Over two thousand years ago, the Hope of mankind arrived in a small stable located somewhere in Bethlehem to fulfill a promise given by God to Adam and Eve 4,000 years earlier. Moments after His birth, a star appeared above the stable and signaled to all knowledgeable observers that God’s promised Messiah had been born.
Among those who witnessed the star were a group of wise men, commonly referred to as Magi, who lived in the East. Knowledgeable about astronomy and the Old Testament, these individuals recognized the fact the star’s presence announced an astonishing event and were soon in route to witness it firsthand. With the help of the star, the Magi traveled from their homeland to Jerusalem, then on to Bethlehem where the Child lived with His parents. The Bible tells us the Magi brought with them gifts fit for a king, but it does not tell us how many individuals actually arrived for the presentation. The idea of three probably came from the fact three gifts are mentioned.
Since the birth of Christianity, numerous theologians and Biblical scholars have presented a variety of interpretations with respect to the meaning and significance surrounding the gifts brought to Jesus by the Magi - gold, frankincense and myrrh. Considered by many to be gifts worthy of a king, these three items are also mentioned within the list of gifts presented to the god Apollo by King Seleucus II Callinicus in 243 B.C.
The Book of Isaiah is filled with prophetic comments about the Messiah and the restoration of Jerusalem. Included among them is a prophecy about these special gifts: “The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the Lord.” (Isaiah 60:6 KJV)
Nothing is in the Bible by mistake. Everything has a reason, a purpose, and a large part of Bible study centers around finding out what that reason or purpose is. Some may believe the gifts the wise men brought Jesus had no special importance or value; instead, the gold, frankincense, and myrrh just happen to be what they had available to them. Those who have spent at least a decent amount of time reading the scriptures, however, know this is not true.
The gifts brought by the wise men were gifts fit for a king, someone they found worthy of worship. Thus, it would be wrong to assume the gifts they brought were an afterthought, an insignificant gesture with no meaning. But why gold, frankincense and myrrh rather than gold, silver and costly array? These would have been things a new family starting out in life could really use. The providence of God, however, is seen in these special gifts.
The gold was no doubt a great blessing to Joseph and Mary. In the Bible, gold has always stood for divinity or that which is like God. It is mentioned from the beginning to the end of the Bible and serves as a major building block of the New Jerusalem. The wise men brought the gift of gold to Jesus to recognize the fact He was God in the flesh. In addition, it helped to provide the means necessary for the long and expensive journey the young family would make to Egypt, as well as sustaining Joseph, Mary and Jesus in a foreign land where they would stay for a considerable amount of time.
The question now is; what was the value of the frankincense and myrrh?
Found in Persia, Arabia and India, along with the East Indies, frankincense (levonah in Hebrew – לבונה) is a costly and aromatic tree gum of the Boswellia Sacra trees. The trees are quite unique in the fact they are able to grow in environments which are normally highly unforgiving; so much so some have even been found growing in Israel directly out of solid rock (Song of Solomon 4:14).
The white resin is obtained by slitting the tree’s bark and allowing the gum to flow out. The word “frankincense” actually means "whiteness", in reference to the white colored juice which flows from the wounds and pain sustained by the tree. The gum is allowed to harden for three months, then is gathered at the end of the summer and sold in clumps of hardened resin, known as “tears”. Highly fragrant when burned, frankincense was part of the Ketoret, the consecrated incense used in Jewish worship as a pleasant offering to God. Burned in homage to God, the smoke rose heavenward in the same manner as the prayers of the faithful.
The presentation of frankincense to the Christ Child served to symbolize His holiness and purity, along with His willingness to freely and wholly give Himself up as a burnt offering. In much the same way frankincense is gathered by cutting the bark of a tree, the Lord was broken upon a tree (i.e., the cross).
Myrrh, the third gift, is similar to frankincense as it too is an aromatic gum produced by a thorn bush and obtained from the plant in the same way. Similar to an acacia tree, it is a thorny plant that typically grows eight to 10’ tall. Unlike frankincense, myrrh gum is pale yellow as it oozes from the plant, then turns dark red to black in color. Bitter in taste, myrrh has medicinal qualities, and is sometimes mixed with wine. Jesus would later consume such a drink prior to his crucifixion.
These three gifts served to represent the three roles of Jesus as the Messiah: gold to represent His kingly office, frankincense His divinity, and myrrh for His manhood.
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"They had known Christ but one day; He had performed no miracles; He had none other to do Him homage; He was but a helpless Babe, yet they fell down and worshipped Him." Anonymous