by Dan Hayden •
There are times when it is good to be alone with your thoughts – to have a little solitude, a little peace and quiet. But for the most part, the average person does not like to be alone for an extended period of time.
Years ago at Honey Rock Camp, a ministry of Wheaton College in the north woods of Wisconsin, there was a special program for young men and women designed to develop their character and personal integrity. The program included such activities as backpacking, canoeing, rappelling, and survival skills. Yet, one of the most talked about aspects of the program was an event called “solo.”
In this experience, a person would be dropped off at a remote spot along the river somewhere deep in the national forest, with nothing but basic survival gear, a small amount of food, and a Bible. For the next three days there would be no one to talk with but God and nothing to do except explore the limited area around the camping site. It was an experience in isolation and seclusion, and for many of the participants it was the first time they had truly been alone for any length of time. The first few hours were no problem, but by the second day it had become a real challenge. More than anything else in the program, “solo” was the most difficult experience, according to student evaluations.
Man is a social creature with a basic need to belong. That is why, for many people, acceptance by a certain social group is a strong motivational factor for particular behavior. Peer pressure among teens will cause young people to do outlandish things and is usually stronger than family ties. Adults have their own problems with social status, clothing styles, and politically correct behavior. There is a strong desire in just about all of us to fit in and be accepted by the people around us.
Even great men of God have struggled with this pressure. In Galatians 2, Peter is reprimanded by Paul for yielding to the pressure from the Jews who had come from Jerusalem. Barnabas, in this story, also got carried away with their hypocrisy (Gal. 2:13). The problem centered around the fact that Judaizers, as these Jews were called, wouldn’t associate with people who were not Jews. So in order to be accepted by this exclusive group, Peter and Barnabas yielded to their pressure and withdrew from the Gentiles. Later in Galatians, Paul explained the situation by saying, “they wish to shut you out, in order that you may seek them” (Gal. 4:17, New American Standard). Peter and Barnabas didn’t want to be excluded.
Jesus, in fact, said that this would become a problem for all Christians. In John 16:2, He said, “They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.” The world “system,” in essence, will say to Christians, We don’t want you; You don’t fit; You’re excluded from our society. There are signs in our society that this is beginning to happen in America, where believers in the Bible and Jesus Christ are considered to be politically incorrect.
So, what is the answer for Christians who are increasingly isolated and persecuted by the unbelieving world? The answer is to be content with being accepted by God. What does it matter who rejects us, if God accepts us? That is what the anointing signifies. What is anointed of God belongs to God.
There are two types of anointing in the Bible – that which is sacred and religious, and that which is cosmetic and mundane. Each of these anointings is represented by a different Greek word in the New Testament. The common, secular anointing (aleipho) was cosmetic in nature, as when a host would anoint the head or feet of a guest (i.e., Luke 7:38, 46). It is the anointing referred to by Jesus when He taught that we should never let people know that we are fasting, but rather “anoint thine head, and wash thy face” (Mt. 6:17). In essence, He was saying, Clean up and use a little cologne.
Ceremonial anointing, on the other hand, was a sacred anointing that was used in religious settings. Here the Greeks used the word chrio, from where we get the word, “Christ” -the anointed one. Jesus was anointed of God and was, therefore, Jesus, the Christ. The Old Testament word for “Christ” is the word “Messiah,” and means the same thing – the anointed one. This is the word used in Psalm 2, where it says that “the kings and rulers of the earth set themselves against the lord (Yahweh) and “his anointed” (Ps. 2:2). Aaron, the brother of Moses, was the first high priest of Israel, and the first to receive the sacred anointing for service in the Tabernacle of God. It was a solemn ceremony done in the presence of the congregation that signified the special place Aaron had with God as the high priest of Israel’s worship. The psalmist described it this way:
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments; As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore (Ps. 133:1-3). This sacred anointing is described in very pleasant terms. It is symbolic of the blessings of the Lord that came as a result of being in unity with Him. When the anointing oil was poured on the head of Aaron, God was saying, in effect, This man belongs to Me, and I will bless him.
