I’ve made a good start on my Christmas shopping. I enjoy giving presents almost as much as I enjoy getting them. However, I don’t always enjoy shopping for them, so I’m glad to be at least halfway done.
Two weeks ago I made a run to Barnes & Noble on Rittenhouse Square, which to my surprise had all the books I needed in stock. Then this week we had a big family outing–Toys R Us, Zany Brainy, and the Cherry Hill Mall–looking for gifts for the cousins. With marvelous efficiency, Lisa has most of the presents wrapped and boxed for shipping. Now all we have left are the people that are hard to buy for, and of course, a few more things for the kids.
Exchanging gifts is a long-standing Christmas tradition, especially in the West. The tradition is loosely tied to the first Christmas, when God sent his Son into the world. Jesus is God’s gift to lost humanity. The Scripture calls him God’s “indescribable gift” (2 Cor. 9:15), the one “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).
When God first gave us this marvelous gift, there were some men who rightly sensed our need to reciprocate, to respond to God with a gift of our own. These men were the Magi, the Wise Men from the east who visited Jesus at Bethlehem. “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh” (Matt. 2:11).
The worship the Magi offered was significant. It was significant because they were kings in their own right. Thus by bowing down in worship, they were acknowledging Jesus as the King of kings. Their adoration was also the fulfillment of a biblical prophecy. Concerning the coming Messiah, Isaiah had prophesied: “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isa. 60:3). That promise began to be fulfilled almost as soon as Jesus was born. The Magi represented the nations that would come to worship Christ.
The treasure they brought was also significant. The gifts were costly, and thus they demonstrated the worthiness of the One to whom they were given. But there was also something important about the gifts themselves. Gold is a gift fit for a king. It is a symbol of royalty. In the ancient world incense was often used for religious worship, as it was in the tabernacle (Exod. 30:1; 40:5; Heb. 9:4). In the Bible it also represents the prayers of the saints. David said, “May my prayer be set before you like incense” (Ps. 141:2a), and in the book of Revelation “the smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God” (Rev. 8:4). Myrrh was used in the embalming process as a spice to prepare the dead for burial.
Each of these gifts was uniquely appropriate for Christ because each was prophetic of some aspect of his saving work. Gold is for kings, and Jesus came to be the King. The Magi worshiped him as the King of the Jews, but now, by his resurrection from the dead, he is crowned as “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5). Incense is for priests, and Jesus is our High Priest, the one who offers our prayers up to God.
Jesus also offered himself as the sacrifice for our sins. In its description of his death, the Bible mentions two details specifically involving myrrh. One concerns the drink that Jesus was offered on the cross: wine mixed with myrrh (Mark 15:23). The other concerns the spices that were used to prepare his body for burial: “Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them [meaning Joseph of Arimathea] wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen” (John 19:39-40a). These details remind us of the Magi, whose gift of myrrh hinted already back in Bethlehem that Jesus was born to die.
At the first Christmas gifts were exchanged, gifts of eternal significance. The gift of God was a Son to be our Savior. The gift of the Magi was the treasure of the nations, symbolizing the kingship of Christ and his saving death.
When it comes to Christmas gifts today, the most important thing is to receive the gift that God has given. The words on the popular Christmas card are true: “Wise Men Still Seek Him.” God has sent his Son Jesus Christ to be our Savior. Everyone who believes in Jesus Christ receives the free gift of eternal life. The next thing to do is to offer ourselves back to God in worship, the way the Magi did. The treasure we offer is not gold, or frankincense, or myrrh, but our lives for his service. That is the really important gift exchange that needs to take place at Christmas.
The presents we give to one another are trivial by comparison. It is not wrong to give them, of course. But if we decide to give someone a gift, then we should do it in a way that reflects something of God’s grace. A good deal of our gift giving is reciprocal: we give presents to people who will give presents to us. One is reminded of the famous words of Thomas Hobbes: “No man giveth, but with intention of good to himself.”
In our family we go through an increasingly elaborate ritual that involves the drawing of names and the exchange of lists, usually complete with catalog numbers and ordering information. Almost nothing is left to chance, which of course makes it easier to get people something they actually need or want. But if we are Christians, then at least some of our giving ought to be completely gracious. We should find ways of giving to people who are truly in need, and who have no claim on our generosity. For when we were truly in need, without any claim on God’s grace, he sent us the greatest gift ever.
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