Spices play a surprising yet significant role throughout the Bible. From healing the sick to anointing priests and kings, spices carry deep symbolic meaning that point us to God.
If you’re short on time, here’s the key point: Spices in the Bible often represent the sweet aroma of worship, the bitterness of sin and suffering, and the power of healing that comes from God.
In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the spiritual significance behind 5 key biblical spices: frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, cassia, and spikenard. Discover what these aromatic treasures teach us about worship, sacrifice, healing, and God’s extravagant love for us.
Frankincense and Myrrh: Anointing Christ as Priest and Sacrifice
Pointing to Christ’s dual priestly and sacrificial roles
The frankincense and myrrh brought by the Magi to honor the infant Jesus hold profound spiritual symbolism, pointing ahead to Christ’s future priestly and sacrificial ministry. Frankincense, used in temple worship to represent prayers ascending to heaven (Revelation 5:8), signifies Jesus as our great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-16).
Myrrh, used to anoint bodies for burial, foreshadows Jesus’ suffering and substitutionary death for us on the cross. Together, these costly spices picture Christ’s dual roles in atoning for sin – as both perfect Priest and spotless Sacrifice.
As the book of Hebrews explains, Jesus serves as our merciful and faithful High Priest before God, having offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins once for all (Hebrews 2:17, 7:26-28). Just as the high priest entered the Most Holy Place with incense on the Day of Atonement(Leviticus 16:12-14), so Jesus has entered God’s presence to intercede for us, with his sinless life as the truly acceptable offering.
The wise men’s gifts of frankincense and myrrh beautifully picture this profound gospel truth long before Jesus’ priestly ministry ever began.
Foreshadowing Jesus’ suffering and substitutionary death
Myrrh, used as a burial ointment in first-century Judea, strikingly foreshadows Jesus’ own death on our behalf. During his life, Jesus alluded that he came to give his life as a “ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), and following his crucifixion we read that myrrh was part of the spices prepared to anoint Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:39).
From the very gifts given to welcome Jesus’ birth, we see symbols pointing ahead to the purpose of Christ’s coming – to die as an atoning sacrifice for sinners.
The fact that myrrh releases its fragrance only when crushed picture Christ’s extreme suffering to accomplish redemption. As the prophet Isaiah described centuries earlier, the Messiah would be “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” and “crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:3-5).
The gift of myrrh ominously foreshadows Jesus’ passion and crushing on the cross for sinners. According to God’s providence, every detail surrounding Jesus’ birth, life, and death points to his climactic sacrificial death as the means for our salvation.
Cinnamon and Cassia: Christ’s Sweet Sacrifice for Sin’s Bitterness
The bitterness of sin contrasted with God’s sweetness
Sin leaves behind a bitter taste—the sorrow, pain, and brokenness it inflicts permeate one’s being. Yet Scripture speaks of the sweet sacrifice of Christ that redeems us from the consequences of evil (Ephesians 5:2).
Just as adding a pinch of cinnamon transforms a bitter dish into a sweet delight, Jesus’ sacrifice sweetens the bitterness of sin with amazing grace.
The Bible uses cinnamon and cassia to represent Christ’s sacrifice. Cassia’s strong, pungent flavor suggests the intensity of Jesus’ suffering. Cinnamon’s sweetness reflects the joy of salvation from sin.
Together, they illustrate the necessity of agony preceding glory, death preceding resurrection—echoing Christ’s words: “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).
Jesus’ suffering for our sake
Christ accepted intense anguish on our account. Betrayal, beating, mockery, desertion by friends, scourging that shredded his skin—Jesus endured more than we can imagine. Yet he did it willingly out of passionate love for humanity.
As Hebrews 12:2 declares, “For the joy set before Him he endured the cross. “ His sweet sacrifice abolished the bitterness of sin once for all.
Just as cassia and cinnamon enhance food with a wonderful flavor, Christ’s atoning work infuses our life with meaning, hope, and the sweetness of God’s presence. We commemorate his intense suffering in the practice of Communion, mingling the broken bread and dark wine—symbols of Christ’s afflicted body and spilled blood—with the sweet joy of salvation (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
As we reflect upon the bitter anguish that purchased our redemption, our hearts fill with astonished gratitude.
Spikenard: Extravagant Worship Flowing from a Repentant Heart
Mary’s lavish act of worship
Mary’s anointing of Jesus with precious spikenard oil, as recorded in John 12:3, was an incredibly meaningful act of worship. Spikenard was an extravagantly expensive oil in those days, mentioned multiple times in the Old Testament as a rare and cherished substance.
For Mary to break open her alabaster flask of pure nard and pour it over Jesus’ feet showed her deep devotion to Him.
The fragrant scent filled the entire house as an overflow of Mary’s intimate worship. Her sacrificial gift foreshadowed Jesus’ impending sacrificial death on the cross. As Jesus said, “she has come beforehand to anoint My body for burial” (Mark 14:8).
Mary seemed to understand more clearly than the disciples that Jesus was on His way to lay down His life.
Spikenard and the beauty of repentance
What made Mary’s lavish act so beautiful was that she had previously been delivered from much sin and darkness. The woman described as “a sinner” earlier in Luke 7 who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears was likely Mary. Now, she displayed her gratitude and devotion by anointing Him.
Repentance gave way to extravagant worship. Mary’s past experiences brought unique meaning to her spikenard act. She had received forgiveness and cleansing from Jesus, now she poured it back on Him. With the costliness of the nard considered, it was one of the most precious worship scenes in the Gospels.
