Copyright © 2018
from the manuscript of
The Curious Corners of Christmas
Christ, to Thee, our heavenly King!1
Your dieting resolve may be challenged as I enumerate the following list: pumpkin pie, gingerbread, Christmas cookies, roasted turkey and stuffing, eggnog, hot apple cider with cinnamon. Those are all holiday edibles, but I mention them not so much for their waistline-destroying properties as for their aromas. I can quickly add to the list of Christmas aromas from non-edible sources: the fragrance of a fresh pine tree, wreaths of pine branches, and seasoned oak burning in the fireplace. I would even add the tantalizing scent of “chestnuts roasting on a open fire,” but then we’d probably be back to derailing ongoing diets.
Those of you outside North America no doubt have your own aromatic reminiscences of Christmas. In any case, if you’re like me, you have a sort of mental database of aromas, of scents, of fragrances that you associate with Christmas. In fact, if one of those aromas registers on your nostrils, it may trigger events from your childhood, or certain Christmases that were special, or maybe certain Christmases that were difficult. I can’t think of another holiday that has such fragrant associations.
Decades ago, over the Christmas holiday I was on a short-term missions trip to India. On Christmas morning I arose before dawn to attend the early morning service at the church in the town where we were ministering. On the walk to the meeting my nose was assailed by some new, unexpected, decidedly “un-Christmas-y” aromas. It was a very poor town, and in the heat, the sewage-filled gutters reeked of litter, garbage, human excrement, urine, animal dung. I was walking to the service thinking, “Ugh. I don’t want these smells associated in my mind with Christmas.” And then it’s almost as though the Holy Spirit stopped me, and I came to this instant realization: “Yes, you do! Yes, you want these odors, however unpleasant they are, associated with Christmas, because these are the genuine scents, however bad. These are the original aromas of the stable at Christmas.”
Don’t be shocked by that. Let’s read the story in Luke with new eyes… and maybe a new nose. You’ll know the story of the shepherds and the angels from Luke 2:1-20. Let’s zero in on the shepherds’ visit to the stable.
15When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. 17When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. 18And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds.
If we’re going to receive something new from the Lord out of the familiar story in Luke 2, we may have to come to the story with new noses, as well as a slight, but very important, adjustment to our vocabulary. We set up in our homes, in our churches, and sometimes in our public squares, what we call “manger scenes.” Unfortunately, by calling it a “manger scene” for so many years, people get the idea that the whole stable and everything in it is “the manger.” No, a stable is a stable. It has stalls, it has hay, and it contains domesticated animals; the manger is just the feeding box, the feeding trough, in the stable. Those of you who have taken French will know that the French verb to eat is manger, from which we get our English noun manger. So a manger is a raised, wooden feeding trough where clean hay and other feed is put for the animals to eat; it’s not the whole stable.
Children sing about the camels and the donkeys and the cows and the sheep and the birds, and who-knows-what that was in the stable. And we imagine this idyllic, harmonious, halo-ed tableaux. But if we include the sense of smell in our imaginations, along with a little logic, we move past the cozy, pine-scented, beatific manger-fantasy and get closer to the original condition of things.
Think of all those animals. There would have been many extras because of all the tax-enrollment travel that was going on in the country. There were so many people that there was no room left in the inn. And many animals had been used as a means of transportation to get the people there, so even the stable must have been over capacity.
Re-Sensitized to Stable Stench
When there are animals in a stable — I don’t know how to put this to you in a sweet, pleasant way — there are small piles of manure everywhere, along with puddles of animal urine. The place stinks. If you’ve ever been in a barn that’s in regular use or a stable past-due for a mucking, you’ll know that there’s a stench associated with it. If you live with it all the time – say, if you’re a dairy farmer, or a horse breeder, or a cattleman, or something like that — you grow accustomed to the smell just by long association with it. The odor loses the overpowering impact that it would have on a visiting “city slicker.”
There’s a similar way in which we grow accustomed to the stench of sin and selfishness in our hearts. Part of what the Holy Spirit does when He comes in conviction is that He gives us new spiritual noses. True conviction re-sensitizes us so that we can smell the foul odor of sin that God experiences in our heart. Our hearts in their sinful state are as filthy and smelly before a pure and holy God as an un-mucked stable would be.
