Lessons I Learn from the Wise Men
When Anna told me about her great lesson on what we can learn from the Nativity main players, I got a little giddy. I knew exactly what I wanted to write about this week! I just knew I had to present it to her in a way that didn’t look like I was trying to steal all her great ideas. Luckily, the Spirit whispered some lessons to me as we talked, and when I told her I wanted to do this series, the Spirit was already whispering to her, too. It was an easy decision for us to divvy up the themes, and I was thrilled to be able to write about the Wise Men.
They’ve always seemed a little distant to me (no pun intended!) and not really part of what really matters about the Christmas story. In fact, it’s too easy for me to dismiss them as unimportant, mostly because they don’t belong at the birth scene and manger like the shepherds do.
Despite that, or maybe even because of that fact, I was delighted to learn some new things. These aren’t the only lessons; they’re just some of the ones that have occurred to me.
They Traveled Afar
Most nativity scenes have the wise men positioned somewhere near the manger. In fact, doing some image searches in preparation for this post yielded results of only the wise men following the star. And if not pictured traveling, the other image is of them kneeling beside the manger worshiping the Baby Jesus. However, to have been able to be there the same night Jesus was born, their camels would have been traveling by jet fuel.
Christmas songs tell us they came from the east, suggesting they were not the locals that the shepherds were. In fact, they did not arrive until probably closer two years after the holy birth. (See Matthew 2:16 as evidence of that time frame.) And in Matthew 2:11, the “Baby Jesus” is called a “young child,” and was in a house, not a manger, implying the passage of time between the birth and when the Wise Men arrive.
Lesson #1: Patience
Good things take time. Faith takes time.
This wasn’t a journey down a hillside after an angelic announcement. These men came from a great distance. Babylon? Possibly, especially if they knew the the prophecies of Daniel who was a captive in that land. Ezra tells us it takes about four months to travel from Babylon to Jerusalem, and that’s going quickly. Presumably, these men were traveling together, and likely with a large group of others – families and household members would make a long journey like that together. It’s likely they traveled for about two years to arrive to Jesus, and after avoiding Herod/Bethlehem on the way back, that journey could potentially have increased in distance.
God’s work takes time. And it doesn’t always coincide with the time we think it should. Consider Sariah who knew she was past child bearing years. Or, even closer to the nativity story, Elizabeth! Just because it doesn’t happen when we think it should (or could!) doesn’t mean it’s not going. We keep traveling, one step at a time, moving forward, trusting that God will deliver on His promises.
Gold, Frankincense, & Myrrh
This is probably where we get the idea that there were three wise men. We know there were three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh, so we associate that with the number of travelers. While we don’t know how many there were, we do know they brought only the best for the baby king.
Gold is universally understood to be a precious, expensive metal.
Myrrh is a fragrant gum resin obtained from certain trees, and especially in the Near East, is used in perfumery, medicines, and incense. In the scriptures, mention is made of it in reference to exotic travels. It was also used as parts of purification rituals, and as an anointing oil.
I got a good laugh from one of my primary children the other day (I’m the primary music leader) when he said that the wise men brought gold and Frankenstein. I laughed as I explained that the wise men did not bring the monster from Mary Shelley’s book, but a precious oil. This oil, also from tree resin, is associated with healing, nobility, and purity.
These three precious gifts together can be looked at symbolically to represent the gifts that Christ brought into the world. He is the most precious of all the gifts, as it is only through Him that we can achieve eternal life (gold). It is through His priesthood that we receive ordinances that prepare us for sanctification (myrrh), and then receive healing through the Healer (myrrh).
Lesson #2: Only the Best Gifts
When we worship, it is frequently manifested by providing our best. We dress in our “Sunday best” for sacrament meeting. When we go to the temple, even though we will change out of our street clothes, we typically go with the outward expression of what we want our spirits to be: the very best. We don’t know that these precious gifts were a sacrifice for the wise men, but certainly their time and effort were a sacrifice. They exerted great effort to find Him. Their gifts were yet another expression of their willingness to give the best gifts to the Messiah who would ultimately give us The Best Gift.
