January 14, 2019

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

According to the second chapter of Matthew, wise men brought the Christ child gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because there were three gifts, we often assume there must have been three wise men, but the Bible does not actually tell us the number. These three gifts were extremely valuable in ancient times and were likely the main financial source for enabling Joseph and Mary to flee from Bethlehem to Egypt. In addition to their great value, each of these gifts are highly significant in their symbolism and relationship to various titles of Jesus Christ and to ancient temple worship.

Gold was often seen as a symbol of wealth, worldly power, and kingship. Gold was also extensively used throughout the ancient structures of worship to the Lord, becoming a symbol of divinity or the presence of God. [1] Within the Tabernacle of Moses, the walls were covered in gold, as well as each of the pieces of furniture within the Holy Place and Holy of Holies. The beautifully carved walls of Solomon’s temple were likewise overlaid with gold, as well as the floors and inside furniture. Herod’s temple, the temple at the time of Jesus, also used gold throughout including large golden plates that adorned the interior walls. Gold was also woven into the fabric of the clothing of the high priest, as well as on the crown, the settings for the twelve stones, and the bells on the hem of the blue robe. The fact that the wise men brought gold, a symbol of kingship, temple worship and divinity, can point to the titles of the Savior as the King of kings and the Great High Priest who intercedes on our behalf.

Frankincense and myrrh are both tree resins from two types of trees that grow mostly in the Arabian Peninsula. Both incenses were very valuable and were known for their healing powers and were often combined with oil and other spices to create healing balms. Both incenses are harvested by wounding the tree by cutting and removing a small portion of the bark. The tree resin then drips or bleeds out, after which it is allowed to harden before it is removed.

Frankincense is known for its sweet and pleasant smell when burned or used in perfumes. In ancient times few bathed on a regular basis or had multiple pairs of clothing to change and wash. This means that any pleasant smells, such as frankincense, that could mask the many unpleasant smells, had great value. In temple worship, frankincense was placed on the Table of Showbread and burned by the priests every Sabbath. In addition, it was combined with other incenses and burned every morning and evening on the altar of incense. According to Psalms, burning incense represented the prayers of Israel ascending to the Lord before the veil of the temple (see Psalm 141:2 and Revelation 5:8). It was here at this altar where Zacharias had the vision of the angel Gabriel, foretelling the birth of his son John the Baptist, who would prepare the way for the Messiah.

Myrrh was used as an incense, medicine, and perfume. In temple worship, myrrh was added to the anointing oil by heating it and then combining it with olive oil. This sacred anointing oil was used to anoint the priests at the Tabernacle and later Jerusalem temples. Myrrh was also often used in the burial process, wrapping it within the folds of the bound, deceased body, helping to mask the smell of the decaying flesh. According to the Gospel of John, Nicodemus brought 100 pounds of myrrh and other aloes to wrap the body of Jesus, a massive amount fit for the King of kings. On the cross, Jesus was also offered wine mixed with myrrh, probably to help decrease the excruciating pain. However Jesus refused the mixture, likely preferring to bear the full weight of suffering.

Just as the frankincense and myrrh trees are cut and bruised so that they can bleed out precious resin used for healing, incense and anointing, so too the suffering and blood of Jesus brings forth power of healing and redemption. It is through His suffering that comes healing to our souls, anointing power and answers to prayer through personal and temple worship. It is because of his blood, shed in Gethsemane that allows us to mask the sting of death through His triumphal resurrection. The title of Jesus Christ as the Tree of Life truly gives beautiful meaning to the words of Isaiah that “through his stripes we are healed.”

It is remarkable that each of these three gifts of the wise men—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—have so much symbolic significance, teaching us that all things point to and testify of the ultimate mission of Jesus Christ, His suffering, atonement, and resurrection from the dead.

[1] The Lost Language of Symbolism by Alonzo Gaskill, page 91-93

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