The entourage of Magi from the East meet with Herod in Jerusalem and follow the star they saw to Bethlehem, where they find the Child Jesus and present Him with three gifts. The gold, frankincense, and myrrh each represent something very unique about Jesus. In this episode, we examine the significance of the gifts and ponder what life might have been like in Bethlehem at the time.
Hey I'm Josh Hawkins and this is episode 28 of Opening Up the Gospels. In Episode 27, we began to look at the visit of the Magi from the east. We discussed their origins in the Parthian Empire, their occupation as priests, astrologers, dream interpreters, and government officials, and we talked about how probably a whole entourage of them (not just 3 of them) visited Jerusalem after seeing a star in their region. Their visit to Jerusalem would have been for much more than to satisfy their curiosity. They visited Jerusalem to make a political statement. Matthew said that Herod was "troubled", but a better translation of the word might be "in turmoil" or even "terrified". Herod was primed for another emotional outburst that would end in violence, as it had many times before. So the Magi came to Herod and said "we've come because the king of the Jews being born", basically indicting Herod and saying "you're not the king of the Jews". At the same time they indicted all of Jerusalem just with their presence, saying "we're Gentiles not even from Israel, and you Jews, especially you chief priests and scribes, you guys missed the birth of your king." The implications here are vast, and we can begin to see the beginning of the fulfillment of Simeon's prophecy about Jesus being like a sword bringing division to Israel. Let's pick up the story of the Magi today in Matthew 2 verse 7: “Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” (Matthew 2:7–10 ESV) So after the first meeting with the Magi, Herod summons them again secretly for the express purpose of asking them when the star had first appeared to them. Herod's intentions were not sincere at all. He wanted as much information as possible on who this king was that he was dealing with. Just as he had done throughout his rule, Herod sought to eliminate any possibility of his power being usurped. So the Magi presumably tell him, and then he sends them out and waits for the most opportune moment to do away with the latest threat to his totalitarian leadership. We're not sure exactly what the Magi told him, but it seems like Herod did the math as we'll see in a couple episodes when he has all the children under two years old in Bethlehem slaughtered. Now the Magi, following the suggestion of Herod and possibly even assuming that he really did want to pay homage to Jesus, begin the short 5 mile trek southward to Bethlehem. And on the way, Matthew tells us that they see the same miraculous star that they had seen in the East coming to rest over where Jesus was. The star moved and seemingly guided them to the house that Jesus was in! This is awesome and is yet another miracle to add to the list of unusual things that have accompanied the story of Christ's birth. Matthew says that when the Magi saw the star again, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. Why would that be? I think it means that somehow they had an understanding of who it was the sign of the star was actually pointing to. It's like they saw their "old friend", the same star that prompted their journey a good while ago. And now with the confirmation from the chief priests and scribes that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem, the star was a sign pointing them to the correct destination where they could pay homage to the Messiah. Again, think about the significance of this - lowly shepherds and now here, Gentiles are the ones Scripture records as rightly recognizing the promised king of Israel. What offense did this bring to the proud in Jerusalem, and what grief did this bring to the humble in Israel? How could the Jewish people be so hardened that God would give such a profound notice to the Gentiles? Now let's picture the scene in Bethlehem. Jesus has grown up a little at this point, and as I'll talk more about soon, He was probably months old at this point. Was Joseph at work the day that this entourage arrived in Bethlehem? Think about it. Mary and Joseph had probably settled into normal life, just working and getting to know the townspeople. Who knows how much the people there knew about the story of Jesus' birth. I'm sure to many of them in town, Mary and Joseph were just another couple with a baby. And I bet to some degree, even Mary and Joseph were probably lulled to sleep regarding the gravity of who their Child was. And of course we can't be sure, but perhaps by this time, Mary is pregnant with her first naturally conceived baby. We know Jesus had brothers and sisters, according to the Gospels. They're just living life, and then suddenly on one day, this all comes crashing in on them. Out of nowhere, this wealthy garrison just comes riding up to their little town, looking for a Baby. What did the town think? This isn't Jerusalem anymore, this is lowly Bethlehem! What did their neighbors think as the entourage went into Mary and Joseph's house? How did Mary and Joseph talk about what happened after they left? Well, let's keep reading in Matthew 2: “And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.” (Matthew 