By Betty Young
In preparing my heart for Advent this year, I’ve been reading and rereading the story of the Magi in Matthew 2. As I stilled myself and prepared my heart to welcome Jesus, I tried not to be distracted by the continual diversions of the commercialized season. The people of Bethlehem and Jerusalem were distracted, as were the innkeepers, the priests and the prophets. Nevertheless, the occasion of Jesus’ birth was marked by the angelic announcement to the shepherds who left their sheep to witness this marvelous sight. Lowly shepherds came to welcome and worship Jesus. The Magi came also, though much later.
The Magi were from the east, men of great learning. In my research, I learned that they might have heard about the prophesies of a Jewish Savior (also known as Messiah) from when the Jews had been held captive in ancient Babylon several hundred years before. When the Magi finally found Jesus and Mary, they were probably living in a normal house and Jesus was probably close to a year old—certainly, not yet two.
They travelled a great distance and brought with them costly gifts to worship and honor the newborn king. These expensive gifts indicated that they understood the purpose of Jesus’ birth.
The first gift mentioned is the gift of gold. Gold is associated with royalty and nobility. We remember when the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon, she bore great quantities of gold as a gift. This gift indicates that the Magi considered Jesus King of the Jews.
According to 1 Kings 6:20-22, the walls of the most Holy Place and the altar within it were completely overlaid with gold. It is in the Holy of Holies the priest would meet with God and offer sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Jesus went to the cross and became the sacrifice of atonement on behalf of sinful people.
Frankincense is mentioned next. When frankincense is burned it emits a strong and beautiful aroma. Common people could not use this incense because of the high cost but it was used for ceremonial worship of deities. Burning incense was key to worship in the Jewish temple. This gift may have indicated that the wise men understood that the prophecy of the newborn king carried with it a claim of deity.
According to Exodus 30, a specific recipe of spices mixed with “pure frankincense” (v. 34) was to be consecrated as “pure and holy” (v. 35-37) and was the only incense permitted at the altar.
Myrrh, the third gift, was used for anointing bodies for burial and would be used to anoint Jesus’ body after his death. Perhaps the wise men intended this gift as an indication of the manner in which Jesus would save his people—namely, that He would die for them.
Exodus 30:22-32 tells us that liquid myrrh was a main ingredient in the anointing oil used to ceremonially prepare the priests, the instruments, the altar and the Temple itself before sacrifices could be made. Again, this parallels Jesus’ consecrated life and sacrificial death.
Each of these gifts had a symbolic meaning for Jesus’ life and death.
According to Matthew 2:
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.”
All Jerusalem with him was troubled. All the people who “lived nearby” knew about the long-awaited Messiah’s birth but no one took time to seek Him—most especially the chief priests and scribes who related the prophecy to King Herod. We Christians who “live nearby” can be easily distracted and complacent about Jesus. We have heard the story over and over again. The Israelites probably heard the prophecy over and over again until it was not news anymore to their tired ears. Perhaps they were excited when they first heard it but as the years went by and the prophecy remained unfulfilled, it had become a myth or a story about a future time. The Magi who did not “live nearby” came from afar to worship Jesus.
Unlike the people in Judea, the Magi made it a priority to pursue this new king. They came from a great distance to worship and spend time in His presence. May we who live nearby not be like those living in Jerusalem and Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth. May we not be distracted by the trappings of the season. May we take time to worship Jesus who came to be the perfect sacrifice and brought the gift of salvation to a lost world.
Finally, the Magi returned home another way. Genuine worship transforms us and causes us to walk on a different path than the one we started on. Spend time in His presence, be transformed and gain a new perspective or refresh an old one.