Epiphany January 6, 2013
136, 718 [TLH alt. 130], 127, 85(13-15)
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.’”Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.”When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.
In the name of Jesus, who has been revealed as the Christ and Savior, dear fellow-redeemed:
An “epiphany” is a time or event in which something that was once hidden is revealed and becomes visible.
The celebration of the festival of Epiphany was begun in the ancient Eastern Christian church and is actually older than the celebration of Christmas in the western church. On Epiphany, the Eastern church celebrated the coming of God’s Son as He was revealed and born in Bethlehem.
Later, the feast of Epiphany was introduced into the western church as well, but by that time the celebration of Christmas had already been established. The western church chose to observe Epiphany by celebrating another epiphany of Christ. The ancient western church chose to celebrate Christ’s epiphany to the Gentiles. The Gospel text chosen for that observance was the account of the Gentile wise men coming to worship the newborn king.
In this way, the epiphany celebration has come down to us today and we also consider Matthew’s account of the arrival of the wise men. From these words we learn that JESUS BRINGS REVELATION WITH HIM I. Unbelief is revealed in Herod, II. Faith is revealed in the wise men, and III. Grace is revealed in the King.
There will always be a reaction of some kind to Jesus and His Word. The reaction either reveals a heart that loves Jesus or one that hates Him. The news of Jesus, the newborn King, created a reaction in king Herod that revealed his unbelief.
“Herod” is a family name for a family of kings. Herod the Great is the Herod who was ruling at the time of Jesus’ birth. The Herods were Idumeans from southern Palestine and were not Jews. They did conform to circumcision and only embraced the Jewish religion as an attempt to “fit in” with the Jews for selfish reasons and political gain.
Herod the Great was a crafty, jealous, cruel, and vengeful man. One historian has described him as “Idumean in blood, Jew in religion, heathen in practice, and monster in character.” Herod was in constant fear that someone was going to take his power and kingdom away from him and spared no bloodshed to keep his power. He had 9 or 10 wives and on the smallest of suspicions he killed his favorite wife and her two brothers. Five days before Herod the Great died, he ordered that one of his sons be killed. Caesar Augustus ridiculed Herod by saying, “It is better to be Herod’s hog than to be his son.”
Also from his deathbed, Herod ordered that leaders from all over the Jewish nation be gathered together and surrounded by soldiers. He told his sister that immediately after his death she should give the order to the soldiers to kill the leaders. Why? It was because Herod knew that the people would rejoice and celebrate when he died but by killing people from across the whole country he thought he could guarantee that there would be appropriate mourning at his death—even if it really wasn’t for him. Herod’s sister never carried out the order.
Given Herod’s personality, his actions when he heard about Jesus’ birth come as no great surprise. “…there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem saying, ‘Where is he that is born king of the Jews?’… When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him…he sent [the wise men] to Bethlehem, and said, ‘Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring word again that I may come and worship also.’” [v.1ff]
Herod was so possessed with his love for power that as soon as the word “king” was mentioned in reference to anyone else but himself, he immediately felt threatened. When strangers from the east came looking for a newborn king, Herod was stirred up and didn’t waste a moment in doing what he could to put an end to the child king. The people of Jerusalem were well aware of Herod’s cruelty so when he became troubled, they became troubled about how his cruelty would next reveal itself.
Herod showed his crafty expertise in disposing of the enemy. First, he called the chief priests and scribes and asked them where the Christ would be born. Herod had enough knowledge to recognize that the “new born king” for whom the wise men were looking was the coming Christ. What Herod didn’t recognize was that the Christ was no threat to his earthly rule.
Once Herod determined the place of the Christ’s birth, he secretly called the wise men to establish the age of the child. Then he sent the wise men to Bethlehem as his scouts to find the exact house where Jesus was. Herod was seeking to make this a “precision kill” and destroy the newborn king without disrupting anyone else.
God warned the wise men, they returned home another way, and Herod’s plot failed. However, that did not stop him. In extreme anger, Herod used the age of Jesus that he gained from the wise men and unleashed his full cruelty by commanding all the baby boys of Bethlehem and the surrounding area who were 2 years old and younger to be slaughtered.
All of Herod’s fear, scheming, and killing was completely pointless. The newborn King was absolutely no threat to Herod’s kingdom. Jesus did not come as a King to take worldly power, but as a King to bring deliverance from death and the Devil and to rule in the hearts of sinners with His grace.
Herod revealed his unbelief by his actions. Herod had the prophesy of what the Christ would do, the city where He would be born, and the news from the wise men that He had been born. Herod and all of Jerusalem should have been going with the wise men to truly welcome and worship this newborn King…but alas, no. They all stayed home and Herod plotted Jesus’ murder.
Unbelief continues to rage against Christ. Like Herod, unbelievers continue to attack and try to prevent anything that comes from Christ even when it is really no threat to them at all. At certain times and in some places the cruelty visited upon Christ’s disciples is not much less than that which Herod’s unbelief attempted to carry out on Jesus.
The wicked unbelief that we see revealed in Herod’s actions is the same wickedness and unbelief that lurks in each of us. The awful things we see in Herod are the outward revelation of what breeds in the sinful hearts of us all, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matthew 15:10).
The sins we see in our lives are little pieces of unbelief popping up from our sinful selves. We have the ability to be Herods of the heart so the writer to the Hebrew’s warns us, “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12).
The wise men who came to see Jesus were, literally, “magi.” Magi were people noted for a large amount of wisdom and understanding. They typically combined religious knowledge with secular knowledge. Theirs was a deep knowledge not always completely free from superstition and worldly influence.
