Most Christians know about frankincense. Frankincense was an ingredient in incense and a baby gift that wisemen brought to Jesus. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Judea, wise men came from the east to worship him (Matthew 2.1-18). Bible scholars believe that wise men were from Persia (current day Iran). The visiting wise men were astrologers. They followed a star that first appeared in the East. These Persian sages believed that the star was a sign that a Jewish king was born.
Not surprisingly, the wise men stopped first in Jerusalem, capital city of the Jewish state. There, they met with King Herod and asked to see the newborn king. Because Herod feared a contender to his rule, he asked Jewish scholars where their prophets said that the Messiah would be born. Their answer was “Bethlehem.” The crafty Herod shared the Bethlehem location with the wise men. Herod told them to contact him after they found the child. Herod claimed that he wanted to go and worship the new born babe.
The wise men left Jerusalem and followed the star to Bethlehem where it stopped over the place where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus lived. Best estimates are that wisemen arrived in Bethlehem 12-18 months after Jesus’s birth. By this time, many Jews, who came to Bethlehem to register for the Emperor’s census, had left Bethlehem to return to their homes. Likely, Joseph and his family lived with a family member or had a house of their own. Seeing the baby Jesus, wise men fell on their knees and worshiped him. They gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
After the wise men left Bethlehem, God gave Joseph a dream. God told Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape being killed by King Herod. The family stayed in Egypt until God told Joseph it was safe to return to Judea. Probably, Joseph used the wise men’s gifts to subsidize the family’s trip to Egypt and their lives there. My guess is that Joseph bartered some of the frankincense for a donkey so that Mary didn’t have to walk and carry Jesus all the way to Egypt. Joseph may have used the gold to make the family’s years in Egypt easier.
Frankincense was from Boswellia sacra (B. thurifera). Both the plant and its resinous product are called frankincense. Almost all frankincense is harvested from wild trees. It is sap which trees exude when cut. When exposed to air, the sap-like resin hardens. Frankincense can be opaque, white, or yellow crystal. Often, frankincense is described as smelling like aromatic pine. Ancient Near East women used frankincense as part of a daily beauty routine. When breathed in, frankincense can promote feelings of peace, satisfaction, and an overall sense of mental wellness.
Odor of Sanctity
So complete is the link between frankincense and religious occasions that frankincense is known as the “Odor of Sanctity” and associated with sainthood. Sanctity implies a holy life and character, a life worthy of religious veneration. Sanctity encompasses reverence, respect, and purity. Saints were recognized in both the Old and New Testaments. God knows his saints and watches over them. Psalmists averred that God delights in the saints, preserves them, and that they lack nothing (Psalm 16.3; 31.23; 34.9). Samuel wrote that God will guard the feet of the saints (1 Samuel 2.9). Loving words from God are, “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalms 116.15 ESV).
At Jesus’s birth, wisemen brought him baby gifts, birthday presents, believing Jesus was a king’s son. They were accurate. Jesus was the son of God, born as a baby into the human world. Jesus’s life encompassed reverence for his father and God’s laws and precepts. Jesus’s life was pure—no evil thoughts, no illicit sex, no immoderate words. Jesus was more than a saint; however, his birth, death, and resurrection, made a way for each of us to be saints as we live our lives. No, we won’t always exhibit saintly behavior; however, our corrupt behavior is covered by the blood that Jesus shed for us. Once we accept Jesus as our Savior, we become saints. When God sees us, he sees us through the imputed righteousness of his Son. We have a “get into heaven” card when we die.
Copyright 10/9/18: Carolyn Adams Roth