel made many important prophecies, including prophecies about the coming Messiah.
The prophecies of Daniel concerning the Messiah form the link between the “wise men from the east” in Matthew 2 and the birth of the Jesus Christ. One such prophecy that Daniel gave related to the timing of the Messiah’s reign – the so-called “seventy weeks” prophecy – is important to this story. Since Daniel, the “chief of the governors over all the wise men,” was held in such great regard among them, he no doubt expounded on this prophecy to the wise men of his day, who themselves passed it on to other wise men for many generations. The wise men knew they could expect the Jewish Messiah to show up during a fixed time period.
But how would these wise men in the east know when the Messiah was born? What sign would they have?
To understand this, one must understand the story of Balaam, the last eastern-born Gentile prophet before the Gentiles came under the subjection of the Jews (Numbers 22-24). This man is known more for having a donkey talk to him than he is for his Messianic prophecy but he nevertheless is important in this regard as well. Hundreds of years before Daniel, Balaam made a prophecy concerning the Messiah. Balaam was a prophet, a contemporary of Moses, who believed in the true God of the universe but evidently operated outside of the supervision of the nation of Israel. Balaam was contacted by Balak, king of Moabites. The Moabites were threatened by the advancement of the Israelites (Number 22:2-3). To counter the threat, Balak asked Balaam to curse Israel. But God would not allow Balaam to curse Israel. Four times Balaam consulted with God and four times Balaam returned with a “parable” for Balak that was the opposite of what the Moabite king wanted to hear. The last parable is a messianic reference that tells of the sign of the Messiah:
“I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth. And Edom shall be a possession, Seir also shall be a possession for his enemies; and Israel shall do valiantly. Out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion, and shall destroy him that remaineth of the city.”
– Numbers 24:17-19
Balaam foretold the appearing of the star that was seen by the wise men more than thirty generations later. The story of Balaam and his prophecy was well known to Daniel, the chief of the wise men. Daniel would have shared all of these passages with the wise men and they surely listened to the brilliant man that had saved their lives!
Is it any surprise, then, that the wise men of Jesus’ day, renowned for their astrology, knew exactly what the abnormal star represented? They knew the timing of the arrival of the Messiah and they knew that the star represented the birth of the King of Israel. They came looking to Jerusalem for more answers.
Traveling to Jerusalem from Babylon
Coming to see the Messiah was easy to talk about but harder to achieve! The distance between Babylon and Jerusalem was about 1600 miles. However, no road existed that even almost traveled along the straight-line distance. The common route that the Babylonians used to travel to Jerusalem took them far to the north and then south again through Syria and Galilee until they finally arrived “out of the north” (Jeremiah 1:14-15). The route the wise men took was probably the same one Ezra had taken hundreds of years earlier from Babylon in his journey to re-establish temple worship in Jerusalem. The route was known to have thieves who would ambush travelers on the road. The fear of thieves prompted Ezra to declare a fast:
“Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river of Ahava, that we might afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance.”
The word “way” in this passage means road or passageway. The fast Ezra declared was for the whole party of travelers. They knew the road ahead was dangerous and they called upon the Lord to protect them from harm. This is probably the best definition of fasting found in the Bible – to afflict oneself before the Lord to find a right way. Sometimes God would honor a fast by granting the request, and sometimes He would not grant the request. In this case, God gave them a positive answer:
“Then we departed from the river of Ahava on the twelfth day of the first month, to go unto Jerusalem: and the hand of our God was upon us, and he delivered us from the hand of the enemy, and of such as lay in wait by the way. And we came to Jerusalem, and abode there three days.”
If the specter of a hazardous journey worried Ezra, you can bet it worried the wise men too! They had to travel 1600 miles with expensive gifts through roads full of robbers and dry desert conditions. The potential for encountering bandits would probably have necessitated a sizable military escort, especially considering the valuable gifts they were carrying. Also, given the pre-eminence of Daniel’s legacy and the excitement he must have instilled concerning the Messiah, there is a good chance that all of the wise men of Christ’s day came to Jerusalem. It is likely that the traveling party contained dozens of people, maybe hundreds. With a party this size arriving in Jerusalem, it is easy to see why Herod “was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” Unfortunately, the wise men did not understand the cauldron of seedy politics, jealousy, power, rigid legalism and illicit unrighteousness they were entering in Jerusalem
“When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. “
– Matthew 2:3
The reason Herod was troubled is clear. Herod saw the Christ child as a threat to his reign. He had no intentions of relinquishing the crown to anyone. Herod had violently shown that even his own bloodlines would not come between him and the crown.
Less clear, however, is the reason that “all Jerusalem with him” was troubled. What would be troubling about the birth of Christ? Wasn’t the coming of the Messiah the seminal prophetic event of the Old Testament? Nothing should have been troubling about the event for Israel – it should have been the most exciting day in their history.