And think of a stable as a ”delivery room” for giving birth – an unsterile place full of odor and uncleanness and bacteria. Mary was braver and hardier than we give her credit for! But putting her newborn baby on the filthy floor was out of the question. A manger, a feeding trough, a box raised on legs above the contaminated floor, was the only place that could keep the baby up away from the uncleanness and out of the draft.
Stable stench — that’s not a mental association we normally make with the Christmas story. In the same way, heart stench isn’t something we like to associate with our need for salvation. Jesus doesn’t come into this nice, clean, pleasant heart-mansion, and oh, how wonderful it is! No, He comes into a place in your heart that’s just as filthy and just as smelly as the stable — probably worse. I don’t know how to make that thought any more pleasant for you.
How is it that we can’t smell the problem? For those of you who have no access to a smelly barn, perhaps I can shift the analogy. Probably in your workplace or in your family, you’re acquainted with a cigarette smoker. Now happily there are fewer of those than there used to be, at least in North America. Nevertheless, you know that if you go into a smoker’s house… well, they can’t smell the tobacco smoke hanging in the air, but as a non-smoker you can smell it reeking from the curtains and carpets, from the breath they exhale, from the very air you breathe while you’re visiting. By the time you depart, you and your clothes reek of tobacco smoke; and your spouse at home greets you with a wrinkled nose, saying, “Phew! Where have you been?” A shower and a fresh set of clothes are the order of the day. Yet smokers can’t smell the problem. There’s this little trick that some of them do, if they’re pretending to quit smoking. They’ll sneak outside for smoke around the corner, unseen. They think nobody will know. Perhaps they’ll even pop a breath mint to complete the cover-up. But they only think it works, because they can’t smell the tobacco smoke. None of the non-smokers are fooled, because the smoker’s breath and clothing give them away; only the clandestine puffer thinks he’s pulled something off.
Now, I don’t say any of that to inveigh against smokers. I just use the “can’t smell the problem” situation of the smoker as an ordinary illustration to which many of us can relate. Smokers can’t smell the tobacco-smoke odor that surrounds them and permeates their pores. But it’s the same with us and sin — we’ve been with it for so long that we don’t smell it the way God does. Thankfully God has a cure, which we’ll investigate in just a bit.
How Pleasing Aromas Came into the House
Happily, there are other, more exotic Christmas aromas, which is a good thing — I don’t want to leave you with the thought of dung and uncleanness on the floor (and tobacco on your friend’s breath) as your only memory of this article about the first Christmas. There are two more aromas implied in the Bible narrative, as we discover in Matthew’s continuation of the birth story. Please take a moment to read Matthew 2:1-12 in your Bible, so as to keep the context in mind as we concentrate on verse 12:
After coming into the house [the wise men] saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Now, just picking up from the Biblical narrative, we find several things:
- The magi, the wise men, seem to have come almost two years later, after Jesus’ birth, based on verse 7.2 They could not have been at the stable. (You might want to adjust your Christmas display accordingly.)
- Notice that Jesus and His family are no longer in a stable; they are in a house (v. 11). Now think about this. You’re Joseph, the head-of-household and father-figure (but not the father, of course). You’re responsible for this new young family. The humiliation of having your wife give birth to her firstborn child in a stable is bad enough; but Joseph, “a righteous man” (Matthew 1:19) and a responsible husband, quickly found better accommodations. (And even if Joseph had been an unmotivated deadbeat, willing to live for two years in a stable with all that dung and urine, and the animals and their fleas, I doubt the innkeeper would have allowed such an arrangement!)
- We can note, too, that the wise men only “saw the Child and Mary His mother” (v. 11). This visit was during working hours. Joseph, the builder / mason / carpenter (for the Greek word τέκτον / tekton can mean all of these things) was probably on the job site during the visit of the magi.3
So, Joseph had moved his family, at some point, into a house in Bethlehem. That’s good, because in a stable, no matter how hard you try, if you have living animals there, continual mucking is required. In a stable a couple of things are always true — the stench never goes away, and the stable is never fully clean. Remember, back in those days, they didn’t have disinfectants. That’s just the way it was.
Now this move of Jesus from the stable to a house is God’s picture of His promise of a new heart. Consider God’s promise in Ezekiel 36:25-27:
25Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.
