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"Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ"
-Titus 2:13
Your Roadmap to Eternity
with Gary Stearman & Billy Crone

There Were More than Three Kings

by: Gary Stearman on December 25, 2022

At Christmas time, homes across the land are decorated with various memorial backdrops – scenes that commemorate the birth of Christ. The Bethlehem star, various statues, animals, buildings and even palm and cedar trees bring to mind the virgin birth of Christ. This, the humble beginning of history’s most important man annually reminds the world that the most significant event in history was not measured by wealth but by God’s love. Mary, Joseph, the Christ Child, various animals and perhaps a few shepherds are present to witness the event. But also present in most of these images are three striking characters who followed the Star that brought them from the East. Manger scenes often show them, either mounted on camels, or standing before the Child with their camels nearby.

Among Christians in America, it is common to recall their long trip from the East in a hymn for the season, written in 1857 by John Henry Hopkins:

“We three kings of Orient are

“Bearing gifts we traverse afar

“Field and fountain, moor and mountain

“Following yonder star …”

Sometimes, they are referred to as the “three wise men.” Dressed in kingly robes, dyed in royal tints and trimmed with gold and jewels, they wear turbans and carry three small treasure boxes filled, respectively, with gold, frankincense and myrrh. On their camels, they have traveled the trade routes through the fertile crescent, from the land of the Chaldeans, to their final arrival in Jerusalem. There, they hold private council with King Herod, inquiring about the birth of a special child who was, they said, the King of the Jews. They have been guided by an astronomical phenomenon – a star that is mysteriously able to direct them southward to a specific location in Bethlehem.

There, they find the baby Jesus in a humble stable, lying in a cattle feed trough and surrounded by cows, sheep and chickens. They present their gifts to Him, then ride into obscurity, taking a circuitous route to avoid Herod’s troops, as instructed by God.

This is the story, told over and over again, that is deeply ingrained into the lore of the faithful. To believers and unbelievers alike, it has become part of our culture. There is no more expressive picture of love, family and hope than this scene of a humble birth that will save the world. How amazing that the Great Shepherd chose to be born among shepherds in the place where David once led his sheep.

Bethlehem, Scene One

This, the manger scene, has long been venerated in churches around the world. Unfortunately, there are several things wrong with it.

First, the wise men wouldn’t have worn royal robes of purple, scarlet, blue and gold thread. Nor would they have worn turbans. Furthermore, they would never have ridden camels. There were certainly more than three of them, possibly as many as a hundred … or even more! History also tells us that they would have been escorted by a retinue of soldiers, cavalry, food, water, supplies and sleeping facilities. Since they were honoring a king, their gifts would have been delivered as part of a far larger tribute. Their wealth was legendary.

And finally, they didn’t visit the baby Jesus as He lay in the manger.

That’s right. The long-cherished manger scene should never feature the three wise men. The story of Christ’s birth, given to us in the Gospel of Luke, tells of a Roman census that required Jews to register at the place of their tribal origin. He writes that Joseph was of the family and genealogy of the House of David and was, therefore, required to register at Bethlehem, rather than his current residence at Nazareth. 

His wife Mary was pregnant, and very near the hour of delivery. Who does not know this story?  Her child was delivered in a stable, wrapped in cloth that might have been the very same material used by shepherds in the process of delivering and inspecting lambs in the fields nearby. This took place in the fall of the year. Prophetic studies place it at Rosh HaShanah, called by the Jews, “The Birthday of the World.”

“8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. 15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. 16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger” (Luke 2:8-16).

On this blessed night, heaven touched Earth. Accompanied by choirs of angels, the Great Shepherd, the Lamb of God, was born in the place where lambs for the Temple sacrifice were bred and delivered. The shepherds shared their experience with Mary and Joseph, then returned to their fields.

On the eighth day following His birth, Jesus was circumcised. On the fortieth day after His birth, they traveled to Jerusalem, where Mary offered the sin price of two turtledoves, required by Jewish Law. And there, Simeon and Anna prophesied over Jesus, declaring Him to be Messiah and Redeemer. Then, they continued their journey northward:

“39 And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth. 40 And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him” (Luke 2:39,40).

The experience of Christ’s birth is now complete. He and His family return to Joseph’s hometown of Nazareth. Jesus begins to grow up – a toddler – and a child of surpassing character.

Note that through this entire experience, the mythical “three wise men” are nowhere to be found, nor is there the slightest mention of the star which will guide them to Bethlehem! The “manger scene” has been set, completed, and disassembled. But where are those wise men?

