What you are about to read is the talk I've put together. Just pretend I am talking to you, which I am, of course, except that I can't see you and am not always sure who you are...
Regardless, I hope you enjoy it, and if you think of it, you might offer up a quick prayer that this will provide new indights with practical application to those whom I have the delightful privilege of speaking. May it do the same for you.
Most of the time when the subject of the “wise men” or “Magi” comes up the attention is on the composition and phenomenon of the magnificent star they saw or speculation about who they were and where they came from.
But I want to focus on the practical and spiritual significance of the gifts they brought. Interestingly, the Bible doesn’t actually tell us how many of these kings from distant lands came to honor the greatest King of all, but because our nativity scenes and Christmas carols all speak of three kings, most of us have been conditioned to think of that number! This is probably because, regardless of how many there actually were, we are told of three specific gifts they came bearing.
Most of us also assume that the gifts came in little boxes, but again, there is no record of the quantities of the offerings they brought.
Now if we correctly assume that not a single detail in the Bible is there by accident or without meaning, we won’t waste time on the details that don’t matter and can shift our attention to the ones that matter enough for God to have been very specific about them. He wasn’t specific about where the kings came from, who they were, how many there were or the quantities of the gifts. But He was very specific about what the gifts were so lets think for a moment about what they might represent and whether they might have any significance for us today.
On the most basic level, they brought items from their homelands which were of the greatest worth. All of the items were rare, precious and expensive.
Whatever else we might learn from this story, we know they came to honor the One they believed to be the King, the Messiah, and they gave the very best of what they had.
The Queen of Sheba was another visitor to Israel, who came to meet with Solomon as we read in 1 Kings 10:2, “So she came to Jerusalem with a very large retinue, with camels carrying spices and very much gold…” The Magi did the same, being spiritually aware, as it says in Matthew 10:42, “One greater than Solomon is here.”
They gave items which were found and valued in the region they lived in. Likewise, the Lord invites us to give Him what is available to us.
They offered the gifts as an act of worship. When the Messiah was still just a helpless baby, before He could speak a single word or perform a single miracle, “they fell down and worshipped Him.” (Matthew 2:11)
In both the Old Testament tabernacle and later the temple, gold was used extensively throughout showing both its value and its use in worship. The fact that Gentile kings would offer such worship had prophetic significance. We read in Psalm 72:10, “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles will bring presents; The kings of Sheba and Seba will offer gifts. Yes, all kings shall fall down before Him; All nations shall serve Him.” And again in Isaiah 60:6 we read, “All those from Sheba shall come; The shall bring gold and incense; And they shall proclaim the praises of the Lord.”
Together they represent the three roles of the Messiah. Gold is representative of His Kingship. Frankincense represents His divinity and myrrh His manhood--being in a human body and subject to suffering and death.
We can also clearly see God’s providential and practical provision for Joseph, Mary and Jesus as the gifts provided the means to sustain them during a long and expensive journey into Egypt where they would remain for quite some time.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the gifts.
Gold has been a precious metal holding extremely high value from as long ago as 2,500 B.C. It has always been, and still is, especially prized as a medium of exchange.
It is scarce, and most things that are difficult to come by or are labor intensive, from pearls to raspberries, are expensive.
It is universally thought of as beautiful and is the preferred setting for gems on all spectrums of the price scale.
Gold is enduring. It can withstand all natural acids and even fire. In a wedding ceremony it becomes the symbol of a marriage that will hopefully endure the test of time, difficulties, disagreements, disappointments, illness, and bereavement.
It also speaks of God Himself who tells us in various Scriptures that His love, mercy, righteousness and Word endure forever.
Gold is adaptable for shaping and easily alloys with other metals. It’s soft enough to be molded but can be combined with other metals to provide even greater strength.
It is interesting that even gold, with all its beauty and qualities, becomes a better product when it works with others.
Wouldn’t it be better for us to want to be more like gold, rather than to want more gold? Think of humility, compassion, adaptability, selflessness, a servant’s heart and other admirable qualities. To be sure, a person who possesses and is increasing in these qualities is rare and beautiful indeed!
When the Magi presented gold to the Christ child, they were honoring Him with the very best they had and were recognizing that Jesus was King.
For me the most intriguing aspect of this first gift is that it is able to survive fire!
The Apostle Paul uses this analogy in 1 Corinthians 3:11-13 regarding Christian works. “For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the Day will show it; because it will be revealed with fire and the fire itself (God’s discerning judgment) will test the quality of each man’s work."
