“Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession;” Hebrews 3:1
The next gift mentioned in Matthew is called frankincense. This is where a good many of us get lost, since we do not often have much sense regarding scents. It is obtained from balsam trees, specifically ones that are indigenous to regions of Arabia and the Horn of Africa. In ancient times, it held a great value because of the localization of the economy.
Today, though, frankincense does not seem to be that big of a deal. At this moment, I can order a pound of frankincense from Amazon.com for under twenty dollars! It does not have the intrinsic worth that gold has. One reason is this: as long as you can grow a Boswellia tree, you can make more. It’s like maple syrup: there is a specific source and varied conditions can cause a shortage, but if you can grow the tree and learn how to tap it, you can have more next year.
Why, then, is frankincense valuable? We can see that it is: if you look at Exodus, frankincense is part of the holy incense prescribed in the Torah. It can also be found in Song of Solomon as a part of social and intimate life. It was part of the sacrificial system in Leviticus. Even non-canonical books mention frankincense. 3 Maccabees mentions that elephants were given frankincense and wine to drive them mad! The stuff shows up in various places.
The main use, though, is not to drug elephants. That story is actually not very reliable anyway, but it is entertaining. The primary use of frankincense is in religious observances. It is, as mentioned, part of sacrifices, anointing, and Song of Solomon puts frankincense into the marriage celebration. Why is a tree product that valuable?
As I said above, it was difficult to obtain in a non-globalized economy. It requires effort to obtain. One can pay enough for it, but one could also find a way to grow it and prepare it yourself. God is gracious like this: wealth is not the key to worship. Effort is. Action that reveals the heart of the worshipper is more important than how big of a check was written. It was valuable because God commanded it.
And frankincense represents that. It was a necessary part of worship: it was used to anoint the High Priest and used in the most important sacrifices. It was a part of the smoke of the fire on the altar that went up before God constantly. Its presence signified the presence of God.
The Magi bring it to Jesus. Whether they fully understand how He is the High Priest for all time is a question that I cannot answer. I know that they could have read of His coming from one of their predecessors, known to them as Belteshazzar. He was a wise man of Babylon who went on to be a wise man of the Persian Empire, and it is from Persia that the Magi have come. Belteshazzar has mentioned the coming of a glorious one, and based on his experiences with telling dreams, reading miraculous handwriting, and surviving lions’ dens, his voice would likely be remembered.
Daniel (that was Belteshazzar’s other name. You might remember that one better, it was the one his mother gave him!) had spoken of the coming Anointed One in his writings and the Magi are standing before that One. They present Him with a gift that does not acknowledge His kingship, but rather His Priesthood. As High Priest, He represents God to the people, and the people to God. He is the embodiment of religious truth and greatness.
Let us take time this week to examine Jesus as the Great High Priest.
Scripture Passage for the Day: Hebrews 8:1-2 (NASB95)
“Now the main point of what we are saying is this:
We do have such a high priest,
who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven,
and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord,
not by a mere human being.”
Hymn for the Day: Come Thou Long Expected Jesus #176
Prayer: Almighty God, I have often sought to bring to you what I consider valuable. Yet Your priorities are different than mine, and I must learn to worship You as You command. I ask for help: Jesus came not only as my King, but as the only priest that I need. Help me to come to You through Him. Through His work and His word. I have learned to say I pray in His name, but help me learn what it is to pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.