This “new heart” and “new spirit” are things so many Christians talk about. But when you pin them down, they don’t seem to be in the real genuine experience of having received a new pure heart by faith. Yet it’s something God wants to give. Have you ever asked God for a Christmas gift? He’s the one who gave the original Christmas present, after all. I don’t see why He wouldn’t be more than willing to give you what you asked for, especially if it’s something close to His heart, something that He promised. I’m not talking about material things you can buy in a store. Here He promises you a new heart, a pure heart, one that doesn’t stink of the dung and urine of sin. You don’t want your heart to be a stable, but a home.
Jesus declared that the first and greatest commandment is this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). That’s the greatest law in the Old Covenant. But do you realize that this commandment becomes a promise, a fulfilled promise, under the New Covenant, if you will let God do it? You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength!
Now, you can’t love God with all your heart if there’s something in it that’s bound and determined not to obey Him. And that “something” is variously called the old man, the carnal mind, the sin nature, the “want to” of Sin. Paul says, “The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so” (Romans 8:7). In the analogy of this Christmas message we can sum up the sin nature as the manure- and urine-producing part of our heart in that stable. God giving us a new heart is the equivalent of moving us from a filthy stable to a pure, clean, dry house where Christ lives.
So much of what is preached nowadays as “the gospel,” I am tempted to call Glade Christianity.4 (I don’t know what the Glade® product equivalent would be outside of North America, but substitute your local brand name.) The current, popular, unoffensive “gospel” reminds me of these little automatic air-freshener dispensers. If you’ve used them before, you’ll know that every so often, you’ll hear this faint pssht as the dispenser releases an aroma into the house. The idea is to mask less-than-pleasing odors in the house – cigarette smoke, burnt pot roast, damp-dog smell, toxic bathroom atmosphere, etc. This little dispenser does its pssht-pssht, automatically, putting little wafts of fragrance into the air to cover over whatever it is you’d rather not be smelling.
And with the modern gospel, when you boil down the message that we often give to people, we’re not telling them “You can be free from sin and love the Lord your God with all your heart. God wants to move you out of the stable.” No, in essence we give them the “‘glade’ gospel”: “The stable is the best God can do for your heart. You’ve got to keep mucking and mucking, putting up with all the manure and urine that’s being produced in your heart. Just keep cleaning it out the best you can, since ‘we all sin because we’re all human.’ But, praise God, God will stick the equivalent of a little Glade unit in your heart that goes pssht-pssht every so often and covers up the stink. That way He doesn’t have to smell the carnal nature that offends Him, and we can pretend that it’s all right. Just keep on sinning and asking for forgiveness, because God can’t or won’t deal with the source of the problem.”
Nobody is fooled by an air-freshener fragrance. Everybody knows why it’s there. And nobody who walks in the Spirit is fooled by anything that just covers over the root and source of sin. The cover-up doesn’t work, and it’s not needed! “Cover-up” is Old Testament thinking, a covenant in which God covered sin, but could never take sin away. In God’s New Covenant, the blood of God’s sacrificial Lamb “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) and “cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). God is the Almighty Creator, and He’s powerful enough to sanctify us and create in us a pure heart. Ephesians 4:22-24 (nkjv) says,
…that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, 23and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.5
Now back to the stable. Here’s another reason why the wise men couldn’t have come to the stable to worship, and why they must have been glad they could worship in a house. The verb in the Greek for worship — προσκυνέω / proskunéō — means to prostrate oneself, that is to get down on your knees, put your face to the ground, and stretch your arms out on the floor in front of you. Emphasizing this in Matthew 2:11, it says, “They fell to the ground” (that gets them to their knees) “and worshiped Him” (that is, they prostrated themselves). Imagine being sprawled face down on the floor of a stable covered with filthiness!
Matthew’s picture of the wise men worshiping tells you that their worship was done in a clean house.6 I can’t picture Mary as anything other than a diligent housekeeper. Do you think she would let Jesus, who by this time had probably passed from crawling to toddling around, live in filthiness? Do you think she would leave the floor dirty, much less filthy, as her little son, entrusted to her from God, is wandering around exploring things, putting things in His mouth? Hardly! God is showing you a type of what happens when He gives you a pure heart, when He changes your heart from a stinky stable to a holy house where Christ can dwell. Imagining that clean floor in that holy house on which those adoring magi are sprawled, we remember this: true worship can only come out of a heart purified by God, through faith. And that sobering concept leads into the gifts of the magi.
The Gifts of the Magi
It seems that everyone knows that the magi, the wise men, brought three gifts. Therefore everyone assumes that there were three magi, but you won’t find anything in Matthew 2 that enumerates how many wise men there were. It could have been two; it could have been a dozen; apparently the number is unimportant or the Holy Spirit would have recorded the it. The “three” comes to us traditionally, because there were three gifts.