The reason that the nation was troubled at the coming of the Messiah is that they were totally apostate and blinded in unbelief (Isaiah 29:10). Because of idolatry, Israel was now a captive nation with an illegitimate king. There is no reason to think that Israel drew closer to God during the period following the captivity; in all likelihood, they had slipped further into idolatry and unbelief after the nation was taken captive. Therefore, except for a small remnant of faithful believers, the nation had so conformed to the pagan Gentile lifestyle that they were “troubled” when their own Deliverer came.
Imagine how the wise men must have felt to arrive in Jerusalem and see so much indifference, so much apathy. They probably started to doubt themselves – maybe they were wrong about the Messiah being born. Maybe the star meant something else. Surely if he had been born there would be more excitement in the air in Israel!
“And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.”
– Matthew 2:4-6
In this passage, Herod showed his ignorance of the Scriptures by asking where the Messiah should be born. He gathered the “holy men” of Israel together to determine his next course of action. The scribes and Pharisees, along with the elders, composed the Sanhedrin, a council of 72 men that governed Israel’s religious and civil affairs and served as a liaison between Rome and the Jewish people. The Jewish historian Josephus (Ant. XIV. Ix 4) reports that when Herod first took office, some 30 years earlier, he had the entire Sanhedrin massacred! You can bet that they now came to Herod’s aid whenever he called! Also, the evidence in the rest of the gospel records supports the notion that the Sanhedrin was very much allied with King Herod and feared him.
The scribes quote Micah 5:2 to support their claims that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. But compare the exact reading of this Old Testament passage with the quotation of it by the chief priests and scribes:
“But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”
- Micah 5:2
“And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.”
– Matthew 2:6
The passage in Micah says that Bethlehem was little among the thousands. The quotation of Micah by the chief priests and scribes said that Bethlehem was not the least among the princes of Judah. Why would they change the quotation? Perhaps it was to gain favor with Herod, who would not have wanted to hear that part of his territory was small and insignificant. In any case, it showed disrespect for the word of God.
“Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.”
– Matthew 2:7-8
Herod decided to forego his dealings with the Sanhedrin and rather dealt covertly (“privily”) with the wise men by themselves. But Herod’s true intentions soon were manifest. The Bible says that he inquired “diligently what time the star appeared” that is, “exactly” when it appeared. He wanted to exterminate the child, whom he considered competition. Herod placed his assassination hopes on the wise men, who earnestly wanted to find the young child to worship him. Herod asked “exactly” what time the star appeared because he wanted to know the age of the child he was seeking to kill. Herod granted them passage to find the child and sent them to Bethlehem under the auspices of a peace mission. King Herod stated that he wanted to come also to worship the child but the wise men surely saw right through Herod’s deception.
The wise men had come to Israel with such great expectation. Had not the Messiah been born? Where was the rejoicing? Instead, all the wise men had observed from an apostate Israel was ignorance, wickedness and, worst of all, cold indifference. Imagine their disappointment as they left Jerusalem having not seen the Christ child. Two years had passed; they had invested so much time and money into their quest but now it seemed as if all of this effort was for nothing. Dejected, discouraged, confused and frightened, the wise men set out for Bethlehem.
“When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.”
– Matthew 2:9-11
God is faithful! Just as the dejected wise men turned towards Bethlehem, God directed their paths elsewhere, for Jesus was not in Bethlehem at all. In fact, he had not been in Bethlehem for close to two years! The star the wise men had seen from the East supernaturally reappeared and “went before them” leading them to “where the young child was.” Remember, before they had only seen the star, now they were seeing the supernatural power of God as they followed the star to an exact location. Little wonder the Bible says that they “rejoiced with exceeding great joy” when they saw the star for it was blessed affirmation that their trip had not been in vain. All the dejection and doubt melted away, replaced by hope. And soon they were worshipping the young Christ, which was all that they ever wanted.
But where was Jesus? Where did the star lead them? The Gospel of Luke says that when Jesus was 8 days old, he was circumcised according to the law (Luke 2:21). Then, after the 33 days of Mary’s purification according to the law were completed, she and Joseph presented Jesus in the temple at Jerusalem. Thus, on the 41st day of Jesus’ life, he is seen in the temple by Simeon and Anna, who rejoiced in Israel’s consolation (Luke 2:25-38). After this visit on the 41st day, the Bible records where they went next:
“And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.”
– Luke 2:39
Thus, we see why the star had to be followed – to redirect the path of the wise men because they were going to the wrong city! Instead of taking them to Bethlehem, it led them north to Nazareth of Galilee, where Jesus had not resided in well over a year. Herod had sent them to the wrong place. God’s providence was sufficient to have Christ born in Bethlehem but gone before Herod sent men to kill Him (Matthew 2:16).
