The Gospel of Matthew, in chapter 2:1-12, records an account of the magi or wise wen who came from the east to honor Jesus with gifts after he was born. These men had faithfully followed a star that appeared at the time of the birth of Jesus. In all probability, they were people who studied astronomy, and would get insight into how celestial bodies influenced earthly events. The men had gold, frankincense, and myrrh, to signify the person and life of Jesus, as we will see.
Background of The Story
There are varying opinions as to the origin of the wise men; some say they came from Babylon, others say Persia, and some say India. One view holds that they were Jews who had gone to India and came back when the star appeared. The leadership of God was no doubt upon their lives, since he alone could control a heavenly body to lead men.
Tradition holds that the Magi found the infant Jesus in a manger, and that they were the first visitors to Mary and Joseph following this birth. This view cannot be true if we look closer at the account in Matthew 2. When the wise men met Herod, after he had heard of the birth of a king, he expressed an insincere desire to worship that king too. Thus, he begged the men to let him know where the King of the Jews was after they find him. Really, the aim of Herod was to kill Jesus, since mention of a Jewish king gave him insecurity.
When the wise men found Jesus and presented their gifts, an angel of God warned them to return another way to escape the snare of Herod. It is important to note that the men had told Herod that the star had appeared two years earlier. When Herod realized the men had escaped, he ordered, in great wrath, the killing of children of two years and under in Bethlehem and the coasts of Israel. These events show that the men had journeyed for two years (Matthew 2:16) and found a two-year old child, rather than an infant in a manger.
Meaning of Gold
In the Bible, gold stands for deity. This gift by one of the men revealed the wise man’s inspiration about Jesus; that he was God incarnate. Isaiah 9:6 vindicates this, for it shows that among other titles of this son, one was the “mighty God.”
While this wise man that had the gold many not have known much except that Jesus was the King of the Jews; in truth, Jesus is God in human form. Many scriptures bear this out, such as Isaiah 9:14, which prophesied that the son of the virgin would be God with us (Immanuel). Mary, of course, is not the mother of God; rather she bore the flesh body that the Spirit God wrapped around himself to relate with humanity.
Meaning of Frankincense
Frankincense stands for service in the Bible. In Leviticus chapter 2:2 and 16:-15, we find that it was added to sacrifices to make them acceptable to God. The aroma of frankincense was pleasing to God, and was offered on the altar of incense as continual sacrifice. Thus, it stood for service to Jehovah.
Jesus, though master, came to serve humanity, as he attests in Matthew 20:28. When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet in John 13, he was proving his service in humility, while teaching his disciples the same. The ultimate service to humanity was his vicarious death. It is hard for a person to die for a good man; yet Jesus died for the worst sinner. God’s law required the death of a sinless one to ransom sinners. That was the apex of service to others.
Meaning of Myrrh
In John I9:39, Nicodemus brought myrrh, which they bound together with clothes on the dead body of Jesus. Myrrh thus stands for death. Linking the thoughts of frankincense and myrrh then shows that Jesus’ way of serving humanity was to die for them.
The ministry of Jesus would not have been realistic without his death. He had to taste death for sinners, so they would escape spiritual death and judgment. No wonder, he could not bypass the cup of his passion and death.
The Full Meaning of the three Presents Together
In light of these explanations, it is now easy to consolidate the gifts of the wise men to give a complete picture. The gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh revealed that Jesus was deity who came to serve humankind by way of death. It is instructive that three is God’s number of perfection. The presents had to be three to offer a complete picture of who Jesus was and his work.
It is safe to assume that the wise men were three, each with one present. The world is made up of races from the three sons of Noah, these being Shem, Ham, and Japheth. The guiding star was one. Bringing these thoughts together, we find that God had sent Christ as the one offering for all humanity.
A Pointer to Ministry Gifts in the Church
The record of the wise men and their offerings has important teaching for the church. God has given diversities of gifts, but all of them reveal the one person of Christ. For this reason, it is vital for Christians to respect God’s gifts, big or small.
In Ephesians chapter 4:11-15, we find Christ giving ministries to the church to bring it to perfection after his ascension. Churches, particularly Pentecostals, call these offices of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers the five-fold ministry. A single fold of the ministry is insufficient to minister the fullness of Christ to the church body. The wholesome revelation of Jesus has to come through all five to bring edification unto perfection, just like the offerings of the wise men together expressed him fully.
The magi came with gifts that signified the person and life of Jesus Christ. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh in that order revealed that Jesus had to come to serve humanity through his sacrificial death. This is compelling evidence that Christ was God incarnate and savior.