Why Did the Wise Men Present Jesus with Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh?
Whether it’s the heirloom nativity scene that takes a place of prominence in your own Christmas decorations, a child-proof version that you purchased for your children to enjoy, or the community display in front of the local church, almost every nativity scene includes a few camels and three wise men dressed in colorful robes. While they are an important part of the story of the coming of Jesus, our nativity scenes don’t tell the real story of the wise men’s visit, as they imply these kings of the east knelt at the manger.
In fact, Scripture reveals that the wise men visited Mary and Joseph after they had moved to a house. The timeline isn’t clear. According to the information given to Herod, the star that led the wise men could have appeared two years earlier, and it took that long for them to discern its significance and follow it to Bethlehem. Or the star appeared when Jesus was born, and was still in place two years later, over the home where the little family was living, until such time as they planned to return to Nazareth. Jesus could have been a toddler of two at the time He found these scholarly men bowing at His feet.
We find the reference to the two years after the wise men had completed their visit. They were warned by God not to return to Herod, and left without updating the jealous Gentile king. In Matthew 2:16 we read, “Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi.”
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Who Were These Magi? And Were There Only Three?
The word “magi” refers to a group of men specializing in astronomy, astrology, and natural science. They came from the East, probably Arabia. They were well-respected (as seen by Herod’s reception and trust in them) and were likely advisors to their own king. They had studied the prophecies and God had given them the knowledge that the unusual star they observed in Israel indicated that a new king of the Jews had been born (Matthew 2:1-2). Tradition (and our modern-day nativities) tell us there were three, but this is supposition, since Scripture names three specific gifts that were presented to the young child, Jesus.
“After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way” (Matthew 2:9-12).
It was not unusual for a king to honor another king with gifts; we see this often in the Old Testament, as well as secular history. I don’t believe it was random choice that selected the particular gifts given to Jesus, nor that God chose to enlighten these men with enough knowledge that they were willing to set out on a long journey to worship at the feet of a child. God included their story to affirm who Jesus really was.
One Bible commentator makes this observation: “The magi were men who 1) read and believed God’s Word, 2) sought Jesus, 3) recognized the worth of Christ, 4) humbled themselves to worship Jesus, and 5) obeyed God rather than man. They were truly wise men!” Perhaps one very important reason this record is written down is to show us that wise men and women still seek Jesus today.
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What Were the Gifts the Wise Men Brought, and Did They Have Any Special Meaning?
The three gifts listed are gold, frankincense, and myrrh – “money, and money’s worth” as Matthew Henry describes them. They are not the kind of gifts we would think of bringing to a baby shower, or presenting to a new mother, but in fact, were the most practical of gifts. God knew that as soon as the wise men bypassed Herod on their way home, the king’s rage would erupt. They would not be able to return to their hometown, to be embraced, loved, and supported by their families. Instead, Joseph received some startling news.
“Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.’ So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt. He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called My Son’” (Matthew 2:13-15).
Luke’s account of the early days after Jesus’ birth sheds light on why God would have arranged to “shower” Mary and Joseph with such valuable gifts. When He was forty days old, they brought Him to the Temple in Jerusalem to present the sacrifices as prescribed in the Old Testament law. Their choice of animal reveals this young couple had very little in the way of material possessions.
“And when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’), and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, ‘A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons’” (Luke 2:22-24).
Leviticus 12:1-8 indicates a lamb was to be brought, but if they could not afford a lamb, then the turtledoves or pigeons would be acceptable. Since no mention of a lamb is made in Luke’s account, we can conclude that Mary and Joseph had little funds available. Now, they were being forced to flee their homeland and travel to Egypt with a baby. God knew they would need physical provision. How timely the magi’s visit! When Joseph awakened from his dream, he certainly realized that God had once again provided exactly what was needed to care for His Son.
In addition to the practical aspect of the gifts, each gift seems to indicate it was chosen to represent some deeper truth about this tiny baby. While Scripture does not tell us this directly, by considering each gift in light of its normal use, and understanding that God mentioned these three specifically, we see something very special was taking place.
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The Gift of Gold
Gold is the most valuable of metals, purified by extreme trial – the molten heat of the refiner. Gold was the currency of kings. The temple, the place where God met with His people, was built and adorned with much gold. The walls were covered with it; the utensils, fastenings, and trays were made of it. The jewels on the priests’ garments were set in gold, and the ark of the covenant was overlaid with gold.
The gift of gold speaks of Jesus’ kingship. He is our King of kings and Lord of lords, the Most High God and sovereign over all.
“I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who testified the good confession before Pontius Pilate, that you keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which He will bring about at the proper time — He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen” (1 Timothy 6:13-16).
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The Gift of Frankincense
Frankincense was uniquely connected to the priesthood and sacrificial system in the Old Testament. It was added to the grain offerings (Leviticus 2:1-2), and it was part of the special incense that God ordained to be offered continually in the Temple (Exodus 30:34). Frankincense was also added to the twelve loaves of shewbread as a memorial to the Lord (Leviticus 24:5-9).
The gift of frankincense speaks of Jesus as our high priest, the one true mediator between God and men.
“Therefore, He [Jesus] had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17).
“For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 5:5).
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The Gift of Myrrh
Myrrh was a fragrant spice, a bitter gum and costly perfume obtained from certain trees or shrubs in Arabia and Ethiopia. It served as a perfume and an antiseptic. The Song of Solomon describes the beloved one as perfumed by myrrh. It was used to make women beautiful (Esther 2:12). The Greek word is only used two other times in the New Testament. In Mark 15:23, it was mixed with wine and offered to Jesus on the cross as pain relief (which He refused). And it appeared in the embalming spices Nicodemus brought to the grave.
Myrrh speaks of Jesus’ death, foretelling that He would become the perfect, atoning sacrifice, offered up for the sins of the world.
“Nicodemus, who had first come to Him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews” (John 19:39-40).
As the magi presented their gifts to what appeared to them as a small child, they were, in fact, kneeling before their Creator who will one day appear in all His glory and might. This Christmas, as we give gifts to one another, may we not forget to give ourselves first to Jesus. Let us kneel before the Savior, our King of kings, our perfect High Priest, and the One who died for us. Let us worship Him, for He is worthy.
“And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.’ Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.’ And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, ‘To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.’ And the four living creatures kept saying, ‘Amen.’ And the elders fell down and worshiped” (Revelation 5:9-14).
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Author Sheila Alewine is a pastor’s wife, mother, and grandmother of five. She and her husband lead Around The Corner Ministries, which serves to equip Christ-followers to share the gospel where they live, work and play. She has written seven devotionals including Just Pray: God’s Not Done With You Yet, Grace & Glory: 50 Days in the Purpose & Plan of God, and her newest one, Give Me A Faith Like That, as well as Going Around The Corner, a Bible study for small groups who desire to reach their communities for Christ. Their ministry also offers disciple-making resources like One-To-One Disciple-Making in partnership with Multiplication Ministries. Sheila has a passion for God’s Word and shares what God is teaching her on her blog, The Way of The Word. Connect with her on her blog, Facebook, and Instagram.