How Did the Wise Men Know?

“Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him”(Matt 2:2).

As I wander my Texas neighborhood I pass wonderful displays of the Christmas season. Prominent among these are the ever-present manger scenes, those tributes to the nativity of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. Sadly, I am struck by the amount of biblical illiteracy evidenced in the traditional nativity scene. The bible does not tell us these wise men were kings; rather, they were astrologer/magicians from the east. The bible does not place the wise men at the manger on Jesus’ birthday; in fact, they visit Jesus and his parents in a house (Matt 2:11) and it’s some time later, perhaps as much as two years later. We know that because Herod is eager to know when these men saw the star. Herod’s action in response to their reply is to kill every baby boy in Bethlehem two years and younger. Why two years and younger? Obviously the wise men were not about to visit the manger on Jesus’ birthday. It only makes sense that the wise men had first seen the star many months earlier.

There’s a bigger and more interesting question about what we think we know about the history of the birth of Jesus. If the wise men were merely foreigners who were exploring an astronomical anomaly in the sky, wouldn’t they have had a different set of questions than: Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? That hardly seems like a logical question for “scientists” recording a set of astronomical observations.

So I ask: what did these wise men know, when did they know it, and how did they know to ask that messianic, not astronomical, question?

The answer is, of course, in Scripture, but not in the Gospel of Matthew. We need to go back to the Old Testament and the Book of Daniel. Daniel, of course, was a prophet who had gained notoriety and influence at the court of the Babylonian king. This was over 500 years before the birth of Jesus. Daniel  made his name by correctly interpreting the prophetic dreams of Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel’s prophetic prowess had several important results. First, he established his credibility as a man through whom God worked. While the common Babylonian wisdom was that “magicians” or “wise men” could offer insight into the lives of kings and men by reading the stars, Daniel’s power came from God, not from reading the stars. When he appeared before Nebuchadnezzar to interpret his dream which none of the court magicians could decipher, Daniel made a point of ascribing his prophetic gift to God: “There is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and He has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will take place in the latter days” (Daniel 2:28).

By interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, Daniel gained the favor of the king and had a major impact on his beliefs.  Nebuchadnezzar in no uncertain terms ascribed glory to Daniel’s God:  Surely your God is a God of gods and a Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, since you have been able to reveal this mystery” (Daniel 2:47).

Daniel’s prophetic gift had another important ramification. It saved the lives of all the Babylonian court magicians. Nebuchadnezzar had been so enraged at the inability of his own wise men to interpret his dream that he became indignant and very furious and gave orders to destroy all the wise men of Babylon.  So the decree went forth that the wise men should be slain” (Daniel 2:12-13).

Fortunately for these wise men, Daniel got the dream right! Surely these magicians were now quite in awe of the man they had previously been jealous of. After all he had saved their lives. It also must have amazed these seers that Daniel was the real deal: what he prophesied actually came true! As a result, they weren’t killed and they continued to work in the royal court. They also had a new boss: Daniel.  Daniel was so highly esteemed that Nebuchadnezzar made him chief of the magicians Then the king promoted Daniel and gave him many great gifts, and he made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon”  (Daniel 2:48).

 Here we have in Babylon a foreign king, responding to the testimony of Daniel, professing faith in the power of the God of Israel. We also have a whole school of Babylonian wise men that came under the tutelage of Daniel. They learned from him, and heard Daniel’s testimony of how the Most High God worked in him. It was this God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that was the source of Daniel s’ power, not the stars. Daniel must have shared the Scriptures with them and taught them of his God.

What evidence do we have in the Scriptures (the Old Testament) that pointed to the birth of Messiah? God revealed his plan for a Messiah as far back as the Book of Genesis. In Genesis 3:15 God declares: “And I will put enmity between you[the serpent] and the woman, between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.” The Messiah would not be born naturally, by the seed of a man, but supernaturally, with a divine Father. He would be the one who would defeat Satan and put him in his rightful place.

The Scriptures go on to describe the Messiah as being of the seed of Abraham. The seed of Abraham includes both those Jews and Gentiles who believe in the promise of God (Gal 3:8-9). The Messiah would be a Jew, but he would also be the one to carry the blessing of Abraham to all the nations (Gen 22:18, 12:3, 18:18). Paul confirms the connection betweeen Abraham’s promise and Christ in Galatians 3:16. “Now the promises were spoken to Abraham to his seed. He does not say , “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ.”  The Messiah would be from the seed of a woman and the seed of Abrahamand carry the promise of God to all nations.

The Messiah would be from the seed of Jacob. Balaam, a Babylonian,was used by God to deliver this message: “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel…And one from Jacob shall exercise dominion.” From the line of Jacob would emerge the Messiah, the King of the Jews. His sign would the appearance of a star.

The one born king of the Jews would be of the tribe of Judah. Jacob blessed his sons and declared: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah…until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his” (Gen 49:10).

The Messiah would be the son of David: “The LORD swore to David a sure oath…”One of the sons of your body I will set on your throne” (Psalm 132:11,17) see also Isa 11:1-10, Jer 23:5, I Chr 17:10-14.

The birth of Jesus is all over the Old Testament and the faithful would have been fully versed in the messianic prophesies. The Messiah  would be born in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2), preceded by a herald, i.e. John the baptist (Mal 3:1 and Isa 40:3-5), and would appear exactly 483 years after the decree of Cyrus (Ezra 1:1-4) to rebuild Jerusalem (Dan 9:24-27). He would be the Son of God (Psalm 2:7-12, (Prov 30:4, Isa 9:6), and both God and man (Isa 9:6-7, Zech 12:10, Psalm 80:17, Psalm 110:1-7).

So what does this have to do with the wise men in Bethlehem five centuries later? It is clear that these wise men came to Judea not just with some recorded astronomical observations. They came with a certain knowledge that the sign they had seen in the east was a messianic sign that pointed to the birth of the Messiah of Scripture, the Messiah promised to the people of the God of Abraham. They came to worship, not to study. Their faith had been carried to Babylon by Daniel and been preserved there in the body of believers, who were given the Scriptures,  until the appointed time. God in his infinite wisdom  allowed the exile of his people to work for good, by spreading the good news of the coming of the King to a select group in Babylon. These wise men came to Bethlehem, not as scientists looking for research data, but as believers seeking to worship “He who has been born king of the Jews.” It wasn’t the stars that gave them their insight; it was the Word of God.

This Christmas season, let us seek the Lord not in the traditions of men, nor by looking to the stars or for extraordinary signs, but by asking the Holy Spirit to illuminate the Truth revealed to us in the Word of God.

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Published in: on December 13, 2010 at 9:35 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. As usual, a very good and precise blog. I have known for a very long time that the wise men weren’t at the manger and it always “bothered” me that they were always displayed that way. Once again, tradition outshines truth. I particularly loved this blog as you have made known that it wasn’t just the star they were seeking but the Word of God that led them. Keep up the good work. I always learn so much from your teaching. Love you my good man.

  2. Thanks, Jan. The message of Christmas is not about the manger; it’s about the cross. God became man not to give us Christmas but forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life to all who believe by dying for us. That is the most precious gift of all.


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