Of course, you know what the three gifts were: gold and frankincense and myrrh. Let’s leave the gold alone, except to mention that it is a symbol of kingship. Offering gold to the Lord Jesus is the equivalent of submitting eagerly and wholeheartedly to His Lordship. Anyone who fully submits to this King gives up the right to have the last say in his or her life. Along with the gift of faith, that submission to Jesus’ Lordship is basic to salvation and new birth and eternal destiny. Consider:
- Romans 10:9-13 — …if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved…for “whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
- Luke 6:46 — “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”
- Matthew 7:21-23 — “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord…’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me you who practice lawlessness.’”
Sobering thoughts! But though gold is a kingly gift, we want to focus here on the gifts with aromas — frankincense and myrrh
Are you familiar with John Henry Hopkins, Jr.’s Christmas carol We Three Kings? The supposed three kings7 each sing a song about their gift — one sings about gold, one sings about frankincense, and one sings about myrrh. You may recall these lyrics:
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshiping God on high.
Hopkins’ lyrics accord well with Scriptural teaching. Incense symbolizes true prayer and worship which are offered to God alone. Consider these associations from the Bible on the matter:
- Luke 1:10 — And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering.
- Psalm 141:2 — May my prayer be counted as incense before You;
The lifting up of my hands as the evening offering.
- Revelation 8:3-4 — Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden censer; and much incense was given to him, so that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar which was before the throne. 4And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angel’s hand.
But no verse makes the association of incense and prayer more clear and absolute than the scene of the Seal-Opening Lamb in Revelation 5:8 —
When [the Lamb] had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
Frankincense is one of the purest forms of ointment used in incense. You’ll find if you do a word study on it, that it was compounded with several other spices to form the incense offered up on the altar of incense before the veil of the Tabernacle in the Old Testament (Exodus 30:34-38).8 Frankincense was also offered up with the grain offering9 (as shown in Leviticus 2:1-2 and 6:15) and it was offered with the firstfruits offering (Leviticus 2:15-16).10
Frankincense was poured over the Bread of the Presence (the “shewbread,” literally “the Bread of the Face [of God]”), that is, the twelve loaves that were in the Holy Place in front of the veil that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies (Leviticus 24:7). What a picture of abiding prayer!
Frankincense was also used in perfume, but we’ll touch on that aspect of it a bit later. For now, we will move on from the aromatic prayer-full worship-full environment of burning frankincense, remembering the words of the carol,
Incense owns11 a deity nigh,
putting us in mind of Pliny the Younger’s report to the Emperor Trajan about the Christians in his province: “They sang a hymn to Christ as God.”
The other gift of the wise men was myrrh, about which the carol We Three Kings offers these words:
Breathes a life of gathering gloom –
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in a cold, dark tomb.
Myrrh and Death
Our poet Hopkins has scribed a wonderfully succinct verse, having this gift of myrrh prophetically presage Jesus’ crucifixion and burial (a matter he masterfully climaxes with Jesus’ resurrection in the carol’s final verse). Hopkins can do this because myrrh was customarily used in wrapping and embalming corpses – not because it’s a “bitter perfume,” but because its fragrance would help to alleviate the stench of a decaying corpse prior to burial.12 It was for this reason that Nicodemus (of John 3 “you must be born again” fame) joined Joseph of Arimathea at the garden tomb, “bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds” (John 19:39). This mixture was added liberally to the linen shroud with which Jesus’ body was wrapped (v. 40).
Strangely, myrrh was also used to make a narcotic compound given to condemned prisoners. You’ll recall that as they were nailing Him to the cross, the soldiers offered to give Jesus wine mixed with myrrh. You’ll find that in Mark 15:23.13 There’s the first Scriptural association of myrrh with death. Of course, Jesus refused it; He wouldn’t have anything to do with being drugged during His final agony.
Myrrh and Anointing Oil
Yes, myrrh has a tie-in with dying and burial, but its two primary associations in Scripture are with perfume (with which we shall deal presently) and anointing oil.
Myrrh was the principal ingredient of “the holy anointing oil” of the Tabernacle (Exodus 30:22-33). That oil is a type of the Holy Spirit, and because of this Israel was never to “make any [other oil] like it in the same proportions; it is holy, and it shall be holy to you” (v. 32). No wonder, then, that myrrh and the other ingredients became “a perfume mixture, the work of a perfumer” (v. 25)!
