Did the wise men show up on the night Jesus was born? Were they there with the shepherds, like we often see in manger scenes? And who were the wise men? Where did they come from? Let’s check out what the Bible says about these visitors who honored Jesus’ birth.
The birth of Jesus
Two books of the Bible, Matthew and Luke, tell us about the circumstances leading up to Jesus’ birth, what happened when He was born, and what happened shortly after.
Matthew 1:18-21 tells us that Mary was betrothed to Joseph. Before they “came together” (or before they had the wedding feast, she moved into his house, and they had sexual relations), Joseph discovered Mary was pregnant. Knowing he wasn’t the father, he didn’t want to expose Mary publicly. Instead, he decided to release her from the marriage contract quietly.
But then an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, telling him the baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit. He said that when Mary gave birth, Joseph should name her son Jesus (meaning “God saves”) because He would save people from their sins. The angel told Joseph this was fulfilling the prophecy (in Isaiah 7:14) that a virgin would give birth, and the child would be called “Emmanuel,” meaning “God with us.”
When Joseph woke up, he followed the angel’s instructions, receiving Mary as his wife. Yet, he did not have sexual relations with her until the baby was born, who he named Jesus.
Luke 1:26-38 tells how God sent the angel Gabriel to the city of Nazareth in Galilee to Mary, a virgin betrothed to Joseph, who was descended from King David. Gabriel told Mary that she had found favor with God and would conceive and give birth to a son. She should name Him Jesus, and He would be great, the Son of the Most High, and His kingdom would have no end.
Mary asked how this could happen since she was a virgin. Gabriel told her the power of the Holy Spirit would overshadow her, and her child would be the Son of God. “Nothing will be impossible with God.
Luke 2:1-38 tells how a census decreed by Caesar August compelled Joseph to leave Nazareth and take Mary with him to his ancestral home of Bethlehem to be registered. Mary gave birth when they were in Bethlehem, and she wrapped her baby in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger (implying that they were in a stable), as the inn had no room.
That same night, an angel appeared to some shepherds spending the night in the fields, watching their flocks. “Today in the city of David, a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord!”
And then, a multitude of the heavenly army of angels appeared, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among people with whom He is pleased.”
After the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds raced to Bethlehem to see the baby. Then they spread the message they had received and returned to the fields, praising God for all they had seen and heard.
What does the Bible say about the three wise men?
Matthew 2 tells us about the wise men. It says that magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem, asking where was the child born the King of the Jews. They said they saw His star in the East and had come to worship Him. King Herod called together the chief priests and scribes, asking them where the Christ (the Anointed One) would be born. The Bible says Herod was agitated, and all of Jerusalem was stirred up.
Herod was an Edomite, but his family had converted to Judaism. He knew about the Messiah’s prophesies but did not welcome the news of His birth. He was more concerned about preserving his throne and dynasty than welcoming the Messiah. When the priests told him the prophets said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, Herod asked the magi when they first saw the star shining. He sent them to Bethlehem to find the Child, then told them to report back to him, so he could also go to worship the Child. But King Herod had no intention of honoring the newborn King.
The magi headed toward Bethlehem and were joyful to see the star they had seen in the East. This time, the star “went on ahead of them until it came to a stop over the place where the Child was to be found.” They went inside the house and saw the Child with His mother, Mary, and they prostrated themselves on the floor and worshiped Him. They opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
God warned the magi in a dream not to return to Herod, so they returned to their own country in another way. After the Magi left, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, telling him to take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt because Herod wanted to kill the Child. So, Joseph got up and hurried to Egypt with Mary and Jesus.
When Herod realized the Magi weren’t coming back, he was enraged and sent men to kill all the boys in Bethlehem who were two years old or under, based on the information he had from the magi.
After Herod died, an angel appeared to Joseph again, telling him to return to Israel, so Joseph traveled back with Mary and Jesus. But he heard that Herod’s son Archelaus was reigning in Judah, so Joseph took his family to Nazareth (where Archelaus did not have control).
Where did the three wise men come from?
We actually don’t know how many wise men visited Jesus. They brought three kinds of gifts, but it could have been any number of men. The Greek word was Magi, and Matthew says they came from the East.
In ancient Babylonia, the Magi were highly educated, wise scholars, mainly from the Chaldean tribe, known as keen astronomers, dream interpreters, and seers. Daniel the prophet and his three friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were among the Jerusalem nobility taken prisoner as youths by Nebuchadnezzar and taken to Babylon. The king chose these four youths and others with wisdom, knowledge, and insight to be trained in the Chaldean literature to enter the king’s service. In other words, Daniel and his friends were trained to be Magi. (Daniel 1:3-7)
Daniel and his friends stood out as having exceptional wisdom and literary understanding, and Daniel could discern the meaning of visions and dreams. The king found them ten times wiser than his scribes, astrologers, and other wise men (Daniel 1:17-20). Most of the wise men were pagan, using magical arts and sorcery, but Nebuchadnezzar elevated Daniel to the chief of the wise men in Babylon (Daniel 2:48). With Daniel as Chief Magi and his friends also in leadership, a godly legacy was introduced into the Babylonian Magi.
Daniel was still alive when the Persians, led by Cyrus the Great, invaded and conquered Babylon. Cyrus showed great respect to the Magi, and Daniel was appointed as one of the three commissioners over the kingdom (Daniel 6:1-3). Thus, the Magi also continued to serve the Persian Empire. Because of the influence of Daniel and his friends, the Babylonian-Persian Magi knew more than astronomy, science, literature, and dream interpretation. They also knew the Hebrew scriptures and the prophecies Daniel and other Biblical prophets had written down.
