In yesterday’s post, I played mythbuster by exposing three common misconceptions about the wise men. In today’s post, I will consider the significance of the three presentations (gifts) made by the wise men. A final post on Thursday will offer three practical applications that we can learn from the story of the wise men.
The gifts of the wise men are the heart of the story of the wise men and the reason that it is recorded by Matthew in Matthew 2:1-12. Matthew desires to show how the Christ child was recognized and worshiped as a King by pagan astrologers.
The word translated “worship” means to fall down at one’s feet and worship. This is emphasized by the added description that they “fell down.” “Falling they fell at his feet and worshiped Him.” What a scene this must have been! A band of Oriental travelers entering a humble abode and falling flat on their faces at the feet of a toddler in an act of worship. And they brought gifts! This is either the most ridiculous scene in human history or this baby is the God-man, the heir to the throne of David, Christ the Son of the living God! And if this is the case, the Wise Men’s response is the only proper response.
The Wise Men’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were highly significant. These gifts were significant on two levels. First, from the Magi’s perspective these gifts were costly gifts worthy of a great king. They were seeking to honor this one who was born King of the Jews.
But the gifts of the Magi were significant on another level as well. Gold was the metal of kings. Frankincense was a sweet-smelling gum imported from Arabia that was used by priests in temple worship (Lev 2:1, 2, 15-16). Myrrh was a fragrant gum which was used as medicine and as a perfume, as well as to embalm the bodies of the dead. Thus, unbeknownst to the Wise Men each of their gifts meant more than they could have probably understood. These facts moved Bible commentator William Barclay to write:
Gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, myrrh for one that was to die – these were the gifts of the wise men, and, even at the cradle of Christ, they foretold that he was to be the true King, the perfect High Priest, and in the end the supreme Savior of men.
But what an indictment it is upon the religious elite of the day, that the birth of the Jewish Messiah was noted by Gentile foreigners! Where are the scribes? Where are the chief priests? They’re in Herod’s palace seeking favor with the political power from a man who within a few short years will be dead. While at the same moment the King of the entire universe has invaded planet earth. Talk about misplaced priorities!
Excursus: Herod the Great was a crafty and cruel ruler whose paranoia cost many of his own family members their lives. He murdered his favorite wife, her mother, two of her sons, and his own eldest son. The Roman emperor Augustus said it was better to be Herod’s pig hys than his son hyios.