It’s a story most people who are not even familiar with the Bible have heard at one time or another: wise men, led by the star to where the baby Jesus was, came to bow before Him, presenting their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
But what I’m about to point out will render null and void many Christmas cards and Nativity sets. The wise men weren’t present at the manger. They came a bit later. In fact, the Bible doesn’t tell us their names or specify how many there were, although they offered three gifts.
Also, the Bible doesn’t say they were kings. But they were important men.
The real focus of the story is true and false worshipers. Interestingly, those who should have known the most about worship, the chief priests, scribes and even King Herod himself, knew the least. And those who should have known the least about worship, pagan wise men from the East, knew the most.
We find their story in Matthew’s Gospel: “Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.’ . . . Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. . . .
“After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (2:1–2, 7, 9–11 NLT).
Who Were These Men?
This took place not at the manger, but some time later, possibly two years later, in the house where Jesus already was a young child.
Scripture and history help us understand who these men were. The term “wise men” comes from the word “magi,” the root word for “magician” or “magic.” Skilled in astronomy, astrology, and various occult practices, including sorcery, these men were highly revered and respected in their culture. And they were especially noted for their ability to interpret dreams.
The Old Testament book of Daniel tells us that when King Nebuchadnezzar had some disturbing dreams, he called in the soothsayers and astrologers (see Daniel 2:1–3). They had an exalted position in a pagan kingdom, specifically Babylon and the Medo-Persian Empire. Essentially they would have been on the king’s payroll to hopefully interpret his dreams or give him direction.
There’s a great resurgence of belief today in astrology and the occult. But it’s not innocent; it’s dangerous. When people dabble with these things, they’re playing with fire. It’s a doorway into darkness, and the Bible clearly forbids such things (see Deuteronomy 18:10–14).
Wise men, then, were people of tremendous importance because of their combined knowledge of science, mathematics, history, and the occult. Their religious and political influence continued to grow until they became the most prominent and powerful group of advisers in the Medo-Persian and Babylonian empires.
Yet these wise men, who clearly dabbled in the occult and were schooled not only in astronomy but also in astrology, didn’t find the answers they were looking for in life. We might say they were true seekers, because God revealed Himself to them in a special way.
‘You Will Seek Me and Find Me’
Speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, God said, “And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13 NLT). God will come to each person on a level he or she can understand.
After all, what did these wise men relate to? They related to the stars, looking to them to chart their course. So God brought a star to lead them to the real Messiah.
When they reached Jerusalem, they said, “We have come to worship him.” Here were men of great power and importance arriving from a distant land and saying, in effect, “We want to worship God. We’re ready to bow down.”
Another word the Bible uses for worship could be translated “to kiss toward,” which speaks of affection.
When we put these two concepts together, we get a well-rounded idea of what worship should be. On one hand, worship is reverent, standing in awe of a holy and flawless God. On the other hand, it’s recognizing that this holy and flawless God sent His Son to die on the cross for us. He made a new and living way for us to know Him in a personal way and enter into friendship with Him.
Sometimes, though, we can go too far either way. For example, there are people who say, “I’m afraid of God. If I slip up, he’s going to nail me.” Then there are others who are almost casual, even flippant, about their worship.
We need to find the right balance between reverencing a holy God and realizing that we can have a close, affectionate, personal relationship with Him. That is what worship should be.
Jesus made it clear there is a right and a wrong way to worship. The Pharisees, who should have been experts at worship, weren’t even close. He told them, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God’” (Matthew 15:7–9 NLT).
We have a choice: we can be true worshipers or false worshipers. The wise men were true worshipers. And worship affects every aspect of our lives. True worship isn’t merely the singing of songs; it is living our lives in a way that pleases God. Our singing and prayers are the outward manifestations of a life lived daily for the glory of God.
Gods of our own making ultimately will disappoint us. But the true God, the living God, the only God, the God of the Bible, is the one to worship. He is the one to bow down to.
Used with permission from Greg Laurie.