Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Gifts of the Magi

When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
Matt 2:9-12 (KJV)
An integral part of the nativity story is the journey of the Magi, or Wise Men, from the east to visit the young Jesus and His family. Ever since their visit, people have wondered about the nature of the magi and the gifts that they brought. A familiar Christmas carol, “We Three Kings,” describes the journey of the Magi.

The word “magi,” though similar to our word “magician,” referred at that time to philosophers, priests, and astronomers. Many of these Magi were from Persia, modern day Iran, although others lived in Arabia. Both areas would have been to the east of Judea. When the Bible says that they saw the star in the east, it refers to the location of the Magi in the eastern part of the world. The star actually would have appeared in the western sky.

In his research of the Star of Bethlehem, Frederick Larson details the astronomical signs in the sky that would have led the magi to Bethlehem. This can also be found on his website, Larson believes that the Wise Men saw the Christmas Star in the summer of 2 BC from their homes in the east. Their journey apparently culminated several months later in December, 2BC. We cannot determine exactly when or where their journey began.

The Wise Men first visited Herod, one of the several Herods who ruled Judea under Roman authority. The Herod who reigned at the time of Jesus’ birth was likely Herod the Great, who ruled from 40 to 4 BC, or his successor, Herod Antipas, who ruled from 4 BC to AD 39. The Herods were ruthless rulers who jealously guarded their power. Herod asked the Magi to return to him when they found the newborn King of the Jews that they sought. A divine dream warned the Wise Men not to return to Herod, however. When Herod realized that the Wise Men were not coming back, he ordered the murder of all Bethlehem children under two years old.

We do not know whether the Magi visited Jesus while He was still in the Bethlehem stable or whether His family had found a more permanent residence. We do know that their reaction when they saw Him was to fall down and worship Him. After worshipping Him, they presented Him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The gift of gold is self-explanatory. Gold is and always has been of great value. Gold was often given as a gift on the birth of royalty in the ancient Middle East. Gold was also often paid in tribute by royalty to more powerful kings. Even today in the Middle East, it is common to bring a gift when visiting a person of a higher social status.

The gifts of frankincense and myrrh need a little more explanation. Frankincense was produced in Arabia, a possible origin of the Magi. Frankincense is a tree resin that is fragrant when burned. In ancient times, it was used in worship and the Jewish Temple included altars of incense. It is fitting that the Magi brought an implement of worship as a gift to the newborn Messiah because Jesus Himself was destined to assume the role of the preist for all of mankind. Christ is our intercessor and link to God.

Myrrh was also a product of Arabia and, like frankincense, was produced from a tree. The name “myrrh” denotes bitterness. Myrrh had several uses. It was used as an ointment in the purification of women, and thus may have been used by Mary after the birth of Jesus. In some instances it was used as a perfume. Additionally, myrrh was sometimes mixed with wine. In Mark 15:23, Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh while on the cross, but He refused it. Myrrh was also commonly used in embalming because it helped to preserve the body of the deceased and helped to cover the smell of decay. In John 19:38, Nicodemus brought myrrh to bury with Jesus after His crucifixion.

From a practical and economic view, these gifts would have been welcomed by Joseph, a poor carpenter with a struggling family. The gold could be used to buy a house or food. The frankincense could have been sold to help support the family. The myrrh could have been used by Mary for ritual purification or as a perfume.

In addition to their practical utility, in the gifts of the Magi we see a symbolic depiction of who Jesus is and of His future. Gold represents Jesus’ royalty as the Prince of Peace and the King of Kings. Frankincense represents His deity as Immanuel, “God with Us,” the Son of God, and the Word of God who was present “in the beginning” and who will return in the end. It also represents His role as a preistly link between humanity and God. Myrrh represents the willing sacrifice of His life as He died for our sins.

After their visit with Jesus and His family, the Magi departed back to their home country by a different route so that they could no betray Jesus to Herod. We have no way of knowing how meeting the infant Jesus impacted their lives after that.

We cannot know how much the Magi understood of their actions on that first Christmas, but through Divine Providence their journey and the delivery of the first Christmas gifts has become a part of the living history of the birth of Jesus. The story of how they became the first to worship the King of the Jews has inspired countless others to follow their example in making a spiritual journey to worship Christ. Their selfless gifts paint a picture of the life of Jesus the Christ, Yeshua the Messiah, who lived and died and lived again to conquer death and sin on our behalf. This is the true meaning of Christmas.

Merry Christmas!
Smith’s Bible Dictionary, Bible Explorer 4.0, WORDSearch, 2006.
Barnes’s Notes on the New Testament, Bible Explorer 4.0, WORDSearch, 2006.

Boston Massachusetts
December 19, 2009

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