The Christmas Story: Thinking About Joseph and the Wisemen

Joseph was selected by God because he was a righteous man. When Mary was about 6 or 7 months along in her pregnancy, Joseph became aware of that reality (Matt. 1:18-25). He probably tried to believe Mary’s story about how she became pregnant, but he simply couldn’t buy into her rather creative account of an angel coming to her, and more importantly the point that no man was involved in her becoming pregnant. So, Joseph decided (because he was a good man) not to publicly shame her, but rather to quietly and privately end their relationship. When he was about to put his plan into motion, an angel appeared to him one night and informed him that Mary was telling the truth, and that he was now part of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s “virgin birth” prophecy (Isaiah 7:14). Joseph was to name the baby boy “Jesus” because He would be the One who would bring salvation to people. In obedience to the angel, Joseph got up and immediately, formally married Mary thus affording her protection from any negatives that would come from society. Interestingly, from this moment on God did not speak to Mary directly but all divine communication came to Joseph, who was now the head of this newly formed family. 

As Matthew continues with the “Christmas story”, he does not record anything about the journey to Bethlehem, or of Joseph and Mary ending up in a place where animals were kept (probably a cave) for the birth of Jesus because there was no shelter in any inn. Instead, Matthew jumps ahead to tell of the arrival of “wisemen” from the east who came to see and to worship the baby king, Jesus. The wisemen have become an important part of the Christmas story. But why include this account? Matthew’s gospel targeted the Jewish people; who were very familiar with the promises and prophecies found in the O.T. They knew about the coming rule of Messiah over Israel and also over the gentile nations of the world. From the beginning, God has planned for the restoration of all nations, and this is where the account of the wisemen fits in. However, not everything found in our Christmas traditions related to the wisemen are necessarily accurate. Let’s separate fact from fiction.

(1) WISEMEN FICTIONS

Who hasn’t received a Christmas card with three wisemen on their camels crossing the desert from somewhere in the east with a bright star overhead; or perhaps one with the wisemen crowding into the manger area with a number of shepherds and a variety of animals in attendance as well. These, however, are not what the Bible’s account reveals.

  • THE WISEMEN WERE NOT THERE AT THE BIRTH OF JESUS. There are a number of points in the biblical text which show that they perhaps arrived as much as a year after the birth of Jesus. First, the wisemen did not bring their gifts and their worship of Jesus to a manger, but rather to a house where Joseph and Mary now resided (Matt. 2:11). Second, it is clear that Herod the Great ordered the deaths of all infants two and under, just to make sure he got rid of this baby king. This level of destruction makes little sense if the baby Jesus was going to be born the same night that the wisemen saw Herod the Great in Jerusalem (as they sought the specific location of the birth of messiah). Just have the executioners find all the just born babies and kill them. Third, the wisemen brought expensive gifts to baby Jesus. These would have made Joseph and Mary fairly wealthy. However, when they were required by the Levitical law to bring an offering at the time of Mary’s purification (Luke 2:22-24), they brought the least expensive offering of two birds. This they could not do if they were in possession of gold (and they were) as well as very expensive ointments (and they were). This time of purification was 40 days after the birth, making the minimum time for the wisemen’s arrival at least 40 days after the birth. The wisemen did not arrive in Bethlehem on the night of the birth of Jesus.
  • THE STAR GUIDED THEM ACROSS THE DESERT. The wisemen went to Jerusalem because they supposed that was where the king of Israel would be born. It was there that they learned of Micah’s prophecy (Micah 5:2) that the king would be born five miles south of Jerusalem, in the little village of Bethlehem. When they exited Jerusalem to head for Bethlehem, they saw the star. This caused great rejoicing because it had been months since they had seen it, which was back home. The star then guided them the five miles and stood over the very house where Joseph, Mary and Jesus were now living. The “star”, I believe is best understood as the Shekinah—the glory of God which spoke of the very presence of God. And indeed, God was present in the God/Man Jesus.
  • THERE WERE THREE WISEMEN. The idea of there being three wisemen most likely comes from the fact that three different gifts were brought to baby Jesus. But travel in those days was always dangerous and the wisemen would have been part of a large caravan made up of many more than three. Maybe there were 15 wisemen.

