For the last several years, I have been bringing Christmas messages focused on Matthew 1 and 2 as I have ministered in various churches. In the process, I have become amazed at the vast Scriptural and historical background that must be mined in order to grasp the full significance of these extremely familiar passages.
I certainly have not yet exhausted the meaning of this magnificent text, but I have become absolutely fascinated with so many aspects of it.
The first issue that confronts us in chapter two is the character and history of Herod the Great. Then there are those “wise men from the East” (v. 1).1 It is astonishing to realize the incredible depth of understanding that we can gain regarding these men from the books of Esther and, especially, Daniel (see, for instance, Est. 1:13 and Dan. 2:48; 5:11). There is also the nature of the “star” (v. 2), which I believe was God’s manifestation of His presence among His people by displaying the Shekinah glory.
But at the center of this pivotal chapter, we find the first Christmas “gifts,” given by the magi to the Christ child, whom they had “worshiped” (v. 11).
These gifts have been the object of endless fascination, not to mention spiritualization or allegorization. They are often approached with a warm, devotional appeal. Rarely, however, have we really “searched the Scriptures” (Acts 17:11) in an attempt to understand all that we can about these very intriguing Christmas presents.
We read about these wise men: “And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matt. 2:11). Yet, we can fully understand this statement only if we realize, first of all, that the wise men were enthralled with the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures regarding the coming of the Jewish Messiah. Furthermore, I believe that—while the wise men did not fulfill any of those prophecies—they sought to operate consistently with them (note especially Isa. 60:1-7, 10-12, 15-20; see also, in comparison, Rev. 21:22-26; 22:5)2 as they looked for this King. Furthermore, they functioned in a way that now serves to prefigure the final fulfillment of the prophecies. Thus, the whole episode brims with prophetic significance. Their gifts, especially—given with at least some knowledge of their Biblical importance—are rich in symbolism with regard to the prophetic future.
The first gift, “gold,” clearly carried the same connotation that it does today, and ties directly with Matthew’s purpose of exalting Jesus as the “King of the Jews” (Matt. 2:2). But how did the wise men know to bring gold to Bethlehem?
Most likely, they had studied Isaiah 60:6, 9 and 17. In the coming Messianic Kingdom, “gold” will replace “bronze” as the metal of common usage (v. 17). As the future Davidic king, and God in the flesh (Luke 1:31-33), Jesus deserved to have gold at His birth, and God the Father used these pagan, occultic diplomats to supply it.
“Frankincense” also corresponds to the “incense” found in Isa. 60:6—which likely served as the inspiration for the wise men. Its value was commonly understood in the Biblical world. The word is found 15 times in the Old Testament, and Leviticus 2 is the “frankincense chapter” of the Bible (see also Lev. 6:15).3
Frankincense was a vital element in Hebrew worship, but, amazingly, could never be used with “a sin offering” (Lev. 5:11). Jesus came to be our Melchizedekian “High Priest” (Heb. 5:10)—offering Himself, “yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Since He had no sin of His own for which to offer sacrifice, His life and death could be purely “a sweet aroma to the LORD” (Lev. 2:2; see Ex. 30:34-38; see also Eph. 5:2 and Phil. 4:18).
“Myrrh” is similarly found 13 times in the Old Testament. It was an essential ingredient in the “holy anointing oil” (Ex. 30:25) that was described extensively in Exodus 30:22-33.
Interestingly, myrrh was also an ingredient within the liquid that Jesus refused on the cross (Mk. 15:23; cf. John 19:28-30), as He would not utilize a pain reliever in that way.
But then myrrh was later contained in the “mixture” used to prepare Him for burial (John 19:39). Thus, the myrrh that the wise men brought related to His impending death as the Savior offering the only sacrifice for our sins.
However, myrrh is nowhere to be seen in the prophecy that the wise men attempted to follow in Isaiah 60. Dr. David Jeremiah expands on that theme, as follows:
The gifts you bring to Jesus in His second coming don’t have any myrrh in them, because His death is already past. When He comes the next time, it will be for the gold and frankincense of praise and worship, and myrrh will be absent. Hallelujah! He died once for all, and He will never die again. Myrrh is associated only with His first coming.4
These mesmerizing magi will one day serve as a model for “The Gentiles … And kings” (Isa. 60:3) who will follow their example of “worship” (Matt. 2:2) of the Messiah in His coming millennial kingdom. But, as we will then look back from that glorious vantage point, the shadowy obedience that these magi performed to the prophetic Scriptures will be overwhelmed by those who “shall bring the glory and the honor of the nations into” … “the holy city, New Jerusalem” (Rev. 21:26, 2).
We infer from the text that the wise men brought their gifts more than 40 days “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem” (Matt. 2:1; see Luke 2:22-24, where Joseph and Mary brought the least expensive options for the “burnt offering” and “sin offering,” based on Leviticus 12:6-8). We would also assume, however, that Joseph and Mary were able to use these valuable gifts to afford their travels down to Egypt (Matt. 2:13-15) and back up to Nazareth (Matt. 2:19-23).
Merry Christmas! I hope that you find these first Christmas gifts to be as fascinating as I do. And I hope that this year’s celebration of “the birth of Jesus Christ” (Matt. 1:15) will cause all of us to remember the grace of God, and to express with the Apostle Paul: “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15).
1 Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2 These passages also have fascinating implications regarding the “star” (Matt. 2:2) that the wise men saw—when we compare the revelation that they received with future conditions in the millennial kingdom and the eternal state.
3 Leviticus 2 covers the “grain offering” (v. 1). The MacArthur Study Bible explains: “The grain offering signified homage and thanksgiving to God as a voluntary offering….” John MacArthur, ed. NKJV edition (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997), p. 157.
4 David Jeremiah; “Why the Gifts of the Wise Men?;” Turning Point; n.d.; https://www.turningpoint.tv/media/why-the-gifts-of-the-wise-men-1485; Internet; accessed 23 December 2021.
Paul J. Scharf (M.A., M.Div., Faith Baptist Theological Seminary) is a church ministries representative for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, serving in the midwest. He also assists Whitcomb Ministries and writes for “Answers” Magazine and Regular Baptist Press. For more information on his ministry, visit foi.org/scharf or email firstname.lastname@example.org.