Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Meaning of the Gifts of the Magi

Matthew records the story of the Wise Men, students of astronomy, who knew the ancient Jewish prophecies. They came from lands east of Israel, possible Chaldea, Persia, or Arabia, to worship the newborn King of the Jews. Wealthy, educated, skillful in their craft, and respected, these men journeyed by camel across the hot, dry deserts, braving many perils, to bow before this Child who was born a king.

No other child in history has been born a king. A young prince must first be educated and trained in the duties of kingship. And the king must die before the prince can be crowned king.

Not so with Jesus. The King of kings and Lord of lords, the Creator of all things, left the palaces of heaven, where He has been King from eternity past, to come to a lowly stable to be laid in a manger, a feeding trough for animals, that He might show us the Father.

The Wise Men recognized His kingship. They had seen his star as it rose. Many have speculated as to the nature of the Star of Bethlehem, but God had prepared a supernatural phenomenon. As they studied the heavens, the Wise Men observed something unusual. They knew the planets and the stars, but this was unique, and it prompted them to leave what they were engaged in to follow the light.

They wanted to worship the newborn King. To worship is to acknowledge the worth of, to give adoration, to express reverence, awe, and gratitude. The purpose of true worship is to bless God, not to get blessed. The wonder of worship is that as we bless God, He blesses us. True worship--to worship God in spirit and truth--brings great comfort to our hearts.

When the Wise Men entered the house where the young child was with Mary, His mother, they fell down and worshiped Him. Then, out of their own treasures they offered Him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These three gifts reveal three great truths that comfort, uplift, and undergird us.

Gold Courtesy
The first gift, gold, is significant in that it was a symbol of royalty--a fitting gift for a king. It recognized the sovereignty of the One to whom it was given, the Christ-Child, that He is the Sovereign Lord.

What does it mean that God is sovereign? First, no one controls God but He himself. But He is no despot. He rules over all people and all things with justice, wisdom, and grace. Because He is a benevolent sovereign, we can depend on Him and trust Him with the things we cannot understand.

Philippians 2:10 tells us that sooner or later everyone shall bow the knee and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. The choice we have is when. If we, like the Wise Men, bow before Him in this life, we receive eternal life with Him. If we refuse to bow before Him in this life, we will be forced to acknowledge Him as Lord in the afterlife, but we will spend eternity separated from the light of His presence. The choice is ours. Will we be wise like the Wise Men?

Frankincense Courtesy
The second gift of the Wise Men was frankincense, a whitish resin or gum-like substance taken from a tree and used in worship in the Tabernacle and Temple. Burning coals were taken from the altar of burnt offering and placed on the altar of incense in front of the holy of holies. The incense was sprinkled on these coals and a sweet, fragrant smoke arose toward heaven, symbolizing the prayers of the people of God.

The altar of incense in the Tabernacle had four horns, one in each corner. Horns in the Bible represent power. These horns indicate that we have power in prayer. The altar was crowned with a ledge of gold that kept the burning coals of incense from falling to the ground. The crown gives us confidence that our prayers will not fall to the ground; they are never wasted.

Golden rings were attached through which poles were inserted so the altar of incense could be carried whenever the Israelites traveled. This reminds us that wherever we go, we can touch God in prayer, and He will hear us no matter where we are.

Giving frankincense to Jesus at His birth foreshadowed that Jesus is our great intercessor, our great High Priest, who receives our prayers and intercedes on our behalf to the Father. As the incense was placed on the altar by man, and as it burns, ascends upward, so our prayers begin in our hearts and ascend heavenward to God. Jesus is waiting to receive our praise, our petitions, and our supplications.

Frankincense reminds us that God wants to hear how we feel. He wants us to release our burdens and offer up our innermost groanings to Him. With the Psalmist we can say, "Accept my prayer as incense offered to you, and my upraised hands as an evening offering" (141:2, NLT).

Myrrh Courtesy
The third gift of the Wise Men was myrrh, a bitter substance obtained from trees in Arabia. Myrrh was used for embalming the dead. Thus, this gift symbolizes the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for our sins. Because He faced the same testings we do and experienced what it was to be human, Jesus, the Son of God, identifies with every pain we suffer. He feels our infirmities and the the seasons of pain and sorrow we all suffer. And just as Jesus was sustained by His Father in sorrow and did not sin, so He will sustain us in our suffering.

When William Barclay, the great Scottish preacher, buried his 21-year-old son who had drowned, he said, "God did not stop the accident, but He did still the storm within my heart, so that somehow my wife and I came through that terrible time on our own two feet. When things like that happen, there are just three things to be said: One, to understand them is impossible. Two, Jesus does not offer us solutions to them. What He does offer us is His strength to accept what we cannot understand. And three, the fatal reaction is a grudge against God, but the one saving reaction is to go on living and find in the presence of Jesus the strength and courage to meet life with steady eyes, knowing the comfort that God too is afflicted in my affliction."

That's the message of myrrh--that "God too is afflicted in my affliction."

In the uncertainty of this New Year, may we remember the gifts of the Magi. Gold reminds us that we can trust in the sovereignty of God. Frankincense prompts us to tell the Lord in prayer whatever is on our hearts. And myrrh assures us that God too suffers in our afflictions.

May you have a blessed New Year!

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