“They saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” – Matthew 2:11, NKJV
Have you ever heard the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”? Often reported to have been written to help children in England learn their lessons about God and the Bible, the song’s true origins and religious significance are uncertain. One thing, however, is clear: the “Twelve Days” refer to the twelve days between Christmas (December 25) and the day celebrated in many churches to commemorate the arrival of the Magi to honor the Christ Child (January 6).
The narrative account of the Magi – often called wise men or kings – appears in the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew:
“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘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.’
“When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
“So they said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:
‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;
For out of you shall come a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel’.’
“Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.’
“When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
“Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.”
(Matthew 2:1-12, NKJV)
Matthew’s narrative is significant for two separate reasons.
First, the events proclaimed that Jesus was divine (“they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him”). In addition, they foreshadowed that the people who would worship Him would include people from beyond Judea (represented by the Magi, who were gentiles “from the East”).
Second, the events announced that Jesus was also a king, a priest, and a prophet, as revealed by the three specific gifts the Magi gave to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The Magi presented gold, which honored Jesus as a king – not of this world but of a Kingdom that has no end (John 18:36-37, Luke 1:33, 1 Timothy 6:15, Revelation 19:16).
They presented frankincense, which honored Jesus as a priest – not of the Old Covenant but of the New and Everlasting Covenant (Hebrews 7:20-28, 13:20).
And they presented myrrh, which honored Jesus as a prophet – not of the Mosaic Law but of the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14-15), for which He would, like so many prophets before Him, give up His life, except that Jesus gave His life to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29, John 12:32-33, 1 John 2:2, Hebrews 9:11-28).
In the beautiful Christmas/Epiphany song, “We Three Kings,” the writer (John Henry Hopkins, Jr., 1857) addressed all three gifts:
“Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.
“Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshiping God on high.
“Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.”
Today, almost all Christmas productions, and even many churches, gleefully sing about the first two gifts of the Magi – the gold and the frankincense – while completely omitting the words about the third gift – the myrrh.
The problem with this development is not that it overlooks certain lyrics of a popular song. Rather, it ignores why the Son of God was born into this world in the first place.
I understand that during the fun-filled Christmas season many people want to avoid the “depressing” reference to myrrh and what it meant to Rev. Hopkins and other Christians for over twenty centuries. Like it or not, however, there is no Christmas without Christ, no Christ without the cross, and no cross without the suffering, pain, and death represented by the myrrh.
Another Christmas has come and gone, but there is another year, a new year, beckoning to us. You and I may not be able to change how future Christmases are celebrated, but Almighty God can certainly use us for the glory of His name and the salvation of souls. I therefore offer the following prayer as my prayer for 2017:
Heavenly Father, help us to keep Christ, in His fullness, in our future Christmases and throughout the New Year. Help us to embrace the cross, and the myrrh, that He so willingly embraced for us. I ask this all in the name of Jesus. Amen.
-- Dr. John Morris