For thousands of years, these men have been the source of a lot of speculation and debate, but we usually don’t think much about them except around Christmastime. They go by several names, a lot of which aren’t really supported by Scripture. We’ll cut through some of the fog surrounding them, then learn some important lessons.
First off, we don’t have any idea how many there were. The legends associated with their personal names aren’t very reliable, but the notion that there were three of them only comes from the fact that they gave three gifts. Also there’s no reason from the Bible that they were “Kings” in any sense of that word, so the song we sing around Christmas isn’t accurate either (as beautiful as it is).
And speaking of Christmas, why are they associated with it? Why do most Nativity scenes include them? When Herod sent orders to murder every male child in Bethlehem two years old and younger in hopes of destroying the new rival to his throne, he specifically told his soldiers to kill all children “in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi." This would seem to indicate that Jesus was about two years old when the Magi first met him. This would make sense, of course, because travel in those days would take some time. The Magi weren't there for the birth, and didn't show up for months or even years after it.
So why do we call them Magi? It’s a transliteration of the Greek word magoi, the same word from which we get “magician.” They’ve also been called Wise Men, which is as good a description of them as any. They were probably astrologers, and they definitely were “from the East” of Judah, but other than that we don’t know a lot about their background.
Much more important than where they came from, however, is where they were going, and what practical lessons we can learn from them. First, we see a huge contrast between them and the religious leaders among the Jews. Religious privilege is no guarantee of being part of God’s people. Nor is physical lineage. Nor is knowledge of Scripture. The religious leaders had all of this, but when King Herod asked them about where the Messiah was to be born, they gave him the correct theological answer and then went back to their studies. They might be excused for not noticing the astronomical signposts which were heralding the Savior’s arrival, but they didn’t even show any interest after the Wise Men’s arrival either. The Messiah was born and was being raised right under their noses, and there's no indication that they cared in the slightest.
But these Gentiles did. They traveled thousands of miles, over dangerous and hard-bitten terrain, for one purpose. Unlike the “religious” people, they hadn't been asleep to what God was doing in the world, and they wanted to acknowledge and take some small part in it. They'd determined that they'd never rest until they found the Center of God’s plan, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Sounds like good examples for me to follow. How’s about you?
Lord Jesus, I know you, but I want to seek more of you. I bow and worship you, and I present to you everything I have, everything I am. Whatever it takes, wake me up to what you’re doing in the world.