The story of the wise men offering frankincense to the Christ child is told in Matthew 2:1-18.
When Christ was born in Bethlehem, Judea, wise men came from the east to worship him. Bible scholars believe that the wise men were from Persia. In Persia wise men were well regarded and often occupied roles in the king’s court, e.g., Daniel was considered a wise man in the Babylonian court (Daniel 2:48). The visiting wise men were astrologers – they followed a star that first appeared in the east. They believed that the star was a sign that a Jewish king was born.
Not surprisingly, the wise men went to Jerusalem, capital of the Jewish nation, and ask King Herod to see the newborn king. King Herod was not a Jew, but he and the high priests were aware of the Jewish prophecy that a king would be born who would rule over Israel. Jealous for his kingship, Herod learned from the priests that the promised Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. Herod shared this location with the wise men and requested that they contact him after they found the child. Ostensibly, Herod 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 home where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus lived. Seeing the Christ child, the wise men fell on their knees and worshipped him. They gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Advised by God in a dream, the wise men returned to Persia without going through Jerusalem or seeing Herod. When Herod realized that he was outwitted by the wise men, he commanded Roman soldiers kill all baby boys in and round Bethlehem two years of age and under. Herod hoped to rid himself the Christ child and a possible threat to his rule over Judea.
In a dream God told Joseph to take Mary and the young child to Egypt. The family was to stay in Egypt until God told Joseph it was safe to return to Judea. Probably Joseph used the wise men’s gifts to help subsidize the family’s trip to Egypt and life in Egypt.
The frankincense of Matthew 2:11 is the Boswellia sacra plant, also known as B. thurifera and incense. Both the plant and its resinous product are called frankincense. It is native to the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula and the north-eastern regions of Africa. The first record of frankincense is dated to the reign of Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt, around 1500 B.C. The Queen sent an expedition south to bring back frankincense trees. She had the trees planted in a temple near Luxor. In 2013, the Boswellia sacra plant was not present in three Israeli plant databases. Almost all frankincense is harvested from wild trees. Frankincense is hard and resinous and can be an opaque, white or yellow crystalline. Generally frankincense is described as smelling like aromatic pine.
Symbolism: Sanctity, Saint
Frankincense was used in important religious rituals and occasions from the time of the Tabernacle to the present. 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 inviolability. The opposite of sanctity is accursed. A saint as a person who is faithful to the Lord (I Samuel 2:9 study note). From the time of Christ’s birth, he inspired individuals to live reverent, respectful lives. That’s why we have saints.
Christian denominations place different emphasis on saints. Our Roman Catholic brethren have a formal recognition system for sainthood and believe saints can have a significant influence on the lives of the faithful. Often there are statutes of saints in Catholic churches and buildings, e.g., hospitals. Although not a Catholic church, my church is named after Saint John, the Beloved apostle. St. John’s life and writings are worthy of respect and we can learn from them.
At the same time that we learn from the lives of saints, we need to keep in mind that there is one mediator between God and man and that mediator is Christ Jesus. Christ Jesus came to earth as a baby and was born in a stable. His birth was announced by choirs of angels. Eastern wise men recognized him as a king and brought him valuable gifts including frankincense.
Saints are recognized in both the Old and New Testaments. God knows his saints and watches over them. The Psalms aver that God delights in the saints (Psalm 16:3), preserves them (Psalm 31:23), and that they lack nothing (Psalm 34:9). Samuel wrote that God will guard the feet of the saints (1 Samuel 2:9). The Holy Spirit intercedes on behalf of the saints so their prayers and actions will be consistent with God’s will for our lives (Romans 8:26-27). Loving words from God are, “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalms 116:15).
Christians who are faithful to God (the saints) have been given instructions on how to live. God’s saints are to fear and love the Lord, to sing to the Lord and praise his name, and to rejoice in the Lord (Psalm 30:4; 31:23; 34:9; 149:5). God expects us to love and pray for the saints (Ephesians 1:15, 6:18). When Paul wrote to Philemon, he noted that Philemon’s love refreshed the hearts of the saints (Philemon 1:7). Many times we do not think that our love is refreshment to a hurting heart or to a person under stress.
Daniel (7:18) reassured readers that God’s saints will receive the kingdom and possess it forever, while Paul warned that the saints will judge the world (1 Corinthians 6:2). Judging the world seems like a huge task and certainly many of us do not feel up to it. Yet, when that time comes, God will be with us – his saints — as he is with us now when we think activities or situations are too big for us to handle.
Reflection. In one of Saint John’s visions, he saw 24 elders around the throne of heaven (Revelations 5:8). Each elder was holding a bowl full of incense. The incense was the prayers of the saints! Amazingly our prayers are incense – sweet aroma – to God.
I love Bible plants along with their symbolism. If you want to learn more about them, read my two books: 1) Rooted in God and 2) God as a Gardener. You can purchase them from my website: Carolyn Roth Ministry at http://www.CarolynRothMinistry.com/
Copyright April 5, 2013; carolyn a. roth