I guess over the years we have all received many different Christmas presents. Different families and different cultures handle Christmas presents in a variety of different ways. Some exchange their gifts on Christmas Eve and others wait until Christmas Day itself and depending on the age of the kids Christmas Day can begin in what seems like the middle of the night!
I wonder what kind of present you like to give. I wonder whether give the type of present you would like to receive yourself. As a kid it was never very exciting to open a parcel to find some useful gift of a pair of socks or a box of handkerchiefs though as we grow older our appreciation of what is useful might well change.
The Wise Men and their Gifts
The wise men had no Christmas customs to follow – the birth of Jesus was after all the first Christmas. So we won’t blame them for bringing their gifts a little late – Jesus was no longer that "baby lying in a manger" but he had become "a child in the house"; he was now perhaps between 18 months and 2 years old.
(I hope none of you have to wait another 18mths to 2 years for your presents!)
When these men arrived and saw the child they knew that they had found the One they were looking for and instantly fell down and worshipped him – it was extraordinary behaviour and surely must have been one of the things that Mary treasured up in her heart to think over later.
Then it was time to hand over the gifts they had brought with them. While we don’t know how many wise men there were, we do know that three distinct gifts were handed over.
Do you know what they were? I’m sure you do.
Gold, frankincense and myrrh:
These gifts were each in their own way valuable and practical.
I want us to spend a few moments thinking about these gifts – what they were and what they signified.
Let’s look at them in turn:
This is the sort of gift that you tend to appreciate more as you get older. When you’re small an envelope with some money in it doesn’t really seem all that interesting but after years of receiving not quite what you wanted money becomes more and more appealing as a gift to receive and an easy gift to offer too.
Gold, as you’re all well aware, is a precious metal. Unlike some other metals it doesn’t rust or deteriorate and so it is a convenient way of storing, carrying and transferring wealth. Of course you can use your gold to purchase other things too.
The Bible refers more to gold than to any other metal. Because of its valued properties it was regarded as the most precious of all metals and as such it became symbolic of all the things that pertain to God. Gold was used widely in the Tabernacle and the Temple, those places where God was to be served by his people. It spoke of wealth, of beauty, of lavish display – it was highly appropriate as a way of highlighting the splendour of God and came to be associated with the concept of divine righteousness.
Because of its use and its associations gold came to be regarded as a perfect emblem for purity and for nobility – it was a metal fit for kings and kings loved it.
Thus as the wise men offered gold to Jesus they were offering him something very precious indeed and at the same time they were pointing to his royal status – this one "who had been born king of the Jews". This One would grow to be great David’s greater Son. Many people would fail to recognise him for who he was but his identity was known to some and even the evil spirits knew who he really was: ‘the holy One of God’.
Gold was a fitting gift for the One who was destined to become the King of kings and the Lord of lords (Rev.19:16).
Frankincense and Myrrh
Were used for a varied of different purposes some of which overlapped to a certain extent. Both were expensive and thus greatly valued.
Both had a role to play in the realm of personal hygiene – the "smellies" of their day as they could be used as personal perfumes. In a day before daily bathing became the norm these two items could be used amongst other things as ancient air-
They could further be used as make up – when frankincense was burnt the ash that was left behind could be used for eye liner for example. Both myrrh and frankincense were thought to help prevent premature hair loss and baldness. It could also be used as a skin cleanser or toner – perhaps it was the Savlon of its day!
Both had a medicinal function as well.
In ancient times frankincense was used in the treatment of wounds, as an antidote to some poisons, for the relief of leprosy, for dealing with worms, snake-
Means "pure incense" – in Rev.18:13 it is listed with other items considered to be of having great value.
Frankincense was used in a religious context in the OT and in particular a priestly one.
Frankincense was used as a perfumed oil and added to accompany some offerings adding a memorial element to the sacrifice – it gave off a sweet odour when burnt and in this way came to be treated as symbolic of the divine name and its smoke symbolic of prayers offered to him.
Myrrh was the majority ingredient in the special anointing oil that was used for consecrating the Tent of Meeting and the Ark of Testimony. Indeed it was used for just about everything used in their service including Aaron and his sons who served as priests there.
We should take note of one more medicinal attribute of myrrh: it was used as a narcotic, a pain-
In addition myrrh was used at funerals – it is specifically mentioned as being part of the herbs and fragrances that were used by Nicodemus as he prepared Jesus lifeless body for the tomb after his crucifixion. This was described as being "the burial custom of the Jews".
Taken together these three gifts offered to the child Jesus by the wise men have an unusual significance for a newly born child.
His life would be involve:
Kingship and holy royalty
Priestly activity and Sacrifice
And how prophetic these gifts would prove to be!
Each element describes and focuses upon a different aspect of his life, the reason for which he came into the world. His ultimate purpose even though he was Lord and Master, the king of his people, was to suffer and die. And yet his life wasn’t stolen from him – as the high priest he laid down, not the life of some sacrificial animal, but his own life as a perfect spotless sacrifice. He was both priest and victim.
Jesus would tell Pilate in response to the latter’s questioning that he was a king though his kingdom was not of this world otherwise his followers would take arms and fight for him. But his death was followed by his resurrection and prior to his ascension he declared that all authority on heaven and earth had now been placed in his hands. How would he exercise that power? Would he take the opportunity of getting even with his enemies who had harried and rejected him so violently?
Not a bit of it!
He instead sent his followers out into the world not with weapons of war but with a message of good news, of sins forgiven, peace with God and a hope of heaven!
The wise men had understood something of all this when they saw his star when they were in the East. They knew something special was taking place and wanted to be a part of the story. They travelled their long journey and gave their expensive gifts but their gifts were not a bribe or a purchase price but in recognition of the value of the child who was himself God’s gift to a sin-
I don’t know how much these wise men understood but they reacted to what they did know rather than to what they didn’t know. They came to the Christ and they worshipped him and offered their gifts to him.
What are we doing with what we know? Are we acting upon what we know and understand and coming to him with our gifts?
My friends what could possibly said in our defence if we were to neglect such a great salvation?
May God grant us a clearer view than ever before of the significance and importance of the coming into the world of his Son the Lord Jesus Christ and may we all be numbered amongst those who believe and trust in him.