We Three Astrologers

Introduction: what can we know about the three kings?

Perhaps no Christmas Carol is filled with more traditional elements and conjecture than “We Three Kings.” It pictures three kings from the Orient who travel to give three gifts to the baby Jesus, each of which symbolizes something about the child’s future ministry. However when we look at the actual biblical text we realize that the hymn takes some liberties. We will to look at the narrative in Matthew 2 first to see what we can understand of these foreign dignitaries and then we will see how the verses of the hymn apply to us.

2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

The Gospel calls them Magi, not kings. They were most likely Persian scientist, astrologers who watched the sky. Most They probably knew Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers predicting that one day a “star” would rise in Jacob (Numb. 24:17). There is also a good chance that they saw an astrological phenomenon in the sky that affected a constellation they connected to Judah or Israel. That event caused then to assume that a new king had been born in Israel. They set out with gifts to pay homage to a king who birth was predicted a thousand years earlier and proclaimed by the stars.

There are several theories about what the Magi saw. Obviously it could have been completely supernatural like an angel that appeared to be a star. (There are many other angels in the accounts of Jesus’ birth). Or it could have been a supernova or a comet. This recent article in Christianity Today suggests that it was a comet, especially since it seemed to hover at times.


They come to Jerusalem because they are looking for a King

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’[b]”

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

The Magi go to Jerusalem because that is where the king of the Jews, Herod, lived. They arrive and ask him where the one born the king might be only to find that Herod knows nothing about it. The narrative says that Herod was troubled and all Jerusalem with him. Herod was troubled because he did not want there to be a new king. This was very threatening. The city was aroused because there were probably more than three travelers. It was a large diplomatic caravan on official business to pay homage to a king – a king that Herod knew nothing about.

So these are the basic facts of the biblical narrative. Persian astrologer scientists, traveling in a large troop arrive in Jerusalem a year or 18 months after Jesus is born. When they find him in Bethlehem his family is living in a house and the boy is a “child” not an infant. They present him with gifts and worship him.

Most scholars agree that the Magi gave gifts of value but that there is no special significance to them. There is no way that the Magi could know what Jesus would do in his ministry. But the hymn writer makes much of the gifts considering how each signifies something about Jesus. And indeed there is value is considering the different aspects of Jesus identity.

We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar

Field and fountain, moor and mountain

Following yonder star

O Star of wonder, star of night

Star with royal beauty bright

Westward leading, still proceeding

Guide us to thy Perfect Light

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain

Gold I bring to crown Him again

King forever, ceasing never

Over us all to reign

O Star of wonder, star of night

Star with royal beauty bright

Westward leading, still proceeding

Guide us to Thy perfect light

Gold is an item of great value and points to Jesus as the Messiah, the king that the Jews had been waiting for. They looked for a king that would free them from the oppressive oversight of Rome and make them a free nation again. This anointed king is called “Messiah” or “Christ.” It is important for us, as Christians, to remember that Jesus is not only our savior he is also a King predicted in the Hebrew Scriptures.

What the Jews looked toward was a king who would secure their borders and rule over their nation in righteousness. That would mean that poor and rich alike would have justice. There would be honest courts and leaders who cared about the people more than themselves. There would be generosity, especially for the poor and the foreigner, and regular times of worship throughout the year. This nation would be an example to the rest of the world of the goodness of God and the beauty of living in harmony with him. It was a special calling for God’s chosen people.

What no one saw coming was that Jesus would set up his kingdom, not by killing other people but by dying for them. He would invite people to follow him, not by military might but by forgiveness and reconciliation. And, strangest of all, his kingdom would exist alongside the kingdoms of the world. We, his followers, would live in two kingdoms simultaneously, the kingdom of God and the governments of our home nations. Whenever we work for those things which reflect the will of God – righteousness, reconciliation, justice, compassion – we fulfill our calling as people of the king. It is the notion of Jesus as king which motivates us to do good on this earth right now.

Frankincense to offer have I

Incense owns a Deity nigh

Prayer and praising, all men raising

Worship Him, God most high

O Star of wonder, star of night

Star with royal beauty bright

Westward leading, still proceeding

Guide us to Thy perfect light

Frankincense is incense which reminds us that Jesus is not only a king he is also God. It is a gum produced from a tree that makes a sweet smell when burned. In the secular world it was used as a perfume but in Israel it was the only incense permitted on the altar. In that way it points to Jesus divinity.

The incense of the temple was meant to be a symbol of our prayers. Just as the smoke of incense rises so we are reminded that our prayer rise to God and he hears them. In Revelation 5:8 bowls of incense in the presence of God’s throne represent the prayer of the people. In this way the gift of incense can remind us that while Jesus is a king he is also the Son of God and the one who hears our prayers.

God hears our prayers. This can be a hard thing to remember because it is counter intuitive. It makes no sense that you and I should have any pull or influence with the God of the universe. Even if he did hear us how could we, from our limited perspective, have anything to tell him? But despite the logic, the testimony of scripture is clear. God hears our prayers and he responds. It is a truth beyond logic. It is something we must come to understand if we are to grow in or relationship with God. When you grasp that he hears you, your prayers life will catch on fire and your relationship with God will grow significantly.

The last gift in the song points to Jesus’ sacrifice.

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume

Breathes of life of gathering gloom

Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying

Sealed in the stone-cold tomb

O Star of wonder, star of night

Star with royal beauty bright

Westward leading, still proceeding

Guide us to Thy perfect light

Myrrh points to Jesus’ death for us in that it was one of the spices Jews used when anointing a body before placing it in a tomb. It is amazing to consider that just after Jesus was born, a pagan scientist following a revelation of God gave Mary the same spice that she was later to use at the end of his life. This is pure conjecture of course, but the myrrh and the song remind us that while Jesus is our king and our God he is also our Savior. He is an atoning sacrifice and his act of saving us cost him his life.

It is also reminds us that while every person must try to make sense of suffering and much of the time we cannot, our God knows what it means to suffer. Jesus the Son of God knew physical, personal and spiritual suffering. One day he will bring our suffering to an end even as he conquered death.

Jesus is our King, our God and our Savior
So what do you need? A King to direct you, a God to hear you, or a Savior you forgive you and restart you new year? In reality we all need all of Jesus both now and eternally.