The First Christmas Gifts

By Mike Mazzalongo Topic: General Topics Verse: Matthew 2:9-11 Posted: Sun. Dec 25th 2011
A review of the significance represented in each of the gifts presented to Jesus by the Magi.

Do you expect to receive Christmas gifts? Do you plan to give some gifts to someone at Christmas? Whether you're giving, receiving, or some of both, there are certain things we all want when it comes to Christmas gifts.

  • We want them to please the ones we give them to.
  • We'd like them to be a happy surprise.
  • We love to receive gifts that show that the other person really thought about us/knew our desires or needs.
  • We especially appreciate those gifts that demonstrate that the person who gave us the gift made a special effort in getting this thing for us.

I think that in the end it's these kinds of things that make the exchanging of gifts special, pleasing, and satisfying. Of course the very first "Christmas" gifts had many of these attributes. I'm referring to the "gifts" that the wise men brought to the baby Jesus when He was born. I know that it wasn't Christmas as we know it today; no Santa Clause or shopping centers, but the essence of what we strive to express at Christmas time today was present there and then 2000 years ago. For example:

1. There was joy and happiness at the event of His birth just as there is joy and happiness during this season. Today we sing carols and wish each other Christmas greetings. In that time the Bible says the angels praised God saying,

Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.
- Luke 2:14

2. There are signs and decorations today that mark the specialness of the Christmas season: lights, wreaths, vibrant colors, decorated trees. I know that many of these symbols were once part of various cults and pagan religions of long ago, but what is important is what they've come to mean now, not what they meant a thousand years ago in long forgotten cultures and practices. Today the lights, the colors, the decorated trees, and the rest all symbolize the very real historical fact that Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God, was actually born to Mary. Today we have lights on our homes or on our trees that signal this fact; back then there was a light in the sky, a special star that announced this good news (Matthew 2:7-10).

The star is gone, but we remember it with other bright objects that witness this event each year. Every time the bright lights and decorations appear we know it is about the birth of Jesus; in the same way that when the "star" appeared it was about the life of Jesus.

3. There were gifts brought by the "wise men." The wise men:

  • We don't know how many.
  • Probably from Babylon (modern day Iraq) since this was the center for the study of astrology and astronomy at the time.
  • In previous times Daniel, the Jewish prophet, had been in captivity in Babylon and had a great influence for the Jewish religion in that country.
  • It is no surprise that educated men would be interested in the seeming fulfillment of Jewish prophecy concerning the Messiah.
  • They even quote Micah, a Jewish prophet of the 7th century before Christ.

We also know that God guided their trip (through the star) and protected them from Herod (Matthew 2:12) through a dream. The thing most people know about them were the gifts that they brought.

After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
- Matthew 2:11

Note the kind of gifts that they brought.

A. Gold

  • Represented and was what was best in that world.
  • Highest value object that could be offered.
  • Nothing finer than gold.

B. Frankincense

  • Rare perfume, burned on altars during worship.
  • Used as incense in the tabernacle (Exodus 30:34-38).

C. Myrrh

  • Another rare ingredient used to make perfume at the time.
  • Myrrh was one of the elements used in burial.

All three gifts were rare and expensive at that time, as well as difficult to obtain (frankincense and myrrh had to be imported to Babylon from India and Africa). Each gift had special meaning as well:

  • The gold was something only kings possessed in that time and culture. A signal that the wise men acknowledged Jesus' true nature as king.
  • Frankincense was used in worship and we see the wise men worshiped Jesus when they found Him. Their gift of frankincense signified that they acknowledged Him not only as king but as worthy to be worshiped as well since frankincense was used for this purpose among the Jews.
  • And finally, the myrrh they brought suggested the future purpose of Jesus' life was to be offered on the cross and then buried. Even at His birth, through their gift of myrrh, the wise men were being used to point to the ultimate purpose of Jesus' life: His death, burial, and ultimately His resurrection.

Their gifts had value, meaning, and fulfilled the need to announce the significance of the birth of Jesus. Just like our gifts today: we want them to be valuable and useful as well as an expression about how we feel about the people we offer them to. And so all the elements of our present day Christmas was there at the beginning:

  1. The star shone brightly in the sky to announce the birth of Jesus. Lights and decorations during this season remind us of special light long ago.
  2. The angels rejoiced in heaven because of the birth of Christ. We have a greater sense of love and joy at this time of year when we celebrate and remember that event.
  3. The wise men brought gifts to honor and reveal the meaning of Jesus' birth. We exchange gifts to demonstrate our love and the meaning of our various relationships with others.

If you choose not to celebrate Christmas, for whatever reason, you are free to do so. But if it's your habit to celebrate Christmas, then enjoy it knowing that the joy, fellowship, and sharing we as Christians do at this time of year has its basis not in the world of commerce and marketing but in the Bible itself.

Our Gifts for Jesus

Now I want you to notice one more thing about the wise men and their gifts in Matthew 2:11. It says:

After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The first Christmas gifts were for Jesus, not Mary or Joseph! He was the object of the gifts, it was His birthday, not theirs. I've noticed that today, however, we give gifts to everyone else except Jesus. Family, friends, customers, the boss, the newspaper delivery person, mailman, teacher, everybody gets something, but there's usually nothing under the tree for the Lord. It's like going to someone's birthday party and bringing a gift for all of the guests but none for the one whose birthday it is!

