In our American, consumeristic culture, it is very easy to see a church service as just another place to “get” something.
And this mindset is not too surprising because church facilities and worship services are certainly well-known as places and events where we are given refreshments, free childcare, good music, positive messages, and much more in a climate-controlled, safe, aesthetically pleasing environment.
While there is nothing wrong with good coffee, kids ministries, music, and all the rest, if we are not careful we will end up thinking as consumers in our spiritual life instead of coming to God with our offering of worship and “sacrifice of praise” (Hebrews 13:15).
So, during the Christmas season, the story of the Magi bringing their gifts to the Christ Child in Matthew 2 can be a helpful reminder of the kinds of “gifts” that God wants from us as well.
At some point, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, several Magi traveled to see him by following a unique star or light in the sky. These Magi (otherwise known as “Wise Men”) were a special class of priests in the Persian Empire that had been around for a long time, at least since Daniel was appointed to be their leader by King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 5).
They were religious professors, philosophers, and scholars who were highly educated in many fields, including religion, astronomy, and even astrology (which is why they were paying attention to the stars in the first place).
It is very possible that while Daniel was overseeing these Magi, he taught them the prophecies about the coming Messiah (such as in Numbers 24:17 and Micah 5:2). Quite possibly, they had been waiting on Jesus’ birth for a long time.
Because of their knowledge and influence, they also served as political advisors and even “king-makers” — which is a very interesting connection considering that the Book of Matthew (that presents Jesus as the rightful king in the line of Judah) is the only gospel account that mentions this story.
But these men did not risk their lives to make this journey (especially considering their interaction with the evil King Herod) in order to make a political move, teach a seminar, or advise a king — they were traveling from the Far East to worship “he who has been born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2).
When the Magi finally found the house where the Christ Child was staying, they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy,” fell down on their faces before Jesus and Mary and worshiped him (an appropriate reaction to being in the presence of the King of Kings).
Then they opened their treasures and presented to the young Jesus three types of gifts: Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These were not random gifts that they had lying around, they were each significant at the time, and they have important meanings for us today.
What Was the Significance of Each of the Magi’s Gifts?
1. Gold is a precious metal that has been used for jewelry, ornaments, currency, and idols throughout human history because of its color and shine.
2. Frankincense is an expensive fragrance or perfume made from trees in India and Arabia.
3. Myrrh is a specific kind of costly perfume made from rare thorn bushes in Arabia and Ethiopia that is used as an antiseptic anointing oil and embalming fluid.
While these gifts would have been rare and very costly for the Magi to give to Jesus’ family, they were not unheard of in first-century Palestine.
However, while gold and perfume might make nice “Christmas gifts,” myrrh is an odd (or even inappropriate) gift choice for the family with a newborn baby. As one writer put it, “Embalming liquid never appears to top the lists of baby shower gifts in society today.”
But as this author suggests, these gifts were diplomatic representations of each of the Magi’s cultures. Based on where they were each from, they “honored the King… in a way that fit their nationality.”
In a similar way, because these gifts were expensive, they demonstrated the level of sacrificial love and worship they had for this newborn King. This was not a gesture of altruism, it was adulation.
The Magi were not purchasing anything with their gifts, they were praising. John Piper eloquently expressed it like this:
The gifts are intensifiers of desire for Christ himself in much the same way that fasting is. When you give a gift to Christ like this, it’s a way of saying, “The joy that I pursue… is not the hope of getting rich with things from you. I have not come to you for your things, but for yourself. And this desire I now intensify and demonstrate by giving up things, in the hope of enjoying you more, not things. By giving to you what you do not need, and what I might enjoy, I am saying more earnestly and more authentically, ‘You are my treasure, not these things.’”
Almost ironically, though, God is clear through his word that he does not need anything that we have to offer. As the apostles preached in the Book of Acts:
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:24-28, ESV).
What Is the Deeper Spiritual Meaning Behind These Gifts?
The ancient church understood that the three types of gifts clearly symbolize three key aspects of Christ’s identity.
The gold points to Jesus’ royalty, the frankincense to his divinity, and the myrrh to his humanity.
In fact, you could argue that through their gift-giving, the Magi “preached” the gospel in a tangible way. Whether they fully knew it or not, their gifts told the story of how God himself, who came down from Heaven as our King (gold) to fulfill his priestly duties (frankincense) and eventually die for our sins (myrrh).
Since the gift of myrrh was the oddest gift, it especially points forward to the day that Jesus would die for the sins of the world.
Thankfully for humanity, though, that burial was only temporary — because three days later he rose again. And because of his resurrection, we can have eternal life.
Today, as we read about this “first Christmas” event, there are at least two important lessons that we need to learn.
First, we need to learn that the main message behind the Magi story, gift-giving, and the rest of the Christmas (or Advent) holiday, is that Jesus Christ came to earth to die to offer salvation for sinners — meaning you and me (1 Timothy 1:15; Luke 19:10). We must pray that we do not lose sight of that.
Secondly, just as the Wise Men responded to the heavenly light above them by going and worshiping Jesus, the Christmas season calls us all to respond to Jesus in one way or another.
This truth is not only clear in the story of the Magi, but we also see it in the stories of the angels, the shepherds, the older saints in the temple, and even Herod (who responded to the news of a king by trying to kill him).
This is because Christmas presents us with the gospel, and the gospel demands a response.
For Christians, Christmas calls us to worship. However, we have to choose what we worship. This is not just about avoiding materialism through the holidays (although that is important to do), it is about choosing to worship Jesus over everything else.
And because Jesus is the only true King, when we bow our hearts to him and lay our precious “gifts” before him, “then we are saying that he alone can satisfy our hearts.”
Thankfully, King Jesus “never turns away from any heart that is open to him. Those who seek him will find him every time.”
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Gama5
Robert Hampshire is a pastor, teacher, writer, and leader. He has been married to Rebecca since 2008 and has three children, Brooklyn, Bryson, and Abram. Robert attended North Greenville University in South Carolina for his undergraduate and Liberty University in Virginia for his Masters. He has served in a variety of roles as a worship pastor, youth pastor, family pastor, church planter, and now Pastor of Worship and Discipleship at Cheraw First Baptist Church in South Carolina. He furthers his ministry through his blog site, Faithful Thinking. His life goal is to serve God and His Church by reaching the lost with the gospel, making devoted disciples, equipping and empowering others to go further in their faith and calling, and leading a culture of multiplication for the glory of God. Find out more about him here.