The Gifts of Christmas part 2 – Frankincense

by | Dec 11, 2020 | 0 comments

Jesus was an infant by the time of the Wise Men’s visitation, and they gave Him a gift of frankincense. I’m not sure that sounds like a wise gift, at least at first. Yes a bath toy or a cuddly bear, but frankincense? When Hannah was a toddler, I saw a pig toy that made a noise when you pressed it and I thought it would make a great gift. I quite enjoyed it as I drove him home. I showed it to Joy and her first words were, ‘That’s a chew toy for a dog.’ Maybe not a wise gift either, though I’ve never claimed to be wise (at least not out loud).

When you look into this gift that they bring, frankincense, it’s astounding. Frankincense is just a word for posh or pure incense. When I think of incense, I think of certain shops in the 90s where the owner was wearing tie-dye and burning incense. I’d personally avoid those types of shops, not only because they didn’t smell very nice but I didn’t want to buy the stuff they were selling.

Incense in the Bible is highly valued. In Isaiah chapter 60 we read of a great light coming to Israel. With this great light it prophesies that the nations would come to Israel bringing gifts of frankincense and gold. Frankincense is an extravagant gift but so is gold. In some respect frankincense is more extravagant than gold, because gold is a gift worthy of any old king. Not so with incense. Incense is more remarkable and it makes you wonder how much these gentiles from afar understood of the promised Messiah. You see in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, incense is never offered to anyone but God. It is used in different ways but always as an offering to God. William Hendricksen says, in the Bible it is so associated with God that it could be said, ‘that just as gold and king go together, so do incense and God.’[1]

Its use was exclusively for worship of God, so much so that Israelites were forbidden from burning it in their homes. It was offered up in the Temple, on a daily basis, by a priest the purest form by the High Priest. By the time of the New Testament when there were so many priests who would offer it on a particular day was decided by lot. This might be the only time a priest would get to do it in his lifetime. What an honour to offer incense before the LORD.  Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist had this opportunity on the day of Gabriel’s visitation.

In Revelation, similarly, incense was offered up to God from bowls and we are told that these are the prayers of God’s people offered to God. So, incense is a picture of prayer. Both offered in the earthly temple and in the heavenly throne room of God, a pleasing aroma before the LORD.

So, it is always offered to God and is always offered by a priest. This then gives us something else to contemplate: Jesus is God incarnate, God in the flesh. He came to live His life and to give His life as an offering to God. Jesus is both God and man and as man He Himself is the offering to God, the perfect and pure incense that is a pleasing and sweet aroma before God. It points to Jesus as High Priesthood, on our behalf, His Holy Life and His standing in the gap for us.

So how wise were these Wise Men? They bring this toddler a gift that is exclusively for worship. The incense alone implies that they have come to worship Him, this newborn king. However, the text goes on to tell us plainly that they have come to worship.  For they bow down before this young child explicitly in worship, prostrate before Him. These grand men are not ashamed to worship this humble toddler, we can tell by their gifts and their great journey following a star that they see with more than their eyes, we can see their wisdom in the gift of frankincense. So, the gift was a wise gift after all. By the way, little Hannah loved the squeezy squealing pig.

Stephen Barton

[1] William Hendricksen, Matthew commentary, p.176

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