What Is the Significance of the Three Gifts the Wise Men Offered to Jesus?

What Is the Significance of the Three Gifts the Wise Men Offered to Jesus?

The fact that non-Jewish pagan religious leaders came to worship Christ shouts out that the Savior came to rescue not just Jews but people from every tribe, nation, and tongue. So some thirty years later the same Jesus would command his followers to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” 

Editor’s Note: Campbell Markham is pastor of Scots’ Presbyterian Church in Fremantle, Western Australia.

On the night before Christmas, growing up, we put out empty pillowcases next to our beds. In the morning they would be filled to bursting with presents.

Once, I mistimed my Christmas morning wake-up. I could feel at the end of the bed that the bag was full, but not even the birds were awake. Reclaiming sleep was hopeless, and the next hour or two of waiting in the quiet darkness was a bit torturous.

Perth Christmas mornings were invariably cool and clear-skied, with the promise of much swimming in the pool later on. We would take our bulging pillowcases into the living room, and then began the heaven of extracting and unwrapping one perfectly wrapped gift after another.

Our parents’ amazing generosity did not however prevent us from inwardly assessing present quality. What separated the sheep from the goats was the hardness of the wrapped gift. To put it bluntly, a solid gift rated high, a soft gift rated low. Hard gifts were likely to be a toy—for example, a Star Wars blaster, board game, or something electronic like a Walkman (if you’re under 38, ask someone older). Soft gifts were likely to be clothes. Nothing is less interesting than clothes.

The Magi presented three gifts to the child Jesus in Bethlehem.

Yet, what about the gifts that were given at the first Christmas—the three presents of the Magi presented to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem?

Matthew alone tells us the story:

After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 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. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Matt. 2:9-12)

We don’t know how long after Jesus’ birth this happened. Given that King Herod, just after the Magi’s visit, tried to kill Jesus by ordering the death of all boys in Bethlehem aged two years and younger, it may have been anytime within two years of his birth.

Who were the “wise men” in Matthew 2:1-12?

magos was a pagan wise man, priest, and/or astrologer. “Magic” and “magician” come from magosMagi is the plural, and coming from the east and following a star, these were probably Persian astrologers.

Our Christmas cards’ assumption that there were three Magi rests on the giving of three gifts. From Matthew, though, we learn only that there were more than one. The traditional names, Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior, were fabricated about five centuries after Jesus’ birth.

We know for an historical certainty, however, what the Magi did when they finally found the baby Jesus. They “fell down and  worshiped him.” The word “worship” typically described prostration before a king, to kiss the hem of his robe. The Magi fell on their faces before the baby Jesus in awful respect.

The magi “fell down and worshiped him.”

Many have dismissed the story of the Magi’s visit, “What Persian wise man would come to honor the birth of a Jewish peasant?” The strangeness of their worship points to the greatness of the baby.

These travelers, who would have been very rich to have made such a long journey and were no doubt highly honored in their own land, saw in the baby Jesus someone of cosmically greater honor and glory.

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