The Persian Connection

They are on their way. Their appointment with destiny began when they detected something extraordinary in the heavens, probably around the time of His birth. The knew the asterisms of the stars, and that the constellations foretold a coming Redeemer. When they saw “his star in the east,” they came to worship Him and pay tribute to a King.

In fact, they lived in the East, in Mesopotamia. History describes them as a hereditary, untouchable priesthood. The term “wise men” in Matthew 2:1, is translated from the Greek Magoi [μαγοι], said to derive from a Persian proper noun, which was the name of their caste. In English, we call them the Magi, a name which rightly carries much mystical and metaphysical significance. (Their name, by the way, has nothing to do with magic, or the office of magician, a later corruption of their true titles.)

They were astronomers, known to watch the heavens for signs, as the planets and stars moved along the plane of the ecliptic. They watched planetary motions. The movements of the Sun and Moon through specific regions in the heavens, were to them an unfolding story, which they followed with great zeal. 

The Magi were invested with great political power throughout a declining succession of powers … Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek and Parthian. Their home lay in the territory of today’s Iran.

This succession of empires was known for its passionate worship of Baal and Astarte, and their accompanying panoply of capricious gods and fertility goddesses. In spite of this corrupt religious environment, the Magi would neither acknowledge nor allow the worship of personal gods. They absolutely forbade the veneration of any sort of image.

From their earliest beginnings in the 7th century B.C., they were known to have centered their worship about an altar, upon which burned some sort of “eternal flame.” They seem to have based their spiritual concepts upon a worship of the elements – earth, air, fire and water – of which fire was the supreme concept. They apparently envisioned God as a fiery reality, and the heavenly host of stars and planets as an extension of this concept.

The Magi were said to possess an ethereal quality, exuding an atmosphere of great spiritual knowledge and power. Their mystical spirituality carried overtones of the occult … of hidden knowledge.

Even their traditional costume emanated an air of spiritual authority. They wore conical hats of pure white, with side flaps that covered the sides of their heads, which were apparently tied beneath their chins. Their robes were also of pure white.

They carried bundles of thin rods (barsoms), which were used for divining, forecasting and prophesying. Apparently, these were dropped onto a mat, perhaps in the manner of today’s childhood game of pick-up sticks. By reading the patterns they displayed, the Magi were reportedly able to reveal hidden knowledge.

By the mid-6th century B.C., in the reign of Cyrus the Great, they began to be associated with Zoroastrian faith, honoring a single, self-created “god of light,” whom they addressed as Ahura Mazda. They were monotheistic, hereditary priests, regarded as mediators between God and man. Upon their flaming altars, they made blood sacrifices to Him. 

Thanks to a historical encounter with the Jews in captivity, the Magi became extremely close to ancient Jewish worship and prophecy. At the close of the Babylonian exile, the prophet Daniel lived among them as a respected spiritual authority. 

His last recorded vision took place in the third year of the reign of Cyrus (536 B.C.) and dealt with the angelic battle between Michael and the dark powers of the heavens. Daniel’s prophecy ranged into the future of the Ptolemies, Seleucids, Antiochus IV, Epiphanes, the Antichrist and the Tribulation. 

Some time later, Daniel died. He was probably in his mid-to-late eighties. With great ceremony, he was buried in the territory of ancient Persia. Soon, the captivity ended and the Jews returned to Israel. But Daniel’s work and spiritual influence intersected the lives of the Magi with powerful historical effects. Through him, they knew of the coming Messiah. The ninth chapter of his prophecy features both Christ and antichrist.

By the beginning of the 4th century B.C., the system of worship observed by the Magi was heavily influenced by Judaism. Their monotheism had most probably begun to incorporate the teaching of Israel’s prophets, laying the groundwork for their later appearance in Israel to herald the coming of the King. At the beginning of the 3rd century B.C., Magian Zoroastrianism was the state religion of Persia. Down through the days of Seleucid rule, to the time of Christ, they retained their power.

We must add a final note to the description of the Magi. Their upper council, called the Megistanes, carried enormous political and religious power. They were the kingmakers of the ancient world. When they met to declare God’s will to the authorities of the state, their decision was considered to be binding.

They combined wealth, power and a mystical connection to the God of the universe that no one else could touch. With all this in mind, consider the effect they must have had when they entered Jerusalem. 

When they traveled, they were always regally mounted upon the most excellent horses, outfitted with the finest accessories. In fact, they bred the steeds that became the forerunners of today’s magnificent Arabians. They are said to have despised camels. As mentioned earlier, the Magi traveled with an armed cavalry, attendants, cooks, soldiers, wagons and servants. 

