Last week, I wrote about what it really means that Jesus was born in a manger.
This week, I thought I’d address another part of the Christmas story that has become so cliche that we often forget its significance.
I’m talking about the gifts the wise men brought to Jesus.
We all know what they were – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But why? Of all the things the wise men could have given the two-year-old son of God, why these three objects?
I never gave it much thought myself until college when I stumbled upon the full lyrics of the Christmas carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” As I read the second, third, and fourth verses, the Lord opened my eyes to see the meaning behind each of these important gifts.
Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown him again
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign
The gold given to Jesus spoke to his royalty. It’s no secret that the Magi knew Jesus was a king. When they arrived in Israel, these wise men went straight to Herod to ask, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2) Since they knew he was a king, they brought gold as a tribute to Jesus. The Queen of Sheba did the same thing when she visited Solomon (1 Kings 10:2).
Gold is something you give to a king. But the next two gifts show that the wise men had even greater revelation about who Jesus really was.
Frankincense to offer have I
Incense owes a deity nigh
Prayers and praising, voices raising
Worshiping God on high
When I was studying in Europe, I had the privilege of attending a service at a Greek Orthodox church. It is an experience I will likely never forget. Every surface of the interior of the church was covered in iconic paintings. I marveled at them as I listened to the cantor worshiping God in a language I didn’t understand. What I remember most, though, is the incense.
During the service the priest walked throughout the room with what I at first perceived to be a lantern, until I saw smoke coming from the small box. Almost immediately, the most fragrant perfume began to fill the room. The scent was almost intoxicating, like nothing I’d ever smelled before.
In that moment, it wasn’t very hard to believe that God truly does dwell in the praises of his people. His presence seemed near.
The traditional American Evangelical church I’d been exposed to up until that point had never included incense in the worship service. But it was something that Matthew’s Jewish audience would have understood immediately.
“Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Take fragrant spices…and make a fragrant blend of incense…. Place it in front of the Testimony in the Tent of Meeting, where I meet with you. It shall be most holy to you.” Exodus 30:34-36
Despite the fact that these days you can buy incense at your local Pier1 to make your house smell good, that wasn’t its original purpose.
Incense is meant for worship.
The wise men understood this. The fact that they gave Jesus incense meant they knew he was God.
And they were choosing to worship him.
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes the scent of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in stone-cold tomb
Of all of the gifts to Jesus, I imagine this one had to have confused Mary the most. She understood that Jesus was king, and that he was God. But I am sure she did not yet know the full meaning of what him being the Messiah meant for his future. Like most other Jews, she probably expected Jesus to grow into a strong warrior, leading the Israelites to throw off the bonds of Roman oppression.
She couldn’t have known that instead, he would grow into the ultimate Passover Lamb, who through his sacrifice, would enable us to throw off the yoke of slavery to sin. As Jesus’ mother, that knowledge probably would have been too much for her to bear.
But the Magi understood Jesus’ true purpose on earth, or they wouldn’t have given him myrrh.
He wouldn’t need it until 30 years later.
“Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes…. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it with the spices, in strips of linen.” (John19:39-40)
Jesus had not just come to be our king and our God, but to die for us. The Christmas story will always be incomplete unless we look forward to that point in time when he defeated our sinful nature on the cross.
Thankfully, that isn’t the end of the story.
Glorious now, behold him arise
King and God and sacrifice
Sound though the earth and skies