Present among the figurines in the nativity crèches found everywhere at Christmastime are usually three regal men bearing gifts. As we know, these kings are supposed to represent the wise men.
Unfortunately, this depiction of the wise men takes liberties with the text. Matthew never tells us how many wise men come to see the Messiah. The tradition of three wise men probably comes from the three different gifts mentioned in Matthew 2:11. Moreover, the first gospel does not say the magi are kings. This idea goes back to the church father Tertullian (around 200 a.d.) and is likely due to his reading of passages like Psalm 68:31 and Isaiah 49:7.
Who, then, are the wise men? Precise identification is difficult, but we do know they are “from the east” of Judea (Matt. 2:1). Persia, Babylon, and Arabia are all possible countries of origin, with Babylon the likeliest option since contact with its large Jewish community would have prompted the magi to come looking for a king in Jerusalem. The Greek term for “magi” (magoi) refers to a group interested in predicting the future via dream interpretation, magic, and other methods, such as astrology, which explains their interest in the star.
Apparently the star at first directs them only to Palestine, and they go to Jerusalem to find the child because the capital city is a logical first place to start searching for a newborn king. Herod calls the wise men to his court in today’s passage and then sends them out to find the baby. We know that his desire to worship the Christ is a lie (vv. 7–8, 16), but the magi are ignorant of Herod’s machinations, and they go forth in search of the child. After seeing Herod, the star leads them to where the child is living (v. 9). This prompts exceedingly great rejoicing (v. 10); seeing the star has confirmed their mission.
The wise men and their mission are highly significant. God promised Israel that their restoration and redemption after exile would be accompanied by an influx of Gentile nations into the covenant community (Isa. 11:10). Though motivated partly by superstition, the wise men are the first Gentiles to seek out Jesus, and they serve to demonstrate that God fulfills all His promises.
The Father will ensure that His Son will be glorified despite all obstacles (John 12:23). Mary has been forced to give birth to the Messiah in a less than ideal setting (Luke 2:7). Herod, who lives under the Lord’s covenant, is trying to kill Him (Matt. 2:16). Yet God has led foreigners to His promises to bow before His appointed king (vv. 1–12). Will we be like Herod and fail to glorify the Son with our lives, thereby provoking the Father to raise up others in our place?