Keeping with this type of the Spirit, this myrrh-based anointing oil was used to consecrate the Tabernacle and its “furniture,” its principal components. Perhaps more importantly, this same oil was used to anoint “Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may minister as priests to Me” (v. 30); these instructions were carried out in Exodus 40:13-15.
Is there a tie-in with this perfumed anointing oil and its burial-related associations? Yes, of course. One who has been consecrated to God and anointed by the Holy Spirit is dead to everything else — the world, sin, self, pride, and ambition. And it’s as we consider this, along with frankincense, that we can begin to make the spiritual application to our lives.
“Perfumed with Myrrh and Frankincense”
Both myrrh and frankincense were used in perfume. For instance, in preparation for her wedding night, Esther submitted to a regimen that included “six months with oil of myrrh and six months with spices and the cosmetics for women” (Esther 2:12).
But in Scripture perfume is just for women, right? Hardly, especially when you consider a famous passage from the Messianic Psalm 45:
A scepter of uprightness is the scepter of Your kingdom.
7You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
Therefore God, Your God,
has anointed You With the oil of joy above Your fellows.14
8All Your garments are fragrant
with myrrh and aloes15 and cassia…
There are those intimate myrrh passages in “the Song of Solomon” which signify the deep, loving communion between the Bridegroom and those who knowingly abide in His inner presence, that is, His Bride.
The Bride says of herself,
And my hands dripped with myrrh,
And my fingers with liquid myrrh,
On the handles of the bolt.
—Song of Solomon 5:5—
and she describes her Beloved in these ways:
Which lies all night between my breasts.
Banks of sweet-scented herbs;
His lips are lilies
Dripping with liquid myrrh.
Whether it is the Bride or the narrator speaking, the Bridegroom is also described in this way:
Like columns of smoke,
Perfumed with myrrh and frankincense,
With all scented powders of the merchant?
And the Bridegroom says of Himself,
I have gathered my myrrh along with my balsam…
Wait a moment. How is myrrh gathered? Or frankincense, for that matter?
The process is almost identical for harvesting frankincense or myrrh. The respective trees which produce them grow in semi-arid regions of the world, countries like Somali and Oman. Each scraggy tree is cut or slashed in numerous places (the process is called striping), causing the tree to bleed its sap or resin. These exposed drips of resin, called tears, harden after a few days, at which time the tears are harvested by hand. Trees can be striped several times in a season, and the last harvest of the cycle usually produces the highest-quality resin.
Think about this in terms of spiritual life. Why is it that those who offer the deepest, most effectual intercessions and prayers, those who worship wondrously from the depths of their being, can do so? Ah, the frankincense they offer has come from many years, many trials of “striping” and “bleeding” and “tears.” The same is true of those whose “bark” has been repeatedly slashed; out of that treatment has flowed the myrrh which is the basis of the anointing oil. It’s in these men and women that we sense the abiding presence of God. It is from these tried and tested ones, the ones bearing the marks of the “striping” of God, that our Bridegroom “gathers His myrrh” and frankincense.
In 2 Corinthians 2:14-16, Paul may well be speaking about frankincense and myrrh when he says this:
But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. 15For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; 16to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. And who is adequate for these things?
Paul says that God manifests through us the sweet aroma of Christ in every place. We are a fragrance of Christ to God. Now, that’s not an aroma of air freshener that’s put over sin that you haven’t allowed God to deal with in your heart! It’s not the stopgap spritzing sprayed over the stable stench of a heart that hasn’t been made new and sin-free by the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification. When God purifies your heart, when He transforms the first commandment in a glorious promise: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength,” then we’re a fragrance of Christ to God! The perfume of the myrrh-based anointing oil, Christ’s indwelling presence, exudes towards God and man. The frankincense of worship and prayer in God’s presence is unmistakable.
It’s interesting that this “fragrance of Christ” is perceived differently by different people. The verse mentions two groups specifically, namely “them that are saved” and “them that perish.” Some people get Paul’s words confused, thinking that “the savor of death to death” is for those who are “perishing,” and the savor of “life to life” is for those “who are being saved.” But I think Paul keeps the two groups of “perceivers” in the same order as the two types of “perception.” Consider:
- “those who are being saved” (v. 15) is mentioned first, corresponds with “death unto death” (v. 16), which is also mentioned first; and,
- “those who are perishing” (v. 15), mentioned second, corresponds with “life to life,” also mentioned second (v. 16).