The delegates of the Megistanes would have included many Magi (some have estimated over a hundred men), plus all those soldiers and servants. Their company could have numbered in the hundreds, and would have presented one of the most imposing spectacles in the ancient world. 

A Pageant in Jerusalem

Their pure white garments and powerful horses presented a display of pomp and majesty that electrified ancient Jerusalem. All this is beautifully captured in the words of Matthew:

“1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, 2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. 3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. 5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, 6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. 7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared” (Matthew 2:1-7).

The above incident took place over a year after the birth of Jesus, most probably in the month of December. Several authors have noted that the year 2 B.C. witnessed a series of astronomical phenomena, including conjunctions of the “King Planet,” Jupiter, the “King Star,” Regulus and the planets Venus and Saturn. It is not our purpose here to detail these events, but simply to say that stars, planets and constellations aligned during this period in a way that told the Magi the long-awaited King had been born.

“All Jerusalem,” was distressed by the appearance of the Magi, whom they knew possessed the power to make and break monarchies. But the Magi simply wanted the Jewish authorities to produce the King whom they knew to be in the world. Herod was probably near hysteria, seeing the potential loss of all his power and wealth.

Herod met with Temple authorities who quoted from Micah and Genesis, naming Bethlehem as the place of Messiah’s birth. Then, in a secret meeting with the Magi, Herod told them to go there and find him. 

Bethlehem, Scene Two

This, they did, traveling the road south to Bethlehem. The astronomical phenomenon that had drawn them forth blazed in the southern sky, a beacon that continued to tell them of the new King. 

Note in the following verses, that their destination in Bethlehem was not a stable or an inn. It was a house, where the young Jesus now lived with His parents. The Bible is silent about why Mary and Joseph had journeyed back to Bethlehem about a year after Jesus’ birth. Perhaps it is best simply to say that God scheduled it to complete the divine appointment described as follows: 

“8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. 9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way” (Matthew 2:8-12).

Here, the confluence of Jewish prophecy and astronomical events focus upon a key moment in history. The “young child” (from the Greek, paidion, meaning “toddler”) is now walking. This little boy, now about 15 months old, must have presented an amazing sight to their wondering gaze.

Three Renowned Gifts

The gifts of the Magi were of extreme value. Though they were not given at Christmas, as it is now celebrated, they present an archetype for the giving of Christmas gifts. In fact, as documented in the accompanying article, the Magi, those fabulously wealthy kingmakers from the East, brought gifts to the young toddler, Jesus. Their gifts were symbolic, but were no doubt far more than that.

It is well known that Jesus was not actually born on the 25th of December. From calculations based upon the course of Zacharias’ priesthood given in Luke 1:5, we can actually calculate the birth of his son, John the Baptist, to a date in mid-March. Jesus would have been born six months later, probably on Rosh HaShanah, as given in Luke, chapter 2, when the shepherds were “keeping watch over their flocks by night.”

Some fifteen months later, probably at the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, the Festival of Dedication, the Magi came to Bethlehem (the “wise men” of Matthew 2:1) to visit the toddler Jesus. This would have been around the time represented by the modern Christmas date of December 25th

Persians of vast wealth and power, they are said to have had the authority to make and break monarchies. The Magi were exalted in their caste system. They came to Bethlehem in their official role, to confer upon Jesus, the title of King and High Priest of Israel. 

After making their official call upon Herod in Jerusalem – the wealthy Idumean pretender to Israel’s throne – they headed south, to Bethlehem. These men of the highest wealth and power, rode their thoroughbred horses and travelled with wagons, food, luggage, tents and an army. Had they not come in strength, Herod would have ordered them killed where they stood. It is no overstatement to say that they had the power to launch and sustain kingdoms. They were also considered to be legitimate prophets in their own right.

Our contemporary view of them as simple wise men is totally mistaken. Certainly, they were wise, but they were also skilled in the politics of the Middle East, and were sensitively aware that a prophesied King had come into their midst. Doubtless, it was their intention to assist Him – monetarily and politically – in His rise to power. Herod instinctively knew this, and wanted both them and the new King out of the way.

Their three gifts to Jesus have become part of the Christmas tradition, a singular act of adoration that resounded throughout the universe as the unique confirmation of the One who would restore all things.

