In the Western world, as early as the fourth century, Epiphany was celebrated in the church. Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Magi (Wise Men) to the Christ Child. The word “epiphany” literally means “appearing/coming”. The visit of the Magi is recorded only by Matthew, and because it follows immediately after the birth narrative (1:18-25), it has usually been linked to the events of the birth itself. Almost every reading of the birth narrative, and certainly almost every Christmas pageant, ties together the journey from Nazareth, the absence of decent night lodging in Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus, the angels singing in the darkened night, the visit of the shepherds and the arrival of the Magi. A Christmas pageant without a star, Wise Men, camels, gifts and a wicked king would seem incomplete.
The biblical material
In Matthew’s Gospel, the story of the Wise Men (2:1–12), rather than connecting with the birth narrative which precedes it, begins a new cycle of stories. The opening phrase, “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem … “ (2:1), sets the stage for a series of five stories in which King Herod is the major player: Herod is introduced, Herod summons the Magi, Herod threatens the Christ Child, Herod slaughters the innocents, and Herod dies.
Spliced into this narrative are details which round out the storyline. Three distinct but related events occur, all driven by dreams. The first concerns the Magi: As a result of a mysterious star, they journey to worship the Christ Child, and as a result of a dream (the first of four dreams in this chapter) they return home another way.
Through a second dream, Joseph is instructed to flee to Egypt with the mother and Child. This spares them the horror of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. Finally, by the third and fourth dreams, Joseph is instructed to return to Palestine and settle in Galilee.
Epiphany celebrates the story of two kings. One king rules in history, and Matthew goes to great pains to identity him by name and by the era in which he rules. This king risks everything to maintain power, but he loses badly. The second King also rules in history, but He rules as the Child of Prophecy (there are no fewer than nine references to Old Testament texts in this short chapter).
For all of his destructive power and scheming, Herod is powerless over the true King, Jesus Christ. Both kings eventually die. The first king, Herod, dies leaving a legacy of brutality and chaos. The second King, Jesus Christ, also dies, but leaves a legacy of grace and truth. This chapter tells the story of the conflict between a temporal king and the one eternal King. The “Herod narratives” are both the story of an actual king who ruled in history as well as a symbol of the long line of kings and potentates who have bumped up against the eternal Christ-Child King and have lost badly. It is in this larger context that we must see Epiphany, the coming and the worship of the Magi.
The message of Epiphany
The central message of Epiphany is that the King of all ages has come and that the nations of the world must fall at His feet to worship.
This is no ordinary Child-King. This is the long-awaited Messiah of God.
Matthew draws on three different Old Testament texts to signal that the Christ-Child was a Child of Prophecy. Isaiah speaks of kings coming to worship Israel’s God bringing gifts of gold and frankincense (flO: 1-6). Balaam – the BaIaam of the talking donkey foresees a star coming “out of Jacob” (Numbers 24:17). Finally, Matthew compares the rescue of the Christ-Child by the flight into Egypt to the rescue of Moses from the bulrushes of the Nile River.
Many kings in history have thought of themselves as “the appearing one/the coming one”. One of the most notorious was Antiochus Epiphanes, king of Syria. In one of his four campaigns against Egypt, he stopped long enough in Palestine to sack Jerusalem. In an extraordinary act of contempt for the Hebrew nation, he sacrificed a pig on the high altar ill the temple and cast swine broth into the Holy Place. He thought of himself as “the coming one”, but he too, like Herod, died in disgrace and brokenness.
The coming of the Magi sets the stage for the conflict between the powers and the Son of the Most High. By their acts of worship, the Magi acknowledge that the arrival of Jesus in Bethlehem is the turning point in the great divine drama. Further, by seeking Him and offering homage, the Magi confirm that God’s eternal purposes are becoming known within human history. This story changes the birth narratives from “cute, little baby boy stories” to something much more intense. The incarnation of Jesus Christ introduces God into the brutal world of brokenness and alienation, and it foreshadows how His mission will be fulfilled in history.
Epiphany is the celebration of the coming of the one true King.
Worship, falling down to one’s knees before the Lord of History, is an appropriate response to this Child-King. Gifts-gold, frankincense and myrrh- are appropriate gift5 for this Son of David. A star, a sign in the heavens, is an appropriate announcement of His coming.
And a dream to go home another way is an appropriate act by God to symbolize the salvation from eternal death which this Child King would bring to the waiting world.
In recent years, with the exception of Advent and Lent, the evangelical church has largely ignored the Christian calendar. Epiphany, the coming of the Magi and the presentation of Jesus to the nations, enriches the meaning of Advent. It sets out for the church the story of two kings, two kingdoms, two ways. Epiphany reminds us all that the birth of Jesus is the story of the incarnation of God into humanity for the singular purpose of announcing and inaugurating the reign of God in hearts everywhere.
—Herb Kopp is senior pastor of McIvor Avenue MB Church in Winnipeg.