The Epiphany of Our Lord
Yesterday was the Twelfth and final Day of Christmas. Today, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Epiphany of our Lord. Epiphany is a Greek word that means “to shine forth.” Epiphany is the manifestation of the light of Christ to the Gentiles. This revealing was foretold by the prophet Isaiah, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the people; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Is 60:1-3).
The wise men, who came from the East to worship the infant Jesus, are sometimes called kings, other times magi. But they are never called Jews – because they weren’t. They were Gentiles, the first Gentiles to see the light of Christ. This is very good news for us today. Christmas needs Epiphany or we would be lost. Had he who was born King of the Jews come only for the Jews, we would have remained spiritually blind, dead, and at enmity with God. When the Lord first revealed to Abraham that the Messiah would come from his descendants, he also promised that through him all nations of the earth will be blessed (Gen 12:3). The Savior would come from the Jewish nation, but he would come for all nations.
How did the wise men from the East know about Jesus? We call them magi, which is where we get the word magician. But they weren’t magicians or sorcerers. They were scholars. But how did Gentile scholars from Persia know about the Messiah? Hundreds of years earlier, the prophet Daniel, a Jew, lived in the Persian court, and was known as the wisest of all the Persian king’s wise men. Daniel studied the Scriptures. He knew the words of Baalam’s ancient prophecy, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Num 24:17). This knowledge of Christ was preserved among the wise men of Persia who learned from Daniel. So, when the star of Jesus appeared in the heavens, the scholars of the East set out to find the newborn king.
Imagine what kind of faith the wise men had, to undertake a dangerous journey of hundreds of miles based only on their knowledge of a single prophecy that was thousands of years old. They were scholars, but there was still much they didn’t know or understand. They had seen the star, but the full light of the Gospel had not yet been made manifest to them. They didn’t have a complete Old Testament to study. If they had, they would have known that Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem. But the prophet Micah had spoken those words long after the time of Daniel the prophet. The wise men didn’t know this, so they went to the logical place where one would expect to find the king of the Jews – to the palace in Jerusalem.
There they encountered Herod, the brutal ruler who fancied himself the king of the Jews. Herod’s rule was actually the fulfillment of another ancient prophecy. On his deathbed, the patriarch Jacob blessed his son Judah, saying, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes.” Shiloh means “the One who brings peace.” When the Jewish people were no longer ruled by a descendent of Judah, then the Messiah would come. From the time of King David, there had been many kings over the Jewish people, some good, most bad, but all of them had been descendents of Judah. The scepter had not departed from Judah, until Herod. He was not from the tribe of Judah, not even from the nation of Israel. Herod was a descendant of Esau, the brother of Jacob. More than anything else, Herod wanted to be seen as the legitimate king of the Jewish nation. He violently guarded his throne, even killing his own son and heir to secure his kingdom. But no matter what Herod did, he could not make himself a Jew. The scepter had departed from Judah; the time of Christ the Peacemaker was at hand.
The wise men came to Jerusalem saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him (Mt 2:2–3). Herod was half right – he was right to believe that the reign of Jesus would outlast his own reign. But he was wrong to fear the rule of Jesus, the King of the Jews. Jesus had not come to take Herod’s throne for himself. He had not come to set up a kingdom of law, to rule by threat and coercion as earthly rulers do. He had come to make peace between God and man. He had come to govern, not by power, but by grace. Jesus had come to be a blessing to Herod and to every member of every Gentile nation.
That’s why the Gentile wise men sought Jesus – they needed what only he could give. They were believers in Christ, even though there was much they didn’t yet understand about God’s plan of salvation. They traveled hundreds of miles to find the place where the Christ child was, in order to worship him. They gladly gave of their earthly treasure knowing that Jesus had come to give them far greater eternal riches. But Herod did not want Jesus or the blessings he gave. Herod felt no need for a Savior because he lived only for today. He saw the Epiphany of Christ as a threat. The only need Herod felt was the need to kill Jesus. He said to the wise men, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him” (Mt 2:8). Of course, Herod was lying. His only intention was to murder Jesus, and when his plan failed, he ordered the slaughter of every baby boy in Bethlehem.
So it is today. Herod embodies the spirit of Satan. He could not destroy the Christ child, so he lashes out in murderous rage against all children. But in our time, instead of sending soldiers, Satan convinces mothers and fathers to murder their own children in the womb. The leading cause of death in 2018 was abortion, and the same will likely be true in 2019. The world only grows darker. But in that darkness the light of Christ shines, and the darkness cannot overcome it. The reign of Jesus Christ on this earth is not just a future hope. It’s a present reality. Satan’s reign is ended. His kingdom was destroyed at the cross, and in the Lord’ Prayer we ask that his kingdom would also come among us.
When you pray, “Thy kingdom come” you are praying against the kingdom of Satan who seeks to snuff out the light of the Gospel. You are praying against the wicked Herod who would rather reign in hell than live under Christ in his blessed kingdom. You are praying against your own sinful nature which is convinced that it has no need for Jesus or his words. Like the wise men, we also were not natural born children of God. We were born into the darkness of sin, separated from Christ, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenant of promise, having no hope and without God in this world (Eph 2:12). But by the mercy of God your eyes have been opened to see the light of Christ. By the work of the Holy Spirit you have been gathered from afar and brought into the house where Christ dwells. The wise men beheld Christ in the humble form of a human child. So we too behold him in humble bread and wine. We bow before him at his altar and worship, knowing that no earthly treasure we possess compares to the gifts that our Lord gives to us: forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. May the light of the Gospel which shines forth in the darkness of our world ever lead us to the place where Christ dwells, so that we receive his gifts with glad and joyous hearts. Amen.