Jeremy Paxton, for years a high-profile BBC political presenter and a firm agnostic, once suggested that Christmas be canceled because of the evident shortage of wise men and virgins. He did concede that there probably were plenty of asses to keep the show going on.
At least Mr. Paxton is right that wise men play a role in the incarnation narrative. The Nativity story seems to be begging questions about what, in fact, it really means to be wise. Why does the birth of Christ raise questions about wisdom? How do the wise understand it and respond to it? This line of inquiry is somewhat quelled and quenched by the various traditions that have emerged over the centuries, attaching not only names to the wise men, but details and meanings that are not in the biblical text.
Matthew refers neither to "kings" nor to just three personages -- that number came into tradition because of the mention of three gifts. Given the nature of the caravan trains that traveled the thousand miles from Persia at that time, with the accompanying servants, it is reckoned that the group may have numbered as many as 300, not three. That explains why they made such an impact on their arrival in Jerusalem. It was public imagination that would continue to provide distinctive personalities to these characters. A thousand years after they lived, so-called relics of the three kings would be deposited in the golden shrine in Germany's Cologne Cathedral, via Constantinople's St. Sophia church and Milan.
In the biblical text, these men are simply described as magi -- from which our word "magic" comes. A magus was a priest, and magi were to Persia what the Levites were to Israel. They became the wise men who instructed and trained the kings of Persia. It is interesting to note that many historians argue that because of Daniel, who was appointed as the head of the magi by King Darius more than 500 years earlier, there had been a strange relationship between Persia and Israel, and it is not unlikely they were aware of Jewish expectations of a messiah through Daniel's prophecies. Given the dominant newspaper headlines of our day that present Persia, known to us as Iran, with all its present apocalyptic aspirations, it is amazing to note that from this geography came a supernaturally directed delegation to find and honor the messiah of Israel. How incredible is it that the area of Iran would have been among the first to know the good news about Jesus? There's some inspiration for intercession.
Still, the point is that you won't find Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior in a biblical concordance. In most biblical dictionaries, however, you will find discussion about the symbolic meanings of the gifts that have become part of ancient tradition. The gold represented majesty and kingship, the frankincense was used in worship and represented deity and divinity, and the myrrh was used in burial, representing the suffering of the cross that would be necessary for salvation. These gifts were seen as emblematic of who Jesus already was but also as prophetic anticipation of what was to come. Perhaps there is another nuance in the text, because in the rabbinic tradition, the Songs of Solomon are all about the joys of God's intimacy with his people, and the bridegroom is presented as perfumed with "myrrh and frankincense." These substances were already understood in the Jewish mind as uniquely representative of God's desire for relationship and closeness, an intimacy now intimated supremely in this child, Immanuel, or "God with us." In other words, they symbolized close access to the personally experienced presence of God. The bottom line is that in the history of the church, the gifts that these wise men brought became the prophetic summary of the life and death, the ministry and message, of Jesus. I am also suggesting that they combine to become a sort of invitation to us, even today, who read the story: He is available, He wants to end separation and distance in relationship with God, He comes seeking intimacy. Are we wise enough to know that?
A passing point to note is that these wise men are the evidence that the good news about Jesus was that He was the Christ of the gentiles, of those who were regarded as the foreigners to the covenant of promise, excluded from citizenship. Maybe there is something about their wisdom that we need to relate to as gentiles. God's promise to Abraham about blessing all nations is what these wise men are all about. They represent not the wisdom of men, as it turns out, but the wisdom of God that included everyone in his purposes, whether Jew or gentile.
In the Nativity story, we have wise men coming to Jesus, bringing their treasures. How fascinating, then, is the perspective of Paul in Colossians 2:3, when he describes Jesus as the one "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom." It is Isaiah (33:6) who describes wisdom as a treasure. So the wise by this world's description bring their worldly treasures to the one who is in fact the depository of all the spiritual treasures of wisdom.
Notably, the single most dominant description of Jesus in his formative years and in his early ministry is that He is "wise." "And the child grew and became strong; He was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on Him . And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man" (Luke 2: 40, 52). When Jesus bursts onto the public scene, the folks in His hometown ask, "Where did this man get this wisdom?" (Matthew 13:54) Years later, Paul gives one of the best descriptions of Jesus to the Corinthians, who prided themselves on their intellectual acumen: "Christ Jesus has become for us wisdom from God" (1 Corinthians 1:30).
Corinthians prized the intellect. Not surprisingly, their city was an intellectual center, and because it was a bridge between the East and the West, teachers of wisdom would travel the trade routes that met at Corinth. It is most likely that Paul was seen as one of these traveling wise men, and this explains why the first four chapters of his letter mention "wisdom" more than 20 times as he tries to explain that the Gospel is not in fact what they would consider wisdom in an accepted sense. Teachers like him were not sophists in the accepted sense, and consequently, the Corinthians were going to have to revise their understanding of what constitutes wisdom in the accepted sense.
