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Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh
A Sermon by Dr. Neil Chadwick
At this time Dr. Neil Chadwick's Link to his sermon is broken! I feel that his sermon is very important so I have it included. Whenever the Link is restored I will Link to Dr. Chadwick's Home Page.
Whenever the subject of the "Wise Men", or "Magi" comes up, most of the attention is placed either on the star they saw, or speculation about where they came from. What we want to concentrate on here is the gifts they brought, and what they might signify for us.
Of course, the simplest meaning is that what these men brought were those items, which, in their experience, represented the greatest worth. All of these items were rare, precious and expensive. Whatever else we may learn from this story, we know that they gave their best in honor to the One they believed to be the King, the Messiah.
This story reminds us of another visitor to Israel, the Queen of Sheba who came to meet with Solomon. (I Kings 10:2) She also brought gifts including gold and spices. The Magi followed in the same steps, perhaps being spiritually aware that a "greater than Solomon was here" (Matthew 12:42).
There are several lessons about giving that we can note in this account.
1. It's interesting that we don't know their names, but we know what they gave.
2. It's always a bit suspect to me when donors of large gifts want their names associated with their gifts. My daughter attended a college in South Jersey named "Glassboro State College". While she was a student, a successful industrialist gave to the college a gift of 100 million dollars. Suddenly the name of the school changed to "Rowan College". Guess who gave the large donation? On the other hand, it's clear to me that godly men and women who give out of a pure motivation of desire to honor the Lord, these people, like the Magi, don't care to have their names mentioned. That's why we work hard to provide an accounting system that protects the anonymity of each one who gives.
2. They also gave items, which were local to their home area - Arabia. The Lord welcomes us to give to Him what is available to us. Unfortunately, in our culture, most of what we give to each other is what we have purchased somewhere in a store, or through a catalogue or over the Internet. But there are many who would admit that it's really special when they receive something that has been made by the person who has given it to them. For example, one of the favorite gifts my children have received from their grandmother are the slippers she knits out of the odds and ends of yarn that are left over from other knitting projects.
3. The gifts were a part of their worship. They bowed down before Him, and they offered Him gifts. One commentator points out, "They had known Christ but one day; he had performed no miracles; he had none other to do him homage; he was but a helpless Babe, yet they fell down and worshipped him."
4. Together, the three types of gifts represent three roles of Jesus the Messiah: His kingly office is represented by gold, His divinity by frankincense, and His manhood by myrrh. "They offered him incense as their God; gold as their king; and myrrh, as united to a human body, subject to suffering and death."
5. Also, it's clear that the providence of God is seen in these gifts. It provided the means necessary for a long and expensive journey into Egypt, and to sustain Joseph, Mary and Jesus in a foreign land where they would stay for a considerable time.
But let me tell you a little more about the gifts brought by these unusual traveling companions - we'll look at each of these gifts separately.
The first mentioned gift was gold.
Gold was the usual offering presented to kings by their subjects, or those wanting to pay respect. It seems that the metal we know as gold has always held extremely high value - as long ago as 2,500 BC, gold was especially prized, and used as a medium of exchange. Perhaps you remember when the US Mint announced that a new dollar coin was to be released at the beginning of the year 2,000. It was larger than the quarter (unlike the previous dollar coin, circulated around 1979), and it was gold in color. Notice I said "gold in color", there wasn't any gold in it at all.
But why has gold always represented great value? For several reasons:
1. Gold is scarce, which adds immeasurably to its value. But let's not forget, gold is dug from the earth.
2. Gold is, as one writer put it, "warmly beautiful". Have you ever seen the dome of a capitol building, mosque or temple, coated with gold, shimmering in the sun? Or think about a long flowing robe bordered with a gold edging.
3. Gold is enduring, and can withstand all natural acids and even fire. We draw attention to this feature when we perform the wedding ceremony. The ring becomes the symbol of a marriage which will hopefully endure the tests of time, tribulation, hardships, disagreements, illness, bereavement, and - - - teenage children!
4. Gold is adaptable for shaping and readily alloyed with other metals. There's an ancient soldier's helmet on display at the Pennsylvania State University museum. This beautifully crafted head-piece was hammered out of one solid piece of gold. But if it is soft enough to be easily molded, gold can easily be combined with other metals to provide an even greater strength. The ring around my finger would have long ago been pressed out of shape if it hadn't been for the fact that the gold is combined with another, less pliable metal. Even gold, with all its beauty and virtues needs others to compliment it.
Wouldn't it be far better for us to want to be like gold, rather than wanting to have gold? Humility, beauty, endurance, adaptability - a person with these qualities would be rare indeed, and priceless.
In both the Old Testament Tabernacle and the Temple, gold was used plentifully, so we see that gold is also associated with worship. And we are told that in the heavenly city we will "walk on streets of gold." Let me tell you a funny story.
One day a very wealthy man learned that he was going to die. He was so upset at the thought of leaving all his possessions behind that he asked God if he could bring his money with him. To which God replied flatly, "No, you can't take it with you."
