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Is there any spiritual significance to the gifts the Magi brought – Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – after they were led by a “star” to Bethlehem where they worshiped the young child Jesus? Why would this caravan of astronomers present expensive gifts to Joseph, Mary and their young child unless they were aware of the significance of his birth? Here is the biblical background information:

Matthew 2:1-6: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem saying, “Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was alarmed, and all Jerusalem with him. After assembling all the chief priests and experts in the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they said, “for it is written this way by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are in no way least among the rulers of Judah, for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Matthew 2:7-12: Then Herod privately summoned the wise men and determined from them when the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and look carefully for the child. When you find him, inform me so that I can go and worship him as well.” After listening to the king they left, and once again the star they saw when it rose led them until it stopped above the place where the child was. When they saw the star they shouted joyfully. As they came into the house and saw the child with Mary his mother, they bowed down and worshiped him. They opened their treasure boxes and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. After being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back by another route to their own country.

I realise there are different traditions surrounding this advent, but what I’m looking for is biblical references to the significance of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Also, I would like to know if there are any Christian references (from old hymns, for example) that suggest the spiritual significance of these expensive gifts that were presented to the infant king.

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    A small cavil. The argument can be made--and I agree with it, that the three wise man, or magi, first encountered Jesus in a house in Nazareth, and not in a stable in Bethlehem. See Matthew 2:19-23. The other lines of reasoning are explained briefly, here: christianity.com/jesus/birth-of-jesus/star-and-magi/…. Don Dec 22 '20 at 13:03
  • It is true the wise men did not meet the child at his birth - it was some time after - and they found him in a house, not a stable. Matthew 2:16 says Herod "gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity, who were two years old and under." So I agree, we are not talking about a new-born baby in a manger in Bethlehem. But the magi didn't have his precise address, only the area, hence the need for the star to bring them to the house "in the vicinity of Bethlehem." Nazareth, however, is about 58 miles north of Jerusalem. Bethlehem is not more than 5 miles east of Jerusalem. Lesley
    – Lesley
    Dec 22 '20 at 13:21
  • Turns out Nazareth is 65 miles north of Jerusalem. More information here: britannica.com/place/Nazareth-Israel
    – Lesley
    Dec 23 '20 at 15:24
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    Thanks for the additional information, Leslie. Israel may have been (and still is) a small country, but 65 miles back then was quite a hike! That Joseph and Mary made the trip while Mary was great with child indicates to me the toughness of people back then. Travelers today get all bent out of shape when they have to "endure" a couple hours on the tarmac, waiting to be flown to their destination. They are seated in a chair at 30,000 feet above the earth, and they cover 65 miles in eight minutes or so! We (including me) are, today, spoiled, soft, and silly. Dec 23 '20 at 16:57
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    @gidds: Yes, the assumption of there being just three magi is unfounded. For all we know, the magi may have numbered more than three. Moreover, they were likely accompanied by a retinue of unspecified number, since powerful men in Jesus's day could afford an entourage of servants . Dec 30 '20 at 16:08
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Biblical References to Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh: Gold is a highly valued commodity – not just for its beauty and use in jewellery and decorations, but also for its status. The Bible describes the wealth of King Solomon and how the Queen of Sheba gave Solomon 120 talents of gold (about 4 tons). Solomon also received 666 talents of gold every year – that’s 22.5 tons of the stuff! Check out 1 Kings 10:10, 14 and 2 Chronicles 9:1-12. In the Bible, gold is a symbol of royal status and of kingship.

Frankincense is a very expensive aromatic resin used in incense and in perfumes. It comes from the Boswellia tree which is found in India, Somalia and Ethiopia and in the Middle East. In today’s currency, 15 ml. of the oil would cost about $90. This exotic ingredient may have been used by the priests in temple worship in Jerusalem (see Exodus 30:1, 7-9; 40:5). My NIV Study Bible notes that the fragrant smoke of the incense symbolised the prayers of God’s people. Revelation 5:8 says the golden bowls full of incense are the prayers of the saints.

Myrrh is an aromatic resin which comes from various shrubs widely used in the ancient Near East. It was used by the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans as perfume, as incense, and for medicinal purposes. It was also used in royal (2 Chronicles 16:14) and Jewish burials. Nicodemus brought a large quantity of myrrh and aloes and spices and cloths in which to wrap Jesus’ body (John 19:39). No expense was spared for this royal burial.

