"We three kings of Orient are..." How often will we hear those words as we walk through the stores this Christmas! Now I hate to be a Grinch but, like a lot of our holiday traditions, this song mixes fact with fiction. For a start, the three kings weren’t kings. And really, we don’t even know if there were three of them! Let’s see if we can sort some of this out. It will help if you read chapter 2 of Matthew.
The men who came to visit the young Jesus were Magi. Some Bibles simply call them "wise men." In those days, the Magi came from a powerful empire to the east known as Parthia. They played a big role in choosing the kings who ruled their land. Also, they had a lot to do with the religious life of their people.
This is not the first time we come across Magi in Scripture. Back in the Old Testament, we find that Rab-Mag was the head of the Magi (Jeremiah 39:3,13), and so was Daniel (l 4:9 and 5:11).*
God sent the Magi a sign in the form of a star. We call this the Star of Bethlehem, but the Bible calls it "his star," that is, the Star of Jesus.
They journeyed to the city of Jerusalem where they met up with King Herod. The Magi asked Herod a very bold question: "Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?" What a slap in Herod’s face! They just asked the king of the Jews about the birth of the King of the Jews!
Next, the Magi followed the star to Bethlehem. This could not have been something natural, like a comet, an alignment of planets, or a supernova. Notice that the star appeared first in the east. But after they get to Jerusalem in the west, the star pops up again, moves south, and stands over Bethlehem. This does not fit anything natural. It must have been a special sign from God.
So why did God lead these Parthian men to Jesus? By involving the powerful Magi, God showed everyone that this was serious business. Herod might be an earthly king of the Jews, but Jesus was greater. Also, it showed that Jesus came for the whole world, and not the Jews alone.
When the Magi saw the young Jesus, they worshiped Him. They presented Him with gifts fit for a king. Perhaps people got the idea of three "wise men" because three gifts are mentioned. But we do not know how many Magi there were. Also, pictures often show them visiting a newborn baby. But Jesus could have been as much as two years old. This is why Herod wanted to kill all the children up to the age of two who lived in and around Bethlehem.
Yes, our traditional holidays remind us of important events in history. But everything we know about the birth of our Lord Jesus should not come from popular songs and stories. We should go back to the Bible to see what really happened.
* Some Bibles incorrectly use the word "magician" in these verses.