But this wealthy man, who never took "no" for an answer, persisted asking. Finally God relented and agreed to allow the man to bring one suitcase with him. The man was so excited he hurried to decide what to pack. First he filled the bag with cash. But decided that perhaps the exchange rates might not benefit him. Then he filled it with stocks, but didn't know how they would perform over eternity. Finally he decided to fill the bag with gold bullion and congratulated himself on his clever planning.
When the day finally came that he passed away, he was happily standing in line at the pearly gates when St. Peter saw him and asked about the suitcase. "You'll have to leave that behind," said St. Peter. "No way" said the man, "I have special permission from God. He told me I could bring one suitcase filled with anything I wanted." "This is highly unusual," said St. Peter, "but let me see what's inside." He opened the suitcase and scratched his head as he pondered the contents.
"I don't get it. God said you could bring anything at all with you ... and you brought PAVEMENT?"
When the Magi presented gold, they were honoring Jesus with the very best that they possessed, and they were also recognizing that Jesus was King.
The story is told of an African chieftain who lived in a simple grass hut, and sat on an elegant, hand carved, wood throne. After ruling for a few years, he became a bit haughty and decided that wood wasn't good enough for him, he wanted a gold throne. So he commissioned his craftsmen to create a beautiful gold throne, and he took the wood one and stored it in the small attic of his hut.
A few months later, the sounds of warring natives from another tribe were heard approaching the village, and the African chief quickly assumed that they were probably going to come and steal his gold throne. So he exchanged the thrones, bringing the wooden one back down and hiding the gold throne in the attic. While he sat there anticipating the arrival of the enemy tribal warriors, suddenly the gold throne upstairs broke through the ceiling and came crashing down on the chief's head, and killed him.
So what is the morale of this story? "People in grass houses shouldn't stow thrones."
But what impresses me most about this first gift of the Magi, gold, is that this particular substance is able to survive the fire.
The Apostle Paul uses this analogy when he writes to the Corinthian church concerning Christian works, "For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work." (I Corinthians 3:11-13)
Job is the man in the Bible who was perhaps the most sorely tested man of all time. He lost all his worldly possessions, his children had died, and his health was gone, his friends made his burden heavier by trying to lay a guilt trip on him, and his wife advised euthanasia. But in the midst of his suffering, listen to what he says, "He knoweth the way that I take: when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold." (Job 23:10) Job isn't the only one who uses this idea of gold surviving in fire.
In a wonderful Messianic passage in Zechariah, there's a prediction and a promise: "'In the whole land," declares the LORD, 'two-thirds will be struck down and perish; yet one-third will be left in it. This third I will bring into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, `They are my people,' and they will say, `The LORD is our God.'" (Zechariah 13:8,9)
To the Laodicean church, the church whose members had become lukewarm in their relationship with God, the message is, "I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see." (Revelation 3:18)
But Peter gives a different slant on this, because he points out that there is something, which, like gold is refined in fire, but unlike gold, this other substance never perishes.
"In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith -- of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire -- may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed." (1 Peter 1:6,7)
As by the action of fire gold is proved to be gold by its enduring the fire without losing any thing of its nature, weight, color, or any other property, so genuine faith is proved by adversities, especially such as the primitive Christians were obliged to pass through. "Yet even gold, in process of time, will wear away by continual use; and the earth, and all its works, will be burnt up by that supernatural fire whose action nothing can resist. But on that day the faith of Christ's followers will be found brighter, and more glorious. The earth, and universal nature, shall be dissolved; but he who doeth the will of God shall abide for ever, and his faith shall then be found to the praise of God's grace, the honor of Christ, and the glory or glorification of his own soul throughout eternity. God himself will praise such faith, angels and men will hold it in honor, and Christ will crown it with glory."
Then Peter points out that there is something more valuable than gold, or even the testing of gold - it is the process whereby our faith is tested and strengthened, the adversities, sorrows, hardships, trials of this life which test and strengthen our faith which will hold us through eternity. Notice this about faith, it grows, and bears fruit, unlike gold, which, as enduring as we think it to be, will nevertheless someday perish.
The second gift brought out of the boxes by the Magi was frankincense.
Frankincense is a very costly and fragrant gum distilled from a tree that is found in Persia, India and Arabia, as well as the East Indies. It is a white resin or gum, and is obtained by slitting the bark of the "Arbor Thurisfrom", and allowing the gum to flow out. The word actually means "whiteness", referring to the white colored juice, which flows out of the wound in the tree. This gum hardens for three months, and is gathered at the end of the summer, and sold in the form of "tears", or clumps of hardened resin.
Frankincense is highly fragrant when burned, and was, therefore, used in worship, where it was burned as a pleasant offering to God. ("Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he tends the lamps. He must burn incense again when he lights the lamps at twilight so incense will burn regularly before the LORD for the generations to come. - Exodus 30:7,8) ("He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the LORD and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain." Leviticus 16:12).
It was also used as medicine and as perfume.
