Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh
By Terry L. Brown
"And they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshipped Him; and opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh" (Matthew 2:11).
These gifts are many times skimmed over when reading this story. The majority of people would likely know what gifts were given to Jesus, but not why it was these three particular gifts. One may think that the gifts the Wise Men gave Jesus had no special importance or value. Perhaps the gold, frankincense, and myrrh just happened to be what was available to them. However, such reasoning is a little shallow. Gifts given to loved ones or those deeply cared about are not gifts acquired haphazardly because it is the thought that counts. These Wise Men were bringing gifts to a King, someone they found worthy of worship. Is it reasonable to assume that the gifts they brought were an afterthought, an insignificant gesture with no meaning? No! They are highly significant. Not just for Jesus, but for us also, because the gifts He received from the Wise Men we, in turn, receive from Him.
Gold, in the Bible, symbolizes divinity, that which is godlike. Therefore, it should not be surprising to learn that gold is mentioned from beginning to end in the Bible. Gold appears at the beginning of the Creation in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:11-12), and when the New Jerusalem appears at the end of Creation it is described as having streets of gold (Revelation 21:18, 21).
As Israel sojourned in the Wilderness, God instructed Moses to build a tabernacle. He was further told to construct furniture for the tabernacle. The centerpiece was the Ark of the Covenant, a box that was to be made of acacia wood (symbolic of humanity) and overlaid with gold. Additionally, the lid for the Ark of the Covenant, called the Mercy Seat, was to be made out of pure gold. These were to be placed in the Holy of Holies, the very presence of God (Exodus 25:10-21).
It becomes obvious, when reading the instructions God gave to Moses concerning the furnishings of the tabernacle, that everything associated with the presence of the Lord – the Ark of the Covenant, the Mercy Seat, the Golden Altar of Incense, the lamp stands, and the utensils – were either made of pure gold or acacia wood overlaid with gold. That is no accident. It strongly implies gold as being identified with God.
Job, as he was going through his intense trials, not being able to sense the presence of the Lord, nevertheless said, "But He knows the way I take; when He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold" (Job 23:10).
Job was looking forward to the day when he would share the Lord’s divine nature. "For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, in order that by them you might become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). This divine nature is the gift of salvation.
The gift of gold was given to Jesus to symbolize that He was God in the flesh. It is no accident that the idols described in the Old Testament were frequently made of gold. It reveals the deception that clouded man’s thinking. He desired divine life, just as we do today, but he wanted to control it, to shape it. Fallen man does not want to believe that Jesus is the only way to Heaven, the only way to come to the heavenly Father. He wants to believe that his own goodness (fool’s gold!) will be acceptable to God. He has rejected the true treasure of gold (salvation) and instead chosen an idol – the idol of Good Works.
The second gift was frankincense. This is a word of Hebrew origin that means "white." It speaks of holiness. It was an ingredient used in a powdered perfume that the Lord said "shall be most holy to you" (Exodus 30:34-36). This incense was placed upon the golden Altar of Incense by the High Priest to be burned before the Lord. It was to be a sweet odor unto Him.
Frankincense was known for how freely and completely it burned; it left nothing behind. (Thus, the name frankincense.) This is symbolic of a life of holiness. After receiving salvation (gold) we are told that, "You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy" (Leviticus 19:2). This is more than a command. It is a promise. Because the Lord is holy and because we have received the gift of salvation, we shall be holy. Though we are sinful creatures, by accepting the gift of salvation, we will be holy. "‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ says the LORD, ‘though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool’" (Isaiah 1:18).
Holiness is a gift that burns and it would destroy the unsaved man if he possessed it, just as fire destroys wood. (This is why the acacia wood used in the tabernacle is overlaid with gold – to, in essence, fireproof it from the Lord’s holiness.) Everything the child of God thinks, says, and does is to be refined by fire (1 Corinthians 3:13-15).
The holiness (frankincense) that is imparted to him when he is saved (accepts the gift of gold offered to him by Jesus) begins the work of sanctification. If he does not accept the gift of salvation (gold) first, but tries to be holy in his own strength, he and his works are nothing more than bare acacia wood, and the holy consuming fire (which is what God is according to Deuteronomy 4:24 and Hebrews 12:29) will destroy him.
