“We Three Kings”: How Many Wise Men Were There Really?

It’s another Advent season, and another round of articles poised to rob us of our Christmas joy. This is not one of those articles. Sufjan Stevens encourages us to embrace the inner Christmas unicorn each December. It’s a time of imagination, celebration, and mirth.

So, as we come to the traditional Christmas carol “We Three Kings”, I’m not going to point at Matthew 2 and say, “See? it doesn’t actually say how many magi there were” (which is technically correct). No, in the spirit of Christmas let’s expand our imagination. Let me show you that it is perfectly fitting with Matthew’s overarching narrative to sing “we three kings” (or three magi or three wise men, take your pick).

Everything Begins in Genesis.

I’ve found that if you want to get to the bottom of anything in Scripture, you’re going to find it Genesis:

“And the LORD appeared to [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth…” (Genesis 18:1-2)

It’s quite a bizarre visitation: The Lord comes to Abraham in the form of three men. Abraham scrambled to put together a suitable meal for these three. As they ate, the Lord delivered good news: “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son” (18:10). After Sarah was caught eavesdropping—and scoffing at the prospect of pregnancy at her elderly age—the three men asked, “Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son” (18:14).

However, Abraham’s hospitality was only a pit-stop along a more foreboding journey: “Then the men set out from there, and they looked down toward Sodom…Then the Lord said, ‘Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know’” (18:16,20). The visitation of these three men was good news for Abraham: his promised offspring was to be born. It was also fearful judgment soon to come upon Sodom.

In the ensuing chapter, angels visited Abraham’s relative Lot in Sodom and helped his family escape certain death: “Up! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you be swept away in the punishment of the city” (Genesis 19:15). That very day, “The Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven.”

Matthew’s Christmas narrative dovetails with Genesis 18 and 19 in many ways. His story also begins with the proclamation of an impossible conception (to Joseph about Mary), one that will bring the visitation of the Lord: “They shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us).” In the next chapter, wise men come to Jerusalem—whose inhabitants claim “We have Abraham as our father” (Matt. 3:9)—declaring the birth of the King of the Jews. The city rightly acknowledges this as the promised offspring of Abraham: the Christ Child.

Interestingly, the three men of Genesis 18 never returned in physical form to see the child of Abraham. As Matthew’s wise men enter the house and see “the child with Mary his mother,” he could be presenting the final fulfillment of the promise made all they way back in Genesis: “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son” (18:10).

After the departure of the magi, angels warn of impending wrath, just like Lot and his family who escaped Sodom: “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt!” (Matt. 2:13). It’s undeniable that the narrative arc of the magi feels very similar to the visit of those three men proclaiming the birth of Isaac—and the destruction of Sodom—in Genesis.

Sodom: A Perpetual Symbol

The destruction of Sodom is used time and again by prophets of Scripture as a symbol of impending judgment. When Moses warns the people of the curses of the Law, he tells them that disobedience to the Lord will result in a similar rain of fire:

“The whole land [will be] burned out with brimstone and salt, nothing sown and nothing growing, where no plant can sprout, an overthrow like that of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, which the LORD overthrew in his anger and wrath—all the nations will say, ‘Why has the LORD done thus to this land? What caused the heat of this great anger?’” (Deuteronomy 29:23-24)

Even more pertinent to the visitation of our wise men, Isaiah begins his book by representing Jerusalem as the metaphorical Sodom:

“Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.” (Isaiah 1:10-11)

Ezekiel also compares the sins of Judah’s capital city to those of wicked Sodom:

“Son of man, make known to Jerusalem her abominations…As I live, declares the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done…you have committed more abominations than they, and have made your sisters appear righteous by all the abominations that you have committed.” (Ezekiel 16:2,48,51)

Jeremiah, also:

“But in the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a horrible thing…all of them have become like Sodom to me, and its inhabitants like Gomorrah” (Jeremiah 23:14)

This symbolic comparison between Jerusalem and Sodom did not cease in the New Testament. In fact, John the Revelator calls Jerusalem “the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified” (Rev. 11:8).

As we set the visitation of the three men beside the visitation of the magi, we see a foreshadowing of the fate of Jerusalem. Like the three men who visited Sodom to search out its sins, the arrival of the wise men in Jerusalem revealed the wickedness of the city. The city was under the dominion of a murderous king, and the chief priests and scribes took counsel together with Herod “against the Lord and against his Christ” (Psalm 2:2, Matt. 2:4). In a thick retelling of events, Matthew evokes the visit of the three men as an ominous foreboding of Jerusalem’s destruction.

The City that Sealed Its Fate.

If you remember the story of Sodom, the men of the city gathered in a mob by night and tried to assault their visitors. Seeking to do their worst, the city proved deserving of the burning wrath of God. In a similar way, the city of Jerusalem seals its own fate as it abused and murdered Immanuel.

It’s no accident that Matthew’s narrative only visits Jerusalem twice: once at the beginning of the book and a second time at the end–coinciding with the birth and death of the Christ. When gentile magi entered the city gates seeking “the King of the Jews” in chapter 2, “Herod the king…was troubled and all Jerusalem with him” (Matt. 2:3). When gentile Galileans entered the city gates proclaiming “Hosanna to the Son of David!” in chapter 21, “the whole city was stirred up” (Matt. 21:10). At his birth, they sought to kill Immanuel. At his death, Jerusalem succeeded.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus used Sodom to symbolize the judgment that would fall on the city that rejects him: “Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Matt. 10:15). When the city of Jerusalem would not recognize Jesus at his triumphal entry (“Who is this?” Matt. 21:10), he entered the temple and overturned their tables. He then pronounced woes upon the city (Matt. 23:37-39), and encouraged his disciples to flee from Jerusalem on the coming day of wrath (Matt. 24:15-35).

In the end, the city of Jerusalem proved even more wicked than Sodom. When the got their hands on the city’s visitor, they cried out, “Let him be crucified!” Mocking him and crying out, “Hail! King of the Jews!”, they spit on him and beat him. Hanging him publicly on a cross as though taunting God himself, “Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews’” (Matthew 27:37).

Three Kings: A Warning

At Christmas time, we normally like to think of peace and white snow and doves and silly nutcrackers. However, the visitation of the magi forebodes judgment for all those who refuse to acknowledge the Christ in his coming. When we visualize three men coming from far away to survey Jerusalem, we are choosing to see how Matthew’s story lays out the justified wrath of God against a wicked city. Indeed, the symbolic Sodom shows us what awaits all of those who scoff at the advent of the Messiah.

This Christmas, celebrate the goodness of God, the joy of the season, and eat Christmas cookies and cocoa. However, as we ponder the visit of “We Three Kings,” let us remember that Immanuel, God with us, spells salvation for his people but judgment for his enemies.

(Adoration of the Magi by Giotto)

Published by Chad C. Ashby

Instructor of Literature, Math, and Theology at Greenville Classical Academy Greenville, SC

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