Someone might say, "What would Jesus want or need for Christmas?" The Lord doesn't really need anything, surely no "thing" made in this world (which He created – Colossians 1:16). But if I chose to give Him gifts of some kind, gifts of value and meaning, then here are three that I would put under the tree for Him:

Gift #1 – A Life of Faith

It is so tempting to live by "headlines" these days:

  • Global warming
  • Economic meltdown
  • Uncertain future
  • Wars, disasters, scandals

We are bombarded by the daily message that things are bad and going to get worse. What a surprise, what a precious gift our life of faith would be in contrast to what others are doing by worrying and being frightened. I am reminded of the fact that the only time Jesus was amazed or surprised was when he encountered the faith of the Roman centurion who had asked Jesus to heal his favored servant. Jesus was prepared to go to this man's house to do it but the soldier simply said that he believed that if Jesus wanted this to happen, the servant would be healed, no need to come in person. Both Matthew and Luke record Jesus' response to this man's faith:

Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled and said to those who were following, "Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel.
- Matthew 8:10

My life of faith can be an amazing gift to my Lord because it stands out so remarkably from the disbelief of this world. It sparkles and shines brightly next to the despair, discouragement, and darkness around it. It honors the Lord like the gold of the Magi honored Him because it acknowledges Him as our King, our Lord, our God – not the powers of this world.

My faith for all that I need to live an honorable life is in Christ, not what my government or company does or does not do. My faith says that Jesus is greater than these and all things are held together by Him – not by human power.

Many are saying that there are great opportunities during these troubled times: interest rates are low, house prices are low, bargains everywhere – all you need is a little confidence. Well, this is also a marvelous opportunity to show what kind of faith we have as well. In these troubled times living by faith would be an amazing gift to give to the Lord.

Gift #2 – An Increased Commitment

The fact that you are reading this Mini Book demonstrates that you have a certain level of commitment to the Lord. The gift I'm describing here is the next level of commitment that each of us can make in our Christian lives. This second gift is separate from the first in that it is different for each of us. Faith, like gold, is the same regardless of who gives it. But commitment is a very personal gift and has a different look and shape for each individual.

Each person is at a different place as far as their commitment to Christ is concerned. The gift I'm talking about is the next level of your personal commitment to Christ – this would be a valuable gift to offer our Lord. It's unique for every person because each person is at a different level of commitment to Jesus Christ.

  • For some the next step in commitment is to be baptized. They believe, they love God, they haven't yet obeyed this command.
  • For others the next level of commitment may be a greater effort to deal with sinfulness in their lives – the gift of a holier life offered to God.
  • For many the gift may be a higher commitment to the Lord's body, the church.

Our love for God is demonstrated by our level of commitment to worshiping and serving Him.

Low commitment, little love.

A high commitment to faithful attendance in order to worship God, learn from His word, and support His church is like the frankincense offered to the Christ child by the wise men. When we raise our level of commitment to holier living and more faithfulness to the church, it becomes the gift of a fragrant aroma before God.

Gift #3 – A Conscious Confession of Christ

When the wise men offered myrrh to the baby Jesus they could not have known the ultimate significance of their gift. As I mentioned before, myrrh was used primarily in preparing bodies for burial. Unlike the Egyptians, the Jews did not practice the preservation of the corpse through embalming. They cleaned the dead body and wrapped it in linen lined with spices and perfume like myrrh in order to deal with the odor during the burial process.

The Magi looked to the ultimate death of this child, perhaps they thought He was to be great in life and wanted to testify to this with their gift (a royal or proper burial). But they could not have known the purpose, and manner, and outcome of Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection – but we do! They only referred indirectly to His death but we can openly confess not only His death for the sins of all men but declare His glorious resurrection as well.

The plan to save all mankind from eternal destruction that was once a "secret," as Paul says in Romans 16:25, is now known and available to all. Every time we share our faith, invite someone to church, teach someone the gospel, we offer the gift of conscious confession to Christ. The beauty of this gift is that each time we offer it to someone, we give it to Christ – no matter how the person reacts. The value of this gift is that it has the power to multiply into countless gifts of praise and thanksgiving by those who are saved because of our witness.

Summary

Let me say one last thing about all three of these gifts:

  • A life of faith
  • An increased commitment
  • A conscious confession of Christ

They are true gifts because they all belong to us. They are ours to give or not to give – we decide. The Bible says that the world was created by God and belongs to Him – we can't really give Him what is His. We only manage it and give Him a portion back of what He gives us as an acknowledgement of this fact. But God has given to us:

  • The capacity to believe or not
  • The ability to commit or not
  • The choice to confess or not

These things are ours to do with as we choose. Imagine the pleasure of our Lord when we choose to freely, generously, lovingly offer to Him:

  • A faithful life over a fearful one.
  • An unwavering commitment instead of a lukewarm one.
  • A host of believers who have come to Christ because we chose to confess His name.

These are gifts worthy of the One who saved our souls from eternal death.

Have you ever been disappointed at Christmas? Got matching socks and tie instead of the skill saw you really wanted? Received a lovely card with words of love along with a new iron instead of a pass for a full day at the spa that would have done you more good?

I wonder if after we gorge ourselves with food and spending at Christmas God is disappointed with what we leave for Him under the tree. I know that it doesn't work like that – but you know what I mean.

Maybe after having blessed us with all that we have at this time of year, I wonder if the Lord is disappointed that we offer Him so little in return, in gratitude. So by all means, don't be afraid to enjoy this season in good conscience because it all comes from God and He is the one from whom all blessings flow. I just want to make sure that if you wanted to offer the Lord a gift that would truly be pleasing to Him – you'd know what to shop for.

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Minister, Luther Church of Christ