Matthew continually presents Christ as the King, and In Matthew’s Gospel we see the King of the Jews, the King of kings, appropriately being presented with royal gifts of gold, as well as two essential oils.
The great British admiral Lord Nelson was known for treating vanquished opponents with courtesy and kindness. After one naval victory a defeated officer strode confidently across the quarterdeck of Nelson’s ship and offered the admiral his hand. With his own hand remaining at his side, Nelson replied, “Your sword first, sir, and then your hand.” Before we can be Christ’s friends, we must be His subjects. He must be our Lord before He can be our elder Brother.
It is easy to see why incense was a significant and symbolic gift. Incense was used in the temple worship. It was mixed with the oil used to anoint the priests of Israel, and it was blended into the meal offerings that were presented to the priests by the people to be offered as thanksgiving and praise gifts to God. Incense gave an offering its pleasant odor, and Paul was probably thinking of incense when he compared the gifts of the Philippians to such a sacrifice, calling them “a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.” In presenting incense, the wise men, either intentionally or unintentionally, pointed to Christ as our great High Priest, the one whose entire life was pleasing to his Father.
It is interesting that incense was never mixed with sin offerings, which were meat and wine offerings. Only the meal offerings, which were not for sin, contained incense. When we remember that, we think naturally of Jesus, to whom the incense was given. He was without sin. When his enemies came to Him on one occasion, He challenged them with the question, “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?” They were speechless. Earlier He had said of His Father, “I always do what pleases him.” None of us can say that. Since only the Lord Jesus Christ was sinless, it is fitting that incense was offered to Him.
“We see from the symbolism of these gifts,” wrote Donald Grey Barnhouse, “that the eternal royalty and holiness of Christ were announced from his earliest years. He had come forth from heaven to perform the work of redemption, and He was prepared in every way to do the Father’s will so that He might fulfill every demand and obligation of the law. Thus only would He become eligible to die on the cross; and by that cross alone redeem the world. That life could show that He was the fit candidate for the cross, and we cling with surety to the work that was accomplished there at Calvary, since we know that our sin-bearer was Himself without sin.”
That observation leads naturally to the last and most significant of these gifts. Just as gold spoke of Christ’s kingship and incense spoke of the perfection of his life, myrrh spoke of His death.
Myrrh was a perfume, not quite so expensive as frankincense but nevertheless valuable. Some interpreters suggest that myrrh represents the gift for a mortal, emphasizing Jesus’ humanity. This perfume is mentioned often in Scripture, beginning in Genesis. Myrrh was used in embalming. Because the trappings of death (although different) were as important then as today, myrrh was an important item of commerce in the ancient world. For instance, for Jesus’ burial Nicodemus used one hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare the body. If one hundred pounds of that combination were used for just one body, a tremendous amount of myrrh must have been constantly bought and sold for funeral arrangements. Moreover, in Revelation 2 we read of a city of Asia Minor called Smyrna. The name is actually the Greek word for myrrh. The city was called Smyrna because its chief industry was the manufacture of myrrh.
By any human measure it would be odd, if not offensive, to present a spice used for embalming at the birth of a child. But it was not offensive in this case, nor was it odd. It was a gift of faith. Of course, we do not know exactly what the wise men may have surmised about Christ’s future ministry or have intended by this gift, but we know from the Old Testament that Jesus’ ministry was pictured again and again as one involving suffering. Psalm 22 describes Jesus’ death by crucifixion; it was a verse from this psalm that Jesus quoted when he cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Isaiah 53:4-5 says, “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Jesus came to suffer for our sin, and His suffering was symbolized by the Magi’s gift of myrrh.
There was another use of myrrh in the ancient world that is important here; it was a use the Lord Jesus Christ refused. When He was about to be crucified and the soldiers offered Him “wine mixed with myrrh,” Jesus refused the offer. Myrrh was a crude anesthetic sometimes used to deaden pain, and Jesus wished to endure the full extent of suffering in His death for us. He was willing to bear all that the suffering and death entailed.
William Barclay says rightly, “Gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, myrrh for one that was to die-these were the gifts of the wise men, and, even at the cradle of Christ, they foretold that He was to be the true King, the perfect High Priest, and in the end the supreme Savior of men.”