Is there any spiritual significance to the gifts the Magi brought? Returning to Matthew 2:7-12, we see how the magi bestowed honour and status upon the child as implied by the value of the gifts they presented. It is possible that the gold, frankincense and myrrh were chosen for their special spiritual symbolism about Jesus himself—gold representing his kingship, frankincense a symbol of his priestly role, and myrrh a prefiguring of his death and embalming. After all, there was nothing accidental in the time, the place and the manner of the birth of Jesus, and in the arrival of the magi who were searching for this new-born king. Their gifts were not accidental, either.

Christian references to the symbolic meaning behind the gifts: Coincidentally, an old hymn was played at yesterday’s church service. It is attributed to John H. Hopkins (1820-1891):

We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we travel afar, field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star.

Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain, gold I bring to crown him again; King forever ceasing never, over us all to reign.

Frankincense for Jesus have I, God on earth yet Priest on high; prayer and praising all men raising, worship is earth’s reply.

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume tells of death and Calvary’s gloom; sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in a stone cold tomb.

Glorious now, behold Him arise, King and God, and sacrifice! Heaven sings out ‘Alleluia!’, ‘Amen!’ the earth replies.

No doubt there are earlier Christian references to the symbolism of the gifts, but this one puts it beautifully.

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    Very nice. Gold also speaks of intrinsic purity. Dec 21 '20 at 12:05
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    The oil would cost $90 at today's prices. In ancient times, transportation costs could be more than 95% of the sales price of a product. Dec 21 '20 at 21:03
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    When did it change to "tells of death and Calvary’s gloom"? The original is "Breathes a life of gathering gloom". Dec 22 '20 at 3:45
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    Interesting, those aren't the original words. Verse 3 for example should be " Frankincense to offer have I, // Incense owns a Deity nigh".
    – OrangeDog
    Dec 22 '20 at 12:31
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I think there is more to the gifts than the symbolism of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Particularly within the Bible. Recently I was preaching on Isaiah 60, and verse 6 struck me:

Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.

This struck me as a helpful prophecy / interpretation of the gifts the Magi brought. As Isaiah prophesied, the peoples of the earth would bring their treasures to God in praise of him. This is something that will happen in the new creation, see Revelation 21:24:

The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it.

So I wonder whether the Biblical significance of the gold, frankincense and myrrh is less to do with the symbolic significance of the gifts themselves but rather the act of the kings of the earth bringing their treasures to God.

Of course, the two explanations are not necessarily contradictory, and this kind of thing often happens in Scripture - it is possible to see the same thing through multiple lenses.

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Biblical significance of the gifts given to Jesus

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. - Matthew 2:7-12

Wikipedia’s article on the biblical Magi explains the symbolism of these gifts as such:

Gifts

Three gifts are explicitly identified in Matthew: gold, frankincense and myrrh. In Koine Greek these are chrysós (χρυσός), líbanos (λίβανος) and smýrna (σμύρνα). Many different theories of the meaning and symbolism of the gifts have been brought forward. While gold is fairly obviously explained, frankincense, and particularly myrrh, are more obscure. See the previous section for who gave which.

The theories generally break down into two groups:

  1. All three gifts are ordinary offerings and gifts given to a king. Myrrh being commonly used as an anointing oil, frankincense as a perfume, and gold as a valuable.

  2. The three gifts had a spiritual meaning: gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense (an incense) as a symbol of deity, and myrrh (an embalming oil) as a symbol of death.

  • This dates back to Origen in Contra Celsum: "gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God."

  • These interpretations are alluded to in the verses of the popular carol "We Three Kings" in which the magi describe their gifts. The last verse includes a summary of the interpretation: "Glorious now behold Him arise/King and God and sacrifice."

  • Sometimes this is described more generally as gold symbolizing virtue, frankincense symbolizing prayer, and myrrh symbolizing suffering.

Myrrh was used as an embalming ointment and as a penitential incense in funerals and cremations until the 15th century. The "holy oil" traditionally used by the Eastern Orthodox Church for performing the sacraments of chrismation and unction is traditionally scented with myrrh, and receiving either of these sacraments is commonly referred to as "receiving the myrrh". The picture of the Magi on the 7th-century Franks Casket shows the third visitor – he who brings myrrh – with a valknut over his back, a pagan symbol referring to Death.

It has been suggested by scholars that the "gifts" were medicinal rather than precious material for tribute.

