Christmas According to Matthew #4

The Gifts of the Wise Men: Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh

Matthew 2:11   |   Sam Taylor   |   December 23, 2012

Central Idea: The gifts of the wise men were a costly tribute fitting for a king, made even more precious by the effort required to bring them, and were the climax to the whole Christmas story. The right response to Christmas is to give to Jesus a tribute fitting for a king.

Introduction: Show a video clip of the wise men presenting their gifts to Jesus.

I.  The gifts of the wise men were very costly gifts.

A. Gold: Matthew doesn’t record for us the weight or volume of the gold that the wise men presented to Jesus. So we have no way of knowing the value. But certainly to Joseph and Mary, who were poor, ordinary people, the gold would have been very valuable. We need to understand that the wise men were well-schooled in matters of diplomacy. And they knew quite well that it would be an unthinkable breach of etiquette to present mere trinkets to a future king. They did not bring ordinary “baby shower gifts” to Jesus. Proper protocol required them to present a treasure appropriate for a king.  So, the value of the gold must have been very significant. And certainly it could have only seemed very extravagant in the perspective of Joseph and Mary, who were simple ordinary people.

B. Frankincense[i] is incense with a sweet, honey-like, woody smell combined with a hint of lemon. It was imported from Sheba, in the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. It was from the Boswellia tree which grows to the height of forty feet.

(Show photo of Boswellia tree.)

(Show photo of frankincense resin from tree.)

C. Myrrh is from a Hebrew word that means “bitter.” It is made from the gum that flows from the Balsamodendron myrrha tree, found in Africa and Arabia.

(Show photo of myrrh tree.)

(Show photo of myrrh resin.)

Myrrh had many uses in the Bible times. It was a main ingredient in the holy anointing oil (Exodus 30:23). It was used by the ancient Egyptians to embalm mummies. And it was used by Nicodemus to embalm the body of Christ after His crucifixion.

 (John 19:39-40)  Nicodemus (who had previously come to Him at night) also came, bringing a mixture of about 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes. (40)  Then they took Jesus' body and wrapped it in linen cloths with the aromatic spices, according to the burial custom of the Jews.

 It was a custom of the Jews to give those who were condemned to death by crucifixion “wine mingled with myrrh” to act as a pain killer.

 (Mark 15:23) They tried to give Him wine mixed with myrrh, but He did not take it.

D. We are told that the frankincense and myrrh were in such demand that they may well have been nearly as valuable by weight as gold itself. In the ancient world, certain fragrances, especially imported fragrances, were costly in the extreme. Do you recall the incident recorded in the gospels of how just days before His crucifixion Jesus was eating dinner at the home of Simon the leper? As He reclined at the table, “a woman came with an alabaster jar of pure and expensive fragrant oil of nard. She broke the jar and poured it on His head. But some were expressing indignation to one another: "Why has this fragrant oil been wasted? For this oil might have been sold for more than 300 denarii and given to the poor." (Mark 14:3-5) Now, in those days a denarius was equal to one day’s wage. That means the value of that one jar of perfume, 300 denarii, was nearly a year’s wage! That is how costly certain fragrances were.

II. Along with the economic value of these gifts, they held added sentimental value.[ii]

 A. We must remember what it cost the wise men to deliver those gifts: the long period of time required for their journey . . . the arduous physical effort . . . the expense of caring for their animals on such a long journey . . . and, very likely, the serious risk of danger. From start to finish, it was a journey of a thousand miles that took at least a year of their lives. That is what it cost the wise men to bring their tribute to Jesus. And that effort added so much more to the value of those gifts.

B. Illustration: Several years ago, when we lived in Virginia, near Washington, D.C., the hit musicalPhantom of the Opera was playing at the Kennedy Center. Deanne loves beautiful music and she really wanted to go. So, I called to get tickets but to our disappointment, all of the performances were sold out. I was told, however, that at the Kennedy Center, on the day of the show, they sold a small number of standing only tickets. These tickets allowed people to stand in the back of the auditorium, behind the last row of seats. But there was still another problem—according to policy, they would sell only one ticket per customer! However, they explained that, if I arrived early enough and was at the front of the line, I could purchase one ticket then go the end of the line, wait my turn, and then, if there were still tickets available, I could purchase a second ticket! It’s true! So, early on the morning of the play, I battled the stressful rush hour traffic into D.C. hurried up to the ticket booth, and was the first one in line when it opened. And, just like the rules allowed, I purchased one, standing only ticket. Then, I swirled around and got into the back of the line, waited my turn and bought a second ticket! Hooray! I was so relieved! I felt so good! With the amount of stress and effort it took to get those tickets they became much more valuable to me. And I think, when I told Deanne what I had to go through to get them, they were much more valuable to her too! In a similar way, what the wise men endured to bring their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, to Jesus, made those gifts all the more priceless.

III. Conclusion:

A. Now it would be natural to think that such an extremely valuable gift given to the infant Jesus—a gift that would be managed by His parents, Joseph and Mary, who were poor, ordinary people—it might seem to be an excessive, over-the-top extravagance. But, in our text, there is no censure for their extravagance. There is no suggestion that the wise men had gone overboard or acted inappropriately. Quite the contrary. In the Gospel of Matthew, when the wise men finally reach the end of their long journey, when they enter the home, and see Jesus, when they fall to their knees and worship Him, and then present to Jesus their expensive and exotic treasures—that is the literary highpoint of the entire narrative!  

B. Now, here is what it means for us today: The right response to Christmas is to give to Jesus a tribute fitting for a king. Jesus is no mere man: He is the Son of God who is also our Lord and King. And when we give to Jesus, we should give a gift appropriate for a king. Doing so is not being excessive; it is simply the right response of a worshiping heart.

C. Every Christmas season our church collects the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions. This year our goal is $7,000.  That is a gift worthy of our King. Tomorrow night during our Christmas service, there will be a time when you can bring your gift and place it under the Christmas tree to symbolize that it is your Christmas gift to Jesus. When you give to the Lottie Moon Offering, remember to give a gift appropriate for a king.

[i] Frankincense was important in the temple worship. It was one of the ingredients in the sacred perfume of the sanctuary (Exodus 30:34), and was also used as incense to accompany the meat-offering offered to God (Lev. 2:1, 16; 6:15; 24:7). 
[ii] The gifts of the wise men were very valuable both economically and sentimentally. In addition, some commentators point out their symbolic value. However, tempting this is homiletically, it seems questionable. Nevertheless, from very early times, Christian teachers believed that wise men’s gifts foreshadowed the life and work that Jesus came into the world to accomplish. It is as if the gifts the wise men brought give us a “sneak preview” of what that baby boy would one day grow up to be. This interpretation goes back to the days of the revered teacher, Ireneaus of Lyons, who died in 202 A.D. Ireneaus taught that the gold represented Jesus’ kingship, the frankincense His divinity, and the myrrh His death on the cross.  (Against Heresies 3:9)