If you are following Jesus (“those who are being saved”), if you have decided to be His disciple, and let Him be truly your Lord, then you have determined to daily take up your cross, deny yourself, and follow Jesus. And that’s what we sense — what we smell — in other true Christians surrendered in the same way. We can smell the myrrh associated with death – death to sin, death to love of the world, death to self, death to personal ambition. It’s an aroma we associate with the personal presence of “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” It’s the anointing of His abiding presence. From this also arises the frankincense of true worship and the holy incense of prayer. It is thus that we are “perfumed with frankincense and myrrh,” by our Beloved Bridegroom.
In so-called Christians, especially ministers, those who lack the fragrance of frankincense and the aroma of myrrh, we sadly discern people who are “in it for themselves”; it’s all about them, and their ministry is all about promoting themselves. We don’t smell the myrrh of anointing and burial that indicates that they are a true follower of Jesus, walking in obedience to Him. Jesus said, in John 14:23, “Anyone who loves Me will obey My teaching. My Father will love them, and We will come to them and make Our home with them. Anyone who does not love Me will not obey My teaching.” What we sense in myrrh-less people is a man-made “‘myrrh’ scent” — pssht! — an artificial odor, mere words and mouthed verses, spritzed over a life that still hasn’t dealt with sin and self.
Then to “those who are perishing,” we’re meant to be an aroma of “life unto life.” When somebody comes in contact with Jesus and who He really is as He is outworked in your heart, to them that’s an amazing aroma of life unto life. It’s like for the first time they’ve smelled something that doesn’t reek of uncleanness. They experience a breath of the perfumed air of Heaven. It’s like smelling a glorious flower for the first time.
It’s very much like what happened in John 12:3, where we read the story of how Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus with a perfume called nard (or spikenard). With what result? “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” That’s how it is when God changes you from your stable to the house – the pure heart that He wants to give you. This fragrance of Christ begins to waft up to God and waft out to other people, because of the purifying, empowering indwelling of the Holy Spirit who makes Jesus manifest in us. “The house is filled with the fragrance of the perfume,” and everybody who comes in contact with it comes away with that wonderful fragrance clinging to them. There’s no “spritzing” to mask stable stench needed here!
It’s interesting in that light to read Song of Solomon 4:6:
When the shadows flee away,
I will go my way to the mountain of myrrh
And to the hill of frankincense.
“The mountain of myrrh and… the hill of frankincense.” This is in type a picture of Calvary, where Jesus died — a mountain of myrrh, of death, of a fragrance of His Anointed One being offered up to God; and a hill of frankincense, a sweet smell, a continual intercessory offering up of Christ Himself, and of us.
Better than Aromatherapy!
We have now traveled the spectrum of the original aromas of Christmas, from sin-stanked stable to a pure, perfumed house in which Christ dwells. Those “original aromas” are far afield from our modern concepts of fresh pine branches in the living room and the tantalizing odor of turkey in the oven. A truthful telling of the Christmas story jolts us with a stench of uncleanness, only to capture our imagination with the fragrances of frankincense and myrrh.
Let me ask you: What are people smelling in your heart? Are they smelling “the fragrance of Christ” indwelling? Or are they smelling a heart where you still have to keep mucking every day in order to make the place as clean and presentable as possible? Do you have to wear a clothespin over your spiritual nose to avoid confronting what you find in your heart? Are you using a “spiritual air-freshener” to mask what you find within? Or has God given you a pure heart by faith? That’s a gift you need to ask of God; if He’s been dealing with you about your heart and the sin in it, a pure, sanctified heart is the answer. Ask Him to give you the faith to believe for and receive a pure heart!
In the glories of Christmas, we need to wake up and smell… well, not smell the coffee, but smell the truth of the conditions into which Jesus was born, because those conditions depict our hearts when He comes into them. The stable was a stinky, nasty, germ-filled place in which to be born, with a manger the only clean, dry place in which to place God’s Son. When the Holy Spirit re-sensitizes us to the stable stench in our hearts, God puts a desperate, longing cry within us that He might exchange the “stable” of our old heart for the “house” of a new, pure heart.
