Who were the Wise Men?
The Magi in Scripture: Three Wise Men from Matthew
Concerning the group of magi who came to find the King of the Jews, Matthew 2 says only that they arrived from the East by following "His star." According to other classical writers, the term magi meant either those who practiced magical arts (as in Acts 8:9 and Acts 13:6) or Eastern priest-sages usually associated with the area near Babylon and said to look into the mysteries of the universe through astronomy, astrology, and natural sciences. The latter makes the most sense here.
Matthew's account does not even list the number of magi, but their knowledge of the expected Messiah (Christ) should be no surprise. During this time, many Jews lived in dispersion, scattered throughout the Roman Empire and the East. With them they carried the hope of the Messiah as promised in what we call the Old Testament. As evidence, we need look no further than Yemen, whose kings professed the Jewish faith from around 120 B.C. to the sixth century of our era.
However, their understanding of prophecy proved somewhat limited, since they did not know where Christ would be born. Instead, they followed a particular "star" to Judea and then headed for Jerusalem, the capital city and the place one might expect to find a king.
The authorities of Israel directed the magi to Bethlehem, according to the prophecy in Micah 5:2. Guided again by the star, though they likely only regarded this as confirmation of the location, the magi found and paid homage to Christ.
While some have claimed the account of the magi is nothing more than a myth designed to show how Jesus met the expectations of the Jewish Messiah, the account actually undermines this claim. The Jews of the time expected a Messiah the whole world would submit to and honor. The appearance of only a few magi seems almost a caricature of those expectations.
Adapted from The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah by Alfred Edersheim (Book II, Chapter VIII).
What Can We Learn from the Wise Men?
It is not known who these wise men were. Their names and dwelling-place are alike kept back from us. We are only told that they came "from the East."
Matthew 2:1-12 shows us that there may be true servants of God in places where we should not expect to find them. The Lord Jesus has many "hidden ones" like these wise men. The grace of God is not tied to places and families. The Holy Spirit can lead souls to Christ without the help of many outward means. Men may be born in dark places of the earth, like these wise men, and yet like them be made "wise unto salvation."
These verses teach us, that it is not always those who have most religious privileges, who give Christ most honor. We might have thought that the Scribes and Pharisees would have been the first to hasten to Bethlehem, on the lightest rumor that the Savior was born. But it was not so. A few unknown strangers from a distant land were the first, except the shepherds mentioned by Luke, to rejoice at His birth.
These verses teach us, that there may be knowledge of Scripture in the head, while there is no grace in the heart. Notice how king Herod sends to inquire of the priests and elders "where the Christ would be born." Notice also what a ready answer they return him, and what an acquaintance with the letter of Scripture they show. But they never went to Bethlehem to seek for the coming Savior.
The conduct of the wise men described in this chapter is a splendid example of spiritual diligence. What trouble it must have cost them to travel from their homes to the place where Jesus was born! How many weary miles they must have journeyed!
It would be well for all professing Christians if they were more ready to follow the wise men's example. Where is our self-denial? What pains do we take about our souls? What diligence do we show about following Christ? What does our religion cost us? These are serious questions. They deserve serious consideration.
Last, but not least, the conduct of the wise men is a striking example of faith. They believed in Christ when they had never seen Him - but that was not all. They believed in Him when the Scribes and Pharisees were unbelieving - but that again was not all. They believed in Him when they saw Him a little infant on Mary's knee, and worshiped Him as a king.
Adapted from The Gospel of Matthew by J.C. Ryle (Chapter 2).
Why Don't the Other Gospels Mention the Magi?
In Matthew 1:1-23 there’s an incident recorded which is entirely passed over by the other Evangelists, but which is peculiarly appropriate in this first Gospel. This incident is the visit of the wise men (magi) who came from the East to honor and worship the Christ Child. The details which the Holy Spirit gives us of this visit strikingly illustrate the distinctive character and scope of Matthew’s Gospel.
This chapter opens as follows, "Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, 'Where is He that is born King of the Jews? We have seen His star in the east, and are come to worship Him.'" Notice, these wise men came not inquiring, "Where is He that is born the Savior of the world?", nor, "Where is the Word now incarnate?", but instead, "Where is He that is born King of the Jews?"
The fact that Mark, Luke, and John are entirely silent about this, and the fact that Matthew’s Gospel does record it, is surely proof positive that this first Gospel presents Christ in a distinctively Jewish relationship. The evidence for this is cumulative: there is first the peculiar expression with which Matthew opens — "the book of the generation of," which is an Old Testament expression, and met with nowhere else in the New Testament; there is the first title which is given to Christ in this Gospel — "Son of David"; there is the Royal Genealogy which immediately follows; and now there is the record of the visit of the wise men, saying, "Where is He that is born King of the Jews?"
Adapted from Why Four Gospels?, 1. The Gospel of Matthew, by A.W. Pink.