In the first of his letters to the Christians at Corinth, the apostle Paul wrote that “not many … wise [men] by human standards, not many [who] were influential, not many … of noble birth” have been chosen by God to know Christ (1 Corinthians 1:26). That is a true observation.

Yet the Christmas story tells us that from the beginning of the Christian era, there have been some who were wise, some who were of noble birth, some who were influential who came to worship Jesus. We call them the wise men, or Magi. They came from the distant East, probably Persia, and they were so distinguished even by the worldly standards of that day that their arrival in Jerusalem caused a stir. “King Herod was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him” (v. 3). They came to Jerusalem asking, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him” (v. 2).

Persians Bearing Gifts

The Bible does not tell us very much about these ancient visitors to Jerusalem, and scholars have been puzzled about them and their journey ever since they made it. Millions of Christmas cards show three kings presenting gifts to a tiny child in a manger. People sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” But we do not know for sure that three wise men brought gifts. There may have been many more than three. And we are not told that they were kings or even when they arrived in Bethlehem. It is likely, in view of their long journey and of Herod’s command that all children under two years of age be killed, that they arrived after Jesus had already become a young child. The story contains a faint suggestion of this: When the Magi arrived in Bethlehem, Mary and her child were already settled in a house, no longer in the stable.

What about the star that seems to have guided them to that home? Many have attempted to explain it as an astronomical phenomenon. The earliest theorists viewed it as a comet. Such was the view of the great church father Origen of Alexandria. Later, Johannes Kepler, the father of modern astronomy, explained it as the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces in the year 7 b.c. This view has been elaborated in various ways and is probably the favorite explanation of astronomers today.

More than likely, however, the “star” was a miraculous phenomenon, possibly an appearance of the Shekinah glory that had accompanied the people of Israel in their desert wanderings, signifying God’s presence with them. Only something like the Shekinah could have led the wise men over the desert to Jerusalem, reappeared after their meeting with King Herod, guided them to Bethlehem, and then “stopped over the place where the child was” (v. 9), which is what the most straightforward reading of the story seems to indicate.

The Bible shows little interest in these details. The fact that so little information of this kind is given shows that Matthew was not interested in how many wise men there were, the length of their journey, or the star. Rather, he was interested in the fact that from the very beginning of this story, Gentiles came to worship the Jewish Messiah. He was also interested in the significance of the gifts they bore.

Gold: The Metal of Kings

It is easy to see why gold was an appropriate gift for Jesus Christ. Gold is the metal of kings. When gold was presented to Jesus by the men of Persia, it was an acknowledgment of his right to rule.

In his commentary on Matthew, William Barclay notes that according to Seneca, the distinguished Roman orator and writer, it was the custom in Persia that no one could approach a king without a gift and that “gold, the king of metals,” was the proper gift for “a king of men.” This is obvious from the discoveries of archaeologists. When a tomb is opened and is found to be filled with gold, it is usually proof that the deceased was a great person, most likely royalty. I have seen some of these gold relics. In Greece, in the ruins of the ancient city of Mycenae, dating from the time of the Trojan War, there is a cemetery in which the kings of the town were buried, and in the archaeological museum at Athens, one can see the elaborate “death mask of Agamemnon,” done in pure gold, which was discovered there. It is one of the greatest treasures of the ancient world. Similarly, in Cairo, the state museum contains the incredibly beautiful and literally priceless coffins and other tomb objects of King Tutankhamen, discovered in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes in 1922 by Howard Carter.

Some theologians have pointed out that when the wise men brought gold to the infant Jesus, they were being used by God to provide the funds necessary for Joseph to take the young child and his mother to Egypt to escape Herod’s attempt on Jesus’ life. This is probably true, but it is not as important as the significance of the gift itself. Jesus was a king, as the wise men knew and acknowledged (v. 2). He was the King of Kings. The wise men confessed his kingship when they presented their gift of gold.

Incense: The Worship of God

It is also 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” (Philippians 4:18). 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 to note 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?” (John 8:46). They were speechless. Earlier he had said of his Father, “I always do what pleases him” (John 8:29). 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.

Myrrh: The Gift of Death

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 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?” (Psalm 22:1; see Matthew 27:46). 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 (Mark 15:23). 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.”