Their first gift, gold, symbolic of monarchy, reminds us of the wealth of the Kingdom, founded by David and expanded by Solomon, who received nearly a billion dollars in gold (by modern reckoning) from the Queen of Sheba alone. The Phoenician navy brought more gold from the place called Ophir. No one knows how much.

“21 And all king Solomon’s drinking vessels were of gold, and all the vessels of the house of the forest of Lebanon were of pure gold; none were of silver: it was nothing accounted of in the days of Solomon. 22 For the king had at sea a navy of Tharshish with the navy of Hiram: once in three years came the navy of Tharshish, bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks” (1 Kings 10:21,22).

These Magi who bowed before Jesus, must have promised similar wealth. Given their reputation, they had it to give. They brought no mere chalice, or bracelet, or chain, or even a bag of gold coins. What they brought was the wealth appropriate to the King, affirmed by the kingmakers, themselves. They promised a fortune fit for Solomon, and probably more.

Their second gift, frankincense, symbolizes the acts of the Levitical priesthood, and the prayers of the people. It is included among the ingredients that were placed in the Tabernacle’s altar of incense by the priest. Its rising smoke signifies acceptable prayer:

“34 And the LORD said unto Moses, Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight: 35 And thou shalt make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy: 36 And thou shalt beat some of it very small, and put of it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation, where I will meet with thee: it shall be unto you most holy” (Ex. 30:34-36). 

To the toddler Jesus, the Magi gave this gift, representing his priestly office. It prophetically pointed to his resurrected and glorified state, after which He would adopt His present intercessory office as our great High Priest. Through Him, our prayers are made effectual.

Their third gift, myrrh, is also associated with the Aaronic priesthood. It is the principal ingredient of the holy anointing oil, the ingredients of which were given to Moses by the Lord:

“22 Moreover the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 23 Take thou also unto thee principal spices, of pure myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, even two hundred and fifty shekels, and of sweet calamus two hundred and fifty shekels, 24 And of cassia five hundred shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, and of oil olive an hin: 25 And thou shalt make it an oil of holy ointment, an ointment compound after the art of the apothecary: it shall be an holy anointing oil. – 30 And thou shalt anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may minister unto me in the priest’s office” (Ex. 30:22-25, 30).

These verses tell us that myrrh was originally used for the ceremony of priestly anointment, and was specially prepared for the consecration of the Aaronic order. It, too, speaks of priestly consecration. But in its actual use in Israelite society at that time, it carried another, and most significant, meaning.

Myrrh is a gum of exquisite fragrance. It is exuded from a tree that grows in the hotter climates of the Middle East. In the Old Testament, its fragrance is associated with beauty, as an ingredient in fine perfume. Therefore, the Jews used it to bury their dead.

In fact, since it was commonly used as a burial spice, its most powerful prophetic connotation is that of preparation for death. In the following Scripture, Jesus clarifies the actions of the woman with the alabaster box of ointment. He explains that through divine guidance, she was prophetically preparing Him for His burial.

Twice in the following passage, the word “ointment” is used. It is a translation of the Greek muron, from murra, the word for myrrh oil. Though it is elsewhere referred to as spiknard, it was probably a blend, based upon myrrh. Jesus specifically refers to it as an essential element of preparation for burial:

“6 Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, 7 There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat. 8 But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste? 9 For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor. 10When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me. 11 For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. 12 For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial” (Matt. 26:6-12).

 Even at His infancy, the Magi recognized Jesus as King and Priest. But they also foretold His death and burial. Looking backward, we now see the importance of his death and entombment during the feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread. When he arose at Firstfruits, as the first of many who would be resurrected in His name, He gave back far more than He had received. The gifts of the Magi were only a dim foreshadowing of the gifts that the young Messiah would give to all mankind.

The King

These appointed delegates knew that they were bowing before a King. They honored Him with gold, symbol of the wealth and purity of the Davidic Kingdom. They paid tribute to Him with frankincense, the priestly Temple offering. Its divine scent rises as a connection between God and man. They prophesied of His sacrifice with myrrh, the spice of death and burial. 

They honored Him in the three divine offices, King, Priest and Prophet. Who knows what else they said and did while they were there? Oh the insights they must have had! Even the Bible’s concluding view of the Magi is of a mystical nature. A dream guided them safely past Herod’s apparent plan to destroy them before they could return to their homeland. 

The chronicle of the Magi is a story of precise celestial timing and of the rare men who were actually able to discern the times and the seasons. But the mythical scene that includes them at the stable in Bethlehem on that first starry night with the shepherds must forever be abandoned … and especially the camels.