Melchior, Caspar (or Gaspar), Balthazar. Do these names ring a bell? According to Catholic tradition, they are the three wise guys who visited Jesus at his birth. They are all scholars, saints, and the kings of Persia, India, and Arabia respectively. While the first and the last of these are made completely from someone’s imagination, there are some who try and equate Caspar with Gondophares who broke away from the Parthian Empire and formed his own kingdom. If by some stretch of the imagination, this connection is real, and if by an even greater stretch of credulity, he was part of the group of wise men who came to visit Jesus then to this day we still have a city (Kandahar) named after someone in the Christmas story.
Not wanting to settle for these names, the Armenian, Syrian, and Ethiopian churches have all invented their own names for the wise guys. The Chinese Christians don’t have their own names, but I have heard there has been a concerted effort by some to prove that they are the true location of origin for the wise men. Whatever their names, it has been a uniform part of Christmas tradition to number the retinue at three. Why three? Because there were three types of gifts brought to Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It only fits that you would attach one gift with each king, or wise man, or magi, or… what do we call these guys?
According to the traditional song, “We three kings from orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar.” Before clearing things up, let me muddy the waters a little more. the use of “Orient” here does not mean oriental, as in the far east. The Orient is a traditional geo-locator that refers to the Persian (or at this time, the Parthian) Empire. I hear all the time people trying to be smart in saying, “they weren’t kings, they were magi.” True, Matthew does use the word “magus”, however, it is fairly common for the word to refer to royalty. Remember, most “kings” at the time of Christ would be better termed “governors” of regions held at the forbearance of their emperors (be they Persian or Roman). Herod wasn’t technically a king the way we understand the term today. In the Bible, both Joseph and Daniel would have been considered magus who had been elevated to the royal status. Herodotus records multiple times when magi assumed or held royal power. In the book of Esther, the king’s advisers are called magi and princes interchangeably. Most important of all, the wise men bearing gifts is held to be a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy: “The gentiles will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you… All from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.” So calling them kings is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
Although some prefer the word magi, I don’t because it sounds too much like a Harry Potter or Merlin term. If you were to listen to Pliny the Elder when he describes the powers of eastern magi, you might almost be right. He seemed to think these guys had powers that would make students at Hogwarts go green with envy. That said, in reality viewing the magi “magicians” is about as accurate as calling our premodern scientists “alchemists”. These guys were scholars, but they lived in a time when the line between scholarship and mysticism was much more blurred than the present. (Although I would be interested to see what scientists from a few centuries into the future will think about a lot of our current quantum theories).
Magi, kings, scholars, wise men. Whatever their number, whatever you call them, they came. Although the journey might not have been as arduous as TS Elliot might have you believe, it was clear they had traveled far. They did so with limited knowledge and an uncertain destination. They didn’t know the exact location they were heading or what they would find at the journey’s end. They came because they sought the Truth. They came because they were compelled by the light.
To this day wise men still seek him. Although the journey is not always measured in miles, many still come from vast distances to honor the King. Some come in hope. Some come in curiosity. Some come in desperation. No matter why they do, they are all changed. We are all changed. Have you come to the Savior? Have you laid your treasure before Him and bowed your head in worship? Have you given Him your adoration?