Christmas Questions - Who were the 3 Kings?
A popular Christmas carol reads, "We three kings of orient are." The questions are, were the wise men who came to visit Jesus kings, and were there 3 of them?
In this post, we will look at the Bible, what it says, and some of the historical facts behind who these men who came to visit Jesus were. We begin in Matthew.
Matthew 2:1-3 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, wise men came from the east to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He who was 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 these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
The wise men that came from the east were from the Medo-Persian Empire, also known as Babylon. In this empire, there was a group called the Magi. You may recognize this title because it is often used to describe the wise men at Christmas time. The Magi were a hereditary (you were born into it) pagan priesthood of the Medes. They were skilled in astrology and especially dream interpretation. They were also known as king-makers, which is a crucial detail to note when looking at the Christmas story.
Were the magi kings? It's unlikely they were kings, but they would've been part of the king's counsel, part of the government, powerful men, who would have great authority and certainly look like kings as far as the wealth and splendor that would've been accompanying them. The tradition of the magi being kings came into existence around the third century.
It's interesting to note that even though Daniel was not born into this group that he became part of this priesthood. After Daniel was taken into exile in Babylon, he was given the Babylonian name Belteshazzar, and in Daniel 4:9 and 5:11, the king put Daniel in charge of this group of magicians, dream interpreters, and astrologers.
Daniel 4:9 "Belteshazzar, master of the magicians, because I know that the Spirit of the Holy God is in you and no secret troubles you, tell me the visions of my dream that I have seen, and its interpretation.
Daniel 5:11 There is a man in your kingdom in whom is the Spirit of the Holy God. And, in the days of your father, light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods, were found in him. And King Nebuchadnezzar, your father, your father the king, made him master of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers.
That is something to investigate further at another time. It's important to note that Daniel didn't serve pagan gods, but as the scripture records that he served the one true God.
These magi would have incredible influence and power both in their priestly role and governmental office. These wise men made up a council whose duties included the absolute choice and election of the king. A person couldn't become king without their approval. That is why they were also known as king-makers.
Verse 3 of Matthew 2 records, "When Herod the king heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him."
Think about this concerning being a king, here a group of king-makers enters into your land asking about and looking for another King. Would that not worry you?
Were there three wise men? We don't know. It merely says wise men, plural, so we know for sure there was two or more. One thing for sure and another reason Herod and all Jerusalem were troubled was this wasn't just a couple guys coming into Jerusalem. They would've traveled in pomp and ceremony. They likely entered in with a substantial military force, and it may have looked like an army showing up at the entrance of your kingdom or city.
There is an interesting detail in the story. What was the first question of the Magi, "Where is He who was born King of the Jews?" It is fascinating to see in scripture a group of king-makers be the ones identifying Jesus as King.
Some other thoughts or questions to consider. Are the wise men in the manger scene as so often depicted in Christmas nativity scenes?
The Bible records that they didn't see Jesus in the manger; in fact, Jesus was not a newborn when the wise men came to see him.
Matthew 2:11 And when they came 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 gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
As we read, they saw Jesus in a house, and He was a young child. The Bible gives us evidence that Jesus could've been as old as two years when they arrived.
Matthew 2:16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was utterly furious and sent forth and killed all the male children who were in Bethlehem and the surrounding region, from two years old and under, based on the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
One reason it is thought that there were three wise men is that there were three gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh. It may have been, or it just may be that there were three gifts offered. The importance is not whether it speaks to three wise men but that the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were prophetic, speaking of the offices that Jesus holds.
Gold speaks to His Kingship. Frankincense was a spice used in the priestly duties and speaks to Christ as our High Priest. Myrrh was an embalming ointment anticipating His death and speaks to Him dying as our Savior.
Finally, as we get to the end, we see God leading the wise men away from Herod's trap.
Matthew 2:12 But being warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they returned to their own country by another route.
Remember, they were dream interpreters, and it is quite fitting that God used a dream to warn them and lead them back to their country.
In closing, this is not to suggest that you throw away your nativity set or not to sing the carol, We Three Kings. It is here to help give facts and answer questions related to the traditions that are often assumed.