God longs to change your “stable” into a “house,” a clean, pure heart in which Christ may abide. Within such a heart we can prostrate ourselves in true humble, selfless worship. And only in a completely clean heart can we dispense with the air-freshener cover-up and find God manifesting through us the savor, the aroma, the fragrance of Christ in the Christlikeness of holy, transformed lives. May the house of your heart, “perfumed with myrrh and frankincense,” “filled with the fragrance of the perfume” of His presence, be yours from this Christmas forward!
At Thy dwelling, rude and bare,
So may we with holy joy,
Pure and free from sin's alloy,
All our costliest treasures bring,
Christ, to Thee, our heavenly King!16
- Image of burning frankincense is copyright by and used under license from https://www.123rf.com/profile_fotomem. ↩
- And verse 16, which says, in part, “…Herod…slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi.” ↩
- Allow me to add a speculative, but logical, explanation about the intervening time — and debunk an alleged “Bible discrepancy” rooted in the two-years/did-they-live-in-Bethlehem-or-Nazareth spectrum. According to Luke’s account of the days after the shepherds’ visit…
- Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21; Leviticus 12:3). The family may have returned to Nazareth for this event, or this may have taken place during a sojourn among relatives in Bethlehem or Jerusalem. (Bethlehem, after all, was Joseph’s “home town,” the place of his “family roots,” else he need not have returned there for the census.)
- Wherever they resided at the time of Jesus’ circumcision, 33 days later (Leviticus 12:4) the Law required Mary to go through a ritual purification (Luke 2:24; Leviticus 12:6-8) at the Temple in Jerusalem.
- Interestingly, Luke’s quotation in 2:24 of Leviticus 12:8, tells us something of the financial straits of the family at the time —quite a typical situation for newlyweds! For those of average means or better, the sacrificial animals were to be a one-year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a dove for a sin offering (Leviticus 12:6-7). But for the poor (v. 8) another dove could be substituted for the lamb of the burnt offering.
- Here is another clue, then, from the Holy Spirit about the timeline of events in the family’s history! In recording that this offering-of-the-poor option was forced upon them, we see that the magi and their gifts had not yet come into the picture. Their gift of gold alone would have allowed the family to easily have purchased the requisite lamb for the burnt offering.
In any event, shortly after this ceremony had been completed, the family returned to Nazareth (Luke 2:39). So how were they still in Bethlehem when the magi arrived, perhaps as many as two years after Jesus’ birth? In a word — Herod! You see, Herod was the driving force behind a multitude of public building projects in and around Jerusalem, including the Temple, which “took forty-six years to build” (John 2:20). With family connections in Bethlehem (only six miles from Jerusalem) and contacts made in Jerusalem during one or more visits there (we have mentioned at least two above), it’s not unreasonable to conjecture that, having realized there were better-paying employment prospects on government contracts in the capital city, Joseph moved his family from Nazareth to Bethlehem sometime during Jesus’ first two years. ↩
- Note that Glade® is a registered trademark of S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc., who probably never conceived that their popular product would serve as part of a spiritual analogy! ↩
- I quote from the New King James Version translation, because if you read this passage (along with Romans 6:6 and Colossians 3:9) in some modern translations, putting off the “old man” becomes putting of the “old self.” Rendering the Greek word ֚ἄνθρωπος / ánthrōpos as self confounds the very nature of — how ironic! — biblical anthropology, the theological study of man and his tripartite being. Man consists of spirit, soul, and body, and the “I” of that equation is the soul. By definition, then, I can’t put off my self, or I would cease to exist. God promises a new heart and a new spirit to me, and a new body after the resurrection. But in this life, by Christ's sacrifice on the Cross, He redeems (rather than replaces) my existing soul – the I.
But according to Paul, I can put off “the old man,” that sin-source, sin-sick infection of my nature. Was this mistranslation out of anthropological ignorance? (Hardly likely.) A bias against entire sanctification? (Sounds like a conspiracy theory.) Or (as I suspect) were they trying to make these phrases “gender neutral”? Only the translators know. In any event, swapping self for man muddies the theological waters on several levels.
Instructively, Weymouth renders “old man” not as “old self,” but as “original evil nature,” demonstrating that Paul is speaking about something distinct from our tripartite being. ↩
- I suppose the presence of Christ and the worshiping magi in this home make this incident the first record of a “house church”! ↩
- I say supposed “kings,” because there is nothing in Scripture, especially the account in Matthew 2, to indicate even a hint of their “royalty.” Then what is the origin of this idea that these eastern, magi visitors were “kings”? Well, among the many prophetic passages in the book of the Prophet Isaiah, the source of this misconception seems to be Isaiah 60:1-3, and particularly verse 3. Let me quote:
Arise, shine; for thy light is come,
and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee.