Paul gets right to the point. The unaided intellect cannot know God, cannot understand the cross and cannot accept the Gospel. The Jews, who love signs, and the Greeks, who love speculation, just didn't get it. The story of the incarnation could only be regarded by them as foolishness. No wise man would ever be found in the vicinity of this event. To the Jew, convinced of the power presentation of the messiah, there was no way that such meekness and lowliness could be the context for his coming. For the Greek, who believed that the most prominent characteristic of God was "apatheia" (the word from which we get our word "apathy") it was impossible for God to feel anything. The argument was that if God could feel something, then he must have been moved to do so by someone, which means that he had been influenced by someone greater than himself. Thus, a god who would come in any form to suffer was untenable and a contradiction in terms.
It was Plutarch, the Greek historian and essayist, who argued that it was an affront to divinity to think God could be engaged in human affairs. Such an idea was the epitome of folly. So you can understand that the very idea of incarnation was repulsive to the Greek mind. Celsus was a writer in the second century who viciously attacked Christians and represents this Greek mindset: "God is good and beautiful and happy and is in that which is most beautiful and best. If then he descends to men, it involves change for him, and change from good to bad, and beautiful to ugly, from happiness to unhappiness, from what is best to what is worst."
One commentator has put it succinctly: "To the thinking Greek, the incarnation is a total impossibility." The wisdom of the world, whether Jew or Greek, could not comprehend the incarnation as anything but folly. Nothing could have less to do with wisdom than this idea. If this is what folly is, you can understand Paul's words to the Corinthians when he says: "If anyone thinks he is wise in this age, let him become a fool. The wisdom of this world is folly with God" (1 Corinthians 3:18-19).
In the light of all this, what makes a man wise? What does wisdom consist of? Can we come to Christ this Christmas as wise men? Paul identifies three constituent elements of this wisdom:
Righteousness: This is a right relationship with God because we have accepted who Jesus really is and what Jesus has done for us by taking our place on the cross and bearing the sin that we should have been condemned to death for.
Sanctification: This is the experience of living a consecrated life, utterly dedicated to follow Christ, totally set apart for his purposes alone.
Redemption: This is referring to the experience of a life delivered from the penalty and power of sin.
You could argue that Scripture is all about what it takes to be wise. Paul said to Timothy, "The scriptures are able to make you wise unto salvation." How much more so the Scriptures that actually record what Jesus said wisdom was about. Did He not do that in the simplest and shortest of stories, like the parable of the two men who built their houses on very different foundations? The wise guy, the one who built on rock, is the man who simply "hears these words of mine and puts them into practice."
I think the wise men of the incarnation narrative are the trailblazers for this unquestioning obedience to the dictates of the Word and the Spirit.
"Where is the one" (Matthew 2:2): They unashamedly inquired about Jesus, determined to find out the truth about Him for themselves. Wisdom.
"The star they had seen in the east went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was they were overjoyed" (Matthew 2:9): They pursued undeterred till they found him. Wisdom.
"They entered the house " (Matthew 2:11): They took the necessary steps to come into the geography of God's kingdom, to come into the gravitational pull of Christ, on bended knee. The search was ended by their submission. Wisdom.
"They opened their treasures and presented him with gifts they worshipped him ." (Matthew 2:11): The revelation of Christ sprung the latch of their hearts, and they opened up their treasures, yes, but also themselves, to Jesus. Wisdom.
"They returned by another route " (Matthew 2:12): Having found Christ, it was impossible to leave the same way they had come. It was the beginning of a new journey, a new route. Wisdom.
The root of the wise men's joy was their obedience to follow where God would lead them, and thus, they were arguably the representative forerunners of the wise men that Jesus spoke about in his parable. Hopefully, they also are our forerunners as we come celebrating this birth, regarded by a watching world as fools but by Jesus as the truly wise. Wise not because we are wise in our own eyes, but because we have at last discovered that indeed in Christ himself are the treasures of wisdom. Celebrating this Christmas morning, we can contradict Jeremy Paxton: There are more than enough wise ones to celebrate Christmas.
A poem I wrote some years ago captures something of this. The idea is that the wise men represent Everyman, and Everyman is the sum of the journey from Eden to the present. It is called "The journey of a wise (every) man":
I fell for fork-tongued hissing wiles,
Believing that the tree would make me wise.
I sold my soul for what beguiles,
That damned me darkly deep to folly's guise.
Thus east of Eden, banished, I
Would scan for pin-prick light the pit-bull black,
And curse the eyeless, deaf, mute sky
That mocked remorseful heart-pleas to go back.
Until that "just another" night,
When not just any natal star white-burned
And bade me follow its pure light.
To westward, homeward my steps turned.
I knew where this star-path would wend.
Was that not the Euphrates that we crossed?
Where could this mystery journey end,
But in the glades of paradise once lost?
But where it halted, where it stayed,
I tell you that no seer or sage could know.
A child within a manger laid?
Is this where wisdom would have bid me go?
In Bethlehem, not Eden's joy,
But heaven's pristine glory come to earth;
The second Adam as a boy,
My paradise regained by this new birth.
They called me wise who saw me come,
But I was altogether foolish, dim.
Before I worshipped, I was dumb,
I had no wisdom when I first found him.
I wide-eyed waited through the years.
I followed his signs now, and not a star.
Until the day when I once more wept tears,
And watched a Roman gibbet from afar.
My mind raced back through centuries,
To Eden's shame and Satan's lies.
I fell again upon my knees.
At last there was a tree to make me wise.
-- Christmas 1999
Stuart McAlpine is a pastor at Christ Our Shepherd Church in Washington, D.C.