Of Angels and Wise Men:
The Biblical Truth
Commentary by Jim Day
When I was a kid, I thought angels were beautiful winged ladies with harps sitting on clouds or cute little angel kids called “cherubs” that flew around on Valentine’s Day shooting arrows into the hearts of lovers. I also thought that the baby Jesus was visited on Christmas night by three wise men who brought Him birthday gifts. Of course I also thought Halloween was great – until I found out the truth.
The world loves to twist the truth. Take for example -- angels.
At Christmas time angels adorn the tops of Christmas trees and mantles in millions of homes. In recent years they’ve become a really hot item in department stores where you’ll find everything from beautifully hand painted porcelain figures decked in velvet robes with feather wings to cutesy stocking dolls complete with wire halos and puffy colorful wings. No matter what they’re made of though there’s one thing they all have in common; they’re always depicted as women.
The Bible however tells a very different story as to the appearance of angels.
To start out (with the possible exception of one debatable passage in Zechariah 5:9) angels always appear in the Bible as males rather than females (Mark 16:5). (Boy is that politically incorrect!)
Angels can take on the appearance of normal men when the occasion demands. How else could someone “unwittingly entertain angels” (Hebrews 13:2)? In Genesis 18, Abraham welcomed three angelic guests who appeared as men. In the following chapter, two angels went to Sodom to warn Lot of Sodom’s impending destruction. When these two strangers walked into town they were assumed by the town folk to be simply a pair of human visitors.
Sometimes an angel appears to be a man with unusual features. Daniel for instance saw an angel with arms and feet like burnished bronze in color and a face like the appearance of lightning (Daniel 10:5-6). The angel that rolled back the stone from Christ’s tomb was radiating dazzling light (Matthew 28:3; Luke 24:4). And, the book of Revelation describes some highly unusual beings who may be a variety of angel in Revelation 4:6-8.
Since angels are spirits rather than physical beings, they don’t have to be visible at all (Colossians 1:16). Elisha once prayed asking God to allow his servant to be able see an invisible army of angels sent to protect him in the city of Dothan. When the Lord opened the servant’s eyes he saw an immense angelic army on horses and chariots of fire ready to defend Elisha (2 Kings 6:17).
Some Bible passages picture angels with wings (Isaiah 6:2, 6). Other verses talk about angels flying (Daniel 9:21). However, I suspect that angels can move around without having to depend on wings. Most references to angels in the Bible say nothing about wings, and in passages like Genesis 18-19, it is certain that no wings were visible.
Now here’s a biggie that’s sure to upset collectors of cutesy angels. Angels in the Bible never appear as cute chubby little kids! They’re always full-grown adults. When folks in the Bible saw an angel their typical response was to fall on their faces in fear and trembling. I would venture to say that’s a pretty good indication that angels don’t fall into the category of being ‘cutesy’ but rather awesome, fearful creatures that you don’t want to mess with.
Sorry to burst anyone’s bubble, but that’s the biblical truth about angels! (So much for cutesy cherubs and blond beauties made out of porcelain.)
Three Wise Men
Another twisting of the truth related to Christmas can be found in homes and front yards of many churches across the globe. That twist is a manger scene (crèche) which depicts three wise men standing over the baby Jesus with gifts in hand. The story told is that three wise men (Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar) came from the east following a bright star which led them to a stable in Bethlehem where they found the baby Jesus and presented Him with three gifts; gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Well, the truth is, the Bible contains almost none of these details. The story gets the town right, the fact that there were wise men that followed a bright star, and that gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh were brought to Jesus, but that’s about it. The rest of the details have been added over the years from sources outside of the Bible.
Matthew 2:1 tells us: “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem....” Did you notice that Matthew doesn’t say how many wise men came from the east, doesn’t mention their names, and doesn’t say they visited Him in a stable?
It has generally been assumed that the wise men (or magi) were three in number because Matthew 2:11 makes mention of three gifts: “...they presented unto Him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.” The number of wise men is not specified in the Bible. Some Eastern religions however have claimed up to twelve magi made the journey to Bethlehem.
The names of the wise men, Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, do not come from the Bible and did not appear in Christian literature until over five hundred years after the birth of Christ. And, despite the familiar lyrics of the Christmas carol We Three Kings, no biblical source depicts the three wise men as being kings. In reality, they were most likely learned men or perhaps astrologers.
Regardless of the number of wise men, the Bible tells us that they arrived just after the birth and found the baby Jesus in a manger -- right? Nope! No cigar again. Matthew 2:11 states: “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary His mother, and fell down, and worshipped Him....” The wise men came “into the house,” not a stable, and they saw a “young child,” not a newborn. This passage indicates that the wise men didn’t arrive on the scene for quite some time after Jesus’ birth - more like two years after His birth according to some scholars. In fact, according to Luke 2, it was shepherds, not wise men, who visited the infant Jesus in the manger. (Today, my wise men and their camels are no where near my manger.)
The Apostle Paul tells us in 2nd Timothy 2:15 to, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” As I said earlier, the world loves to twist the Truth. The Bible however holds all Truth and can be trusted. And, for sure, wise men still seek Jesus!