(2) FACTS

  • THEY WENT TO THE HOUSE WHERE JOSEPH, MARY AND JESUS WERE LIVING. Matthew’s account is perfectly clear. The wisemen did not go to the place of Jesus’ birth, but to a house (Matt. 2:11). This reveals two basic things. First, some time had passed after the birth before the wisemen arrived in Bethlehem. The family had now taken up residence in the town. And second, the “star” was not a comet, alignment of planets, or any other heavenly body. None of those has the ability to appear above a single, specific house in a neighborhood in Bethlehem. However, the “shekinah” (glory of God) could do that just as it did in the days of Moses, when it appeared over the Tabernacle as a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day (Exodus 40:36-38).
  • THEY ARRIVED AT LEAST 40 DAYS AFTER THE BIRTH. When a Jewish woman gave birth to a male child, she had to go through the rites of purification 40 days after the birth (Leviticus 12). Then an offering was made. As noted above, if the wisemen had arrived and given them the expensive gifts, Joseph and Mary would not have been able to bring the least expensive gift. The rite of purification requires the arrival of the wisemen after the 40 days. 
  • THE WISEMEN PICTURED WHAT WOULD BE TRUE IN THE KINGDOM OF MESSIAH.  Matthew is the only one that gives the account of the wisemen. Why? Matthew wrote his gospel with a Jewish audience in mind, presenting Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah/King of Israel. In the future, when King Jesus returns to the earth at His Second Coming, the gentile nations of the earth (as pictured by the wisemen) will come to worship Him and declare their loyalty to Him. Here is a sampling of scriptures that speak of this.
  • Zechariah 14:16—The nations of the earth will come to Jerusalem annually to worship King Jesus.
  • Isaiah 60:56—During the messianic age, the gentile nations will come and worship with gold and frankincense
  • Psalm 2:6-9—Messiah, the Son, will rule over all the nations of the earth and they will worship Him; nations which today have a very different attitude towards Him
  • Revelation 19:15-16—King Jesus will rule and is said to the King over all the kings of the earth. His rule will not tolerate overt sin and wickedness.
  • Hebrews 2:5-8—King Jesus’ kingdom is an earthly one, ruling over all mankind on this earth. However, that rule has not yet begun, but is future.
  • Daniel 2:44—King Jesus begins His reign over the earth, after all the kingdoms of mankind have been eliminated, and His kingdom is the only one on this earth.
  • Isaiah 66:18, 23—As Messiah Jesus reigns, all the nations of the earth will come to Jerusalem to worship Him.

(3) OUR RESPONSE. The Christmas season can be a very pleasant and wonderful time of the year. The Apostle Paul informs us that God has given all things to us to enjoy if they are sanctified (set apart in their proper place) by the Word and prayer (1 Timothy 4:4-5). So, as we enter into the Christmas season, for us there is a lot that can be enjoyed. We can appreciate the food, the decorations, the fun, and time with friends and family. As long as God’s Word gives us perspective and as we prayerfully look for chances to share materially and spiritually, there is much we can enjoy. Of course, the Christmas season can also be a challenging time for people who have lost loved ones; who face difficult relational or financial circumstances; or who are dealing with deep disappointments. But there are certain things that Christmas reminds us of that are not determined by life’s circumstances.

  • The Coming of the Savior Has Solved the Sin Problem. Sin is a problem for each and every person on this planet. Religions attempt to deal with that in one way or another. But when baby Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God’s plan of dealing with sin once and for all began to take place. For everyone who places their faith in the Son of God, who died on the cross for all our sins and then rose from the dead, a secure eternal life is given (John 20:30-31). His once for all death on the cross was a full and a complete payment for all of our sins, and has satisfied God’s righteous requirements for life eternal (Heb. 9:25-28; 10:10-14). Even if we are unsure about the wisemen or other aspects of the Christmas story, baby Jesus’ purpose in entering this world is a certainty. He came to pay the necessary price for our sin. And gladly, “it is finished”.
  • Our Place in King Jesus’ Future Kingdom is Secure.  The story of the wisemen was included by Matthew to remind his Jewish readers (and us as well) that when King Jesus reigns, the gentiles nations will come and worship Him. This is pictured by the coming of the wisemen. This coming kingdom, with all its magnificence, is detailed in the O.T. prophets. It will be a time of harmonious relationships among people; a time of universal prosperity; a time when righteousness, not crime and evil, will be the order of the day; a time when the curse put on creation will be lifted; and a period when joy will dominate life on the earth. All are invited to be part of this wonderful period of 1,000 years (Rev. 20:1-10), which is pictured as a wedding feast (Rev. 19:9; Matt. 22:1-14). God’s invitation is accepted when the individual places faith in Jesus. At that moment the “reservation” is made and is secure (1 Peter 1:3-5).
  • God Uses Godly People. The key players in the Christmas story, were all declared to be godly, righteous people. That was true of Joseph, Mary, and the parents of John the Baptist. God commits His important work to those who faithfully walk with Him. He does not require perfection, but He does require that we be clean and obedient. Being famous is not a requirement. If we desire to serve King Jesus in meaningful ways, we need to remember people like Joseph. The Lord God delights in taking the “little people” of the world to work through in accomplishing eternal things. What a great way to live! Jesus promised that our lives would be fruitful and very meaningful if we would “abide” (remain in fellowship) with Him. (John 15:1-5). Christmas reminds us that Jesus came, and so our lives can be meaningful and satisfying (not necessarily easy) right now; and that our best days are yet ahead of us.

So, when you receive a Christmas card this year with three men riding on three camels out in the middle of nowhere, with a brilliant star overhead, let it remind you of why Matthew included the wisemen in his gospel narrative. The Savior/King came into this world in a most humble fashion to do the great work of restoring everything that mankind lost back in the Garden of Eden; not just Jews, but gentiles as well. And, maybe soon He will come again and gather His own sheep together to enjoy His incredible 1,000-year reign on this transformed earth. I hope to see you there!!!