Saturday, December 27, 2008

More magi

by John D Ramsey

Last week I wrote about the Magi who brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the child Jesus. I was somewhat surprised by the number of web searches asking for “the meaning of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” I admit that I have been dismissive of this question largely because the word correlations in the New Testament are very few. The lack of information invites unfounded speculation, which can be unprofitable. I have heard sermons in the past delving into presumed symbolism of the three gifts of the Magi, but I have always been less intrigued by their gifts than I have God’s revelation of himself to men who were once far away from faith.

Nevertheless, Matthew mentions the three substances by name, and the poetry of Scripture invites us to discover the correlation within the Author’s mind. Therefore, I began searching for an answer. The New Testament mentions frankincense twice and myrrh three times. Aside from the account of the Magi in Matthew 2, the New Testament mentions frankincense among the commodities that the woman Mystery Babylon traded in Revelation 18. At the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Roman death squad offered Jesus wine mixed with myrrh as a sedative, and Jesus refused it. When Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus buried Jesus, they wrapped his body with myrrh and aloes. While we may correlate the gift of myrrh and the myrrh used at burial of Jesus, no similar correlation exists for the frankincense. Moreover, the gift of the Magi included gold, which also does not correlate to the crucifixion and burial.

Looking at the Old Testament, frankincense appears several times. English translations make it difficult to find every instance of the word frankincense; however, Strong’s Concordance shows 21 occurrences of the word. The special anointing oil used in the Tabernacle and Temple contained myrrh and the incense used in the Tabernacle and Temple contained frankincense. The Tabernacle and Temple also contained much gold. Likewise, the Christ child embodied in human form all that the Tabernacle and Temple represented. “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” Colossians 2:8 (NIV) It would not be too much a stretch to say that the gifts of the Magi attribute to Jesus the qualities of the Tabernacle and Temple. Nevertheless, the anointing oil and the incense of the Tabernacle contained more ingredients than only frankincense and myrrh. If the Magi’s gifts allude to the aromatic compounds used within the Tabernacle, they do so subtly. Nevertheless, this correlation, explores a powerful truth. In the past, God had at times occupied the Tabernacle and the Temple, but at the nativity, God became a man. Emanuel, meaning “God with us,” became the earthly tabernacle of the Almighty.

Frankincense was used extensively in the Old Testament sacrificial system. A freewill offering included flour, olive oil, and frankincense – a pleasing aroma to God. A sin offering, on the other hand, could not include frankincense. God considered an unworthy offering of frankincense to be blasphemous (Jeremiah 6:20). Myrrh, while used with the anointing oil, was not a component of the sacrifice. Nevertheless, Christ came to earth to become a sin offering. It seems unlikely that the frankincense would point to Jesus sacrificial death in the same way that the myrrh might. Perhaps the frankincense alludes to fellowship we have in Christ while the myrrh portends his sacrificial death.

Isaiah prophesies of the Messiah’s reign and speaks of many nations of the earth bringing gifts to Jerusalem; he writes,

Then you will look and be radiant,
your heart will throb and swell with joy;
the wealth on the seas will be brought to you,
to you the riches of the nations will come.
Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and [frankincense]
and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.

Isaiah 60:5-6 (NIV)

Perhaps Sheba in this context refers to the same Sheba in Genesis 10 (from the east), rather than the Sheba in 1 Kings (presumed to be from the south). Yet the recipient of the Magi’s gift was the Christ child, and the recipient of the wealth of the nations in Isaiah is the nation of Israel. Moreover, the gifts in Isaiah come to Jerusalem and the Magi met Jesus in Bethlehem. It does seem like a stretch to cast the gifts of the Magi as a fulfillment of Isaiah 60.

In my previous reflections on the Magi, I asserted that they were most likely revealers of dreams from a tribe of the Medes. I based my conclusion of the word, magus, used in the New Testament, the Septuagint (specifically the Book of Daniel), and the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus. In Matthew 2, God speaks to men’s dreams four times. He warns the Magi to avoid returning to Herod. He tells Joseph to escape with Mary the child to Egypt. He tells Joseph in a dream to return to Israel after Herod’s death, and he tells him to settle in Galilee.

Another dreamer named Joseph went down to Egypt. In Genesis 37, the sons of Israel sell their brother into slavery. Ishmaelite and Midianite traders carried Joseph into Egypt. What cargo did the Ishmaelites carry with them? According to the New American Standard Bible, they carried, “aromatic gum, balm, and myrrh.” Frankincense is an aromatic gum or resin. Perhaps the same fragrances accompanied Joseph, the son of Jacob, on his journey into Egypt as accompanied Joseph, Mary, and Jesus on theirs.

Perhaps the irony, did not escape Joseph the husband to Mary. The earlier Joseph had been sent into Egypt because his dreams offended his brothers. Eventually, Jacob and all his sons joined Joseph in Egypt. The nation of Israel lived in Egypt until Moses led them in their Exodus.

Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escaped into Egypt to avoid death in their home country. They journeyed to Egypt because of the warning that God gave Joseph in his dreams. They stayed there until God led them out again. Both men’s journeys to Egypt pivot upon Hosea 11:1, which reads, “When Israel was a youth I loved him, And out of Egypt I have called my son.” Matthew 2:15 emphasizes this correlation, saying, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘OUT OF EGYPT I CALLED MY SON.’”

Certainly, the Magi’s gift of gold, frankincense, and myrrh would have helped sustain Joseph, Mary, and the child, Jesus, while they were in Egypt. While there is fodder for meditation on the meaning of the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, perhaps the revelation of the meaning of the Magi’s gifts lies within the action of the Biblical account rather than within abstract and even far-fetched correlations with other Scripture. Both Josephs entered Egypt with aromatic compounds, both Josephs were guided by God in their dreams, and eventually both Israel, the nation, and Jesus Christ, the Son of God were called out of Egypt. Perhaps Matthew gives us the details of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to evoke the memory of the original caravan that carried the hope of Israel into Egypt. If so, the evidence of the prophet Hosea supports the correlation.

Perhaps, Matthew leaves open the meaning of the gold, frankincense, and myrrh because their meaning is complex. Perhaps together the three gifts invoke the memory of the Tabernacle worship and apply it to Emanuel. Perhaps the frankincense reminds of our fellowship with God being a pleasing aroma. Perhaps the myrrh reminds us that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again. Perhaps the gifts of gold and frankincense look forward to the day when Christ reigns over all the earth, and the nations bring their gifts to Jerusalem.

Perhaps even more simply, the gold, frankincense, and myrrh remind us that when we come to Christ we do not withhold our treasures from him, but rather we fall to the ground and worship him then give to him everything that we hold precious.

1 comment:

  1. I like how you said that when we come "to Christ we do not withhold our treasures from him, but rather we fall to the ground and worship him then give to him everything that we hold precious." If only the followers of Christ could get this idea in thier heads.