Gold, Frankincense, and Bliss

What Wise Men Want Most

They rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. (Matthew 2:10)

If we’re being honest, many of us likely read of the wise men (“the magi”) and feel as if their presence raises more questions than answers. We might guess that Matthew wants us to know that Jesus is not only the promised Jewish Messiah for his own people (the Jews), but also the Messiah for all peoples (the Gentiles). After that, we may begin speculating about various details and miss the point Matthew is making.

“The wise men reflect God’s own affections.”

As far as Christ’s own people are concerned, they don’t appear to be too concerned about his birth. These mysterious Gentile wise men, however, desire to worship Christ. In one respect, the Jewish nation should have led the magi to behold the glory of the Lord in the face of Jesus Christ, but such was the nation’s degenerate state that God used a star instead.

We do not know from where the magi came from specifically. We do not know how many there were. We do not know for sure if they were royalty or not. So, what can we know?

Bearing Gifts from Afar

Based upon what we read in the Old Testament, the gifts offered by the magi were royal gifts, suitable for a king. For example, God himself meets the king with blessings by setting a “crown of fine gold upon his head” (Psalm 21:3).

Isaiah had prophesied the glory of God’s people, which highlighted the manner in which God will unite humanity (Isaiah 60:1–14). The true Israel, consisting of Jews and Gentiles, would be re-constituted around the Messiah. Kings would come to the “brightness of [God’s] rising” (Isaiah 60:3; Matthew 2:2 speaks of the wise men coming from the “East,” but the word could also mean “rising”). God’s “heart shall thrill and exult” (Isaiah 60:5) because sons and daughters will come from afar to him. Such people “shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:6). Thus, the wise men, as we shall see, reflect God’s own affections.

Matthew clearly has this background in mind in his account of the magi coming from the East to see Israel’s Messiah. They represent Gentile nations and what would inevitably happen now that Christ has been presented to the world as its hope (see also Matthew 8:11; 28:19).

Joy of Joys

The magi were students of the stars, experts in astrology. Somehow, they managed to deduce that someone significant had been born in Judea, leading them to its capital city, Jerusalem. John Calvin believed that God had “fortified the minds of the Magi by his Spirit,” which seems a safe conjecture. They express their desire to find the king of the Jews because they saw his star and so they have come to worship him (Matthew 2:2). They seem to acknowledge that Jesus is already a king, not someone “in waiting” for the crown. This is a remarkable view of a young child who is living in relative obscurity and, at this point, hardly turning water into wine.

“The only real and lasting source of true joy comes from beholding the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

The worship of God’s Messiah is a theme that runs throughout Matthew (2:2, 8, 11; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20; 28:9, 17), beginning here with Gentile worshipers. In Jerusalem, the star seems to re-appear. Its precise “movement” is a mystery to us since it “came to rest over the place where the child was” (Matthew 2:9). The reaction of the wise men is significant. Upon seeing the star, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10). This isn’t the sort of satisfaction one has when completing an arduous journey, but rather their hopeful expectation turns to an ecstatic joy that would not pass away anytime soon.

Our Journey to the Son

The Christian walk is an arduous journey and we are walking in this world by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). But our expectation is to one day see the risen Christ and rejoice with an exceedingly great joy: “we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). The magi did not see the risen glorified Christ in power, and they nonetheless rejoiced exceedingly. We shall see the glorified risen Christ — our Savior — and what words shall we use to describe the unspeakable joy that will fill our glorified bodies?

The wise men see the child with Mary, and they do the only fitting thing: “they fell down and worshiped him” (Matthew 2:11). They prostrated themselves before a child who was no ordinary child but the “God-child.” They offered him valuable kingly gifts as an expression of their worship since true worship is invariably accompanied by an offering.

There is a crucial principle here for all Christians to take note of: the only real and lasting source of true joy, both in this life and in the next, comes from beholding the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). What God did for the wise men he does for all of his people. He shines into our hearts the “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). In this we rejoice with an exceedingly great joy, or we will not, ultimately, rejoice at all.