We usually just call them “wise men.”
These magi had been searching the heavens for answers, so they were most likely astrologers. Some speculate they came from Persia — modern-day Iran.
I’ve always assumed they were “wise” because they were smart enough to figure out where Jesus was — and to find him — from far, far away. But even before that, they were wise enough to notice the signs, to realize that an earth-shattering event was about to happen.
That is, after all, how movements in the heavens were always interpreted long ago. When a new light appeared in the sky, it obviously portended an event of great importance. God was signaling something big.
Without the help of GPS, they would track the star and navigate their way to a little town in Israel. Google calculates Bethlehem is 1,373 miles from Persia and can be walked in a mere 450 hours. That’s a long trip, especially when the duration is unknown and so is the destination.
So the wise men packed up and headed out. Surely a trip with such an obscure ending required lots of provisions, but Matthew 2:11 records only three items — gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Those three treasures have led us to assume there must have been three wise men, but of course, we don’t actually know.
They were not only well-traveled but well-read scholars who had researched prophetic writings to discover that Bethlehem might be where this star was leading them. The one strike against these wise men is that they revealed this in a visit to the local king.
We can’t really blame them, though. Jerusalem would’ve been a short 6 miles away from their final destination in Bethlehem. So when following a heavenly sign for a new king, it makes sense to assume a palace is the logical place where kings (old and new) would be found.
Since we know the story, we can read between the lines. We recognize that although it wasn’t very wise to spill the beans to Herod that they had come to pay homage to his replacement, they recovered nicely. I’ll bet even without the warning they would receive later, they left Jerusalem realizing, “Something about that wasn’t quite right.”
Everything, however, was right when the star they had followed for so long “stopped over the place where the young child was” (Matthew 2:9). They prostrated themselves in worship and presented their gifts to this new king.
This is the biblical story of Epiphany — from the Greek word meaning reveal.
When we say, “I just had an epiphany!” we are usually describing a “lightbulb moment” when the truth has suddenly been revealed to us, and we understand things that we hadn’t understood before. We instantly feel wiser. But epiphanies almost always follow a long, arduous journey through the darkness.
Once the truth is illuminated, however, everything changes, and it’s difficult to go back to our old ways of understanding the world. So, after being warned in a dream not to follow Herod’s instructions, the story of the wise men ends with them departing for home another way.
After an incredibly difficult journey this past year, may this Epiphany reveal so much light and truth to you and your family that you wisely find yourself departing 2020 for another way.
Dr. Steve Cothran lives in Newnan and has been a Baptist youth pastor for over 30 years.