Aaron was the first to be anointed, but every priest after him was anointed as well. In fact, we learn in Exodus 30:25-30 that everything associated with Israel’s worship was anointed with the holy anointing oil – the Tabernacle structure, all of its furnishings and vessels, and every ministering priest. The entire worship system was sanctified, which means that it was set apart unto God. It all belonged to Him. It was His possession and therefore was granted His blessing and favor.
Now the basic ingredient of the holy anointing oil was myrrh. That is the connection with the wise men’s gifts. The structural element of the Tabernacle was gold, and the two functional elements, according to Exodus 37:29, were the pure incense (frankincense) and the holy anointing oil (myrrh). Hence the wise men brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh when they came to worship Jesus, whom they believed to be the God of Israel having come to earth.
In previous studies, we have looked at the gold (March/April 2002) and the frankincense (May/June 2002), and have noticed a striking parallel between these two gifts and the first two prophecies of Matthew 2. Now let’s take a few moments to consider the gift of myrrh and its association with the third prophecy of Matthew’s account.
The Symbolism of Myrrh
The composition of the holy anointing oil, according to the art of the perfumer, is given to us in Exodus 30:22-25. Although other spices were added, notice the fundamental importance of myrrh:
Moreover the lord spake unto Moses, saying, Take thou also unto thee principal spices, of pure myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, even two hundred and fifty shekels, and of sweet calamus two hundred and fifty shekels, And of cassia five hundred shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, and of oil olive an hin: And thou shall make it an oil of holy ointment, an ointment compound after the art of the apothecary: it shall be an holy anointing oil. Of the five special ingredients that comprised the holy anointing oil, myrrh is mentioned first, is twice the amount of cinnamon and calamus, and is the only element that is required to be pure, or in liquid form. There is no question that myrrh is the fundamental and basic element of the anointing oil.
Actually, myrrh comes from a small thorny bush that bears small plum-like fruit. The trunk and branches of this bush exude a gum resin, which is initially oily, but which hardens when put on wooden squares or stones.1 The final product is an expensive oil-base, aromatic fragrance that has a strong, sweet smell. Myrrh was a highly sought-after fragrance in the ancient world.
There are eight references to myrrh in the Song of Solomon, where it is referred to as an expensive and pleasant cosmetic – “A bundle of myrrh is my wellbeloved . . .” (Song 1:13). In the New Testament, however, myrrh is used in connection with the death of Christ and has been thought by many, therefore, to be associated with the idea of suffering. Yet, the idea in both Gospel references is that of sweetness. In Mark’s Gospel we learn that the soldiers attempted to give Jesus “wine mingled with myrrh” (Mk. 15:23) as an anesthetic, which He refused. The myrrh in this case was used to mask the unpleasant odor and taste of the cheap wine. Then John tells us that myrrh was included with other spices in the burial preparation of Jesus’ body (John 19:39). Again, the reason myrrh was added was to mask the unpleasant odor of the decaying body of a corpse. In each of these scenarios, myrrh was used to turn something bad into something good, or at least into something better.
Another reason myrrh is often associated with suffering is found in the Book of Revelation. The second church of the seven churches of Asia in Revelation 2 and 3 is called “the church in Smyrna” (Rev. 2:8). Smyrna is actually the Greek word for myrrh, and the church in Smyrna is the persecuted church, which is suffering for its faith in Christ. Yet in his letter to that church, Jesus tells it that in spite of the suffering, it is enduring, it is spiritually rich (v. 9) and it will receive a “crown of life” (v. 10) which will ensure that the church will not be hurt by “the second death” (v. 11). We tend to emphasize the negative side of the suffering with Smyrna, but there is a wonderful, positive side in that it is rich in Christ and will be spared the ultimate suffering of the unrighteous. It appears then that myrrh could just as easily symbolize the blessing and favor of God in the midst of rejection by the world, rather than the idea of suffering.