Similarly, those forgiven much by Christ tend to love Him greatly (Luke 7:47). Our worship flows from a heart changed by His mercy and grace. Like Mary’s spilled perfume filling the house, our praise rises up from a heart overflowing with thankfulness for God’s redemption.
The Sacred Anointing Oil: Holy Spirit-Empowered Healing
A holy perfume with healing properties
According to the Bible, God gave Moses the exact recipe for a sacred anointing oil with powerful healing properties (Exodus 30:22-25). This fragrant oil contained rare spices like 500 shekels of pure myrrh, 250 shekels of sweet cinnamon, 250 shekels of fragrant cane, 500 shekels of cassia, and a hin of olive oil.
When blended together according to God’s instructions, the oil emitted an incredibly beautiful aroma that represented the sweet presence of the Holy Spirit.
The primary use of this holy anointing oil in the Old Testament was to ceremonially consecrate things that were set apart for God’s work – the Tabernacle, Ark of the Covenant, altar of incense, altar of burnt offering, laver, priests, kings, and prophets were all anointed with this sacred oil (Exodus 30:26-30).
The fragrant oil was like a designation from God that the person or object was empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry out their divinely ordained duties.
Symbol of empowerment by the Holy Spirit
Just as priests, kings and prophets were anointed and set apart for service in the Old Testament, Jesus Christ was anointed by God with the Holy Spirit to carry out His earthly mission (Luke 4:18, Acts 10:38).
Furthermore, all those who put their faith in Christ are also anointed with the Spirit and set apart for God’s service (2 Corinthians 1:21-22).
So in the New Testament, the fragrant anointing oil carries symbolism of being empowered and authorized by the Holy Spirit to fulfill God’s work. Even the name “Christ” comes from the Greek word christos, meaning “anointed one”.
The Bible also gives believers instructions about anointing the sick with oil when praying over them (Mark 6:13, James 5:14-15). This physical act accompanies spiritual faith; the oil is symbolic of the Holy Spirit’s presence to bring healing but the faith in Christ releases the supernatural power.
Just as the holy anointing oil in the Old Testament had medicinal properties, the Bible shows oil as a means of invoking divine healing.
The spiritual and physical are deeply intertwined when it comes to the Biblical meaning of anointing oil. Applying the aromatic oil involved all five senses – seeing the glistening oil poured, feeling its thick warmth during application, smelling the beautiful fragrance, tasting the oil residue, and hearing Scripture verses recited over the anointing.
In the same way, experiencing God should be tangible, intimate and involve one’s whole being. 😊
|Seeing oil poured out
|Seeing the Spirit poured out (Acts 2:17-18)
|Feeling thick oil on skin
|Feeling the Spirit’s presence (John 14:26)
|Smelling beautiful aroma
|Smelling the fragrance of Christ (2 Cor 2:15)
|Tasting oil residue
|Tasting God’s goodness (Psalm 34:8)
|Hearing Scripture recited
|Hearing God’s voice (John 10:27)
Spices at Jesus’ Burial: Preserving His Body with Extravagant Love
Lavish spices honor Christ’s sacrifice
When Jesus died on the cross, his followers mourned the loss of their beloved teacher and Lord. According to the Gospels, a man named Joseph of Arimathea offered his own tomb for Jesus’ burial. Joseph was likely a wealthy and influential religious leader who was also a secret follower of Jesus (John 19:38).
The Bible records that Jesus was wrapped in a linen cloth and buried according to Jewish customs of the time. What was truly extraordinary, however, was the enormous quantity of aromatic spices that were included in Jesus’ burial:
That’s an incredible 175 pounds total of valuable spices that Joseph and other followers of Jesus procured for his interment! The aloes were likely a powdered sandalwood, while myrrh is a fragrant gum resin.
These aromatic spices would help offset the smell of decomposition as well as slow down the process itself in the cave tomb (John 19:39-40).
This sumptuous burial preparation was extremely lavish for the time period. The quantity and cost of the spices far exceeded typical burials. But Jesus was no ordinary man to his followers – he was their Lord and Savior.
The spices signify just how deeply they honored Jesus and his willingness to sacrifice himself on the cross. The spices were likely prepared by Joseph of Arimathea along with Jesus’ female followers including Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses (Luke 23:50-56).
The women saw Jesus die on the cross, and likely returned to properly mourn him after the Sabbath concluded. In his death, as in his life, Jesus was cared for and adored by those who believed in him.
Looking forward to resurrection and eternal life
This lavish burial spices also hint towards Jesus’ followers continued hope despite his death and upcoming entombment. Jesus often spoke metaphorically about seeds planted in the ground sprouting into new life (John 12:24).
So even as the women prepared Jesus’ body for burial with extraordinary care and honor, they likely clung to his promises of resurrection and eternal life. Their hope was not in vain, for only a few days later Jesus would be raised from the dead in power and glory!
Today, we can still honor Jesus and remember his sacrificial death on our behalf by symbolically anointing him with our worship. When we celebrate communion together or sing heartfelt hymns of praise, we spiritually anoint Jesus much like his early followers did with their burial spices.
As we reflect this Easter season on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, may we lavish the Lord with the precious perfume of our genuine worship! Just like those extravagant burial spices foreshadowed coming resurrection, our sacrifices of praise anticipate joining Jesus in eternal life.
Throughout Scripture, spices point beyond themselves to illuminate profound theological truths. These aromatic treasures direct our worship toward Christ, remind us of the cost of our sin and salvation, and kindle hope in God’s power to heal and resurrect.
Just as their fragrance fills the air, may the spiritual meaning behind biblical spices fill our hearts and minds with awe and gratitude for all that God has done for us through His Son.