The meaning of Christmas is often defined by a myriad of symbols from gifts and Christmas trees to angels and lights. While many criticize the commercialization of the Christian holiday, even worse is the distortion of facts surrounding the birth of Jesus.
The facts of his birth, like the manmade traditions associated with Christmas, has deviated from the truth. Yet, if we look to the Scriptures, we find that the historical account of his first coming is the same as it has always been. The Word never changed, only man’s interpretation.
Inherent in the biblical story are the wise men, usually referred to as “the three wise men.” Being told by the angel Gabriel that Jesus, the anticipated Messiah, had been born, the men began their journey, bringing with them gifts for the newborn king. Christians honor this tradition each year by giving gifts to follow the example of the wise men, and more importantly, to honor God’s gift to the world, his Son, Jesus.
According to Scripture, King Herod, hearing that Jesus had been born became “disturbed and troubled.” It continues, “He summoned the wise men and told them to let him know when they found Jesus so he may come and worship him.” (Matthew 2:8).
Historically the men were from an ancient kingdom that we now call Northern Iran. They were called Magi. Their visit was one of the first signs revealing that Jesus came for all the world, not just for a few. Why were they called the “wise men?” The Amplified Bible equates the phrase “wise men” with “astrologers.” They were known for studying the stars, practicing magic and interpreting dreams.
“This pulls at the traditional understanding that Christians have that they shouldn’t subscribe to astrology, but there has got to be some relationship,” Rev. Andrew Robinson-Gaither, former pastor of Faith United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, said in a 2003 interview. “The resurrection experience that we call Easter is based on when the full moon comes. That’s why it falls sometimes in late March and sometimes in early April.”
The wise men have often been portrayed as kneeling beside the manger, dressed in fine Persian robes. They were kings bringing gifts to another king. People assume that Jesus was poor because he was born in a manger. But that’s because all the hotels were filled that night.
The men brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. According to Jewish tradition, the gifts that the men brought were put into a trust fund so Jesus would have wealth later.
Another assumption is that the men came to see Jesus when he was a newborn baby. But Matthew 2:16 indicates that was not the case:
“Then Herod, when he realized that he had been misled by the wise men, was furiously enraged, and he sent and put to death all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that territory who were two years old or under, reckoning according to the date which he had investigated diligently and learned exactly from the wise men.”
Why would he order the boys as old as two years old to be killed if Jesus was just born? Bible scholars place Jesus at around two years old when Herod’s order was given. We see nativity scenes of shepherds and the wise men visiting the baby Jesus in a manger. But he was actually a toddler by the time the wise men arrived.
Another clue is found in Matthew 2:11, which reads: “And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother and they fell down and worshipped Him.” Where did the house come from? What happened to the manger? It is another clue that some time had passed between Jesus’ birth and the time the wise men actually found him.
Finally there is the misconception that there were three wise men. We know there was more than one, but the Scripture doesn’t say how many. People assume it was three men because they brought three types of gifts.
Christmas stories bring us comfort and joy. But we can only know the truth when we read the book. Merry Christmas.
This article was revised and reprinted from Family Health Guide (Nov/Dec 2003).