There are numerous references to these gifts throughout the Scriptures as can be seen below:

6 Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord. - Isaiah 60:6

39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. - John 19:39

54 And that day was the preparation, and the sabbath drew on. 55 And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid. 56 And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment. 1 Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them. Mark 53:53 - Mark 54:1

6 Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,[a] 7 a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. 8 And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? 9 For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” - Matthew 26:6-13

The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts. Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him… to him shall be given of the gold of Sheba: [(Psalm 72: 10,11,15)

The Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising… all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the LORD. (Isaiah 60:3,6)

In the Middle-Ages, the Catholic faithful used to present, on the Feast of the Epiphany, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, to be blessed by the Priest. These tokens of their devotedness to Jesus were kept as pledges of God’s blessing upon their houses and families. The practice is still observed in some parts of Germany: and the prayer for the Blessing was in the Roman Ritual, until Pope Paul 5th suppressed it, together with several others, as being seldom required by the Faithful.

This traditional blessing is still observed in various local churches around the world.

The following blessing for gold, frankincense and myrrh is taken from the Roman Rituale. It was suppressed by Pope Pius V, but can still be found in usage here and there. An English version can be found here. I included the Latin text in the post due to it’s historical nature on this subject matter.

BENEDICTIO AURI, THURIS ET MYRRHÆ in Festo Epiphaniæ

V. Adjutórium nostrum in nómine Dómini.

R. Qui fecit caelum et terram.

V. Dóminus vobíscum.

R. Et cum spíritu tuo.

Oremus. Oratio Súscipe, sancte Pater, a me indígno fámulo tuo hæc múnera, quæ in honórem nóminis tui sancti, et in títulum omnipoténtiæ tuæ majestátis, humíliter tibi óffero: sicut suscepísti sacrifícium Abel justi, et sicut éadem múnera a tribus Magis tibi quondam offeréntibus suscepísti. Exorcízo te, creatúra auri, thuris et myrrhæ, per Pa + trem omnipoténtem, per Jesum + Christum, Fílium ejus unigénitum, et per Spíritum + Sanctum Paráclitum: ut a te discédat omnis fraus, dolus, et nequítia diáboli, et sis remédium salutáre humáno géneri contra insídias inimíci: et quicúmque divíno freti auxílio te in suis lóculis, dómibus, aut circa se habúerint, per virtútem et mérita Dómini et Salvatóris nostri, ac intercessiónem ejus sanctíssimæ Genetrícis et Vírginis Maríæ, ac eórum, qui hódie simílibus munéribus Christum Dóminum veneráti sunt, omniúmque Sanctórum, ab ómnibus perículis ánimæ et córporis liberéntur, et bonis ómnibus pérfrui mereántur.

R. Amen.

Deus invisíbilis et interminábilis, pietátem tuam per sanctum et treméndum Fílii tui nomen, supplíciter deprecámur: ut in hanc creatúram auri, thuris, et myrrhæ bene + dictiónem ac operatiónem tuæ virtútis infúndas: ut, qui ea penes se habúerint, ab ómni ægritúdinis et læsiónis incúrsu tuti sint; et omnes morbos córporis et ánimæ effúgiant, nullum dominétur eis perículum, et læti, ac incólumes tibi in Ecclésia tua desérviant: Qui in Trinitáte perfécta vivis et regnas Deus per ómnia sǽcula sæculórum.

R. Amen.

Et benedíctio Dei omnípotentis, Pa + tris, et Fílii +, et Spíritus + Sancti, descéndat super hanc creatúram auri, thuris, et myrrhæ, et máneat semper.

R. Amen.

Et aspergatur aqua benedicta.

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  • Yes, the gifts symbolised kingship, deity and death - but Christians see beyond the earthly event to the heavenly symbolism. Wiki does not! P.S. Love that hat. What's it for and what do I have to do to get one?
    – Lesley
    Dec 23 '20 at 9:37
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I know I've answered this elsewhere, but when teaching Catechism, I love to remind kids of this symbolism because it exemplifies the 3-fold office of Priest, Prophet and King which is shown in the book of Hebrews 9:4.

in which were the gold altar of incense and the ark of the covenant entirely covered with gold. In it were the gold jar containing the manna, the staff of Aaron that had sprouted, and the tablets of the covenant.

