WERE THERE REALLY THREE WISE MEN? WHAT ARE FRANKINCENSE AND MYRRH?
by Shawn Brasseaux
The “wise men” are often called “the Magi,” the Greek word translated as such in our English Bible. They are very enigmatic Bible characters because they only appear in Scripture in Matthew chapter 2. In Nativity Scenes, we see the wise men portrayed as kings—three kings to be exact. While the Bible is silent about their names, church tradition refers to them as Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. The Bible never indicates how many wise men visited the Lord Jesus either. It is assumed that, because three gifts were presented, there were three wise men. Actually, there could have a dozen wise men—it does not matter the number, what we need to guard against is saying something is in the Bible when it is not.
Furthermore, there is no definitive proof in the Bible that the wise men were royalty. Psalm 72:10, which is probably one source of this confusion, is descriptive of kings bringing gifts to King Solomon (historical) and the Lord Jesus Christ when His establishes His earthly kingdom (prophetic)—it is not a verse that applies to Christ’s First Coming but rather His Second Coming. Isaiah 60:6, another confused verse, is not descriptive of Christ’s First Coming but rather His kingdom on Earth (yet future). We will look at Isaiah 60:6 in more detail later.
From Matthew chapter 2, we learn the following eight facts about the wise men:
- They were from the East (Matthew 2:1)—perhaps from Babylon. The important thing to remember is that they were living east of Jerusalem when they saw the star. They were undoubtedly Gentiles (non-Jews).
- They saw Jesus’s star in the east—the wise men were astrologers, or what we would call today astronomers (people who study the heavens, the movements of celestial bodies). King Nebuchadnezzar had similar officials serving in his court back in Daniel’s day (Daniel 1:20; Daniel 2:2, 27; Daniel 4:7, 9; Daniel 5:11). Dr. Strong defines the word translated “wise men” (Magi) as “Oriental scientists; by implication, magicians:—sorcerers, wise men.” The Hebrew Bible uses this word in Jeremiah 39:3 and Jeremiah 39:13 when referring to the name of a Babylonian prince, “Rabmag.” The wise men were very educated for their time, men skilled in science (hence their name, “wise men”), and, in light of Daniel, probably high-ranking officials in some foreign government.
- They have enough knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures to recognize that the King of the Jews is to be born, for His special star has appeared (Matthew 2:2). This star accompanying the Messiah was prophesied by Balaam in Numbers 24:17. Unlike the unbelieving Jews, the wise men believed the Scriptures and were joyful to see them fulfilled.
- They know to go to Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, where David’s throne was, where the Messiah King of Israel should be.
- Unlike the Jewish people who should have joyfully accepted their Messiah (but were rather troubled), the wise men were glad of the arrival of King Jesus, and, to King Herod’s disdain, they were come to worship Him instead of Herod (Matthew 2:1-3)!
- King Herod, claiming that he wants to worship Him with them, sends the wise men to locate the child Jesus and report back to him (Matthew 2:8-9). They wise men do not realize Herod wants to secretly kill Jesus—a dream from God later reveals that information to them, and instructs them to sneak away back to their foreign land without convening with Herod (Matthew 2:12).
- Contrary to what we see in Nativity Scenes, the wise men did not visit the Baby Jesus in Bethlehem but rather went to Nazareth, to the house of Joseph and Mary. There, they found Jesus was “a young child” (Matthew 2:9,11,13,14). In fact, Jesus could have been as much as two years old here (Matthew 2:16).
- They brought Jesus presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and they worshipped Him (Matthew 2:11). They did not present Mary Jesus’s mother with gifts, and they did not worship and pay homage to Mary. They worshipped Jesus Christ and presented gifts to Him.
WHY THE GIFTS OF GOLD, FRANKINCENSE, AND MYRRH? WHAT ARE “FRANKINCENSE” AND “MYRRH” ANYWAY?
Why did the wise men present gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus? Before we get to that, we will analyze what frankincense and myrrh actually are.
Frankincense is the dried sap of trees whose scientific name is Boswellia sacra. These trees are native to Yemen, Oman, and the Horn of Africa, including Somalia and Ethiopia. After being dried, the sap is burned as incense (this expensive product has a lemony, musky odor). Frankincense is thought to have several medicinal properties.
Myrrh is the dried resin of tree species known as Commiphora, trees found in Somalia, Yemen, and eastern Ethiopia. Like frankincense, it is expensive (once as valuable as gold), known for its medicinal properties, and burned as incense (often in religious settings). Myrrh is extracted by using a crushing technique. It has a rich, distinct scent—earthy and bitter. Myrrh was mixed with wine and given to Jesus just before His crucifixion, but, because it was an anesthetic, He refused it (Mark 15:23). Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus’ corpse (John 19:39). Interestingly, the city of “Smyrna” (Revelation 1:11; Revelation 2:8) derives it name from the Greek word translated “myrrh” in Matthew 2:11 and John 19:39. Myrrh can also be found in the context of gifts, spices, perfume, and incense in Genesis 37:25, Genesis 43:11, Exodus 30:23, Esther 2:12, Psalm 45:8, Proverbs 7:17, Song of Solomon 1:13, Song of Solomon 3:6, Song of Solomon 4:6,14, and Song of Solomon 5:1,5,13.
Interestingly, the wise men worship Jesus, not Mary and/or the angel, and they bring Him gifts of “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11). Why these gifts of all things? Gold is for a King, frankincense is for a Priest, and myrrh is for a Prophet—Jesus is all three (King—Isaiah 9:6-7; Priest—Zechariah 6:13; Prophet—Deuteronomy 18:15,18). Amazingly, Isaiah 60:6, written some 700 years beforehand, even prophesied Gentiles would bring God gifts of gold and frankincense. You will notice that myrrh is absent from Isaiah 60:6. Messiah will not suffer at His Second Coming—myrrh is unnecessary here. The only gifts needed in the Kingdom, the context of Isaiah 60:6, are gold and frankincense: Christ being a King (gold; Isaiah 9:6-7) and Christ being a Priest on His throne (frankincense; Zechariah 6:13).
According to the Bible, Matthew chapter 2, an indeterminate number of wise men from the east (Gentiles) saw the star of Christ, so they traveled to Jerusalem, inquiring where to find Christ, the King of Jews (verses 1,2). King Herod and Jerusalem were troubled, and Herod summoned Israel’s religious leaders to tell him where the Messiah would be born. They told him, according to Micah 5:2, “Bethlehem of Judaea” (verses 3-6). Herod then sent the wise men to seek Jesus, hoping to find and destroy Him (lest He become king and end Herod’s reign).
The star lead the wise men to Nazareth, where Joseph and Mary lived in a “house”—not the manger scene. Also, note that Jesus was not a baby when the wise men visited, but rather a “young child” (verses 9,11). He could have been as much as two years old (verse 16). By the way, according to Numbers 24:17, that star—an angel (cf. Job 38:7)—that the wise men saw signified the Messiah-King of Israel… they were wise in that they recognized and followed it! Sadly, these Gentiles had more respect for Israel’s King than Israel. These wise men recognized fulfilled prophecy… they were wise men indeed!
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