The Gospel of Matthew tells us that:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came . . . and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:1, 9–11)
What is the meaning of the three gifts that the wise men gave to the baby Jesus?
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were valuable items monetarily, and were thus fine and expensive gifts.
But more than that, they had a ritual significance in the ancient world. Gold has always been an enduring symbol of incorruptible love, while frankincense and myrrh were ingredients in sacred incenses and anointing oils.
The wise men themselves undoubtedly considered gold, frankincense, and myrrh to be spiritually significant gifts for “the child who has been born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:1-2).
Here is the spiritual symbolism of these three gifts based on their roles in the Bible and on Emanuel Swedenborg’s explanation of them as found in the Bible.
The gift of gold
In all ages, gold has served as an article and store of enduring value. Unlike silver, its lesser cousin, it is highly resistant to oxidation and corruption. It is soft and malleable, warm and beautiful, and holds its value over long periods of time even as other goods and commodities rise and fall.
As such, gold has become a universal symbol of love.
For example, gold is commonly used to make wedding rings, serving as a symbol of the love between the two partners.
In a religious context, gold especially symbolizes spiritual and heavenly love—and, of course, divine love.
That is why the most sacred articles of the Tabernacle were to be made of gold, overlaid with gold, or interwoven with gold (Exodus 25:10-40; 28:6-30; 30:1-10), and also why the streets of the Holy City, New Jerusalem, are made of “gold as pure as glass” (Revelation 21:18, 21).
When the wise men gave the infant Jesus a gift of gold, it symbolized the gift of spiritual love that we are to offer to Jesus Christ.
The gift of frankincense
Frankincense is an aromatic oil that has been used in incense, sacred oils, and perfumes for thousands of years.
Frankincense was one of the ingredients of the sacred incense described in Exodus 30:34-38, to be placed in front of the ark of the covenant within the Tent of Meeting in the Tabernacle.
Frankincense was also to be offered with grain offerings as commanded in Leviticus 2.
When incense is burned it produces an aroma, and an aromatic smoke that rises up into the air. It is thus seen as a symbol of prayers and offerings that are pleasing to God.
In the original languages of the Bible, air, or breath, is the same word as spirit. Sacred incense that perfumes the air is therefore associated with the spirit of truth (see John 15:26 and John 20:22) from God.
Spiritual truth is truth that comes from God. For Christians, spiritual truth is especially the teachings of Jesus Christ as given in the Gospels.
When the wise men gave the infant Jesus a gift of frankincense, it symbolized the gift of our devotion to spiritual truth and to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
The gift of myrrh
Myrrh is an aromatic resin that has also been used for thousands of years in incense, sacred oils, and perfumes, as well as in medicines.
Myrrh was one of the ingredients in the sacred anointing oil described in Exodus 30:22-33. This sacred oil was to be used in anointing the Tent of Meeting and the sacred articles in it, as well as to anoint Aaron and his sons for service to the Lord as priests.
This use of myrrh points out its symbolism of consecration to active service to the Lord.
When the wise men gave the infant Jesus a gift of myrrh, it symbolized the gift of our willingness to serve Jesus Christ actively in our lives by living according to the truth that Jesus teaches.
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh = our whole being
Putting this all together, the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh that the wise men offered to Jesus symbolize giving our entire self to Jesus Christ:
- The gift of gold = offering the love in our hearts to Jesus.
- The gift of frankincense = offering the truth in our minds to Jesus.
- The gift of myrrh = offering the service of our hands to Jesus.
Whether or not the wise men themselves understood the full spiritual significance of their gifts, for Christians today they symbolize offering our entire being, heart, head, and hands, to Jesus Christ.
We do this by loving God and the neighbor, believing in the truth that the Lord teaches us in the Bible, and living from that love, and by that truth, in our everyday lives.
(This post is an edited version of an answer I wrote and posted on Christianity StackExchange. You can see the original question on StackExchange here, and the StackExchange version of my answer here.)
For further reading: