Adoration of the Magi by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.
The Bible never mentions how many magi came from the East but it has been traditionally represented as three most likely because there were three different types of gifts. Another misconception is that the Magi came when Jesus was an infant. Jesus was most likely between 6 months and two years old (thus Herod’s killing of all those under 2 years old later on in the passage).
Craig S. Keener PhD. makes the point that: "Matthew informs his readers that even at Jesus’ birth, the (Jewish) religious teachers who knew the most (2:5) failed to act on the truth, while (Gentile) pagans whom one would never expect to come to the Jewish Messiah did just that.”
"Early Christian Magi". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikipedia
Although astrology is forbidden by the Bible, God chose to reveal Himself to these people who obviously had sincere hearts in seeking the truth - just as Jesus later gave of Himself to those considered “unclean” by the religious elite. They would have been forever changed by meeting Him.
Early Christians regarded the coming of the Magi as a significant event, even recording it in the art of the catacombs.
Justin Martyr and other early Church fathers related this prophecy to the Star of Bethlehem and the Magi. In fact, well respected Bible commentator Matthew Henry notes: “Perhaps this prophecy of Balaam (one of the children of the east) concerning a star that should arise out of Jacob, as the indication of a sceptre arising in Israel, being preserved by a tradition of that country, gave occasion to the wise men, who were of the east too, upon the sight of an unusual star over the land of Judea, to enquire for him that was born king of the Jews.”
“This leads the astronomer to conclude that the star of Bethlehem was probably not a star at all, and that it was more than one single event. …Hughes's best explanation for this series of events is something known as a triple conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn - with the two planets coming close together in the sky three times over a short period.”
Furthermore some Christians believe it to be an entirely supernatural phenomena - “We believe it to have been a luminous appearance in mid-air; probably akin to that which led the children of Israel through the wilderness, which was a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night..." Charles Spurgeon
Gold was often a token of royalty – in this case the royalty of the baby Jesus. Frankincense was used in sacrificial offerings and could be a reference to His deity and finally myrrh was a perfuming ointment often used in embalming – this could speak of the sufferings and death that lay ahead for this little infant.
These were not just presents of altruism from the Magi – they were offerings to God Himself. “This expression, used frequently in the Old Testament of the oblations presented to God, is in the New Testament employed seven times, and always in a religious sense of offerings to God. Beyond doubt, therefore, we are to understand the presentation of these gifts by the Magi as a religious offering.” James, Faucet & Brown
David Guzik leaves us with this thought-provoking statement:
“We see here three different responses to Jesus; one may say that all people respond in one of these three ways.
- Herod displayed an open hatred and hostility toward Jesus.
- The chief priests and the scribes were indifferent toward Jesus, all the while retaining their religious respectability.
- The wise men sought out Jesus, and worshipped Him - even at great cost.”
Which will we be? As they say – Wise men still seek Jesus. For it is Jesus in whom are “hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).
Sources and Further Reading:
The IVP Bible Background Commentary NT: Craig S. Keener
Star of Bethlehem: The Astronomical Explanations (BBC): http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20730828
Matthew Henry Bible Commentary
David Guzik Bible Commentary ( Blueletterbible.org)
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,
saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:
‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;
For out of you shall come a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.’ ”
Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared.
And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.”
When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.
When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.
And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.”