We read in Esther that Mordecai and many Jews ended up in Susa, the capital of Persia. When Cyrus conquered Babylon, he permitted the Jews to return home, and 40,000 did. But some opted to stay in Babylon or move to the Persian capital instead – these were probably high-ranking Jews like Daniel. Esther 8:17 tells us that many Persians converted to the Jewish religion. Some of the Magi, under the influence of the high-ranking Daniel, Shadrach, Meshack, Abednego, Queen Esther, and Mordecai, may have become Jews.
After the rise of the Persian Empire, some Magi probably remained in Babylon (in today’s Iraq, near Bagdad), which continued as a Persian sub-capital. Some would have served the Persian king in Susa or traveled with him to the other Persian capitals (the Persian king moved from capital to capital in his empire, depending on the seasons and specific needs in the realm). By the time of Jesus’ birth, Babylon was mostly abandoned, so the Magi were probably in Persia.
The Babylonian and Persian Magi studied and recorded the stars and planets, reducing their movement to mathematical order. They understood the difference between planets and stars and predicted helical rising (when a certain star appeared in the East just before the sun rose). They knew when certain planets and stars would align and accurately predicted solar and lunar eclipses.
Thus, when they saw a new star in the sky, they knew this was a big deal. They had spent their lives studying the night sky and knew that new stars didn’t just suddenly appear out of nowhere. They knew this star signified something of earth-shattering significance. Because of the legacy of Daniel, Mordecai, and other Jews, they not only consulted the Chaldean literature but also pored over the Old Testament.
And there it was! A prophecy by Balaam of all people, who the Moabites had hired to curse the Israelites. Instead, he blessed the Israelites, and then he said this:
“I see Him, but not now;
I look at Him, but not near;
A star shall appear from Jacob,
A scepter shall rise from Israel” (Numbers 24:17)
They knew that a new king, a special king descended from Jacob (Israel), was prophesied by the star. And thus, they embarked on a grueling journey west to Judea to worship the new king.
When did the Wise Men visit Jesus?
Christmas cards and church nativity programs often feature the wise men showing up in Bethlehem simultaneously with the shepherds. But that couldn’t have happened, and here’s why.
- Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus stayed in Bethlehem for at least forty-one days after Jesus was born.
- Jesus was circumcised when He was eight days old (Luke 2:21)
- Joseph and Mary took Jesus to Jerusalem (five miles from Bethlehem) to present Him to the Lord when her “purification” was complete. This would have been thirty-three days from the circumcision or forty-one total days from Jesus’ birth. (Leviticus 12)
- Assuming the star first appeared on the night Jesus was born, it would have taken considerable time for the magi to organize a caravan and travel to Jerusalem. They would have crossed the mountains from Persia into Iraq, followed the Euphrates River north, up into Syria, and then through Lebanon to Israel. That would be about 1200 miles, over two months of travel time, with camels traveling twenty miles a day. Plus, after seeing the star, the Magi had to figure out what it meant, which could have taken weeks or months of research. And then, they needed to organize their travel, plus the actual travel time. So, we’re looking at anywhere from three months to maybe a year or more.
So, the earliest the wise men could have come was about three months after Jesus’ birth. What’s the latest?
- The Bible uses the Greek word brephos when referring to Jesus in Luke 2:12, 16 (the night He was born). Brephos means either a newborn or a preborn baby. In Matthew 2:8-9, 11, 13-14, 20-21, when the wise men visit, the word paidion is used for Jesus, which means a small child. It can mean an infant, but generally not a newborn.
- Herod had asked the wise men when they first saw the star. He ordered his men to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem two years of age or younger, based on the time the wise men had given him.
Thus, we can conclude that Jesus was between the age of three months at the earliest and two years at the latest when the Magi came.
Where did the wise men meet Jesus?
The Magi visited Jesus in Bethlehem. Matthew 2:11 says they came into the house (Greek: oikia, which has the idea of a family home). Remember, this was at least a couple months after Jesus was born. They weren’t in the stable anymore. By that point, Joseph would have found them a house in his ancestral city.
The death of Jesus
Jesus was born to die as the Saviour of the world. “He emptied Himself by taking the form of a bondservant and being born in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death: death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:7-8)
The gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh that the Magi gave to Jesus were worthy of a great king but also prophetic. Gold symbolized Jesus’ kingship and deity. Frankincense was burned in religious services and represented Jesus’s priesthood. Myrrh was used to anoint prophets and to anoint the dead before burial. Nicodemus brought myrrh to anoint Jesus when He was laid in the tomb (John 19:38-40).
“But He was pierced for our offenses,
He was crushed for our wrongdoings;
The punishment for our well-being was laid upon Him,
And by His wounds, we are healed.
Lessons from the Wise Men
- We don’t know whether the Wise Men were pagans or followers of the true God. But they showed that Christ was not only the Messiah for the Jews but for all people. God desires all people to come to Him, to worship Him and know Jesus as their Saviour. That’s why Jesus’ final message to His disciples was, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” (Mark 16:15) That’s our commission now!
- Jesus is worthy of our worship! When the wise men entered Joseph’s humble house in Bethlehem, they flung themselves to the ground in front of the Christ child. They gave Him extravagant gifts fit for a king. They knew He was a great king, even when everyone else only saw a poor family.
- They followed God’s instructions. God told them in a dream not to return to Herod. They obeyed God and went home a different way. We have God’s written Word with specific instructions for what to believe and how to live. Are we following God’s instructions?
In the Christmas season, we often see the saying on cards or signs, “Wise men still seek Him.” If we are wise, we are seeking to know Him more deeply.
“Seek the LORD while He may be found; call on Him while He is near.” (Isaiah 55:6)
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7)
“But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided to you.” (Matthew 6:33)