Matthew 2:11–12 “Opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh” (v. 11b).
Yesterday we noted the historical inaccuracies regarding the magi found in Christmas crèches, but we failed to include among these errors their presence at the manger in most nativity scenes. The wise men do not gather with the shepherds only hours after Jesus’ birth; they visit months or even years later.
Today’s passage makes the case for a later visit of the magi. When the wise men find the Christ child in Bethlehem, He and His family are living in a house and are no longer staying in the stable (Matt. 2:11; Luke 2:1–20). Also, the magi first saw the star announcing the King’s birth while they were in their own land (Matt. 2:1–2) and have made a long journey from the east to Judea. Therefore, a visit soon after Jesus’ birth is impossible. Finally, when he issues the order to slaughter the Messiah, Herod has all the males in Bethlehem “two years old or under” killed according to the timing of the star he has ascertained from the wise men (v. 16; see also v. 7). Apparently, there is at most a two-year window between the birth of Jesus and the adoration of the magi.
As soon as the wise men arrive at their destination, they worship the king and give Him gifts (v. 11). Interpreters throughout the ages have typically viewed the gifts symbolically. Gold represents royalty and the Messiah’s reign. Frankincense, a glittery, fragrant gum from different Near Eastern trees, is useful in worship (Ex. 30:1–10) and symbolizes Jesus’ deity. Myrrh, a scented resin obtained from Arabia and Greece, is an embalming spice (John 19:39–40) and points to our Lord’s death. This reading of the text is insightful, but the wise men probably do not have such things specifically in mind when they present their costly gifts. In any case, these presents are resources that can potentially finance Joseph and Mary’s later sojourn in Egypt (Matt. 2:13–15).
Questions of illegitimacy attend Jesus’ birth (1:18–19), but as one scholar tells us, the magi’s visit proves He is Israel’s legitimate king. God often does the unexpected and uses what men consider foolish or illegitimate to reveal His wisdom to the world (1 Cor. 1:18–25). May we remember this principle and never make ourselves look respectable to the world at the expense of the Gospel.