If it’s in the Bible, it means something, probably something important. That viewpoint is somewhat axiomatic, but never fails to surprise me. If I’m being honest, there are a lot of things in the Bible that tend to go right past me until someone smarter than I am calls my attention to them. A good example is the dimensions Noah was given to build his ark. Okay, I might say to myself, it’s big.
And then someone who knows a thing or two about the size of a cubit and how a ship’s hauling capacity (called displacement) is measured runs the numbers and discovers the ark has roughly the same displacement as the Titanic (the Titanic!) and the dimensions were designed to make it incredibly stable in rough seas. That’s the kind of information that’s always catching me by surprise and makes me smile. It’s just cool.
That brings us to the gifts of the magi, or wise men: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold is obvious. It’s been the store of value for thousands of years and its use is all over the Old Testament books of the Bible, especially in the description given for building the temple and the Ark of the Covenant. Solomon’s vast wealth is described in the amount of gold he accumulated. If you want a real eye-opener, here’s a little research on just how much wealth Solomon collected each year in gold: $1.2 billion dollars! This is calculated from 666 talents of gold (1 Kings 10:14) with a mean weight of 75 pounds per talent, 16 ounces per pound and the current dollar value of gold at roughly $1,500 dollars per ounce). And remember, this is real, tangible wealth.
It’s no wonder that gold was the Old Testament symbol of kings. When the magi brought gold to honor Jesus, they were proclaiming him king. More, they were proclaiming him to be the ultimate king, in their eastern tradition, the “king of kings.”
Given the plot and structure of books I’ve written in the past, it may be surprising to some that I was raised in a very Protestant household. I’ve read with amusement those reviews that have postulated that I must have been raised in a Roman Catholic household, if not some other orthodox background. I have to admit that I really had no idea that some churches still burned incense as part of their services until I attended an Anglican Church. After a bit of reading (and to be bluntly honest, paying attention when I was reading) I noticed that the high priest of Israel burned incense in the temple on the Day of Atonement. One particular interpretation of this act appeals to me. The smoke of the incense was to fill the Holy of Holies and hide God who dwelt on the mercy seat in order that the high priest might be there in the presence of God without dying. To see God was to die.
When the magi brought frankincense to Jesus, they proclaimed him to be their high priest. The importance of this second gift is difficult to overstate. In the Old Testament tradition, the kings came from the tribe of Judah, while the priests came from the tribe of Levi. Thus, the two powers were to be kept separate. Yet, in the birth of Jesus, the two powers were combined and the presence of the two gifts together foreshadows Jesus’s role as both king and priest for the people. This is explained more fully in the New Testament book of Hebrews when the author claims that Jesus is of the order of Melchizedek, who was both priest and king to his people.
The last gift of the magi, myrrh, is the most solemn, but no less prophetic. An embalming oil, Myrrh symbolized the Christ’s mortality as a man. Imagine bringing a gift to the Messiah proclaiming his suffering and death. What could be more antithetical to the previous two gifts than myrrh? How could they stand it? With this last gift, the magi proclaimed that all three powers God had ordained in the Old Testament had come together in the birth and person of Jesus Christ and would be fulfilled. Gold proclaimed Him to be our king, the one who would rule over his people, and indeed the whole of creation, forever and ever. Frankincense announced that He would be our high priest, intervening with God, Himself, on our behalf, offering prayers and intercessions for us. And finally, myrrh revealed that our King and Priest, God forever, was somehow a mortal man would also serve as our prophet, a man who would die in the place of his people.
The study of the gifts of the magi is a study without end. Each reference leads to another revelation, an additional unveiling of who Jesus is, but it’s a study that begs to be undertaken. It was a study that I undertook before I wrote The End of the Magi. I hope this Christmas everyone will study and appreciate the enormity of what was being said with those gifts. Come and behold Him!
Patrick Carr and his novel The End of the Magi will feature in this month’s Lorehaven magazine.
We interview Patrick and review The End of the Magi as well as review thirteen more great Christian-made fantastical novels.
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