My pastor has an issue with the three wise men. Movies, plays, crèches, and Christmas cards usually depict the Magi1 among the people present at Christ’s birth, despite Matthew 2:1’s clear statement that the Magi didn’t arrive in the area (Judea) until after that event. Because this discrepancy bugs my pastor so much, some congregants cut the wise men out of the Christmas cards they send him.
Because of his comment, I admit with a little guilt that the song “We Three Kings” caught my attention this Christmas season, and I really listened to all of the lyrics for the first time. In essence, the song assigns a meaning to each of the gifts given to young Jesus
by the Magi: gold for royalty, frankincense for deity, and myrrh for burial. I don’t know if the wise men really chose their gifts to fit such meanings; the song struck me because of what it says about Christ’s position, identity, and purpose.
King forever, ceasing never
Gold, long associated with great wealth, royalty, and leadership, is an appropriate symbol for Christ’s position as the King of kings and Lord of lords. He holds authority over all nations on Earth whether they acknowledge Him or not. He’s also the head and leader of the Church.
Christ’s kingship over the world makes us all His subjects. This idea of subjection to monarchal authority might ruffle the feathers of such rebellious beings as we humans, but Christ is not a tyrant. Isaiah 9:7 describes Jesus’ kingdom,
“His government and its peace will never end. He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David for all eternity. The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies will make this happen!”(NLT)
Worship Him, God most high
For hundreds of years, frankincense was a popular trading commodity and key ingredient in incense. In Exodus 30, God explains to Moses how incense is to be made and used in the Temple. Furthermore, God forbids the use of this particular incense recipe for personal enjoyment; it is strictly for holy purposes.
In offering frankincense to young Jesus, the Magi seem to have been acknowledging His identity as the incarnation of God the Creator.2 Not only does Jesus hold authority over all human civilization; He also commands all of creation. Colossians 1:15–16 declares that Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.”
The duality of Jesus’ nature (being both fully God and fully human) sets Him apart from other religious figures. RTB philosopher/theologian Kenneth Samples pointed out in the third issue of RTB’s mini-magazine that moral teachers like the Buddha and Confucius were merely human, but Christ “revealed himself to be God in human flesh and conquered death by his historical bodily resurrection.”
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb
Myrrh’s associations are far gloomier than those of gold and frankincense. In ancient times, it was frequently used for embalming the dead. The presentation of such a spice to young Jesus hinted at His purpose for coming to Earth: to atone for the sins of humanity by His own death and resurrection.
Some thirty years after the Magi gifted Jesus with myrrh, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrapped Jesus’ body in nearly seventy-five pounds worth of “myrrh and aloes.” And it was the spice-soaked wrappings that Peter and John saw lying empty in the tomb three days later.
It is astounding that Jesus, the Second person in the Trinity, would “lay his glory by” and humble Himself for love of His wayward creatures. And it’s equally astounding that in accepting His sacrifice on our behalf we become God’s children, not just His subjects and creatures.
As someone very wise once said, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
2. The Incarnation is a puzzling doctrine. People often wonder how Jesus could be both fully God and fully human without compromising one nature or the other. Check out the Incarnation subtopic on our website for further exploration of this mind-bending subject.