The Lessons of Epiphany from the Magi
by +Rt. Rev. Dr. Vince McLaughlin
The Feast of Epiphany is kept in the Liturgical Orthodox Traditions of the Church such as the Aramaic & Arabic Christian Churches, The Orthodox Church (Greek & Russian), Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopal, and Lutheran to name a few.
It is not only the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles it is the manifestation of the meaning of Christ’s incarnation as bringing joy and peace and light. The keeping of January 6th is a more ancient tradition in the Church than the keeping of December 25th.
As you know, the word “epiphany” is a Greek word which means “to shine light upon, to show, or to manifest.” The use of the word “house” and a word for a toddler in the passage makes it clear that these mysterious visitors did not arrive at the manger, but as much as two years later than the shepherds. The Holy Family was still living in Bethlehem.
The wise men literally fell down and worshipped Yeshua, and they offered them their gifts. The idea that there were three of them seems to have come from the fact that three gifts are named…gold and frankincense and myrrh. Being warned in a dream they understood that Herod was not seeking for the child in order to honor him, but in order to kill him.
The mention of Yeshua’s birthplace, Bethlehem of Judea, is significant in this passage especially because of the prophecy it fulfilled. St. Matthew is building his messianic case. Yeshua is the fulfillment of all the prophetic intentions of the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. All the details apply, including his birthplace.
St. Matthew’s Jewish readers needed to know that it was at Bethlehem of Judea. This distinguishes it from another Bethlehem in Galilee (Josh. 19:15), and more importantly directs attention to the fact that it was the royal city, the place where the great King David was born.
This is part of the way St. Matthew indicates Yeshua’s Messiahship. The location was not important for what he had to say in ch1 (in the birth story he does not say where Yeshua was born), but it matters a great deal for what comes before us now. The name Bethlehem means “House of Bread,” that is, a granary. The imagery here is quite awesome. The Bread of Life being birthed in the House of Bread.
St. Matthew speaks of Bethlehem 5 times, but Luke (twice) and John (once) are the only other New Testament writers to refer to it. It was evidently not considered an important place. It was located about 5 miles (or 8 kilometers) south of Jerusalem. Judea, here as in most places, indicates the southern part of Palestine (in contrast to Samaria).
One can only image that with such an entourage of foreign visitors of means no doubt reports were flying through Jerusalem, and it would be strange if some of Herod’s people did not pick up the news. The news that the Magi were bringing sounded suspiciously like the emergence of a genuine descendant of the royal line of King David as a claimant to the throne.
These Magi from the east (2:1) were likely from Babylon (Persia) and were culturally influential students of the stars, not evil magicians of some sort. Their interest must have been aroused by the unusual star they observed. We do not know their number, but their entourage was probably substantial to make such a lengthy cross-continent trip and to cause such a noticeable stir in Jerusalem (2:3). It is highly unlikely that there were only three. How they came to
connect the birth of the King of the Jews with the strange star is a matter of conjecture.
These Magi are not people endowed with wisdom in general, but students of the stars, wise men and possibly priests in an ancient monotheistic Persian religion called Zoroastrianism. They were experts in astrology, interpretation of dreams and various other secret arts. Their study of the stars had led them to believe that a great leader had been born in Judea. They would have naturally directed their steps to Jerusalem, the capital city. These men would have been Gentiles, but St. Matthew gives this no emphasis. They were definitely not kings.
Some scholars believe they may have been responding, in an amazing display of faith, to a scrap of Scripture brought to their people centuries before through Balaam (Num. 24:17), who was a Mesopotamian himself.
The important point here is that God brought the birth of the King to the attention of these Gentiles, who probably journeyed many months (possibly one to two years) from Mesopotamia to Jerusalem. St. Matthew included this information to alert his Jewish readers to several realities: (1) the event of Yeshua’s birth had worldwide impact; (2) the Messiah was coming through Israel as a gift from God to all nations of the world, not just to the Jews; and (3) in contrast to the indifference of Jewish chief priests and scribes who should have anticipated the King’s birth and joined the Magi in the search (2:4), these Gentiles were over-whelmed with joy!
Quick observation - the Jewish failure to believe was not due to ignorance or lack of knowledge. Israel knew precisely where the King of the Jews would be born, but it was the Gentiles who worshiped him first (v4).
The Magi likely followed this star very much as a sailor follows the stars to get to his destination. The text does, however, give every indication that this star was a supernatural phenomenon.
When the Magi “caught sight of the star,” they were more than a little joyful. It had been the star that had brought them to the land of Judea, and now that they were not sure of their destination within that land they were reassured by the evidence that the star was still leading them. St. Matthew’s expression indicates that when they saw their star again they were more than mildly pleased. “Deliriously happy” may be an overstatement, but it was something like that.
When the Magi found where Yeshua and his family were living, they were overjoyed. It is absolutely important to notice that their destination was not just a place—but a person—Yeshua. It is interesting to note that Joseph is not mentioned, though in these opening chapters he takes a more prominent place than anywhere else in the New Testament. But it would be natural to mention the mother with the baby and perhaps not as natural to include the father.
Their response was the same response that St. Matthew wanted for his readers; they worshiped Him. The gifts they gave to Yeshua—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—were the most common mediums of exchange in that day. Early Christians have often seen symbolical meanings in them, gold for royalty, frankincense for deity, and myrrh pointing to suffering and death, but Matthew says nothing about this.
In conclusion, Epiphany is the celebration of Christ’s appearing to the whole world. Celebrated on January 6, this day in the church calendar remembers Yeshua being revealed to the Magi from the East. Not only the nation of Israel, but now all peoples had the savior revealed to them.
The Magi are a wonderful model of people with a heart that follows heartily after God but what can we learn from them in this beautiful story of Epiphany?
1. They were attentive to the Light
The Magi were focused and attentive. Not only were their physical eyes open, but, even more, the eyes of their hearts were open to God. For the Magi, the star was clearly present in the night sky, but they would have missed it had they been busy and preoccupied with other things. Only because they were focused and attentive did they see the sign God had provided.
How can we, like the Magi, recognize the indicators of God that are breaking into our lives on a daily basis? If we are so busy that we are spinning in circles, we will be inattentive to what the Lord is weaving in the events of our lives. Only if we continually bring our focus back to him—attentive to big and little manifestations of his love and presence—will we see the light that God has for us.
2. They were actively seeking God
The Magi made a concerted effort to seek God. They needed to leave Babylon/Persia to take a long journey following the light they had been given. They also inquired in Jerusalem. While God took the initiative of revealing the star to them, they needed to respond by seeking Him. Only then were they supernaturally led and supernaturally protected as God warned them in a dream not to return to Herod. The beginning of 2016 is a wonderful opportunity for us to seek God afresh in our lives. Whether we are wanting to know God for the first time in our lives—or whether we have walked with Him for many decades—we all need fresh seasons of pursuing the Lord, waiting on him, and listening to his voice.
3. They were worshipping Christ the Lord
The Magi concluded their spiritual journey with the worship of Yeshua. They humbled themselves and bowed down before Him in worship. In addition, they brought valuable gifts to him—gifts worthy of the King. Magi set a clear example for us. This season of Epiphany—and this New Year—provide opportunities to worship the Lord at a new and deeper level. Worship requires that we humble ourselves before Him, and one very meaningful way to do that is to literally bow or kneel or prostrate ourselves in prayer and worship. Our time of worship before Him can be in silent adoration; it can be softly in song; it can be pouring our heart out to Him in prayer. We can bring Him gifts. These offerings include our time and talent, gifts of money and resources, sacrifices of love and service. Whatever we have to present to our King, let it be the very best that we have!