“We Have Seen His Star”
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa 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? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. And, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. (Matthew 2:1-2, 9-10.)
Why are they called wise men? I’m sure it has something to do with not just being smart, but possession spiritual (prophecies) and scientific (especially astronomy) knowledge as well. In fact, the scriptures tell us that all the book smarts in the world are worth nothing until we couple them with spiritual knowledge and testimony. “Therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid” (Isaiah 29:14).
Nowadays, most people don’t have time for the Jesus – not His birth, or His death, or resurrection. Yet wise men still seek for the truth of Him. Wise men look for God’s way of redemption. “And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever” (Daniel 12:3). Wise women know that Jesus is the answer to any problem they may face. They seek Jesus. They know the prophecies and the scriptures, and they build their testimonies on the one sure foundation.
Those ancient wise men not only sought for the baby Messiah; they knew what the signs were. They looked up and watched the heavens, knowing the prophecies, and eagerly waiting for them to be fulfilled.
Lesson #3: Look Up!
The gospel of Jesus Christ is all about elevation, and moving upward. There are spires on the temples that encourage us to crane our necks up, eyes tilted skyward. And in those temples, the progression is always up, up, up! Each celestial room is built at higher “elevations” than the other rooms, implying an upward destination. If you have occasion to go to a temple where the endowment ceremony takes place in different rooms (Salt Lake City, Manti, and Los Angeles), this upward progression is noticeable as you move from the Creation Room, to the Garden Room, and ultimately to the Celestial Room.
Up is where we will look when Jesus comes again. And though He was born into mortality as any other infant is – squawking and gasping for air – the signs given at his birth were all in the skies. Angels descended from heaven to deliver the best tidings of His birth. The star was in the sky. The Nephites knew to look heavenward for the signs in the sky indicating His birth.
We, too, can look upward at Him, and for Him. As we do so, we allow ourselves to be elevated by Him. Look UP!
Lesson #4: “We Are Come to Worship Him”
The announcement that Christ was born brought interest from all over the world. The same is true today. There is more interest in and about the birth of Christ than any other person. The message is not when did the wise men arrive, or how many there were, but rather why they sought Him. Worship was their primary motivation.
When Paul visited the Athenians, they had an altar to “The Unknown God.” But Jesus is not unknown to us. He invites us to follow Him, and to know Him, and freely worship Him.
He was born in the humblest circumstances so that we could feel close to Him. If He were unreachable, we might mistakingly believe we could never draw close to Him. But we can. We should. We must. He is not far from any one of us, as Paul says. “That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being…” (Acts 17:27-28).
Lesson #5: Faith
The wise men were full of faith – we know that because they MOVED. Across time, challenges, hardships, traveling through a desert, facing unknown dangers, they put one foot in front of the other and walked.
Faith is all about action. Jesus invites us to follow Him, which requires faith and activity on our part. While He can and will come to our rescue, our faces and feet must be turned toward Him.
As I read the account of the birth of my Savior, I long to have the experience the Wise Men had—to be led by a star; or to experience what the shepherds did—to be invited to Bethlehem, invited by a choir of angels. I want to kneel at the manger and smell the clean straw and see that tiny baby with His earthly mother, to witness for myself this miracle. I believe that in every mortal there is an instinctive desire to come unto Christ. Perhaps we have a basic human need, because each of us is a child of God, to make that commitment to the spiritual part of our being. We each try to meet this need according to what we know. (October 1992 General Conference, Betty Jo N. Jepsen, “By Way of Invitation.”)
In this season of worship and reverence for the Christ Child, let us be like the wise men of ancient times. Let us walk in faith, looking upward, and paying attention to the signs and prophecies. Come, let us adore Him. Let us fall on our knees, for
Christ is the Lord! Oh, praise His Name forever
His power and glory evermore proclaim
Oh, night divine, oh, night when Christ was born