In chapter 1:6-7 of Peter’s first epistle, he takes a bit of a different slant when he points out that there is something which, like gold, is refined by fire, but unlike gold, never perishes. “In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
In other words, just like gold is proven to be gold by enduring fire without losing anything of its nature, weight, color or other properties, so also our faith is proven genuine by the adversities and trials we endure through faith.
“Yet even gold, in process of time, will wear away by continual use; and the earth and all its works, will be burned up by the supernatural fire whose action nothing can resist. But on that day the faith of Christ’s followers will be found brighter and more glorious. The earth, and universal nature, shall be dissolved; but he who does the will of God shall abide forever, and his faith shall then be found to the praise of God’s grace, the honor of Christ, and the glory and glorification of his own soul throughout eternity. God Himself will praise such faith, angels and men will hold it in honor, and Christ will crown it with glory.” Wow! That’s good stuff, isn’t it?! I wish I knew who said it...
Peter points out that there is something more valuable than gold and that is the process of our faith being tested and strengthened through the trials, adversities, and hardships of life which test and strengthen our faith which will hold us through eternity.
This is exactly why James can boldly and confidently tell us to “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
If we truly understood God’s purposes, we would rejoice in our trials rather than simply enduring them or trying to pray our way out of them! Notice that faith grow and bears fruit, unlike gold, which as enduring as it is, will someday perish.
The second gift of the Magi was frankincense which is a very expensive and fragrant gum distilled from a tree that is found in Persia, India, Arabia and the East Indies. It’s actually a white resin, or gum, that you get by slitting the bark of an “Arbor Thurisfrom” tree which allows the gum to flow out. The word actually means “whiteness” because that’s the color of the juice which flows out of the wound in the tree. The gum is allowed to harden for three months and is scraped off at the end of the summer and sold in clumps or “tears” of the hardened resin.
It is intensely fragrant when it is burned and was used in worship where it was burned as a pleasant offering to God as we read in various verses in Exodus and Leviticus.
It was also used as a medicine and as perfume, but the lesson we can take from frankincense is that our worship should be pleasing to the Lord.
I find it very analogous that this sweet smelling resin comes as a result of a wound to the tree. When we can worship God in the midst of our sorrow and suffering, then our worship becomes a fragrant aroma before the Lord.
While joyful worship is also pleasing to God, our tears, like frankincense resin, oozing out of our hurts and broken hearts, and especially our tears of repentance, are a sweet-smelling sacrifice to the Lord.
Anyone can dance and sing when they are happy and everything is going their way, but true worship takes place when we must overcome feelings of disappointment, doubt, fear and self-pity.
I find it interesting that God wants a “sweet-smelling sacrifice.” Do you really think He cares what it smells like? As with everything else, God is interested in the condition of our hearts when we pray and worship Him. And it is when we come to Him with a sweetness in our spirit, rather than a sense of duty, or bitterness because things haven’t turned out like we thought they would, that He is most pleased.
The last gift of the Magi was myrrh. Myrrh, like frankincense, is a gum resin that is produced from balsamodendrom myrrha tree that grows in Arabia and Ethiopia and is gotten, like frankincense, by wounding the tree. This tree can get up to ten feet high and is thorny.
When myrrh oozes from the slit in the tree is a pale yellow color, but as it hardens it changes to dark red, which represents, to me, the blood of Christ shed for my sins.
Myrrh is as bitter as frankincense is sweet. Its name was actually given to it because of its extreme bitterness. The Hebrew word is similar to the waters that were bitter when Moses and the people were coming out of Egypt in Exodus 15:23. “And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter: therefore the name of it was called Marah.”
It is also what Naomi says to her daughter-in-law in Ruth 1:20. “Call me Mara, for the Lord has dealt very bitterly with me.”
Its primary use was for embalming the dead because it preserved the body from putrefaction. It was an ingredient of the holy ointment and was a favorite perfume in the ancient world. It is said to keep its fragrance for several hundred years if it is kept in an alabaster pot.
Myrrh also has medicinal qualities and was sometimes mixed with wine to make a antistatic like the drink offered to Jesus when He was being crucified.
Myrrh is brought as a gift to acknowledge the human suffering Jesus endured when He humbled Himself to enter His own creation and bore the sins of the world.
Why did He refuse the drink? Because He had already submitted to the will of His Father and drunk the bitter cup of His suffering.
Today, we can offer the spiritual equivalent of these same gifts to Jesus. We bring gold when we honor Him as King and yield to the purification process of fiery trials.
We bring frankincense when we worship Him in the midst of our brokenness.
We bring myrrh when we recognize that He identifies with us in our pain and sorrow.