What is the worst Christmas gift you have ever received? My colleague’s gran once gave him got a repurposed school blazer with the emblem picked off; and someone else I know got an empty wooden box! My mum was once deeply insulted when someone gave her loo freshener for Christmas!
A Christmas gift might reveal that someone doesn’t really know your tastes or size, or might show that someone only shops the sales. However, how would you like a gift that revealed that someone knew your future?
Imagine if, for instance, Diana Spencer, when she was born, had been gifted a real tiara, a camera and a toy limousine. These would have foretold that she would be a princess; that she would be the most photographed woman in the world, whose life would be mediated by the camera; and that she would die in a car accident.
That is the sort of thing that happened at Jesus’ birth. The gifts that He was given that very first Christmas foretold who He was, what His role would be, and His death.
In the familiar nativity scene of the stable, baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and farm animals, there are usually three wise men. There may have been a whole caravan of magi, the Bible actually doesn’t tell us how many, but the reason three are depicted is because they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The gold, unsurprisingly, spoke of royalty – Jesus was the prophesied King of the Jews, as his mother Mary was told by the Angel Gabriel when she supernaturally conceived. “… the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”
When trying to find the baby, the wise men had come to the Roman appointed king of Judea – Herod – and asked “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” (Matthew 2:2)
Not too many of us would refuse a gift of gold, I’m sure. It would be a very generous Christmas present! But frankincense, a rare tree resin, seems rather strange.
To Jesus’ parents though, frankincense would have had a deep association with the temple sacrifices in Jerusalem. It was used in the incense that burned continually before the altar of God, it was also included in some of the thanksgiving offerings and was sprinkled on the priests’ bread.
The whole temple would have smelled of frankincense … and blood from the slain animals. The scent would have evoked deep associations with the priesthood and the atonement [cleansing from sin] rituals that formed the backbone of the Jewish calendar.
Frankincense indicated Jesus’ role as Great High Priest – the ultimate intermediary and advocate between sinful humanity and a holy God. The Book of Hebrews describes how Jesus is a perfect High Priest because He Himself is without any sin, so He doesn’t have to make sacrifices for Himself. He also doesn’t have to keep making sacrifices, because He is not only the priest, but the sacrifice, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).
The blood of the animals slain by the Jewish priests covered over people’s sins, but the blood of Jesus – both a sinless man and God incarnate – was sufficient to completely wash away the sins of everyone in the world (Hebrews 9:12-15).
Jesus’s death is recognised in the third gift, myrrh, which was used as an embalming agent on the wrappings of dead bodies. Over 30 years later, when Jesus’s body was taken down from the cross:
Nicodemus … came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. Then they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury. (John 19:39-40)
The betrayal and death of Christ was no accident or mistake of history. It was planned by God before the beginning of the world (1 Peter 1:20-21) in order to make a way, through Christ’s miraculous resurrection, for rebellious humanity to find their way back to God.
Thus, right from His childhood, the gifts from the wise men foretold that Jesus Christ was a king, who would be a priest-mediator for humanity and a human sacrifice for the sins of the world.
It would be pretty freaky to receive such prophetic gifts ourselves, but I hope you at least get useful or enjoyable ones this Christmas. Remember though, the best Christmas gift ever was the one wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger. The gift of Jesus Himself is still available to all of us, and I urge you to be a wise man or woman and seek Him out.