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A Christmas Gift
By Wayne Nelson

Have you ever wondered just where the practice of giving gifts at Christmas time came from? Who do you think received the first Christmas gift?

Well, the clue to this mystery is found in the name of this joyous season, Christmas. It is the "Mass" (or church service) that honors Christ, hence Christ Mass or Christmas. Traditionally, this special church service was celebrated around the birth of Jesus, the Christ. The giving of gifts came about because of the gifts the Wise Men gave to the baby Jesus to honor Him as a King. Thus Jesus was the first person to receive a gift at His birth, and this from the Wise Men of the East who were convinced that the Baby Jesus was a king and wished to pay homage to Him.

Jesus was not just any king, but, as the Magi discovered, a very special king. The Magi were priests of an Eastern religion and in studying the ancient texts available to them made the discovery that a great star would signal the birth of a very great king. In all probability, the ancient texts that the Magi studied were the books of the Old Testament, left behind when the Jews returned from exile to the land of the Israelites. It is because of the perceived greatness of Jesus as a king that the Wise Men paid homage to Jesus with very expensive gifts.

Just what were these extravagant gifts the Magi brought?

Well, first there was the gift that keeps on giving, gold. Probably in the form of gold coins and representing the tribute that someone would pay to a king in order to curry his favor and possibly prevent an invasion from his sizeable army. So the gift of gold represented the tribute one would pay to a king to stay on his good side.

The next gift was frankincense, a very fragrant waxy substance that burned easily and gave off a sweet smelling odor. Frankincense, called frank because it gave up its fragrance so easily, was a form of incense that was widely used in religious ceremonies worldwide and was a component of Temple worship. The rising scent of incense, seen as a wisp of smoke as the incense burned, was a symbol of the prayers of God’s chosen rising up to Him in Heaven and, as such, was an integral part of Temple worship. This gift thus spoke of worship to the King of kings.

The last gift, myrrh, was an aromatic spice used in perfume, the anointing oil of the Temple, as well as a spice that was used to prepare dead bodies for burial. There was no embalming, as we know it, in all of Palestine, so the dead bodies were wrapped in linen that had been prepared with myrrh to offset the stink of a decaying body, which was quite rapid in the heat of the Middle East. Thus, the last gift that of myrrh, spoke of the future death of the baby Jesus.

Three very expensive gifts given to the baby Jesus upon His birth; one (gold) spoke of His royalty as the King of kings, one (frankincense) spoke of His Divinity as the Son of God who would be worshipped, and one (myrrh) spoke of His death that would pay for our sins. Thus the life story of Jesus was summed up in these three gifts, His being the King of Kings, worthy of worship at all times and His death, where He paid for our sin debt. The only main fact that is missing from this tableau is His resurrection. But if you stop here with your analysis of the first Christmas gifts, you will miss out on the greatest reason of all for the existence of these gifts presented to the Christ Child.

In Matthew 2, the story of the wise men is told. However, in verse 13, God warns Joseph that he must take his family to Egypt because Herod seeks to destroy Jesus.

Now, Joseph was a poor carpenter that couldn't even afford a reservation at the inn for his pregnant wife, relying on finding a room somewhere when they finally arrived in Bethlehem. No sooner had Joseph and Mary settled into the only room available, the cave where the animals slept, than Jesus was born. It probably took all the meager resources that Joseph and Mary had just to go to Bethlehem for the taxation. Then came the birth of Jesus, there in the cave with the animals.

Soon the shepherds paid them a visit, together with the Heavenly Host praising Jesus. Then later came the Wise Men with their fantastic gifts and the warning by the angel that Joseph must flee to Egypt with his family so that Herod does not kill Jesus.

What’s a poor carpenter to do? When was the last time he had the time or resources to make a simple table? Where was the money coming from to finance a journey into Egypt, living there until Herod died, and then returning to Galilee? Joseph had no Visa or Master Cards, no American Express or Discover card, so how was he going to finance this sudden trip into Egypt, let alone pay for his and his family’s expenses while in Egypt, and then finance the journey back into Galilee?

Monstrous decisions faced Joseph with no resources from his pocket to pay for what had to be done. Now the gifts of the Magi take on new meaning. The gold, frankincense and myrrh are valuable items that will easily bring a handsome amount of money into Joseph’s purse.

God knew of the plans of Herod before Herod even formulated them. He also knew that Joseph did not have the money to finance the trip into Egypt or to return home to Nazareth. So He sent the Wise Men with their valuable gifts to the baby Jesus. Not only did the gifts represent three distinct times in the life of Jesus, they became the means by which God provided the way for His Son to be rescued from a brutal tyrant who would soon kill all the children two years old and under throughout the land.

Joseph had no means by which he could finance the trip God told him to take, but God certainly did. In His providence, He sent the Wise Men to His Son with enough riches to finance the hurried trip that Joseph and his family must undertake. Once more, God provides for His children.

On Christmas day, amidst all the presents and trappings of Christmas, won't you stop and think for a moment about how God provides for those He loves.
Dr. Nelson is the author of one book, "Walk Where Jesus Walked" and is taking yet another step in the journey his Lord has called him to – namely helping the babes in Christ mature, as well as helping other more mature Christians go deeper into God's word. He brings this love for God’s Word and His people to his role as Editor of A Word in Season.
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