The answer to this question is more important than you ever knew! It reveals vital understanding about the very identity and future role of Jesus Christ!
The scriptural account surrounding Jesus’ birth tells of wise men traveling a great distance from the east to present the young Christ child with gifts. What is the reason for imparting gifts to a small child? Who did these men believe they were honoring?
First of all, the Bible does not tell us the exact number of wise men, and they were not present for His birth in a manger as is so often depicted in nativity scenes every December.
Matthew 2:1, 11 shows that the young child Jesus was already in a house by the time the wise men visited and offered their gifts. “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem. … And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
This is only one illustration of how Christmas customs have actually distorted the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Other articles on this website demonstrate this fact in much more depth. Be sure to read some of these eye-opening assessments of commonly held traditions.
The question we are exploring in this article is why wise men brought gifts to a child who was too young to appreciate them in the first place. What motivated these men to feel it was appropriate to present anything? Who did they think Jesus was, and why did they come all that way?
The answer reveals an often overlooked reality about the Son of God.
Gifts fit for a king
Matthew 2:2 tells us that the wise men came looking for a king. They did not ask where they could find the Savior of mankind. They were following the common custom of presenting gifts to royalty or one destined to be a ruling monarch.
Because of 2,000 years of the Christian experience, most everyone today thinks of Jesus only in the context of one who “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). And He did that, of course.
Christ’s role as Savior of mankind is made clear in the New Testament. However, there is another often-overlooked role Christ will fulfill, one that is repeatedly emphasized in the Gospels—that of Christ being a ruling king.
Notice the statement to Mary when she was told she would conceive a child: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David” (Luke 1:32).
Looking for the Messiah …
The Jews had long been anticipating the arrival of the Messiah. He would be a descendant of David who would reestablish the Davidic throne and usher in the prophesied period of restored greatness in a new kingdom (Isaiah 9:6; Isaiah 11:2; Daniel 7:13-14).
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem just before His crucifixion, an Old Testament prophecy of Zechariah was recounted: “All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, “Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly, and sitting on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey”’” (Matthew 21:4-5).
The Son of God
Few today consider that when a first-century Jew heard the term son of God, it prompted thoughts of earthly rulership and divine appointment rather than a position in the Godhead. Biblically, son of God could signify any exclusive relationship with God (the angels are called sons of God in Job 1:6, as was the nation of Israel in Exodus 4:22).
Yet the term had an amplified application for the Messiah, the offspring of David.
These sons of God actually acted as agents for God ruling on His throne. “Then Solomon sat on the throne of the LORD as king instead of David his father, and prospered; and all Israel obeyed him” (1 Chronicles 29:23). Fulfilling this role would eventually be a glorious messianic function.
Jesus was the only begotten Son of God with respect to His miraculous birth; God was His Father. And in the kingly or messianic sense, He was the ultimate Son of God—the One who had a divinely appointed destiny to be given David’s throne.
This is why Nathaniel stated in John 1:49, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” To him, it seems, the terms were synonymous. He began to believe Jesus was the prophesied son of David for whom Israel was waiting; the One destined to restore the greatness of David’s (God’s) earthly throne.
Born—King of the Jews
At the time of Christ’s birth, the Jews already had a king, named Herod. He ruled as a vassal under the Roman authorities, but he was a king nevertheless.
When the wise men came seeking Jesus, what did they say? “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:1-2). For the paranoid King Herod, this was very troubling indeed! Neglecting any spiritual implications of Christ’s birth, Herod clearly recognized the threat to his own throne and attempted to kill Jesus, unsuccessfully (Matthew 2:12-16).
Jesus was continually examined as to whether or not He claimed to be a king. When the high priest questioned Jesus at His mock trial, he asked, “I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!”(Matthew 26:63). The high priest was likely not inquiring about His divinity, but was looking for a way to charge Him with treason for declaring that He was Israel’s king, the Messiah (Luke 22:67-71). The high priest then told Pilate that Jesus claimed to be a king (Luke 23:2-3).
John 18:33 states, “Then Pilate entered the Praetorium again, called Jesus, and said to Him, ‘Are You the King of the Jews?’” (See also John 18:39; John 19:3, 14). This is why the Roman soldiers shamefully gave Jesus a crown of thorns and why the sign above His cross read, “JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS” (John 19:2, 19). The whole context of Jesus’ crucifixion from the Roman and Jewish perspective was about His claiming to be a king of Israel not a Savior of mankind.
Christ’s Kingdom still to come
Jesus came to give His life as our Savior so that humans can be reconciled to God, have their sins forgiven and eventually be granted eternal life in the Kingdom of God. But He also came as the King of that Kingdom—the King of Kings and Lord of Lords who will reign during the coming millennial age on this earth.
Christ will rule the nations from Jerusalem on the restored throne of David (Luke 1:32; Revelation 11:15). The Old Testament prophecies of the coming King are the reason the wise men were looking for a promised sovereign and why they brought gifts to the Child they knew would one day be King.
To learn more about this magnificent Kingdom of God and how God is preparing individuals to rule with Christ at that time, be sure to read the revealing articles on these subjects on this website. You, too, can discover what it takes to live and reign with Christ the King.