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One of the most obvious features of our Christmas celebrations is the gift giving. How are we to understand this as Christians? What are the pitfalls? Are all the pitfalls obvious? Because our lives are to be lives of grace, and because charis means grace or gift, this is something we have to understand throughout the course of our lives, and not just at Christmas. But it has to be said that the mechinery of our consumer racket does throw the question into high relief for us at this time of year.
“And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh” (Mt. 2:11).
Summary of the Text
The first Chritmas gifts were given by the magi to the young child Jesus. This happened sometime within the Lord’s first two years of life. Because three kinds of treasures are mentioned—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—it is often inferred that there were three wise men. There may have been, but we don’t know. What we do know is that the gifts were very costly.
Gentile wise men from the East sought out Jesus and they worshiped Him. The established rulers in Israel did not —in fact, Herod played the role here of a treacherous Pharaoh, going on to kill the young boys in the region of Bethlehem. We know what gold is, but what are frankincense and myrrh? They are both aromatic resins, harvested from different kinds of trees. Frankincense was often burned for its smell, and hence the smoke could signify prayer, ascending to God. Myrrh was used in burials (John 19:39), and Jesus was offered some mixed with wine on the cross, which He refused (Mark 15:23). It was associated with death. From the context of the magi’s visit, and the association with gold, we may infer that these were high end gifts. All three of these gifts were very expensive —in these verses, Matthew calls the gifts treasures.
The relationship between God and your neighbor is not an either/or relationship. When it becomes that, it is the result of a sinful kind of dualism.
In any context where grace is necessary and called for, you can of course sin . . . · Through being a grump and begrudging the giving of gifts at all (John 12:5). · You can also sin by giving to your neighbor instead of to God (Rev. 11:10);
· By giving to God instead of to your neighbor (Mark 7:11).
The way through, the real alternative, is to give to God by means of giving to your neighbor (Esther 9:22). Your neighbor bears the image of God. How can you give to God, who dwells in the highest heaven? You reach up by reaching down, or by reaching across. No gift given here in the right way goes missing in the final tally (Matt. 10:42). With every form of unrighteous mammon, you have the opportunity to extend grace to your fellow creatures, in the hope that they will receive you into glory (Luke 16:9). But every gift given here in the wrong spirit is just thrown into the bottomless pit, that ultimate rat hole (Luke 12:34; Jas. 5:3).
We see our relationship to God mirrored in our relationship to our neighbor. The state of the one reveals the state of the other. “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32). When the two great commandments are discussed, we are told that the second great commandment is “like unto” the first (Mark 12:31). The Scriptures are explicit on this point. “No man hath seen God at any time. IF we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). “If any man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 John 4:20).
What This Does Not Mean
This does not mean that we are to charge about aimlessly, buying and giving gifts willy-nilly. The grace of God is not stupid, so don’t give pointless gifts just to have done something. The grace of God was freely given, so don’t let a racket run by unscrupulous merchants extort money from you that you don’t have. At the same time, merchants are a form of grace to you. How does God get that daily bread to you (Matt. 6:11)? So don’t identify crowds with a racket. Crowds do provide an opportunity for pickpockets, but Jesus loved crows and He fed them. He gave them gifts (Matt. 14:21).
Cold Water & the Unspeakable Gift
The best gift we can give on another at Christmas time is the best gift we can be giving to one another all the time —and that is the gift of gospel-saturated grace. Gospel means good news, and as I mentioned earlier how God keeps a track of cold water gifts, we should always connect this with gospel. What has God given? Let us give the same way, and in the same spirit. “As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country” (Prov. 25:25).
The Son of God from Heaven is the gospel from a far country. He is the gospel Himself; He is the good news. And we know that His contagious form of life has taken hold of us when we start gracing each other the same way that He graced us. Notice how the great vertical gift and horizontal gifts must be understood together.
“For the administration of this service not only supplieth the want of the saints, but is abundant also by many thanksgivings unto God; Whiles by the experiment of this ministration they glorify God for your professed subjection unto the gospel of Christ, and for your liberal distribution unto them, and unto all men; And by their prayer for you, which long after you for the exceeding grace of God in you. Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift.”