What is the Meaning of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh?

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

Wedding Rings

Wedding Rings

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 resin

Frankincense resin

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.

Incense produces an aroma, and an aromatic smoke when burned, 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 resin

Myrrh resin

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.

This especially means loving God above all and loving and serving our fellow human beings, as Jesus taught (see Matthew 22:34-40 and Matthew 25:31-46).

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:

  1. The gift of gold = offering the love in our hearts to Jesus.
  2. The gift of frankincense = offering the truth in our minds to Jesus.
  3. 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:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in All About God, The Bible Re-Viewed
16 comments on “What is the Meaning of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh?
  1. Elbert Smith says:

    Thanks for sharing the meanings for us behind the gifts of the wise men from the east. Looking at your picture. Are you getting younger? Or is the picture staying the same. Whatever. Thanks again for teaching on this. Happy New Year to you and your family. Love you.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Elbert,

      Nice to hear from you! Thanks for stopping by. Just know that flattery will get you nowhere! 😉 But thanks for your kind words. Here’s wishing you and yours a wonderful New Year!

  2. Janice Stevens says:

    Thanks for the insight.i know that every word in scripture has meaning. This lets me know that God never changes His plan has always been the same.

  3. Adedeji says:

    A wonderful exposition. God bless you.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Adedeji,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

      Godspeed on your spiritual journey!

  4. Sylvia says:

    You simply gave me a greater understanding of the gifts of the Magi. Blessings to you,

  5. Favoured says:

    Thank you for this explanation, my spirit agrees. I’ve heard many before and they didn’t make biblical sense. The Lord bless you

  6. Laura says:

    Could Gold mean Tumeric. They called Tumeric gold?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Laura,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment and question.

      Though the “gold” in “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” could mean turmeric, as some scholars believe, I doubt it.

      Gold has a very strong presence in the Bible. Most often it is used in contexts in which it couldn’t possibly be referring to a spice, but had to be referring to the metal gold. For example, the sacred furniture in the ancient Tabernacle and Temple were overlaid with the metal gold, not with a spice. And when Jesus said to his disciples, “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts” (Matthew 10:9), he was clearly talking about metals, not about spices.

      If there were something about the context of its use as one of the three gifts that required it to be a spice rather than the metal, then there would be a good case for thinking that the gold was actually turmeric. But just because the other two gifts were spices, that doesn’t mean the gold had to be. And gold the metal would be a very fitting gift for the one who was “born king of the Jews.”

      So although it’s possible that it means turmeric, I think it’s more reasonable and natural to read it in its plain meaning of gold, the metal.

  7. Damian says:

    I dont understand why the wisemen never went back to herod. In 1 edition of the bible it says that herod summoned the wisemen to find wher the child was so that he too can worship him. What if herod would have really worshipped jesus had the wisemen went back and told him where the child was. Could it be that herod turned out to be bad because the wisemen never went back?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Damian,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment and question.

      If you read the full story of the visit of the wise men in Matthew 2:1–12, it is clear that Herod did not think the birth of Jesus was a good thing. It says:

      In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. (Matthew 2:1–3, italics added)

      For Herod, the news of an “anointed one” (the original meaning of “Messiah”) was a threat to his throne. If someone not in his family were recognized as the rightful king of Israel, Herod’s reign and his dynasty would be at an and. So when he said to the wise men, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage” (Matthew 2:8), he was being deceptive. His actual intent was not to pay homage to the newborn king, but to eliminate him as a threat to his own throne.

      That is why the wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod and reveal who and where this newborn king was.

      We know this because after the wise men left, the Lord sent a messenger to give Joseph an even more explicit warning, and told him to leave the country:

      Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” (Matthew 2:13)

      And in fact, Herod did make an attempt on the life of the newborn king that the wise men had told him about, by ordering the killing of all of the children up to two years old in and around Bethlehem. You can read the whole story in Matthew 2:13–18.

      So no, Herod didn’t turn out to be bad because the wise men never went back. It says Herod was “infuriated” when he realized that the wise men had tricked him, and then ordered “the massacre of the innocents.” If his intention had been to give homage to the newborn king, he would not have been infuriated, and he would especially not have tried to kill the infant Jesus. Instead, he would have continued to search for him, and would have gone and given him homage according to the lie that he had told to the wise men. People who want to give homage someone do not then turn around and order a massacre with the intent to kill that person just because they’re getting annoyed and frustrated about not being able to find him. You don’t kill someone you want to honor.

      Herod was a liar from the beginning, with evil intent from the beginning. That’s why God warned both the wise men and Joseph against him.

  8. Stanley Beneti says:

    The research is very profound. My gratitude for the stuff

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