Gifts From the Wise Men
When they arrived at the house of Joseph and Mary, the wise men bestowed upon the family three gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh. These gifts were both symbolic and practical. They were symbolic because the Messiah was to hold three offices – prophet, priest and king. Each gift corresponded to an office that the Messiah would fill: gold for Christ as King, frankincense for Christ as Priest, myrrh for Christ as the suffering Prophet (myrrh was an embalming fluid, thus symbolizing His death. Israel was known for killing its prophets). No one person in the Bible ever filled all three roles except Jesus Christ. There were plenty of biblical characters that fulfilled one or even two of these offices – David (prophet and king); Melchizedek (king and priest); Samuel (prophet and priest) – but no other character besides Jesus Christ could make a claim to all three offices.
However, the gifts also addressed the practical, financial needs of the young family. The Bible is filled with more than 600 references to gold, for it was as valuable in biblical times as it is today. Having gold in those days made one rich (Genesis 13:2 and many others) and afforded material opportunities that would not have otherwise existed. King Solomon in particular was known for having ornate tastes for gold (see I Kings Chapters 6 and 7) and for having gold bestowed upon him (1 Kings 10:2). A gift of gold from the wise men to a baby king is not surprising at all.
But God, in His infinite wisdom, had another sovereign purpose in the giving of the gold. The biblical evidence is clear that Mary and Joseph were poor (compare Luke 2:23 with Leviticus 12:8). Mary and Joseph would very soon need the money! The wise men no doubt brought them warnings about the mad King Herod. Also, an angel instructed Joseph to take the young family and leave for Egypt, a trip of more than 150 miles! This would be an expensive journey, especially since they would leave in the middle of the night (verse 13) and presumably leave their belongings behind. What a divine example of God’s timing and provision!
Frankincense is also mentioned in the Bible in 19 other places. We know that it was an expensive gift because it is usually mentioned in Scripture alongside other fine materials (Leviticus 5:11, 1 Chronicles 9:29, Nehemiah 13:5). The same may be said of myrrh, a resin similar to frankincense that had the added benefit of utility as an embalming agent (see John 19:39). Practically speaking, myrrh would be of monetary value to the Egyptians, who were known even then to mummify their dead (see Genesis 37:25).
An interesting messianic passage in Isaiah mentions gold and “incense” but not myrrh.
“The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the LORD.”
Isaiah 60 is a well-known passage about Christ in His millennial reign, where the risen and ascended Christ will (in the future) again descend to the earth and reign as King for 1000 years. The risen Christ will be very much alive; hence, there will be no need for any embalming fluid (myrrh) which is left out of the passage.
As for the wise men, their duty and privilege to worship the Messiah was finished. They still had obstacles in front of them but they were overjoyed with having seen the Messiah:
“And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. -Matthew 2:12
If it was not already evident, the fact that the wise men were “warned of God” was proof that they were men of God. The Bible has many instances in which God uses dreams to communicate. In Matthew, every time a dream is used by God it is to relay a warning. In this section dreams are seen in consecutive verses (12, 13). There are three receivers of dreams in Matthew’s gospel – Joseph, the wise men and Pontius Pilate’s wife (27:19). Here the wise men are told not to report back to Herod, who they surely knew was wicked at this point. Instead they travel east and return to their own country, a journey that will take close to a year. They surely faced the same dangers on their return trip, though the enduring memory of having visited Christ no doubt lessened the burden!
And so ends the amazing story of the wise men. They are never again mentioned in the Scriptures. The biblical account of the wise men’s visit is far more wonderful than the modern “nativity version” of the story. With a little digging, and by comparing “scripture with scripture,” we learn that the Bible reveals quite a lot about these faithful, humble, and brilliant men. The wise men sacrificed more than three years of their lives to worship the Messiah for just a few moments.
We talk a lot about worship and what it should look like. These men worshipped Christ with everything they had, and they sacrificed everything they had to do so – their time, their presence, their safety, their reputation and, of course, their money. I am left asking myself this: Would I sacrifice so much time and effort just for a chance to spend a few fleeting moments worshipping the Messiah? Would I put my life in danger like they did? Would I travel 3000 robber-infested miles, deal with sleazy politicians, maniacal monarchs and desert conditions just to encounter Him? Would I make a trip at great cost to my own personal wealth, knowing I would get nothing in return? Is my faith that strong? I’m not so sure.
The wise men, above all else, are examples of true worshippers, who sought to worship “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Today, we have free access to God via Christ, and we can worship him whenever and wherever we want. May we give as much reverence and honor to the Lord Jesus Christ as the wise men did. Merry Christmas!