The first 12 verses in the second chapter of Matthew provide the scriptures’ sole account of the wise men visiting and worshipping Jesus sometime after His birth in Bethlehem. To recap: Having seen “his star,” they travel from the east to Jerusalem and inquire of Herod about “he that is born King of the Jews” so they might worship Him.
From his chief priests and scribes, Herod learns of the prophecy of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem and asks the wise men that once they have found the Christ to return and inform him. “That I may come and worship him also” is merely a ruse, with the ruler wanting to eliminate challengers to his throne. The wise men depart, find and worship Jesus — now described as “the young child” — and present their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Warned by God in a dream to not return to Herod, they return to their homes by another way.
Beyond those verses, an enraged Herod demanded the death of all boys two years and younger in the region. Matthew tells of Joseph — warned in a dream — taking Mary and Jesus and fleeing into Egypt, staying until they learn of Herod’s death. The 12-verse account provides precious few details and seems to create as many questions as it answers.
Under headings of “Wise Men” and “Magi” the Bible Dictionary acknowledges the men’s many uncertainties — their number, home countries and actual identities. As righteous men, even holy men, they were guided by a new star — one they could see and recognize when others couldn’t. They were spiritually knowledgeable and sensitive, knowing of the star’s meaning and later being warned by God. Perhaps they were prophets on divine errand or representatives of a far-away branch of the Lord’s people, to behold the Son of God born in the flesh on the earth and to return and bear witness to others.
One certainty, the wise men’s gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. A most precious metal and Arabian tree resins turned into two of the time’s most valuable perfumes, the offerings are not only fit for a king but serve as precursors for the Savior’s mission and ministry.
Gold is a treasure or ornamentation of kings, power, authority and reign. There are Messianic references to gold thrones and gold crowns and “gold” references in the celestial kingdom. Also, gold is predominant in the ancient tabernacle and temples as well as in modern-day temples.
Frankincense, an extraction from Bowsellia trees and imported from Arabia, was both a highly valued perfume and a holy incense used for sacrificial purposes as well as in home and temple ceremonies of different religions.
And myrrh, itself an extract from various thorny shrubs in dry regions of Arabia and eastern Africa, was found in expensive medicines and cosmetics as well as in perfumes and incense. It was used in preparation of holy ointment to both promote healing and to embalm the dead as well as used in the purification of women.
Consider the wise men’s gifts and one sees a foreshadowing of Christ’s mission and ministry, starting with gold for royalty of an eternal and celestial nature. Then come frankincense and myrrh and their use in medicines and ointments (healing), in purification (repentance), in sacrifice (Atonement and Crucifixion) and embalming (mortal death, leading to the Resurrection). For the Savior’s burial in the tomb, Nicodemus brought “an hundred pound weight” of myrrh and aloe (John 19:39).
Said President Thomas S. Monson: “With the birth of the babe of Bethlehem, there emerged a great endowment — a power stronger than weapons, a wealth more lasting than the coins of Caesar. This child was to be the King of kings and Lord of lords, the promised Messiah, even Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
“And when we find him, will we be prepared as were the wise men of old to provide gifts from our many treasures? They presented gold, frankincense and myrrh. These are not the gifts Jesus asks of us. From the treasure of our hearts Jesus asks that we give of ourselves: ‘Behold, the Lord requireth the heart and a willing mind'” (Doctrine and Covenants 64:34). (Ensign, December 1990).