The holy relics that St. Paul says was in the ark (not sure where the tradition came from, but it's clearly something St. Paul believed was in there) mean, according to tradition, the office of Priest (symbolized by the rod of Aaron, prophecy symbolized by the manna from heaven, and kingship symbolized by the law-giving tablets).

The Virgin Mary typified the Ark of the Covenant in the New Testament and Jesus typified its contents. It's not a stretch to think that the gifts of the Magi reflected this as well, the theological reason is a little hazy in my mind.

Getting back to the gifts of the Magi, there's a sort of inflated tradition about the Magi being cool well-dressed foreign kings who show up on Mary and Joseph's doorstep (or even more unbiblically at the 'stable' where Jesus was born). I'd heard on a Christian Radio program (I think it was a St. Anthony's Messenger Press program, two years ago) that the Magi (or sorcerers) of the 1st century were at about the same of respectability as the shepherds who came to worship him first. They used gold, frankincense and myrrh as reagents in their craft. So, in another sense, one could say that they offered their first fruits of their livelihoods, like God asked of Cain and Abel in Genesis.

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    Yes - the gifts given to Jesus symbolised his divine role as Priest, Prophet and King.
    – Lesley
    Dec 23 '20 at 9:32
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In the ancient world, there was a whole pre-existing set of mythological tropes and cultural practices that existed in more than one culture, region, or religion. These included the ideas of miraculous births and ritual offerings. We see this, for example, in Luke 2:24, where Mary and Joseph go to Jerusalem and offer a pair of young pigeons, and in Luke 1:24, where Elizabeth miraculously conceives. Matthew was a Jew writing in Greek and trying to put the new religion of Christianity into context in a multicultural world.

The Magi were understood by Matthew's readers to be Zoroastrian astrologers/priests/magicians. They understood this because they were familiar with such people from accounts in the book of Daniel (5:11). Zoroaster himself was born under miraculous circumstances. In the nativity narratives, we see a very carefully constructed setup in which Christianity is shown to have roots in Judaism, and to be the fulfillment of Jewish prophecies, while at the same time being a universal religion that appeals to both Jew and gentile, both rich and poor (the shepherds). The fact that the Zoroastrian priests show up to pay homage to Jesus establishes both that Christianity transcends the Hebrew tribe and that Jesus is the one son of god, superior to lesser figures such as Zoroaster or John the Baptist. The Zoroastrian priests are presented as a prototype for gentiles who will be welcomed as converts to Christianity, although there is no follow-up narrative to tell us whether they heard and accepted the message of the adult Jesus.

To show their respect for Jesus, it's culturally expected that the foreigners have to make some kind of sacrifice or offering. Not doing so would be similar, in a modern context, to showing up at a birthday party without a gift. They're not Jews, so they're not going to go to the temple and sacrifice pigeons or unblemished calves. They resort to the same fall-back used by a great aunt who is out of touch and isn't sure what her young relatives would like as a gift -- they give cash, in the form of precious substances like gold, which transcend ethnic and religious identity.

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    Not a great answer. Your source is Wikipedia, which isn't known to be a good source for Christianity because it doesn't affirm the absolute Truth of the Bible. Go straight to the Bible for your information. After all, the OP asked for the biblical significance. Also, in the book of Daniel, Daniel was chief of the Magi, and he was a Jew who served the Christian God. (A 4th like the Son of Man was w/ his 3 fellows in the fiery furnace.)
    – mbomb007
    Dec 22 '20 at 16:30
  • @mbomb007: Thanks for your comment, which adds additional support to what I say in my answer. Daniel is a Jew held in captivity by non-Jews, in considerable cultural tension and in danger of his life. He shows that he has a better source of knowledge than the non-Jewish "magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans, and soothsayers" (Daniel 5:11). That's because he's a Jew and they're not, so he's the one with access to knowledge direct from God.
    – user14061
    Dec 22 '20 at 18:21
  • "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." - Matthew 2:11
    – mbomb007
    Dec 22 '20 at 19:35
  • What do you call people who worship Jesus...? Christians.
    – mbomb007
    Dec 22 '20 at 19:35
  • @mbomb007: As far as I can tell, we're still completely in agreement. The magi are depicted in the gospels as gentiles (Zoroastrians, by implication) who convert to Christianity. I'll edit again to see if I can clear up any possible confusion that might have led you to believe that we were disagreeing.
    – user14061
    Dec 22 '20 at 20:02

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