So, what’s the bottom line? It seems that the symbolism of myrrh in the Bible is not that of suffering and death, but just the opposite. It is the symbol of blessing and life. That is its use in the Old Testament, both with the holy anointing oil and with its use as a sweet fragrance in the Song of Solomon. Therefore, in the New Testament, we need to see the positive side of its effect in the situations of death and suffering. It overcomes the stench of a decaying body, and it promises a crown of life to those who are faithful in times of suffering. Returning to the wise men then, we see that they brought myrrh when they came to worship Jesus. As gold represented the structural element of the Tabernacle, and frankincense was associated with the pure incense of Israel’s worship, so myrrh fulfilled the trilogy of elements for worship as the basic ingredient of the holy anointing” oil. As such, it symbolized the blessing and favor of God upon that which belonged solely to Him. The wise men had come to worship the anointed One of God, Jesus the Messiah – so they brought myrrh.
The Prophetic Connection
In the eyes of the world, Jesus was relegated to obscurity and infamy. That is the message of Matthew in the final prophecy of his birth account of Jesus. Even though He had come out of exile in Egypt, Matthew tells us that Jesus was still an enemy of the state. It was too dangerous for Him to live in the vicinity of Jerusalem, which is where Bethlehem was, so He had to settle for Na/areth and the less prestigious surroundings of the lower Galilee. In essence, Matthew was saying that Jesus was despised and rejected. He didn’t fit in, and the author- ities didn’t want Him around. Here is what Matthew said:
But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life. And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee: And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene (Mt.2:19-23).
1. The Problem With Nazareth
There could hardly have been a greater contrast than what existed between Judea (v. 22) and Nazareth (v. 23). Judea was the place to be for all concerned about upward mobility. Jerusalem was the coveted pearl snuggled into the hills of Judea, and those in the Jewish aristocracy prided themselves with living in its cherished surroundings. It had been the home of kings and was the coveted residence of the priesthood. Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians all clamored for position and power in Judea, and anybody who wanted to be someone in Israel was determined to have Judean credentials.
The pendulum swung the other way for Nazareth, though. It was as bad as Judea was good. Nazareth is a town set high on a hill of the lower Galilean mountains, with a commanding view of the Jezreel Valley. In Jesus’ day, the Romans recognized the strategic location of Nazareth for the control of Galilee and made it a military post for the occupation of the land. Therefore it was a rough town, known for its base and corrupt environment. People there were either farmers or tradesmen who made a subsistence living and were thought of as uneducated and crude. The prevailing view can be sensed from Nathaniel’s comment when he said, “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46).
Yet, Jesus lived there. It was His town. It was where He was from. Therefore, Jesus was culturally rejected by the Judean elite. He was beneath them and was qualified for nothing.
2. A Nondescript Prophecy
The first two prophecies that conclude Matthew, Chapter two, are very specific. The first was from Hosea 11:1:”… out of Egypt I called My son” (New American Standard), and the second was from Jeremiah 31:15 about weeping in Ramah. The third prophecy, however, is hard to find: “He shall be called a Nazarene” (Mt. 2:23). In fact, there is no prophecy that literally says that.
Commentators have been hard-pressed to identify this prophecy, and many have resorted to semantic twists as a way of dealing with it. The Scofield Reference Bible study notes are typical of this approach, where it is stated that this “probably refers to Isaiah 11:1, where the Messiah is spoken of as ‘a rod [netzer\ out of the stem of Jesse.”2 Somehow, the Hebrew word netzer is seen to fulfill the idea that Jesus will be a “Nazarene” Yet that is a stretch, to say the least. There are clues in the text, however, that lead us to a more satisfying conclusion.
(a) The prophecy is said to be directly related to the fact that Jesus would live in the town of Nazareth. Therefore, He is called a Nazarene, not because of some obscure reference to the word netzer, nor because He had taken a Nazarite vow, but simply because He was from Nazareth. This is very clear in the text (v. 23).
(b) The prophecy is said to have been “spoken by the prophets” (plural, v. 23). This means that more than one prophet was involved, in contradistinction to the other two prophecies where a specific prophet made a specific declaration. Understanding the infamous reputation of Nazareth as a town and knowing from the Gospels how that would be used as a criticism against Jesus, it seems that this was the fulfillment of a general impression by numerous prophets that the Messiah would be despised and rejected by the religious leaders of Judea. Isaiah made this prediction (Isaiah 53). So did the prophetic psalmist (Psalm 22).
