We really don’t know how many wise men brought gifts to the young Jesus (it’s only tradition that there were three of them), where they came from (other than “the East”), or even when they came (the New Testament shows it could have been up to two years after the actual birth of Jesus when they arrived at the house in which he was living). The one thing we do know for sure is what the gifts were that they gave to the young Jesus: “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11).
The three types of gift (the origin of the tradition that there were three wise men) were all illustrious ones, and perhaps the most expensive, by weight, that could be given in that ancient culture. It’s easy to understand that gold was considered a gift fit for kings. Frankincense was an expensive fragrance used in the making of incense offered in the Temple (Leviticus 2:1-2) and was thus a fitting gift to be given to a priest (Hebrews 4:14-16). Myrrh was another expensive fragrance which was often used in embalming the dead – as it was for Jesus (John 19:39-40). In that sense it was a fitting gift to one destined to die for humankind. Whether these symbolic aspects were realized by the wise men or not, the three gifts were all certainly appropriate for the king and priest who was born to die.
Although those physical gifts are not ones that we can give directly, the New Testament does show that just as the gold, frankincense and myrrh had symbolic associations, if we choose, we too can offer things in our own lives that are associated with the same gifts.
Faith: 1 Peter 1:7 tells us: “These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” Rather than gold, we can give the better gift of faith.
Relationship with God: The Book of Revelation refers to the prayers of the saints as fragrant incense before God: “Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne” (Revelation 8:3-4). The incense offered to God on the heavenly altar is directly associated with the prayers that we can offer.
Relationship with others: 2 Corinthians 2:14-16 says, "But thanks be to God, who… uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.” Just as the pleasing fragrance of myrrh could be used in contexts of life and death, our walk before others can be a pleasing fragrance of life to those who can appreciate it.
So we can give, if we so choose, the symbolic equivalents of the gifts the wise men gave to Christ. If we let it, the story of their gift-giving can inspire us to develop, through God’s grace, our underlying faith, our relationship with God himself, and our relationship with others. Even those of us who might feel we have little to give can give even better gifts – that may please the Son of God even more – than the gifts the wise men gave.
*Reproduced from a December 2014 post on our sister site, LivingWithFaith.org