We all know about the gifts of the wise men—gold, frankincense and myrrh. If asked about their significance, I’m sure most of us would say that these gifts were appropriate to the occasion, given to honor a child that was assumed to be a future king. And I’m sure we would be right.
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What? No. Absolutely not. Unacceptable. No one comes to the Belfry to rehash the basics. They come to get inspired, to have their minds blown into a mess of encephalitic confetti, to experience a full paradigm shift in their understanding on a weekly basis. That’s a direct quote from Kirk Cameron.
So what can we make of these gifts that might be of deeper significance? First we should specify what they are:
- Gold is an easy one—a rare, beautiful and imperishable mineral.
- Frankincense? The “incense” part is a direct giveaway, though it can also be used as an essential oil for perfume or healing ointments. It is a white resin, taken from fragrant desert plants.
- Myrrh is also a resin, used in the same way, though it is typically red. In the ancient world, they would often mix it with wine as an ancient painkiller, like morphine. They offered it to Jesus on the cross, but he refused to drink it.
The only other place in the Bible where we find gold, frankincense and myrrh in the same place is in the book of Exodus:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Take fragrant spices—gum resin, onycha and galbanum—and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts, and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer. It is to be salted and pure and sacred. Grind some of it to powder and place it in front of the Ark of the Covenant in the tent of meeting, where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you. Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves; consider it holy to the Lord. Whoever makes incense like it to enjoy its fragrance must be cut off from their people.” Ex. 30:34 – 38Then the Lord said to Moses, “Take the following fine spices: 500 shekels of liquid myrrh, half as much of fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels of fragrant calamus, 500 shekels of cassia—all according to the sanctuary shekel—and a hin of olive oil. Make these into a sacred anointing oil, a fragrant blend, the work of a perfumer. It will be the sacred anointing oil. Then use it to anoint the tent of meeting, the ark of the covenant law, the table and all its articles, the lampstand and its accessories, the altar of incense, the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and the basin with its stand. You shall consecrate them so they will be most holy, and whatever touches them will be holy.”
God created a smell for holiness, both as an incense and a perfume. He also had a sight for holiness—gold. The inner walls of the temple were coated with it, along with all the items in the Holy Place. Basically to walk into the temple was to have your senses slammed with gold, frankincense and myrrh.
So how is Jesus associated with the temple?
We have one story with Jesus as a boy. He abandons his parents to hang out with the teachers in the temple. When his parents finally find him, he acts surprised, as if they should have expected to find him there.
Everyone knows the story of Jesus getting angry with the vendors selling Testamints and WWJD bracelets in the temple courts. After he cleaned the place out, the disciples remembered a prophetic verse about the Messiah from the Psalms: Zeal for your house will consume me.
Directly after that event, the Pharisees asked Jesus what gave him the right to do what he did. Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
John had to explain that Jesus was talking about his own body though everyone around him assumed he was talking about the temple. Apparently Jesus identified with that building in a profound and personal way.
At this point we could go into great detail about how the temple foreshadowed the person and ministry of Christ, getting as detailed and specific as the colors of fabrics, names of pillars, and dimensions of rooms. The most obvious connection is in the outer court where animals were being sacrificed all day every day. I wonder how Jesus felt when he saw those animals being slaughtered, knowing that each one was a teaser trailer for his impending execution.
If we just step back and look at the grand scheme, we can understand perhaps the most critical lesson that we can ponder at Christmas time. As John put it, the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.
John turned that noun into a verb for a very important reason—the tabernacle was basically a tent, a mobile sanctuary that preceded the temple. To ancient Israel, the tabernacle was the only place on earth where God and man could touch. It was an access port between heaven and earth, like Jacob’s Ladder.
One access point between God and man? One sacred place where man could be justified before him? Sound familiar?
When you see a Christmas card with three wise men and their colorful little boxes, think of what those boxes are pointing to—the single, solitary point of contact between God and man. To me, this puts a whole new spin on the name Emmanuel.