In ancient Babylon and Persia, the magi were priests and wise men who made up a separate class of people. They were especially skilled in the interpretation of dreams, astronomy, and astrology. The Old Testament Daniel was one of these wise men and was made chief administrator over all the wise men of Babylon (Daniel 2:48). From what the Bible tells us, we can be certain that Daniel received his wisdom and dream interpretations from God, but many other unbelieving “wise men” would have turned to the stars and magical arts.
As time went on, the term “magi” came to be associated with the sinfulness of sorcery. This is the case in the only other time that magi are mentioned in the New Testament. In the book of Acts, “magi” is applied to a sorcerer named Elymas who opposed the apostle Paul. Paul called him one who was “full of deceit and all fraud” and said, “you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord?” (Acts 13:8).
The magi who came looking for Jesus, had much more knowledge than what they ever could have obtained from a scientific study of the stars, or from a sinful turning to the stars for information, or from any magic or superstition. They were definitely scholars of the stars because they saw Jesus’ star when they were still in the east. However, the source of information which enabled the wise men to make the right conclusion about the star was God’s Word.
The wise men who came to Jesus were learned men and scientists who saw a unique star, but it was the knowledge that came from God’s Word that gave them true wisdom and the expectation of the coming Christ.
It is not hard to explain how these magi from the east came to know the God of Israel. When the people of Judah were carried away into Babylon they didn’t leave their faith in Israel. Daniel, for one, continued to face Jerusalem and pray three times a day. When the captives returned to Judah, some faithful Israelites stayed in Babylon. Through the Babylonian captivity, God left a witness to His truth and a pocket of believers in the east. The truth of God’s Word reached the ears of these magi and worked faith in their hearts.
We know that the Word of God worked faith in the hearts of these magi because their faith is revealed by what they did. “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea…wise men from the east…When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 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. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.” [v.1ff]
When the wise men saw the star they acted upon it and traveled a long distance. The birth of the newborn king meant enough to these men that they left what they were doing and made the trip.
From the scribes, the wise men learned that they would find the King in Bethlehem. Then the star reappeared to show them which home in Bethlehem housed the Savior. When they saw the star they were filled with extremely great joy for now they would see the Savior whom they had come to worship.
When they came into the house they fell down before Jesus and worshipped Him with adoration. Imagine! Grown men, who likely served kings with great distinction, fell down in awe and honor to a young boy no more than two years old! Such is the joy and adoring worship that believers give their Savior who redeems them from their sins.
The wise men gave gifts to Jesus—gifts that quite certainly proved helpful for Joseph, Mary, and Jesus and their journey to Egypt. The Bible tells us that the magi presented their gifts to Him—to Jesus. These were not baby shower gifts for Mary. They were gifts of thanksgiving to Jesus, the Son of God, who had come to die and rise again in order save the magi and the whole world from their sins.
Further evidence of the magi’s faith is their obedience to God’s when He warned them to return home another way. The magi obeyed God rather than Herod the king.
The magi’s journey, the joy, the worship, the gifts of thanksgiving, and the obedience to God’s Word are all fruits of the faith which God had created in their hearts. The joy, the worship, the thanksgiving, the obedience are all things that reveal faith and characterize the children of God. “The fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth” (Ephesians 5:9). The wise men’s faith is an example of living faith and it provides an example and encouragement to us.
The apostle John writes in the beginning of his Gospel account, “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth…and of his fullness we have all received, and grace for grace” (John 1:14,16).
God Himself is revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Because of what Jesus came to do, we also see God’s grace revealed to us in Christ our King. God sent His Son to fulfill the Law and pay the penalty of our sins without any of us deserving it at all. God’s undeserved love for sinners is revealed throughout all of Jesus’ life and death.
It is by God’s undeserved love alone that Jesus was ever born. Jesus’ birth is a revelation of God’s grace. The wise men were Gentiles. God’s grace is revealed in the gift of His Son to die for everyone’s sins including those of the Gentiles. It is a revelation of God’s grace that Gentiles, such as the wise men, are led to their Savior. It is a revelation of God’s grace that sinners once in the darkness of sin and unbelief have the light of life through Christ.
God’s grace is revealed in the faith that the wise men had in their newborn King. God showed His grace by bringing the wise men to faith with His Word, grabbing their attention with the star, and then leading them to the house itself once they were in Bethlehem. The wise men were led to Christ both spiritually and physically. It was not their doing but the accomplishment of God’s grace.
God’s grace did not let the plots of unbelieving Herod prevent the wise men from seeing and worshipping the Lord. Nor did His grace allow Herod’s death-command to destroy His Son and our hope.
God’s grace is no more clear than in the words of the prophecy which the scribes found in Micah, “Thus it stands written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall shepherd my people Israel.” [v.5-6]
In His grace, God promised a governor—a ruler, a king—who would come with power and might and authority to rescue His people from their sins. This King would come with the power to save but at the same time be a gentle shepherd to provide care and nourishment, to heal and soothe wounds, and to love and hold His lambs with a shepherd’s love. Isaiah spoke of this powerful king and yet tender shepherd, “Behold! The Lord God will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for Him…He shall feed his flock like a shepherd, he shall gather the lambs in his arm and carry them in his bosom and shall gently lead those who are with young” (Isaiah 40:10-11).
Grace is revealed to us in Christ our King. Grace is revealed to us in the faith that God has worked in our hearts. Grace is revealed to us as God has called us out of darkness into His light. We too have seen the glory of our Lord. The light of life has been revealed!
Arise and shine in splendor, let night to day surrender
Thy Light is drawing near. Above thee day is beaming
in matchless beauty gleaming; The glory of the Lord is here!
[TLH 126 v.1]
Happy Epiphany! Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.