GIFTS FOR A KING
The Old Testament declared that Gentiles from around the world would come to the Messiah, bearing gifts that actually included gold and frankincense (Psa 72:10-15; Isa 60:1-6). When the Magi from the east visited Jesus, they partly fulfilled this prophecy. The nations were indeed paying their respects to the great Jewish king, even bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh to honor Him. These gifts represented the nations’ desire to use their wealth to worship the Jewish Messiah. But these gifts also carried powerful prophetic meaning.
Gold had great value in Jesus’ day. It would have been a wonderful financial blessing for Galilean peasants who probably had very little. Some scholars have suggested that this financial gift may have funded the flight of Mary, Joseph and Jesus into Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous rampage. But in addition to its obvious practical use, gold was a gift for kings, and the Magi had come to meet the greatest King of all. The Messiah that Daniel foretold was to be a great King that would rule over the whole earth.
“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven, there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and language should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14)
It is no wonder the Magi would have been eager to meet the Jewish Messiah and honor Him with gold. According to Daniel, the greatest prophet they had ever known, this “Son of Man” would come with the clouds of Heaven. He would be served by all the people of the earth – from every nation and language.
Babylonian and Persian kings had sometimes been given the title, “King of Kings.” But they had all died, and their kingdoms had passed away. Yet Daniel’s “Son of Man” would receive an eternal Kingdom with unlimited dominion and glory. That great monarch would be immortal and indestructible. Truly this was to be the King of all kings and the Lord of all lords. That is why they came with gold. They had no more valuable resource to worship the highest-ranking King of all time and eternity.
Frankincense and Myrrh
Frankincense and Myrrh are both resins (or gums) that come from the sap of trees. Frankincense comes from the Boswellia tree and myrrh from the Commiphora tree. Both substances are edible and fragrant with multiple purposes – the most practical of which are medicinal. Probably the most obvious reason these gifts were given to a baby was to care for Him and treat any potential ailments, scrapes and bruises. They reveal a very tender side of the Magi. They had not come simply to pay respects out of dutiful reverence. These were heartfelt gifts of care and love. They had come to worship.
Prophetically we can see even deeper meaning to these gifts. Frankincense and myrrh were gifts often presented to the gods. In the east, as well as Egypt, Rome and many other places, frankincense was used in religious ceremonies as part of the recipe for aromatic incense. The Magi probably had no idea that it was also used by the Jews in temple worship as a fragrant offering to God.
The Messiah predicted by Daniel and expected by these Magi was clearly an extraordinary person. In fact, He could not be considered a mere mortal at all. The person described by Daniel was nothing less than God-man. Daniel called Him, “The Son of Man” – a title Jesus often used for Himself, identifying Himself as both human and divine.
Somehow the Magi understood that Jesus was more than a man – even more than a king. They had not come merely to esteem a great king, but to worship the divine King. In Scripture, neither mortals nor angels are permitted to receive worship. But Jesus was greater than a man, He was greater than the angels. He was and is the unique and eternal Son of God.
Born to Die
Frankincense and Myrrh were also used in ancient times to prepare bodies for burial. The emperor Nero once burned a whole harvest of Frankincense at the funeral of one of his favorite mistresses. When Jesus was buried, His body was covered in burial spices, including myrrh.
Myrrh is mine, a bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone, cold tomb!
(“We Three Kings” John Henry Hopkins, Jr.,1857)
If Daniel were indeed the source of the Magi’s knowledge, they may have known that Jesus was destined to die for His people. Daniel had prophesied, announcing that Messiah would be killed or “cut off – yet not for Himself.” Other prophets foretold this as well. Isaiah said:
“He was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:8-9)
David prophesied the crucifixion of Jesus with stunning detail. In Psalm 22, he mentioned Jesus’ rejection and scorn, the piercing of His hands and feet, the Roman soldiers’ gambling for his clothes, and even His last words.
Daniel’s words about the Messiah’s death stood firmly in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets. Remarkably, it seems God invited the Gentile Magi, as followers of Daniel’s legacy, into that prophetic tradition. Perhaps the Magi brought myrrh because they knew from Daniel’s prophecies that the infant King of the Jews was destined to die.
Or maybe their gift was more of an unconscious prophetic sign. Just as Mary of Bethany was unaware that her anointing of Jesus prepared Him for burial (Mark 14:8), so the Magi could have been unaware of the full meaning of their gifts. The Bible does not tell us their motive. But one thing is certain. Jesus was born to die. From the beginning, His purpose was to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28).
In John 12:27, just before Jesus went to the cross, He said, “Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour.” Jesus lived with an awareness of His purpose. He was born to die.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made Flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary!
(“What Child is This” William Chatterton Dix, 1865)
His Indescribable Gift
The Bible reports the exact gifts the Magi presented to Jesus because each one was important and prophetic. But as profound as those three gifts were, Christmas is not about the Magi’s gifts to Jesus. It is not about our gifts to each other. It is not even about our gifts to God. The real significance of Christmas is what God gave to us – His only Son – the only gift that would cost Him something.
Whenever we talk about the cross and about salvation we usually either focus on the transactional or the judicial elements. In other words, we talk about how God paid the price that we couldn’t pay and bought our salvation. That’s the transactional part. Or we talk about how justice demanded that someone be punished for our sins, so Jesus took our place and received the punishment on our behalf. That’s the judicial part.
These are great truths, but if we merely analyze and reduce them to doctrines, we will miss the visceral reality of the Father’s giving His only Son. To understand the cross, we do not need a theological degree. We need an honest look into the raw realities of love and life. If we know what it means to feel pain – what it feels like to lose something precious, give sacrificially, or love selflessly – then we can begin to relate, in a small way, to what God did. He gave to us what was most precious and costly and painful to Him.
Think about this. What gift could God give that would show you His love? If God gave you a million dollars, you would appreciate it. But it wouldn’t cost God anything. He can make a million dollars with a snap of His finger. If God gave you a planet it would cost Him nothing. If He gave you an entire galaxy, it would be effortless. He spoke the worlds into being. But when God gave us His Son, Heaven went bankrupt.
When the angels announced the birth of Christ they declared “Peace on earth, goodwill to men.” This phrase has been used so much that it has become cliché. But these are some of the most important words that have ever been uttered. The coming of Jesus was a message from God – the ultimate expression of His love and goodwill toward us.
One of my favorite verses is Romans 8:32: “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” In that verse the Apostle Paul points to the cross as the ultimate proof of God’s goodwill toward man. If God would give His only Son to us, if He would allow Him to suffer and die in our place – to be wounded and bruised and broken for us – we can be sure that He will give us anything else that we need.
With that one gift, God gave everything He had and everything we need. It was the one gift in which all other gifts are contained. Ephesians 1:3 says that God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ! There is one thing God has to say and one gift Heaven has to give – Jesus! When you receive Jesus, you receive every gift of God, because everything God has to give is in Christ!