Growing up in Mexico, the main focus of the holiday season was celebrating “Dia de los Reyes Magos” which means the Day of the Magi Kings. This holiday was celebrated every year on January 6th. The focus of the gift giving tradition was remembering that the kings brought gifts to Jesus. I had not stopped to think why gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Why would a child have a want or a need for these items? Why not toys? Did these gifts have a practical value or a symbolic one? Was this an ordinary child?
The prophet Isaiah wrote “they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord (Isaiah 60:6).” This prophecy came to pass in Matthew 2:11 when the wise men “offered him gifts, gold, and frankincense and myrrh.” According to Biblicalarcheology.org, these valuable items were standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world: gold as a precious metal, frankincense as perfume or incense, and myrrh as anointing oil. In fact, these same three items were apparently among the gifts, recorded in ancient inscriptions, that King Seleucus II Callinicus offered to the god Apollo at the temple in Miletus in 243 B.C.E. The wise men were not only proclaiming Jesus as King of the Jews but also proclaiming he was God as they brought the gifts and worshiped him.
According to Wikipedia, Frankincense, also called olibanum, is an aromatic resin used in incense and perfumes, obtained from trees of the genus Boswelliain the family Burseraceae. It is prized for its fragrance; therefore, used in religious ceremonies including animal sacrifices at the time. Frankincense represents Jesus’ priesthood and perhaps that he himself would become a sacrifice.
Researchers at Cardiff University have demonstrated that frankincense has an active ingredient that can help relieve arthritis and some critics believe this was the practical reason for this gift to be given to Jesus. Who in their right mind and in which culture gives a child medicine as a gift saying “You will have arthritis one day. You can thank me later?” These wise men believed that Jesus was the Messiah. Would the Messiah operate in healing but not walk in it?
Myrrh is a reddish resin that comes from species of the genus Commiphora and has been used as an anointing oil in the burial and mummification processes. The myrrh symbolizes the death of Jesus. According to Dictionary.com, it was a custom of the Jews to give those who were condemned to death by crucifixion “wine mingled with myrrh” to produce insensibility. This drugged wine was probably partaken of by the two malefactors, but when the Roman soldiers pressed it upon Jesus “he received it not” (Matthew 27:34).
Gold as a precious metal represents kingship in some cultures. Of the three gifts, I think this would have the most practical one. Anyone would find gold useful because of its value. Many critics believe that this gold may have paid for their trip from Bethlehem. This may have been God’s way of supplying their needs or just appeared as common sense to the wise men to help financially.
I can conclude that the reason the wise men came to worship Jesus was because they believed him to be the Messiah. They brought gold to symbolize his kingship, frankincense to signify his priesthood over the people of God, and myrrh to represent his death for the sins of the world. I am able to see that the meaning of each gift was much more symbolic than practical.