2:11–12 ESV) Matthew says the Magi arrive and go into a house. Notice that Jesus is not in a manger anymore. This is a really important clue in placing the visit of the Magi in the timeline of the events of Jesus' birth. So they go in and see Mary and Jesus and they fall down and worship Him. Now the Magi didn't know that Jesus was divine - that word "worship" just means "bowing down". Interestingly enough, throughout Matthew when this word "worship" is used, the identity of Jesus is progressively being revealed. We'll see this as we go along. Beginning here in Matthew 2, Matthew is hinting at where it's going to end in Matthew 28 - worship of Jesus as the one true living God. The Magi open their treasures and present Jesus with their gifts. Let's take a look at them. The first one is gold. We see gold mentioned throughout the Old Testament. Gold was used extensively in the construction of the tabernacle and the temple. It was also used in some not-so-good things like decorating the harlot in Revelation 17 and the golden calf in Exodus 32. Gold has always been prized for its beauty and value. Here, the Magi's gift of gold is typically seen as representative of the royal kingship of Jesus. The next gift the Magi brought was frankincense. Frankincense literally means "pure incense". The Old Testament Hebrew word is derived from a root meaning "white". Frankincense was a precious fragrant liquid that was obtained by making an incision into the bark of a certain tree. The resulting fresh juice had a white or milky color, hence the name. Frankincense is one of the main ingredients in the incense used in the Tabernacle and Temple. The Magi's gift of frankincense is typically seen as representative of the priestly office of Jesus as the intercessor and the mediator. The final gift the Magi brought was myrrh. Like frankincense, it was probably derived from a small tree. It was used for perfuming a bed or a garment. It was also used as perfume for women in bridal processions. In the Gospels, we see it in Mark 15:23 where myrrh is mingled with wine and used as an anesthetic. And then we see it used in preparing a body for burial in John 19:39 and 40. Myrrh was one of the primary ingredients in the anointing oil in Exodus 30:23. So this gift could either be seen as representing Jesus' humanity and his suffering on the cross, or it could be seen as representing His prophetic office as the anointed messenger of God to Israel. Matthew goes on to say that the Magi were warned in a dream to not return to Herod. Now don't move on to the next part too quickly as you're reading - take some time and ponder this whole scene. It's not like the Magi arrived, presented their gifts in 5 minutes, and then left and somehow had a waking dream on the way back to Herod. How long did they stay in Bethlehem? Did Mary tell them the story of Jesus' birth and all of the events leading up to it? What were those hours and perhaps days like for Mary and Joseph? What about their neighbors and the rest of the townspeople? And now one night during their stay the Magi have a dream. Did the whole entourage all have the same dream, or was it just a few of them? Matthew tells us that they departed and returned to their home by another way, instead of the route that took them back through Jerusalem. Think about what was going on in Bethlehem during this whole time. Did the townspeople begin to envy Mary and Joseph in some way because of their newly acquired wealth? Suddenly this poor family is now very rich. What did Mary and Joseph do with the gifts the Magi gave to Jesus? What kind of conversation happened between Mary and Joseph the minute they closed the door of their house and the Magi are walking off? Remember, we ponder and meditate to make the scene more real to us, not to ascertain details and come up with some new revelation because of it. This really happened, and this is really the way God chose to write his story. Let's keep going in Matthew: Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. ” (Matthew 2:12–15 ESV) So the day the Magi left, Joseph falls asleep that night and has a dream. When he awoke from the dream in the middle of the night, he quickly wakes Mary and Jesus. They pack their belongings and depart for Egypt by night. This point here is also a huge chronological indicator to rightly place the visit of the Magi. Now in the morning, the people of Bethlehem wake up and Mary and Joseph are just gone. What were they thinking? Magi one day, Mary and Joseph gone the next day. How long was it before the other little kids who Jesus had been playing with got slaughtered by Herod? When Mary and Joseph heard the news at some point later, how did they feel? God didn’t stop the slaughter – this was His plan. It seems so painful, but oh, we have to let the Bible shape our view of what God is like. In the next episode, we'll look a little bit more Joseph's dream and the journey to Egypt, and I'll give a chronological summary of all of the events from the initial journey to Bethlehem for the census all the way to the journey out of Egypt to live in Nazareth. If you've missed any of the past episodes, check them out on my website, www.joshuahawkins.com/gospels. I'd love to hear from you if these have been a blessing to you, so drop me a note through the contact form on my website too. Well, God bless and see you next time.