This gift of frankincense, this holiness, this whiteness, becomes ours at the same time we receive the gift of gold (salvation). "For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" (Galatians 3:27). Christians are told to "put on the new nature (the regenerate self) created in God’s image, (Godlike) in true righteousness and holiness" (Ephesians 4:24 AMP).
The promise given to the true Christians in Sardis, a church where the majority "talked the talked," but did not "walk the walk," was this gift of frankincense, this whiteness. "But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white; for they are worthy" (Revelation 3:4).
As we experientially become one with Jesus Christ we will express more and more of this precious gift of holiness. "Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure" (1 John 3:2-3 ESV).
First, Jesus was given gold, symbolizing His Divinity. Next, he was given frankincense, symbolizing His holiness. Lastly, he was given myrrh.
Myrrh means "bitterness." It was used in perfumes, for embalming the dead, and as an anesthesia. It is highly significant that of the three gifts given to Jesus, only myrrh is mentioned at the beginning of His life and then at the end of His life. After Jesus had been crucified Joseph of Arimathea took His body. "And Nicodemus came also, who had first come to Him by night; bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight. And so they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews" (John 19:39-40).
Why are gold and frankincense mentioned only at the beginning of Jesus’ life, but myrrh at both the beginning and the end? It is because salvation (gold) is a one-time gift; once given it is never revoked. "For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable" (Romans 11:29).
Holiness (frankincense) is also a gift that, though it grows and expands as we experientially clothe ourselves with Jesus Christ, is given to us all at once at the beginning of our walk with Him. From the Lord’s point of view once the gift of salvation is accepted we are as holy as we will ever be. We do not become more holy, from God’s viewpoint, as time goes by. We are instantly called "saints" (Greek – hagios – same word for holy) regardless of how carnal we are.
But the myrrh is different. It symbolizes suffering, trials, tribulations, persecutions, and afflictions. Yet, these hardships are not given all at once, but are apportioned over a lifetime. Jesus hinted at this truth when He said, "Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" (Matthew 6:34 KJV).
Myrrh is given to keep pride in check. It is to remind us of our humanity and our dependence upon God. Paul recognized the need for "myrrh" in his life after having received extraordinary revelations from the Lord. "Therefore, so that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so I would not exalt myself" (2 Corinthians 12:7 HCSB).
In man’s fallen state, without the gift of myrrh, he would be irredeemable. As difficult as it may be to accept, suffering and evil serve a divine purpose – a golden purpose, if you will. The Psalmist tells us, "Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word. It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes" (Psalm 119:67, 71).
Myrrh is comparable to a foul tasting medicine given to a dying man to save him. It is unpleasant, but his life depends upon it and he is thankful to the one who provides it. As the writer to the Hebrews reminds us, "All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11).
The gift of myrrh is not given to destroy, but to purify. "For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison" (2 Corinthians 4:17). "Now the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will personally restore, establish, strengthen, and support you after you have suffered a little" (1 Peter 5:10 HCSB).
Notably, it was wise men that gave Jesus the gift of myrrh. Equally notable, it is a Wise Man who gives us the gift of myrrh (suffering), along with the gold (salvation) and the frankincense (holiness). Suffering, trials, tribulations, persecutions, and afflictions are a natural and necessary part of this life. "And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Timothy 3:12). Suffering (myrrh) will play a major role in the life of every saint.
Therefore, let us accept from the hand of our Lord all the gifts He desires to give us – the gifts He was given – the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. When we do we will discover that we have become one with Jesus as He is one with the Father (John 17:21).
All Scripture quotations are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE (unless otherwise stated), copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
Copyright Terry L. Brown (2004)
Terry Brown has been teaching Bible Studies for years. He began a writing ministry, "Whispers of the Spirit," (www.whispersofthespirit.com) in January 2000, and graduated with high academic honors from Yellowstone Valley Bible Institute in June 2003. Terry has taught Sunday School and preached in the local evangelical church. You may write to Terry care of the Letters page of this magazine, or via his website.