‘Tis the Season’ to Understand Gifts
Introduction: I will be doing a series this December I am calling ‘Tis the Season’. I began with ‘Tis the Season to Understand / Appreciate prophecy’.
Transition: This week ‘Tis the Season to Appreciate Gifts’.
As we all know from our nativity sets, some very special guests attended the birth of the Jesus: wise men from the east, bearing gifts for the newborn king. Compared to the Bible’s account of the royal visit, the story we tell is often padded with a bit of extra information. History and tradition have done their part to fill in the details regarding these visitors, including their number, names, and the timing of their arrival. One aspect of the visit that has largely escaped alteration is the list of gifts presented to Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. If you’re wondering what use an infant would have for these gifts, you’re not alone.
The primary significance of the gifts lay in their great value—they were indeed gifts fit for a king. Beyond making it clear that these were great treasures given in an act of worship (Matthew 2:11), Scripture does not directly attach any other symbolic meaning to the gifts. However, without venturing too far off into extrabiblical speculation, it’s reasonable to draw a few possible inferences from the gifts brought by the wise men. These valuable gifts were clearly intended to honor Jesus, but it’s possible they carried deeper theological significance as well.
The Gift of Gold
As was customary for royal visits, the wise men came bearing treasured gifts intended to honor the newborn king. And as it is today, gold was a valued commodity in the ancient world. Among the types of assets listed in the Bible (e.g., precious metals, livestock, servants, gemstones, etc.), accumulation of gold was one of the chief measures of wealth (cf. Genesis 13:2, Ecclesiastes 2:8). Because of its scarcity and immense value, gold was particularly associated with royalty and nobility, as is seen in 1 Kings 10 when the Queen of Sheba visits King Solomon bearing great quantities of gold as a gift. By bringing a gift of gold, the wise men showed that they did indeed consider Jesus a king.
In addition to underscoring the royalty of Jesus, some have noted that the wise men’s gift of gold may have foreshadowed another aspect of Jesus’ ministry. Under the Old Covenant, the Most Holy Place (also known as the Holy of Holies) was an inner sanctuary within the Temple where the priest would encounter the presence of God and offer a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Likewise, the incarnation of Jesus heralded the presence of God—Immanuel—and the sacrifice of atonement he would make on behalf of his people when he went to the cross. The wise men may have had this connection in mind because, as described in 1 Kings 6:20-22, the walls of the Most Holy Place and the altar within it were completely overlaid with—you guessed it—gold.
The Gift of Frankincense
Frankincense is an aromatic gum resin that is still widely used in parts of the Middle East and Africa today. It is produced by scraping the bark of certain native species of trees and then harvesting the beads of resin after they have dried. When burned as incense, it creates a strong and beautiful aroma. In the ancient near east, the cost of frankincense precluded it from being used as a common household air freshener. Rather, the burning of frankincense was closely associated with ceremonial worship of a deity. In this way, the inclusion of frankincense as a gift for Jesus may have indicated that the wise men understood that the prophecy of the newborn king carried with it a claim of deity.
As with gold, frankincense may also have an implied connection with the Temple worship of the Old Covenant. Burning incense at the altar was a key part of the sacrificial system prescribed by God for use in the Tabernacle and, later, in the Temple itself. According to Exodus 30, however, not just any incense would do. A specific recipe of spices mixed with “pure frankincense” (v. 34) was to be consecrated as “pure and holy” (v.35) and was the only incense permitted at the altar. A speculative parallel can be drawn between this and Jesus’ life as a pure and holy offering to the Lord.
The Gift of Myrrh
Myrrh is a fragrant spice derived from the sap of a tree native to the Near East. Like frankincense, it can be used as incense, but in the ancient world it also had wider usage as a perfume, anointing oil, and was even imbibed as a medicinal tonic. Most notable with regard to Jesus’ life, myrrh was a key ingredient in the mixture of spices that were used to prepare bodies for burial (e.g., John 19:39-40). Perhaps the wise men intended this gift as an indication of Jesus’ humanity and the manner in which he would save his people—namely, that he would die for them (cf. Isaiah 53:5).
Just like the first two gifts, there is a Temple connection with myrrh as well. Exodus 30 tells us that liquid myrrh was a main ingredient in the anointing oil used to ceremonially prepare the priests, the instruments, the altar, and the Temple itself before sacrifices could be made. Again, parallels to Jesus’ consecrated life and sacrificial death are immediately noticeable.
All three gifts reveal thought-provoking implications that related to Jesus’ life and ministry.
Transition/Interrogative: The question is this though…what do you and I, as believers and Christ followers bring to present to Jesus, the one who has and owns everything?
For my thoughts / and yours…I need a few volunteers!
- Respect / Honor
- Love / Devotion
- Loyalty / Fidelity
- Service / Gifting(s)
- Honesty / Transparency
Transition: What else? Anything? Anyone?
Conclusion: Gold, frankincense, myrrh were at that time considered the most costly, important and appropriate gifts available.
Question: What are you bringing to the manger this Christmas?