As a kid in the church Christmas play (once I got the “orient are” part of the song straight), I much preferred to be a king with a cardboard crown than a lowly shepherd in a bathrobe, or an angel wearing a pinned up sheet with coat hanger wings.
Matthew 2 gives us a brief portrait of the these three wise men or kings. The Greek text calls them Magi, the word from which we get magic. It seems they were from Arabia or Persia and were the astrologers, the astronomers, the philosophers, the scientists, the counselors to the kings, and perhaps even kings themselves.
The Biblical facts are that these magi saw the unusual star, studied its meaning, set off on a journey to Jerusalem and conferred with King Herod. Then they went on to Bethlehem guided by the star, presented their gifts and worshipped the Christ child. And, as the story goes, they went back to their own land or nation another way.
What, then, is the significance of the three kings from the east? They certainly do not seem essential to the story of Jesus’ birth. No angel goes to them; these kings seem to turn up on their own.
But notice this: they symbolize the full significance of the birth of Jesus. Their gifts characterize the entire life and ministry of Jesus. We learn from the kings of the east three major truths: the royalty of Jesus, the universal reign of Jesus, and the universal appeal of Jesus.
Beyond this relationship of the kings of the east to King Jesus, I am intrigued with their relationship to King Herod. He was a sick-minded man, murdering most of those closest to him. He had his second wife killed, as well as her brother and her mother. Not to mention the slaughter of 45 leaders of the Jewish Sanhedrin early in his reign, and the murder of three of his sons. It was of Herod that Caesar Augustus made the joke that it was far better to be Herod’s pig than his son—the pig had a better chance of surviving!
When Herod was troubled, that troubled the whole city of Jerusalem. No one knew what might happen in his rages. And here are strangers seeking the one born king of the Jews.
Now, nobody had been born king of the Jews for six centuries; certainly Herod had not been born to the throne. The scribes were glad to focus Herod’s anger somewhere else, and Bethlehem seemed a likely target as they searched the Scriptures for the possible birthplace of the Messiah.
The scene in Matthew 2:7f had to be one of the most sacrilegious meetings ever to take place. Herod smoothly inquired exactly when they first saw the star and they never guessed his real motive. He “learned of them carefully” (RSV) about the star, told them to go to Bethlehem, and requested them to kindly send word back to him when the child was found so he could also come and worship!
As was said of General MacArthur, Herod never bowed down to anything but his mirror! When the kings left Herod, they reached Bethlehem some time after Jesus’ actual birth. In fact, when Herod sought to kill the Christ child, to make sure he caught the right child in his net he killed all boys under the age of two years in Bethlehem. The kings worshiped Jesus, gave their gifts for him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh and then went home “another way” rather than report to Herod.
The three kings disappear as quickly and totally from the Biblical scene as they came but they leave in their wake all kinds of legends. Remember “The Other Wise Man,” by Henry Van Dyke? He speaks of another wise man, a fourth man, a fourth king from the east who was delayed in his rendezvous with the other three and thus did not travel to Judea to seek the king heralded by the star. Was there perhaps another king? There was certainly another king who should have knelt with the traditional three at the manger. That king was Herod; he is the missing king at the manger.
I find only one good reason for the three kings to go to Jerusalem—to give Herod an opportunity to join them in worship of the Eternal king. Let’s not play Herod this Christmas, but rather join the Wise Men in seeking the newborn King.