Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh — Of What Value?

gifts magi            The Gentile Christmas fast approaches on January 6th when the Church celebrates Epiphany. Here, Wise Men came from the East bearing gifts for the Christ child (Mt 2:11). Gold, frankincense, and myrrh are thought to symbolize the intercessory work of Jesus and much ink has been spilled to affirm this belief. We Three Kings Of Orient Are lends an air of credence to this belief with the following verses:

3)         Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain

Gold I bring to crown Him again

King forever, ceasing never

Over us all to reign.

5)         Frankincense to offer have I

Incense owns a Deity nigh

Prayer and praising, all men raising

Worship Him, God most high.

7)         Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume

Breathes of life of gathering gloom

Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying

Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

            Sung and believed by many gold is thought to symbolize Christ’s kingship; frankincense shows Christ’s work on our behalf to be acceptable to the Father; and myrrh points ahead to Christ’s bitter death for our sins on the cross. Yet, conservative scholars tell us Matthew’s Gospel provides no support for such a symbolic understanding of these gifts.[1]

What is to be made of this? Heirs of the Radical Reformation would say in the absence of a book, chapter, and verse to support such a theses, remove it and don’t speak of it. And this they did when it came to; 1) stained glass windows, 2) statuary, 3) remembrance of the saints, 4) signing oneself, and 5) crucifixes—none-of-which have the prerequisite book, chapter, and verse citations demanded.

But as a Lutheran I cheerfully remind myself that I am an heir of the Conservative Reformation. And this brings a joyful freedom and expressiveness. Following the example of Martin Luther adiaphora (things neither commanded nor forbidden) such as those just listed in above may be kept even without the prerequisite book, chapter, and verse citations required by some. Why? Because when properly understood such piety and actions point us to Christ as God’s Son who interceded for the world. And this is good for faith is strengthened when people are pointed to Christ who receives all glory and praise for his intercession on our behalf. So where do we go from here? Listen to these words of our Lord.

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, … if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me” (Jn 5:39, 46).

Jesus tells us all Scripture speaks of him—after all through his inspired penmen Jesus  wrote about himself in the Old Testament! In other words, even the furniture and material used in the Tabernacle finds its fulfillment in Jesus. The Holy Spirit with great precision spelled out specifications for beauty, architectural design, and liturgical rubrics, i.e., instruction.

Based on these words of Our Lord I would like to submit a pious “adjustment” to popular piety based on the gifts the Magi offered. And yes, I am cognizant no book, chapter, or verse will “seal the deal.” But as an heir of the Conservative Reformation I seek in all things to give glory and praise to Jesus for what he has done for us and our salvation.

We Three Kings suggests the gift of gold points to Christ being a King. The theme of “kingship” is found in Matthew’s Gospel (10:9; 23:16-17) and reaches its crescendo in Revelation 19:16 gloriously sung in Handel’s Messiah. However, in the Old Testament the theme of Kingship held foreboding. Israel committed great evil by asking for a king (1 Sam 12:12). So, perhaps the symbolic use of gold can be found elsewhere.

The entire Holy Place and Holy of Holies were adorned in gold. Specifically, the Ark of the Covenant was overlaid with gold (Ex 25:11) with the Mercy Seat made of solid gold (25:17). Also overlaid with gold was the Table for Bread (25:24) and the Altar of Incense (30:3). And like the Mercy Seat the Golden Lampstand was made of solid gold (31). There were decreasing levels of holiness as one moved away from this sacred furniture. This is evidenced for example, by the materials used for the courtyard curtain clasps and bases: “ … but the hooks of the pillars and their fillets shall be silver… [and] its twenty pillars and their twenty bases shall be of bronze” (27:10; see also Ex 38:9-31).

If we go the route of symbolism let the gold point to Jesus who is the fulfillment of all that the golden Mercy Seat, Table of Bread, and Golden Lampstand pointed towards. The Golden Lampstand has its terminus in Jesus who so identifies himself with the Lampstand that he speaks from it (Rev 1:12). The Altar of Incense shows that Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross for our sins was accepted by the Father when he “ … loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2).

Every Sabbath the priests were commanded to eat the bread (Lev 24:8-9) from the Table for Bread (overlaid in gold) which finds its fulfillment in every Sunday communion.

“‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Cor 11:26). The operative word is often. The Church’s mission is to proclaim the Lord’s death for the sins of the world, and as the Lord’s Supper does exactly that, ‘often’ is far better than ‘occasionally.’”[2]

The ark of the covenant was overlaid with gold while the mercy seat was solid gold. And who is our mercy seat other than Christ Jesus whose blood covers our sins? Our hymnody proclaims this truth so nicely:

  • “… So may we with willing feet Ever seek Thy mercy seat” (LSB 397:2).
  • “Lord, I believe Thy precious blood, Which at the mercy seat of God Pleads for the captives’ liberty, was also shed in love for me” (LSB 563:3).
  • “O’er the blest mercy seat, Pleading for me, My feeble faith looks up, Jesus, to thee” (LW 374:2).

Let the gold brought by the Magi symbolize the golden furniture Moses was instructed to build in the Tabernacle; Mercy Seat, Table for Bread, Golden Lampstand, and the Altar of Incense for all this furniture and its liturgical use pointed to Christ. On the cross Jesus triumphantly proclaimed “It is finished” (Jn 19:30). This tells us Jesus finished forgiving our sins. And, what was also finished was the need for the church to use the Ceremonial Law which was but a shadow of things to come (Col 2:7; Heb 8:5). Christ has come, we are forgiven, God’s sacrifice is here, for us.

If popular piety finds symbolic meaning in the gifts the Magi brought, can one do better than follow Jesus words (Jn 5:39, 46) and point people to Christ’s fulfillment of the Tabernacle furniture and liturgy associated with it?

Blessed Epiphany,

Pastor Weber

[1] Jeffrey Gibbs, “Matthew 1:1-11:1,” in Concordia Commentary: A Theological Exposition of Sacred Scripture (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006): 126, n. 39.

[2] Scot A. Kinnaman, gen. ed., Lutheranism 101 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2010), 158.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.