The primary lesson from frankincense is that our worship is to be pleasing to God. Remember, this sweet smelling resin comes as the result of the tree's woundedness and pain. When we can worship God in the midst of our sorrow, our brokenness, then it is a sweet smelling offering. That's why David said, "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise." (Psalms 51:17 )
Much emphasis in worship today is on "celebration". No time for agonizing and tears, only for shouts of joy and victory. While joyful praise is acceptable to God, tears, like frankincense resin, oozing out of our hurts, broken hearts, and tears of repentance are especially pleasing to God. Anyone can dance and shout when their team is winning, and everything is going their way. But true worship happens when it must overcome pleasing - a sweet smelling sacrifice to the Lord. feelings of self-pity, fear and doubt.
I've always been a bit mystified by this idea in the Old Testament that God wants a "sweet smelling sacrifice."
In the book of Leviticus, at least 16 times reference is made to the offerings being a "sweet savor". And when God pronounces His judgment on unfaithful Israel in Leviticus 26:31, He indicates that He will turn away from their offerings. "And I will make your cities waste, and bring your sanctuaries unto desolation, and I will not smell the savor of your sweet odors."
Do you really think God cares about the smell of the smoke? We might care - it wouldn't be very pleasant to attend a worship service where there is the horrible smell of burning flesh filling the air. So maybe it was for the benefit of the people that the burning of frankincense was instituted. On the other hand, God is interested in the condition of our hearts when we pray and worship Him. Is it with sweetness, or without of a sense of duty, or even bitterness because we don't feel that God is dealing with us fairly.
The last gift brought by the Magi was Myrrh.
Myrrh is an aromatic gum produced from a thorn-bush that grew in Arabia and Ethiopia, and was obtained from a tree in the same manner as frankincense. This thorny tree, called "balsamodendron myrrha", is similar to the acacia. It grows from eight to ten feet high, and is thorny. When it oozes from the wounded shrub, myrrh is a pale yellow color at first, but as it hardens, it changes to dark red or even black color.
However, if frankincense represents sweetness, myrrh represents bitterness, at least to the taste. In fact, the name itself was given to it on account of its great bitterness. (The Hebrew word is similar to the name given the waters that were bitter when Moses and the people were coming out of Egypt. "And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter: therefore the name of it was called Marah. - Exodus 15:23) Hear also what Naomi says to her daughters in law - "Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me.” (Ruth 1:20)
It was used chiefly in embalming the dead, because it had the property of preserving them from putrefaction. (John 19:39) It was much used in Egypt and in Judea. It was at an early period an article of commerce, (Genesis 37:25) and was an ingredient of the holy ointment (Exodus 30:23). It was also used as an agreeable perfume (Esther 2:12; Psalms 45:8; Proverbs 7:17). For many of the ancients, myrrh was considered to be a favorite perfume, said to keep its fragrance for several hundred years when kept in an alabaster pot. Myrrh also had medicinal qualities, sometimes mingled with wine to form an article of drink. Such a drink was given to our Savior, when about to be crucified, as a stupefying potion, (Mark 15:23; Matthew 27:34).
It's also interesting to note that the Greek word for myrrh, "smurna", is the same as the name of the city and church, which received a letter from the Apostle. Smyrna was the second of the seven churches of Asia that John was instructed to write to in the early chapters of the book of Revelation. This church was distinguished by it being persecuted (Revelation 2:8-11) - they understood the bitterness of being mistreated for the sake of the Gospel.
Myrrh then is brought as a gift to acknowledge the human suffering that Jesus partook of when He came into our world. Why did He refuse the drink? Because He had already drunk it. He had prayed at first that He could be spared the cup, but then He submitted to His father's will and drank it - the bitter cup of His suffering.
We too drink from the cup of suffering, and it is bitter. Knowing that He drank it too, and in a fuller amount than we can ever comprehend, helps give us courage to go on. But may we, like the Magi of old, also bring this as a gift to Jesus.
o We bring gold to honor Him as King, and to yield to the purification process of the fiery trials.
o We bring frankincense to worship Him even in the midst of our brokenness.
o And we bring myrrh to recognize that He has identified with us in our pain and sorrow.
Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh
1. Besides the Magi of Matthew 1, what other notable person made the pilgrimage to Israel from the east, bringing similar gifts?
2. What are some lessons about giving that are learned from the story of the Magi?
3. How do the three types of gifts of the Magi represent the three roles of Jesus the Messiah?
4. What are some of the reasons gold has always represented great value?
5. If a person wanted to be like gold, what characteristics would he or she possess?
6. How does "surviving fire" relate to the Christian?
7. If bringing gold represents giving honor to Jesus as King, what is represented by frankincense and myrrh?
8. Frankincense was used as medicine and as perfume; how was it used in worship, and for whose benefit?
9. If the sweet smelling frankincense resin comes as the result of the tree's woundedness and pain, what does this suggest for Christian worship?
10. In what way is myrrh different from frankincense?
11. In ancient times, as with frankincense, myrrh was used some for medicine and perfume; but what was the main use of myrrh?
12. The drink offered to Jesus contained myrrh - why was it refused?