For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth,
and gross darkness the people:
but the LORD shall arise upon thee,
and His glory shall be seen upon thee.
And the Gentiles shall come to thy light,
and kings to the brightness of thy rising.
The passage speaks of a future in which the light of God’s glory rises on His people Israel, and how the Gentiles and their rulers will be drawn by the light of God’s glory upon them. There is nothing about a star. But apparently long ago, someone took verse 3 out of context, eager to proof-text an idea they had, namely, that “the brightness of your rising” was the Christmas star. Cherry-picking along from there, it was only a short misstep away to say, “Well, if it was a star rising, and if that was the ‘Christmas star,’ then ‘kings’ must refer to the magi of Matthew 2. Verse 4, irrelevant. Verse 5, ditto. But verse 6, oh look! There are camels and gold and frankincense in verse 6, so those ‘kings’ must have come on camels with those gifts!” As is so often the case, one misinterpretation spawns another and another — because God’s glory was “downgraded” to a mere star, the magi got “promoted” to kings. ↩
- The reader will recall that Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, was engaged in burning incense in the Temple at the time Gabriel appeared to him (Luke 1:8-11). ↩
- Note that the King James translation of the Bible calls this the meat offering, though it hasn’t anything to do with meat, that is, animal flesh. In a more modern translation, you’ll see it has to do with with grain, with meal, as we would call it — flour. How the English language has evolved over 500 years! ↩
- For some reason, the NASB is not clear about this, simply calling the substance (in Hebrew לבונה / lâbownah / lebonah, for which the LXX and NT Greek use the transliterative equivalent λίβανος / libanos) in Leviticus 2:15-16 incense, even though it renders the same word as frankincense in vv. 1-2. Even less clearly, the NIV renders the word as incense throughout the chapter. But perhaps that ambiguity helps to make the point that frankincense is inextricably tied in with prayer-incense. ↩
- Hopkins’ glorious economy of well-chosen words guided him in using own here in its much older definition — to acknowledge or admit or confess. It’s his “shorthand” for confessing that Christ Jesus is God. ↩
- One thinks of the concern of the Bethany sisters when Jesus commanded that Lazarus’ tomb be opened. Despite the best embalming ointments, they knew that after four days the stench of decay would win out over those efforts to cover the odor of decomposing flesh. Hence their words, so memorably immortalized in the King James version: “Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days” (John 11:39). By contrast, we see that Jesus’ body, raised on the third day, escaped such a fate. It is precisely this that Peter refers to as he quotes (Acts 2:27) and expounds upon (Acts 2:31-32) David’s prophetic words from Psalm 16:10 – “…nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.” (Decay or “corruption,” as the King James renders it, means the putrefaction of the corpse.) ↩
- Unlike Mark 15:23 (above), Matthew 27:34 describes the drink offered as “vinegar” (or sour wine) “mingled with gall.” About the only thing commentators can agree on about “gall,” whatever it was, is that it further soured or embittered the wine, and that it was also a stupefying agent. Perhaps both gall and myrrh were contained in one concoction. Perhaps one of two different mixtures was offered to Jesus. (Some believe that this type of brew was created by compassionate Jewish women as an act of mercy based on Proverbs 31:6.) In any event, Jesus refused to drink it, preferring to be fully conscious while drinking to the dregs “the cup” which the Father had given Him.
This is not to be confused with the final drink. After six hours on the cross, Jesus quoted Psalm 22:1, which excited onlookers who misinterpreted His words. Matthew (27:48) and Mark (15:36) note that He was offered a drink after quoting the psalm, which is true, but John (19:28-30), an eyewitness at the foot of the cross, records that Jesus uttered one other intervening statement, saying simply, “I thirst.” At this moment, He sipped a drink from the wine-soaked sponge held aloft by a hyssop branch; symbolically He tasted the drink to signify that He had drained His Father’s cup. Seconds later He cried, “Finished!” and offered up His spirit. ↩
- This passage is famously quoted in Hebrews 1:8-9. ↩
- It strikes me that this Messianic glimpse is all the more amazing when one considers that Jesus’ burial shroud was impregnated with “a mixture of myrrh and aloes,” as we have seen in John 19:39 above. ↩