(c) Another observation is that Matthew has been making a point with all three of his prophetic references, including the fact that Jesus would be called “a Nazarene.” The point has been that Jesus is a king who can identify with the concerns of His people because He has experienced the very things that they have experienced. Were they in exile in Egypt? So was He (2:13-15). Had they experienced horrific persecution? So had He (2:16-18). Now, thirdly, had they been despised and rejected? So had He, because He was from Nazareth (2:19-23).
3. A Wonderful Connection
When understood in this way, the third prophecy fits the context by fulfilling the pattern of Matthew’s argument. Israel has been a despised and rejected nation. And the Jews have been a despised and rejected people. They have struggled for existence in a world that rejects them. But Matthew is saying, “Oh Israel, Jesus is your king! He knows your rejection and infamy, and He’s in it with you. He, too, was despised and rejected, just as the prophets predicted. He was called a Nazarene.”
Now, what is the answer to this dilemma? I am suggesting that the answer is found in the symbolism of myrrh. In previous studies we have noticed a striking parallel between the first two gifts of the wise men and the two subsequent prophecies of Matthew. What was true of the gold and frankincense is also true of the myrrh. It symbolizes a quality of Jesus that effectively ministers to us when we are rejected and isolated by the unbelieving world. Myrrh is the anointing oil of God that sets us apart unto Him. You see, rejection by the world becomes nothing when we are accepted by God!
The Anointing of God
We have seen that myrrh was the chief ingredient of the holy anointing oil and that the anointing signified that which was set apart unto God. What was anointed belonged exclusively to Him. It was His, and therefore, it enjoyed His favor and blessing.
When the wise men brought myrrh to Jesus, they were recognizing His special anointing by God. As Aaron, the first high priest, was anointed for his ministry in the Tabernacle, so Jesus, the last High Priest, was anointed for His ministry in the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 1:8-9). Though He was a Nazarene, despised and rejected by the world, nevertheless, He was the anointed One of God who will one day reign in power and glory.
There is a significant event in this regard that took place at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. He was in the synagogue in Nazareth, the very place that represented His rejection by the religious elite of Judea. On that occasion, Luke tells us that Jesus was given the scroll of Isaiah, and He began to read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor . . .” (Lk. 4:18, emphasis added). It was the anointing of God that answered the rejection of men.
As the early church began under the cloud of public rejection, it answered the persecution and threats with an appeal to Jesus’ anointing, saying, “For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together . . .” (Acts 4:27, emphasis added).
Peter associated the anointing of Jesus with his resistance in Nazareth when introducing the Gospel to the first Gentiles in the house of Cornelius. He said, “How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power . . .” (Acts 10:38, emphasis added).
You see, myrrh, the element of anointing, was the answer to rejection. Matthew wanted his readers to understand this truth as he crafted the beautiful parallel between the elements of worship and special prophecies concerning Jesus’ identification with His people. There is an application to the Jews as the rejected people of God. But there is also an application for all believers in the church as well.
When we are rejected and isolated by this unbelieving world because of our faith in Christ, we can rejoice in the fact that we too have been anointed. Paul encourages us with this truth in his second letter to the Corinthians, where he says, “Now he which stablisheth us with you in Christ, and hath anointed us, is God; Who hath also sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts” (2 Cor. 1:21-22, emphasis added). In a world that is contrary to the Gospel, Paul assures us that we are secure in Christ because, as believers, we have been anointed by God.
So, figuratively speaking, as the oil runs down our hair and over our faces, and as the sweet fragrance of Jesus bathes our lives, we can reflect on the wonderful truth that we are His. We belong to Him and we are secure in His love. We identify with the Nazarene and rejoice in the oil of gladness.
- Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. Vol. 4 (Grand Rapids. Michigan: Zondervan Corporation, 1976), p. 326.
- The New Scofield Reference Bible. Authorized King James Version (New York: Oxford University Press, 19671 p. 12
- Published in ZION’S FIRE – September 2002
For further study, see: Beyond Wisemen