the shape of leadership

A Gift for Jesus: Frankincense

What the second gift of the wise men says about Jesus as priest

Shawn Follis on December 21, 2016

As Matthew recounts the story of Jesus, he writes of the wise men who traveled to see Jesus shortly after His birth. History does not tell us the number of persons who traveled to see Him, but it does tell us that they brought gifts — three gifts. Matthew 2:11 says, “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”

We think that we have pressure to give “just the right gift” for Christmas. Can you imagine the thought that must have gone into the wise men’s selection of what to give Jesus? If you are giving a gift to the Son of an infinite God, it better be something of immense value and eternal purpose. I believe that these gifts were inspired by God himself.

As Christmas nears, we’re taking a closer look at the uses and meanings of the three gifts. First, we learned more about gold, and today we’ll talk about frankincense.

Frankincense: More Than a Fragrance
The second gift that is recorded among those offered to the baby in the manger was that of frankincense. Unlike gold, many today may wonder about this second gift. Frankincense is an aromatic resin harvested from trees. It is grown in the Middle East region because the climate and limestone-based soil make it the perfect environment for the trees to thrive.

Frankincense has long been a valuable resource, and at its height of popularity it rivaled gold in value. There are over 20 different types of the Boswellia tree, and each produces its own unique fragrance and medicinal qualities.

In Jesus’ time, the gift of frankincense would have a practical implication on a Jewish family because the temple would likely be willing to purchase this valuable ingredient.

Because the wise men were students of ancient texts, they would have known the significance of the resin frankincense to a Jewish person. In Exodus 30:34-38 we read:

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take fragrant spices — gum resin, onycha and galbanum — and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts, and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer. It is to be salted and pure and sacred. Grind some of it to powder and place it in front of the ark of the covenant law in the tent of meeting, where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you. Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves; consider it holy to the Lord. Whoever makes incense like it to enjoy its fragrance must be cut off from their people.’”

Moses was given rigid instructions that this incense combination was only to be burned in the temple. In Jesus’ time, the gift of frankincense would have a practical implication on a Jewish family because the temple would likely be willing to purchase this valuable ingredient. Since this incense was to be constantly burned before the altar of God, the priests would need a constant supply. Like the gift of gold, it could easily be converted into money.

A New High Priest
The gift of frankincense would also have a symbolic meaning. Since this incense was only to be burned in the temple and only by a priest of God, the giving of this resin signified the wise men’s understanding that Jesus was born to be a priest for all mankind. Even though He was prophesied to be born from the kingly line of David and not the priestly line of Aaron, they knew that this prophesied Messiah would be more than just a king for His people, but also a priest.

In Psalm 110, we have record of King David's writing as he talked about this coming Lord. Verse 4 reads, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.’” Melchizedek was a priest to whom Abraham contributed a tenth of his plunder after God gave him favor in rescuing his nephew Lot, as recorded in Genesis 14. Since Melchizedek predates Abraham, he also predates his descendants. Jesus is listed not as a priest in Aaron’s line, but as a priest in the line of Melchizedek.

Even though the wise men could not read the book of Hebrews (since it was not written until somewhere around A.D. 80), we can read Hebrews chapters 1-8 for more information about how Jesus fulfilled this role as our great High Priest. Hebrews 4:14-16 states, “Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”

Since Jesus was born in human flesh, in many ways, He was just as we are. But when Jesus would offer His own blood upon the altar of God for the sins of mankind, He was acting as only our high priest could.

Though the wise men did not know details of how Jesus would fulfill this prophecy with His life, they had faith to believe that He would. They had the faith to give this little boy a gift that symbolized He would not just be the coming King of Israel, but He would also be a priest for all mankind.

Come back for the conclusion of this series when we look at the symbolism of myrrh. 

This article originally appeared on the Vital Magazine website and has been adapted with permission.


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