Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh
See them coming from the east, west, south, and north.
History and the Bible record that the birth of Baby Jesus came as a surprise to many. In fact, most people living at that time were completely oblivious to His arrival. This is quite astounding considering that He is the king of the universe and the Creator of the planet and the people He came to dwell with. One would expect a large welcoming party ready to greet Him.
However, the Savior of the world was almost completely unrecognized. He was born in the animal quarters outside an overbooked inn. His first bed was a feeding trough for livestock. Yet, even though His arrival was largely unacknowledged, there were some who did welcome His coming. The Gospel of Matthew records some special visitors who traveled a long way to meet this new Baby.
“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him’ ” (Matt. 2:1, 2).*
Throughout his Gospel, Matthew emphasizes the royalty of Jesus. From the outset, Matthew lists the genealogy of Jesus in sets of 14 (Matt. 1:17). To the Jewish mind, this number is associated with kingship, and, more precisely, the quintessential king of Israel, King David. Not only was King David greatly admired by succeeding generations, but the Bible prophesied that the Messiah would be as great as King David.
The genealogy of Jesus is perhaps arranged in sets of 14 because the numerical value of the Hebrew name of David adds up to 14. Matthew constantly reminds his audience that Jesus is the “Son of David.” Not only is Jesus born in the same town as David was, but Matthew also emphasizes that Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Micah 5:2, which foretells that a “Ruler” will come out of Bethlehem (Matt. 2:5, 6).
These are not the usual gifts one brings to a baby shower.
It is no wonder that Matthew includes this account of important men from the East coming to Herod, the Roman king of Judea, to inquire about the whereabouts of Jesus. These Wise Men bring very interesting gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These are not the usual gifts one brings to a baby shower. Not today, and not in biblical times, either. Even though these gifts have some intrinsic value, their significance is much greater than what appears at face value.
Similar to our perception today, gold had connotations of wealth and honor in Jesus’ time. It was the most precious metal then and was used in the sanctuary and in royal courts. The giving of gold may have brought some economic relief to Mary and Joseph, but, more important, it served to emphasize that even though Jesus was born in humble circumstances, He is to be venerated as a king. Gold was known to come from such regions as Ophir and Sheba. Many archaeologists today point to Yemen as the likely location of Sheba. The most likely location of Ophir is also south of Israel.
Frankincense is a dried aromatic resin that comes from the Boswellia tree. The English word “frankincense” literally means “pure incense.” In Greek it is called lebanon, which is also the name of the country located directly north of Israel. This incense was probably named after the country of Lebanon because that is where it was predominantly traded during the Greco-Roman period. Frankincense played an important role in the biblical sanctuary services. Almost every time it is mentioned in the Bible, it is found in relation to the sacrificial service. Burning frankincense with an animal sacrifice produced a sweet odor that served to mask the smell of burned flesh.
The reason for sacrificing an animal was to symbolically transfer guilt from a person. The animal was killed in the stead of the sinner; its fate fulfilled the natural consequence of sin, which is death. These animal sacrifices were temporary teaching aids pointing forward to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. He was the true sacrifice and the only one that can truly remove the guilt of the sinner. The apostle Paul points out that the love of Christ is the “sweet-smelling aroma” to God that went up when He was sacrificed for our sins (Eph. 5:2). The present of frankincense given to the newborn Jesus undoubtedly revealed what His purpose was in coming to this world. This baby would one day die for the sins of the world.
Like frankincense, myrrh is also an aromatic resin that comes from a tree. The tree is repeatedly beaten and wounded to cause it to bleed its sap. Since the time of the ancient Egyptians, myrrh was used as an embalming ingredient. This custom was also practiced by the Israelites to delay decay and reduce the foul odor of the corpse. After Jesus had died on the cross, Nicodemus brought a large amount of myrrh and aloes to embalm His body (John 19:39). The name myrrh comes from the Hebrew and Aramaic words for “bitter.” The bitter taste as well as its association with burial caused myrrh to be a symbol for the bitter things of life. Although myrrh was a valuable substance, presenting it to a newborn is very strange. Whether the Wise Men from the East knew of Christ’s mission or not, the present of myrrh powerfully foretold of His profound sorrow and untimely death. This baby would experience incomparable grief as foretold in Isaiah 53.
In the Greek language of Matthew’s Gospel the name for myrrh is smyrna. Smyrna was also the name of a city in Asia Minor, located to the west of Israel. This city came to be named after the word for myrrh because its namesake was turned into a myrrh tree in Greek mythology. The book of Revelation also records a message from Jesus to the believers in Smyrna. He identifies with their bitter persecution and tells them that because He overcame death, He will give them the crown of life as a reward for their faithfulness (Rev. 2:8-11).
The giving of gold, frankincense, and myrrh carries the rich significance of Christ’s mission to earth. The gold represented his kingship, the frankincense foretold of His sacrifice, and the myrrh of His identity with sorrow.
This gift bearing, however, points to yet another aspect of Christ’s mission. Wise Men from the East come bearing gold (from the south), frankincense (literally called lebanon, pointing to the region north of Israel), and myrrh (literally called smyrna, which is located to the west of Israel). The four directions of the compass are represented. The east comes to Him bearing the south and the north and the west. This gift bearing undoubtedly points to the global reach of Christ’s mission to earth. His birth may have been largely unrecognized, but from the outset, He is given His divine directive to die for sin, and the reach of that death will extend to the whole world! This baby is indeed the Savior of the world!
Some church traditions identify the Wise Men as Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. The Bible, however, is silent on the number of Wise Men, let alone their identities and names. Even though three gifts were mentioned, there could well have been more than three men. Isaiah 60:6 foretold many camels coming to the light of the Messiah.
The gifts prized by Jesus are those that come to Him freely. Conversely, He longs to extend His free gift of salvation to the whole world. No matter where we are in the world, the Savior is constantly drawing us to Him. In exchange for the gift of our heart, He will return it to us filled with peace, joy, and love, together with the assurance that we too will pass from death unto life just as He did. He wants us to be part of the greatest celebration ever! One day there will be an innumerable number of people from the four corners of the globe who have accepted Christ and rejoice in His kingdom.
“After these things,” writes John, “I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (Rev. 7:9).
As we listen once again to the story of Jesus’ birth and contemplate its significance for our lives, let’s not forget the coming great celebration. Jesus came to pay the high price for us to be there, and He does not want to miss seeing us there.
That’s a good enough reason for me to give Him the gift of my heart today.
* Scripture quotations in this article have been taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.