The Gifts of the Magi and the Gift of God
“And they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11).
Is gift giving a joy or a stress for you? Why is gift giving many times so stressful, especially during the holiday season? We may find ourselves worrying about things like: “Who should I buy presents for this year? What should I get them? When am I going to have time for shopping? How much should I spend? How can I afford this??” One reason I believe gift-giving can be so stressful is that our materialistic, commercialized culture imposes so many expectations upon us. The Bible provides many examples of gift giving and gives us some ideas about the proper motives and attitudes of giving. Some of these may be helpful towards making the giving of gifts more of a pleasure than a burden.
Matthew’s gospel account of the Christmas story tells of wise men, or magi, who came from somewhere in the East (possibly Persia, Arabia or India) to see the Christ child and offered Him gifts. In this account we can see several things about the wise men and observe some lessons about gift giving:
A good gift requires some knowledge. These men had studied the signs and information available to them, and God used this to show them where and when Jesus would be born. This information caused them to seek Him out so they could learn more about Him. The gifts the wise men brought may seem like odd gifts for a baby, but many historians and commentators have observed the significance of the gifts the magi offered Jesus. Gold was a gift befitting a king. Frankincense may be representative of Christ’s deity and His priestly intercession on behalf of man. Myrrh was used for embalming the dead. It is symbolic of the humanity and suffering of Christ, who came to die for His people. They were actually very meaningful and fitting gifts to offer the newborn King and Son of God.
Likewise, sometimes it takes some investigating to determine the interests and needs of a person in order to get them a truly meaningful and appropriate gift. One frustrating situation you may find yourself in is feeling obligated or being assigned a person (ie. the notorious “Secret Santa” gift exchange) to buy a gift for whom you don’t really know personally. A good giver takes the time to listen or pay attention to the needs and interests of the intended receiver. There is a certain person in my family who always takes the time to ask around and carefully considers every gift she gives because she genuinely wants to make the recipient happy.
All gifts require resources. The wise men gave Jesus what they could. These men obviously had resources, and Matthew Henry points out that the gifts the wise men brought were products of their home land. When giving a gift, it is wise to take into consideration what resources you have available to you. If your budget is limited, perhaps you have time to give or an ability or service to offer someone.
Gift giving isn’t about things, it’s about people and giving of yourself, and the wise men demonstrated this. They traveled far and long to find Jesus so they could honor and worship Him. Before presenting their gifts to the baby Jesus, they first offered themselves, as Matthew tells us, “They bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
Some would say that a gift should involve a certain amount of sacrifice. It is never wrong to make financial sacrifices in order to give to the work of God. In Mark 12 we read of a poor widow who only had two copper coins to give to God, yet Jesus commends her saying she gave more than anyone else because she gave all she had (vs. 41-44). But when it comes to personal gifts, I think it is unwise to overextend oneself financially for the sake of giving unnecessary, extravagant presents just because we feel it is expected of us.
One writer tells how her mother had a habit of giving away family gifts after they were received and briefly admired. On one occasion, the daughter received a new dress that she really wanted to keep for herself. As she expressed her chagrin at her mother’s insistence to give her new dress away to another needy child, her mother replied, “It’s not a gift if it’s something you don’t care about!” (Celestine Sibley in Southern-style Christmas). This level of sacrificial giving is admirable, but I don’t think giving a gift has to be painful in order for it to be considered a valid gift.
This reminds me of one of my favorite Christmas stories, O. Henry’s touching story, “The Gift of the Magi.” If you aren’t familiar with this story, I definitely suggest that you read it; it’s quite short. The story tells of a young, struggling married couple who each sacrifices their most treasured possession in order to buy the other a special Christmas gift. As many of O. Henry’s stories, it has an ironic twist at the end. The author ends his story with this commentary:
The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
Like the wise men in Matthew’s gospel, the couple in O. Henry’s story knows that people are more important than things. Some may consider Della and Jim foolish for doing what they did, but in the end they shared the joy of knowing that their mutual love for one another was of more value to them than their most prized material possessions.
In II Corinthians, Paul talks about the willing, sacrificial giving of the Macedonian church, saying, “In a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality. For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability, they gave of their own accord…” (II Cor. 8:2-3). In chapter 9, Paul gives another reminder related to giving: “Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly [or reluctantly] or under compulsion…God loves a cheerful giver.” In the context, this refers specifically to giving towards the needs of God’s people, and I think it can apply to giving to the ministry of the church or to gospel endeavors as well. In general, these verses describe the best, most noble type of giving to be generous, and voluntary, not obligatory.
We’re all familiar with BOGO offers – deals that make the claim, “Buy One, Get One Free!” But you know that you aren’t really getting something for free because you have to buy something to qualify for the free item. There are no obligations or conditions tied to a true gift. “The very essence of a gift is that the giver wants to bestow it on someone with no strings attached. No promise to use it or wear it or play it; no reciprocal gift, and no obligatory thank-you note of appreciation” (Lucinda Secrest McDowell in Southern Style Christmas). We should never make someone feel obligated to get us a gift, or even to fulfill a wishlist, for this just kills the spirit of sincere giving. In fact, I would bet that your best experiences when giving a gift is when the recipient wasn’t expecting anything from you. If you give someone something, and they honestly respond with, “Oh, you didn’t have to do that!” then you have been successful.
Of course, God is our greatest example as a Giver. James tells us that, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). God is not obligated to give any of us anything, but He gives us good things because He is a good God. Further, the message of the gospel is a summary of God’s greatest gift, His purpose and motive for giving, and the recipient. Consider these familiar verses:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son…” (John 3:16)
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God…” (Eph. 2:8)
“For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6, 8).
“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that He lavished on us.” (Eph. 1:7)
God’s motivation for giving is love. He didn’t have to, but He chose to give. He sacrificed and gave what no one else could give, His greatest treasure – His only Son. God gives to the undeserving exactly what they most need: forgiveness of sin, salvation, and eternal life. He gives generously, out of the abundance of His riches. And He gives to those who are incapable of earning it or of offering anything in return.
In following the examples and principles set for us in God’s Word, may we seek to be wise and thoughtful, generous and sacrificial, cheerful and loving in our gift giving this Christmas season.
“Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!”
- Gifts for a King (theroadreport.wordpress.com)
- Wise Men and Women Still Seek Him (musingsfromthegram.typepad.com)
- What Gifts Can You Bring to the King of Kings? (thefrontwindow.wordpress.com)
- Watch the film, “The Gift of the Magi” on youtube
- Read short stories by O. Henry online (www.online-literature.com)
- The Best Short Stories of O. Henry (Amazon.com)